Remembering Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme

If he had made no other films, Jonathan Demme, who has died, would be forever remembered for his horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Rarely has a film had such an immediate, visceral impact on me. I had unwisely super-caffeinated myself just before watching it for the first time, and I became so anxious when the door to the storage facility was opened that I had to leave the theater. Of course, my curiosity about what would happen to Clarice and Hannibal soon drove me back to sit through the whole thing.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of only three movies to win Oscars in all four major categories:  Best Picture, Director (Demme), Leading Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Leading Actress (Jodie Foster).  It also won the Screenwriting Oscar (Ted Tally).

Jonathan Demme, however, was a director who could master many genres. He started out with genre exploitation movies, and I first admired his work in the little indie Melvin and Howard (1980), with its delightful performances by Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat. Then he made one of the two or three best ever rock concert films, Stop Making Sense (1984) with The Talking Heads. Then he directed the topical drama Philadelphia (1993) and the wonderfully engaging addiction dramedy Rachel Getting Married (2008).

His body of work screams versatility, and his masterpiece…Well, his masterpiece just screams.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

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Stream of the Week: ZERO DAYS – cyberwar triumph? maybe not

ZERO DAYS

ZERO DAYS

My Stream of the Week is a movie that has actually become MORE topical since its release last year.  The important and absorbing documentary Zero Days traces the story of an incredibly successful cyber attack by two nation states upon another – and its implications. In Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, the centrifuges used to enrich uranium began destroying themselves in 2010. It turned out that these machines were instructed to self-destruct by a computer worm devised by American and Israeli intelligence.

No doubt – this was an amazing technological triumph. Zero Days takes us through a whodunit that is thrilling even for a non-geek audience. We learn how a network that is completely disconnected from the Internet can still be infected. And how cybersecurity experts track down viruses. It’s all accessible and fascinating.

But, strategically, was this really a cyberwarfare victory? We learn just what parts of our lives can be attacked and frozen by computer attacks (Spoiler: pretty much everything). And we learn that this attack has greenlighted cyberwarfare by other nations – including hostile and potentially hostile ones. Zero Days makes a persuasive case that we need to have a public debate – as we have had on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – on the use of this new kind of weaponry.

And here’s why it is more topical today.  Since Zero Days’ release last year, we have endured the successful Russian cyberattack on the US election process.  And we face an unpredictable foe in North Korea, and our only practical protection against North Korea’s nuclear threat may be our own preemptive cyberattacks.

Director Alex Gibney is one our very, very best documentarians. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the superb Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Going Clear: The Prison of Belief and Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine.

Gibney’s specialty is getting sources on-camera that have the most intimate knowledge of his topic. In Zero Days, he pulls out a crew of cybersecurity experts, the top journalist covering cyberwarfare, leaders of both Israeli and American intelligence and even someone who can explain the Iranian perspective. Most impressively, Gibney has found insiders from the NSA who actually worked on this cyber attack (and prepared others).

Zero Days is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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THEIR FINEST: the appealing side of propaganda

Gemma Arterton in THEIR FINEST

Gemma Arterton in THEIR FINEST

Rosie the Riveter meets Nora Ephron in Their Finest, where Gemma Arterton plays a wannabe secretary summoned to write the female dialogue in a British propaganda movie aimed at easing America into WW II.  Of course, she discovers that she has a gift for screenwriting and a passion for it.  As in Mad Men, there are plenty of snickers at the assumed sexism the of the era. The driven lead writer (Sam Clafton) is a contrast to her nogoodnik common law husband (Jack Huston).

Originally, the plot of the movie-within-the movie is set to be a more or less true (okay – less true) account of the Dunkirk seaborne rescue, but a hook for American audiences is required.  So the filmmakers slap on a superfluous character to be played by a bonafide war hero (Jake Lacy):  he’s a real hero, he’s American, he’s stunningly handsome with a gleaming smile, but he’s absolutely talentless.

One of the sound reasons to watch any movie, and this especially applies to Their Finest, is Bill Nighy.  Here, he plays a vain actor sliding down the down slope of his career.  Nighy, as always, is able to summon both hilarity and poignancy, from his character’s foibles and vulnerability.

