Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Green Christmas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2023)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace Too much informers and too much beast Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy Holidays! How about some good news? Via USA Today:

President Joe Biden announced Friday he’s issuing a federal pardon to every American who has used marijuana in the past, including those who were never arrested or prosecuted.

The sweeping pardon applies to all U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in possession of marijuana for their personal use and those convicted of similar federal crimes. It also forgives pot users in the District of Columbia. It does not apply to individuals who have been jailed for selling the drug, which is illegal under federal law, or other marijuana offenses such as driving under the influence of an illegal substance.

The implication of Biden’s pardon promises to have significant implications, as criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. However, the pardons do not apply to people who violated state law, and anyone who wants to receive proof of a pardon will have to apply through the Department of Justice.

Biden issued a similar pardon last year and promised future reforms. This year’s proclamation went further in that it forgave all instances of simple marijuana use or possession under federal law, including for individuals who have never been charged. It also expands Biden’s previous directive to include minor marijuana offenses committed on federal property. […]

The Biden administration recommended that the DEA reschedule marijuana use to a lower offense earlier this year.

A record 70% of Americans said in an October survey conducted by Gallup that marijuana use should be legalized. It is favored by a majority of Republicans. And it is highly popular among the liberals, Democrats and young Americans whom Biden hopes to inspire to vote for his reelection.

Recreational marijuana use is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is now widely allowed in the U.S. It is legal in 38 states.

Nice to see more and more forward-thinking states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. So I thought I would welcome the newbies to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary 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 Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and 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”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby:      

But of tomorrow: RIP Ryan O’ Neal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 8, 2023)

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No lad who has liberty for the first time, and twenty guineas in his pocket, is very sad, and Barry rode towards Dublin thinking not so much of the kind mother left alone, and of the home behind him, but of tomorrow, and all the wonders it would bring.

-from Barry Lyndon

Oh man, oh God…we’ve lost another one:

Ryan O’Neal, the boyish leading man who kicked off an extraordinary 1970s run in Hollywood with his Oscar-nominated turn as the Harvard preppie Oliver in the legendary romantic tearjerker Love Story, has died. He was 82.

O’Neal died Friday, his son Patrick O’Neal, a sportscaster with Bally Sports West in Los Angeles, reported on Instagram. He had been diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 2001 and with prostate cancer in 2012.

“As a human being, my father was as generous as they come,” Patrick wrote. “And the funniest person in any room. And the most handsome clearly, but also the most charming. Lethal combo. He loved to make people laugh. It’s pretty much his goal. Didn’t matter the situation, if there was a joke to be found, he nailed it. He really wanted us laughing. And we did all laugh. Every time. We had fun. Fun in the sun.” […]

Patrick Ryan O’Neal was born on April 20, 1941, in Los Angeles, the older son of novelist-screenwriter Charles “Blackie” O’Neal (The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin) and actress Patricia Callaghan. He competed in Golden Gloves events in L.A. in 1956 and 1957 and compiled a boxing record of 18-4 with 13 knockouts, according to his website.

In the late 1950s, O’Neal and his family moved to Munich, and he became infatuated with the syndicated TV series Tales of the Vikings, which shot in Europe and was produced by Kirk Douglas‘ company.

According to a 1975 newspaper account, he wrote to another producer, George Cahan, on the show: “I am six feet tall, and with a false beard I will look as much like a Viking as any actor on the set … I may be the Gary Cooper of tomorrow.”

O’Neal went on to perform as a stuntman on the series.

After appearing on such shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons, O’Neal co-starred opposite Richard Egan on Empire, a 1962-63 NBC Western set in New Mexico.

O’Neal would go on to land a choice role on the drama series Peyton Place, appearing in 500 episodes from 1964 to 1969. His big screen breakout was starring alongside Ali MacGraw in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tear-jerker Love Story; not a personal favorite of mine, but a huge box office hit that assured him movie star status for the remainder of that decade.

Honestly, I wouldn’t call him a method actor…but O’Neal was undeniably a movie star, in the old school sense; I might even venture, “laconic”, much like “the Gary Cooper of tomorrow” that he once aspired to be. A toast to a fine career, and all the wonders that it brought him.

Here’s some recommended viewing:

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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.

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The Driver -Walter Hill’s spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film. O’ Neal is perfectly cast, exuding a Zen-like cool. Also with Isabelle Adjani. One of my favorite 70s crime thrillers, and an obvious inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive (my review).

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Nickelodeon -Peter Bogdanovich’s love letter to the silent film era, depicting the trials and tribulations of indie filmmakers, circa 1910. It leans a bit heavy on the slapstick at times, but is bolstered by charming performances by a great cast that includes Ryan O’Neal, Stella Stevens, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Tatum O’Neal. It’s beautifully photographed by László Kovács. Anyone who truly loves the movies will find the denouement quite moving.

