Movies to See Right Now

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

The Movie Gourmet has been very quiet of late because I’m dealing with a major home remodel and a temporary move, as well as the demands of my day job, which seem to increase during even-numbered years. But I’ll be back in full force by mid-September, just in time for the big prestige movies of 2016. In the meantime:

  • 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.
  • Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Cafe Society is a well-made and entertaining diversion, but hardly a Must See.
  • I haven’t seen them yet, but readers with really good taste have recommended Captain Fantastic and Hell or High Water.

On September 1, Turner Classic Movies will be presenting the best work of Preston Sturges, the first workaday Hollywood screenwriter to transition into a major writer-director. TCM will be screening The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero! and The Great McGinty, an impressive body of work that Sturges churned out between the ages of 42 and 46. Unfortunately, his turbulent personality led to conflict in his business affairs, which exacerbated his drinking. He burned out and was dead at age 60, but he left behind some of the very, very smartest and funniest movie comedies.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS

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Movies to See Right Now

OUR LITTLE SISTER

OUR LITTLE SISTER

In theaters right now:

  • The Japanese domestic drama Our Little Sister is remarkably uplifting. I would seek it out because it’s unlikely to remain in theaters for more than two or three weeks.
  • Zero Days is a documentary on a jaw-dropping hacker mystery – who and how was able to get Iranian military computers to destroy the hardware for their own nuclear weapons program.
  • Really liked the New Zealand teen-geezer adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
  • The subversive documentary Under the Sun is a searing insight into totalitarian North Korean society, all from government-approved filming that tells a different story than the wackadoodle dictatorship intended.
  • Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Cafe Society is a well-made and entertaining diversion, but hardly a Must See.
  • Finding Dory doesn’t have the breakthrough animation or the depth of story that we expect from Pixar, but it won’t be painful to watch a zillion times with your kids.
  • I’m not writing about Ghostbusters, but I’ve seen it, and it’s not terrible. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are brilliant talents, and they produce some laughs in Ghostbusters.

Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about The Bandit, coming up on on CMT tomorrow night.

There’s still time to catch two of my top picks at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF36), which is wrapping up this weekend. False Flag and Wrestling Jerusalem will be screening at the Rafael in San Rafael.

My DVD/Stream of the week is the hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales. Writer-director Damián Szifron presents a series of individual stories about revenge. It’s still high my list of Best Movies of 2015 – So Far. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: WILD TALES

WILD TALES

WILD TALES

Okay, here’s the hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales. Writer-director Damián Szifron presents a series of individual stories about revenge. It’s still high my list of Best Movies of 2015 – So Far.

We all feel aggrieved, and Wild Tales explores what happens when rage overcomes the restraints of social order. Think about how instantly angry you can become when some driver cuts you off on the highway – and then how you might fantasize avenging the slight. Indeed, there is a story in Wild Tales that has the most severe case road rage since Spielberg’s Duel in 1971. Now Wild Tales is dark, and you gotta go with it. The humor comes from the EXTREMES that someone’s resentment can lead to.

One key to the success of Wild Tales is that it is an anthology. In a very wise move, Szifron resisted any impulse to stretch one of the stories into a feature-length movie. Each of the stories is just the right length to extract every laugh and pack a punch. The funniest stories are the opening one set on an airplane and the final one about a wedding.

The acting is uniformly superb. In one story, Oscar Martínez plays a wealthy man in a desperate jam, who buys the help of his shady lawyer fixer (Osmar Núñez) and his longtime household retainer (Germán de Silva) – until their prices get just a little too high. The three actors take what looks like it’s going to a thriller and morph into a (very funny) psychological comedy with a very cynical view of human nature.

One of the middle episodes stars one of my favorite film actors, Ricardo Darín, who I see as the Argentine Joe Mantegna. I suggest that you watch Darín in the brilliant police procedural The Secrets in Their Eyes (on my top ten for 2010), the steamy and seamy Carancho and the wonderful con artist movie Nine Queens.

Wild Tales was a festival hit (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and Sundance) around the world and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar. I saw Wild Tales at Cinequest 2015. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

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CAFE SOCIETY: does she pick the big shot or her soul mate?

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY

Woody Allen’s Café Society is an entertaining comedy centered on a love triangle. Because it takes awhile for all of the characters in Café Society to catch on to the identities of those involved in the triangle, there is an element of Shakespearean comedy of errors.  It’s witty and well-crafted, but not compelling enough to make it a Must See.

