Movies to See Right Now

THREE HEARTS

THREE HEARTS

If you haven’t seen it yet, run out and watch the hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales, a series of individual stories about revenge fantasies becoming actualized.  I also really like the Belgian romance Three Hearts – the leading man has a weak heart in more ways than one.

I did see Insurgent, from the Divergent franchise, and it is what it is – young adult sci-fi with some cool f/x.  Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is a satisfying bio-doc that features lots of clips of the great Orson himself.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the dark, feminist Western The Homesman.  It is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

You can’t get any more surreal than the Luis Buñuel- directed and Salvador Dali co-written Un Chien Andalou from 1929. And you can’t film anything more cringe worthy than the slicing of a human eyeball. Un Chien Andalou is LITERALLY textbook surrealism and airs on Turner Classic Movies on March 29.

On March 30, TCM brings us an overlooked film noir, While the City Sleeps (1956). When a zillionaire dies and leaves his media empire to his feckless playboy son (Vincent Price), the scion cruelly dangles the CEO job in front of the company’s top talent, plunging them into a ruthless competition. Whoever solves the Lipstick Killer Murders will win the prize, and plenty of backstabbing in the board room ensues.

While the City Sleeps benefits from a killer cast. Star columnist Dana Andrews (and the audience) weighs in on the side of old school Thomas Mitchell – but it’s going to a tough fight against arrogant George Sanders and oleaginous James Craig (here even more slippery than Sanders). One of these guys is having an affair with their new boss’ trophy wife (Rhonda Fleming). Ida Lupino is a cynical free agent. And Andrews his using his own girlfriend (Sally Forrest) as bait for the serial killer! A tragic figure in real life, John Drew Barrymore, has a small but important role. The cast is so deep that noir leading man Howard Duff is stuck playing the cop.

While the City Sleeps is directed by one of the giants of cinema, Fritz Lang, the German auteur of Metropolis and M. After WWII, Lang had an productive noir period in Hollywood, churning out Moontide, Scarlet Street, House by the River, The Blue Dahlia, The Big Heat, Human Desire (my favorite Lang noir) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS

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THREE HEARTS: a man with a weak heart

Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni in THREE HEARTS

Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni in THREE HEARTS

The Belgian romantic drama Three Hearts centers on the singular character of Marc, a Parisian tax auditor who has a fondness for the ladies – and they for him. He also is very conflict-averse and handles stress very badly, which has contributed to a sometimes disabling heart condition. On a business trip to a provincial town, Marc misses his train, and becomes romantically involved with a local woman. Because of circumstance, that relationship doesn’t move forward, which clears him to begin a relationship with a second woman in that town. Once he is irrevocably entangled, he learns that the two women are intimates.

In what I think is a really compelling performance, Marc is played by Benoît Poelvoorde. Marc finds himself trapped in an excruciating situation, and the only way out requires courage that he just doesn’t have. Poelvoorde is completely believable as a guy who chats up women, settles into domesticity and then is paralyzed by terror and dread. Plus, Poelvoorde has a gangly walk and often slips into outright goofiness, which effectively lightens the dramatic tension.

Now, some critics do not agree with me. Poelvoorde is not a conventionally good-looking guy. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect a guy like this to be able to attract a woman who looks like Chiara Mastroianni or Charlotte Gainsbourg. If you can’t jump this, you’re not gonna buy into the movie, but it worked for me. Marc does seem to one of those rugged guys who has a knack with the ladies, and the two woman characters are in windows of extreme vulnerability and are ripe to experiment outside their own relationships.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni are excellent as the two women. Their personalities are starkly different but they each have an immediate need that they hope Marc can fill. With the regal serenity that she can muster, Catherine Deneuve plays the character who intuits what is going on long before the others.

Three Hearts is directed and co-written by Benoit Jaquot, who recently gave us the lavishly staged and absorbing costume drama Farewell, My Queen.

One more thing – the potential for upcoming confrontation is signaled by Big Music – ominous cello notes that sound like the theme from Jaws played backwards. I saw this as wry self-mocking of the drama, and I found this device to be amusing. It’s just a little part of the movie, but people that I saw Three Hearts with found it to be off-putting.

