Movies to See Right Now

Sam Elliiott and Blythe Danner in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

Sam Elliiott and Blythe Danner in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

The two exceptionally good films in theaters are:

Far from the Madding Crowd, is a satisfying choice for those looking for a bodice ripper. If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows. Don’t bother with Slow West, a failed Western that never gets into rhythm.

I really enjoyed the Argentine comedy The Film Critic, which is now available for streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the the Civil Rights docudrama Selma – an incredibly stirring movie with one significant historical flaw.  Selma is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox; you can stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

On June 2, Turner Classic Movies airs Key Largo (1948), one of the classic film noirs and still satisfying to this day. Both trapped in a claustrophobic Florida island resort by a hurricane, Humphrey Bogart has to face down sadistic mobster Edward G. Robinson. 23-year-old Lauren Bacall was at her most appealing. Claire Trevor’s heartbreaking performance as a gangster’s moll aging out of her looks is one of her best.

TCM brings another noir on June 3 – The Killers (1946). Burt Lancaster stars in a story adapted (and greatly expanded) from the Hemingway short story. It’s only the only the third leading role for the 24-year-old Ava Gardner. Wonderfully deep noir cast: Edmond O’Brien, Charles McGraw, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, William Conrad. Selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Finally, on June 5, TCM is showing the superb proto-noir M (1931), Peter Lorre stars as a serial killer who preys on children. It’s a masterpiece by master director Fritz Lang (Metropolis), who later fled the Nazis to Hollywood and made several fine film noirs in the 50s. Lorre is compelling as a man plagued with a twisted compulsion. There’s no explicit violence, but you’ve never seen a more chilling solitary balloon. The city’s criminal underclass races with the police to hunt down the monster. The climax is a most unusual courtroom scene. If you’re going to see one pre-war European film – see this one.

Peter Lorre in M

Peter Lorre in M

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THE FILM CRITIC: when a cynic’s life becomes corny

Rafael Spregelburd (center, with glasses) in THE FILM CRITIC

Rafael Spregelburd (center, with glasses) in THE FILM CRITIC

In the enjoyable Argentine comedy The Film Critic (El Critico), we meet a glum and judgmental movie critic (Rafael Spregelburd).  He’s proud of having not written a rave review in the past two decades and he’s so pretentious that he thinks is French (very nice touch).  He lives to pile snark on romantic comedies, a genre that he despises.  His editor says, “You are a terrorist of taste!”.  He is so negative through-and-through, that he is a pretty miserable person to be around.

Then, he meets (cute) a vital and captivating woman (Dolores Fonzi).  To his discomfort, he is pulled into every cliché of a movie romantic comedy (when they kiss for the first time, fireworks even go off in the sky above), and he starts becoming uncharacteristically happy, even giddy.

Writer-director Hernán Gerschuny has created a winning, character-driven comedy.  His protagonist’s entire identity is to be unsatisfied by anything and everything.  Yet it turns out that he can be hooked by the same joys that he thinks he is above.

The Film Critic is full of references that will delight movie fans – and especially cinephiles,  movie critics and movie bloggers!  The critic holds forth with a hilarious recounting of rom com conventions (“why are they always running?”).  And, of course, the woman that HE meets looks uber cute in a beret, and he races to the airport at the end.

Gerschuny delivers great comic timing.  One of the protagonist’s colleagues watches an “experimental short film” (ba dum) “by a Taiwanese director” (ba dum) and then NAMES the director.  And THEN he says, “I think he’s got something to say” as it becomes apparent that the “short” is a security video.

All in all, The Film Critic is a satisfying hoot, now available for streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: SELMA

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. (center back) in SELMA

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. (center back) in SELMA

It’s been a while since I’ve seen as stirring a movie as Selma, Director Ava DuVernay’s retelling of the Selma, Alabama, Civil Rights marches in 1965 – one of the most heroic episodes in a saga known for heroism.

It’s an important story. Although the marches came on the heels of a racist atrocity, instead of just vomiting rage, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his fellow civil rights leaders had a specific strategic goal in mind. Their planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery was designed to trigger the passage of yet-to-be-drafted legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They knew that there would be risks to all and sacrifices by many – both martyrs to the cause and victims of terrorism. Those sacrifices were real and are depicted in the movie. As the civil rights leaders navigate the reefs of local Jim Crow rule and murderous racist terrorism, Selma’s story is compelling minute-to-minute.

King himself must bear the burden of responsibility of a leader sending his charges out to possibly sacrifice their lives. All the time, he is receiving threats to his safety and that of his family, dealing with blackmail and character assassination and going through a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).

But Selma, like history, is not a One Man Show. King doesn’t just dictate the path for his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). He has to work with his colleagues in the SCLC and reach out to build a coalition with the local African-American community and other national organizations, chiefly the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King is not just another noble face. He’s got to show a canny craftiness as a study in negotiating, a guy who knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em.

