Living large in legend: Rolling Thunder rides again in Scorsese quasi-doc

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RollingThunder_Regan_1975_StudioA-1Fun fact: When Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s sole (and notoriously unsuccessful) foray into narrative filmmaking—a nearly four-hours-long fever dream combining vignettes with concert footage–opened in San Francisco in 1978, it was at the Castro Theatre. It is only fitting then that Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese that employs that same footage should have its one and only San Francisco screening before settling into its home on Netflix at the Castro. Complete with tastings of Dylan’s Heaven’s Door whiskey line, which is somehow perfect. The film, up to a point, anyway, is delicious. And so is the booze.

So, what happens when aging tricksters Scorsese and Dylan get together and make a movie? The short answer is an alternative history of a storied concert tour. Fact and fiction intermingle, leaving the viewer to parse the two and ponder just what constitutes truth, anyway. Billed as a doc, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story both is and isn’t that. Scorsese opens the film with early silent film footage of a magic act. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is the rabbit the director pulls out of his hat.

In reality, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour that rolled through New England and other points east in the fall of 1975 was seen by relativity few people, but it would live large in legend even if sound recordists and a camera crew hadn’t been on the scene to capture it. The backing band was one of Dylan’s best, an exceptional lineup that included former Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, a then unknown T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera. A lineup of guest artists and co-headliners joining him on stage and/or performing their own sets were Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Bob Neuwirth, and poet Allen Ginsburg.

The band was amazing, while its frontman was engaged, passionate, and clearly having a blast. The charisma Baez talks about in one of the new interviews in the documentary is on full display. Normally taciturn, Dylan is often downright ebullient, clearly enjoying his role as ringmaster. The joy is expressed in the music, a blend of Dylan’s back catalog, deep even then, and the new music he’d just recorded for his upcoming album Desire. Barn-burning versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Isis, ”Romance in Durango,”  and “One More Cup of Coffee” are among the highlights, while a section of the film is devoted to “Hurricane,” the song he wrote to bring attention to the flight of imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.

That concert material makes up a lot of Scorsese’s film and it is superlative, the music as vital today as it was nearly 45 years ago. To that the director mixes in footage from Renaldo and Clara, the tour’s side project where all the performers took a role, archival footage from adjacent history (particularly Nixon’s resignation the year before and the 1976 American bicentennial), playful silent era footage toying with the idea of masks, and new interviews, some real, some not. Dylan’s own seem to straddle a middle. At one point, he paraphrases Oscar Wilde’s epigram, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” He isn’t wearing a mask.

It is all wildly entertaining, but at the same time distancing. Talking heads like The Filmmaker (Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, perfect as a supercilious European auteur wannabe) and The Politician (Michael Murphy reprising his Jack Tanner role from his collaborations with Robert Altman) get far more screen time than any musician who isn’t Dylan or Baez. And most of the Rolling Thunder musicians aren’t represented at all. That is where the limits of Scorsese’s approach is felt most acutely. Where is T-Bone Burnett or Rob Stoner or Bob Neuwirth (Dylan’s longtime friend and the man Rolling Thunder guitarist J. Steven Soles credited in a recent Variety guest column with inspiring the Rolling Thunder Tour)? And what else did multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, the baby on the tour at only 19, have to say besides recalling Ginsberg’s crush on him and his surprise at discovering Rambin’ Jack Elliott’s middle-class Brooklyn roots?

Within its constraints, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is wildly entertaining. The few people who got to see that tour witnessed something that really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something Dylan has never recreated in all of his subsequent years of touring. For the rest of Dylan’s fans, the film is a gift–and a great advertisement for its star. After all, the 14-disc CD The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings just hit the streets on Friday. –Pam Grady

 

Tracking keystone species in THE SERENGETI RULES

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SerengetiNicolas Brown adapts Sean B. Carroll’s book The Serengeti Rules, at once paying homage to the five scientists at the heart of it, and explicating their theories in a handsome, engaging documentary. Like so many environmental docs that have come before it, it identifies a threat to our planet, in this case, the degradation to our natural world that ensues with the loss of biodiversity. But unlike so many films of its nature, it is more hopeful in tone. The scientists know what needs to be done to cure this particular malady; the trick is getting it done. The Serengeti Rules serves as a clarion call for action.

Working in disparate corners of the natural world—Bob Paine in the Pacific Ocean off Washington state, Jim Estes in the Aleutian Islands, Mary E. Power in the rivers and streams of Oklahoma, Tony Sinclair in Africa’s Serengeti, and John Terborgh in the Amazonian rainforest—the five scientists observed the same phenomenon: That when certain species are removed from an ecosystem, collapse follows. Paine, for example, constructed an experiment in which he removed starfish from an area of the seabed. With the predator gone, mussels proliferated while the overall diversity of species in the area dropped by half.

