CONVICTS 4: Ben Gazzara in prison with his crazy friends

Ben Gazzara and Timothy Carey in CONVICTS 4

Ben Gazzara and Timothy Carey in CONVICTS 4

The title of Convicts 4 (1962) is odd because it’s really the true-life tail of one convict, played by Ben Gazzara, who develops into a fine artist while in prison.  It’s based on the autobiography of John Resko, who was sentenced to death for a killing during a robbery; his sentence was commuted, and he developed his skills as a painter in prison, contributing to his eventual release.

Now Convicts 4 is not a masterpiece:  some of the scenes are contrived, the dialogue is often stiff  and there are some overwrought moments, especially the pre-execution shower and the wintertime escape attempt. interesting story.  But it’s pretty eteraining because of the real-life story and the compelling performance by Ben Gazzara – at the height of his charisma.

Resko/Gazzara does have a set of cronies while in the Big House.  There’s a particularly unforgettable turn by one of my favorite movie psychos, Timothy Carey, here in one of his most eccentrically self-conscious performances.  Ray Walton (My Favorite Martian) plays another loony prisoner, crazier than Carey’s, but not a menacing.  The rich cast includes Stuart Whitman, Vincent Price, Rod Steiger, Jack Albertson, Brodrick Crawford and Sammy Davis Jr.

Turner Classic Movies will air Convicts 4 on October 25.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: IDA

IdaThe Polish drama Ida, which I first saw at this year’s Cinequest, is now available on video.  I currently rate it as (next to Boyhood) the best movie I’ve seen this year.

The title character is a novice nun who has been raised in a convent orphanage. Just before she is to take her vows in the early 1960s, she is told for the first time that she has an aunt. She meets the aunt, and Ida learns that she is the survivor of a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. The aunt takes the novice on an odd couple road trip to trace the fate of their family.

The chain-smoking aunt (Agata Kulesza) is a judge who consumes vast quantities of vodka to self-medicate her own searing memories. But the most profound difference isn’t that the aunt is a hard ass and that the nun is prim and devout. The most important contrast is between their comparative worldliness – the aunt has been around the block and the novice is utterly naive and inexperienced (both literally and figuratively virginal). The young woman must make the choice between a future that follows her upbringing or one which her biological heritage opens to her. As Ida unfolds, her family legacy makes her choice an informed one.

The novice Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, is very quiet – but hardly fragile. Saying little, she takes in the world with a penetrating gaze and a just-under-the-surface magnetic strength.

Superbly photographed in black and white, each shot is exquisitely composed. Watching shot after shot in Ida is like walking through a museum gazing at masterpiece paintings one after the other. Ida was directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski, who also recently directed the British coming of age story My Summer of Love (with Emily Blunt) and the French thriller The Woman in the Fifth (with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke). He is an effective and economic story-teller, packing textured characters and a compelling story into an 80 minute film.

Ida is also successful in avoiding grimness. Pawlikowski has crafted a story which addresses the pain of the characters without being painful to watch. There’s some pretty fun music from a touring pop/jazz combo and plenty of wicked sarcasm from the aunt.

Ida won the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ida was my pick as the best film at Cinequest, where it won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.

Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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FURY: tanks, brutality and more brutality

Brad Pitt in FURY

Brad Pitt in FURY

In the World War II movie Fury, Brad Pitt plays the commander of an American tank crew that has fought together from Africa through Italy and France; against all odds, they have survived and are now in Germany during the final months of the war.  An unseasoned clerk typist is thrust upon the tight crew as a replacement; he is seeing the horrors of war for the first time, and we relate to the action through his eyes.  His eyes don’t see much except for brutality by both belligerents and a Germany that is physically and emotionally devastated.

Unlike the traditional WW II films of the 20th century, these GIs are not atrocity-free.  Battle-hardened, war-weary and staggering to the finish, these guys are very tough and they behave in some very unattractive ways.

Fury superbly depicts WW II tank and anti-tank tactics that I’ve never seen handled as well in a movie.  There is a tank and infantry assault on dug in infantry supported with light artillery.  And there is a tank-on-tank battle between three American Shermans and a German Tiger tank; the Tiger was far superior to the Sherman and the veteran Sherman crews – who don’t seem to be afraid of anything else -  know to be terrified of it.

This is not a feel good or a date movie.  Fury works as military history and as an action picture – all the way to the final, grim slaughterfest.

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GONE GIRL: best Hollywood movie of 2014 so far

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

In the marvelously entertaining Gone Girl, Ben Affleck plays Nick, a good-looking lug who can turn a phrase.  At a party one night, he’s on his A game, and he snags the beautiful Amy (Rosamund Pike).  She’s smarter, a good rung on the ladder more attractive than he is, has parents with some money and is a second-hand celebrity to boot.  Not particularly gifted and certainly not a striver, he knows he’s the Lucky One.  He has married above himself, but he doesn’t have a clue HOW MUCH above until she suddenly disappears.

