DVD/Stream: Woody Harrelson’s overlooked gems

Woody Harrelson in RAMPART

Woody Harrelson has come a long way from his cheerfully amiable dunderhead bartender in Cheers.  As an actor, Woody swings for the fences and is attracted to larger than life roles.  He’s also famous/notorious as an off-screen provocateur.

And Woody works a lot.  This year, he’s featured in War for the Planet of the Apes,  Wilson, The Glass Castle and LBJ.

Here are some of Woody’s overlooked gems:

  • Rampart: In a sizzling performance, Woody plays a corrupt and brutal LA cop trying to stay alive and out of jail. If you’re looking for Woody Harrelson’s best performance, you should try this movie.  Available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, YouTube and Google Play.
  • The Messenger: Woody plays a veteran soldier helping a younger one (Ben Foster) through his new assignment: visiting military next of kin to inform them face-to-face of their loved one’s death in combat; Despite the challenging material, most people will appreciate Woody’s brilliant performance.  Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.
  • Zombieland: Woody plays a master zombie killer is this riotously funny satire of zombie movies. Zombieland also features performances by Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Amber Heard and Abigail Breslin very early in their careers, and a priceless cameo from Bill Murray).  Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • True Detective, Season 1: It’s a dark tale of two mismatched detectives – each tormented by his own demons – obsessed by a whodunit in contemporary back bayou Louisiana.  Woody is very good – but Matthew McConaughey’s performance may have been the best on TV that year. Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from HBO GO, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
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Movies to See Right Now

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is one of the best documentaries of the century and a superb history lesson, crucial to understand the America of today. It’s a Must See for Baby Boomers. For different reasons, it’s a Must See for Americans of later generations. The ten episodes of The Vietnam War can be streamed from PBS through October 15.

Your best chance to see an Oscar-winner is at the Mill Valley Film Festival, now underway at several Marin locations. The MVFF always previews many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season.

In theaters now, there is the often funny and stealthily profound Lucky. Here’s my remembrance of its star, Harry Dean Stanton.

Sure to be near the end of its theatrical run, you can still catch the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the compelling and affecting Short Term 12, set in a foster care facility and starring Brie Larson as kind of a Troubled Kid Whisperer.  Short Term 12 is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, GooglePlay and Xbox Video. It was high on my Best Movies of 2013.

On October 15, Turner Classic Movies presents Diabolique. The headmaster of a provincial boarding school is so cruel, even sadistic, that everyone wants him dead, especially his wife and his mistress. When he goes missing, the police drain the murky pool where the killers dumped the body…and the killers get a big surprise. Now the suspense from director Henri-Georges Clouzot (often tagged as the French Hitchcock) really starts.

And TCM offers something completely different on October 16, the delightful Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? The nerdy academic Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his continually aggrieved fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) travel to San Francisco to compete for a career-launching grant. The luggage with Howard’s great discovery (musical rocks) is mixed up with two identical suitcases, one containing valuable jewelry, the other with spy secrets, and soon we have juggling MacGuffins.

That’s all funny enough, but Howard bumps into Judy (Barbra Streisand), the kookiest serial college dropout in America, who determines that she must have him and utterly disrupts his life. Our hero’s ruthless rival for the grant is hilariously played by Kenneth Mars (the Nazi playwright in The Producers). Austin Pendleton is wonderful as the would-be benefactor.

The EXTENDED closing chase scene is among the very funniest in movie history – right up there with the best of Buster Keaton; Streisand and O’Neal lead an ever-growing cavalcade of pursuers through the hills of San Francisco, at one point crashing the Chinese New Year’s Day parade. I love What’s Up, Doc? and own the DVD, and I watch every time I stumble across it on TV. Boganovich’s hero Howard Hawkes, the master of the screwball comedy, would have been proud.

WHAT’S UP, DOC?

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THE UNKNOWN: even geniuses have an off-day

Adèle Haenel in THE UNKNOWN GIRL

The Belgian writer-director brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes are among my very favorite filmmakers.  Their movies about everyday people in gritty industrial Belgium have been startlingly authentic and emotionally  gripping.  However, their latest, The Unknown Girl, is a bit of a slog.