It was Paine who explicated the theory that the scientists ascribe to: That certain species, referred to as “keystones” and often predators, are vital to the health of communities. When they are removed from a system or die off for whatever reason, it upsets the balance and the entire system suffers.

Brown employs reenactments to illuminate his subjects’ work as young scientists. To this he adds interviews with the five, including Paine literally on his death bed, and commentary from Carroll to illustrate the keystone theory. It is not all doom and gloom. In particular, Sinclair has watched the renewal of the Serengeti after the wildebeest population rebounded with the eradication of the rinderpest disease.

The Serengeti Rules is also a spectacularly beautiful film. Tim Cragg and Simon De Glanville’s cinematography is gorgeous whether exploring the ocean floor, observing otters bobbing atop the current, following big mouth bass darting through murky water, peeking through foliage in the Amazon or Yellowstone National Park, or regarding the wildlife of the Serengeti. Those images are affirming—it really is a beautiful world we inhabit. But Brown is also making a point with such glorious depictions—it is a beautiful world and it is urgent that we pay more attention to it and the keystone species that support it. –Pam Grady

Not the Man They Think I Am At Home: ROCKETMAN’s Portrait of the Artist

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ROCKETMANAnyone expecting Rocketman–a film about the life and times of Elton John, executive produced by Elton John and produced by his husband David Furnish—to be a rock star’s vanity project, will be disabused of that notion in the dramatic musical’s opening scene. That’s when Elton (Taron Egerton), arrestingly attired in a skintight, bright orange jumpsuit with feathered wings and topped off with devil horns and rhinestone, heart-shaped glasses, bursts into what is unmistakably a 12-step meeting, sits down, and confesses to a long list of addictions. No, Rocketman is not a vanity project; it’s an anti-vanity project, a lacerating portrait of the artist as a young, self-loathing man. It is a movie that defies expectations, revealing the emptiness and inner turmoil hidden beneath such a glittering career.

It’s a balancing act for director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle and Bryan Singer’s replacement on Bohemian Rhapsody), screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, both stage and screen), and a game cast led by Egerton to put across an often scabrous story while offering eye-popping entertainment built out of John’s deep catalog. For the most part, Rocketman succeeds brilliantly, frank in its depiction of its lonely, needy, and sometimes monstrous protagonist but buoyed along by its incandescent production numbers. Regardless of how well it does or doesn’t do in its original theatrical life, expect the movie to have a brilliant second career as a sing-along—it’s just built that way.

The boy Reg Dwight (nine-year-old Matthew Illesley and 14-year-old Kit Connor) is caught between Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), his narcissistic mother, and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), the father’s whose love he craves and who lets him down at every turn with his cold indifference. Heady success comes early to the young man now called Elton John, but the pressure of success, poor romantic choices, and the constraints remaining closeted at a time when publicly declaring oneself gay is considered a career killer, don’t just keep his feet on the ground, his problems threaten to drag him under it. From the outside looking in at his spectacular rise, Rocketman could almost be an Icarus story where Elton soars so high his wings melt. But on the inside, he is still just Reg, looking for unconditional love, something he only finds it with his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, cinema’s original Billy Elliot) and they are not enough.

Anyone looking for a traditional biopic is likely to be disappointed by Rocketman. This is not that. John’s great band of the ‘70s—bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, and percussionist Ray Cooper—is nameless and pretty much faceless in the film. His producer, Gus Dudgeon, is not a character nor are many of his famous collaborators with the exception of Taupin and his “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon). The emphasis is on the personal and the effect is expressionistic and sometimes surreal with John’s famous tunes advancing the story and the history of his ‘70s era career told in the lovingly reproduced costumes that evolve from a dorky overalls number John wears in his America debut at LA’s famed Troubadour to his sparkly LA Dodgers’ “uniform,” satin shorts, sequined jumpsuits, and Elizabethan drag. His stage wear grows bolder and bolder even as he struggles in the strictures of the closet.