The bottom line is that Three Hearts worked for me, and I recommend it with the caveat that some willing suspension of disbelief is required.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE HOMESMAN

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in THE HOMESMAN

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in THE HOMESMAN

Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote, directs and stars in the dark Western (I love Westerns!) The Homesman. Hilary Swank plays a single woman in bleak frontier Nebraska who volunteers to take three madwomen to respite, a hard five weeks wagon ride to the east in civilized Iowa. She conscripts an irascible reprobate (Tommy Lee Jones) to help her. About Jones’ character, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote “It’s as if Yosemite Sam had turned up in the pages of a Willa Cather novel.” As in any odyssey or road trip story, they face obstacles that make it an adventure – and, in a Western, we expect those to include harsh natural conditions, hostile Indians and bad gunmen.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, The Homesman doesn’t romanticize the Wild West. The three passengers have suffered mental breakdowns. Each of them has clung to sanity through almost the unbearable hardships of frontier life, and then has been broken by a distinct trauma.

The Homesman has been labeled a “feminist Western”, and this is accurate. Swank’s character is independent, industrious and earnest and responsible to a fault. She’s a great catch for any guy post-1900, but her very independence repels any hope for male companionship in the mid-19th Century Old West, where the local yokels travel all the way Back East for women that are suitably submissive. As to the three broken passengers, really bad things have happened to the women, and the fact that they’ve been isolated with patriarchal and, in some cases abusive, men, has made it that much more unbearable.

Jones directs with a steady hand, and as in his exemplary Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, proves to have a special gift with a western setting and in getting good performances. Here, he and Swank are just as good as we would expect, which is pretty damn good. The cast is dotted by the likes of John Lithgow and even Meryl Streep, but the standout, most memorable performances are the supporting turns by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.

Unless you’re on a date or looking for an escapist lark, The Homesman is a fine movie on all counts; but be prepared for unrelenting grimness in this starkly, dark tale. It is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

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Movies to See Right Now

WILD TALES

WILD TALES

There are two Must Sees in theaters now, and both were nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar:

  • The hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales, a series of individual stories about revenge fantasies becoming actualized.
  • The Job-like Russian drama Leviathan, a searing expose of post-Soviet Russian society.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is a satisfying bio-doc that features lots of clips of the great Orson himself.  Queen and Country is director John Boorman’s (Deliverance) well-crafted and moderately entertaining look back at his year as a British Army conscript in the 50s.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Whiplash, the drama about the line between motivation and abuse and the line between ambition and obsession. J.K. Simmons just won an acting Oscar for his dominating performance. Whiplash is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

If you haven’t seen the hilarious gender bender comedy Victor Victoria in a while, catch it again on March 20 on Turner Classic Movies. I think that’s it’s director Blake Edwards’ best comedy – and that’s saying something after all the Pink Panther movies. Along with the alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses, this is Edwards’ masterpiece. Julie Andrews (Mrs. Blake Edwards) and James Garner give perfect performances, and there’s a memorable supporting turn by Alex Karras. Victor Victoria is over thirty years old, but stands up just as well today as in 1981.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: WHIPLASH

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

J.K. Simmons deservedly won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash , the drama about the line between motivation and abuse and the line between ambition and obsession. A young jazz drummer (Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole) attends an elite music academy (think Julliard) and comes under the attention of a drill sergeant-type of instructor (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-tormentor pushes the kid toward perfection through tough love and, ultimately, abuse. To what extent is the teacher trying to get the kid to excel? And how much of the teacher’s behavior is just sadistic bullying? And how will the kid respond? (The movie’s title reflects both a jazz song and the teacher’s instructional technique.)

J.K. Simmons is a guy whose name you may not recognize, but whose face you will. He has 143 screen credits, most memorably as the of the ironic and supportive father in Juno and Vernon Schillinger, the Aryan Brotherhood leader in the prison series Oz. This is Simmons’ movie; it’s an exceptional performance, that will probably land Simmons an Oscar nomination.

