Movies to See Right Now

DUNKIRK


There are two Must See movies this summer – the historical thriller Dunkirk and the delightful romantic comedy The Big Sick.

The best of the rest:

  • Baby Driver is just an action movie, but the walking, running and driving are brilliantly time to the beat of music.
  • The Journey is a fictional imagining of a real historical event with wonderful performances from Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as the two longtime blood enemies who collaborated to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
  • The Midwife, with Catherine Deneuve as a woman out of control and uncontrollable, indelibly disrupting another life.
  • Okja, another wholly original creation from the imagination of master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, is streaming on Netflix and also in theaters.
  • The amusingly naughty but forgettable comedy The Little Hours is based on the dirty fun in your Western Civ class, Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
  • The character-driven suspenser Moka is a showcase for French actresses Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.

Here are my top picks for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, underway now.

You just shouldn’t miss my DVD/Stream of the Week, The Imposter. Life is at times stranger than fiction, and The Imposter is one of the most jaw-dropping documentaries I have seen. A Texas boy vanishes and, three years later, is impersonated by someone who is seven years older than the boy, is not a native English speaker and looks nothing like him.  Even the con man is  surprised when the family is embracing him as the lost boy – and then he begins to suspect why…The Imposter is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and many other VOD providers.

On August 1, Turner Classic Movies presents the classic film noir The Asphalt Jungle. The crooks assemble a team and pull off the big heist…and then things begin to go wrong. There aren’t many noirs with better casting – the crooks include Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe and James Whitmore. The 23-year-old Marilyn Monroe plays Calhern’s companion in her first real speaking part. How noir is it? Even the cop who breaks the case goes to jail. Directed by the great John Huston.

Also on August 1, TCM airs Some Like It Hot, this Billy Wilder masterpiece that is my pick for the best comedy of all time. Seriously – the best comedy ever. And it still works today. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play most of the movie in drag (and Tony is kind of cute). Curtis must continue the ruse even when he’s next to Marilyn Monroe at her most delectable. Curtis then dons a yachting cap and does a dead-on Cary Grant impression as the heir to an industrial fortune. Joe E. Brown gets the last word with one of cinema’s best closing lines.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

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DUNKIRK: personal, spectacular and thrilling

Fionn Whitehead in DUNKIRK

In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has written and directed a gripping historical thriller, somehow both personal and vast.  It’s a remarkable achievement of both storytelling and filmmaking.  Nolan chooses to tell us the story through the lenses of a few minor participants without losing any of the epic sweep of the event.

Dunkirk is the story of one of World War II’s most pivotal events.  It’s May, 1940 – over a year before Hitler invaded Russia and over a year-and-a-half before the US entered the war. German forces have swept across Europe and now control the entire continent.  It’s very thinkable that Germany will invade Britain.  Germany is winning, and it’s more plausible than not that Germany will win the war.

The Germans have trapped a British/French army of 400,000 on a beach in France, certain to be captured or annihilated.  The British navy has the capacity to evacuate 40,000 of them in the best case.  But the best case can’t be operationalized because, when the British load 800 soldiers on a destroyer, German bombers and submarines sink it.  So the British resort to a desperate measure by enlisting 700 small civilian boats – fishing boats, pleasure craft, trawlers, ferries and tugs – to cross the English Channel and pick up the soldiers from an active battle zone.  Amazingly, it worked and 340,000 of the troops were rescued, saving them to deter a German invasion of Britain.

Nolan shows us every conceivable peril faced by the rescuers and the rescued, from aerial bombardment to submarine attack. He starts us following a couple of ordinary infantrymen (Fionn Whiteheand and Aneurin Barnard). When they find a wounded man on the beach, they look at each other wordlessly, toss him on a stretcher take off at the full run for a waiting naval vessel; it’s not spelled out, but they aren’t being selfless – they are trying to jump the line to the ship and get evacuated before hundreds of thousands of other men. They learn that getting off the beach isn’t that easy. Soon, Nolan weaves in a determined civilian heading his tiny boat across the English Channel (the great actor Mark Rylance) and the RAF fighter pilots (the commander played by Tom Hardy) who try to protect the beaches and the evacuation vessels. It’s a race against time for each of the characters as they navigate hazard after hazard, and the experience throbs with intensity

Dunkirk is very historically accurate, although the story has been compressed to a couple of days, and the actual evacuation took over a week. Nolan jumbles his timelines, and sometimes we are jarred by moving from daytime in one story thread to nighttime in another. But the threads eventually converge.

