DVD/Stream of the Week: WILD

Reese Witherspoon in WILD

Reese Witherspoon in WILD

Based on the popular memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild is the story of how Strayed dealt with her own emotional collapse. Suffering  from the death of her mother, among other issues, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) had become a red-hot mess, playing around with heroin and destructive serial sex and, in the process, dooming her marriage to a solid guy (Tomas Sadowski from The Newsroom). To cleanse herself from her demons, Strayed embarked on a solitary thousand mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hiking the Pacific Coast Trail is a mighty quest – both an ordeal and an achievement. But walking it alone as a woman – that’s a whole different deal. The camera is on Reese Witherspoon in every scene, and she carries the movie with her performance – both as Cheryl implodes in the flashbacks and as she overcomes her fears and inexperience on her hike. It’s been eight years since Witherspoon won the Oscar for Walk the Line. Recently, she’s been reinventing her career with high quality fare like Mud, Devil’s Knot, Wild and the upcoming Inherent Vice. Her work in Wild is top rate.

Laura Dern’s performance may be even better than Witherspoon’s. She plays Strayed’s mom, a woman who has been dealt a shit sandwich every day of her life, but who relentlessly insists on appreciating life’s small pleasures. It’s a compelling and heartbreaking performance.

Now I have done some back country hiking and I know what it’s like to walk for 15 miles in a day. It can be pretty damn monotonous. But not this movie. Writer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and director Jean-Marc Vallée do a fine job in presenting the scope of a thousand mile journey by pulling out the most compelling components – the moments that illustrate the impressiveness of the feat and the depths of Strayed’s emotional damage and healing.

It’s pretty fine piece of filmmaking overall, and I’m going to start looking for the work of Jean-Marc Vallée. As he did in Dallas Buyers Club, here he tees up extraordinary performances while avoiding what could have become trite and sentimental audience manipulation. Watching Witherspoon and Dern in Wild is a good use of anyone’s time.

Wild is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixter.

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SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL – as told by his wives and his kids

SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL

SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is a solid and sometimes revelatory biopic of Frank Sinatra now playing on HBO. It’s shown in two two-hour segments. Sinatra fans should watch the whole thing. For everyone else, the middle part is especially strong – focus on the stretch from his affair and marriage to Ava Gardner through the Frank, Jr., kidnapping and the marriage to Mia Farrow.

Documentarian Alex Gibney has an unusual gift for finding the best possible source material, including coaxing interviews from the most intimate witnesses. The strength of Sinatra: All or Nothing At All comes from interviews of Sinatra’s children Tina, Nancy and Frank, Jr., along with audio of Sinatra’s first three wives – Nancy Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow – and girlfriend Lauren Bacall.

Gibney has another strong doc running on HBO right now: Going Clear: The Prison of Belief. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the excellent Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is a pretty comprehensive biodoc, tracing the Italian immigrant parents, the humble (but not destitute) Hoboken upbringing, rocketing to pop stardom, the career fade with the Great Comeback – along with his womanizing and friendships with the Mob, the Rat Pack and JFK. There are also some tidbits that I hadn’t seen before, for example, not being able to get an US government security clearance to entertain troops in Korea because of his political associations, plus an awkward performance with Elvis in the 50s. See “Spoiler Alert” below for the movie’s take on how Sinatra got the role in From Here to Eternity that launched his comeback. And, although I lived through it, I had completely forgotten about the kidnapping of Frank, Jr.

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is playing on HBO and is available streaming from HBO GO.

[Spoiler Alert: By the early 50s, Sinatra’s career was floundering and he was desperate for the acting role of Maggio in the upcoming From Here to Eternity. For years, there has been a legend that Sinatra called on his buddies in the Mafia to put the arm on Columbia Pictures to cast him. This tale is depicted in The Godfather with the horse’s-head-in-the-bed scene. Sinatra: All or Nothing At All persuasively debunks this story, explaining that, instead, his recent ex Ava Gardner pressured the studio filmmakers to cast Sinatra. Another appeal was that Sinatra was also a big name who worked for very cheap. This is consistent with Director Fred Zinnemann’s version .]