I’ve always liked Gemma Arterton, and she’s good here, too.  Arterton is an underappreciated actress, with winning roles in Gemma Bovary, Tamara Drewe and as the Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace.

Their Finest contains elements of the romance, comedy, historical and Girl Power genres.  The romantic element might have worked had not Sam Clafton delivered such a one-note performance.  Jack of some aspects and master of none, Their Finest is a harmless and appealing diversion.

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THE LOST CITY OF Z: director James Gray

James Gray photo courtesy of SFFILM

James Gray
photo courtesy of SFFILM

As I wrote on Friday, with The Lost City of Z, director James Gray revives the entire genre of the historical adventure epic. I saw The Lost City of Z earlier this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival) at a screening with director James Gray, who took questions afterwards from SFFILM Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and the audience.

Gray joked that “You can’t really pitch a movie as ‘It’s like Indiana Jones, and then he gets eaten…'”  Gray said, “You you can’t beat a story told with elegance”, so you can have a subtext that is subversive. “Classical form allows the subtext to emerge.”

In one of those subtexts, Gray made it a point that the indigenous peoples in the movie are independent of his protagonist Fawcett; not just advancing the plot points in Fawcett’s quest. “It was very moving to be with the indigenous, and I filmed them doing what they do,”Gray said.  He resisted filming the jungle scenes in South Africa and other less expensive locations because he needed the real indigenous people in the movie.  Four real tribes – and their cultures – are shown in the film. Living so remotely, deep in the Amazon forest, the indigenous had little use for cash. One tribe asked to be paid in irrigation improvements. Another tribe negotiated for Lands End shorts.  Referring to the Battle of the Somme scene, he explained that the folly and barbarism of “WW I was the end of any idea that Europe was superior”.

“I was genetically designed to be an accountant in Minsk. There’s no reason for me to go to Amazonia to be eaten by mosquitoes”.  “Herzog has made three movies in the jungle. He is Superman. I’m not going back.”

Gray said that the real Fawcett is more complicated and less attractive than the screen version. As a man of his time, Fawcett was racist by our standards, and even thought that he would find more advanced “white Indians” responsible for his Lost City. The speech to the Royal Geographic Society was taken almost verbatim from Fawcett’s historical words. The actual location of Fawcett’s exploration “is no longer jungle because it has been cleared for soy bean fields”.

To shoot a film in 35 mm, Gray’s team had to train a film loader in 1970s camera equipment.  Each day, the day’s work went by crop duster to a local airport to Bogotá to Miami and, finally, to the lab in London. Each day the crew endured a nerve-wracking wait until getting a call by satellite phone to confirm the film’s arrival in London, Three days’ work didn’t make it and had to be shot over again.

Gray originally adapted the screenplay for Brad Pitt, who owned the movie rights to the book by David Grann, but, by the time they had raised the money, “then his big WW II movie came along”. Pitt’s producers pitched Benedict Cumberbatch for the lead, and Gray thought, “Wow, this guy looks very odd”, but then embraced that casting choice.
Two weeks before shooting, Cumberbatch backed out because his wife was pregnant and due during what would be the middle of the jungle shoot.

Pitt’s producers then pitched Charlie Hunnam for the lead. Gray’s wife had been binge-watching Sons of Anarchy, so Gray didn’t see the fit until he dined with Hunnam. Gray learned that Hunnam is a Brit from Newcastle and found him to be swashbuckler-handsome, charming, intelligent and driven – feeling underappreciated as a TV actor.  “I could mine that”. thought Gray.  Gray “understood the burden of having a father blow the family fortune” and was attracted to the character responding with an obsession to with become a famed success.

Gray also noted that Charlie Hunnam will play the title character in the King Arthur movie franchise and that Tom Holland, who plays Fawcett’s son, will be the new Spider Man.

