Movies to See Right Now

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

My top two recommendations for this weekend are:

  • The brilliant indie comedy about personal identity, Dear White People; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.

I saw Dear White People at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and have been telling folks about it for months – it’s on my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far.  I’m gonna add Gone Girl to the list as well.

I haven’t seen it, but the universally praised Birdman, with Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, opens more widely today.

Other recommendations:

  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • The dark little French psychological drama The Blue Room packs a cleverly constructed story in its brisk 75 minutes.
  • 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 is also available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.
  • The exceptionally well-acted dramedy The Skeleton Twins contains several inspired moments.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

My DVD/Stream of the week is ONCE AGAIN the exquisite Polish drama Ida – the best foreign film of 2014. Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Don’t miss the campy Vincent Price horror classic The Tingler; it’s on Turner Classic Movies tonight, and it’s perfect for Halloween.

Next week, TCM is bringing us some of my faves:

    • Brute Force (1947): This Jules Dassin noir is by far the best of the Hollywood prison dramas of the 30s and 40s. A convict (Burt Lancaster) is taunted by a sadistic guard (Hume Cronyn) and plans an escape. It’s a pretty violent film for the 1940s, and was inspired by the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz in which three cons and two guards were killed. Charles Bickford, Whit Bissell and Sam Levene are excellent as fellow cons. On my list of Best Prison Movies.
    • The Third Man (1949): Shot amid the ruins of post-war Vienna, this film noir classic sets an American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) to find out what happened to his pre-ward buddy, who turns out to have become a notorious black marketeer (Orson Welles) with a set of associates each shadier than the last. This has it all, a fated relationship with a European beauty (Alida Valli), stunningly effective black-and-white photography, an enchanting musical theme and one of cinema’s most sharply surprising reveals of a new character. There are two unforgettable set pieces – a nervous interview in a Ferris Wheel and a climactic chase through the sewers.
    • Bullitt (1968) features Steve McQueen and one of cinema’s most iconic and influential chase scenes. McQueen’s 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback and the bad guy’s 1968 Dodge Charger careen through San Francisco, taking almost 11 minutes to race from Fisherman’s Wharf to Brisbane. Classic.
    • Hot Rods to Hell (1967): Not a good movie, but amusing as an unintentionally funny guilty pleasure.
Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN - the most iconic smirk in cinema

Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN – the most iconic smirk in cinema

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PELICAN DREAMS: real pelicans, dreamy pace

PELICAN DREAMS

PELICAN DREAMS

Because I often fish along the Central California coast, I enjoy watching pelicans cruise majestically along the top of the bluffs and dive for fish in surgical strikes. The California Brown Pelican is the subject of Judy Irving’s meditative documentary Pelican Dreams. You may remember Irving’s surprise 2004 hit The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a documentary so captivating that it played 28 weeks in San Jose.

Wild Parrots had two things going for it – the oddity of birds from tropical rainforests living wild in a cold and grimy city, along with a compellingly unusual human star. Pelican Dreams doesn’t have those OMG features, but it has the very interesting stories of two individual birds, along with the riches to rags to kinda riches story of the species. The California Brown Pelican was named as an endangered species in 1970, but the ban of DDT has allowed the population to rebound, so they are no longer listed as endangered, but still face threats from oil spills, fishing tackle and climate change.

Irving had been looking to do a pelican documentary and met with the director of a pelican rescue facility, but she didn’t know how to begin the movie. Then, two weeks later, a pelican landed in the middle of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. Irving takes us through the life of that pelican, known to biologists as Pink 193 and named Gigi by Irving (for Golden Gate). Irving has a decidedly non-clinical view of the birds: “I would like a pelican in MY back yard”.

Pelican Dreams has a dreamy and meandering pace; like listening to Wyndham Hill New Age music for 80 minutes, it’s not a bad thing, you just need to be ready to settle in.

One more thing – the movie’s final shot (through a Panorama camera) is spectacular and unforgettable – a pelican diving at sunset – against a pink sky and purple coastline.

Here’s the trailer.

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WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: just not enough there, even with Shailene Woodley

White Bird in a Blizzard is by no means a bad movie, but there just isn’t enough story to sustain its brief but leisurely 91 minutes. Shailene Woodley plays a 17-year-old whose neurotic mother (Eva Green!) suddenly disappears without a trace. She’s now living alone with her stolid dad (Christopher Meloni), hanging with her offbeat high school buddies and exploring her sexuality with the investigating police detective. The crux of the movie is that she’s trying to imagine why and how her mother left, all the while ignoring one of the most likely scenarios.

