“That Shit You Call Music” – Before New York, Part 1

Before I get rolling, I probably should say something about the title of this post. When I moved to Minneapolis from Iowa City in the Fall of 1973, my first apartment was only five or six blocks from what quickly became my go-to record store, Oar Folkjokeopus, more commonly known as Oar Folk. They had a comprehensive selection of mainstream rock and punk rock records. One day there was a handwritten notice taped to the front door. I don’t remember what it was for, but it may have been announcing an upcoming event, possibly written by Oar Folk’s owner. The only thing I remember of its content was the words “that shit you call music.” I think this was meant as a joke (maybe), but it stuck with me, and at last I’ve found a use for the phrase.

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Getting Primed

I don’t recall precisely when I first became interested in rock ‘n’ roll, but it would have been in the mid-1950s, probably by sixth grade. We didn’t have a record player in my home, though at some point we did get a portable that played 45 rpm singles and extended play 45s. There were two radio stations that played top 40 records – KWMT out of Fort Dodge, Iowa and WLS out of Chicago. When I did get interested – which seemed to happen overnight – I listened to these stations constantly.

“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets was released in 1954. I probably was aware of the song then, but when I heard it blasting during the credits of  Blackboard Jungle (1955), it hit me right between the eyes. This was the first time a rock song had been used in this way on film. I knew something had changed (I would have many such moments in the years to come). “Rock Around the Clock” was irresistible. Per Wikipedia, it is “…widely considered to be the song that, more than any other, brought rock and roll into mainstream culture around the world.”

Note that the label above refers to the song as a “fox trot.” Boy, did they get that wrong. The following clip shows Haley and his band doing the song on a television show in 1956. The visual quality is poor, but I think that just adds to the abundant energy and authenticity of the performance. Definitely not a fox trot.

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Should also mention that my folks, especially my mother, loved big band music from the 1930s and ’40s. After we got that 45 rpm record player, they bought Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert on an EP (Extended Play) 45 rpm record set. This definitely broadened my horizons.

Here’s a great cut from that album, “Don’t Be That Way.” There’s a short intro by Benny Goodman recorded for the record, then the number kicks off. I love the two explosive drum solos by the great Gene Krupa. Though brief, they take the piece to another level.

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Going into high school I remember being quite taken with Duane Eddy and his breakout single, “Rebel Rouser.” Eddy’s thing was his “twangy” guitar. I really loved this record.

At some point after getting my drivers license, I learned that he was going to give a concert in Fort Dodge, about 40-50 miles east of us. It was a priority that I be there. I went with a date, though I have no memory of how that came about. The concert was going great when my date announced that she had to be back home by a certain time. She hadn’t told me this beforehand, but what could I do, there it was. The problem was that in order to make it back by her curfew, we had to leave right then, before Duane Eddy had stopped twanging. This wasn’t the first or last tragic disappointment in my life, but I sure remember it.

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Another musician I liked in high school was Sandy Nelson, a drummer who made a series of instrumental records featuring percussion. Per Wikipedia, he “was one of the best-known rock and modern jazz drummers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, had several solo instrumental Top 40 hits and released over 30 albums.” Who doesn’t respond to drumming? It’s primal.

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Cobblestone Ballroom

For at least a couple of years, an important part of my life was the Sunday night teen dances at The Cobblestone Ballroom in Storm Lake, Iowa, about 12 miles north of us. Located in the Lakeside community on the east side of the lake, the Cobblestone opened on New Year’s Eve 1929. In its heyday, musicians performing included Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Lawrence Welk. The teen dances were dry, since beer and liquor could not be sold on Sundays. Lots of soft drinks instead. These dances were often the high point of my week. Many rock and pop acts played there, including the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Bobby Vee, The Ventures, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others of the day, some on the way up, some on the way down.

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The photo below shows the dance floor, stage, and a row of booths to the right. Other the other side of the wall next to the booths was another area with two or three additional rows of booths.

The Cobblestone Inn Ballroom Storm Lake, IA

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On Sundays, when a national act had not been booked, regional bands filled in. These were usually so-so draws, but the one I remember as being a definite cut above was Myron Lee and the Caddies, a group out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Here’s what they sounded like. And yes, it’s fairly derivative, but they seemed likes pros to us. (Don’t be mislead by the publicity shot below. Don & Phil Everly were not in the band.)

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A group I saw at least twice here was The Ventures, a guitar-heavy instrumental group that was very popular in the 1960s due to such songs as “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Wipeout.”

If you’re old enough, this will take you back. Of course, they’re not actually playing in this clip, just following along with the recorded song. Their guitars aren’t even plugged in, and this was decades before wireless.

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One of my high points at the Cobb (as it was often called) was the night Jerry Lee Lewis played. This was a big deal for me, and as far as I was concerned, he did not disappoint. At some point, however, he stopped in the middle of a song to say that someone was throwing pennies on the stage and to please stop it. Two or three more times he’d break and say to please stop throwing pennies on the stage, please. Growing angrier every time. Finally, near the end of his set, he swiveled on his piano stool said to someone I could not see, “Little lady, I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, and if you throw one penny on the stage, I’m going to come down and wrap this microphone stand around your neck.” He sounded like he meant it. With that, he finished his set, thanked the audience, and marched off the stage. We knew there wasn’t going to be an encore. I ruahed back to the side of the bandstand where I knew he’d come off. When he did, I thanked him and said how much I’d enjoyed his music. Without breaking stride, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, son, I’m glad you did.” I meant what I said, but I also think I wanted to make sure he knew we weren’t all small-town doofs who threw pennies at the band. Quite a night.

Below is a video of Jerry Lee giving a somewhat wilder performance than he did at the Cobblestone. Of course, he was playing to a television audience as well as a packed theater. This is from a 1958 Dick Clark special, which would put it probably two to three years before I saw him in Storm Lake.

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University of Iowa, 1962-1966 & 1970-1973

What I remember:

Walking into the student union cafeteria lounge in 1963 and hearing the opening chords of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the jukebox. I’d probably heard it before, but this felt different. The instant I stepped down into the lounge, the music kicked in, announcing itself, almost a movie moment. Looking back on it now, it’s like the message was: Things are changing – pay attention!

Catching a ride to Northwest Iowa for a holiday break, hearing one Beatles song after another on the car radio.

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Riding in a car on campus in 1965 hearing the opening chords of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the radio. Again, something different had announced itself.

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Going to a loft apartment in downtown Iowa City where this guy played the first Velvet Underground album, the one with Nico produced by Andy Warhol. You knew this was different right off the bat.  I thought this had happened before I went in the Air Force in the Fall of 1966, but I see that the album wasn’t released until ’67,  so I either heard it when I was back on leave or not until after I got out in 1970. The timeline is wonky. Memories are imperfect. Whenever it was, I know their music was really out there, cutting edge – and still is.

