Coming up: Mill Valley Film Festival

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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.

This year’s fest opens on October 6 with BOTH Arrival and La La Land and closes on October 16 with Loving – three of the biggest prestige movies and early favorites for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.

  • Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguist dispatched to communicate with alien lifeforms Directed by Denis Villaneuve (Incendies – my top movie of 2011, Prisoners, Sicario).
  • La La Land is a big studio musical a la Singing in the Rain with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Loving tells the story of the Virginia couple whose 1967 US Supreme Court case overturned state laws banning inter-racial marriage.  Stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.  Directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, all three of which made my Best of the Year lists).
  • Besides Arrival, La La Land and Loving, buzz is trending for another MVFF offering – Lion – with Dev Patel starring as an Australian adoptee returning to India to search for his biological parents.
  • And the big family hit of the Holiday season may turn out to be, of all things a documentary about a Mongolian girl – The Eagle Huntress;  reportedly it’s both a crowd pleaser and spectacular eye candy.
ARRIVAL

ARRIVAL

One MUST SEE at the fest is Toni Erdmann, from writer-director  Maren Ade.  You might not expect an almost three-hour German comedy to break through, but I’ve seen it, and I think that it’s a lock to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.   Ade gives us a woman’s perspective of a father-daughter relationship,  creating a totally original and unforgettable father character that takes prankstering into performance art.  This is a movie with the funniest nude brunch you’ll ever witness, and it will still leave you choked up at the end. Toni Erdmann leads a roster rich with future art house hits from some of the world’s leading filmmakers:

  • The Handmaiden from Chan-wook Park of Oldboy.
  • Julieta, Pedro Almodovar’s latest.
  • Aquarius, starring Sonia Braga, still luminous 40 years after Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands.
  • The Salesman from Asghar Farhadi of A Separation.
  • Certain Women from Kelly Reichardt of Wendy and Lucy, starring Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern.
  • Paterson from Jim Jarmusch with Adam Driver; Jarmusch’s Iggy Pop doc Gimme Shelter also screens at MVFF.
  • Frantz from François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Potiche).
  • Elle from Paul Verhoeven with Isabelle Huppert in, what else?, a psychological thriller with disturbing sex.

Celebrity appearances, for those of you who like that sort of thing, will include Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams, Ewan McGregor, Emma Stone, Gael García Bernal, Edward James Olmos, Joel Edgerton, Annette Bening and Aaron Eckhardt. For those of you seeking a chance to hear great filmmakers discuss their work in the flesh, you’ll get your chance with Jeff Nichols, Kelly Reichardt and Asghar Farhadi.

This year’s MVFF runs from October 6-16, mostly at the Sequoia in Mill Valley and the Rafael in San Rafael, but also at three other Marin venues. Check out the program and tickets for the MVFF.

TONI ERDMANN

TONI ERDMANN

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE VISITOR – self-isolation no longer

THE VISITOR

Richard Jenkins in THE VISITOR

Seeing the great character actor Richard Jenkins again in The Hollars reminded me that everyone should see his starring turn in the indie drama The Visitor. Touching on the themes of immigration to the US and the “otherness” of people from the Middle East, it’s especially topical today.  Jenkins has the role of his career in The Visitor – a man who deals with loss by isolating himself. He becomes intrigued with an illegal Middle Eastern immigrant, then develops a bond and then reclaims passion into his life.

The Visitor is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play ad Xbox Video.

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THE HOLLARS: the great Margo Martindale in an unabashed crowd pleaser

John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in THE HOLLARS

John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in THE HOLLARS

The indie dramedy The Hollars is the year’s most sure-fire crowd pleaser.  And it’s yet another showcase for the best screen actress working today, Margo Martindale.  Martindale plays the glue that tenuously holds together an otherwise dysfunctional family.  Her husband and two adult sons are each facing both career and personal struggles, and when the mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, each member of the family starts to crumble.