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Movies to See Right Now

Victor Buono in THE STRANGLER

Victor Buono in THE STRANGLER

This week, most of your movie best bets are on TV and video.

In theaters, I liked Ethan Hawke’s gentle documentary Seymour: An Introduction. If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows.

Don’t bother with Clouds of Sils Maria – it’s a muddled mess.

Insurgent, from the Divergent franchise is what it is – young adult sci-fi with some cool f/x. The romance 5 to 7 did NOT work for me, but I know smart women who enjoyed it. I found Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to be droll but tiresome. The biting Hollywood satire of Maps to the Stars wasn’t worth the disturbing story of a cursed family. I also didn’t like the Western Slow West, now out on video.

Documentarian Alex Gibney has TWO excellent films playing now on HBO:

  • Going Clear: The Prison of Belief, a devastating expose of Scientology is playing on HBO; and
  • Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, an especially well-researched and revelatory biopic of Frank Sinatra.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the hilarious Living in Oblivion, with Steve Buscemi and Peter Dinklage. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Xbox Video.

Don’t miss the 1964 serial killer movie The Strangler, playing on Turner Classic Movies on April 19. It’s the masterpiece of director Burt Topper, who specialized in low-budget exploitation movies. First, we see that lonely lab tech Otto Kroll (Victor Buono in an especially brilliant and eccentric performance) is twisted enough to murder random women and return to his lair and fondle his doll collection. Then we learn his motivation – he dutifully visits his hateful mother (Ellen Corby – later to play Grandma Walton) in her nursing room; she heaps abuse on him in every interaction. Pretty soon, even the audience wants to kill Mrs. Kroll, but Otto sneaks around taking out his hatred for his mom by strangling other women. Because Otto is outwardly genial to a fault, it takes a loooong time to fall under the suspicion of the cops. The character of Otto and Buono’s performance elevate The Strangler above its budget and launches it into the top rank of serial killer movies. (THE STRANGLER IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR RENT FROM NETFLIX OR STREAMING SERVICES. You can buy the DVD from Amazon or find a VHS tape on eBay.)

TCM will also show Murder, My Sweet (April 20), the 1944 film in which Dick Powell was able to escape his typecasting as boyish crooner in big musicals and immerse himself in a new career in grimy film noir. Powell proves himself right with the studio bosses, and Murder, My Sweet was just his first success in film noir. Powell, an actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age who would translate very well in today’s cinema, is very watchable as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an LA private dick who is hired by three clients, each seemingly more dangerous than the last. As Marlowe follows the mystery, he is knocked out multiple times, taken hostage, drugged and temporarily blinded. Oh, and Claire Trevor tries to seduce him. Pretty good stuff.

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CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA: a muddled mess

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

Man, what a disappointment! Somehow the Clouds of Sils Maria lets us lose interest in the ever-radiant Juliette Binoche and wastes a performance by Kristen Stewart that made her the first American actress to win a César (the French Oscar). But it’s just a muddled mess.

Binoche plays a Margot Channing-aged actress, and Stewart plays her personal assistant. The star is about to take the older woman role in a play that launched her career (in a younger role to be played by the star of a Hollywood comic book movie). As the movie begins, the play’s author dies and the Binoche character must deal with the loss of her mentor. She’s also going through a difficult divorce and fending off the advances of a onetime co-star, and generally being pretty difficult amid her midlife crisis. None of this interesting and some of the story is confusing to boot.

The only time that Clouds of Sils Maria perks up is when Chloë Grace Moretz shows up as the younger actress, a train wreck who is the epitome of paparazzi-bait . (Kudos to Kristen Stewart – the Moretz role is close enough to Stewart’s real life to demonstrate that Stewart doesn’t take herself too seriously.) It’s a funny role and Moretz nails it.

Oddly, Clouds of Sils Maria is almost entirely in English (for Kristen Stewart?), and Binoche just isn’t as enthralling as she usually is. It’s also odd that a French celebrity would hire a non-French speaking personal assistant for travel in French-speaking country – what’s up with this?

