Cinequest 2017 around the corner

cq logoMake your plans now to attend the 27th edition of Cinequest, Silicon Valley’s own major film festival. By some metrics the largest film festival in North America, Cinequest was recently voted the nation’s best by USA Today readers. The 2017 Cinequest is scheduled for February 28 through March 12 and will present 132 films and virtual reality experiences from the US and over twenty other countries. And, at Cinequest, it’s easy to meet the filmmakers.

This year’s headline events include:

  • Celebrity appearances by actress Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show) and director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult).
  • Opening night film The Last Word, with Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried;
  • Closing night film The Zookeeper’s Wife with Jessica Chastain.
  • Preview screenings of films planned for theatrical release later this year:  Carrie Philby (Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne), Tommy’s Honour (Sam Neill, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond), The Promise (Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale), The Ottoman Lieutenant (Michael Huisman, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley) and (Re)assignment (Michele Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver).
  • The silent Flesh & the Devil with Greta Garbo, projected in a period movie palace, the California Theatre, accompanied by its mighty Wurlitzer organ.
  • Ten programs of virtual reality cinema, accessible in nearly a hundred screenings.

This year, Cinequest presents the world or US premieres of sixty-two features. And of the feature and short films in the Cinequest program, films, 75 were directed by women!

I’m going to be strongly recommending at least two of these first features, the family dramedies For Grace and Quality Problems, along with the brilliant Czech drama The Teacher and the forehead-slapping documentary The Twinning Reaction.  More on those to come.

Indeed, the real treasure at Cinequest 2017 is likely to be found among the hitherto less well-known films. In the past three years, the Cinequest gems Eye in the Sky, Wild Tales, Ida, The Hunt, ’71, Corn Island, The Memory of Water, Magallanes and Lost Solace Class Enemy, Heavenly Shift, Oh Boy/A Coffee in Berlin and The Grand Seduction all made my Best of the Year lists.

Cinequest is on my list of Silicon Valley’s Best Movie Deals. You can get a pass for as little as $165, and you can get individual tickets as well. The express pass for an additional tax-deductible $100 is a fantastic deal – you get to skip to the front of the lines!

Take a look at the entire program, the schedule and the passes and tickets. (If you want to support Silicon Valley’s most important cinema event while skipping the lines, the tax-deductible $100 donation for Express Line Access is an awesome deal.)

As usual, I’ll be covering Cinequest rigorously with features and movie recommendations. I usually screen (and write about) over thirty films from around the world. Bookmark my Cinequest 2017 page, with links to all my coverage (links on the individual movies will start to go live on Sunday). Follow me on Twitter for the latest.

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Movies to See Right Now

LA LA LAND

LA LA LAND

It’s Oscars Weekend and it’s pretty easy to find the favorite, La La Land, in theaters.  My personal favorite, Hell or High Water, is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.  Here are the weekly recommendations:

  • 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).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • 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.
  • I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.
  • The thoughtful drama Fences is an actor’s showcase, especially for Viola Davis, but it’s very stagey.

I’ll also be posting about The Movie Gourmet’s annual Oscar Dinner on Sunday.  And my coverage of Cinequest starts tomorrow (hopefully).

My Stream of the Week is the gorgeous, erotic and gloriously entertaining The Handmaiden from Korea. You can stream it on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

I always point it out when Turner Classic Movies shows the iconic film noir The Third Man (March 1) or the gender-bending comedy Victor/Victoria (March 1).

On March 3, TCM presents a wonderfully entertaining comedy about an entire family of professional con artists, The Young in Heart.  It’s sweet and sappy, with the optimistic view that the criminals could be reformed by the unconditional love of a lonely old lady.   After much fun, it turns out that they just needed some structure that incentivizes them to use their talents for good rather than evil.  As readers will know, I’m not generally attracted to sentimental movies, but this one is damn funny.  The family is played by Roland Young, the always batty Bille Burke, Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr..  The movie is almost stolen by Minnie Dupree as their intended victim, Miss Fortune.  There’s also a nice turn by the gorgeous Paulette Goddard.     The Young in Heart is a showcase for Roland Young, so often the supporting character in the great screwball comedies; this film, more than his Topper series, may be his best and most enjoyable performance.

Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in THE YOUNG IN HEART

Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in THE YOUNG IN HEART

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FENCES: actors and their monologues

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in FENCES

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in FENCES

Denzel Washington directs and stars in the movie version of the August Wilson play Fences, which manifests as an actor’s showcase.  Set in post-World War II America, Fences is entirely character-driven, and revolves around its two main characters, the fiftyish sanitary worker Troy (Denzel) and his stalwart wife Rose (Viola Davis).

A prototypical alpha male, Troy is an entertaining motormouth, which is fun to watch and also initially masks the exceeding complexity of his character. He’s a proud man – fiercely proud of his paycheck and home ownership, but not above skimming from someone vulnerable to secure it. He is bitter that racism denied him a professional sports career, but when improved race relations give his son more opportunity, Troy’s impulse is to sabotage it. His chief identity is as the head of his family, but he can betray other family members. Living in a racist society has helped mold Troy, but so have his own gifts and flaws.

Rose is utterly steadfast, a woman devoted to making things operate smoothly – despite Troy – in their home and family. Deep waters run silent, and – at first – we don’t see that Rose has a mind and identity and pride of her own.

Viola Davis’s performance is brilliant and powerful.  As an actor, Denzel is at the top of his game.  Mykelti Williamson is especially good as Troy’s brother, a brain-damaged veteran of the Pacific war.  Stephen Henderson also delivers a nomination-worthy turn as Troy’s neighbor and co-worker Bono.

Thoughtful and well-acted as it is, Fences is a filmed play, and it’s very stagey. Every so often, it’s time for a monologue and one really fine actor stands and declaims while the others watch and regard him/her. It’s really not cinematic in any sense.

The Wife was profoundly disappointed that I did not share her admiration for Fences.  She thinks that Viola Davis’ performance and the growth of the character of Rose make this an excellent movie. She even directed me NOT to write about Fences, lest I “desecrate Viola Davis’ performance”.

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Stream of the Week: THE HANDMAIDEN – gorgeous, erotic and a helluva plot

THE HANDMAIDEN

THE HANDMAIDEN

After a few minutes of The Handmaiden, we learn that it’s a con artist movie. After 100 minutes, we think we’ve watched an excellent con artist movie, but then we’re surprised by a huge PLOT TWIST, and we’re in for two more episodes and lots of surprises in a gripping and absorbing final hour. It’s also one of the most visually beautiful and highly erotic films of the year.

Director and co-writer Chan-wook Park sets the story in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation (Japanese dialogue is subtitled in yellow and Korean dialogue in white). A young heiress has been secluded from childhood by her guardian uncle, who intends to marry her himself for her fortune. A con man embarks on a campaign to seduce and marry the wealthy young woman to harvest her inheritance himself. The con man enlists a pickpocket to become handmaiden to the heiress – and his mole. I’m not going to tell you more about the plot, but the audience is in for a wild ride.

The Handmaiden takes its time revealing its secrets. Who is conning who? Who is attracted to whom? How naive is the heiress? How loyal is the handmaiden? Who is really Japanese and who is really Korean? What’s in those antique books? What’s in the basement? Is the uncle perverted or REALLY perverted? And what legendary sex toy will show up in the final scene?

THE HANDMAIDEN

THE HANDMAIDEN

Chan-wook Park’s 2003 US art house hit Oldboy is highly sexualized, trippy and disturbing. The Handmaiden is much more mainstream and accessible than Oldboy, but its sexuality packs a punch.

Gorgeous and erotic, The Handmaiden is one of the most gloriously entertaining films of the year.  You can stream it on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

This week’s best choices in theaters are:

  • 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).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • 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.
  • I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).