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Waiting for the new Dylan album to come out, then gathering in someone’s apartment to hear it, every lyric punctuated by an awestruck “Oh, wow!” from our crowd. Highway 61 Revisited was released on August 30, 1965.

This was when albums were often awaited with great anticipation, especially those of Dylan and The Beatles. Rubber Soul was released on December 3, 1965, Revolver the following year on August 5. I remember walking by a record store in Iowa City and seeing Revolver on display in the window with that great cover by Klaus Voormann. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with my good friend Don Pasquella, and marveling at the lyric “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For a few months before I went into the Air Force in October 1966, I stayed in Don’s apartment above a grocery store in downtown Iowa City, sleeping on a mattress in the front room. During that time, Don had taken a trip to New York City. When he returned, he had with him the first two albums by The Fugs. Hearing them for the first time was quite an experience. The Beatles they were not. More like a proto-punk folk rock garage band. They were an important part of the ’60s underground scene and counterculture. As proof of this, an FBI file from 1969 refers to The Fugs as the “most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.” High praise indeed. Though the early songs were often crude and juvenile, Ed Sanders’ witty sensibility and silliness set The Fugs apart. Below, “Boobs a Lot” is a good example. And below that, “Nothing,” written by Fugs co-founder Tuli Kupferberg, an existentially profound statement if there ever was one. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I hadn’t heard Leonard Cohen’s music before seeing Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), surely one of the greatest films of the 1970s or any other time. The songs fit the film so perfectly that I assumed they’d been written for it. I was surprised to find out that they were from Cohen’s first album in 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen. You can’t imagine McCabe and Mrs. Miller without those songs. As much any other component, they define the feeling and emotion of the film. I was hooked from the very first moment of the opening credits.

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I remember standing in line at the Iowa Memorial Union at 5:00 am with my girlfriend in the middle of Winter  to get tickets for a Grateful Dead concert at the Field House on February 24, 1973. Our seats were in the upper stratosphere of the arena, so we missed getting trampled when the crowd below us rushed the stage.

I remember the strangeness of seeing Captain Beefheart in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union a few months earlier in 1972, though at that time I hadn’t heard his recordings and didn’t know how exceedingly strange he really was or how bizarre appearing in this venue must have been for him. ** The album below was released in 1969. Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa shared similar sensibilities and the need and skill to go way outside the envelope.

I love the title of the cut below, “Bat Chain Puller.” What does that mean? Who knows? It’s a good example of the Beefheart method. I suspect that if The Fugs weren’t enough, this might be where you draw the line. Then again, maybe I should have more faith.

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 I have too much material to stuff into one post, so this chronicle will be continued when I return next week from a trip home to Iowa for a high school class reunion. The trip will also give me the opportunity to go to Storm Lake and check out the Cobblestone Ballroom to see if anything’s changed. I read recently that someone had bought the property, with plans to restore and reopen. Apparently all the interior furnishings, including dishware in the kitchen, are still there and intact. Makes for a kind of ghostly vibe. Here’s what it looked like a few years ago when I was there.

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That’s nearly all for now. For those who’d like a little more, I’ll close with a video of a Jerry Lee Lewis gig in London in 1964. It runs approximately 20 minutes and is energetic, to say the least. Jerry Lee uncorked in his prime is something to see. Until next time, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Movie Poster Potpourri – Take 3

It’s been nearly four years since the last one of these film poster collections (time flies). I’ve found quite a few interesting posters since then, so I thought I’d do another. There’s no particular theme here. I guess what links these is that they all got my attention in one way or another. These are for films both well-known and obscure, foreign and American. It’s a bit of a grab bag, but they’re all pretty cool.

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The Old Dark House – directed by James Whale, 1932.

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Nosferatu – directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922. Without a doubt the creepiest vampire ever, no top hat and tails for this guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dracula: Prince of Darkness – directed by Terence Fisher, 1966. I think this is a fan-created poster rather than an official one. Regardless, it’s pretty neat. At right is a Japanese poster for Dracula A.D. 1972, directed by Alan Gibson.

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The Duellists – Ridley Scott, 1977. Scott’s first theatrical feature, which he followed up with Alien two years later.

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Top Hat – directed by Mark Sandrich, 1935. The Thin Man – directed by W.S. Van Dyke, 1934. Side Street – directed by Anthony Mann, 1950. Touch of Evil – directed by Orson Welles, 1958.

 

 

 

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Saigon – directed by Leslie Fenton, 1948. I’d not heard of this film before. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in one of several films they co-starred in, another noirish tough-guy story set in the “Paris of the Orient,” as the poster puts it. Seems a little weird, but mostly in hindsight, I suppose.

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Swedish poster for The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935. Below that is Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, directed by Terence Fisher in 1969. The pink in this poster seems out of step with the subject matter, but I like the overall in-your-face aspect.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1931. Swedish poster at left, with one I’d never seen before at right. Below that is the kind of theater display for movies we don’t see anymore, followed by a pretty dynamic poster on the bottom.

 

 

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Deluge – directed by Felix E. Feist, 1933. In this early disaster movie, a massive earthquake has destroyed the West Coast, followed by huge tidal waves that wipes out much of the East Coast as well. After the impressive destruction of New York City, it becomes an ordinary movie, with a good guy looking for his wife and bad guys who complicate things. But the sequence where New York gets leveled is rather spectacular, even frightening. All the more impressive because this was made in 1933 without CGI or other sophisticated special effects. The miniatures are obvious, but it works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Drifting and White Tiger, both directed by Tod Browning in 1923 and both starring Priscilla Dean. At top is art work for a DVD release by Kino Classics ,which I thought was really interesting. The image below that for White Tiger is probably from an industry publication.

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An Italian poster below left for A Letter to Three Wives, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949. At right a Japanese poster for The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman in 1973. Below those is a graphic Polish poster for the Japanese film Hara-Kiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962.

 

 

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Blackmail – Alfred Hitchcock, 1929. This was shot as a silent film, but during production it was decided to add sound, since talkies were becoming all the rage. The film was released in both silent and sound versions because many theaters in England were not technically equipped yet to project sound films. Blackmail has the distinction of being Hitchcock’s last silent and first sound film.

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Adventures of Captain Fabian – directed by William Marshall, 1951. Errol Flynn’s strongest work had been done in the 1930s and ’40s. I think this film is an attempt to maintain his swashbuckling, adventurous image, even though he was somewhat past his prime. The way he’s depicted in this poster supports that notion. Plus, he wrote the screenplay.

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The Mask of Fu Manchu – directed by Charles Brabin, 1932. Hard to top when it comes to promoting racial stereotypes. Myrna Loy is interesting as Fu Manchu’s evil daughter.

