Movies to See Right Now

Devin Druid in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

Devin Druid in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

I’m still covering the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF); the fest runs through May 5. Throughout the fest, I’ll be linking more festival coverage to my SFFIF 2016 page, including both features and movie recommendations. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest coverage.Here’s some of my SFIFF coverage:

I’m also writing about the fine slate of documentaries at this weekend’s International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO).

Here’s my slate of recommended movies in theaters this week:

    • Critical reception has been mixed on the intricately constructed family drama Louder Than Bombs, but I strongly recommend it.
    • Ethan Hawke’s performance makes the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue a success.
    • Thriller meets thinker in Eye in the Sky, a parable from modern drone warfare starring Helen Mirren and with a wonderful final performance from the late Alan Rickman.
    • Eccentric meets quirky in the historical comedy Elvis & Nixon, with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.
    • I enjoyed every minute of Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakdown in Demolition (but was ambivalent about why I did).
    • Everybody Wants Some!! is a dead-on 1980 time capsule and an amusing frolic with lots of ball busting and girl chasing – but probably more fun for a heterosexual male audience.

Tom Hiddleston makes a believable Hank Williams, but that can’t save the plodding I Saw the Light, which fails to capture any of the pathos in Hank’s life and death.  The mismatched buddy movie Dough is light, fluffy and empty – just like a Twinkie.

My Stream of the Week is the offbeat documentary Meet the Hitlers, about those few people who choose NOT to change their birth name of “Hitler”. Meet the Hitlers is available for streaming rental from Amazon Video and Vudu and for streaming purchase from iTunes.

Screenwriter Anthony Veiller fleshed out a very brief Hemingway short story, resulting in Robert Siodmak’s compelling 1946 film noir The Killers, which Turner Classic Movies airs on May 4. The Killers was the screen debut of former circus acrobat Burt Lancaster and the breakthrough for the 23-year-old Ava Gardner. The toughest of noir tough guys – Charles McGraw and Broderick Crawford are hunting down Lancaster for offending their mob boss…and the clock is ticking.

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS

Charles McGraw (left) and Broderick Crawford (center) are the title characters in THE KILLERS

Charles McGraw (left) and Broderick Crawford (center) are the title characters in THE KILLERS

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SFIFF under the radar this weekend

A scene from Vitaly Mansky's UNDER THE SUN, playing at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5, 2016.

UNDER THE SUN. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

There are plenty of high-profile movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) this weekend, including the  sci-fi satire High-Rise with Tom Hiddleston, Jason Bateman’s ofbeat family comedy The Family Fang, the John le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor and an award to Aardman Animations with its co-founder Peter Lord.

But some other gems are screening under the radar.  As always at SFIFF, the documentary program includes some nuggets.  Here are my picks:

  • NUTS! – a persistently hilarious (and finally poignant) documentary about the rise and fall of a medical and radio empire – all built on goat testicle “implantation” surgery in gullible humans.  Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30
  • Dead Slow Aheada visually stunning and an often hypnotic film, shot on a massive freighter on its voyage across vast ocean expanses with its all-Filipino crew.  Friday, April 29.
  • Under the Sun – a searing insight into totalitarian North Korean society, all from government-approved footage that tells a different story than the wackadoodle dictatorship intended.  Saturday, April 30.
Penny Lane's NUTS! will play at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5,2016. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

NUTS!. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

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DOUGH: light, fluffy and empty

DOUGH

DOUGH

The British comedy Dough treads the familiar territory of the mismatched buddy movie, specifically the Old Guy/Young Guy type.  Dough is distinguished from the rest of the genre by a culture clash element and the eminent actor Jonathan Pryce.  The story is set in contemporary London and the Old Guy is an Orthodox Jewish bakeshop owner (Pryce) and the Young Guy is a Muslim African refugee drug dealer (Jerome Holder).

The main characters are thrown together uncomfortably in the bakeshop, which is inexorably dying until Young Guy accidentally launches a new product line when he drops marijuana into the dough.  Suddenly business begins to boom, and all would be well but for two villains, a reptilian business rival and a scary skinhead drug lord.

Jonathan Pryce and Holder act as well as they can with this material, as does the sprightly Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine).  But you’ve seen every one of Dough’s plot developments in a movie before.  The villains and the physical comedy are WAY too broad.  Overall, Dough is better than the average sitcom on broadcast TV, but pretty banal.

Light, fluffy and empty, Dough is the Twinkie of movies. I don’t choose to eat Twinkies myself, but I understand that sometimes you might want one.

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PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK: a haunting masterpiece on TV

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Tomorrow night, Turner Classic Movies will air the enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir.  An Australian girls school goes on an outing to a striking geological formation – and some of the girls and a teacher disappear.  What happened to them? It’s beautiful and hypnotic and haunting.  It’s a film masterpiece, but if you can’t handle ambiguous endings – this ain’t for you.