It’s all a mild disappointment from writer-director Gregg Araki. I loved Araki’s 2004 masterpiece Mysterious Skin (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and enjoyed his sci-fi sex romp Kaboom. White Bird in a Blizzard is weird at times, but not as “Araki weird” as it perhaps needed to be.  He pretty much wastes Woodley, one of our very finest screen actresses. She’s very good, as is Thomas Jane as the detective.

White Bird in a Blizzard opens tomorrow in theaters and is available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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THE TINGLER: Halloween fright from the 50s

Vincent Price in THE TINGLER

Vincent Price in THE TINGLER

On Halloween, Turner Classic Movies is bringing us a campy Vincent Price horror classic from 1959, The Tingler.  It has a scary premise – a parasite embedding itself in people’s spine and feeding on them -  unaware until they feel a tingle AND THEN IT MAY BE TOO LATE!  When finally revealed, the grown parasite is VERY scary-looking.  Conveniently, the infested can weaken the parasite by screaming.  Horror schlockmeister William Castle reportedly installed buzzers in the backs of some theater seats, so some audience members would get an actual tingle in the spine at the scariest moments.  In the trailer below, Castle preps his audiences to scream if they feel a tingle.  It’s a cult classic.

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THE BLUE ROOM: what did I get myself into?

THE BLUE ROOM

THE BLUE ROOM

As the French psychological drama The Blue Room opens, a couple is having sex.  We quickly learn that they are both married, but not to each other.  And next, we see the man being interviewed in a police station. But The Blue Room is not a conventional police procedural, because the audience doesn’t know what crime he is suspected of committing.  He knows what the crime is, but he doesn’t know how it happened. In The Blue Room‘s brisk 75 minutes, more and more is revealed to the audience and to our protagonist. He finally understands it all, but it’s too late.

The structure of the story is very inventive, co-written by the movie’s stars, Mathieu Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau, and directed by Amalric.  Amalric is very good as a guy who spends the movie wondering “how did I get here, and how bad can this get?” It’s a dark little story that requires the audience to keep pace – and it’s pretty successful.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: It’s still the Must See IDA

IDA

IDA

I’m repeating last week’s recommendation of the Polish drama Ida. It’s a Must See. Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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WHIPLASH: motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

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

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

How good a movie is Whiplash?  It’s a very good one – taut,  and intense.  The fact that it’s extremely focused on the two characters and the fundamental questions about their characters is a strength, but also limits it from being a great movie.  Still, Simmons, Teller and the unrelenting tension makes Whiplash definitely worth seeing.

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Movies to See Right Now

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

The brilliant comedy about personal identity Dear White People opens today, along with the Sundance hit Whiplash and the Bill Murray crowd pleaser St. Vincent. I saw Dear White People at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and have been telling folks about it for months – it’s on my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far.

Other recommendations:

  • The thriller Gone Girl – the best Hollywood movie of 2014, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • 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 is also available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.
  • The exceptionally well-acted dramedy The Skeleton Twins contains several inspired moments.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

My DVD/Stream of the week is the exquisite Polish drama Ida – the best foreign film of 2014.  Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

This week, Turner Classic Movies will air the 1962 Ben Gazzara prison movie Convicts 4. TCM will also deliver two film noir masterpieces:

  • In a Lonely Place (1950): The most unsettlingly sexy film noiress Gloria Grahame falls for the troubled screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, a guy with a MAJOR anger management issue; once she’s hooked, she realizes that he might be a murderer after all…
  • Touch of Evil (1958): This Orson Welles masterpiece begins with one of cinema’s great opening scenes, as our lead characters walk from a Mexican border town into an American border town in a single tracking shot of well over 3 minutes. Unbeknownst to them, they are being shadowed by a car bomb. There’s a lot to enjoy here in this cesspool of corruption: a repellent sheriff-gone-bad played by Welles himself, one of Joseph Calleia’s finest supporting turns, one of Dennis Weaver’s first roles (written just for him by Welles) and Charlton Heston as a Mexican.
Orson Welles in his TOUCH OF EVIL

Orson Welles in his TOUCH OF EVIL

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DEAR WHITE PEOPLE: a brilliant comedy about identity

dear white people2
On its surface, the brilliant comedy Dear White People seems to be about racial identity, but – as  writer-director Justin Simien points out – it’s really about personal identity (of which race is an important part).  Set at a prestigious private college, Dear White People centers on a group of African-American students navigating the predominantly white college environment.

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

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

It’s the first feature for writer-director Justin Simien and it’s a stellar debut.  Dear White People is on my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far.  I saw it at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and have been telling people about it for months.

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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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