The three stars – Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Stewart and Steve Carell – are excellent.  Corey Stoll (so compelling as Congressman Peter Russo in House of Cards) makes for a fine gangster-in-the-family.  And it’s great to see Jeannie Berlin, who has only made six other features since 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, have so much fun as a solidly Jewish mother and exasperated wife.

Café Society is an example of why Kristin Stewart is a movie star.  Repeatedly, the camera lingers on her face in close up as the audience watches her silently express thoughts and feelings that she is withholding from the other characters.  I found her performance to be magnetic and compelling.  Now, on the way to dinner after watching this film, my opinion was shot down by The Wife, who continues to view Stewart’s acting as grossly overrated.  So there’s that.

Stewart showed much promise at the beginning of her career by effectively playing emotionally tortured and rebellious young women in Into the Wild, Adventureland and The Runaways.  That launched her stardom in the Twilight franchise, in which she was oft criticized for biting her lower lip in seemingly every scene.  I admired her performance in another recent movie that I didn’t like (Clouds of Sils Maria), and I think that she’s developed into a fine actress.

Woody’s DP for Café Society is Vittorio Storaro, the storied cinematographer for Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor and the beautifully shot 1990 Sheltering Sky (with Debra Winger and John Malkovich). Café Society’s Old Hollywood and 30’s nightclub scenes look authentic and enticing.

The core of Café Society‘s story is whether two soul mates are destined to be together or be apart. To explore this theme with better movies, I recommend the comedy Drinking Buddies and the drama Mademoiselle Chambon.

As I promised yesterday, here’s a link to Ronan Farrow’s My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked.

Woody Allen is 81 and continues to make a movie each year.  In the last decade, his ten features have included some stinkers (Irrational Man, To Rome with Love), an excellent comedy (Vicky Christina Barcelona),  an unforgettable acting showcase (for Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine) and a masterpiece (Midnight in Paris).  Any auteur should be satisfied with that record. In the middle of that pack, Café Society is a well-made diversion.

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Ronan Farrow’s unique perspective on Woody Allen and the media

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about Woody Allen’s latest, Café Society.  I put aside the creep factor when I watch Woody Allen’s movies. What’s important to me is what’s up on the screen. A movie can be a masterpiece (or crap) even if it’s made by someone to which you don’t relate, someone you find detestable or even to be a monster.  For example, I admire most of Roman Polanski’s movies, even though he committed a despicable and criminal act in the 1970s.

I know that other folks have other sensibilities and approaches that are completely justified. For example, The Wife will not watch movies that feature certain actors with domestic violence histories. Unlike me, she doesn’t compartmentalize, and she knows that she would be thinking about the real-life domestic violence during the movie. I respect her principle and her self-awareness.

Of course, I do not live under a rock, so I am aware of the distasteful 1992 episode when Mia Farrow booted Woody upon learning about his relationship with her then 21-year-old daughter Soon-yi.  (Soon-yi and Woody have been together ever since and married in 1996.)  And, much more disturbingly,  Woody’s own daughter Dylan Farrow recently accused him of molesting her when she was little, an accusation which he denies.

Ronan Farrow is Woody Allen’s son and Dylan’s brother. He is also a serious and accomplished journalist. Recently, he wrote a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter entitled My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked. In it, he shares his perspective on the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen situation.

Ronan Farrow also makes a broader critique of the media, how it treats both accusers and the celebrity accused.  He focuses on the relative power of the accuser and the accused, and it’s an especially thought-provoking and valuable essay.  (His column was written before the recent Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal but I found it to be  relevant and instructive in absorbing that story as well.)

I will continue to watch Woody Allen’s movies and to write about them. But from now on, I’ll be including a link to Ronan Farrow’s My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked.

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Movies to See Right Now

OUR LITTLE SISTER

OUR LITTLE SISTER

THE LAST LAUGH at the 36th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

THE LAST LAUGH at the 36th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Here are my top picks at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF36), underway right now throughout the Bay Area. The romance Fever at Dawn plays in Palo Alto tonight. This weekend, the festival hosts the West Coast premiere of the documentary The Last Laugh, which explores (gasp) humor and the Holocaust.