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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 (wonderful as always), 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). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Tough Guys Don’t Dance – If “offbeat noir” is your thing, this is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)

Noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino tapped him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission when Tierny barks “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).

Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted over the years, but his minimalist style works. The film has a David Lynch vibe at times (which could be due to the fact that Isabella Rossellini co-stars, and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti). A guilty pleasure.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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

I like movies. Here are 10 I liked this year.

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 2, 2023)

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Yes, I know. That’s an oddly generic (some might even say silly) title for a post by someone who has been scribbling about film here for 17 years. Obviously, I like movies. That said, I am about to make a shameful confession (and please withhold your angry cards and letters until you’ve heard me out). Are you sitting down? Here goes:

I haven’t stepped foot in a movie theater since January of 2020.

There. I’ve said it, in front of God and all 7 of my regular readers.

*sigh* I can still remember it, as if it were yesterday:

It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!

February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.

In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.

That excerpt is from my review of Weathering With You, published February 9, 2020. If I had only known of the more insidious tempest about to make landfall, I would have savored that “…marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January” (and every kernel of my ridiculously overpriced popcorn) even more.

Of course, I’m referring to the COVID pandemic, which would soon put the kibosh on venturing to movie theaters (much less any public brick-and-mortar space in general) for quite a spell. Keep in mind, I live in Seattle, which is where the first reported outbreak of note in the continental U.S. occurred; I think it’s fair to say that the fear and paranoia became ingrained here much earlier on than in other parts of the country (and justifiably so).

Well, that’s all fine and dandy (you’re thinking)…but hasn’t the fear and paranoia abated since everything “opened up” again in (2022? 2021? I’ve lost track of the time-space continuum)? Here’s the thing-even before the pandemic, I had been going to theaters less and less frequently due to physical issues. I won’t bore you with details, suffice it to say I had both knees replaced (the first in 2014, the second in 2016)…but it didn’t quite “take”. And admittedly, I still mask up whenever I go to any public venue (including the grocery store). Perhaps that all adds up to “functional agoraphobia” (maybe one of you psych majors can help me out here?).

And you know what? I’m also tired of dealing with traffic, parking hassles, fellow theater patrons who are oblivious to people with disabilities, and astronomical ticket prices (add the $7 box of Junior Mints, and it’s cheaper to wait several months and just buy the Blu-ray).

And get off my lawn, goddammit.

Anyhoo, I haven’t been dashing out on opening weekend to see many first-run films in recent years; at least not the major studio releases that are playing on a bazillion screens. But thanks to “virtual” film festival accreditation, I am still able to screen and review a number of “new” movies (albeit many that have yet to find wider distribution).

So that is my long-winded way of explaining why I have decided not to entitle this (obligatory) end-of-year roundup as “the best” 10 films of 2023. Rather, out of the new films I reviewed on Hullabaloo this year, here are the 10 standouts (no Barbies, no nukes, no capes). I’ve noted the titles that are now streaming …hopefully the rest are coming soon to a theater near you!

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Adolfo – Strangers in the night, exchanging…cactus? Long story. Short story, actually, as writer-director Sofia Auza’s dramedy breezes by at 70 minutes. It’s a “night in the life of” tale concerning two twenty-somethings who meet at a bus stop. He: reserved and dressed for a funeral. She: effervescent and dressed for a party (the Something Wild scenario). With its tight screenplay, snappy repartee, and marvelous performances, it’s hard not to fall in love with this film.

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Downtown Owl – It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this quirky comedy-drama, which begins with a nod to Savage Steve Holland (palpable Better Off Dead energy) then pivots into a more angsty realm (as in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm). Adapted from Chuck Klosterman’s eponymous novel by writer-director Hamish Linklater (no relation to Richard), the story is set during the winter of 1983-1984 in a North Dakota burg (where everybody is up in everyone else’s business).

Julia (Lily Rabe) is a 40-ish, recently engaged, self-described “restless” soul who has just moved to Owl to take a teaching position at a high school. Episodic; we observe Julia over a period of several months as she acclimates to her new environs. She strikes up a friendship with a melancholy neighbor (Ed Harris) and pursues a crush on a laconic buffalo rancher (I told you it was quirky). There’s a sullen high school quarterback, and a pregnant teen (it’s a rule). All threads converge when a record-breaking blizzard descends on the sleepy hamlet. A bit uneven, but it grew on me. (Streaming on Plex)

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Hey, Viktor! – In 1998, a low-budget indie dramedy called Smoke Signals became a hit with critics and festival audiences. It was also groundbreaking, in the sense of being the first film to be written (Sherman Alexie), directed (Chris Eyre) and co-produced by Native Americans. The film was a career booster for several Native-American actors like Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal and Adam Beach. For other cast members, not so much …like 11-year-old Cody Lightning, who played Adam Beach’s character “Victor” as a youngster.