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F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer – directed by Karl Hartl, 1932.  IMDb describes it as “A spectacular German science fiction film in the tradition of Metropolis (1927) and Gold (1934), F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer dramatizes the creation of a massive floating airport serving as a way station between four continents… Produced just as the Nazi government was taking control of the German film industry, F.P.1 was writer Kurt Siodmak’s last film before emigrating to England and eventually America, where (as Curt Siodmak) he would write The Wolf Man, Donovan’s Brain, I Walked with a Zombie, and many other classic Hollywood horrors.” It’s interesting that three separate versions were filmed with different casts: German, French, and English. The casts include Peter Lorre, Charles Boyer, and Conrad Veidt in the various versions.

The artwork in the German poster below is quite stunning. Below that at left is the French poster, with the English at right.

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Italian poster for Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). It’s unusual in that it uses a photograph of co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame that’s like a portrait instead of more conventional poster artwork. It’s quite intriguing.

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This post is a follow-up to four previous posts, “Movie Poster Art: Foreign Versions” (6/30/14),  “Movie Poster Art for Art’s Sake” (12/30/16),  “Movie Poster Potpourri” (8/31/17), and “Movie Poster Potpourri – Take 2” (8/20/18).

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That’s all for now. See you at the movies. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Down the Rabbit Hole (Again)

July 2, 2022. It’s come to my attention that a number of images have disappeared from this post, which accounts for the numerous blank spaces. I suspect gremlins. I’ll be restoring these missing images as soon as possible.

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As I wrote in the intro to a previous post made up of random material like this one, when I’ve been looking for film-related material, I almost always come across a lot of other stuff I feel compelled to save. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to this particular collection, other than that these items all got my attention in one way or another. Some are simply weird and bizarre, others possibly offensive, certainly politically incorrect. This doesn’t necessarily make any sense. It doesn’t begin or end anywhere, it just starts and stops. Make of it what you will. I’m refraining from any further commentary, which would probably just get in the way.

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There’s more (a lot more), but this is probably enough for now. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Tip of the Iceberg – Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I said I’d be thinking of films I’ll wish I’d included long after this post is done and gone. Well, it only took until the end of the day. I didn’t intend to do a part two, but I feel that the following films really need to be part of this. This is it for this anniversary post, no more. Otherwise I’ll keep adding films for another ten years.

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A primal experience when you’re six years old. Not only did my mom allow me to see The Thing, but she saw it with me. She’d probably get arrested for child abuse today. But I survived, more or less. Still a great film, holds up well today.

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Saw this first at the Ziegfeld Theater. Coppola had a new sound system installed for the occasion. The helicopter attack – surreal.

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Steve McQueen, iconic and totally cool in a definitive role. Plus one of the greatest car chases.

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Game changers, for better or worse.

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Two films directed by Edgar Ulmer.

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Finally, of course, Peckinpah.

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As Randolph Scott says to Joel McCrae at the end of Ride the High Country, “See you later.” Until then, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Ten Years Down the Road – Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday, April 25, marks ten years since I started this film blog. Ten years. How is that possible? It’s been a long strange trip, fighting procrastination every step of the way. But it’s too late to stop now, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m not going anywhere.

I’ve wanted to acknowledge this anniversary in some way, and what I’ve come up with is to put up posters for some of the films that have been important to me over the years. A friend of mine once said that the power of movie posters may be greater than the movies themselves. There’s something to that. Really great posters are able to evoke strong memories of the films. Some of the films I’ve selected are truly great, i.e. Grand Illusion, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane, The General, to name a few. Others, both recent and in my distant, primordial past, have meant a great deal to me and still do.

Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive listing, but more like the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be thinking of films I’ll wish I’d included long after this post is done and gone.

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One of my first movie obsessions. I’ve seen King Kong so many times.

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Impossible to overstate how much I love both of these films.

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I love Warner Bros. cartoons, especially the ones made by Chuck Jones. If I had to pick my favorite of all of them, it would be this one.

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Seriously…

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This image is of the end papers of the science fictions novels for young readers published by the John C. Winston company in the 1950s. I still get a charge from the sense of wonder and excitement it invokes in me. I think it ties in strongly with how my taste in films and books developed over the years.

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Finally, two great endings from two great films, The Searchers (1956) and Citizen Kane (1941). These endings both have a strong emotional effect on me, due in no small part to the music scores by Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, respectively.

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That’s it for now, but stay tuned for more. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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For Bruce Willis – From Russia with Love

Recently I was going through the vaguely organized mass of material I’ve accumulated over the years, stuff I’ve been reluctant to get rid of because who knows when you’ll need it, right? While I was doing that, I came across a copy of a letter dated December 17, 1991 that had been sent to the film journal Cineaste. At the time, I was working at Cinema Guild, a film and video distributor here in New York. My supervisor, Gary Crowdus, was also the founder and editor of Cineaste. He’d brought the letter to the office to show me. It was rather unusual, as you’ll see. A Russian woman had written that she had an important message for Bruce Willis that she hoped would get passed on to him. She wanted him to know that he had “infected the Russians with the virus of disobediance through the films Die Hard I & II.” 

Even though this goes back 30 years, the fact that it was announced a month ago that Bruce Willis has aphasia, which affects language expression and comprehension, and was retiring from acting, along with the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine, makes the letter somewhat timely now.

There’s something very charming and totally sincere about the letter, which you can read in full below. I’ve transcribed it exactly as she wrote it, odd word choices, sentence constructions, and all.

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December 17, 1991

My dear Americans,

My name is Tamara Maximenko. I am from Murmansk. It is a large port city in the North of Russia, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

My purpose in writing is to ask kindly to pass on an important message to the American famous actor Bruce Willis. I think it might be interesting to him. I would like Bruce Willis to get to know that he has infected the Russians with the virus of disobedience through the films Die Hard I & II, by John McTiernan and Renny Harlin. This virus has spread for a short time all over Russia while inculcating deeply in our mind. Even Russian intelligentsia were affected by the disease, though they had been trained by classic writers and also by the sad fates of the previous Russian generations in the spirit of resignation and non-resistance any evil with violence. We caught your “disobedience,” Bruce Willis, approximately 1.5 – 2 years ago. It was the time of the mass delivery of video equipment to Russia. In since that time we have been existing in new condition with great delight and a bit of astonishment. As thing turned out it was most pleasant to be not only the member of the collective, in which the minority had to obey the majority, but to be the person expressing one’s own opinion. Bruce Willis, you seemed as if you were among defenders of Russia in the days of the August’s putsch. It was a though you were standing next to our fearless Russia’s President Yeltsin under probably enemy fire and both of you were to be ready to die hard. I was being proud of you, so were my friends. I don’t know really what result our own “disobedience” will lead us to. I even sense with destruction delight that it is “up with us” (these words from our famous poet). But I am not sad because I believe your films, Bruce Willis: verte! If you and we are affected by the same disease – disobedience. Therefore. We shall be waited for the same end. And happy end of your Die Hard encourages us.