Here’s something else that Selma does extraordinarily well. I’m a history buff who understands that – to relate a historical narrative in 90-120 minutes – filmmakers must compress historical events and compound characters. However, Selma allows us to glimpse the broad canvas by seeing other important figures of the Civil Rights movement – Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, James Forman, Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Orange and even Malcom X and Bayard Rustin. There are also the white martyrs James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. And New York Times reporter Roy Reed is there, representing the handful of national newsmen who brought the civil rights struggle into the homes of non-Southern America. As villains, we have not just George Wallace (Tim Roth) but Al Mingo and Sheriff Jim Clark.

And what about the controversial depiction of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson)? The short answer is that Selma’s treatment of LBJ is sometimes factually inaccurate and definitely wrong in tone. As much as Selma gets the Alabama scenes right, it gets all the Washington, DC, scenes wrong. When the movies opens, LBJ has just delivered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the most important advancement in Civil Rights since the 13th and 14th amendments a century before; he thus ended legal segregation in America. Selma is about the effort to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and LBJ and MLK were BOTH essential to achieving this milestone as well. Any reader of LBJ bios can tell you that the man had demonstrated his passion for Civil Rights since his year as a 20-year-old teacher of Mexican-Americans in Cotulla, Texas. When Selma depicts LBJ as having to be brow beaten by MLK to push the Voting Rights Act, it’s inaccurate and unnecessary; the effect is to create a serious flaw in the film.

But the bottom line is this – see the movie anyway. At its core, the movie is about what happened in Selma and within the leadership of the Civil Rights movement – it generally gets that right.

After seeing Selma, I reflected on the media landscape in 1965 – where every home in America watched the TV news from either CBS, NBC or ABC. The repugnant spectacle of the white mob beating the peaceful demonstrators came into every American living room, including mine. We Americans all saw the same thing. But in today’s media environment, a huge fraction of the country gets its news from Fox News, which would likely twist and minimize the very facts that mobilized a nation in 1965 – and another huge fraction would be watching non-news content and miss the controversy all together.

But my most sobering reflection upon leaving the theater was this – right now the Republican Congress and the majority of the US Supreme Court are trying their hardest to emasculate the very Voting Rights Act that was the culmination of the campaign in the movie Selma.

In a uniformly well-acted movie, David Oyelowo deserves special praise for his portrayal of MLK. Oprah Winfrey and veteran character actor Henry G. Sanders are the best of the rest. On a personal note, I relished seeing one of my faves Wendell Pierce (Treme and The Wire) and also up-and-comer Tessa Thompson of Dear White People.

Selma is inspirational, kids should see it and families should discuss it. It’s just outside the Top Ten of my Best Movies of 2014Selma is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox; you can stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

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Movies to See Right Now

Domhnall Gleeson in EX MACHINA

Domhnall Gleeson in EX MACHINA

The one MUST SEE in theaters is the intensely thoughtful Ex Machina.  I really like the thoughtful and authentic dramedy I’ll See You in My Dreams, and it opens more widely next week.   Far from the Madding Crowd, is a satisfying choice for those looking for a bodice ripper.  If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows.  Don’t bother with Slow West, a failed Western that never gets into rhythm.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the role of character actor Richard Jenkins’ career – The Visitor. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play ad Xbox Video.

Turner Classic Movies always programs a war movie marathon on Memorial Day weekend. I recommend two of the very best Korean War movies – both airing on May 24:

The Steel Helmet (1951) is a gritty classic by the great writer-director Sam Fuller, a WWII combat vet who brooked no sentimentality about war. Gene Evans, a favorite of the two Sams (Fuller and Peckinpah), is especially good as the sergeant. American war movies of the period tended toward to idealize the war effort, but Fuller relished making war movies with no “recruitment flavor”. Although the Korean War had only been going on for a few months when Fuller wrote the screenplay, he was able to capture the feelings of futility that later pervaded American attitudes about the Korean War.

Men in War (1957): An infantry lieutenant (Robert Ryan) must lead his platoon out of a desperate situation and encounters a cynical and insubordinate sergeant (Aldo Ray) loyally driving a jeep with his PTSD-addled colonel (Robert Keith). In conflict with each other, they must navigate through enemy units to safety. Director Anthony Mann is known for exploring the psychology of edgy characters, and that’s the case with Men in War.

Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet

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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, opens theatrically tomorrow. 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: THE VISITOR

THE VISITOR

THE VISITOR

The great character actor Richard 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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I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS: gentle, thoughtful and altogether fresh

Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

Sam Elliiott and Blythe Danner in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

The gentle, thoughtful and altogether fresh dramedy I’ll See You in My Dreams is centered on 72-year-old Carol (Blythe Danner), a widow of 21 years living a life of benign routine. Every day, she rises at 6 AM in her modest but nicely appointed LA house, reads by the pool, hosts her gal pals from the nearby retirement community for cards and is in bed by 11 PM to watch TV with her elderly canine companion. It’s not a bad life, but it’s an unadventuresome one.

Then some things happen that give her an opportunity to choose to take some chances. In short order, she has to put down her dog and deal with an unwelcome rodent. Her friends (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place) suggest that she try speed dating. She opens her social life, developing a friendship with a much younger man (Martin Starr – Gilfoyle in Silicon Valley) and being courted by a dashing man of her own age (Sam Elliott).

What happens is sometimes funny, sometimes sad and always authentic. This is NOT a formulaic geezer comedy, but a story about venturing outside one’s comfort zone – with all the attendant vulnerability – to seek some life rewards.  Carol may be 72, but she is still at a place in her life where she can grow and be challenged.  I’ll See You in My Dreams proves that coming of age films are not just for the young.

I saw I’ll See You in My Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, at which director, editor and co-writer Brett Haley was interviewed. Haley said that he and co-writer Marc Basch wanted to “avoid the obvious joke of older people doing what younger people do”. Instead, they intended to make a movie “about love, loss and that you can’t get through life unscathed – and that’s okay”. Haley and Basch certainly succeeded in creating a film about “living life without the fear of loss”.

Danner sparkles in the role (and gets to nail a karaoke rendition of Cry Me a River). Always special when playing solid-valued but rascally guys, Elliott still retains his magnetism.

We don’t often get to see realistic movies about people in their early 70s, but I’ll See You in My Dreams respects its protagonist Carol by putting her in plausible situations.  Neither farcical nor mawkish, I’ll See You in My Dreams is a surefire audience pleaser.   Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, I’ll See You in My Dreams opens this coming weekend in San Francisco and May 29 in San Jose.

Official Trailer – I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS from Bleecker Street on Vimeo.

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Movies to See Right Now

Alicia Viksander inEX MACHINA

Alicia Viksander inEX MACHINA

The one MUST SEE in theaters is the intensely thoughtful Ex Machina. Far from the Madding Crowd, is a satisfying choice for those looking for a bodice ripper. If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows.

Documentarian Alex Gibney now has TWO excellent films playing 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.

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.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is The Imitation Game – an Oscar-nominated historical film about the corrosiveness of secrets. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Turner Classic Movies has programmed Cabaret, with Liza Minelli and a stunningly original performance by Joel Grey, on May 17. On May 19, TCM airs Days of Wine and Roses, Blake Edwards’ unflinching exploration od alcoholism, featuring great performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick (both nominated for Oscars) and Charles Bickford.

Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE IMITATION GAME

Keira Knightly and Benedict Cumberbatch in THE IMITATION GAME

Keira Knightly and Benedict Cumberbatch in THE IMITATION GAME

So – here’s a pretty good true story: the guy who invented the computer and played a key role in defeating the Nazis was hounded for his homosexuality. And The Imitation Game tells that story very well and is a pretty good movie. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who was able to create a proto-computer that could break the codes of the German Enigma cipher machine. To make his character even more interesting, Turing had appalling, almost Asberger-like personal skills and needed to conceal his sexual preference. Cumberbatch nails the role, and will reap an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

It’s a top-to-bottom excellent English cast. Keira Knightley is especially good as Joan Clarke, the real life female codebreaker who overcame sexism and who became, briefly, Turing’s fiance.

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

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Movies to See Right Now

Domhnall Gleeson in EX MACHINA

Domhnall Gleeson in EX MACHINA

The one MUST SEE in theaters is the intensely thoughtful Ex MachinaFar from the Madding Crowd, is a satisfying choice for those looking for a bodice ripper.  If you’re looking for a scare, try the inventive and non-gory horror gem It Follows.

Documentarian Alex Gibney now has TWO excellent films playing 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.

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. 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.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is a good movie with a GREAT ending, the French drama You Will Be My Son, available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, Vudu, iTunes and Xbox Video.

So Bad It’s Fun Alert – on May 11, Turner Classic Movies is playing Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), an exploitation film with Jack Nicholson joining the Hells Angels. Shot on location in the Bay Area. Has a brief, credited cameo by the real life Sonny Barger, murderous chief of the Oakland Hells Angels.

If you’re ready for satisfying and timeless classic dramas, on May 12 TCM has programmed Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Best Years of Our Lives.

May 15 is Shakespeare Night on TCM. Don’t miss Orson Welles’ Shakespearean masterpiece: Chimes at Midnight. TCM is also playing Welles’ lesser Macbeth and Othello, along with Akira Kurosawa’s samurai version of MacBeth, Throne of Blood.

Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

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