Fast-forward 25 years. Cody Lightning plays (wait for it) Cody Lightning in his heightened reality dramedy (co-written with Samuel Miller), which reveals Cody has hit the bottom (and the bottle). Divorced and chronically depressed, his portfolio has dwindled to adult film gigs and half-finished screenplays about zombie priests. When his best friend and creative partner Kate (Hannah Cheesman) organizes an intervention, Cody has an epiphany…not to stop drinking, but to make a Smoke Signals sequel. All he needs now is a script, some of the original cast, and (most importantly) financial backing.

Reminiscent of Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup, Hey, Viktor! is an alternately hilarious and brutally honest dive into the trenches of D.I.Y. film-making (I was also reminded of Robert Townshend’s Hollywood Shuffle, in the way Lightning weaves issues like ethnic stereotyping and reclamation of cultural identity into the narrative). The cast includes Smoke Signals alums Simon Baker, Adam Beach, Gary Farmer, and Irene Bedard.

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I Like Movies – To call Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), the 17-year-old hero of writer-director Chandler Levack’s coming of age dramedy a “film freak” is an understatement. When his best bud ribs him by exclaiming in mock horror, “I can’t believe you never masturbate!” Lawrence’s responds with a shrug, “I’ve tried to, but…I’d rather watch Goodfellas or something.” Levack’s film (set in the early aughts) abounds with such cringe-inducing honesty; eliciting the kind of nervous chuckles you get from watching, say, Todd Solondz’s Happiness (a film that Lawrence enthusiastically champions to a hapless couple in a video store who can’t decide on what they want to see).

Lawrence, who dresses (and pontificates) like a Canadian version of Ignatius J. Reilly, is obsessed with two things: Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre, and the goal of getting into NYU film school in the fall (despite not even having been accepted yet, and that he’s not likely to save up the $90,000 tuition working as a minimum wage video store clerk over the summer). Wry, observant, and emotionally resonant, with wonderful performances by the entire cast,

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L’immensità – Emanuele Crialese’s semi-autobiographical drama about a dysfunctional family (set in 1970s Rome) combines the raw emotion of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence with the sense memory of Fellini’s Amarcord. Penélope Cruz portrays a woman in a faltering marriage struggling to hold it together for the sake of her three children, to whom she is fiercely and unconditionally devoted. Her teenage daughter Edri identifies as a boy named “Andrea” (much to the chagrin of her abusive father). Buoyed by naturalistic performances, beautiful cinematography (by Gergely Pohárnok) and a unique 70s Italian pop soundtrack. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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The Mojo Manifesto – How do I describe Mojo Nixon to the uninitiated? Psychobilly anarchist? Novelty act? Social satirist? Performance artist? Brain-damaged? Smarter than he looks? The correct answer is “all of the above.” “Mojo Nixon” is also, of course, a stage persona; an alter ego created by Neill Kirby McMillan Jr., as we learn in Matt Eskey’s documentary. The film traces how McMillan came up with his “Mojo Nixon” alter-ego, which provided a perfect foil to embody his divergent inspirations Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, 50s rockabilly, and The Clash. Not unlike Nixon himself, Eskey’s portrait may be manic at times, but it’s honest, engaging, and consistently entertaining. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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Next Sohee – Writer-director July Jung’s outstanding film is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low, not just in the sense that it is equal parts police procedural and social drama, but that it contains a meticulously layered narrative that has (to paraphrase something Stanley Kubrick once said of his own work) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

The first half of the film tells the story of a high school student who is placed into a mandatory “externship” at a call center by one of her teachers. Suffice it to say her workplace is a prime example as to why labor laws exist (they do have them in South Korea-but exploitative companies always find loopholes).

When the outgoing and headstrong young woman commits suicide, a female police detective is assigned to the case. The trajectory of her investigation takes up the second half of the film. The deeper she digs, the more insidious the implications…and this begins to step on lot of toes, including her superiors in the department. Jung draws parallels between the stories of the student and the detective investigating her death; both are assertive, principled women with the odds stacked against them. Ultimately, they’re  tilting at windmills in a society driven by systemic corruption, predatory capitalism, and a patriarchal hierarchy.