Now something about myself. I am a doctor. I work for a large hospital. I am specialized in rehabilitation patients for serious neurological illnesses with the methods of physiotherapy. I am married. There are 3 main loves in my life. They are:

1. My angel-like daughter Luba, it means “love” in English.

2. My learning English, though it is very difficult to study the second language without the teacher-native-speaker. But may be I am a bit dull.

3. My favorite American films. I dote on 9 ½ Weeks by Adrian Lyne; Wild Orchid by Zalman King, because their refined décor and attractive sophistication. I am enjoyed by unattainableness of Mickey Rourke. I am fond of Falling in Love by Ulu Grossbard, because I am crazy about the verbal expression of love. I love Postman Always Rings Twice by Bob Rafelson. This film makes me sympathize to sin, while shuddering at my own morality.

I could write very much, but I am afraid you are exhausted by me.

I would like to hope you to read my letter, and it would be over my desire to receive a few words from you (as I am not sure you will get my letter).

And finally, Happy Christmas my dear Americans.

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Here is the actual letter.

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As I said before, I find the way she expresses herself in the letter charming and sincere. I especially like the part that begins “Now something about myself.” We find out that she’s a doctor, a wife, a mother, and that the three main loves in her life are her daughter, her learning of English, and her favorite American films. She’s careful to cite the names of the  directors of each film, which I think is interesting. That the choices she mentions include films with Mickey Rourke should not be held against her. This was 30 years ago, after all, when he was cooler.

I think Tamara put a lot of thought into her letter. The idea that Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films could somehow inspire free thinking and “disobedience” in her fellow Russians says a lot about the power of cinema in popular culture.

I don’t know if an effort was made to forward the letter to Bruce Willis, but I think he would have liked it. Maybe it’s not too late. And by the way, I’ve heard that he has eight completed films scheduled to be released in 2022 and 2023, so he’s not going away quite yet.

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That’s all for now. See you at the movies. Stay safe. We’re not there yet. — Ted Hicks

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Mifune on My Mind – Random Notes

Film Forum in New York City recently held a four-week retrospective of Toshiro Mifune films, 33 in all. I’ve loved Mifune on screen for years, so this series was like a gift. I’d seen many of the titles being shown and have nearly as many on DVD, but the opportunity of seeing them again on a theater screen was too great to pass up. I ended up seeing 15 of the films in the series, including a documentary on Mifune’s career. The following Film Forum trailer is an excellent collection of clips from his films.

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In 1984, the Japan Society here also had a Mifune retrospective, showing 40 films over eight weekends from March 7 to April 29, with Mifune in attendence at the start. I attended as many screenings as I could. The night before the official opening of the series there was a benefit with plenty of celebrities on hand, including Lee Marvin, with whom Mifune had co-starred  in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), and Robert De Niro, seen with Mifune in the photo below.

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That benefit was above my pay grade, but I was there the following night to see Yojimbo (1961). It was either that night or the next that I encountered Mifune himself in the lobby of the Japan Society. I’d gotten there very early to pick up my ticket. People hadn’t started to arrive yet, so the lobby was basically empty. I was talking with the person at the ticket desk when I saw that Mifune had entered with a Japanese woman who I think was his translator. This was a surreal moment for me. Not being able to speak Japanese, I probably stammered something like, “Mifune-sama,” and attempted a bow, undoubtedly inept. It still made my day. I remember that he was shorter than I am, and I’m only 5′ 8″. I expected he’d be taller. But he was Toshiro Mifune, so what did it matter? Not having a camera with me that night, the closest I could come to a picture of myself with him was this shot taken several days later next to a photo in the lobby that he’d autographed.

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Mifune made 16 films with director Akira Kurosawa, all of which were shown in the Film Forum series. The importance of this collaboration cannot be over-estimated. It brings to mind the films that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made together. Here are some shots of Mifune and Kurosawa both on-set and off.

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Scenes and posters, clips and quotes from Mifune’s films with Kurosawa.

Seven Samurai (1954)

The scenes below take place during the final battle in the rain. Mifune is crouched at left in the first shot, and is at lower right in the second. This battle lasts approximately 25 minutes on screen. It’s simply spectacular.

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High and Low (1963)  This is one of my favorite films, an intense police procedural based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom. It’s really extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yojimbo (1961)  Who doesn’t love this film?

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Sanjuro (1962)

The final showdown with frequent Mifune co-star, Tatsuya Nakadai. Guess I should raise a spoiler alert, but this is really something. Mifune is especially good in the moments after the duel.

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Drunken Angel (1948)  Mifune’s first film with Kurosawa, in which he plays a tubercular gangster treated by an alcoholic doctor, played by his frequent co-star, Takashi Shimura. His final film with Kurosawa would be the epic Red Beard (1965). In Something Like an Autobiography (1983), Kurosawa wrote this about Mifune in Drunken Angel:

“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. Anyway, I’m a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”

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Throne of Blood (1957)  Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s dark and heavy and pretty great. Reportedly, Kurosawa had real arrows fired at Mifune in the final scene, which may have added to his terrified reaction.

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Samurai Rebellion (1967)  This is my favorite Mifune film made by a director other than Kurosawa, in this case, Masaki Kobayashi.

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Snow Trail (1947)  This is a title I regret missing at Film Forum. Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, it was Mifune’s first film and his first time acting with Takashi Shimura, who played the doctor in Drunken Angel and the samurai leader in Seven Samurai. It was also scripted by Kurosawa, which is an interesting connection.

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It wasn’t only samurai films that Mifune appeared in, though those are probably what he’s best known for, in this country at least. Here are two examples.

A Wife’s Heart (1956)  This was at Film Forum. I hadn’t heard of it before and wanted to see it because it was made by Mikio Naruse, a director with similarities to Yasujiro Ozu, and starred Hideko Takamine, an actress I liked. And because it had Mifune in a contemporary, rather straight role. I liked it quite a lot.

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Perhaps the most unusual film in the Japan Society series in 1984 was one Mifune had made in Mexico in 1961 playing a Mexican Indian. This was The Important Man (Animas Trujano: El Hombre Importante), directed by Ismael Rodriguez. Reportedly, Mifune was not dubbed for this role, but spoke his lines in Spanish after a Mexican actor had recorded them for Mifune to learn. I don’t think it’s very well known, at least not today. Interestingly enough, it was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

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Photos of Mifune, both posed and candid, from a range of years.

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Here’s a shot that perhaps goes back too far. Mifune Year Zero.