In particular, the depiction of aerial warfare is extraordinary, including what it must have been like inside a cockpit that is hit by enemy fire. Dunkirk contains probably the best ever movie shot of a plane ditching in the ocean. We see what it must have been like to be on a ship sunk by submarine torpedo (hint: much less romantic than Titanic‘s sinking). The Germans employed a Stuka dive bomber, which was outfitted with sirens to terrify its victims on the ground or sea; Dunkirk actually replicates the scream of the Stuka’s sirens very convincingly.

Rylance is superb and the rest of the cast does very well, including Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier and Kenneth Branagh as an embattled naval commander.

Near the end of Dunkirk, a fighter plane runs out of fuel and glides across the beachfront in one of the most beautiful series of shots in recent cinema.

Dunkirk is that rare breed – a white knuckler with relateable characters and historical integrity. It’s one of the very best films of 2017.

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THE MIDWIFE: life disrupted

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in THE MIDWIFE

A woman’s life is utterly disrupted – for better and for worse – by the unexpected appearance of someone from her past.  Claire (Catherine Frot) is a middle-aged Paris midwife who lives a completely contained life, focused only on her passion for childbirth. Her other only other devotion is to her son, who, between med school and his girlfriend, she doesn’t see much of. Claire is so abstemious that she must be the only non-recovering and non-Muslim resident of France who eschews even a glass of wine.

Suddenly Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) shows up and, in a most unwelcome development, intrudes on Claire’s life. Thirty years before, Béatrice was Claire’s father’s mistress when Claire was a teenager. After dragging Claire’s father into financial ruin, Béatrice suddenly disappeared, and he committed suicide. Now Béatrice, for the first time in thirty years, expects to pick up the relationship with Claire as though none of this had happened.

Béatrice is an irascible libertine and hedonist with champagne tastes and a gambling habit. She’s a master manipulator who has survived by flitting between rich boyfriends, but now she’s down – really down – on her luck. Béatrice has adopted “depending on the kindness of strangers” as her personal creed.

The Midwife is a welcome showcase for the veteran French actress Catherine Frot, whom we don’t get to see enough of in the US, despite her 96 screen credits (most recently in Haute Cuisine). Frot perfectly portrays the generally strong-willed woman who is ultimately unable to resist, bit by bit, the changes to her world.

One of the striking aspects of The Midwife is the opportunity for the great Catherine Deneuve to depart from her often icy and imperious roles. Béatrice is out of control and uncontrollable.

Paul, a simple and lusty long haul trucker shows up and show interest in Claire.   Paul is played by Olivier Gourmet from the great Dardennes Brothers movies Rosetta, The Son, L’enfant and The Kid with a Bike.  This is a much less brow-furrowing role, and Gourmet gets to unleash a delightful measure of gusto.

The Midwife is written and directed  by Martin Provost, the actor who has recently written and directed Seraphine, The Long Falling and Violette.  quite brilliantly edited  and his editor Albertine Lasta – (one of the editors on Blue Is the Warmest Color) know just when to end a scene – down to the nano-second.  This is a very effectively edited film.

The Midwife is a film to settle into and to meet and understand Claire, then to watch her life change.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE IMPOSTER – you gotta see this

The Imposter

You just shouldn’t miss The Imposter. Life is at times stranger than fiction, and The Imposter is one of the most jaw-dropping documentaries I have seen. Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texas boy, vanished in 1994. Three years later, a young man surfaced in Spain, claiming to be an American boy kidnapped for sexual exploitation; he was identified by Spanish police as Nicholas Barclay. In fact, he was a serial impersonator named Frédéric Bourdin who had contrived the ruse to escape getting busted for his own petty misdeeds.

