Movies to See Right Now

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY

THE WOMEN’S BALCONY


In theaters this week:

  • The delightfully smart and character-driven Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony with a community of traditional women in revolt. The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.
  • The David and Goliath documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the riveting story of an American family business bullied into a nightmarish fight for survival.
  • The bittersweet dramedy The Hero has one thing going for it – the wonderfully appealing Sam Elliott.

Here’s my contribution to the argument about the Best 25 Movies of the 21st Century.

My Stream of the Week won the Oscar for Best Documentary feature.  Searching for Sugar Man is the story of a Detroit construction laborer who didn’t know that he was a rock star. You can stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On June 27, Turner Classic Movies presents the iconic 1946 film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice.  An essential element in film noir is a guy’s lust for a Bad Girl driving him to a Bad Decision, and when John Garfield first sees Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, you can tell that he’s hooked.  She’s a Bad Girl, and a Bad Decision is on its way.

John Garfield's first look at Lana Turner in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

John Garfield’s first look at Lana Turner in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

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Stream of the Week: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN – he didn’t know he was a rock star

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

What a story! A Detroit construction laborer named Sixto Rodriguez was also a singer-songwriter who cut two albums in 1970 and 1971. The albums didn’t sell in the US, and he faded back into obscurity. Yet in South Africa – completely isolated by the sanctions of the apartheid era – the artist known as Rodriguez became huge, and his songs fueled a protest movement. Rodriguez never knew of his success, and South Africans believed that he had suffered a dramatic rock star death. The powerful documentary Searching for Sugar Man is the story of some stubborn South African music geeks trying to find out what really happened to Rodriguez, and the startling truths that they uncovered. (The title comes from Rodriguez’ most iconic anthem, the song Sugar Man.)

I have never seen a biographical documentary of a contemporary figure with less comment from the subject himself. There is a brief filmed interview with the eccentric Rodriguez, who reveals very little of his perspective on his own story. His songs can only be written by a reflective person, but Rodriguez is the farthest thing from self-absorbed. Still, the interviews with his family, friends and fans and his songs help us feel like we know him.

It’s a flabbergasting and unpredictable story and well told. Sadly, the young director Malik Bendjelloul suddenly died just fifteen months after Searching for Sugan Man won the Best Documentary Oscar. You can stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Farewell to Flounder

Stephen Furst (center) in ANIMAL HOUSE

Stephen Furst (center) in ANIMAL HOUSE

The actor Stephen Furst had 88 screen credits, but none more iconic than the role in his second feature film:  Kent “Flounder” Dorfman in Animal House.

“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

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Movies to See Right Now

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY

THE WOMEN’S BALCONY

In theaters this week:

  • The delightfully smart and character-driven Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony with a community of traditional women in revolt.  The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.
  • The David and Goliath documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the riveting story of an American family business bullied into a nightmarish fight for survival.
  • Paris Can Wait, a female fantasy with glorious French cuisine to tantalize all genders.
  • You can still find Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer in theaters, perhaps Richard Gere’s best movie performance ever, and strongly recommended.
  • The bittersweet dramedy The Hero has one thing going for it – the wonderfully appealing Sam Elliott.

Here’s my contribution to the argument about the Best 25 Movies of the 21st Century.

School is out for the summer, and my DVD/Streams of the Week are the two surfing documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants.  Both are available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Here’s an interesting nugget from Turner Classic Movies on June 17. Three different actors play Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled LA detective Philip Marlowe: Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, James Garner in Marlowe and Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake.

The most famous – and my favorite – of these is The Big Sleep, with its iconic performance by Bogart and its impenetrably tangled plot. It’s also one of the most overtly sexual noirs, and Lauren Bacall at her sultriest is only the beginning. The achingly beautiful Martha Vickers plays a druggie who throws herself at anything in pants. And Dorothy Malone invites Bogie to share a back-of-the-bookstore quickie.

Lady in the Lake is more cinematically inventive.  Shot entirely from the point of view of the protagonist detective (Montgomery), we never see him except when reflected in mirrors. Even without this interesting gadget, it’s a good movie. Audrey Totter plays one of her iconic noir Bad Girls.

Marlowe is less distinguished a film, but James Garner is always watchable.

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP

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THE WOMEN’S BALCONY: a righteous man must keep his woman happy

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY

THE WOMEN’S BALCONY

A community of women in a traditional culture revolt in the delightfully smart and funny Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony.   The balcony in a small Jerusalem synagogue  collapses, and the building is condemned.  The old rabbi’s wife is seriously injured, and he suffers a trauma-induced psychotic breakdown.  Just when it looks like the leaderless congregation will die, a young and charismatic rabbi (Avraham Aviv Alush) appears, enlivens the congregation and repairs the building.  But he rebuilds the synagogue WITHOUT the women’s section.  Profoundly disrespected, the synagogue’s women strike in protest.

The women live in a culture where males have all the power and religious authority trumps all.  The women all have their individually distinct gifts, personalities and rivalries. But they all appreciate the injustice of the situation, and they are really pissed off.  They are very creative in finding way to leverage the power that they do have, and the result is very, very funny.

