Movies to See Right Now

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

The recent release The Theory of Everything is a successful, audience-friendly biopic of both Mr. And Mrs. Genius. If you want a stark and grim look at the Old West, there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ feminist Western The Homesman.

I really don’t want anyone to miss the brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.
Plus:

  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • I liked the droll Swedish dramedy Force Majeure, which won an award at Cannes and is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the Dutch thriller Borgman, technically a horror film, but it’s horror for adults, without the gore and with lots of wit. I don’t often recommend a horror movie, but I’m all in on Borgman. Take it from me – you haven’t seen this movie before, and it’s endlessly entertaining. Borgman is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

You really haven’t sampled film noir if you haven’t seen Out of the Past (1947), and it’s coming up on Turner Classic Movies on December 2.   Perhaps the model of a film noir hero, Robert Mitchum plays a guy who is cynical, strong, smart and resourceful – but still a sap for the femme fatale…played by the irresistible Jane Greer.

And on December 3, TCM brings us another delightfully trashy gem from Sam Fuller, my favorite tabloid reporter turned Hollywood auteur, The Naked Kiss.

OUT OF THE PAST

OUT OF THE PAST

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THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: things gets complicated for Mr. and Mrs. Genius

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

The Theory of Everything is based on the book by the woman who married Stephen Hawking – and this is important.  While the story of Stephen Hawking – a generational genius who becomes physically disabled but continues his groundbreaking work – is pretty amazing, the story of the two of them facing this journey together brings more depth and texture to the tale.  And, since everybody is somewhat familiar with the arc of Stephen Hawking’s career, the added focus on Jane Hawking brings some unpredictability to the plot.

The role of Stephen is one that many actors would kill for, and Eddie Redmayne  delivers an exceptionally good performance.  You may remember Redmayne’s solid turn in a good movie, My Week with Marilyn, and that he was one of the few highlights in the otherwise dreadful Les Miserables.

Felicity Jones’s performance as Jane stands up to Redmayne’s.  She masks her profound inner strength with adorability.  She was very good in Like Crazy, a romance that I really liked, although NONE of my readers did.

It’s worth mentioning that The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, because he’s on a helluva storytelling run: the acclaimed documentaries Man on a Wire and Project Nim and last year’s overlooked thriller Shadow Dancer.

All told, The Theory of Everything has a compelling story with two fine performances, which adds up to a satisfying moviegoing experience.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: BORGMAN – witty and non-gory horror for adults

BORGMAN

BORGMAN

Technically, the Dutch thriller Borgman is a horror film, but it’s horror for adults, without the gore and with lots of wit.  The shock doesn’t come from monsters unexpectedly lurching out of nowhere.  The entertainment comes from the OMG moments of the “don’t ask the weird guy into your house!” and “don’t let the sinister guys watch your kids!” variety.

The setting is the architecturally striking and well-tended home of an affluent Dutch family and their Danish nanny.  The husband is an aggro corporate schemer who is a real scumbag – selfish, racist and chauvinistic, with the capacity for a violent rage.  His wife Marina is repressed and neurotic.  But they are highly functional until a homeless guy, Camiel Borgman, happens by and circumstances compel them to put him up.   Borgman feels entitled to more and more outrageous impositions – and soon it’s apparent that he’s even more sinister than he is obnoxious.

What if Charles Manson wasn’t a drug addled hoodlum and instead used his deranged charisma with remarkable skill?    Borgman leads a crew of normal looking but murderous henchmen, who operate with the ruthless efficiency of Navy Seals.   (Watch for the scar near the younger woman’s shoulder-blade.)  Vaguely gifted with mind control, he can apparently create dreams by squatting naked gargoyle-like above Marina while she slumbers with her husband.  There is violence aplenty, but it tends to come through a bonk on the head or some poison in a glass.

Dark comedy stems from the matter-of-factness of the murders and body disposal (as in tossing corpses into a lake and then diving in for a relaxing swim).  Every once in a while, there’s a hilariously sinister moment, like the supremely random appearance of some whippets that seem more like hellhounds.

The acting is uniformly excellent, including the kids, but Jan Bijvoet as Borgman and Hadewych Minis as Marina are stellar.

Some questions are never answered (who are those three guys at the beginning and why are they hunting the homeless guys?).   Is this a cult or aliens or what?  The audience needs to accept some ambiguity. But the overall story arc is clear – no good is going to come of these people once they meet Camiel Borgman and his friends.

