Stream of the Week: FRANK & LOLA – Bad Girl or Troubled Girl?

Imogen Poots with Michael Shannon in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

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.

Lola (Imogen Poots) is young and beautiful, a lively and sparkly kind of girl.  Frank (the great Michael Shannon) is older but “cool” – a talented chef.  He is loyal and steadfast but given to possessiveness, and he says things like, “who’s the mook?”.

In a superb debut feature, writer director Matthew Ross has invented a Lola that we (and Frank) spend the entire movie trying to figure out.  Imogen Poots is brilliant in her most complex role so far.  She’s an unreliable girlfriend – but the roots of her unreliability are a mystery – is she Bad or Troubled?  A character describes her with “She can be very convincing”, and that’s NOT a complement.  Poots keeps us on edge throughout the film, right up to her stunning final monologue.

Shannon, of course, is superb, and the entire cast is exceptional.  There’s a memorable turn by Emmanuelle Devos, the off-beat French beauty with the cruel mouth.  Rosanna Arquette is wonderful, as is Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies.  I especially liked Justin Long as Keith Winkleman (is he a namedropping ass or something more?).

Frank & Lola has more than its share of food porn and, as befits a neo-noir, lots of depravity.  But, at its heart, it’s a romance.  Is Lola a Bad Girl or a Troubled Girl? If she’s bad, then love ain’t gonna prevail. But if she’s damaged, can love survive THAT either?  We’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.

I saw Frank & Lola in May 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.

 

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PATERSON: inside a poet

Adam Driver in PATERSON

Adam Driver in PATERSON

In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Adam Driver plays a Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver named Paterson.  Paterson is a poet, and, when you think about it, bus driver is a perfect job for someone who eavesdrops and observes, and who needs time to rework phrases in his head. Paterson the movie is a genial, occasionally very funny, portrait of an artist’s creative process.

There’s not much overt action or conflict in Paterson. Every morning Paterson awakes between 6:09 and 6:27 AM, kisses the cheek or naked shoulder of his girlfriend Laura and heads to the kitchen for coffee and Cheerios.  While his bus is warming up, he drafts and edits poems in his notebook until his supervisor appears at his bus.  After work, he walks home past old factories and straightens his leaning mailbox.  After dinner, he walks Laura’s bulldog Marvin and stops for exactly one beer at the neighborhood tavern. The bus, the bar and Paterson’s time going to and fro constitute the platform for his art: finding material for observation and for crafting and recrafting poems.

The city of Paterson is a perfect setting for this story. Paterson is not a tourist destination, and there doesn’t seem to be much interesting in the place that boasts of its memorial to Lou Costello. But a careful, open-minded observer like Paterson can revel in the beauty of the Great Falls of the Passaic River and find interest in all the dingy places and seemingly ordinary denizens.

Paterson doesn’t share any of his poetry, except VERY occasionally to Laura; in Paterson, he even chooses to quote her a poem from someone else when she asks for one of his. Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a suitably kooky artist, is impractical and adorable, and obsessed with black and white. She seems as frivolous as Paterson is deep, but he is devoted to her, and she lightens his life and is the unrelenting cheerleader for his poetry.

Paterson is filled with sly humor, much coming from the antics of the regular folks that Paterson encounters, along with Laura’s goofiness. I particularly enjoyed the two guys on bus talking about women they think have hit on them and the knowitall college student posing as an anarchist. At my screening, wry chuckles kept erupting in the audience.

To make sure we’re paying attention (and enjoying the film on other levels), Jarmusch has filled it with patterns, with recurring themes like twins and secrets and with repeated phrases. Paterson meets three other poets – none anything like him and at the most unexpected locales.

For Paterson to work, an actor is needed who has the charisma to be interesting while acting very passively. Adam Driver is the perfect choice, and he is exceptional. I also really liked Barry Shabaka Henley as Doc, the tavern’s proprietor and bartender.

Not everyone will enjoy Paterson, but I did. A viewer needs to appreciate the juxtaposition of a routine exterior with an artist’s sometimes bursting inner dialogue. I recommend settling in and going for the ride.

Barry Shabaka Henley in PATERSON

Barry Shabaka Henley in PATERSON

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Movies to See Right Now

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND

It’s a pretty sure bet that you’ll enjoy these three:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.