In The Unknown Girl, a compassionate and hardworking doctor (Adèle Haenel) is working late and doesn’t answer the office doorbell after hours.  It turns out that a young woman had been trying to get inside just before she was murdered.  The cops can’t even identify the victim.  The doc is wracked with guilt and embarks on a quest to identify the young woman and to solve the crime.

So this is a murder mystery – the closest thing  ever to a Dardennes brothers genre movie.  Unfortunately the deliberate, real-time pace that intensifies the emotional experience of the Dardennes’ other work just drags in The Unknown Girl.   And there are just one or two coincidences in the plot to swallow.

Adèle Haenel (recently so good in In the Name of My Daughter) is excellent and the best thing about the film.  She’s in every scene and portrays a driven and remarkably self-aware character, who often intentionally suppresses her emotions to do the best job possible for her patients.

This isn’t a bad movie, just not a spectacularly good one.  By all means, see a Dardennes film, just make it The Son or The Kid with a Bike.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: SHORT TERM 12 – compelling and affecting, in the world of foster kids

SHORT TERM 12


The compelling and affecting Short Term 12 is set in a foster care facility unit named Short Term 12; since the kids can live there for years, it seems pretty long-term to me. These are kids who have suffered abuse and neglect and who act out with disruptive and dangerous behaviors. Runaways, assaults and suicide attempts are commonplace, and some of the kids thrive on creating drama.

The gifted lead counselor on the unit is Grace (Brie Larson), who isn’t much older than the kids. She’s kind of a Troubled Kid Whisperer who, in each impossible situation, knows exactly what to do to defuse or comfort or protect. But while she is in total command of her volatile and fragile charges, she is profoundly troubled herself. She and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who also works on the unit, are themselves survivors and former foster youth. Mason seems to have resolved his issues, but Grace’s demons lurk just under her skin.

In Short Term 12’s taut 96 minutes, we watch Grace navigate through crisis after crisis until she must face her own. We share many of the most powerful moments in 2013 cinema, particularly one kid’s unexpectedly painful insightful and sensitive rap, another kid’s authoring a wrenching children’s story and Grace’s own outburst of ferocity to protect a kid from a parent.

Brie Larson’s performance as Grace is being widely and justifiably described as star-making, and I think she deserves an Oscar nomination. I noticed her performances in much smaller roles in Rampart and The Spectacular Now , and I’m really looking forward to the launch of a major career. Think Jennifer Lawrence.

John Gallagher Jr. must be a superb actor, because nobody in real life can be as appealing and sympathetic as his characters in Margaret, Newsroom and Short Term 12. I’ll watch any movie with Gallagher in it, and he’s almost good enough to help me stomach Newsroom.

In his debut feature, writer-director Destin Cretton has hit a home run with one of the year’s best dramas. Some might find the hopeful ending too pat, but I say So What – I have met many former foster youth who have transcended horrific childhoods to become exemplary adults.

Short Term 12 is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, GooglePlay and Xbox Video. It was high on my Best Movies of 2013.

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THE VIETNAM WAR: must see for everyone (and available through Sunday)

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is one of the best documentaries of the century and a superb history lesson, crucial to understand the America of today.  It’s a Must See for Baby Boomers.  For different reasons, it’s a Must See for Americans of later generations.  The ten episodes of The Vietnam War can be streamed from PBS through October 15.

It’s impossible to overstate the effect of the Vietnam War upon Americans of my generation.  I was watching TV at nine years old when I viewed a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire.  Vietnam got my attention on that day and held it throughout my youth.  I remember watching the television news, with the weekly “body count” scorecards for dead Americans, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  I was almost 15 when, overnight, the Tet Offensive changed the appraisal of the war by the mainstream American public.  I was almost 19 when I got my draft lottery number.  I was 22 and about to graduate from college when Saigon fell.

Last week, a carpenter about my age did some work at my house.  When he arrived, he commented that he heard through the door that I was watching The Vietnam War.  It took us about two sentences to get to the draft.  Each of us instantly remembered our lottery numbers (mine was 65, his was 322).  Both of us remembered where we were on February 2, 1972, the night of that lottery drawing.

For Baby Boomers, The Vietnam War provides context for our experience, along with some new revelations.  Younger Americans who watch The Vietnam War will now understand what happened then and how it affects our culture and our politics to this day.