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Toshiro Mifune was born on April 1, 1920 in China. He lived there until he was 19. His parents were Methodist missionaries! He appeared in over 150 feature films. From 1950 to 1960, he acted in 64 films. He slowed down from 1961 to 1970, appearing in only 38 films. This guy worked a lot. He was a great actor with a forceful presence and no shortage of charisma. He died at age 77 on December 24, 1997. I wish he was still here, but we have his films.

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Note: Many of these titles are available for streaming from Amazon Prime and other sources.

That’s all for now. Stay safe. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks

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Mifune at 28. Getting ready.

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Best Documentary Films 2021

The following ten documentaries, listed in alphabetical order, represent the best of what I saw last year.

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Ascension (Jessica Kingdon, director)

From Daniel Fienberg’s review in The Hollywood Reporter (6/23/21):

“Presented with no narrative and limited structure, Ascension is a collection of breathtaking images and revelatory vignettes that position China as a simultaneously alien and completely universal cultural and industrial landscape, never spelling out which direction points toward progress. Kingdon’s wholly observational film — no voiceovers, talking heads or title cards steer you — was filmed across 51 locations around China and uses ‘class’ as its structure, such as it is. Ascension is loosely divided into three parts, starting with the workers in Chinese factories, moving into a middle class positioned at the pivot of a burgeoning consumer culture — salespeople, influencers and attendants to the rich — and finally the wealthy with their embrace of Western excess.”

I’ve seen this film twice, and each time found it to be a mind-blowing experience. We’re given nothing to guide us other than what we see and hear. It’s up to us to figure out the context of each setting, which is sometimes obvious and sometimes not. There are a few cases where I’m still not sure of what’s  going on, though this didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment and amusement. A sequence inside a workroom where  young women are assembling and finishing highly detailed, life-size sex dolls is jaw-dropping. I love it that nothing is explained. I was just a stranger in a strange land.

Available for streaming on Paramount +.

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Count Me In (Mark Lo)  Rock drummers talk about drumming and play the hell out of their drums. It’s very exciting. Who doesn’t respond to drumming? It’s primal.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Fire Music (Tom Surgal, director & writer)

Edited from the film’s website:

“Although the free jazz movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was much maligned in some jazz circles, its pioneers – brilliant talents like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane – are today acknowledged as central to the evolution of jazz as America’s most innovative art form. FIRE MUSIC showcases the architects of a movement whose radical brand of improvisation pushed harmonic and rhythmic boundaries, and produced landmark albums like Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Inspiration and Coltrane’s Ascension. A rich trove of archival footage conjures the 1960s jazz scene along with incisive reflections by critic Gary Giddins and a number of the movement’s key players.

“One of the most alluring features of free jazz is its wide breadth of artistic expression. From the highly emotive, free blowing mode coming out of New York, championed by pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, to the more composed, New Music influenced strains of Chicago’s AACM, to the space age afro-centric stylings of Sun Ra and his Arkestra (allegedly from the planet Saturn). The common thread always being the heavy emphasis on open improvisation and virtuosic playing.”

Not yet available for streaming.

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Five Years North (Zach Ingrasci & Chris Temple, directors)

This extraordinary film “…follows Luis, an undocumented Guatemalan teenager trying to eke out a living in New York City under the radar of the authorities, and Judy, a female ICE officer tasked with scouring Luis’ neighborhood for people like him. Being an immigration agent and a first-generation immigrant herself, Judy talks about the ironies and intricacies of her life while Luis is shown trying to overcome fatigue and anxiety to achieve his American dream.” — TV Guide

Lots of humanity here. We see Luis getting battered by the system and a caring ICE agent who struggles with what her job requires. Five  Years North is a good illustration of how people come to this country for the hope it represents and what they have to deal with in trying to make a go of it.

Not yet available for streaming.

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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Morgan Neville, director)  All I knew about Anthony Bourdain before seeing this film was that he had something to do with food and cooking. I found out that there was a little more to him than that. Roadrunner shows Bourdain to bea fascinating, complicated character. I was totally engaged and quite moved by the end.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Storm Lake (Beth Levison & Jerry Risius, directors)

From The Daily Yonder:

“Storm Lake, a 2021 film directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, is, at once, about “a newspaper, a family, and a community”—each of which is inseparable from the rest. The documentary offers an extensive and intimate look into The Storm Lake Times—the Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper in the small agricultural and meatpacking community of Storm Lake, Iowa. With a population under 15,000, the town is a testament to rural Iowa’s changing landscape amidst climate change, immigration, and Big Agriculture.

“Founded by John Cullen in 1990 and staffed entirely by other members of the Cullen family, The Storm Lake Times has diligently covered those big shifts, and much more. The documentary follows The Storm Lake Times’ small staff to national (yet deeply local) events like the 2019 primaries, and to the community spaces that form the heart of the local newspaper—an elementary school classroom, the county fair, the town’s Fourth of July parade, among others.”

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I grew up on a farm about 12 miles southeast of Storm Lake, located in what I like to call the southeast corner of northwest Iowa, so I have a very personal connection to this film. Storm Lake is where my movie life began, with regular visits to the Vista Theater (seen above). I left years before Art Cullen and his brother started The Storm Lake Times, but I’m proud of the work they’ve done and recognition they’ve received as a progressive voice in a red state. This documentary is a clear reflection of that.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, director)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post:

Street Gang is WONDERFUL!!! Sesame Street is an institution, and an important one. From an educational, cultural, and entertainment point of view, it’s close to unique. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, Street Gang skillfully weaves together archival  footage from the program and behind the scenes with interviews to tell the extraordinary story of the beginnings and development of the show. It’s inspiring and entertaining in its message.

Available for streaming on HBO Max.

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Summer of Soul (Questlove aka Ahmir Khalib Thompson, director)  Everybody knows about the Woodstock music festival in 1969, but few remember — if they ever knew in the first place — another music gathering that took place in Harlem, attended by 300,000 people over six weekends. This film is an attempt to set the record straight. Filled with great music by great musicians, it’s an incredible rush of positive energy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but as I recall, Stevie Wonder blew the doors off.

Per Searchlight Pictures:

“…part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture, and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just 100 miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, and more.”

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Val (Leo Scott & Ting Poo, directors)

“Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial actors, has been documenting his life and craft through film. He has amassed thousands of hours of footage, from home movies made with his brothers, to time spent in iconic roles for blockbuster films like Top Gun and Batman. This raw and wildly original documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled look at what it means to be an artist.” – per IMDB.