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Once Within a Time – Billed as “a bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one”, this visually arresting 58-minute feature (co-directed by Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane) represents an 8-year labor of love for Reggio (now 83), who is primarily known for his “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi). He re-enlisted his Qatsi trilogy collaborator Philip Glass to score the project. Glass’ score is quite lovely (and restrained-I know he has his detractors) with wonderful vocalizing provided by Sussan Deyhim.

Ostensibly aimed at a young audience, the film (a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Tron, 2001, and Princess Mononoke) utilizes a collage of visual techniques (stop-motion, puppetry, shadow play, etc.) with echoes of George Melies, Lotte Reiniger, Karel Zeman , Rene Laloux, George Pal, Luis Buñuel, The Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.

A small group of children are spirited away to a multiverse that vacillates (at times uneasily) between the lush green world, future visions of a bleak and barren landscape, and the rabbit hole of cyberspace; surreal vignettes abound. Unique and mesmerizing. (Full review) (Currently playing in select theaters)

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One Night With Adela – Volatile, coked to the gills and seething with resentment, Adela (Laura Galán) is wrapping up another dreary late-night shift tooling around Madrid in her street sweeper. However, the young woman’s after-work plans for this evening are anything but typical. She has decided that it’s time to get even…for every wrong (real or perceived) that she’s suffered in her entire life. Galán delivers a fearless and mesmerizing performance. Shot in one take (no editor is credited), writer-director Hugo Ruiz’s debut is the most unsettling portrayal of alienation, rage, and madness I have seen since Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone. Definitely not for the squeamish.

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Ride On -It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday, because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.

That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman.

While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving. (Full review) (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play)

Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 25, 2023)

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Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying).

The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and look for Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon (who passed away earlier this year) chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him.

This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by three equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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Tom Jones– The film that made the late Albert Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety.

The film earns its spot on this list for a brief but iconic (and very tactile) eating scene involving Finney and the wonderful Joyce Redman (see below).

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

Bon Appétit!

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

Note: This coming Wednesday marks 60 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material. -D.H.

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday.

I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the gym for an all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance (or we possibly did both), and were sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; naturally I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that flourish to this day.

Then there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely …forthcoming.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (Condon also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (apolitical) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between byzantine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark comedy.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is an upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 hostage drama/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as John Baron, the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town (interestingly, the role of John Baron was originally offered to Montgomery Clift).

The film is essentially a chamber piece; the assassins commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot at their intended target. In this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t give me that politics jazz-it’s not my racket!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

Also in the cast: Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Christopher Dark, and Paul Frees (Frees would later become known as “the man of a thousand voices” for his voice-over work with Disney, Jay Ward Productions, Rankin/Bass and other animation studios).

Some aspects of the film are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

There have been conflicting stories over the years whether Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation following Kennedy’s death; the definitive answer may lie in remarks made by Frank Sinatra, Jr., in a commentary track he did for a 2012 Blu-ray reissue of the film:

[Approximately 2 weeks] after the assassination of President Kennedy, a minor network official at ABC television decided he was going to run “Suddenly” on network television. This, while the people were still grieving and numbed from the horror of the death of President Kennedy. When word of this reached Sinatra, he was absolutely incensed…one of the very few times had I ever seen him that angry. He got off a letter to the head of broadcasting at ABC, telling them that they should be jailed; it was in such bad taste to do that after the death of President Kennedy.

Sinatra, Jr. does not elaborate any further, so I interpret that to mean that Frank, Sr. fired off an angry letter, and the fact that the film remains in circulation to this day would indicate that it was never actually “pulled” (of course, you are free to concoct your own conspiracy theory).

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. Some of the Cold War references have dated; others (as it turns out) are oddly timely…evidenced as recently as this past week.

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.

Frankly, the premise is more intriguing than the film (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian De Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape.

The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “De Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

Stone’s narrative is so seamless and dynamic, many viewers didn’t get that he was mashing up at least a dozen *possible* scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when “Mr. X” (Donald Sutherland) advises New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), “Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

JICYMI-This recent episode of “The Commonwealth Club” features Mark Shaw, best-selling author of 6 books related to the Kennedy assassination, reflecting on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy:

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

I am re-posting this piece in observance of Veteran’s Day. -DH

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 11, 2021)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

 –from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Earlier today, my brother posted this on Facebook:

While going through my father’s stuff after his passing we found a large stack of envelopes. They turned out to be letters from junior high students thanking him for the talk he gave the students on Veteran’s Day. It turned out there were over 14 packed envelopes. One for every Veteran’s Day he spoke with the students. My brothers and I were very close to throwing these out with many of the other miscellaneous papers in my Dad’s cabinets but, without even looking at the contents I decided to keep them. I finally opened them up today and started going through them.