As I wrote on Friday, movie studios used to make an entire genre of very fun movies from Gunga Din and The Four Feathers through Lawrence of Arabia and Zulu that featured white Europeans getting their thrills in exotic third world playgrounds. We often cringe at the racist premises and the treatment of “the natives” those movies today. Since the 1960s, the best examples of the genre, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, have had an ironic tinge. Gray’s The Lost Cuty of Z has all the spectacle of a swashbuckler, while braiding in modern sensitivities and a psychological portrait. This is a beautiful and thoughtful film.

I highly recommend this brilliant interview of Gray by Peter Canavese on Groucho Reviews If you stay with it to the end, there’s a whopper of a Joaquin Phoenix anecdote.

Charlie Hunnam (right) in THE LOST CITY OF Z photo courtesy of SFFILM

Charlie Hunnam (right) in THE LOST CITY OF Z
photo courtesy of SFFILM

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FREE FIRE: a witty and fun shoot ’em up

Brie larson in FREE FIRE

Brie Larson in FREE FIRE

The clever and fun action thriller Free Fire begins when Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson introduces both sides of an illegal gun transaction.    It’s 1978, and the hoods, played by Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and a bunch of less recognizable faces, meetup in a long-abandoned factory.  The deal, of course, goes bad, and they start shooting at each other.  They are all pinned down, and all the action occurs in a confined space.  Pretty quickly, everyone is wounded, and has to crawl, hobble, limp and hop around trying to take out the others.

The factory is a dark and gritty setting, and it’s not going to turn out well, but it’s too light-hearted to call this a neo-noir.  These are boys (and a girl) playing with guns, and everybody is having a lot of fun.  Indeed, Free Fall has the all-in-good-fun tone of The Dirty Dozen and reminds us of a Quentin Tarantino film with much crisper dialogue and less gore.  Two of characters come to especially gruesome ends, but this is not a splatter-a-thon.  And here’s a cinematic First – a tickle attack in the midst of a gunfight.

In another Taratinoesque touch, classic rock, especially Creedence Clearwater Revival, is put to great use on the soundtrack.  But the insertion of a John Denver album into a cassette tape player is a hilarious high point.

Larson leads a set of appealing performances.  Armie Hammer is especially memorable as a particularly suave and smug gun merchant (and wears the same stylish beard sported by The Movie Gourmet in 1978).

Written by director Ben Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump, Free Fire is pure Wheatley.  Jump adapted his successful 2016 sci-fi High-Rise from  the J.G. Ballard novel

Leaving the theater, The Wife asked me “Why did I enjoy that movie so much?”, and I replied “Because it didn’t try to be more than it was.”  It tries to be a very witty shoot ’em up, and, as such, it’s very entertaining.

Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE

Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE

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Movies to See Right Now

Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z photo courtesy of SFFILM

Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z
photo courtesy of SFFILM

My top recommendation is The Lost City of Z, which opens in the Bay Area today.

Also in theaters this week:

  • Their Finest is an appealing, middling period drama set during the London Blitz.
  • I liked the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment with Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, playing both the Before and After roles in a hostile gender re-assignment surgery. The Assignment is out, but in few theaters. It’s available now to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • Kristen Stewart is excellent in Personal Shopper, a murky mess of a movie; don’t bother.
  • I found the predictable Armenian Genocide drama The Promise to be a colossal waste of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale.
  • Song to Song is yet another visually brilliant storytelling failure from auteur Terence Malick.
  • Also avoid the horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which is out on video and, UNBELIEVABLY, getting some favorable buzz.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the absorbing French drama Augustine, about obsession, passion and the birth of a science. I just saw The Stopover at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the feral fierceness and simmering intensity of its star Soko reminded me of her earlier work in Augustine. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On April 22, Turner Classic Movies airs The Enemy Below (1957), a cleverly plotted and well-acted WW II submarine story, ably directed by Dick Powell. Robert Mitchum is the new captain of a sub-chaser, and Curd Jürgens commands a German sub. Because the Jürgens character has no sympathy for the Nazi regime, which makes him relatable for the audience; in real life, the Bavarian-born Jürgens was imprisoned by the Nazis for his political views and became an Austrian citizen after being liberated. The Enemy Below is a brilliant game of lethal cat-and-mouse between the two skippers.