This film  feels rather unique in content and structure. Kilmer’s willingness to let it all hang out is startling in its effect. We see him in his movie-star prime and then after throat cancer has diminished him physically, but certainly not in spirit. Throughout, I was reminded of the actor who portrayed Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993), an eccentric, perfect performance.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

The Velvet Underground is a group that has meant a lot to me over the years, both for the music and the personnel, specifically Lou Reed and John Cale. After I moved to New York City in 1977, I saw Lou Reed frequently at The Bottom Line and John Cale almost as many times. Their music has been a part of my life for years. Haynes’ film is startling in many ways, both in the often radical way it’s structured and in the depth of the material presented. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about the backgrounds of the people who came to form the Velvet Underground. The cultural scene in New York in the Sixties provided a unique and fertile landscape that expressed itself through film, art, photography, and music. Everything fed into everything else. The importance of Andy Warhol to all this is examined in the film. The amount of material amassed is almost overwhelming. The editing is excellent. The source attributions listed in the lengthy closing credits seem to go on forever. Along with all the archival footage, interviews conducted for the film are interwoven throughout. Haynes said during the Q&A after the screening that they limited new interviews only to people who were there at the time, active in that scene. John Cale is especially great to hear. Maureen Tucker, too.

The Velvet Underground always comes back to the music. I’d forgotten how experimental their sound was, especially during the early years. I think there’s stuff on the first two albums that we still haven’t caught up to yet. Seeing this film reminded me of that. I was quite moved at the end.

Available for streaming on Apple TV+.

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That’s all for now. Best TV yet to come. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Best Feature Films 2021, Part 2 – The Best of the Rest

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 18 films in alphabetical order. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, a feeling, more often it’s the whole package. You’ll also notice that with one exception, all of these films were written or co-written by their directors. I think this obviously makes a difference in the result.

With the exception of Parallel Mothers, all of these films are currently available for streaming from various services. I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can in listing sources, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or omissions.

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Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, director & writer)  Definitely a feel-good movie, but I think it earns the emotions it elicits. Kenneth Branagh has called this his most personal film, and it’s easy to see why. His own circumstances reflect those of the family in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late 1960s during “The Troubles.” The cast is very strong. Jude Hill plays the 9-year-old son, Buddy. Jamie Dornan is his father Pa. The always excellent Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are Buddy’s grandparents. My favorite in the cast is Caitriona Balfe as Buddy’s mother. I’d not seen her before and was very drawn in by her performance. Belfast opens with color shots of the city landscape, then shifts to crisp black and white for the movie proper.

Currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime at a $19.95 rental. This price is sure to drop at a later date.

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Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

I’d especially liked Mia Hansen-Løve’s earlier film, Father of My Children (2009), so I was looking forward to this. Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are a married couple who have come to the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his films. Tony and Chris are filmmakers, each working on a screenplay. They are staying in one of Bergman’s homes and hope to be inspired by the location and the Bergman vibe that seems to be everywhere. Chris is having difficulties with her writing. At one point she begins describing the story of her script. As she does this, the story of her script begins to weave in and out of the film we’ve been watching. Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie play characters in Chris’ story. At times it seems like the film within a film is beginning to take over. After it ended, I wasn’t sure if the film worked, but it’s stayed with me, which is a good sign. One of the most interesting features of Bergman Island is that it was shot in Bergman’s actual homes on the island, and people are constantly talking about Bergman and his films. At those times, Bergman Island takes on a documentary aspect.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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Copshop (Joe Carnahan, director & co-writer)  If I believed in the concept of Guilty Pleasures, which I don’t, this film would fit the bill. Copshop is an action thriller that takes its time setting the stage before blowing the doors off. The storyline shares some DNA with Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13, but that shouldn’t get in the way. There’s a high body count and a lot of Tarantinoesque back and forth. Most importantly, the cast really sells it. Over the last few years, I’ve grown to like Gerard Butler, after initially dismissing him as too thuggish and unappealing. Frank Grillo stands out in all the supporting work he’s done. Here he’s more center stage. Toby Huss, who I’ve liked ever since seeing him the series Halt and Catch Fire, shows up as a very funny, very psycho gunman. For those who like this sort of thing, and we know who we are, Copshop is worth the ride. It does the job.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Dune (Denis Villeneuve, director & co-writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Denis Villeneuve is an excellent director, one of the best, and a favorite of mine. I love Sicario (2015), which I find endlessly repeatable. Blade Ruuner 2049 (2017) is also excellent and proved that Villeneuve could easily work on the large scale that Dune required. Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, became a science fiction classic with a cult following over the years. Many sequels and spinoff novels followed. The first attempt to film the novel was by David Lynch in 1984. The accepted wisdom is that it was a disaster. Having seen it, I concur. Villeneuve’s version is not; it’s excellent and really delivers. But it covers only the first half of the book, so in a sense it’s all setup and prologue. Audiences will have to wait for Part Two to see how it all plays out.

Dune is set far in the future (in a galaxy far, far away). The House of Atreides (yes, there’s a Game of Thrones vibe to all this) has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice mining operations on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. Spice is a priceless commodity, somehow essential to interplanetary travel. The cast is excellent. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the protagonist of the story. Oscar Isaac is his father, Duke Leto Atreides, the head of their clan. Rebecca Ferguson (especially excellent) is Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Others in the cast include Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin, and Zendaya. My favorite is Jason Momoa, who plays Duncan Idaho. He brings warmth, humor, loyalty, and heroism to the role.

Dune was shot with IMAX cameras. Denis Villeneuve has said that Dune was “dreamed, designed, and shot for the IMAX experience.” At the NYFF I saw it at the Walter Reade theater. It was fine on that screen, but I’m when I later saw it in IMAX (twice), it was almost like seeing an exponentially different film. That said, if a story is solid, it should work in any format. I think Dune does.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Will Sharpe, director & co-writer)  This film is quite wonderful. Benedict Cumberbatch, in another sharply drawn role, is endearing as the eccentric title character, who actually existed. I’d not heard of him, but it turns out I was familiar with his cats. In 1881, Louis becomes the primary breadwinner of his family. He supports his mother and five sisters as an illustrator for a London paper. Cats become his main subject. Within 10 years his cat pictures have become enormously popular. But since Wain failed to copyright his work, he gets no profit from the many reproductions than ensue. Louis Wain was a visionary artist, but ill-equipped to deal with the realities of his world. His life becomes both sad and tragic, but is finally triumphant.

The cat pictures below show that he anticipated a psychedelic way of seeing the world, though this probably reflected his mental state at the time.