That’s not a spoiler, because The Imposter’s audience learns this framework right away. Here’s the first real shocker: the imposter is accepted by Nicholas’ family. This is more amazing because Frédéric is seven years older than Nicholas, is not a native English speaker and looks nothing like him. Of course, Frédéric is surprised that the family is embracing him as Nicholas – and then he begins to suspect why…

Filmmaker Bart Layton expertly spins the story, We meet the actual Frédéric Bourdin, members of the Barclay family, and the detectives who broke the case.

The Imposter is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and many other VOD providers.

Here’s the trailer.

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SUBTE-POLSKA: memory, vitality and loves from the past

SUBTE POLSKA

Here’s a wonderful movie (with an off-putting title) that you can ONLY see Sunday in Palo Alto or Wednesday in San Francisco. Subte-Polska is an Argentine gem about a nonagenarian chess master addressing his own memory, vitality and the need to find closure with his past. A promising first feature for writer-director Alejandro Magnone, Subte-Polska is the sleeper Must See at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Tadeusz (Hector Bidonde) is a working class nonagenarian chess master. He’s still able to win several simultaneous chess matches, but his age is catching up to him and he has periods of confusion and memory loss. His doc has prescribed meds that counteract the memory loss, but he refuses to take them because they…wait for it…diminish his sexual performance.

His adult adopted son (Marcelo Xicarte) is understandably frustrated because he has to keep tracking down an unnecessarily (from his perspective) addled old man. And the son is in a touchy period in his own marriage.

Tadeusz is a Communist Jew who left Poland, his family and his girlfriend to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He found another lover in Spain, but he left her,too, when they were defeated by Franco. Tadeusz’ family didn’t survive Hitler. That’s a lot of loss, and Tadeusz dealt with it by emigrating to Argentina and LITERALLY going underground. To avoid triggering painful memories, he gets a job constructing and then working in the Buenos Aires subway system. He sets up his son as a subway driver, and his best buddies also work in the subway, including the guy who runs the underground newsstand (Manuel Callau).

As Subte-Polska unfolds, Magnone explores our sense of memory, and how we consciously and subconsciously handle both the cherished memories and the devastating ones. As he takes and abstains from taking his meds, Tadeusz’s short-term memory ebbs and flows. This is a guy who has framed his entire life to suppress the memories of his youth, but he begins to remember his youth more and more vividly. As he remembers, he feels a need to find closure.

Tadeusz is a strong-willed person, and Subte-Polska is pretty funny as he causes consternation in his son, doctor and friends – in everybody except his well-serviced girlfriend and his ball-busting old friend from their first days underground. Marcelo Xicarte and Manuel Callau both prove to be excellent comic actors.

Speaking of acting, Hector Bidonde delivers a magnificent lead performance. Bidonde plays someone who has always been determined to do what he wants, stubborn to his core, still confident in his beliefs, mental acuity and sexual prowess, but occasionally shaken by moments of confusion.

You have three chances to catch Subte-Polska at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:

  • Cinearts (Palo Alto), Sunday, July 23 4:25 PM
  • Castro (San Francisco), Wednesday, July 26 4:05 PM
  • Albany Twin (Twin), Tuesday, August 1 6:30 PM.

The SFJFF runs from July 20 through August 6 at theaters in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, San Rafael and Oakland. You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Subte-Polska is funny, insightful and moving. I’m still mulling it over. This film deserves a US distributor – and a US distributor who changes the title. After all, it’s a subtitled movie about a 90-year-old; ya gotta help the audience want to see this. It’s the under-the-radar Must See at this year’s SFJFF.

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Movies to See Right Now

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in THE BIG SICK

Before you see any other movie, go see The Big Sick, the best American movie of the year so far. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. Here are more choices (but see The Big Sick first!):

  • Baby Driver is just an action movie, but the walking, running and driving are brilliantly time to the beat of music.
  • The Journey is a fictional imagining of a real historical event with wonderful performances from Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as the two longtime blood enemies who collaborated to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
  • Okja, another wholly original creation from the imagination of master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, is streaming on Netflix and opening in theaters.
  • The amusingly naughty but forgettable comedy The Little Hours is based on the dirty fun in your Western Civ class, Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
  • The character-driven suspenser Moka is a showcase for French actresses Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.