Burns and Novick tell their story mostly through first person accounts, from real people recounting their experiences 40-60 years ago.  The American talking heads aren’t big shots, but people who were soldiers, protesters, POWs, journalists and family members who lost loved ones.  But Burns and Novick also bring us Vietnamese witnesses – soldiers and civilians from the ARVN, Viet Cong and NVA.  Including the Vietnamese points of view – as disparate as the American ones – works to complete the picture.

The Vietnam War also brings us new information about the era’s most iconic photos.    We all remember the shocking still photo of the summary pistol-to-the-temple execution of a Viet Cong by a South Vietnamese police official; The Vietnam War brings us the original network TV film clip that was shot and shown only once on the TV news.  There’s the unforgettable photo of the Kent State coed, with hands outstretched over the corpse of a fellow student; we also see a never-before-shown home movie clip shot of the scene by another student.  Finally, we hear from the journalist who photographed the running Vietnamese girl burned by napalm, and we see film from that scene, too.

Who remembers that “light at the end of the tunnel” was coined by a French general in Vietnam, and later adopted by American brass (a bad choice, given the French experience)?  We hear the phrase used again in a very grim joke in late April 1975.

The Vietnam War shows us that Le Duan had shouldered Ho Chi Minh aside and ran the North Vietnamese side of the war for its last eight years.   Study of Le Duan provides us with some important lessons.  First, never get in a war of attrition with a fanatic.  Second, never let a fanatic run your postwar economy or foreign relations.

The Vietnam War is unmatched in tracing the evolution in the American public’s attitude during the long, long war.  There was some public opposition to the War almost from the beginning, but the Tet Offensive in early 1968 convinced the great majority that the US could never win and needed to find a way out.  But many Americans despised the anti-war protests.  It was the protests that divided the American nation,.  Oddly, at the same time there was a policy consensus (get out of Vietnam) and a cultural civil war.

And The Vietnam War, through his own words on White House tapes, exposes Henry Kissinger (as favorite of the American press) as the cynical sycophant that he was, ever flattering Nixon and conspiring to delay peace to favor Nixon’s political fortunes.

There is no more evocative aspect of The Vietnam War than its soundtrack, with 120 songs from the era from Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Nina Simone, Simon and Garfunkel, Cream, Janis Joplin, Pete Seeger and even the Zombies, Procol Harum, Vanilla Fudge and Link Wray.  One episode ends with my choice as the anthem for 1971 in America – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  The songs are absolutely perfectly matched with the usual and spoken content, perhaps the most masterful use of popular music on a soundtrack that I have seen (and heard).  You can even review the episode playlists .

Through October 15, you can stream, The Vietnam War here.

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The films of Taylor Sheridan

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

The actor Taylor Sheridan has written three recent films, and he has emerged as one of America’s most important filmmakers.  The three movies are Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River (which is his directorial debut – I’m not counting the low budget horror film Vile). I named Hell or High Water as the very best movie of 2016.

Here are some observations about Sheridan’s movies so far.

Western settings: This is the most obvious Sheridan signature: Sicario is set on the border between Mexico and Texas and New Mexico.  Hell or High Water is set in West Texas (but primarily shot in New Mexico).  Wind River is set in Wyoming.  Sheridan, very comfortable with wide open spaces, grew up on a ranch outside the hamlet of Cranfills Gap, Texas, between Fort Worth and Waco.  He isolates his characters in sparsely populated landscapes under Big Skies.  But he’s not sentimental – the Mexican border city in Sicario and the Indian Reservation in Wind River are horrible places.

Great dialogue:  From Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” to “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” to “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown,” great movies are known for iconic dialogue.  Sheridan is reviving that lost art.

From Hell or High Water:

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

And from Wind River:

Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

Resists the easy: Sicario revolves around a fish-out-of water female cop, but he doesn’t mate her her with one of the male stars.  In Hell or High Water, Toby insures the family’s security – but that isn’t enough for his ex-wife to take him back.  In Wind River, Cory and Jane meet cute (in a way) but don’t fall into bed; and Cory’s ex-wife doesn’t comfort him, either.

Not everything is going to be okay:  Sheridan knows how to craft a satisfying movie ending, but it’s not going to Happily Ever After for everyone.  In Hell or High Water, the action that brings peace to Chris Pine’s character brings eternal unease to Jef Bridges’.
Wind River’s reservation still devoid of hope.  Sicario’s border region is still poisioned by drugs and the drug war.