This could have been a very broad comedy (and a Lysistrata knock-off).  Instead, it’s richly textured, with an examination of ethical behavior and loving relationships.  It’s also dotted with comments on the relations between Israeli Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox and on the importance of food in this culture.  It’s the first – and very promising – feature for both director Emil Ben-Shimon and writer Shlomit Nehana.

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY

THE WOMEN’S BALCONY

There are plenty LOL moments, including a scene where one of the congregants masquerades as the demented old rabbi to secure the needed psychotropic meds.

We soon understand that the young rabbi has a very unattractive side – grossly sexist and power-hungry. But he has seduced the men and then cows them by manipulating his religious authority. He’s tearing apart a closely bound community braided together by decades of deep friendship and inter-reliance. The movie turns on whether the men can recognize when his supposed righteousness veers into what is really unethical and, in one pivotal scene with the old rabbi, indecent.

Two of the male characters, deeply in love with their women, step up and do the right thing. This overt comedy has a very a romantic core.

Most of all, The Women’s Balcony is about mature relationships. Most of these couples have been married for decades, especially the couple at the core of the story, Ettie (Evein Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor). Ben-Shimon and Nehana prove themselves to be keen and insightful observers of long-lasting relationships.

A righteous man must keep his woman happy. This may not be written in the Holy Scriptures, but it’s damn useful advice. (It also helps, we learn, if he can make a mean fruit salad.) The longer you’ve been married, the funnier you’ll find The Women’s Balcony.

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Best Movies of the 21st Century – So Far

Patricia Arquette and Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

Patricia Arquette and Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

Okay – here’s a first class Argument Starter.  In the past week, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott released their list of The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far.  And it seems that everyone is weighing in with their own lists.  Me, too.

Of course I agreed with some of the NYT picks (Boyhood, The Hurt Locker, Million Dollar Baby, Spirited Away). But I thought they picked the wrong Coen brothers movie (the dreadful Inside Llewyn Davis instead of any other Coen brothers film) and the wrong Dardennes brothers movie (The Child instead of The Kid with a Bike or The Son). Moonlight and Mad Max: Fury Road are just too 2017-trendy.  I’m skeptical of their three Chinese and Taiwanese films that I haven’t seen (although I have some obscure picks on my list, too).

I found less fault with the accompanying article, Six Directors Pick Their Favorite Films of the 21st-Century.  I particularly dovetailed with Sophia Coppola’s choices of Ida, Grizzly Man, Force Majeure, Fish Tank and Ex Machina.

So, just for shits and giggles, here’s The Movie Gourmet’s Best 25 Movies of this Millennium (so far).

  1. Boyhood
  2. Million Dollar Baby
  3. Minority Report
  4. Winter’s Bone
  5. Ida
  6. Sideways
  7. Hell or High Water
  8. 25th Hour
  9. The Hurt Locker
  10. Ex Machina
  11. Best in Show
  12. The Kid on a Bike
  13. Gosford Park
  14. Memories of Murder
  15. Children of Men
  16. Spirited Away
  17. Monster’s Ball
  18. Toy Story 3
  19. Stories We Tell
  20. A Serious Man
  21. Grizzly Man
  22. Talk to Her
  23. I’ve Loved You So Long
  24. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  25. Blue is the Warmest Color

Just missed:  Margaret, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Secrets in Their Eyes, Incendies, Monster, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Take Shelter, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Crash, Traffic, After the Wedding, Away from Her, Mystic River, Wild Tales and The Hunt.

Jennifer lawrence breaks through in WINTER'S BONE, featured at the Camera Cinema Club

Jennifer Lawrence breaks through in WINTER’S BONE, featured at the Camera Cinema Club


IDA

IDA


Michael Polley in STORIES WE TELL

Michael Polley in STORIES WE TELL

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THE HERO: taking ones own measure

Sam Elliott in THE HERO

Sam Elliott in THE HERO

The bittersweet dramedy The Hero has one thing going for it – Sam Elliott, he of the profoundly deep and sexy voice.  Elliot has a rascal’s sparkle in his eye and a smile that can make panties slide off by themselves.  He pulls off a mustache that would be ridiculed on any other man walking the earth.

In The Hero, Elliott plays Lee, a selfish screen actor of Elliott’s real age (73).  Lee has made “one film I’m proud of” – a Western from forty years ago titled “The Hero“.  Now, in a hilarious Sam-Elliott-winks-at-himself, Lee is relegated to doing commercial voice-overs, his buttery tones hawking a supermarket BBQ sauce.  He has left some relationship carnage in the wake of his career : an ex-wife (Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross) and an estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) in his wake.  And his best friend is his pot dealer (Nick Offerman).

Lee receives a very, very bad cancer diagnosis (even for cancer).   Contemplating – or avoiding contemplating – the end of his life, he is forced to take his own measure.  He knows that he’s “The Hero” on-screen but angry daughter knows well enough that he’s no hero off-screen, and so does he.