There is a subtext here: is this family so bourgeois that it deserves its fate? Fortunately, this subtext isn’t as in-your-face as in some recent self-loathing Eurocrap like Happy Days or Finsterworld, so it’s not at all off-putting. But Borgman can be enjoyed without going there at all.

Borgman is superbly written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam, a 62-year-old Dutch actor with only a handful of writing and directing credits.

I don’t often recommend a horror movie, but I’m all in on Borgman.  Take it from me – you haven’t seen this movie before, and it’s endlessly entertaining.    Borgman is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

FORCE MAJEURE

FORCE MAJEURE

Another weekend with something for every discerning cinephile:

  • I liked the droll Swedish dramedy Force Majeure, which won an award at Cannes and is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
  • The brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.
  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the John le Carré espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man, with its final, heartbreaking performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  A Most Wanted Man is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tonight Turner Classic Movies is airing Steven Spielberg’s brilliant debut feature Duel, a suspense thriller that is as entertaining now as in 1971.  And on Sunday, TCM presents the film noir classic The Big Sleep, with Bogart and Bacall; The Wife and I just watched this again together a couple of weeks ago and were delighted.

THE BIG SLEEP

THE BIG SLEEP

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FORCE MAJEURE: some things you just can’t get past

FORCE MAJEURE

FORCE MAJEURE

In the droll Swedish dramedy Force Majeure, a smugly affluent family of four vacations at an upscale ski resort in the French Alps. The wife explains to a friend that they take the vacation because otherwise the husband never sees the family. But, while the wife is blissed out,  the kids fidget and complain, and the hubby sneaks peeks at his phone.

Then there’s a sudden moment of apparent life-and-death peril; the husband has a chance to protect the wife and kids, but instead – after first securing his iPhone – runs for his life. How do they all go on from that revealing moment? The extent that one incident can bring relationships into focus is the core of Force Majeure.

Clearly, the family has a serious issue to resolve, but there’s plenty of dry humor. In the most cringe worthy moments, the wife tries to contain her disgust, but can’t keep it bottled up when she’s in the most social situations.  The couple repeatedly huddle outside their room in their underwear to talk things out, only to find themselves observed by the same impassive French hotel worker. The most tense moments are interrupted by an insistent cell phone vibration, another guest’s birthday party and a child’s remotely out-of-control flying toy.

Force Majeure is exceptionally well-written by writer-director Ruben Ostland. It’s just his fourth feature and the first widely seen outside Scandinavia. He transitions between scenes by showing the machinery of the ski resort accompanied by
Baroque organ music – a singular and very effective directorial choice.

Force Majeure is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. I think it deserves an Oscar nomination, although I can’t see it beating out Two Days, One Night, Ida or Leviafan.

[I've included the trailer as always, but I recommend that you see the movie WITHOUT watching this trailer - mild spoilers]

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coming up on TV: Steven Spielberg’s brilliant debut in DUEL

Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg's DUEL

Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg’s DUEL

Set your DVRs for Turner Classic Movies’ November 21 airing of Duel.  In 1971, some Universal exec hired 25-year-old Steven Spielberg to make some TV movies, the first of which was Duel.  This low budget suspense thriller foreshadowed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of Spielberg’s masterworks.

In the pre-cell phone era, Dennis Weaver plays a traveling salesman driving through an isolated desert mountain road when he becomes embroiled in road rage to the extreme – the driver of a tanker truck starts relentlessly hunting him down. This imposing 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck becomes every bit the scary monster as the Great White Shark in Jaws.

At the time, Dennis Weaver was one of America’s most familiar faces from his oft comic supporting role in TV’s iconic Gunsmoke, and he had just become a star in his own right with McCloud.  He is perfect here as an Everyman – right down to his Plymouth Valiant.

I don’t know whether TCM is airing the original 74-minute (TV) or the 90-minute (theatrical) cut, but both are just about perfect. When I saw this on TV in 1971, I wasn’t thinking about who the director was, I was just riveted to the story, terrified that Dennis Weaver wasn’t going to escape his fiendish nemesis.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: A MOST WANTED MAN – a last look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Espionage thrillers adapted from John le Carré novels, like A Most Wanted Man, are so good because le Carré, himself a former British intelligence operative, understand that intelligence services, riddled with bureaucratic jealousies and careerist rivalries, are not monoliths. His very human spies spend as much energy fighting each other as they do fighting the enemy. As a result, le Carré’s stories are more complex and character-driven than a standard “good-guys-hunt-down-a-terrorist” thriller plot.