The Germans are trapped by their mission, which requires them to keep on a certain bearing. The US commander recognizes this and is able to keep catching up to them on this route. Mitchum explains his tactics to his crew, gets the crews trust and helps us follow the chess game. As nerves crack on the sub below, Jurgens takes unusual tactics to maintain morale. Mutual respect is manifested at end, with stirring loyalty demonstrated by the men to their captains.

There’s a lot here that you don’t see in other submarine warfare movies, including a rare ramming collision and aerial views of the depth charge pattern. There’s also a great special effect shot showing sailors on the deck dropping their fishing line down to the U-boat resting on the sea bottom directly below. The author of the source novel was himself a veteran of anti-sub warfare.

Robert Mitchum in THE ENEMY BELOW

Robert Mitchum in THE ENEMY BELOW

Curd Jurgens in THE ENEMY BELOW

Curd Jurgens in THE ENEMY BELOW

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THE LOST CITY OF Z: the historical adventure epic revived

Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z photo courtesy of SFFILM

Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z
photo courtesy of SFFILM

In auteur James Gray’s sweeping turn of the 20th Century epic The Lost City of Z, a stiff-upper-lip type British military officer becomes the first European to probe into the deepest heart of unmapped Amazonia. Finding his way through the lush jungles, braving encounters with sometimes cannibalistic indigenous warriors, he becomes obsessed with finding the lost city of an ancient civilization. I know this sounds like Indiana Jones, but it’s based on the real life of Percy Fawcett as chronicled in the recent book Lost City of Z by David Grann.

The Lost City of Z opens tomorrow in Bay Area theaters. I saw The Lost City of Z at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival) at a screening with director James Gray. I’ll be sharing some snippets from Gray’s Q & A on Sunday.

The Lost City of Z begins with an Edwardian stag hunt through the verdant Irish countryside, complete with horses spilling riders. This scene is gorgeous, but its point is to introduce the young British military officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as a man of unusual resourcefulness, talent and, above all, drive. Despite his abilities, he has been chaffing at the unattractive assignments that have precluded his career advancement. In the snobby Edwardian military, he has been in disfavor because his dissolute father had stained the family name. One of Fawcett’s commanders says, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”.

That yearning to earn the recognition that he believes he merits – and to attain the accomplishments of a Great Man – is the core of this character-driven movie. Fawcett resists yet another assignment away from the career-making action, a mapping expedition designed to have a minor diplomatic payoff. But it takes him on a spectacular Amazon exploration that brings him celebrity – and backing for more high-profile expeditions. Fawcett was surfing the zeitgeist in the age of his contemporaries Roald Amundsen (South Pole), Robert Peary (North Pole) and Howard Carter (King Tut).

In that first expedition, Fawcett becomes convinced that he can find the magnificent city of a lost civilization deep in the Amazon, a city he calls Z (which is pronounced as the British “Zed”). The Lost City of Z takes us through two more Amazonian expeditions, sandwiched around Fawcett’s WW I service in the hellish Battle of the Somme.
That final expedition ends mysteriously – and not well.

No one knows for sure what happened to Fawcett. In The Lost City of Z, Gray leads us toward the most likely conclusion, the one embraced by Grann’s book. If you’re interested in the decades of speculation about Fawcett’s fate, there’s a good outline on Percy Fawcett’s Wikipedia page.

Fawcett comes with his own Victorian upper class prejudices, but he has the capacity to set those aside for a post-Darwin open-mindedness. Gray made it a point that the indigenous peoples in the movie are independent of Fawcett; Gray shows them living their lives in a world that Fawcett has found, not just advancing the plot points in Fawcett’s quest. Four real tribes – and their cultures – are shown in the film.

As Percy Fawcett, with his oft-manic obsession and fame-seeking that color his scientific curiosity and his old-fashioned Dudley Do-Right values, Charlie Hunnam gives a tremendous, perhaps carer breakthrough, performance. He’s been a promising actor in Sons of Anarchy and the overlooked thriller Deadfall) (and such a good actor that I never dreamed that he’s really British).  Hunnam will next star as the title character in the King Arthur movie franchise.