Weir has gone on to make high quality hits (The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander), but Picnic at Hanging Rock – the movie that he made at age 31 – is his most original work.  Besides playing periodically on TCM, Picnic at Hanging Rock is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus.

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IFFNOHO Preview: the documentaries

GAZELLE: THE LOVE ISSUE

GAZELLE: THE LOVE ISSUE

Artistic Director Nicholas Goodman has programmed an especially strong slate of documentaries at this year’s International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO):

  • IFFNOHO is showcasing the LA premiere of Gazelle: The Love Issue LA premiere as the festival’s opening night film on Thursday, April 28, and it’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.
  • The Cross of the Moment helps us understand the bleakness of the “or else” if we fail to stall or reverse climate change. The IFFNOHO screening is the world premiere of this absorbing and important film.
  • Peter Miller’s documentary Projections of America reveals the story of American-made World War II propaganda films, designed to reassure the soon-to-be-occupied Europeans. “Propaganda” is a sinister word, and the surprise in Projections of America is how indirect, subtle and superficially benign these slice-of-American-life movies were.
  • The most popular of the propaganda films in the Projections of America series, Autobiography of a Jeep, has its own separate screening at IFFNOHO.

The International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO) runs from April 28 through May 1, and here’s the entire festival program.

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Stream of the Week: MEET THE HITLERS

MEET THE HITLERS

MEET THE HITLERS

In the documentary Meet the Hitlers, we are introduced to those few people who choose NOT to change their birth name of “Hitler”. And it’s a varied bunch. We meet a delightfully confident Missouri teen girl, a workaday Ecuadorian whose parents didn’t know who Hitler was and an affable Utah oldster who might be the most jovial fellow ever to brighten up a chain restaurant. And there’s an Austrian odd duck burdened with enough personal baggage that he surely didn’t need this name. Do they see the name as a curse, and how has it affected them? It’s a theoretical question to us in the audience, but it’s compelling to see the real world responses of the film’s subjects.

And then there’s a mystery about three Americans who HAVE changed the name – because they are the last living relatives of Adolph Hitler. We follow the journalist who has been tracking them down for over a decade. (Documentarian Matt Ogens makes a great editorial choice as to whether to reveal their current names.)

Finally, there’s the disturbing saga of a New Jersey neo-Nazi who is NOT named Adolph Hitler but WANTS to be. Of course, anybody can choose to adorn themselves with a Hitler mustache and swastika tattoos and spew hatespeech, but his choices are affecting not just himself, but his children.

Some of these threads are light-hearted and some are very dark. Meet the Hitlers works so well because Ogens weaves them together so seamlessly. It’s a very successful documentary.

I first reviewed Meet the Hitlers for its premiere at Cinequest 2015. Now Meet the Hitlers is available for streaming rental from Amazon Video and Vudu and for streaming purchase from iTunes.

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THE CROSS OF THE MOMENT: the bleakness of the “Or Else”

THE CROSS OF THE MOMENT

THE CROSS OF THE MOMENT

There’s no slick TED Talk or cool graphics in the compelling and sometimes chilling documentary The Cross of the Moment.  In that way, it’s exactly the film that An Inconvenient Truth was trying NOT to be.  But The Cross of the Moment is actually the more ambitious film because it’s not trying to convince us that global warming exists or is caused by humans – it’s helping us understand the bleakness of the “or else” if we don’t stall or reverse climate change.

Indeed, we hear from talking heads (really, really smart talking heads).  Director Jacob Freydont-Attie has selected scientists who are as able as the great scientific popularizers like Carl Sagan and James Burke.  It’s stripped down, undiluted science from scientists – but ever lively.  As a result, we in the audience are able to connect the dots ourselves.  We are in Deep Shit.  And capitalism itself may keep us from digging our way out.

The International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO) will present the world premiere of The Cross of the Moment on Sunday, May 1.

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PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA: propaganda, American-style

PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA

PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA.  Photo courtesy of PBS International.

Peter Miller’s documentary Projections of America reveals the story of American-made World War II propaganda films, designed to reassure the soon-to-be-occupied Europeans.  “Propaganda” is a sinister word, and the surprise in Projections of America is how indirect, subtle and superficially benign the filmmakers were.  The goal of the films was to make the liberating Americans seem not so scary, even though they were bombing Europe and then showing up heavily armed en masse and speaking only English.

The government tapped Hollywood screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) to make a series of movies, and Projections of America is also very much Riskin’s story.  We even see Riskin’s  family home movies and hear directly from his children (whose mother was the actress Fay Wray).

We are used to government propaganda being bombastic, obvious and heavy handed, which these films are not.  Riskin’s team made slice-of-American-life films to showcase workaday America through the daily experiences of Americans – with their implicit American values shining through.

One film, Swedes in America, hosted by Ingrid Bergman, showed just one tile in the American mosaic, but the everyday lives of Swedish-Americans resonated with other European ethnicities, who could imagine themselves comfortable in American society.  Another movie focused on a popular American immigrant from Italy, Arturo Toscanini.  And still another film brought a boy from bombed-out Britain to the American West to show him the real-life cowboy experience firsthand (how cool that must have been!).