I used to kid my late father about being a pack rat but I am grateful that he was. I recall him telling me about giving classroom talks as part of his work with a local Vietnam Veteran’s group, but today was the first time I have ever seen one of those letters. I remember listening to those cassettes he sent us during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

That mention of the Secret Service refers to the 1968 Presidential campaign. Our family was stationed near Dayton, Ohio that year. For the first 17 years of his military service, my dad was an E.O.D. (Explosive Ordinance Detachment) specialist. Whenever presidential candidates came through the area, members of his unit would work with the Secret Service to help sweep venues for explosive devices in preparation for rallies and speeches.

I remember that he helped prepare for appearances by Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. I remember him showing me a special pin that he had to wear, which would indicate to Secret Service agents that he had security clearance (I’m sure they are still stashed away in one of those boxes).

Today happens to be Veteran’s Day, but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. In honor of the holiday, here are my top 10 picks for films that deal with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par.

Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion). Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza.

I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself” before I could leave the theater. No film has ever affected me quite like that.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Over time I’ve come to view it more as a black comedy; largely attributable to its prescience regarding our current political climate.…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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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 and 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 film 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.

A standard all-American postwar scenario…except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice, manicured lawn 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.

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Stop-Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio. A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran.

Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter when attempting to understand what snaps inside the mind of those who carry their war experiences home.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in Afghanistan . After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which gets pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. He is ordered home to face charges of murdering civilians. 

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep heart and soul together while maintaining as much “normalcy” she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie). 

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review

To learn how you can help vets, visit the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site .

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)

Here, There, and Everywhere Now and Then

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2023)

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All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

All play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

-The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I read the news today-oh boy. Well …technically, I read this news several days ago:

The last Beatles song featuring the voice of late member John Lennon and developed using artificial intelligence [was] released on Thursday at 1400 GMT alongside the band’s first track, record label Universal Music said.

Called “Now and Then”, the song – billed as the last Beatles song – will be released in a double A-side single which pairs the track with the band’s 1962 debut UK single “Love Me Do”, Universal Music Group (UMG.AS) said in a statement.

The Beatles’ YouTube channel premiered late on Wednesday the short film “Now And Then – The Last Beatles Song” ahead of the release of the track.

Directed by Oliver Murray, the 12-minute clip features exclusive footage and commentary from members of the band, Lennon’s son Sean Ono Lennon and filmmaker Peter Jackson, who directed the 2021 documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back”.

In the clip, Jackson explains how his team managed to isolate instruments and vocals from recordings using AI, including the original tape of “Now and Then” which Lennon recorded as a home demo in the late 1970s.

The song also features parts recorded by surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as the late George Harrison.

“That ultimately led us to develop a technology which allows us to take any soundtrack and split all the different components into separate tracks based on machine learning”, Jackson says in the video.

And in the end …how did it all turn out? Give it a spin-and I’ll meet you on the flip side:

I think it’s quite lovely, and couldn’t have arrived at a better time (most of the news as of late has been…soul crushing). In fact, out of the 3 resurrected and studio-sweetened John Lennon demos borne of Paul, George, and Ringo’s Beatles Anthology sessions in 1995 (the other two being “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”), I think this one is toppermost of the poppermost.

“Farewell, hello. Farewell, hello.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye”, I say, “Hello”

-The Beatles, “Hello Goodbye”

Beatles forever!

(It’s a good week to say “hello” to one of my older posts-restored and remixed)

I Saw A Film Today: A Top fab 14 list

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2017)

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By Dennis Hartley

Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films.

I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

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The Beatles Anthology – Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessives, but there is very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary).

What makes it unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator. Nicely done, and a must-see for fans.

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The Compleat Beatles – Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening.

It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).

This is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.

Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and (of course) the classic title song.

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in a receptive mood. The Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. For me, the best parts are the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (essentially the blueprint for MTV, which was still 15 years down the road).

And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds by 1965. It has a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Don’t miss the clever end credits!

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand – This was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later deliver Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the film concerns six New Jersey teenagers. Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much.

They end up together in a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue. Zemeckis overindulges on door-slamming screwball slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps this fun romp zipping right along.

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Let it Be – By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?

Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.

Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).

UPDATE: My review of Peter Jackson’s 2021 music doc series Get Back.

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The Magic Christian – The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) meets a young homeless man in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”).

Sir Guy sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad 60s satires (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a psychedelic train wreck, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat of offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).

Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese (both have cameos).

The enormous cast includes a number of notable supporting players to keep your eye peeled for (mainly cameos), including Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Raquel Welch (Priestess of the Whip!), Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Christopher Lee, and Yul Brenner.

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Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair (it’s probably weathered more drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined).

Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.