Robert Pattinson is unexpectedly perfect as Fawcett’s travel buddy Henry Costin. With his Twilight dreaminess hidden behind a Smith Brothers beard, Pattinson projects a lean manliness. It’s probably his best performance.

Sienna Miller shines as Fawcett’s proto-feminist wife Nina. I first noticed Miller (and Daniel Craig) in the underrated neo-noir thriller 2004 Layer Cake. Now Miller is still only 35 years old and has delivered other fine recent performances in Foxcatcher, American Sniper and (in an especially delicious role) High-Rise.

Director James Gray (The Yard, Two Lovers, The Immigrant) is a favorite of cinephiles and of other filmmakers, but regular audiences don’t turn out for his movies. That may change with The Lost City of Z, a remarkably beautiful film that Gray shot, bucking the trend to digital, in 35 mm. The jungle scenes were filmed in a national park in Columbia. The cinemeatographer is the Oscar-nominated Darius Khondji. Khondji shot The Immigrant for Gray and has been the DP of choice for David Fincher (Se7en) Alan Parker (Evita), Michael Haneke (Amour), and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). Along with the stag hunt and the voyages up and down the jungle rivers, there is also a breathtakingly beautiful ballroom scene and a gaspingly surreal nighttime discovery of a rubber plantation’s opera house deep in the jungle.

There have been other Lost Expedition movies, most famously Werner Herzog’s Aquirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. The Lost City of Z shares an obsession, a quest and a mysterious tragic end with those films, but it stands apart with its exploration of the motivation of a real life character and the authenticity of Gray’s depiction of the indigenous people.

Movie studios used to make an entire genre of very fun movies from Gunga Din and The Four Feathers through Lawrence of Arabia and Zulu that featured white Europeans getting their thrills in exotic third world playgrounds. We often cringe at the racist premises and the treatment of “the natives” those movies today. Since the 1960s, the best examples of the genre, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, have had an ironic tinge. With The Lost City of Z, James Gray loses both the racism and the irony, and brings us brings a straight-ahead exploration tale.

The Lost City of Z revives the genre of the historical adventure epic, with all the spectacle of a swashbuckler, while braiding in modern sensitivities and a psychological portrait. This is a beautiful and thoughtful film.

[And here are some completely random tidbits. There’s a cameo by Spaghetti Western star Franco Nero. The closing credits recognize the “animal weath coordinator” and the “data wrangler”.]

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THE PROMISE: predictable and somnolent

Oscar Isaac in THE PROMISE

Oscar Isaac in THE PROMISE

In a predictable trudge through the Armenian Genocide, The Promise delivers nothing that we haven’t seen before. Oscar Isaac plays an impoverished Armenian from the Anatolian outback who dreams of becoming a doctor. To afford medical school in Constantinople, he uses the dowry available after his betrothal to a sweet and prominently-schnozzed local girl. For his studies, he moves alone to the big city, where he meets a cosmopolitan Armenian beauty (Charlotte Le Bon), who has been living in Paris with her boyfriend, an iconoclastic American journalist (Christian Bale). Just as sparks fly between Isaac and Le Bon, World War I erupts and the Turks persecute and then massacre Armenians, causing the two to flee separately for their lives. Isaac’s medical student finds himself hiding in his home village, married to his fiance. Le Bon’s sophisticate is on the run with Bale’s journalist as he covers the developments. Will the Armenian lovers meet again in Eastern Turkey, and will he stay true to his marital vows?

The talents of Isaac and Bale are wasted in this movie. Isaac’s character is so top-to-bottom decent and so buffeted by developments that are not his fault, there just isn’t much texture to portray. Similarly, Bale’s reporter, while purportedly an international man of mystery, is just a Jeff Bridgesey teddy bear of a guy at his core.