As the characters face commitment anxiety, job struggles, outright failure and even death, there are lots of laughs.  I saw The Hollars in a theater and there were many LOLs from the audience, some a little delayed as the audience processed, “did he really say that?”.  For example, an oncologist greets the worried family members with a deadpan “Sorry to be late.  I was golfing.”

The actor John Krasinky directs.  He and screenwriter Jim Strouse are economical story-tellers.  The first few vignettes tells us what we need to know about the family members and their relationships to each other.

The Hollars is really about the journeys of the father and the two sons, with the mom serving as the men’s mirror, sounding board and coach.  But Margo Martindale is so good as the woman who is very wise but doesn’t have the need to let everyone know.  Every second that she’s on the screen, we feel lucky to be watching her.  The toughest job in cinema must film editor on a Martindale movie; it’s gotta be painful to leave any Martindale moments off the screen.

We first noticed Martindale in 2004 as Hilary Swank’s venal mother in Million Dollar Baby.  In Justified, she made the character of the ruthless and crafty backwoods crime matriarch Mags Bennett unforgettable.  Her heartbreaking performance in Paris je t’aime was similarly indelible.  Now age 65, she’s still at her peak.

Martindale is paired with the great character actor Richard Jenkins, who has at least two Oscar-worthy scenes as her befuddled, denial-embracing husband.  As one of the sons, Krasinksy is as appealing as usual.  Anna Kendrick is perfectly cast as the pregnant girlfriend – being nine months pregnant is a vulnerable position from which to watch your partner figure out his life.  In small parts, we are blessed with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s piercing vibe and Mary Kay Place’s non-nonsense charm.  Josh Groban, of all people, is effective carrying off the role of the ever-smiling youth pastor who is dating one of the sons’ ex.

With all its humor, The Hollars is a weeper. Its ending is sentimental, but not maudlin or phony. I usually resist movie sentimentality, but a movie can EARN a sentimental ending with authenticity throughout, a stellar example being The Best Years of Our Lives. That’s the case here.

The Hollars is a wonderful movie to see with a companion. It looks like its theatrical run is going to fade out. But I predict that the word of mouth is going make it into a video hit once it appears on PPV and the streaming/DVD rental services. A gem.

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Movies to See Right Now

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m still recommending the best movie of the year so far – the character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water. It’s atmospheric, gripping, and packed with superb performances. Hell or High Water is a screenwriting masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan. Must See.

Here are other attractive movie choices:

  • Really liked the New Zealand teen-geezer adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople (now also available to stream on Vudu).
  • Opening this weekend, an offbeat and entertaining period tale of revenge, The Dressmaker.
  • Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Cafe Society is a well-made and entertaining diversion, but hardly a Must See.

My Stream of the Week is still a totally overlooked drama from earlier this year, A Country Called Home. Somehow A Country Called Home missed out on any significant theatrical release even though it’s a very satisfying Finding Yourself drama. A Country Called Home can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

September 24 on Turner Classic Movies:  Caged. Want to see the prototype for Orange Is the New Black?  Eleanor Parker (who died last year) played the naive young woman plunged into a harsh women’s prison filled with hard-bitten fellow prisoners and compassion-free guards. Parker was nominated for an acting Oscar, but her performance pales next to that of Hope Emerson, whose electric portrayal of a hulking guard also got an Oscar nod. Caged also features the fine character actresses Thelma Moorhead, Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) and Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton here as a young woman).  Sixty-four years later, Caged might still be the best women’s prison movie ever.

Hope Emerson and Eleanor Parker in CAGED

Hope Emerson and Eleanor Parker in CAGED

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THE DRESSMAKER: an offbeat tale of Aussie revenge

Kate Winslet in THE DRESSMAKER

Kate Winslet in THE DRESSMAKER

In the comedy The Dressmaker, a woman (Kate Winslet) returns to her remote Australian home village with revenge on her mind.  She was run out-of-town as a child for something that she can’t remember, and has become a successful Parisian dress designer.  She’s come back to resolve the mystery and, when she finds that the hateful townspeople have left her mother (Judy Davis) to decompensate, she’s ready to unleash vengeance on a Biblical scale.  It’s set in the early 1950s.