They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment.  In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.

Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!

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Nowhere Boy – This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood was one of my 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

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Produced by George Martin – While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.

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The Rutles: All You Need is Cash – Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.

Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.

Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.

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That’ll Be the Day – Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s 1973 film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in 60s UK cinema.

David Essex (best-known for his music career, and hit, “Rock On”) plays Jim MacLaine, an intelligent, angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a seasoned carny (Ringo Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s English rocker Billy Fury performs some songs as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the 1974 sequel, Stardust).

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Yellow Submarine – Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” all the fuss over the “innovative” visuals  (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).

But, being the obsessive-compulsive completest that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning.

The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.

Mask season: 25 movies for Halloween!

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2023)

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(With apologies to Rod Serling for my frightfully tacky paraphrasing) Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of 25 films. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a celluloid canvas, streaming in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare. And …Happy Halloween!

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Beauty and the Beast (1946)– Out of myriad movie adaptations of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version remains the most soulful and poetic. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was made by a director who literally had the soul of a poet (Cocteau’s day job, in case you didn’t know). The film is a triumph of production design, with inventive visuals (photographed by Henri Alekan).

Jean Marais is affecting as The Beast, paralyzed by unrequited passion for beautiful Belle (Josette Day). This version is a surreal fairy tale not necessarily made with the kids in mind (especially with all the psycho-sexual subtexts). The timeless moral of the original tale, however, is still simple enough for a child to grasp: It’s what’s inside that counts.

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The Blair Witch Project – Love it or hate it, there is no denying the impact of this cleverly marketed horror flick. In the event that you spent 1999 in a coma, this is the one where a crew of amateur actors were turned loose in dark and scary woods, armed with camping gear, video cameras and a plot point or two provided by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who then proceeded to play creepy, “gotcha” mind games with their young troupe.

The result was surprisingly effective; after all, it’s the perception that “something” in the woods is out to get you that fuels nightmares-not a stunt man in a rubber monster suit lurching about in front of the camera. Arguably, you could cite The Last Broadcast (1998) or relatively more obscure 1980 cult flick Cannibal Holocaust as the progenitors of the “found footage” genre, but The Blair Witch Project took it to a an entirely new level.

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Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to enjoy this romp, you must unlearn what you have learned. JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell).

The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, both Campbell and Davis’ portrayals are respectful; even poignant at times.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens (co-creator of The Avengers TV series). Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) assist a physician in investigating a mysterious malady befalling the residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging.

The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro. The film was released at the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why Clemens seems to be doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

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Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs.

The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One memorable sequence, a comically choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

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Don’t Look Now – This is a difficult film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth) stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment.

Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way.

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Ed Wood – Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last several decades that they are surely joined at the hip by now. 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.

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public in the late 50s. While there are lots of belly laughs, there’s no punching downward at Wood and his decidedly off-beat collaborators; in a way the film is a love letter to outsider film makers. Martin Landau steals his scenes with a droll, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Also with Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones.

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Forbidden Zone – Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley and Peter Greenaway. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisty family who discovers a portal to a pan-dimensional…oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, any film that features Herve Villechaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrrell as his Queen and soundtrack composer Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway (via Satan), is a dream for some; a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother Richard.

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I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 80 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake.

She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

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J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever.

I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one).

The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double entendre, all set to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

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Mulholland Drive – David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into La-la Land from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring).

What ensues is the usual Lynch mind fuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third or fourth time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Peter Deming’s cinematography is stunning. The truly fascinating cast includes Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Michael J. Anderson, Robert Forster, Lee Grant, Chad Everett, Dan Hedaya, and, erm, Billy Ray Cyrus.

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Multiple Maniacs – Warning: This 1970 trash classic from czar of bad taste John Waters is definitely not for the pious, easily offended or the faint of heart. The one and only Divine heads the cast who became Waters’ faithful “Dreamland” repertory (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, etc.) in a tale of mayhem, filth and blasphemy too shocking to discuss in mixed company (you’ll never see a Passion Play the same way).

Watching this recently for the first time in several decades, I was suddenly struck by the similarities with the contemporaneous films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder (Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague in particular). Once you get past its inherent shock value, Multiple Maniacs is very much an American art film.

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The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – “Images of wax that throbbed with human passion!” Get your mind out of the gutter…I’m merely quoting the purple prose that graced the original posters for this 1933 horror thriller, directed by the eclectic Michael Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, et.al.).

Beautiful (and busy) Fay Wray (who starred in King Kong the same year) captures the eye of a disturbed wax sculptor (a hammy Lionel Atwill) for reasons that are ah…more “professional” than personal. Wray is great eye candy, but it is her co-star Glenda Farrell who steals the show as a wisecracking reporter (are there any other kind of reporters in 30s films?). Farrell’s comedy chops add just the right amount of levity to this genuinely creepy tale. A classic.