In theaters right now:

  • The Japanese domestic drama Our Little Sister is remarkably uplifting. I would seek it out because it’s unlikely to remain in theaters for more than two or three weeks.
  • Zero Days is a documentary on a jaw-dropping hacker mystery – who and how was able to get Iranian military computers to destroy the hardware for their own nuclear weapons program.
  • Opening today in San Francisco, the subversive documentary Under the Sun is a searing insight into totalitarian North Korean society, all from government-approved filming that tells a different story than the wackadoodle dictatorship intended.
  • Finding Dory doesn’t have the breakthrough animation or the depth of story that we expect from Pixar, but it won’t be painful to watch a zillion times with your kids.
  • I’m not writing about Ghostbusters, but I’ve seen it, and it’s not terrible. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are brilliant talents, and they produce some laughs in Ghostbusters.

My DVD/Stream of the week is the harrowing thriller ’71, about a nail-biting 24 hours in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. ’71 is now available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tomorrow night, Turner Classic Movies presents one of my favorite film noirs, The Lineup (1958), with its dazzling San Francisco locations.

THE LINEUP

THE LINEUP

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UNDER THE SUN: a wackadoodle regime subverts its own propaganda

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 San Francisco Film Society.

The subversive documentary Under the Sun is a searing insight into totalitarian North Korean society, all from government-approved filming that tells a different story than the wackadoodle dictatorship intended.

The North Korean regime gave filmmaker Vitaly Mansky permission to film the story of a young girl who is training to take part in one of North Korea’s ritualized propaganda spectacles – when children “join” the Korean Children’s Union on the birthday of the current Supreme Leader’s father.  The script and the filming locations were all assigned by the North Korean regime and all film reviewed by their censors.  But Mansky was able to conceal and preserve the outtakes – and those moments are devastatingly revelatory about life on North Korea.

What we see is a grim society, virtually devoid of vibrancy and joy.  Families are posed briefly mechanically and unsmilingly for ritual family photos in front of flower-bedecked giant portraits of the Leaders.  The streets are drab and empty of vehicle traffic even at rush hour.  Mansky shows us surreptitious glimpses of his minders and even of boys raiding garbage cans.  There’s a lot of regimentation depicted in Under the Sun and lots of people drearily filing to and fro.  Sometimes it gets tiresome – but that’s the point.

Everyone is conscripted to perform and watch phony staged spectacles of the grandest scale.  The rapturous crowds shown on TV contrast with the stoic crowds forced to view the televised events.  North Korea must have the world’s most professional event planners per capita.

Most chillingly, we see a class where 6-year-olds are taught to hate Japanese and Americans.  This appears to be a scene that the North Koreans INTENTIONALLY included in the movie.

The beautiful irony of Under the Sun is that, in trying to tell a story about the best of their society, the North Koreans actually reveal their worst.  I saw Under the Sun earlier this year at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival.  Under the Sun opens July 29 at the Lee 4-Star in San Francisco.

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OUR LITTLE SISTER: remarkably tender

OUR LITTLE SISTER

OUR LITTLE SISTER

The remarkably uplifting Japanese domestic drama Our Little Sister centers on three 20-something sisters whose father left them over fifteen years ago and whose flighty, selfish mom was never much of a factor in their lives.  The sisters are single and live together when there estranged dies and the travel to his funeral.  They meet their 15-year-old half-sister, and rescue her from her step-mom, the father’s third wife.  Now the household contains four siblings, all with different personalities, but all dealing with some sense of parental loss.

The four go about their daily lives, working, going to school, eating at a diner, watching fireworks.  Now here’s the beauty of Our Little Sister, although  there’s essentially no action and very little overt conflict, we learn a lot about these women.  And we begin to care for them.  And we become engaged in their journeys of self-discovery.

Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda was introduced to American fans of indie cinema in 1996 with Maborosi, and I listed his Still Walking on my Best Movies of 2009.  It’s a privilege to spend two hours with Kore-eda’s characters in Our Little Sister.  It’s impossible to leave Our Little Sister without being touched by its tenderness (and I’m a pretty cynical and hard-boiled viewer).

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THE LINEUP: cool killer, volcanic killer, careening thru San Francisco

THE LINEUP

THE LINEUP

The 1958 film noir The Lineup plays this Saturday, July 30, on Turner Classic Movies. The villains and the final chase scene are unforgettable, as are the movie’s iconic San Francisco locations.  It’s one of my Overlooked Noirs.

Two gangsters are smuggling heroin into San Francisco, hidden in the bags of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers. When a shipment isn’t where it’s supposed to be (in a girl’s doll), the gangsters take the doll’s owner (Cindy Calloway) and her mother (Mary LaRoche) hostage and then try to hunt down the contraband in San Francisco’s underground. Will the crooks find the junk? Will they harm the hostages? Will the cops find them first? The suspense builds until the man hunt turns into a spectacular chase through San Francisco.

Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP

Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP

The bad guys, Julian (Robert Keith) and Dancer (Eli Wallach), really set The Lineup apart from other crime dramas of the period.  Julian is ruthless, but always controlled and strategic.  One of the most self-aware villains in cinema history, Julian says things like, “Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He describes his partner Dancer as “a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.”

Robert Keith’s son, Brian Keith, became a much bigger star in the TV series Family Affair and a host of Disney productions.  But Robert Keith was himself a fine actor, especially as a PTSD-addled colonel in Men in War (1957).  The role of Julian, with its unusual combination of cool smarts and calculated malevolence, became one of Robert Keith’s finest performances.

Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP

Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP

Julian’s biggest challenge is operating with a psychotic partner (Wallach’s Dancer) who is ready to explode in violence at any moment.  Wallach was a great movie character actor who had the gift of packing maximum entertainment value into any role.  Movie fans will probably best remember him for two bandito bad guys – Cavela in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  But here he is, just three years after his feature film debut in Baby Doll, and Wallach is seething with intensity as he gives pychopathy an especially bad name.

To make their situation even edgier, Julian and Dancer have hired a local getaway driver  (the ever reliable character actor Richard Jaeckel) who is a raging alcoholic.

There isn’t any lineup of note in The Lineup, which was a theatrical feature seeking to exploit a police procedural TV series of the same name, hence the reference to “30 million fans” in the trailer.  Warner Anderson co-starred in the series and plays the cop in the movie.  The real juice in this movie, however, comes from the criminals that he is chasing.

The Lineup was brilliantly directed by the grievously underrated Don Siegel.  Siegel was a master of crime movies (and was the primary filmmaking mentor to Clint Eastwood).  I particularly love Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick, the guilty pleasure Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Wayne’s goodbye: The ShootistThe Lineup is right up there with Siegel’s best.

THE LINEUP

THE LINEUP

The biggest star of The Lineup, however, is the San Francisco of the late 1950s. The Lineup starts on the waterfront and ends in a chase that careens from the Cliff House all across the city to the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway (now itself torn down decades ago). The story also takes us to the old Embarcadero YMCA, the Golden Gate Bridge, War Memorial Opera House, US Custom House, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Legion of Honor, the old DeYoung Museum and the Mark Hopkins Hotel.  There’s even a critical scene in the Sutro Baths – which had become an ice skating rink when the movie was filmed.

Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP

Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP (the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in the background)

The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP

The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP

The Lineup (one of the few DVDs that I still own) plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: ’71 – keeping the thrill in thriller

'71

’71

The title of the harrowing thriller ’71 refers to the tumultuous year 1971 in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. An ill-prepared unit of British soldiers gets their first taste of action in Belfast, and the rookie Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) gets inadvertently left behind in hostile territory. Private Hook races around an unfamiliar and dangerous city at night. He is being hunted by his own regular troops, a shadowy and sketchy military intelligence unit, the regular IRA, the hotheaded Provisional IRA and Ulster paramilitaries – all with their own conflicting agendas. Any civilian who helps him will be at direct and lethal risk from the partisans.

In their feature debuts, director Jann Demange and cinematographer Tat Ratcliffe take us on a Wild Ride, with just a couple of chances for the audience to catch its collective breath. Importantly, the way Private Hook gets left behind amid the escalating chaos is very believable. Then there’s an exhilarating footrace through the alleys and over brick walls. Every encounter with another person is fraught with tension. Finally, there’s a long and thrilling climactic set piece in a Belfast apartment block.

O’Connell is in 90% of the shots and carries it off very well. All of the acting in ’71 is excellent. Corey McKinley is special as the toughest and most confident ten-year-old you’ll ever meet. Barry Keoghan takes the impassive stone face to a new level. And I always enjoy David Wilmot (so hilarious in The Guard).

I thank the casting and the direction for making it easy for us to tell all of these pale, ginger characters apart. To the credit of writer Gregory Burke, the beginning of the film economically sets up Private Hook as having the fitness and stamina to survive what befalls him throughout the night.

With all the different sides playing each other, the action (and the action is compelling) is set in an especially treacherous version of three-dimensional chess. Some of the double- and triple-crossing at the end is breathtaking. But what ’71 does best is putting the thrill in a thriller – keeping the audience on the edge of our seats for all 99 minutes.

’71, which I saw at Cinequest, made my list of the Best Movies of 2015. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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