Emannuelle Devos in MOKA

 

Here are my top picks for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which just opened yesterday.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Drinking Buddies that RARE romantic comedy where the characters act and react – not in the way we’ve come to expect rom com characters to act – but as unpredictably as would real people.  Drinking Buddies is available on DVD from Netlix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and GooglePlay.

On July 26, Turner Classic Movies brings us a feast of Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds and North by Northwest. These are four of Hitchcock’s best, but today I’m choosing to feature The Birds, which I’ve screened recently. The Birds showcases Hitchcock’s brilliant sense of foreshadowing. Repeatedly, precursor events are unnoticed or dismissed by the characters, but seem vaguely offbeat or unsettling to the audience. And the suspense when the kids are walked out from their schoolhouse is unmatched. Plus no one could be more vulnerable to an aerial attack than when trapped in a glass phone booth.

I had forgotten about the flirtation between Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor), which certainly wouldn’t happen the same way today; Melanie is actually acting sexually aggressively for 1963. Today, we find Melanie and Mitch to be dressed with strange formality, but I can tell you that the wardrobe fits 1963 San Francisco.

Today’s audience, in our post 9/11 world, will identify with the locals in the town cafe as they assess whether the birds present a real or imagined threat. The Birds has been named to the National Film Registry.

THE BIRDS

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DVD/Stream of the Week: DRINKING BUDDIES – an unusually genuine romantic comedy

Drinking Buddies

In Drinking Buddies, Olivia Wilde plays the only female employee of an urban craft brewery. She and her co-worker best buddy (Jake Johnson) eat their lunches together every day, kid around on the job and join the crew for beers after work. They really connect and share trust with each other, and the two have achieved an enviable level of interpersonal comfort. If this were the typical idiot Hollywood romantic comedy, we could stop watching now, because we would know that they would dump their current significant others (Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston) in the third act because THEY ARE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER.

But, instead, writer-director Joe Swanberg surprises us with an unusually genuine romantic comedy. The characters act and react – not in the way we’ve come to expect rom com characters to act – but as unpredictably as would real people. Real people can be complex. Real people can make choices out of short-term self-gratification – or they can make sacrifices for the greater good – you don’t always know what’s coming. Swanberg trusts that the audience isn’t demanding a tired formula – and it pays off for him and for us.

Swanberg has also made the first Mumblecore movie that I’ve liked. I was on the verge of writing off the entire cinematic genre because I don’t like to watch self-involved twits obsess over their own avoidable, First World problems. Although Swanberg’s male characters have the Mumblecore bedhead, he makes this movie about a situation that could happen to any of us – discovering a potential soul mate outside our existing relationship. And the characters don’t wring their hands and kvetch – they struggle through the untidy challenge and move on.

The cast is solid, and the glammed-down Olivia Wilde is especially very good here.

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San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: top picks

sfjff

the 37th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF37), opens this Thursday. The SFJFF is the world’s oldest Jewish film festival, and, with a 2016 attendance figure of 40,000, still the largest. It’s one of the Bay Area’s top cinema events and here are my top picks:

  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, the riveting biopic of a glamorous movie star who invented and patented the precursor to wireless technology; that’s amazing enough, but Bombshell delves deeply into how Lamarr’s stunning face, her Jewish heritage, and mid-century gender roles shaped her career, marriages and parenting. Top notch. Bombshell plays Wednesday July 26 in Palo Alto, Sunday July 30 in San Francisco and Saturday August 5 in Albany.
  • A Classy Broad:  This delightful bio-doc chronicles the amazingly resilient life of Marcia Nasatir, the first woman production vice-president at a major Hollywood studio.  We all owe a debt to Nasatir for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Carrie and Apocalypse Now.
  • Subte Polska:  An Argentine gem about a nonagenarian chess master addressing his own memory, vitality and the need to find closure with his past. A promising first feature for writer-director Alejandro Magnone, Subte Polska is the sleeper Must See at this year’s SFJFF.
  • Levinsky Park: Israel was created as a home for refugees.  What happens when African refugees overwhelm a neglected Tel Aviv neighborhood is the subject of this topical documentary.
  • Fritz Lang:  What better protagonist for a crime drama than the creator of the masterpiece M and pioneering master of film noir, the director Fritz Lang?  Fritz Lang imagines Fritz Lang gathering research for M by tracking and interviewing a real serial killer, all while under police suspicion for his own past.
  • Ben-Gurion, Epilogue:  Footage from a recently discovered video interview allows us to hear from Israel’s founding leader in his own words.
  • A pre-release screening of the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power with an appearance by former Vice-President Al Gore. It plays the SFJFF on Monday evening, July 24 at the Castro in San Francisco, but the the screening is currently at rush.

The SFJFF runs from July 20 through August 6 at theaters in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, San Rafael and Oakland. You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s the trailer for Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

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BEN-GURION, EPILOGUE: in his own words, Israel’s founding leader reflects

Ben-Gurion, Epilogue

In Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, footage from a recently discovered video interview allows us to hear from Israel’s founding leader in his own words. In 1968, David Ben-Gurion was 82 years old and had been retired from public office for five years. Living on a remote kibbutz in the Negev Desert, he still had a lot to say.

Ben-Gurion was interviewed for seven hours over several days, but the video was lost until recently. First the images were found, which triggered a search for the sound. The result is Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, with the seven hours distilled down to one hour. Director Yariv Moser gets out of the way and lets Ben-Gurion speak for himself. The result is an important document of 20th Century history.

Not a guy who naturally “holds forth”, Ben-Gurion is prodded into revealing his inside view of his controversial acceptance of German reparations.  We also get his take on the Zionist movement (not exactly what you’d expect) and, of course the Big Question: land for peace.  There are also telling insights into his marriage.

You can find a separate 24-minute “making of” documentary on YouTube.

Ben-Gurion, Epilogue will screen at the SFJFF:

  • Cinearts (Palo Alto), Sunday, July 23 Noon
  • Castro (San Francisco), Saturday, July 29 1:45 PM
  • Albany Twin (Albany), Sunday, July 30 Noon.

The SFJFF runs from July 20 through August 6 at theaters in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, San Rafael and Oakland. You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

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LEVINSKY PARK: refuge for refugees?

LEVINSKY PARK

Israel was created as a home for refugees.  What happens when African refugees overwhelm a neglected Tel Aviv neighborhood is the subject of the topical documentary Levinsky Park.

Director Beth Toni Kruvant takes us to Tel Aviv’s hardscrabble Hatikva neighborhood,  now burdened with an influx of African refugees from sub-Saharan Africa.  The refugees aren’t Jewish, they don’t speak Hebrew and they sure aren’t white.  Discouraged from working legally, the refugees encamp on the streets and do what they need to survive.  The Israeli government senses a lose-lose media profile on the issue and tries to duck it entirely.

So how do the local Israelis react?  There is a wide spectrum. Some welcome and try to help people fleeing for their lives.  Others tag the newcomers with the loaded pejorative “infiltrators” and try to kick them out.  We see some ugly, overt racism in Levinsky Park, but nothing unlike what we’ve seen in the US in the Trump Era.

It’s the same question that confronts all countries in the West about political asylum-seekers – who will actually invite them in?  What’s different about Levinsky Park, of course, is that this is Israel – the one nation  created by and for refugees.

A leader emerges from the refugees, the charismatic and articulate Mutasim Ali.  He frames their plight as a movement, and they strive to regain some control over their own futures.  Levinsky Park is a compelling real-life story and screens at the SFJFF:

  • Castro (San Francisco), Thursday, July 27 11:15 AM
    Albany Twin (Albany), Friday, August 4 4:05 PM.

The SFJFF runs from July 20 through August 6 at theaters in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, San Rafael and Oakland. You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

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