The Promise is not as bad as the epically bad epic The Ottoman Lieutenant, and has much higher superior production values and a moderately better screenplay. Both movies share the beginning of World War I and the Armenian Genocide, along with an American protestant mission in southeastern Turkey. As in The Ottoman Lieutenant, there’s an unintentional audience laugh – when Isaac’s mother intones “I told them you were dead”.

Keep walking.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: AUGUSTINE: obsession, passion and the birth of a science

The absorbing French drama Augustine is based on the real work of 19th century medical research pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of neurology. A young kitchen maid begins suffering wild seizures and is brought to Charcot’s research hospital. He ascertains the triggers for the seizures, and begins to close in on cure. Needing funding for his research, he triggers her seizures before groups of his peers; he is showing off his research, but it’s clear that his affluent male audience is titillated by the comely girl’s orgasmic thrashes.

She is drawn to this man whose kindness to her belies their class difference and whose brilliance is the key to her recovery. The good doctor intends to cure her – but not until she has performed for his potential funders. She is unexpectedly cured just before Charcot’s most important demonstration, and she gets to decide whether to continue her exploitation. In the stunning conclusion, she gets the upper hand and her simmering feelings erupt.

The fine French actor Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) excels at playing very contained and reserved characters, and here he nails Charcot’s clash of decency and professional ambition.

The French pop singer Soko is captivating as his patient. Last week, I noted the feral fierceness and simmering intensity of Soko is The Stopover, a film that I just saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival). That’s why I was moved to make Augustine this week’s video pick.

It’s an auspicious first feature film for writer-director Alice Winocour. She has constructed a story that about two sympathetic characters whose interests converge, then diverge and then… Since Augustine, Winocur has co-written the wonderful Mustang and directed Disorder.

Augustine is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

Ariane Labed and Soko in THE STOPOVER photo courtesy of SFFILM

THE STOPOVER at the San Francisco International Film Festival
photo courtesy of SFFILM

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival) is underway, and links to my coverage are on my SFFILMFestival page. You can see two of my recommendations, both women-centered films, the topical French drama The Stopover and the Irish self-discovery dramedy A Date with Mad Mary, this weekend at SFFILMFestival.

In theaters this week:

  • I liked the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment with Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, playing both the Before and After roles in a hostile gender re-assignment surgery. The Assignment is out, but in few theaters. It’s available now to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • Bev Powley is very good in the agreeable comedy Carrie Pilby. It’s also available to stream from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • Kristen Stewart is excellent in Personal Shopper, a murky mess of a movie; don’t bother.
  • Song to Song is yet another visually brilliant storytelling failure from auteur Terence Malick.
  • Also avoid the horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which is out on video and, UNBELIEVABLY, getting some favorable buzz.

This week’s video pick comes from the program of last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. The absorbing neo-noir romance Frank & Lola opens with a couple lovemaking for the first time – and right away there’s a glimmer that he’s more invested than she is. Soon we’re spirited from Vegas to Paris and back again in a deadly web of jealousy. I saw Frank & Lola in May 2016 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I liked it more than most and put it on my Best Movies of 2016. After a brief and tiny theatrical release in December which did not reach the Bay Area, Frank & Lola is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Easter always triggers television networks to pull out their Biblical epics.  If you’re going to watch just one Sword-and-Sandal classic, I recommend going full tilt with Barrabas, broadcast by Turner Classic Movies on April 16.   This 1961 cornball stars Anthony Quinn as the Zelig-like title character.  The story begins with the thief Barabbas avoiding crucifixion when Pontius Pilate swaps him out for Jesus (this part is actually in the Bible). Because the Crucifixion isn’t enough action for a two hour 17 minute movie, Barabbas is soon sent off as a slave to the salt mines, where he is rescued by a miraculously timely earthquake.  He then joins the Roman gladiators, complete with a javelin-firing squad, gets lost in the catacombs and emerges to the Burning of Rome.  He has encounters with the Emperor Nero and the Apostle Peter before he converts to Christianity – just in time for the mass crucifixion.  Watch for an uncredited Sharon Tate as a patrician in the arena.

Anthony Quinn in BARABBAS

Anthony Quinn in BARABBAS

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