I blame director Olivier Assayas. I really liked Assayas’ miniseries Carlos , but he now has engineered three clunker features in a row (Summer Hours, Something in the Air and Clouds of Sils Maria)., so I’ll have to persuaded to see his next project.

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SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION: a master class in teaching from a piano master

Seymour bernstein and Ethan hawke in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION

As Seymour: An Introduction opens, we see an elderly man giving piano lessons to VERY talented pianists.  His gentle instructions address tiny details in the performances that we in the audience can’t notice – such as how deeply to press the piano key.  Each of his tips is constructive and easy to understand  As  exacting as his corrections are, his overall demeanor never fluctuates from entirely supportive.  This extraordinary teacher is the concert pianist Seymour Bernstein.

Bernstein long ago abandoned a career in the spotlight. We’re meeting Bernstein only because the actor Ethan Hawke met him by chance and benefited from his life advice.  Hawke directed this film.

Thank you, Ethan.  It’s a deep privilege to meet this gifted and kind man, and spend an hour-an-a-half watching him treat others as he does.  When the Wife and I caught a screening, no one left the theater until the end credits were completed.

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SLOW WEST: a Western that never gets into the rhythm

SLOW WEST

SLOW WEST

Slow West, which I saw at Cinequest, is out on VOD today, ahead of a theatrical release in mid-May. I suggest that you skip it.

I love Westerns, but Slow West just didn’t work for me. It’s a film of some ambition, and it won an award at Sundance, but the movie kept sliding in and out of self-consciousness, and I could never settle in to the story.

Kodi Smitt-McGee plays a sixteen-year-old Scot completely unsuited for survival in the Old West. Nonetheless, he is devoted to a young woman and he launches a determined quest to track her down. He soon picks up a veteran Westerner (Michael Fassbender) who can guide and guard him. The two, of course, have a series of adventures along the way.

There’s some appealingly dark and droll humor in Slow West (quite a few good laughs, actually). The problem is that Slow West can’t figure out whether it should have the tone of a straight Western (Unforgiven, The Homesman) or wink at the audience (Little Big Man). Accordingly, some of the period details are so wrong that they distracted me from the story. For example, in an otherwise very funny scene with arrows and a clothesline, the Indians look like tiny, skinny Asians. Smitt-McGee employs a Scots accent in every fifth line. And Fassbender sounds like he just stepped out of a time machine from 2015.

Slow West was filmed in New Zealand, so there are grand vistas that kind of look like the American West, but then kinda don’t. This DID work for me, because it contributed an almost subconscious edge to heighten some scenes.

Bottom line: Slow West is a mess.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: LIVING IN OBLIVION

Peter Dinklage and Steve Buscemi in LIVING IN OBLIVION

Peter Dinklage and Steve Buscemi in LIVING IN OBLIVION

The hilarious 1995 comedy Living in Oblivion follows a grossly under-resourced indie movie director (Steve Buscemi), who must  somehow finish his low-budge/no-budget art film despite being surrounded by zanies.  He’s got a neurotic female lead (Catherine Keener), a preening and slumming A-list star named Chad Palomino (James Le Gros) and an elderly actress who can’t remember her lines (Rica Martens).  His stubborn and sullen cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney) is bedding the First Assistant Director (Danielle von Zerneck), who has an agenda of her own.  With this outfit, everything that CAN go wrong…

Living in Oblivion is filled with lines like “I can’t act. I can just do shower scenes in Richard Gere movies for the rest of my life!” and “Hey! That’s my eye patch and I don’t want anyone else wearing it. It’s insanitary.”

But the pièce de résistance is the feature debut of Peter Dinklage, 8 years before his breakout role in The Station Agent and 16 years before becoming a star in Game of Thrones.   He plays an tiny actor with a gargantuan chip on his shoulder:   “Why does my character have to be a dwarf?” and “I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”.

Director Tom Dicillo, having been Jim Jarmusch’s cinematographer, was no stranger to indie filmmaking.  After Living in Oblivion, Danielle von Zerneck moved on to a producing career.

Living in Oblivion is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Xbox Video.