My TV/Stream of the Week is Tower, a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin. It’s playing on the PBS documentary series Independent Lens, and you can also stream Tower on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

This week Turner Classic Movies will present two of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock films. First, on February 19, there’s North by Northwest, with perhaps the greatest ever collection of iconic set pieces – especially the cornfield and Mount Rushmore scenes, but also those in the UN Building, hotel, mansion, art auction and the 20th Century Limited train – they’re all great. Back in the days of the Production Code, some filmmakers could deliver sexual and erotic content without actually showing nudity or simulated sexual activity; one of the best examples is the flirtation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the train (and it even culminates with the notorious allegory of the train penetrating the tunnel).

Then TCM brings us Rear Window in February 21st. Here we have James Stewart playing a guy frustrated because he is trapped at home by a disability. When he observes some activity by neighbors that he interprets as a possible murder, he becomes more and more obsessed and voyeuristic. When it looks like he has been correct instead of paranoid, that business about being trapped by a disability takes on a whole new meaning.

Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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TV/Stream of the Week: TOWER – a most original and important retelling of a story that we thought we knew

TOWER

TOWER

This week, the PBS documentary series Independent Lens will feature Tower, a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin. Tower is a tick-tock of the 96 minutes when 49 people were randomly chosen to be shot by a gunman in the landmark tower 240 feet above the campus. That gunman is barely mentioned (and may not even be named) in the movie.

Tower is director Keith Maitland’s second feature. What makes Tower distinctive and powerful it’s the survivors who tell their stories, reenacted by actors who are animated by a rotoscope-like technique (think Richard Linklater’s Waking Life). Telling this story through animation, dotted with some historical stills and footage, is captivating.

Since 1966, we’ve suffered through lots of mass shootings. The UT Tower shooting was especially shocking at the time and prompted the questions about what drove the “madman” to his deed. But, fifty years later, what’s really important today is how the event affected the survivors – what was what like to live through this experience and how it lives with them today. That’s the story that Maitland lets them tell us – and in such an absorbing way.

I saw Tower at the Mill Valley Film Festival.  It plays on Independent Lens on KQED-TV at 10 PM, Tuesday night, February 14.  You can also stream Tower on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

TOWER

TOWER

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Movies to See Right Now

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

This week’s best choices in theaters are:

  • 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).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • 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.
  • I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).

For the second consecutive week, my DVD/Stream of the Week is the Argentine neo-noir The Aura. Featured last week at San Francisco’s Noir City film fest, The Aura is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

On February 13, Turner Classic Movies presents one of the greatest ever courtroom dramas, Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Inherit the Wind from 1960. The story is taken from the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, so it has elements of culture wars and politics that resonate today. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March are superb as the warring thought-leaders (based on Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan).

Spencer Tracy, Harry Morgan and Fredric March in INHERIT THE WIND

Spencer Tracy, Harry Morgan and Fredric March in INHERIT THE WIND

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Movies to See Right Now

TONI ERDMANN

TONI ERDMANN

This week’s absolute MUST SEE is the wholly original German comedy Toni Erdmann.

You’ll also enjoy these four movies:

  • 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).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • 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.

I also recommend I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.

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.
  • Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s gently funny portrait of a poet’s inner life. Starring Adam Driver.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).
  • 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.

This week’s DVD/Stream of the Week is the Argentine neo-noir The Aura.  Featured last week at San Francisco’s Noir City film fest, The Aura is available to rent on  DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

On February 6, Turner Classic Movies brings us two INTENSE movies. First, there’s The Deer Hunter from 1978. This was director Michael Cimino’s three hour masterpiece. Cimino chose to spend the first hour setting up the characters and their hometown life – just so we can later measure the personal cost of the Vietnam War. When we are plunged into the War, it is terrifying. Then Cimino’s third act – also with some suspenseful moments unmatched in cinema – explores the personal aftermath. After I saw this in a theater for the first time in 1979, I settled myself with a whisky.