Besides Benedict Cumberbatch, the cast includes Claire Foy as the governess who becomes Wain’s wife and Toby Jones as the editor of The Illustrated London News who initially employs Wain.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Father (Florian Zeller, director & co-writer)  Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman are a powerhouse combination. I watched them in amazement in this film. Hopkins is the father of the title and Coleman is his daughter. He has dementia, which is depicted in a way I’d not seen before. As his reality shifts, it shifts for us, too. We see and hear what he sees and hears. It’s quite unusual. We’re taken inside this man and his confusions. The Father is tragic and very human.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, director & co-writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

To say that Wes Anderson brings a granular attention to detail in his films is putting it mildly. His films, and this one in particular, are like finely crafted dollhouses, symmetrical and highly detailed. It’s like his films are etched on the head of a pin, or impossibly intricate needlepoint tapestries. A friend of mine calls them “fussy,” which I think is correct without being perjorative. I may not get emotionally involved in his films, but I do marvel at them.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, director & writer)  Beautiful coming of age story filled with memorable, eccentric characters and situations. Rich texture and detail. Naples has never looked more stunning.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Hive (Blerta Basholli, director & writer)  This is a powerful portrayal of resilience and human dignity, based on a true story. Last year it was the first film in Sundance Film Festival history to win all three top awards.

In a tough, taut drama, the director Blerta Basholli explores the lives of women whose husbands went missing in the Kosovo War. (New York Times)

Like many women in Kosovo, Fahrije (played by Yllka Gashi) is hoping for news about her husband, who is still missing seven years after the war. Widows are not expected to work, but she has to provide for her family and joins forces with other widows to start a business producing ajvar (a hot pepper sauce). This is even though the community already condemns her for daring to drive. The film was inspired by the true story of Fahrije Hoti. (IMDb)

Click here for the complete New York Times review.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Kino Now.

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I’m Your Man (Maria Shrader, director & co-writer)  Maren Eggert plays Alma, an anthropologist at a museum in a near-future Berlin. In exchange for research funds, she agrees to have a humanoid robot, Tom, live with her for three weeks as part of a test to determine if such robots should be given rights as citizens and become more integrated into society. Tom is played by Dan Stevens (speaking fluent German). Can Tom be a perfect companion? Alma is very resistant to the whole idea, and initially rejects Tom at every turn. There have been many films and television shows that feature robots who are otherwise indistinguishable from real people, at least in appearance. They almost always raise the issue of what it means to be human. I liked this film a lot. It’s touching, funny, clever, quirky, and yes, human.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. It was written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal for her feature film debut. The strong cast includes Olivia Colman (awesome as always), Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ed Harris.

Colman plays Leda, a divorced college professor on a solo vacation on a Greek island. She becomes involved with a large family that she initially finds annoying. A child’s lost doll figures heavily in the narrative. The present is interwoven with the past and Leda’s memories of her younger self and her relationship with her two daughters. I wasn’t initially sure that the film worked for me, but, like Bergman Island, it’s stayed with me, which is always a good sign.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, director & co-writer)  This remake of the 1947 film starring Tyrone Power goes deeper into the material, but isn’t necessarily an improvement. It felt right to me when I first heard del Toro was doing this. I’ve been a big fan since seeing Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Shape of Water (2017). His attention to affection for weird, off-beat, disturbing detail seemed a good fit for this tale of carnival sideshow geeks, alcoholism, and phony spiritualists. Bradley Cooper is excellent in the Tyrone Power role. The rest of the cast is very strong. Especially good is David Strathairn, always completely authentic every time I see him. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time here, but he makes every second count. Del Toro has made a solid film, disturbing and engaging, with a rich period setting,  I only wish he’d taken it further.

Available for streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.

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No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, director & co-writer)  Sean Connery was my first, so he’ll always be James Bond for me, but in five films Daniel Craig has more than made the role his own. Skyfall (2012) is the best of the Craig films for me, but No Time to Die is very good. At two hours forty-five minutes it’s also the longest Bond to date, and like the previous films, it’s a big, globe-trotting production. All the money spent is on the screen. Given the body count, which includes established characters from previous films, the title No Time to Die is rather ironic. This is Craig’s last time as Bond. There’s a sense of loss and of things coming to an end, for Bond as well as Craig. I was jolted by the ending. It will be interesting to see where they go from here, because there certainly will be more James Bond films.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Nobody (Ilya Naishuller, director)   This is the second Not-Guilty Pleasure on this list. It definitely comes out of the John Wick gene pool. This makes sense, since it was written by Derek Kolstad, who has also written the Wick films. The casting of Bob Odenkirk is what initially got my interest. He’s introduced as a seemingly ordinary guy who has a wife and two kids and a mundane office job working for his father-in-law. Then he’s revealed to be a former government assassin, a lethal killing machine forced out of a dreary retirement. This is a jolt because, after all, he’s played by Bob Odenkirk. He brings a quirky sensibility to the character. The film is a black comedy as much as anything else, and very violent, but in ways that don’t feel like what we’ve seen before. The lengthy and inventive fight on a city bus is an impressive centerpiece. And again, it’s Bob Odenkirk doing the ass kicking, so I’m along for that ride.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and Apple TV.

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Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Almodóvar’s films are full of life and energy. I was really looking forward to Parallel Mothers, so I hate to say that I found it disappointing, especially after his previous film, Pain and Glory (2019), which I loved. Though it’s probably more accurate to say that I was disappointed, not that the film was disappointing. My expectations got in the way. Penélope Cruz is excellent, as is Rossy de Palma. They play Janis and Elena, two pregnant single women in the hospital at the same time to give birth. They become friends and develop a relationship after their children, both daughters, are born. This leads to a big twist that’s not much of a surprise when it comes. There’s a second story line concerning the killing of hundreds of civilians by the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. This is a powerful subject, which I think Almodóvar felt he had to address. Despite my ambivalence, I know this is an important film from a unique director.

Not yet available for streaming.

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Passing (Rebecca Hall, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Based on a short novel written by Nella Larsen and published in 1929, Rebecca Hall’s Passing examines a powerful racial issue. The film is set in New York City in the same period. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland), a successful doctor. One day, in a posh hotel in Manhattan, Irene sees a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), in the hotel restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for many years. It turns out that Clare has been passing for white, married to a white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård). Told mostly from Irene’s point of view, the film looks at how her relationship with Clare develops, given the circumstances. Passing is shot in crisp black & white, and evokes the period with skill and economy. The excellent cast also includes Bill Camp, who I always like seeing.

Clare is passing for white, but is not white. At the outset, Irene is the only one in the film who knows. Clare’s husband John is a virulent racist. He has no idea that she is anything but white. At one point, he makes a “joke” that if Clare doesn’t stay out of the sun she’ll turn into an n-word. What must it cost Clare to hear this and know her husband hates Blacks? She says nothing, which to my mind makes her complicit. These are powerful story elements, but the film doesn’t question Clare’s tolerance of her racist husband, at least not directly. I find this disturbing, but maybe I’ve misread the film. Passing is too well made and well acted to ignore.