Populist politics:  Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable.  Sheridan explores this theme with the victims of the drug wars in Sicario, the flyover-state working class in Hell or High Water and the Native Americans on the reservation in Wind River.

It’s an impressive body of work from Sheridan.  I’m looking forward to his next screenplays, a follow-up to Sicario named Soldado and a TV drama titled Yellowstone.

Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO

Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO

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Movies to See Right Now

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The often funny and stealthily profound Lucky opens this weekend in the Bay Area. Here’s my remembrance of its star, Harry Dean Stanton.  Other choices:

  • A Must See: the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.
  • The historical thriller Dunkirk.
  • The amiably entertaining hillbilly heist film Logan Lucky.

Here’s my preview of the 40th Mill Valley Film Festival, underway now at several Marin locations.

For the second straight week, my DVD/Stream of the Week is the extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert in the subversive Elle. The controversial Elle is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On October 8, Turner Classic Movies brings us the especially nasty noir Detour, in which poor Tom Neal is practically eaten alive by Ann Savage as perhaps the most predatory and savage female character in film noir history. One of the few Hollywood films where the leading lady was intentionally de-glamorized with oily, stringy hair.

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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It’s here: the 40th Mill Valley Film Festival

DOWNSIZING – coming to the Mill Valley Film Festival

The Mill Valley Film Festival always showcases many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season. It’s the best opportunity for Bay Area film goers to catch an early look at the Big Movies.

For example, last year’s festival featured La La Land,  Arrival, Loving, Elle, Toni Erdmann, Lion, The Handmaiden, The Salesman and Paterson.

THE SQUARE – coming to the Mill Valley Film Festival

Here is a selection of the MVFF’s Oscar bait:

  • Downsizing from director Alexander Payne of (Sideways and Nebraska).
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Minnesota from Martin McDonagh (The Guard) – see trailer below.
  • The Shape of Water from Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).
  • Last Flag Flying from Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise/Susnet/Midnight).
  • Wonderstruck from Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol).
  • The Square from Ruben Ostlund of (Force Majeure).
  • Thelma from Joachim Trier (Reprise, Louder Than Bombs).
  • The Current War from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).
  • Call Me By My Name from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash).
  • Loveless from Andrey Zvyagintsev the director of (Leviathan).
  • The Florida Project by Sean Baker the director of (Tangerine).

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Celebrity appearances, for those of you who like that sort of thing, will include Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Andrew Garfield and Holly Hunter.  For those of you seeking a chance to hear great filmmakers discuss their work in the flesh, you’ll get your chance with Richard Linklater, Joe Wright, Todd Haynes and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

The directorial debut of actor Greta Gerwig will screen, as will the first German-language film directed by actor Diane Kruger.

There will also be several documentaries featuring musicians:  Paul Butterfield, Bill Frisell, Joe Satriani and Sly and the Family Stone.

This year’s MVFF runs from October 5-15,  at the Sequoia in Mill Valley, the Rafael in San Rafael,  the Century Larkspur and the Lark in Larkspur and the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. Check out the program and tickets for the MVFF.

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LUCKY: Harry Dean Stanton and the meaning of life

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Let’s not bury the lede: Lucky is Harry Dean Stanton’s last film. Lucky was written for Harry Dean, and the main character is reportedly not dissimilar to Stanton. Here’s my Harry Dean Stanton remembrance.

Lucky is a vivid portrait of a singular character.  It’s also a meditation on life and the end of life and how you can control how you live.

Stanton plays Lucky, a nonagenarian who lives in his isolated house on the edge of a Mojave desert town.  The town is so small that everyone knows everyone else.  There’s not a lot of action in Lucky.  We watch Lucky as he purposefully plods through his modest daily routine: to his refrigerator, to the diner, to the local bar, plopped in front of his TV to watch “my shows”.   Lucky is sometimes confused by age, but retains great strength of conviction and a formidable will.

Lucky is not really anti-social but he is minimally social.  He values his privacy and doesn’t seek human interaction, but he accepts it as it occurs organically.  He is not a stereotypical movie curmudgeon with a heart of gold.  He’s prickly, but capable of authentic  tenderness, as when he shares a joint with a waitress friend and when he belts out the Mexican tearjerker Volver, Volver.