He finds himself fascinating a younger woman (Laura Prepon – Alex from Orange Is the New Black and Donna in The 70s Show).  And he stumbles into a viral social media frenzy that promises to reignite his career when it’s too late. But what he hungers for the most is patching things up with his daughter.

Lots of drugs are consumed in this movie, mostly massive amounts of marijuana going up  in smoke.  The Hero’s dream sequences are already vivid and then Lee takes shrooms… Lee becomes the guest star for a bottom-scraping fan group event, and shows up totally high on Molly; the scene is hilarious.

Elliott’s movie debut was playing Card Player #2 in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  His career went through a hunky phase, but then blossomed in Elliott’s middle age with an indelible performance in 1993’s Gettysburg and then Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, We Were Soldiers, I’ll See You in My Dreams and last year’s Grandma, of which I wrote “worth seeing for ten minutes of Sam Elliott”.

I saw The Hero at the Camera Cinema Club.  There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. But then it’s usually worth watching Sam Elliott again, anyway.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: hang ten this summer!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on and safari with me

It’s a great time for the two most awesome and gnarly surfing movies, the documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants.

Step Into Liquid (2003): We see the world’s best pro surfers in the most extreme locations. We also see devoted amateurs in the tiny ripples of Lake Michigan and surfing evangelists teaching Irish school children. The cinematography is remarkable – critic Elvis Mitchell called the film “insanely gorgeous”. The filmmaker is Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer (1966) and The Endless Summer II (1994).

Step Into Liquid is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Riding Giants (2004): This film focuses on the obsessive search for the best wave by some of the greatest surfers in history. We see “the biggest wave ever ridden” and then a monster that could be bigger. The movie traces the discovery of the Half Moon Bay surf spot Mavericks. And more and more, all wonderfully shot.

The filmmaker is Stacy Peralta, a surfer and one the pioneers of modern skateboarding (and a founder of the Powell Peralta skateboard product company). Peralta also made Dogtown and Z-boys (2001), the great documentary about the roots of skateboarding, and wrote the 2005 Lords of Dogtown.

Riding Giants is also available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

I recommend the David and Goliath documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the riveting story of an American family business bullied into a nightmarish fight for survival.

Other recommendations in theaters:

My Stream of the Week is one of my Overlooked Noir, The Burglar (1957).  Dan Duryea leads an initially successful heist team as they go stir crazy waiting for the environment to cool down so they can safely fence the booty.  Martha Vickers plays one of the most direct of the noir vixens, and it’s the debut of 50s sexpot Jayne Mansfield.   The Burglar is available streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, Xbox Video and Flixster.

On June 12, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast The Battle of Algiers, the story of 1950s French colonialists struggling to suppress the guerrilla uprising of Algerian independence fighters. Although it looks like a documentary, it is not. Instead, filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo recreated the actual events so realistically that we believe that we are watching the strategy councils of each side. Urban insurgency and counter-insurgency are nasty, brutal and not very short – and we see some horrifically inhumane butchering by both sides.

Among the great war films, it may be the best film on counter-insurgency. In 2003, the Pentagon screened the film for its special operations commanders.

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

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ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL: an underdog has his day

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

Nobody likes a bully, and the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tells the riveting story of an American family business bullied into a nightmarish fight for survival.  We meet the members of family, the Sungs of New York, and relive their existential struggle.  It’s a compelling story, well-told.

Thomas Sung founded the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small bank in New York’s Chinatown, and passed on the management of the bank to his daughters.  The bank’s customers are almost all Chinese from the neighborhood.  The bank management discover a corrupt loan officer, fire him and turn him in to regulators.  But prosecutors go on to blame the whole loan department and then the bank leadership – and file criminal charges against the bank.  Suddenly, the Sungs are in a fight for their professional lives.

The Manhattan prosecutor was looking for a scapegoat for the financial crisis of 2008.  Let’s remember that the global crisis was caused by the biggest players in the American financial system.  The very biggest financial institutions were guilty of overt corruption – the banks were packaging and selling worthless financial products and the credit rating agencies were falsely labeling them as valuable.  Banks were making crazy, unsustainable and predatory home loans.  Insured accounts turned out to be not really insured.

But those crooked big banks were “too big to fail”  They were bailed out by the taxpayers and escaped accountability for their crimes.  Here’s what is mind-boggling:  to this day,  the tiny Abacus Federal Savings Bank remains the ONLY bank that has faced criminal charges from the financial crisis.  Hence the movie’s subtitle “Small Enough to Jail“.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail comes from the documentarian Steve James, who directed Hoop Dreams, the masterpiece that both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel picked as the best movie of 1994, as well as the more recent Ebert celebration Life Itself.   Abacus is brilliantly sourced – James was able to get prosecutors, defense attorneys and even jurors on camera, along with the entire Sung family.

Getting to know the individuals in the Sung family is one of the pleasures of viewing Abacus.  Let’s just say that it’s a mistake to take a family business to court when the whole family are lawyers.

Right at the beginning of Abacus, James makes an inspired choice – he matches the family patriarch and bank founder Thomas Sung with George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life.  And the engrossing saga of the Sungs begins.

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