Other top recommendations:

  • Manchester by the Sea: MUST SEE. Don’t miss Casey Affleck’s career-topping performance in the emotionally authentic drama .
  • Elle: MUST SEE (but increasingly hard to find in theaters). A perverse wowzer with the year’s top performance by Isabelle Huppert. Manchester by the Sea is #2 and Elle is #4 on my Best Movies of 2016.
  • The Eagle Huntress: This documentary is a Feel Good movie for the whole family, blending the genres of girl power, sports competition and cultural tourism.

Also in theaters:

  • Arrival with Amy Adams, is real thinking person’s sci-fi. Every viewer will be transfixed by the first 80% of Arrival. How you feel about the finale depends on whether you buy into the disconnected-from-linear-time aspect or you just get confused, like I did.
  • The remarkably sensitive and realistic indie drama Moonlight is at once a coming of age tale, an exploration of addicted parenting and a story of gay awakening. It’s almost universally praised, but I thought that the last act petered out.
  • Skip the dreary and somnolent Jackie – Natalie Portman’s exceptional impersonation isn’t enough.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the silent action comedy Seven Chances by the brilliant Buster Keaton. It’s available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant, and you can keep an eye out for it on Turner Classic Movies.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer in HIDDEN FIGURES

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer in HIDDEN FIGURES

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HIDDEN FIGURES: Woman Power, Black Power, Brain Power

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

Hidden Figures tells the hitherto generally unknown story of some African-American women whose math wizardry was key to the success of the US space program in the early 1960s.  It’s pretty rare that someone can make a historical movie about something I had never heard of, but here we are.  The screenplay is based on real events, and we see the images of the real thee women at the end of the movie.  It’s a good story.

I had forgotten that engineers used to do even the complicated calculations by hand.  Indeed, lots of aeronautical engineering calculations were needed to send the first NASA astronauts into space, and this was before the government used mainframe computers, let alone handheld calculators.  So the answer was to have, for every room of (all male) engineers, a room full of women with the job title of “Computer” to do and check the math problems.

Hidden Figures’ heroines, including an authentic math prodigy and pioneer in computer programming, are perfectly played by Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer and Janelle Monae (fresh from another acting triumph this fall  in Moonlight). Remember that these women had to overcome the automatic sexism of the Mad Men era.   On top of that, they were black women working in still-segregated Virginia.  And, just to make things even more difficult,  they were working for engineers, too!

The entire cast is excellent, especially Mahershala Ali (hunky and compelling yet again), Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons as a particular officious and sexist foil.

We see one of the first massive, room-filling but delicate IBM mainframe computers.  That, calling people “computers” and the use of the programming language FORTRAN all drew chuckles from the Silicon Valley audience at my screening.

Hidden Figures does an especially fine job in depicting the tension during John Glenn’s communications blackout.  Glenn’s space capsule had a problem with the heat shield.  When it re-entered the atmosphere, there was a period of a few minutes when Glenn’s communications went dead.  During this time (and I remember it well), everyone on the planet was watching on TV and no one knew whether the craft and Glenn were being consumed by a fireball or on the way to a successful splashdown.  Those moments were unbearable.

Hidden Figures is eminently watchable, but not a perfect movie.  There are some obviously over-dramatized and over-simplified segments.  I thought I heard a character – in this movie about math whizzes – refer to “an altitude of 116 miles per hour” (which should be either an altitude of 116 miles or a velocity of 116 miles per hour).  And John Glenn has hair even though, in real life, he was balding at the time (perform a Google Image search for “john glenn mercury 7” if you want to see for yourself).

But those flaws don’t detract from the core story, which is compelling.  The audience at my screening burst into applause, which doesn’t happen that often.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: SEVEN CHANCES – Buster Keaton’s genius on the run

SEVEN CHANCES

SEVEN CHANCES

I thought that I knew the work of Buster Keaton, but somehow I had never seen Seven Chances.  It features a phenomenal chase scene that rates with the very best in cinema history – What’s Up Doc?, The French Connection, Bullitt!, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Keaton’s own The General.

Keaton’s character publishes a public offer of marriage and gets way more takers than he can handle. There’s a very funny scene where he sits in a church to reflect on his situation and woman after woman seats herself next to and around him; he is oblivious to the fact that each of them is there to marry HIM.  The church fills up with prospective wives, and, 30 minutes into the movie, he flees, with a horde of veiled would-be brides in pursuit. The chase is on.

Keaton is off and running and running and running, in a ridiculously long sprint though the city’s downtown and rail yards and into the hills.  Amazingly, he did all of his own stunts, including leaping over an abyss and being swung around by a railroad crane.  His race with a cascade of falling boulders is pure genius.  You keep asking yourself, “How did they perform that stunt with 1925 technology?”