And then we have another classic just as INTENSE: Deliverance from 1972. It’s one of my all-time favorites – still gripping today – with a famous scene that still shocks. Jon Voigt, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox form an impressive ensemble cast. Beautifully and dramatically shot by the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

DELIVERANCE

DELIVERANCE

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I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO: searing thoughts in elegant words

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

The documentary I Am Not Your Negro centers on the American public intellectual James Baldwin.  It’s a searing examination of race in America through Baldwin’s eyes and through his elegant words.

Those words are voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, and there is no third-party “narration”.  The spoken words are Baldwin’s, either voiced by Jackson or spoken by Baldwin himself in file footage.  Baldwin’s associates Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. are heard in file footage, but that’s it – the rest is all Baldwin.

The content of those words is about the African-American experience in America and Baldwin’s insistence on understanding and acknowledging the grievance and the moral imperative for remedy.   The very last thing that Baldwin cared about was the comfort of his readers and listeners.

I Am Not Your Negro is an important film because Baldwin’s words today, stripped of their relation to temporal events, are stirring as we hear them again, naked and with urgency.  Lest we fail to connect the dots to our current situation,  snippets of current day events (Obama, Black Lives Matter, etc.) make it clear how relevant Baldwin’s thinking still is today.

The choice to present Baldwin’s thinking through only his own words, unadorned by talking heads is very successful.   Director/co-writer Raoul Peck gets the credit for that, and the film that he has constructed with editor Alexandra Strauss is compelling.

It occurred tome that we really don’t have “public intellectuals” (thought leaders who were authors and columnists) as we did before cable television and Internet.  Today we must make do with Talking (or Yelling) Heads on cable TV and bloggers (hey, I’m one of those); the current focus is more temporal and focused on instant reaction instead of presenting a coherent body of thought.

But, in the Good Old Days, book and newspaper publishers and network television producers were the gatekeepers of public discourse.   Those gatekeepers in Baldwin’s time were older white heterosexual men, and even the well-meaning could not have shared his experiences.  Given that, it’s surprising and fortunate that Baldwin’s words were able to become accessible to a wide audience.

Baldwin was living the life of an ex-pat in Paris until he watched the newscast of Charlotte, North Carolina, school integration with a lone African-American girl walking thru agitated and abusive racist mob.  That’s what motivated him to return to his country and to try to fix it.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE AURA – smart enough to plan the perfect crime, but is that enough?

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA

The Aura is a brilliant 2005 neo-noir from Argentina that I wasn’t familiar with until the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller programmed into the 2017 Noir City film festival.

The Aura is about a taxidermist who leads a boring life, but fantasizes about the Perfect Crime. He is perpetually cranky because he is so dissatisfied, but he resists getting out of his life rut. It’s not easy to be his friend (nor, apparently, his wife). Unexpectedly, he finally finds himself in position to participate in a major heist.

He is epileptic (the movie’s title is from the sensation just before a seizure); he and we never know if and when he will pass out from an episode, a particularly dangerous wild card in a thriller. He also has a photographic memory, and that can help him if he has the nerve to go through with the crime.

The taxidermist is played by one of my favorite actors, Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens, The Secret in their Eyes, Carancho, Wild Tales) . I like to think of Darin as the Argentine Joe Mantegna. Darin can expertly play a slightly twisted Every Man, and he excels at neo-noir.

The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Walter Reyno as The Real Thing criminal, Alejandro Awada as the taxidermist’s long suffering only friend and Dolores Fonzi as the intriguing woman in the woods.

Ricardo Darin THE AURA

Ricardo Darin THE AURA

Sadly, writer-director Fabián Bielinsky died at 47 after making only two features – the wonderful con artist film Nine Queens (also starring Darin) and The Aura. Those two films indicate that he was a special talent.

Darin’s taxidermist is smart enough to plan a Perfect Crime, but professional criminals have that sociopathic lack of empathy needed to carry out crimes. Does he? Does he get the money? Does he get the girl? Does he even escape with his life? It’s a neo-noir, so you’ll have to watch it to find out.

By the way, the dog in this movie is important. Watch for the dog at the very end.

The Aura is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

Dolores Fonzi in THE AURA

Dolores Fonzi in THE AURA

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