Based on the enormously popular novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Gone Girl is the mystery of what has happened to Amy and what is Nick’s role in the disappearance.  Plot twists abound, but you won’t get any spoilers from The Movie Gourmet.

This is Rosamund Pike’s movie. Her appearance is so elegant – she looks like a crystal champagne flute with blonde hair – that pulling her out of Victorian period romances into this thriller is inspired. And Pike responds with the performance of her career. She’s just brilliant as she makes us realize that there’s something behind her eyes that we hadn’t anticipated, and then keeps us watching what she is thinking throughout the story.

Gone Girl is directed by the contemporary master David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).  Here, Fincher has successfully chosen to rely on Flynn’s page turner of a story and the compelling characters, so Gone Girl is the least flashy of his films, but one of the most accessible. I’ll say this for Fincher – I can’t remember a more perfectly cast movie.

Kim Dickens (Treme, Deadwood) is superb as the investigating detective – this time almost unrecognizable as a brunette. Tyler Perry is wonderfully fun as a crafty celebrity attorney. The unheralded Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick’s twin sister (I want to see more of her in the movies). Missi Pyle does such a good job as a despicable cable TV personality that I thought I was actually watching a despicable cable TV personality. And David Clennon and (especially) Lisa Banes positively gleam as Amy’s parents. (Carefully observe every behavior by the parents in this movie.)

Just like the thug in The Guard who forget whether he had been diagnosed in prison as a sociopath or a psychopath, I had the ask The Wife, who turned me on to this passage from Psychology Today. It’s useful to read this because, although you don’t realize it for forty-five minutes or so, Gone Girl is also a study of psychopathy.

Psychopaths … are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place. Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm, and meticulous. Their crimes, whether violent or non-violent, will be highly organized and generally offer few clues for authorities to pursue. Intelligent psychopaths make excellent white-collar criminals and “con artists” due to their calm and charismatic natures.

Gillian Flynn changed the story’s ending for the movie. The Wife, who is a big fan of the novel, didn’t mind. Gone Girl is recommended for both those who have and have not read the book. I understand that there’s more humor in the movie, as we occasionally laugh at the extremity of the behavior of one of the characters.

It all adds up into a remarkably fun movie and one that I’m still mulling over days later.  Gone Girl is the best Hollywood movie of 2014 so far.

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Movies to See Right Now

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

The successful period thriller The Two Faces of January sets a dark-hearted and shadowy story in sunny Greece. The Two Faces of January is in theaters and also available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Also in theaters:

  • The poignant and compelling documentary Last Days in Vietnam with its story of folly, desperation and heroism.
  • The startling documentary Art and Craft, about an art fraud of prolific scale by a diagnosed schizophrenic.
  • The exceptionally well-acted dramedy The Skeleton Twins contains several inspired moments.

I also recommend The One I Love - a relationship romance, a dark comedy and a modern-day episode of The Twilight Zone rolled into one successful movie.  It remains available streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the funniest movie of the year, the Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction. It’s a MUST SEE howler. The Grand Seduction is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

There’s a varied set of classics on Turner Classic Movies this week.

  • On October 21, there’s the especially nasty noir Detour, in which poor Tom Neal is practically eaten alive by Ann Savage as perhaps the most venal and vicious of film noir’s femmes fatale.
  • On the 22nd there’s one of my favorite manly adventure sagas, The Vikings from 1958; a one-eyed Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis bare their chests over Janet Leigh and swill mead with full-bearded Ernest Borgnine – it’s rip-roaring and silly and just a whole lot of fun.
  • Then on October 23, TCM airs the chilly Nicole Kidman ghost story The Others from 2001.
Ann Savage and Tom Neal in DETOUR (Hint - she's trouble!)

Ann Savage and Tom Neal in DETOUR (Hint – she’s trouble!)

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THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY: dark hearts in sunny Greece

two faces of january2
The successful period thriller The Two Faces of January, set in gloriously bright Greek tourist destinations, may not have the shadowy look of a traditional film noir, but its story is fundamentally noirish.  Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst play an affluent couple vacationing in Athens in the early 1960s. They meet a handsome young American expat (Oscar Isaacs from Inside Llewyn Davis) knocking around Greece. The husband quickly and accurately sizes up the younger man as a con man – “I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”.  The central noir element is that NO ONE is as innocent as they seem, and the three become interlocked in a situation that becomes increasingly desperate for all three, culminating in a thrilling manhunt.

It’s the first feature directed by Hossein Amini, who adapted the screenplay for the markedly intense Drive, and he does a fine job here with a film that becomes more and more tense each time more information about the characters is revealed.