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A Son (Un fils) (Mehdi Barsaoui, director & writer)

Per IMDb: When driving home from southern Tunisia, Fares and Meriem’s car is hit by a stray bullet during an ambush by an armed group; their young son Aziz’s liver is punctured. At a local hospital, the need for a transplant uncovers a secret that risks Aziz’s life should a donor not be found in time. But this is only the beginning of the unexpected twists in a story so deftly crafted that it offers both a probing look at Tunisian society’s anchored social and legal realities, and an unshakable need to ask yourself what you would do in the same situation. As their world falls apart, the subtleties of the couple’s shifting emotions are handled masterfully.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, director & writer)  Written by Joel Coen (with some help from William Shakespeare), this the first film directed by Coen without the partnership of his brother Ethan. Shot in black & white, it has a very stylized look. The minimal settings are very sharp and angular. The shot below gives a sense of this.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are excellent as Lord and Lady Macbeth, frightening, ominous, and increasingly paranoid as the bodies pile up. But it’s Kathryn Hunter as the Witches (all three of them) who brings a sense of profound weirdness to the proceedings, as seen in the clip below.

My favorite film version of Macbeth to date is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but Joel Coen’s film is a fine addition to the catalog.

Available for streaming on Apple TV.

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That’s it for now. Next up will be my picks for the best documentary features of last year. In the meantime, for those of you in or near New York City, this past Friday Film Forum resumed offering concessions. For me, that means one thing: the best POPCORN in the known universe. Stay safe. – Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2021 – Part 1

Movie theaters had been closed for a year due to the pandemic when they began reopening this past year. When I saw Tenet on the IMAX screen at AMC Lincoln Square on March 22, it was my first time in an actual theater since March 14, 2020. Since then I’ve been seeing a lot of films on theater screens, but have seen considerably more at home via streaming and video discs, mostly films I’ve seen before or others I’d been meaning to see. Per a tally I just did, in 2021 I saw a total of 353 films — 140 in theaters and 213 streaming or discs.

I’ve come up with 28 films that I think are the best of what I saw, or at least my favorites. My “Top 10” will be covered in this post and the remaining 18 in Part 2. Of these ten, three titles are my picks for the best films of the year: Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, and The Power of the Dog. If I could only pick one, it would be Drive My Car.

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Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director & co-writer)  The running time is three hours, but it never feels long. This is a great film.

New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/24/movies/drive-my-car-review.html?searchResultPosition=3

Not yet available for streaming.

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Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, director & writer)

New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/25/movies/licorice-pizza-review.html?searchResultPosition=8

Not yet available for streaming.

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The Power of the Dog  (Jane Campion, director & writer)

Here’s what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Set on a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925, this is an extremely powerful film. At times, the tone and look of it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), which was equally inscrutable and made you work to parse it out. I think The Power of the Dog gives us all the information, but nothing is spelled out. An enormous weight, both physically and emotionally, is conveyed. It’s also set in a time and place in a way that feels like I’ve never seen it before. There’s a granular detail to everything, the buildings, the location, clothing, behavior, all of it. The year is 1925, but there’s a cattle drive that evokes Red River. It’s the Twentieth Century, but it’s more like the Wild West. The excellent cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The role is a definite departure for Cumberbatch as an angry, bitter, tightly wrapped rancher with an overload of testosterone. He’s a long way from Sherlock Holmes.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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The remaining seven titles in alphabetical order;

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The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, director & writer)  Schrader frequently makes films about obsessive, tightly-wrapped men. This film is no exception, and it’s excellent. Oscar Isaac is  great, an incredibly controlled performance.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, director& writer)

Here’s what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

I love this film. Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance of great warmth, plays Johnny, a radio documentary journalist who interviews kids around the country, asking them questions like, “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” During a break, he visits his estranged sister in Los Angeles, Viv (played by a terrific Gaby Hoffman, who was excellent on the Amazon Prime series Transparent). While there, Viv’s mentally ill ex-husband reaches out, and she has to suddenly travel to Oakland to help him. She asks Johnny to stay with her 9-year-old son, Jesse, while she’s gone. It develops that Viv has to be away longer than expected. Johnny has interview assignments he has to do, and he gets Viv’s permission to take Jesse along with him. This is a road movie that travels to Detroit, New York City, and New Orleans. Jesse is played by Woody Norman. It’s a cliché to say someone is a revelation, but that’s what he is. It’s a amazing performance, free of cute-kid mannerisms. The relationship that develops between Johnny and Jesse is another revelation. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman feel totally authentic and real in ways that transcend performance. Based on two previous films I’d seen written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners (2010) and 20th Century Women (2016), I anticipated something special with C’mon C’mon. I was not disappointed.

Currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime at a $19.95 rental. This price is sure to drop at a later date.

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Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, director & writer)  I wasn’t sure the first time I saw this, but after the second I was totally on board. The thing is, though much of it plays like an over-the-top farce, it nevertheless feels weirdly accurate. I mean, given our previous presidential administration, nothing in this film seems unbelievable. The large cast is great, especially Jennifer Lawrence. Definitely stick around for the bonus scenes during the closing credits.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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The Macaluso Sisters (Emma Dante, director)  A truly beautiful film that follows four sisters after a tragedy, a defining event that reverberates through several decades. Watch for the pigeons in the upper room!

New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/05/movies/the-macaluso-sisters-review.html

Not yet available for streaming.

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Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen, director & co-writer)  I love Mads Mikkelsen. He’s great in this.

New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/13/movies/riders-of-justice-review.html

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Wife of a Spy (Kyoshi Kurosawa, director & co-writer)  I’ve been a big fan of this director ever since seeing his earlier slow-burn paranormal creepshows, such as Pulse and Cure. His new film is a tightly constructed narrative that drew me in in the way of a good novel. It’s quite beautiful.

New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/movies/wife-of-a-spy-review-trust-or-fear-in-love-and-war.html

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, director & co-writer)

Here’s what I included in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

The following description, which I’ve adapted from the NYFF program, gives a good sense of the film: “As proven in such exacting stories of lives on the edge as Reprise and Oslo, August 31, Joachim Trier is singularly adept at giving an invigorating modern twist to classically constructed character portraits. Trier catapults the viewer into the world of his most spellbinding protagonist yet: Julie, played by Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve, who’s the magnetic center of nearly every scene. After dropping out of pre-med, Julie must find new professional and romantic avenues as she navigates her twenties, juggling emotionally heavy relationships with two very different men (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie and engaging newcomer Herbert Nordrum). Fluidly told in 12 discrete chapters, Trier’s film elegantly depicts the precarity of identity and the mutability of happiness in our runaway contemporary world.”

Not yet available for streaming.

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That’s all f0r this segment. Since I’m way behind my own schedule, I’ve kept my comments to a minimum and have relied on external reviews to do some of the work for me, more so than I would have liked. That aside, stay tuned for Part 2 in a couple of days (hopefully). In the meantime, stay safe. I’m also hoping for concessions to return soon to Film Forum – popcorn! – Ted Hicks

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