The supporting cast is excellent, down to the smallest roles, but this is a movie that rests on Egerton’s performance. The actor who rose to fame in Rocketman producer Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service as a guttersnipe who transforms into an elegant covert agent effects an even more startling metamorphosis here. He becomes Elton John, inhabiting both the quivering mass of man behind the curtain and the larger-than-life, charismatic superstar capable of holding the rapt attention of an arena full of fans. And unlike Bohemian Rhapsody where Rami Malek lip synced to Freddie Mercury’s vocals, Egerton makes the transformation complete, his own voice replacing John’s on all those familiar songs. It is a dazzling turn in a film that burnishes Elton John’s legacy by insisting on his fragile humanity rather than as his status as a musical icon. –Pam Grady

Bonus feature:

The film gets at Elton John’s talent for looking at a set of lyrics and being able to compose the music to complement those words. In this video from 1971, he talks about his method as he works on “Tiny Dancer”:

 

Justice denied in TRIAL BY FIRE

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_DSF4683.RAFNearly 28 years ago, on Dec. 23, 1991, three little girls died in a fire in Corsicana, TX. In short order, the authorities declared the blaze an arson and identified the children’s father, Cameron Todd Willingham, a local ne’er-do-well as the killer. Fifteen years later, the state of Texas executed Willingham by lethal injection. Those are the bare bones of the case that serves as the basis for the Edward Zwick’s (Blood Diamond, Defiance) new film, Trial By Fire, a tense true-crime drama that argues that an injustice has been done and an innocent man executed. Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern, as Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who worked on behalf of Willingham’s exoneration, lend their considerable talents to a riveting tale of justice denied.

English actor O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken) is particularly effect as the ill-fated, Oklahoma-born Willingham. There is no vanity to his performance as someone only too easy to accuse of committing a heinous crime. As husband to wife Stacy (Emily Meade), he is abusive. He is an unemployed rage-aholic well-known to local authorities long before the tragedy. But he also appears to have been a doting father with no actual motive for killing his daughters. Stacy believes he is innocent. No one else does, not even Peter Horton (Darren Pettie), his defense attorney—that is until Gilbert, first Willingham’s prison pen pal and later his advocate, gets involved.

Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who adapts a 2009 David Grann New Yorker article, meticulously lay out the facts of the case, from Willingham’s home life before the fire through Gilbert’s thorough investigation and her vain attempts to get Governor Rick Perry or anyone in the Texas justice system with the power to intercede to rectify an injustice. Dern is terrific in her depiction of a woman whose own domestic life suffers in her drive to do right by someone else.

The supporting cast is strong, particularly Jeff Perry in an arresting cameo as an arson expert who disputes the original investigators’ findings and Chris Coy as a guard who comes to view his prisoner in an entirely different light through their cellblock interactions over the years. Fletcher’s script is not without issues—fantasy sequences where Willingham converses with his seven or eight-year-old daughter (who was two when she died) are as hokey as they ineffective and the timing of a third-act catastrophe in Gilbert’s life is far too coincidental to be believable. (Indeed, while Gilbert did suffer a personal tragedy while working on Willingham’s case, it was not nearly so on the nose.) But those are minor problems in a film that offers a powerful indictment of a system that would rather kill an innocent man than admit error. –Pam Grady

John, Egerton’s duet at Cannes

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Rocketman’s world premiere was met with a standing ovation. Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic of Elton John starring Taron Egerton as the glittery pop idol is currently sitting at 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite for the movie, there’s this: the legendary piano man and the actor who portrays him in a sublime duet of the song that gave the film its title. —Pam Grady

The action never stops: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

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JW3_DAY042_070818_0907077.ARWJohn Wick (Keanu Reeves) is quite the timepiece. He is the Timex watch of assassins: He’s takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum he takes more licks than seems possible and still survive and even thrive, but if John Wick (it doesn’t seem right to call him either just “John”or just “Wick”) has a superpower, it is his preternatural ability to get up and keep fighting even when every fiber of his being is no doubt willing him to just stay down. John Wick is determined to live and no worldwide assassin army is going to stop him—or so he chooses to believe.

Mr. Wick is in quite the pickle in this latest extravagant and darkly humorous display of nonstop mayhem. He has become the enemy of The High Table, the worldwide crime syndicate that controls the activities and lives of assassins like John Wick. The Continental Hotel, overseen by slippery manager Winston (the magnificent Ian McShane) and always accommodating concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), the killers’ neutral ground, is off-limits to him. More worrisome, The High Table has declared him “excommunicado” and placed a $14 million bounty on his head. There is no safe place in the world for John Wick.