The most popular movie in the series was Autobiography of a Jeep, which tracked every step of a Jeep’s journey from its American assembly plant to its use in wartime Europe – with the Jeep’s internal dialogue as the film’s narration.

The movies, of course, show a favorable and idealized, but not completely phony, view of America.  Certainly, the films did not dwell on problems of American society, such as racial segregation.  One movie depicts a small town receiving European refugees at first with distrust, but finally with acceptance.  The overall impact of the movies was to depict America and Americans as free, boisterous and alive with possibilities.  That, at its core,  was not untruthful.

Projections of America is narrated by John Lithgow.

The International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO) will host Projections of America’s LA premiere on Saturday, April 30.   Autobiography of a Jeep is also playing separately at IFFNOHO.

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GAZELLE: THE LOVE ISSUE

GAZELLE: THE LOVE ISSUE

GAZELLE: THE LOVE ISSUE

I challenge anyone to watch the first one minute of the absorbing documentary Gazelle: The Love Issue without wanting to see more of Gazelle Paulo and his art.  Gazelle’s art defies easy description – an unusual combination of fashion and performance art.  He dresses, models, takes photos of others and has turned his photo blog (FreakChic.com) into the magazine Gazelle.  In Gazelle: The Love Issue, director Cesar Terranova gives us the unvarnished Gazelle, with glimpses of the most personal aspects of his life and relationships.

Gazelle creates striking clothes and makeup that project ideas and feelings.   Descriptions like “drag queen” or Gazelle’s own understated “dressing up to go out” are totally inadequate and misleading.  Whether it’s funny or disturbing, this stuff is real art, more avant-garde than campy.  And as art must be to be good, Gazelle’s is ever evocative.

Spending 94 minutes with Paulo is pretty easy because he’s so gentle and humble despite his flamboyant, even exhibitionistic, behavior.  He’s an island of genuine kindness in a sea of snark and bitchiness.

The International Film Festival of North Hollywood (IFFNOHO) is showcasing the LA premiere of Gazelle: The Love Issue as the festival’s opening night film on Thursday, April 28, and it’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

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FIVE NIGHTS IN MAINE: a grieving fish out of water

David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest in Maris Curran's FIVE NIGHTS IN MAINE, playing at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21st - May 5th, 2016.

David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest in  FIVE NIGHTS IN MAINE. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

An Atlanta man (David Oyeowlo) suddenly loses his wife to an auto accident and is completely shattered by the depth and the jarring abruptness of his loss.  Pushed by his sister out of his paralysis, he drives up to Maine to visit his wife’s mother (Dianne Wiest).  She is a person who is generally harsh, judgemental and irritating at all times, but is more so now that her own health is failing.  His experience becomes the antithesis of the comfort and support that one would expect.  As she probes and spars with him, the two are each driven to their own catharsis.  The end of Five Nights in Maine also comes abruptly, leaving us to reflect on the lessons learned by the leading characters and how their grief is resolved.

Five Nights in Maine uses a handheld camera and LOTS of close=ups.  This was a conscious choice by first-time writer-director Maris Curran, who sought a “closing in” effect because “grief is claustrophobic”.

Dianne Wiest’s performance is an awards-worthy tour de force.  Flashing fiery looks and shooting piercing remarks from an invariably rigid posture, she commands our attention every moment that she is on-screen.  As we would expect, Oyewolo is outstanding, especially in the early scenes where he collapses into shock.  Rosie Perez, not as sassy, but every bit as appealing as usual, is rock solid in the supporting role as the mother’s nurse.  As the sister, Tenoyah Parris (Chi-Raq, Dear White People, Mad Men)  gives yet another flawless performance.

I saw Five Nights in Maine at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), where Director Maris Curran, producer Carly Hugo and actor David Oyelowo appeared at the screening. Curran said she was motivated to write a story about as her own marriage was falling apart; when the ground was pulled out from under her, she created a protagonist in that situation.

Aiming for a sensual look to an emotional film, Curran was able to snare Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani, fresh from his exquisite work in from Blue Is the Warmest Color, for his first American film. Budgeted for a 19-day shoot,the crew finished in only 18.

Oyewolo, happily married for 18 years, found exploring the territory of losing his wife to be very uncomfortable. for him. Five Nights in Maine was shot right after Selma, so his exhaustion from Selma helped him find this “hollowed-out” character. Oyewolo sees Five Nights in Maine as a fish out of water story – not just geographically but emotionally (a man not used to or prepared for grief). Oyewolo prefers women directors “wants to be part of stories that are emotionally challenging”.

Fortunately, Curran leavens this dark-themed story with bits of sharp humor. It’s an emotionally affecting and authentic movie. The U.S. theatrical release of Five Nights in Maine is expected in  late summer or early fall 2016.

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