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

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

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No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy.

After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery.

The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la John Waters’ Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd.

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Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening (anyone for a shower?).

This brilliant thriller has spawned so many imitations, I’ve lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Joseph Stefano adapted the spare screenplay from Robert Bloch’s novel. Also in the cast: Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsalm, and Simon Oakland.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Speaking of Fay Wray…50 of years of midnight showings have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings.

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Rosemary’s Baby“He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this devilish 1968 metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to Rosemary’s chagrin). Her nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Shining “Hello, Danny.” It has been said that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel about a family of three who hole up in an isolated Rocky Mountain hotel for the winter. Well-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest “psychological” horror film ever made…period (OK that’s a bit hyperbolic-perhaps we can call it “a draw” with Polanski’s Repulsion).

Anyway…Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, etc.

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The Shout – This unsettling 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Robert Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. The late John Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological horror and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (which would make a great double-bill) this one is in your wheelhouse.

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Siesta – Depending on who you ask, Mary Lambert’s 1987 thriller is either a compelling riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…or an unfinished film in search of a narrative. It was not well received by critics, but has a modest cult following, of which I am a card-carrying member.

Ellen Barkin stars as an American daredevil who wakes up on a deserted runway in Spain, dazed, bruised and confused. As she wanders about getting her bearings, pieces of her memory return. She encounters assorted characters in increasingly weird scenarios. The film lies somewhere between Carnival of Souls and Memento.

Also with Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands (who passed away this year), Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, and Jodie Foster. Patricia Louisiana Knop (9½ Weeks) adapted the screenplay from Patrice Chaplin’s novel. Atmospheric score by Miles Davis. Long out-of-print on DVD, this is a film begging for a Blu-ray release (should any boutique reissue label folks be reading this…hint, hint!).

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Trollhunter – Like previous entries in horror’s “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. And always remember: while hunting trolls…it’s best to leave the Christians at home!

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Ugetsu Monogatari – Kenji Mizoguchi’s eerie 1953 ghost story/morality tale was adapted from several short stories by 18th-Century writer and poet Ueda Akinari.

The story is set in 16th-Century Japan, in the midst of one of the civil wars of the era. A potter of modest means and grandiose financial schemes (Masayuki Mori) and his n’er do well brother (Eitaro Ozawa) who fantasizes about becoming a renowned samurai warrior ignore the dire warnings of a local sage and allow their greed and ambition to take full hold, which leads to tragic consequences for their abandoned wives (Mitsuko Mito and Kinuyo Tanaka).

Beautifully acted; particularly strong performances by the three female leads (Mito, Tanaka, and the great Machiko Kyo as the sorceress Lady Wakasa). It’s a slow-burning tale, but if you just give it time the emotional wallop of the denouement will floor you.

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Young Frankenstein – Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks goofs on elements from James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, and Rowland V. Lee’s 1939 spinoff, Son of Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side.

Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring a non-billed Gene Hackman (as an old blind hermit) is a classic.

This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Child’s Guide to War: A film troika*

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2023)

*This is a revised version of an older post that (sadly) is relevant again.

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Have you heard the reasons why?
(Yeah, we’ve heard it all before)
But have you seen the nation cry?
(Yeah, we’ve seen it all before)

-From “War Weary World” by The Call

Oy. It’s been a trying couple of days…

Bertrand Russell said, “war does not determine who is right-only who is left.” That may be pithy, but he’s yet to be proven wrong.

I realize that the 24-hour news channels have little choice but to “recycle” a certain amount of horrific footage as a huge international story of this nature is developing, but I’m old enough to recall when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (not by those reporting the news but as some politicians and pundits have been wont to do).

What I find particularly heartbreaking is the plight of the non-combatants (on both sides) caught in the middle of the mayhem…especially the children.

But perhaps I’m just naive, what with my pacifist wishes and hippy-dippy poster dreams. It’s a complicated world, and I’m just a simple farmer. A person of the land. The common clay of the American West. You know…a moron. That’s why I’m just the movie guy around these parts.

That being said, I believe there’s something that the following movies, or more specifically their young protagonists can teach us about such matters.

And so I’m spotlighting three essential films that offer an immediate ground-level view of the effects of war, filtered through the eyes of innocents, uncluttered by any political machinations or jingoist agendas. Hey, feel free to invite your favorite war hawk over for dinner and a movie. Just make sure that they are taking notes:

Grave of the Fireflies– For years, the term ‘anime’ conjured visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in action-packed fantasy-adventures (generally targeting younger audiences). However, sometime around the mid-80s, the paradigm shifted when Japanese production houses like Studio Ghibli began to find international success with more eclectic, character-driven fare. One transcendent example is writer-director Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama, Grave of the Fireflies.