This latest chapter of John Wick’s saga ups the action ante. Not only does he face horde upon horde of extreme fighters and martial artists, including John Wick superfan Zero (Marc Dacascos, hilarious), but director Chad Stahelski stages fights on horseback and motorcycles. It is rock ’em sock ’em robots into infinity and beyond. The battles almost never cease save for a quick sojourn into the Sahara Desert, one of the few instances where John Wick appears in daylight. He is a nocturnal creature, emphasized by the dark alleys where much of the action takes place and the subdued lighting in the Continental, the theater where he seeks help from the mysterious Director (Anjelica Huston), and the Moroccan hideout of his reluctant ally Sofia (Halle Berry). Most film noirs aren’t this dark.

Reeves receives valuable support from McShane, Reddick, Dacascos, Huston, Berry, Laurence Fishburne as John Wick’s fellow High Table rebel The Bowery King, and Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator, The High Table’s punishment enforcer. But make no mistake, the success of the John Wick franchise is all due to Reeves. Despite the fact that John Wick is a lethal killing machine, he cuts an empathetic figure thanks to Reeves’ quiet charm. And it is Reeves’ athleticism and grace during the movie’s many fight sequences that elevate what could be ho-hum action into a kind of adrenaline-inducing murderous ballet. Reeves makes John Wick an assassin worth rooting for, no small feat with the body count he’s accrued over three outings. In his mid-50s, Reeves hardly seems to have lost a step off of his Matrix days and that is a beautiful thing to behold. —Pam Grady

Maigret Steps into Spotlight at San Francisco Fest

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San Francisco may be gentrifying at a terrifying rate, but at least we’ll always have homicide. Of the movie variety. The City is lucky to be awash in noir festivals: Elliot Lavine’s I Wake Up Dreaming (Elliot’s moved up near Portland, but we hope he hasn’t totally abandoned us), Eddie Muller’s Noir City, and Don Malcom’s The French Had a Name for It, which is teeing up its latest menu of mystery, mayhem, and murder May 10-13 at the Roxie Theater.

Fourteen films will unreel, opening with Z director Costa-Gavras’ 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment tueurs), a jazz-inflected thriller starring Yves Montand as the detective investigating a case where a woman’s strangulation on a train is only the beginning of a gruesome spree. It is a fast-paced, involving drama and the perfect film to set the mood for the four-day series.

Malcolm has put together a strong slate. Pick any of the 14 and you won’t go wrong, but I want to make a special plea for three films in the festival: Night at the Crossroads (La nuit du carrefour) (1932) and the closing night double-bill of Maigret Sets a Trap (Maigret tend un piége) (1958) and The Head of a Man (La tête d’un homme) (1933).  Georges Simenon’s great French detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret, the protagonist of 76 novels and 28 short stories published over four decades from 1931 to 1972, remains a popular figure in movies and TV to this day. The French Had a Name for It is screening three of the most memorable.

A long time friend of Simenon’s, since long before the writer even conceived the great detective, Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) introduced the cinematic Maigret to the world in 1932 with Night at the Crossroads. His older brother Pierre played the detective, called to a desolate town that consists of a gas station and a few houses, to solve the murder of a jewel thief. Made years before the term “noir” was even coined to describe the genre, of the three Maigret films, it is the most noir of them all. It is there in the atmosphere, so foggy and damp it’s almost tactile, creating an aura of doom. It is there in the rogues’ gallery of suspects that include gas station jockey Oscar (Dignimont, one name only, probably artist André Dignimont) and Germans Karl (Georges Koudria) and Else (Winna Winifried), whose claims of being brother and sister Maigret doesn’t believe. As portrayed by Pierre Renoir, Maigret is a frank investigator, willing to forego social niceties in his quest for the truth—as the unfortunate Else comes to discover. An almost documentary-like car chase adds to the suspense in a thriller that is short, nasty, and efficient.

Julien Duvivier’s (Pepe le Moko) The Head of a Man takes a more psychological approach as Maigret (here played by the great Harry Baur in a wonderful performance) refuses to give up on a case that is apparently solved. Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) had to have killed the old lady found stabbed in her bedroom. His bloody finger and shoeprints are all over the murder scene and he’s captured on the run. The slow-witted man admits that he was there to rob the woman but denies his guilt in her murder and won’t talk about any accomplices. Case closed, but Maigret thinks otherwise. Gaston Jacquet as Willy Ferrière, the woman’s nephew and heir, and Valéry Inkijinoff as Radek, an ailing immigrant with a serious chip on his shoulder, are part of the detective’s puzzle. The Head of a Man delights, not just in its central mystery, but also in the cop’s dogged determination to seek justice instead of an easy win and in his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his array of suspects.