Be ready for this comedy to darken considerably in its final segment.  The first 90 minutes weave together an excellent comedy, an ordinary whodunit and a run-of-the-mill romance.  Then a tragic occurrence takes the movie to very serious place and unspools  a VERY darkly funny revenge finale, which is both over-the-top and satisfying.  But the shift in tone is jarring, and the movie as a whole is very uneven.

The Dressmaker is, however, very well-acted.  Winslet is good in a very broad role.  Judy Davis, 37 years after becoming an art house favorite in My Brilliant Career,  gleams with energy as the vibrant and demented mother.  Sarah Snook is particularly notable in one of the great “makeover” roles, transitioning from ugly duckling to local princess while retaining the same nasty personality.

My favorite performance in The Dressmaker is Hugo Weaving’s.  I’ve been a fan of Weaving since he so compellingly played a blind man in the 1991 Proof (also our first look at a very young Russell Crowe).  Since then, Weaving has earned iconic roles in the Matrix movies and V for Vendetta and is usually the most interesting performer in big budget movies.   In The Dressmaker, Weaving plays the town constable, a minor official with a very peculiar secret proclivity.  Totally committed to the part, Weaving is flamboyant fun.

All in all, The Dressmaker is generally entertaining, if not cohesive.

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Movies to See Right Now

Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Topping my recommendations is the best movie of the year so far – the character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water. It’s atmospheric, gripping, and packed with superb performances. Hell or High Water is a screenwriting masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan. Must See.

Here are other attractive movie choices:

  • Really liked the New Zealand teen-geezer adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
  • Florence Foster Jenkins is not just a one-joke movie about a bad singer – it’s a love story about trying to protect the one that you love.
  • Don’t Think Twice is a dramedy set in the world of comedy, another smart, insightful little film by Mike Birbiglia.
  • Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Cafe Society is a well-made and entertaining diversion, but hardly a Must See.

Don’t have an unbridled recommendation for Mia Madre.

My Stream of the Week is the totally overlooked drama from earlier this year, A Country Called Home with Imogen Poots.   A Country Called Home can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On September 20, Turner Classic Movies presents perhaps the most deeply funny movie of all time, Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati’s masterful fish-out-of-water satire of modern consumerism and modernist culture. If you have strong feelings (either way) for Mid-Century Modern style, be patient and settle in.  There’s very little dialogue and lots of sly observational physical humor. The use of ambient noise/sounds and the very spare soundtrack is pure genius.

Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati in MON ONCLE

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Stream of the Week: A COUNTRY CALLED HOME – to move on, she needs another look at her past

Imogen Poots in A COUNTRY CALLED HOME

Imogen Poots in A COUNTRY CALLED HOME

This week’s video recommendation is a totally overlooked drama from earlier this year, A Country Called Home. Somehow A Country Called Home missed out on any significant theatrical release even though it’s a very satisfying Finding Yourself drama.

Imogen Poots plays Ellie, a young Los Angeles woman with an underachieving job and a lousy boyfriend who takes her for granted. She hears that her estranged father has become gravely ill, and we learn that she has escaped a Texas childhood with an alcoholic father. Her brother (Shea Whigham) also lives in Los Angeles; he is flourishing and doesn’t care a whit about their father – the brother has moved on from his upbringing. But Ellie is a poster girl for low-self esteem, and she feels obligated to travel to her father’s bedside.

Ryan Bingham in A COUNTRY CALLED HOME

Ryan Bingham in A COUNTRY CALLED HOME

Once in Texas, she finds that her father has just passed, leaving the detritus of his alcoholic life. Everything in her old hometown is trashy, complicated or just plain unsupportive. She meets a misfit wannabe singer-songwriter (Mackenzie Davis unrecognizable from Bad Turn Worse). And there’s a pressured-out single dad played by the sad-eyed Ryan Bingham (the Oscar-winning songwriter for Crazy Heart).