How good a movie is Whiplash? It’s a very good one – taut, and intense. The fact that it’s extremely focused on the two characters and the fundamental questions about their characters is a strength, but also limits it from being a great movie. Still, Simmons, Teller and the unrelenting tension makes Whiplash definitely worth seeing.  Whiplash is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

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LEVIATHAN: the overwhelming crush of corruption

LEVIATHAN

LEVIATHAN

The extraordinary Russian drama Leviathan is a searing indictment of society in post-Soviet Russia – and it’s one of the best movies of the year.  A Job-like Everyman struggles to protect his home from the clutches  of the town’s corrupt mayor – and he has to battle the corruption that has permeated the political and justice systems.  The very struggle takes its toll in his relationships, too, and the audience begins to wonder just how much he’s going to be left with at the end of the story.

Despite being deliberately paced and darkly themed, Leviathan is very watchable.  The characters are superbly crafted and the story is filled with “what’s going to happen next?” moments.  Writer-director Andrei Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin are keen observers of human nature and season Leviathan with plenty of wry humor (e.g., the mayor runs his criminal Sopranos-like enterprise from a desk under a portrait of Putin).  And there’s a surprise at the end.

Our Everyman is Kolya (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is hotheaded and drinks too much.  He fixes cars out of his seafront home in a bleak village on the Barents Sea.  His younger second wife Elena Lyadova is cipher.  His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is a good kid, but troubled by the death of his mother.   The performances are exceptional, along with that of Roman Madyanov as the corrupt-to-his-marrow mayor.  The mayor wants to take Kolya’s property, and their battle plays out in the courts – and in extra-judicial arenas.

And then there’s the vodka abuse.  The amount of vodka consumption by virtually every character is astounding. Expect (along with your fellow audience members) to gasp and giggle at the size of the pours.

The film’s only shortcoming is the heavy-handed symbolism employed to hammer home the hopelessness of the protagonist’s struggle,  There’s a biblical quote (from Job, of course): “Can you draw out the Leviathan with a fishhook?”, and then shots of whales and of the skeleton of a long-dead beached whale.  All this isn’t really necessary, especially with the courtroom scenes, which make the filmmakers’ point exceedingly well.

Andrei Zvyagintsev has solidified his place as one of the masters of world cinema.  Leviathan is just his fourth feature, after Elena , which made my Top Ten list for 2012, and The Return, which made my Best Movies of 2004.  Elena is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Vudu and Xbox Video. The Return is available on DVD from Netflix.

Leviathan was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar, and has been critically acclaimed, currently scoring 92 on Metacritic.com. ,

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Movies to See Right Now

LEVIATHAN

LEVIATHAN

There are two Must Sees in theaters now, and both were nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar:

  • The hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales, a series of individual stories about revenge fantasies becoming actualized.
  • The Job-like Russian drama Leviathan, a searing expose of post-Soviet Russian society.

Queen and Country is director John Boorman’s (Deliverance) well-crafted and moderately entertaining look back at his year as a British Army conscript in the 50s.

We’ve just concluded the 2015 Cinequest film festival. Here’s all my Cinequest coverage – with several features and comments on over twenty five movies – conveniently linked on one page.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Dear White People, a brilliant comedy about identity that’s on my list of Best Movies of 2014. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

On March 16, Turner Classic Movies is playing the French thriller Wages of Fear. It’s directed by that master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique), nicknamed the French Hitchcock. The Wages of Fear features one achingly scary scene where two truck drivers try to get a long truck around a cliff side hairpin curve – and the truck is filled with nitroglycerin.

WAGES OF FEAR

WAGES OF FEAR

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DVD/Stream of the Week: DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

dear white people2

On its surface, the brilliant comedy Dear White People seems to be about racial identity, but – as writer-director Justin Simien points out – it’s really about personal identity (of which race is an important part). Set at a prestigious private college, Dear White People centers on a group of African-American students navigating the predominantly white college environment.

Each of the four primary characters has adopted a persona – choosing how they want others to view them. Middle class Sam is a fierce Black separatist (despite her White Dad and her eyes for that really nice White boy classmate). Coco, having made it to an elite college from the streets, is driven to succeed socially by ingratiating herself with the popular kids. Kyle, the Dean’s son, is the college BMOC, a traditional paragon, but with passions elsewhere. Lionel is floundering; despite being an African-American gay journalist, he doesn’t fit in with the Black kids, the LGBT community or the journalism clique. All four of their self-identities are challenged by campus events.