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for TRUE DETECTIVE fans

I loved last year’s True Detective on HBO with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson – so much that it made my list of the Best Movies of 2014.  McConaughey’s performance was the best on TV last year.

The teaser trailer for 2015 season of True Detective is out (see below).  There’s a whole new cast and story line – but it’s still written by the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto.  Once again, it’s a great cast:  Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Tyler Stritch (The Grand Seduction and Friday Night Lights), veteran character actor W. Earl Brown and the wonderful Kelly Reilly (Flight, Calvary).  (Vince Vaughn is one of the leads, and hopefully it will be the Clay Pigeons Vince Vaughn instead of the Delivery Man Vince Vaughn.)

HBO will premiere the 2015 season of True Detective on June 21,  The 2014 season is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from HBO GO.

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Movies to See Right Now

IT FOLLOWS

IT FOLLOWS

There’s a good movie choice for everyone:

  • If you haven’t seen it yet, run out and watch the hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales, a series of individual stories about revenge fantasies becoming actualized.
  • The harrowing thriller ’71 is exhilarating.
  • Going Clear: The Prison of Belief, documentarian Alex Gibney’s devastating expose of Scientology is playing on HBO;
  • I also really like the Belgian romance Three Hearts – the leading man has a weak heart in more ways than one.
  • If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows.
  • The music doc The Wrecking Crew is for those with an interest in music of the 1960s. It’s both in theaters and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Insurgent, from the Divergent franchise is what it is – young adult sci-fi with some cool f/x. The romance 5 to 7 did NOT work for me, but I know smart women who enjoyed it.  I found Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to be droll but tiresome.  The biting Hollywood satire of Maps to the Stars wasn’t worth the disturbing story of a cursed family.

My Stream of the Week is Inherent Vice, a funny and confused amble through pot-besotted 1970 Los Angeles. It’s available on DirecTV PPV, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

On April 13, Turner Classic Movies has something for everyone:

    • The screwball comedy What’s Up Doc?, with my all-time favorite chase scene;
    • Hitchcock’s unsettling The Birds;
    • And if you like your film noir tawdry, then Gun Crazy (1950) is for you. Peggy Cummins plays a prototypical Bad Girl who takes her newlywed hubby on a crime spree.

On April 15, there is a real curiosity on TCM, the 1933 anti-war movie Men Must Fight, which predicts World War II with unsettling accuracy.

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Stream of the Week: INHERENT VICE

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in INHERENT VICE

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in INHERENT VICE

Adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson from a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice is a funny and confused amble through pot-besotted 1970 Los Angeles.  Joaquin Phoenix plays a bottom-feeding private eye who is contacted by an old girlfriend and, of course, finds himself knocked out and implicated in a murder.  Thus begins a plot so convoluted that it makes The Big Sleep look as linear as a Bud Light commercial.

We meet a wide array of characters with names like Dr. Buddy Tubes, Japonica Fenway and Puck Beaverton.  We hear sly wit along with seeing low brow sight gags (nose-picking. etc.).  There are funny lines, as when Phoenix’s pothead detective is described as “You smell like a patchouli fart”.  Perhaps the funniest moment is when our addled hero writes himself a note in block letters: “NOT HALLUCINATING”.

Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Jeannie Berlin, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short all pop up in Inherent Vice, and Joaquin Phoenix is as good as one would expect.  The most memorable performances, though are by Josh Brolin and Katharine Waterston.  Brolin is hilarious as a flat-topped hardass cop.  Waterston plays the former girlfriend, Inherent Vice’s female lead, and she pretty much captivates every scene that she’s in.  Musician Joanna Newsom, who also plays a minor character, narrates very effectively.

Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, The Master) is a brilliant filmmaker, and Inherent Vice gets the time and place just right, with an especially evocative color palette.

It’s mildly entertaining all the way through, but never compelling.  And all the way through is two hours and twenty-eight minutes – not really a slog, but you’re never on the edge of your seat.  And you’re certainly not going to think about it tomorrow.

I finally got around to watching Inherent Vice on DirecTV PPV.  It’s also streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

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