Keaton understood the comedic power of excess, and the sheer magnitude of the frustrated brides is hilarious   I think I can see the inspiration for the hundreds of crashing cars at the end of The Blues Brothers THE BLUES BROTHERS.

SEVEN CHANCES

Buster Keaton jumps the abyss in SEVEN CHANCES

When he made Seven Chances in 1925, Keaton was only 30 years old and had just directed his first feature two years before.  He had just made the classics Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator in 1924.  He was about to make his masterpiece The General in 1926 and Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928.  Talking pictures changed the industry in 1929, and Keaton signed a disastrous contract with MGM in 1930.  Keaton was to direct only three more features in his career (all unaccredited).  MGM took away his artistic freedom, and no studio kingpin knew what to do with him in the talking era.  Keaton took to drink and went dark for decades.

I watched all 56 minutes of Seven Chances once by myself and the final 26-minute chase scene again with my wife and nephew.  I viewed Seven Chances on Turner Classic Movies. It’s also available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.  You can also find the entire film, probably as an illegal bootleg, on YouTube.

SEVEN CHANCES

The race with the boulders in SEVEN CHANCES

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Movies to See Right Now

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in LION

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in LION


Don’t miss these two crowd pleasers:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama.

Other top recommendations:

  • Manchester by the Sea: MUST SEE. Don’t miss Casey Affleck’s career-topping performance in the emotionally authentic drama .
  • Elle: MUST SEE (but increasingly hard to find in theaters). A perverse wowzer with the year’s top performance by Isabelle Huppert. Manchester by the Sea is #2 and Elle is #4 on my Best Movies of 2016.
  • Loving: The love story that spawned a historic Supreme Court decision.
  • The Eagle Huntress: This documentary is a Feel Good movie for the whole family, blending the genres of girl power, sports competition and cultural tourism.

Also in theaters:

  • Despite a delicious performance by one of my faves, Michael Shannon, I’m not recommending Nocturnal Animals.
  • Arrival with Amy Adams, is real thinking person’s sci-fi. Every viewer will be transfixed by the first 80% of Arrival. How you feel about the finale depends on whether you buy into the disconnected-from-linear-time aspect or you just get confused, like I did.
  • The remarkably sensitive and realistic indie drama Moonlight is at once a coming of age tale, an exploration of addicted parenting and a story of gay awakening. It’s almost universally praised, but I thought that the last act petered out.
  • Skip the dreary and somnolent Jackie – Natalie Portman’s exceptional impersonation isn’t enough.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the still timely satire on the Duck and Cover Era, the 1966 The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!. I watch The Russians Are Coming! every other year or so, and it still holds up. Besides showing regularly on Turner Classic Movies, The Russians Are Coming! is also available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon and Vudu.

On January 8, Turner Classic Movies is showing the Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall and then his near-masterpiece, the 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters. Biting and insightful, Hannah and Her Sisters won Best Supporting Oscars for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest, along with a Best Screenplay Oscar for Woody. I particularly enjoy the performances of Barbara Hershey as the inappropriate object of Caine’s middle-aged infatuation and Max Von Sydow as her pretentious artist-boyfriend.

Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

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LIVE AT THE FOXES DEN: a lame vehicle for a Twilight star

foxes den
In Live at the Foxes Den, a disillusioned young lawyer leaves the pressures from his law firm and his bitchy princess of a girl friend and becomes the lounge singer at a downscale tavern.  It’s a vehicle for Twilight star Jackson Rathbone, whose voice is indeed good enough to play a member of the Parisian mob in Les Miserables.  Unfortunately, the story’s arc is pretty predictable, and it’s completely unbelievable that this guy is a promising lawyer.  Screenwriter Jack Holmes wrote the best role for himself as the tavern’s bitter alcoholic house pianist.

Pretty lame overall, Live at the Foxes Den might be worth streaming just so you can fast forward to one subversively funny scene, where the pianist disrupts an AA meeting with an infectious rendition of What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.

Live at the Foxes Den is available streaming from Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), iTunes and Vudu.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

Alan Arkin, Eva Marie Saint and Carl Reiner in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

Alan Arkin, Eva Marie Saint and Carl Reiner in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

One of my favorites comedies is the still timely satire on the Duck and Cover Era, the 1966 The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!.  At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet nuclear submarine runs aground and is trapped just off a tiny New England coastal village, and the crew sends a party ashore to heist a boat. The landing party encounters a vacationing American family and the two groups must work together to find a solution to help the sub escape without igniting World War III.