The Two Faces of January is in theaters and also available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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PETE KELLY’S BLUES: a jazz time capsule on TV

Jack "Dragnet" Webb and Peggy Lee in PETE KELLY'S BLUES

Jack “Dragnet” Webb and Peggy Lee in PETE KELLY’S BLUES

On October 16, TCM brings something COMPLETELY different, the 1955 Pete Kelly’s Blues, directed by and starring Jack Webb, who we all know from TV’s Dragnet.   Made at the downturn of the Big Band Era, Pete Kelly’s Blues is set at during Prohibition in the infancy of Big Bands.

It’s a fairly routine drama about a small time bandleader on the outs with a dangerous crime boss, but Jack Webb loved jazz and worked hard to get the music in the movie right, resulting in quite the period document.  Peggy Lee received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for portraying an alcoholic vocalist.  There’s an unforgettable cameo performance by Ella Fitzgerald at the top of her game.  The house band includes many real-life musicians who played with Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby and the like, including  Matty Matlock, Eddie Miller and Jud De Naut.

Webb never had much range as an actor, but the rest of the cast is excellent: Janet Leigh, Edmond O’Brien,  Lee Marvin, Andy Devine, Jayne Mansfield and Harry Morgan.  Not a great flick, but worth a look for the music.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE GRAND SEDUCTION: funniest movie of 2014

THE GRAND SEDUCTION

THE GRAND SEDUCTION

The Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction is the funniest movie of the year so far. It’s a MUST SEE.

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, The General, Braveheart) and Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her) play isolated Canadians try to snooker a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) into settling in their podunk village. They enlist the entire hamlet in an absurdly elaborate and risky ruse, and the result is a satisfying knee-slapper that reminds me of Waking Ned Devine with random acts of cricket.

The Grand Seduction opened this year’s Cinequest on an especially uproarious note. The audience, including me and The Wife, rollicked with laugh after laugh.  I can’t understand why, like Ned DevineThe Grand Seduction didn’t become a long-running imported art house hit like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Full MontyThe Grand Seduction is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

PEEPING TOM, coming up on Turner Classic Movies and better than PSYCHO

PEEPING TOM, coming up on Turner Classic Movies and better than PSYCHO

Opening today, the startling documentary Art and Craft is about an art fraud. Of prolific scale.  Apparently not illegal.  By a diagnosed schizophrenic.

Also in theaters:

    • The exceptionally well-acted dramedy The Skeleton Twins contains several inspired moments.
    • The smart and hilarious The Trip to Italy showcases the improvisational wit of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, along with some serious tourism/foodie porn.
    • Feedback from my readers is almost unanimous – Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood is a special movie experience – and possibly the best film of the decade.
    • I really liked The One I Love - a relationship romance, a dark comedy and a modern day episode of The Twilight Zone rolled into one successful movie. Although it’s leaving theaters this weekend, it remains available streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi fable The Zero Theorem is visually arresting, but the story becomes tedious. Poor writing and directing sabotage the delightful performances of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in the romantic drama Love Is Strange. I was also disappointed by the tiresome Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Here’s my preview of the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival.

This week’s DVD/Stream of the Week is this year’s outstanding coming of age movie Very Good Girls starring the fine young actresses Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen. Very Good Girls is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

On October 4, Turner Classic Movies brings us what may be the best-ever psycho serial killer movie, Peeping Tom from 1960, the same year as Psycho.  The British film critics didn’t know what to make of a thriller where the protagonist was so disturbing, and they trashed Peeping Tom so badly that its great director Michael Powell (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) wasn’t able to work again in the UK.  But I think Peeping Tom is an overlooked masterpiece and even better than its iconic counterpart.

And on October 5, TCM broadcasts Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman as an iconic 1960s anti-hero, a charismatic supporting performance by George Kennedy, the unforgettable boiled egg-eating contest and the great movie line” What we have here is a failure to communicate”.

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ART AND CRAFT: could a sane man devise a con this successful?

ART AND CRAFT

ART AND CRAFT

The startling documentary Art and Craft is about an art fraud.  Of prolific scale. And which is apparently legal. By a diagnosed schizophrenic.

We start with a guy named Mark Landis.  He is very good at photocopying (!) great art works, applying paint to make them seem like the real thing, putting them in distressed frames and donating them to museums in the name of his late (and imaginary!) sister.  He has done this hundreds of times, fooling scores of snooty museum curators in the process.

Why does he do this? Why can’t he stop? What’s with the imaginary sister?  Those answers probably lie within his schizophrenia, a disease which doesn’t impair his skill or his cunning.  Landis himself, once you get over his initial creepiness and become comfortable in his Southern gentility and wry mischievousness, is one of this year’s most compelling movie characters.

Why doesn’t his fraud constitute a criminal act?  Because he doesn’t profit from selling his fakes, he just gives them away.  And he doesn’t take the tax write-off.

How come he doesn’t get caught? These are PHOTOCOPIES for krissakes!  Those answers are in the self-interest and professional greed of the museum professionals – embodied by one puddle of mediocrity who becomes Landis’ obsessive Javert.

All of these combine to make Art and Craft one of the year’s most engaging documentaries. I saw Art and Craft at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was an audience hit.

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