He’s also an atheist.  Being areligious doesn’t mean that someone is amoral. Not at all.  Lucky lives by a firm code – he is so offended when thinks someone is exploiting a grieving friend, he fiercely tries to fight a man fifty years his younger.

But as we observe Lucky not doing much, we are pulled into an increasingly profound contemplation.  How do we choose to live our lives if there’s no afterlife?  How afraid are we of the finality of death?  What is meaningful? What’s in our control?

This is also a pretty funny film.  Lucky reminds us that Harry Dean was a master of both the deadpan and the sarcastic jibe.  And Lucky has lived decades without female or other supervision, and his habits, like watering cactus in his underwear and cowboy boots, are pretty entertaining.

Lucky is the first film directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch, so creepy in Zodiac and so heartbreaking in The Founder. Lynch is a confident enough director to take his time. And, if you have any doubt about where Lynch sees Lucky on the continuum of life, check out this shot.

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Lynch gets excellent performances out of the rest of the cast: Ed Begley, Jr., James Darren (yes, the 60s heartthrob), Ron Livingston, Barry Shabaka Henley (recently so good in Paterson), Yvonne Huff and, surprisingly, the director David Lynch. Tom Skeritt delivers a moving monologue.

But, in the end, this is Harry Dean Stanton’s film. And, to Lynch’s credit, it’s a fine way to remember Harry Dean.

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HARRY DEAN STANTON

Harry Dean Stanton in PARIS, TEXAS

I’ve been traveling and haven’t had a chance until now to recognize the life and career of the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died this month at the age of 91. Coincidentally, Harry Dean was on my mind because I had just watched his masterpiece Paris, Texas on the flight to my vacation destination, and I was preparing to watch the screener for his last film, Lucky, to be released in the Bay Area next weekend.

Once of the most noticeable of the prolific character actors, he improbably became a leading man at age 58 and, in his 80s, starred as the menacing leader of a polygamist cult in Big Love.  I’ll be writing about Lucky tomorrow.

Harry Dean was a great favorite of mine – and of many other cinephiles.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once posited that a movie could not be entirely bad if Harry Dean Stanton were in it.  Harry Dean often seemed like that uncle/neighbor/mentor who had Lived A Life but would let you inside and let you learn from his journey.  He was ever accessible and always piqued the audience’s curiosity about his characters.

Harry Dean Stanton garnered 200 screen credits, including scores of 1960s TV shows.  He appeared on seemingly every TV Western:   Rawhide, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Laramie, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson and Stoney Burke.  Think how many times we Baby Boomers must have seen him in The Fugitive, Adam 12, Mannix, Combat!, The Untouchables, and even The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

In the early 1970s, I first really noticed Harry Dean for his quirkiness, singularity and forlorn humor in his sidekick roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Missouri Breaks. That’s when you had to sit through the end credits to find out who that actor was.

Along the way, he made three Monte Hellman cult films (Ride the Whirlwind, Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop) and was friends with fellow Hollywood outlaws Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson.  He shared a house with Nicholson for a while (can you imagine?).

Also a fine musician, Harry Dean left us with touching vocal renditions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee in Cool Hand Luke and Volver, Volver in Lucky.

Natassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton in PARIS, TEXAS

In 1984, at the age of 58, Harry Dean Stanton broke through in two wonderful lead performances.  He played the old school mentor of the punk Emilio Estevez in the cult film Repo Man.  And he made his masterpiece, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

In Paris Texas, Harry Dean plays Travis, a man so traumatized that he has disappeared and is found wandering across the desert and mistaken for a mute.  As he is cared for by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he evolves from feral to erratic to troubled, but with a sense of tenderness and a determination to put things right.  We see Travis as a madman who gains extraordinary lucidity about what wrong in his life and his own responsibility for it.

At the film’s climax, Travis speaks to Jane (Natassja Kinski) through a one-way mirror (she can’t see him).  Spinning what at first seems like parable, Travis explains what happened to him – and to her – and why it happened.  It’s a 20-minute monologue so captivating and touching that it rises to be recognized as one of the very greatest screen performances.

Kinski, Stockwell and the child actor Hunter Carlson are also exceptional.  Paris, Texas is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and FilmStruck.

We’ll miss you, Harry Dean.

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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