A Country Called Home is the debut feature for director and co-writer Anna Axster, and it’s a successful and engaging study of a woman finally emerging from a childhood with an alcoholic parent. It turns out that, to move on with her life, she needed another look at where she came from.

A Country Called Home can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Topping my recommendations is the best movie of the year so far – the character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water. It’s atmospheric, gripping, and packed with superb performances. Hell or High Water is a screenwriting masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan. Must See.

Here are other attractive movie choices:

  • Really liked the New Zealand teen-geezer adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
  • Florence Foster Jenkins is not just a one-joke movie about a bad singer – it’s a love story about trying to protect the one that you love.
  • I found the documentary about Burt Reynolds and his stuntman/director Hal Needham, The Bandit, very enjoyable; it’s playing on CMT.
  • Don’t Think Twice is a dramedy set in the world of comedy, another smart, insightful little film by Mike Birbiglia.
  • Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Cafe Society is a well-made and entertaining diversion, but hardly a Must See.

Don’t have an unbridled recommendation for Mia Madre.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the painfully timely Weiner, one of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. Weiner is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and DirecTV.

Today, Turner Classic Movies airs The Conversation.  And coming up on September 12, TCM delivers early Spielberg: The Sugarland Express (1974).  White trash anti-heroes (Goldie Hahn and William Atherton) pull off a jail break, but their harebrained scheme evolves into a man-hunt and then a hostage standoff.   The wonderfully underused Ben Johnson plays the lawman.

The young Steven Spielberg’s career trajectory as a director began with Duel and a couple of other TV movies, and then The Sugarland Express was his first feature.   Right after Sugarland came Jaws and Close Encounters and Raiders and ET and etc.   The Sugarland Express was made in that very brief period when big movie studios let auteur directors tell stories that today could only be made as “indies” (like The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver, All That Jazz).

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DON’T THINK TWICE: dramedy in the world of comedy

DON'T THINK TWICE

DON’T THINK TWICE

Don’t Think Twice is a dramedy set in the world of comedy. Six artists of varying talent have formed an improvisational comedy troupe. They’re scraping by without much affirmation and with no financial success when one of them gets a chance to join the cast of a hit show a la Saturday Night Live. How do they react when only one attains the stardom that they all crave?

The comic Mike Birbiglia wrote and directed Don’t Think Twice about a world that he knows well. Like his previous Sleepwalk with Me, Don’t Think Twice is smart, funny and filled with authentic human reactions.

Here are the questions that Don’t Think Twice explores. When is “following your dream” an excuse for staying comfortable? When is it delusional? When is it an excuse to sabotage your own success? And when does following your dream keep you from following a more promising dream? When do you call it off?

Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs flash the best performances, but the entire troupe is watchable. Generously, Birbiglia plays the least sympathetic character himself. Birbiglia, who is in real life a brilliant comic, is up to the challenge of playing someone whose talent just falls short.

Key is half of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele, creators of the hilarious viral sketches Obama’s Anger Translator and East/West College Bowl (Ozamataz Buckshank!).

Because it is about very funny people who work in comedy, Don’t Think Twice is very witty. It’s also packed with moments of Cringe Humor, and we’re cringing because we’ve seen these behaviors in our own lives. This is another good little movie by Mike Birbiglia.

 

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coming up on TV: THE CONVERSATION

John Cazale and Gene Hackman in THE CONVERSATION

Friday, September 9, Turner Classic Movies is presenting one of the greatest movies ever – The Conversation (1974).  At the height of his powers, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Conversation between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, and The Conversation is every bit the masterwork as the others.

In a role just as iconic as in The French Connection, Gene Hackman plays an audio surveillance expert entangled in a morally troubling assignment – and then obsessed. Veteran character actor Allen Garfield is just as good and the irreplaceable John Cazale makes us cringe and ache as always. Look for a very young Harrison Ford and for a glimpse of an uncredited Robert Duvall as a corpse.

The most significant achievement in The Conversation, however, is the groundbreaking sound editing by Walter Murch. After experiencing The Conversation, you’ll never again overlook movie sound editing.

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