That’s also the case with A Most Wanted Man, with which le Carré moves from the Cold War to the War of Terror. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther, the leader of a German anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg. He must track down a possible Chechen terrorist while parrying off other German security forces, the CIA (Robin Wright), a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) and a do-gooder human rights attorney (Rachel McAdams). It’s the classic le Carré three-dimensional-chess-against-the-clock, and it works as an engrossing thriller.

But the A Most Wanted Man’s biggest asset is a searing performance by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Günther is a canny and determined guy who needs to outsmart everyone else and manipulate forces beyond his control – and Hoffman nails it. His final scene is a spectacular explosion of emotion. (So soon after Hoffman’s death, it’s impossible to watch him here, with a huge belly and with his character chain-smoking and swilling whiskey, and not think of his final relapse into his ultimately fatal addiction; for this reason, A Most Wanted Man may be even more effective after a few years have passed.)

That being said, Robin Wright’s role as a duplicitous, shark-like CIA officer is under-written and doesn’t let her show her acting chops like House of Cards. Dafoe and McAdams are good in their roles. I was distracted by Grigoriy Dobrygin’s performance as the Chechen, which looked like bad Jeremy Davies without the twitches. The fine German actress Nina Hoss (Barbara) plays Hoffman’s assistant, and I hope we start to see her in more English language roles.

But the bottom line is that A Most Wanted Man is, overall, a satisfying thriller, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is reason enough to watch it. (BTW le Carré’s screen masterpiece is the 1979 series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is available on DVD from Netflix.)  A Most Wanted Man is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

There’s an outstanding movie that’s right for everyone this weekend:

  • The brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.
  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the delightfully rowdy geezer road trip comedy Land Ho!. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tonight, Turner Classic Movies will show the 1970s Jack Nicholson drama Five Easy Pieces, which is on my list of Best Movies of All Time AND Wild Strawberries (scroll down) – if you’re going to watch one Ingmar Bergman movie, pick this one.

FIVE EASY PIECES

FIVE EASY PIECES

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DVD/Stream of the Week: LAND HO! – rowdy geezer roadtrip to Iceland

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Here’s a really fun movie. Land Ho! features a vibrant and irascible geezer who conscripts an old friend into a rowdy road trip to – of all random places – Iceland. It’s a showcase for Earl Lynn Nelson, who essentially plays himself in the movie. Nelson is a 72-year-old Kentucky doctor who is a force of nature and has possibly an even dirtier mind than The Movie Gourmet’s. He is a friend of the 29-year-old writer director Martha Stephens who was INSPIRED to see the possibilities in sending him off on an adventure and filming the results. His friend (and ex-brother-in-law) is played by an actor, Paul Eenhoorn.

It all works. Nelson – an unapologetic hedonist – is funnier than hell, and Eenhorn stays right with him as the more reserved and sometimes aggrieved buddy. Land Ho! is a string of LOL moments, whether Nelson is providing politically incorrect fashion advice to young women or unsolicited marital advice to a honeymooning couple or pulling out a joint and proclaiming “It’s time for some doobiefication”.

This is a geezer comedy that doesn’t make the geezers cute. Nelson may be a piece of work, but there’s nothing in Land Ho! that isn’t genuine.

I just have two knocks on the movie. It’s only 95 minutes long, but it would be crisper at about 87. And, as The Wife pointed out, there’s really no need for the huge jarring subtitles to let us know precisely where these guys are in Iceland.

Nevertheless, it’s worth a watch. The audience at Sundance loved this movie, and I think Land Ho! is a hoot-and-a-half. Land Ho! is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

There are some EXCELLENT movies out now, but DO NOT MISS the brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.

Other great movie choices include:

  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • The dark little French psychological drama The Blue Room packs a cleverly constructed story in its brisk 75 minutes.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

Turner Classic Movies is bringing us two very funny movies this week:

  • tonight’s unintentionally funny Hot Rods to Hell (1967), a bad exploitation movie that works as a guilty pleasure.
  • the intentionally funny Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), that paragon of madcap comedies; Cary Grant leads a cast that is perfect, right down to Jack Carson as Officer O’Hara, the new cop on the beat.
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