The superb cast includes Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Jonathan Winters and Alan Arkin in his breakthrough performance. Although it primarily satirizes the paranoia of the Cold War, there are plenty of laughs sparked by small town New England, family dynamics, teen love and the recurring joke of the town drunk with his reluctant horse.

I watch The Russians Are Coming! every other year or so, and it still holds up.  Besides showing regularly on Turner Classic Movies, The Russians Are Coming! is also available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon and Vudu.

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2016 at the Movies: farewells

THE HIRED HAND

Vilmos Zsigmond photographed THE HIRED HAND

Vilmos Zsigmond: He was known as a champion of natural light in filmmaking, a major contribution that he and fellow Hungarian László Kovács brought to Hollywood in the late 1960s. Zsigmond shot The Deer Hunter, Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,and was nominated for four Oscars, winning for Close Encounters.  Read my Vilmos Zsigmond remembrance for recommendations on one of his overlooked masterpieces and a film ABOUT his art, along with several of his striking film images and a link to an excellent essay by Sheila O’Malley.

 

George Kennedy (left) in COOL HAND LUKE

George Kennedy (left) in COOL HAND LUKE

George Kennedy:  Won his Oscar for Cool Hand Luke (remember the bet on eating boiled eggs?).   Kennedy’s performances were essential elements of The Dirty Dozen, The Eiger Sanction and one of my guilty pleasures, Bandolero!  He labored in episodic TV for years until the mid 1960s when he triumphed in those singular supporting roles in war movies, cop movies and Westerns.   His career peaked throughout the mid 1970s, when he was cast in all of the big disaster movies.

 

Alan Rickman in EYE IN THE SKY

Alan Rickman in EYE IN THE SKY

Alan Rickman, the reliable British actor most well-known for playing Snape in the Harry Pottter movies, left us a supremely textured performance in this year’s Eye in the Sky, layered with the character’s wry humor, contained frustration and quiet determination.

 

Gene Wilder (left) in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Gene Wilder (left) in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Gene Wilder:  Star of perhaps the funniest movie of all-time, The Producers.  And star and  CO-WRITER of another comedy classic, Young Frankenstein.

 

Frank Finlay in THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Frank Finlay in THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Frank Finlay:  The British character actor had 137 screen credits, but was talented enough to earn an Oscar nod for  playing Iago to Laurence Olivier’s Othello.  As recently as 2002, he played the father in The Pianist.  But I am a huge fan of Richard Lester’s immensely entertaining The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and Finlay’s Porthos was a major ingredient in the fun.

Abe Vigoda: We remember him for one of The Godfather’s most unforgettable lines, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”.

Jacques Rivette: The prolific French director with one great masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse (1991); that movie is almost four hours long, yet transfixing.

Robert Vaughn: The icy actor left a body of work with 226 screen credits, mostly on television. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Young Philadelphians, but I think his most enduring feature film role was as one of The Magnificent Seven.  Of course, for us Baby Boomers, Vaughn will always be remembered as Napoleon Solo in the Bond spy spoof The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which absolutely dominated television briefly in the mid-1960s.

Leon Russell: The band leader in the groundbreaking concert movies Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Concert for Bangladesh.   (The Concert for Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison, was the first big benefit concert with a collection of mega-stars.)  You can enjoy lots of unfiltered 1972-74 Leon, both on- and off-stage in the documentary A Poem is a Naked Person.

Jacques Rivette's LA BELLE NOISEUSE

Jacques Rivette’s LA BELLE NOISEUSE

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Best Movies of 2016

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Visit my Best Movies of 2016 for my list of the year’s best films, complete with images, trailers and my comments on each movie – as well as their availability to rent on DVD and to stream. My top ten movies for 2016 are:

  1. Hell or High Water
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Toni Erdmann
  4. Elle
  5. La La Land
  6. Eye in the Sky
  7. Chevalier
  8. Weiner
  9. Frank & Lola
  10. Take Me to the River

The other best films of the year are:

  • The Handmaiden
  • OJ: Made in America
  • Green Room

And these three would be on my list if they had been made widely available to US audiences through release in theaters or on video:

  • The Memory of Water
  • Magallanes
  • Lost Solace

Note:  I haven’t yet seen Paterson, Fences or 20th Century Women.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Caset Affleck and Lucas Hedges in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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