This very witty movie is flat-out hilarious. The title comes from Sam’s campus radio show, which features advice like “Dear White People, stop dancing!” and Dear White People, don’t touch our hair; what are we – a petting zoo?”. While the movie explores serious themes, it does so through raucous character-driven humor. It’s a real treat.

It’s the first feature for writer-director Justin Simien and it’s a stellar debut.  Dear White People is on my list of Best Movies of 2014. I  saw it at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and have been telling people about it for months.  Dear White People is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

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Cinequest 2015: festival recap

THE CENTER

THE CENTER

A pronounced overall success, Cinequest 2015 delivered hearty audience-pleasers from a varied and satisfying menu that featured some real gems from the indie, documentary and world cinema categories.

The fest kicked off with two huge popular successes: the feel-good BATKID BEGINS and the hilariously dark WILD TALES, and kept up the pace throughout the first weekend with an assortment of successful premieres.

Cinequest’s Director of Programming Mike Rabehl presented a fest especially rich in first features, including:

  • THE CENTER: An absorbing and topical American indie drama about the seductiveness of a cult; and especially promising debut from filmmaker Charlie Griak.
  • ANTOINE ET MARIE: A brilliantly constructed French-Canadian drama with two unforgettable characters (actually a second feature).
  • IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN: Unexpectedly sweet, this starts out with a Boys Behaving Badly set-up and then morphs into a tribute to enduring love.  A festival surprise hit.
  • FOR SOME INEXPLICABLE REASON: A good-natured Belgian comedy containing some very innovative nuggets.

 

CORN ISLAND

CORN ISLAND

Cinequest’s international film scout Charlie Cockey came through once again with the fest’s best film, the transcendent Georgian drama CORN ISLAND, which won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Drama.

 

ASPIE SEEKS LOVE

ASPIE SEEKS LOVE

This 2015 fest was the strongest recent Cinequest for documentaries. The well-deserved Jury Award for best Documentary went to ASPIE SEEKS LOVE, the story of a surprisingly sympathetic subject. Other excellent docs included:

 

Not every film was a home run.  Director John Boorman’s personal appearance was a hit, but his QUEEN AND COUNTRY was only moderately entertaining.  And the eagerly awaited  CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Cesar-winning Kristen Stewart) and the Sundance award-winning SLOW WEST were clunkers.

Richard von Busack, the highly respected local film critic, picked Tuesday night’s L’ATALANTE:, rarely seen on the big screen. It’s the 1934 masterpiece of French writer-director Jean Vigo, who died at age 29 soon after its completion. A packed house agreed that this was one of Cinequest 2015’s top experiences.

Other highlights included the Belgian romantic dramedy THREE HEARTS, the French comedy GEMMA BOVERY and the exceptionally well-directed Kosovan drama THREE WINDOWS AND A HANGING.

The most underrated movie at Cinequest? Somehow, the biting darkly hilarious Mexican social satire LOS HAMSTERS is flying under the radar. I think this tale of a dysfunctional family is both very smart and very funny.

BARCO Escape showcased developing three-screen technology to envelope the audience in the cinematic experience.  I have reservations about the BARCO experience, but the short film WITHDRAWAL was a definite winner.

Here’s all my Cinequest coverage – with several features and comments on over twenty-five movies – conveniently linked on one page.

WILD TALES

WILD TALES

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Cinequest: 40 DAYS OF SILENCE

40 DAYS OF SILENCE

40 DAYS OF SILENCE

In the Uzbek drama 40 Days of Silence, a teenage Tajik girl undertakes a ritual vow of silence for forty days.  The mystery for a non-Tajik or -Uzbek audience is why she would do this?   And, we wonder, what is going to happen?

These questions are not answered definitively in 40 Days of Silence, but we sense that the stakes are life and death.  The girl’s progress is related dreamily, and it’s not always clear what is happening – or whether it is really happening.

The most outstanding aspect of 40 Days of Silence is its sound design, a collection of noises not EXACTLY music, but musical in effect.

40 Days of Silence is slow but mesmerizing.  It works as an art film, but is not for audience members that are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

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