While it is animated, and its protagonists are children, it is not necessarily a children’s film; its unflinching approach and anti-war subtext puts it in a league with Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood.

The story (based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel) takes place in Kobe in 1945, and concerns the travails of a teenage boy named Seita (voiced by Tsutomo Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), who are orphaned when their mother perishes in an Allied firebombing raid. After brief lodgings with a less-than-hospitable aunt, the siblings have to fend for themselves. Do not expect a Hollywood ending (I wouldn’t recommend  it for children under 12).

One interesting commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

Son of Babylon– This heartbreaking Iraqi drama is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere.

While the film alludes to the regional and international politics involved, the narrative is constructed in such a way that at the end of day, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bomb sorties or Saddam gassing his own people is moot.

That message is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, also searching for a missing loved one at a mass grave site sets her own suffering aside to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish,” she says, “…but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

One thing I can say (aside that this emotionally shattering film should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else wielding the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

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

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous Peoples Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2023)

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What a difference an administration makes.

On October 9th, 2020, the Former Occupant of the White House issued an official Columbus Day Proclamation, which reads in part:

Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.

On October 6th, 2023 (and for the 3rd year in a row), in addition to an official Columbus Day Proclamation, President Biden issued an official Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation , which reads in part:

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the perseverance and courage of Indigenous peoples, show our gratitude for the myriad contributions they have made to our world, and renew our commitment to respect Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 

The story of America’s Indigenous peoples is a story of their resilience and survival; of their persistent commitment to their right to self-governance; and of their determination to preserve cultures, identities, and ways of life.  Long before European explorers sailed to this continent, Native American and Alaska Native Nations made this land their home, some for thousands of years before the United States was founded.  They built many Nations that created powerful, prosperous, and diverse cultures, and they developed knowledge and practices that still benefit us today.

But throughout our Nation’s history, Indigenous peoples have faced violence and devastation that has tested their limits.  For generations, it was the shameful policy of our Nation to remove Indigenous peoples from their homelands; force them to assimilate; and ban them from speaking their own languages, passing down ancient traditions, and performing sacred ceremonies.  Countless lives were lost, precious lands were taken, and their way of life was forever changed.  In spite of unimaginable loss and seemingly insurmountable odds, Indigenous peoples have persisted.  They survived.  And they continue to be an integral part of the fabric of the United States.

Today, Indigenous peoples are a beacon of resilience, strength, and perseverance as well as a source of incredible contributions.  Indigenous peoples and Tribal Nations continue to practice their cultures, remember their heritages, and pass down their histories from generation to generation.  […]

When I came into office, I was determined to usher in a new era in the relationship between the Federal Government and Tribal Nations and to honor the solemn promises the United States made to fulfill our trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations. That work began by appointing Native Americans to lead on the frontlines of my Administration — from the first Native American Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and dozens of Senate-confirmed Native American officials to the over 80 Native American appointees serving across my Administration and in the Federal courts. […]

We are also working to improve public health and safety for Native Americans. That is why I signed an Executive Order that helps us respond more effectively to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. And when we reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act last year, I was proud to include historic provisions that reaffirm Tribal sovereignty and restore Tribal jurisdiction. I have also requested a $9.1 billion infusion for Indian Health Services and asked the Congress to make that funding a mandatory part of the Federal budget for the first time in our history.

My Administration will also continue using all the authority available to it, including the Antiquities Act, to protect sacred Tribal lands.

Pledging to end the scourge of violence against human beings, but nary a peep about protecting monuments? Preserving sacred Tribal lands while (apparently) letting the National Garden of American Heroes go to seed? Where are your priorities, Joe?!

I mean…come ON, man!

At any rate…in honor of this coming Monday’s Indigenous People’s Day , here are 10 films well worth your time.

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Arctic Son — I first saw this documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 film Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.

Stanley, Jr. was raised in Washington State by his single mom. Consequently, he is more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territories. The initially wary young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

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Dead Man — Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering (beautifully photographed by the late Robby Müller).

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with an enigmatic Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic quality. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

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The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the uproar and unsavory behavioral changes the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful community, Xi treks to “the edge of the world” to give the troublesome object back to the gods. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in an endearing fashion.

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The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies.

A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.

Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, and realistic character study is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding in the lead, as a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity,

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Powwow Highway —A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with a blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off and is waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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This May Be the Last Time — Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as both history lesson and a moving personal journey.

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Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David  Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.

The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can.

Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.