The immortal Jean Gabin steps into the legendary detective’s shoes in Maigret Sets a Trap, directed by Jean Delannoy (Obsession, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and co-written by Michel Audiard, A Prophet writer-director Jacques Audiard’s father. Someone is killing women in Montmarte and Maigret and his officers are determined to find the culprit before he can murder again. All clues lead one way, but Maigret follows a different path. In this outing, Maigret could give Columbo a run for his money when it comes to needling suspects into either confessing or putting themselves in a position to be caught in the act. The most stylish of the three films—Midcentury furnishings fans will find a lot of eye candy in one suspect’s apartment—it is also the most buoyant. Maigret is at a low point at the film’s start, wondering if it is time to retire and let someone else solve the case. Watching him recover his mojo and joie de vivre is a joy. Gabin is terrific and so is a mystery rooted ultimately in twisted relationships. Together with The Head of a Man, it is the perfect double bill on which to end The French Had a Name for It, one that will leave you wanting more. –Pam Grady

The French Had a Name for It 5 1/2 , May 10-13, Roxie Theater, 3117 – 16th Street, San Francisco. http://www.midcenturyproductions.com/

Crocodile Glam Rock: The Fashions of ROCKETMAN

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The latest promo to drop on Rocketman is all about the fashion. To see Elton John back in the ’70s would have been an experience: Not just the music, but the clothes, the glasses, the larger-than-life flamboyancy. From the looks of it, Rocketman captures that. Certainly, star Taron Egerton wears it well. Whether the movie lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but for now, bravo!

Spoiler-free review: AVENGERS: ENDGAME

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No spoilers here about Avengers: Endgame. No in-depth review, either, since it would be far too easy to fall into spoiler territory. Instead just a few observations:

A three-hour runtime could easily have been punishing (and it might be—to your bladder), but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered an epic that is light on its feet: Action-packed, full of suspense relieved by liberal doses of humor, and emotionally resonant, this is what action adventure storytelling should be and so often isn’t.

In a large ensemble full of memorable performances, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans stand out, respectively burnishing the legends of Howard Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America with turns that emphasize their characters’ humanity. This might be just another day at the office for Evans, whose Captain America has always been imbued with a huge dose of empathy along with sorrow for what he lost during the decades he spent in suspended animation. His superb emotional performance is hardly surprising. Downey, on the other hand—Howard Stark has always been a smug, snarky character hovering on the insufferable. While he doesn’t exactly lose those traits in Endgame, he does evolve. Thanos (Josh Brolin) did a number on him in Infinity Wars and it shows in an altogether warmer, more open, and a somewhat humbled (if not humbler) Howard Stark.

Endgame also pays a fond farewell to Marvel’s Stan Lee with his final cameo appearance. Mr. Lee might’ve died in 2018 at 95, but he is going to live forever through his comic books and through his movies. As an adieu to his physical being, his Endgame cameo is tops, a funny moment in the movie that pays homage to Lee’s humor and zest for life.

That’s it. To say more would be to fall too close to spoiler territory. Not going there. Does Avengers: Endgame live up to the hype? Yes, yes is does. –Pam Grady

 

Review: Roots of Syndrome in STOCKHOLM

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People know the name “Stockholm Syndrome,” but few know its etymology. Writer/director Robert Budreau aims to correct that with his new drama Stockholm. The condition in which hostages begin to trust and ally with their captors owes its moniker to a 1973 bank robbery turned hostage situation in the Swedish capital, recounted here–more or less. Names have been changed, and so have other details. And the lead kidnapper was most definitely not an American, which he is for the film’s purposes. But that alteration makes way for Ethan Hawke, who delivers a charismatic performance that’s not only larger than life, it’s larger than the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Lars Nystrom (Hawke) enters the bank alone but is soon joined by his friend Gunnar (Mark Strong in bad hippie hairpiece—actually, so is Hawke, but his is supposed to be a wig). There are three hostages and the bank is surrounded by cops. Lars is a charmer. It doesn’t take him long to gain the sympathy of his captives, particularly bank officer Bianca (Noomi Rapace). Heavy-handed police tactics only encourage the hostages to trust Lars and Gunnar.

Stockholm is entertaining enough, if ultimately forgettable. Hawke is the best thing about it with the rest of the cast saddled with playing characters that are not particularly well drawn. Also, the whole problem with making a movie about the roots of “Stockholm Syndrome” is that the crime for which the condition is named pales in comparison with another caper associated with the syndrome: the 1972 robbery of a Chase Manhattan bank that inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 thriller Dog Day Afternoon. That movie with a livewire Al Pacino and John Cazale as his dim-witted sad sack partner set the standard for hostage taking movies where the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play. Stockholm is diverting but Lumet set a high bar that is almost impossible for other films to reach. –Pam Grady