Movies to See Right Now

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

This week’s best choices in theaters are:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.
  • I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).

My TV/Stream of the Week is Tower, a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin. It’s playing on the PBS documentary series Independent Lens, and you can also stream Tower on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

This week Turner Classic Movies will present two of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock films. First, on February 19, there’s North by Northwest, with perhaps the greatest ever collection of iconic set pieces – especially the cornfield and Mount Rushmore scenes, but also those in the UN Building, hotel, mansion, art auction and the 20th Century Limited train – they’re all great. Back in the days of the Production Code, some filmmakers could deliver sexual and erotic content without actually showing nudity or simulated sexual activity; one of the best examples is the flirtation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the train (and it even culminates with the notorious allegory of the train penetrating the tunnel).

Then TCM brings us Rear Window in February 21st. Here we have James Stewart playing a guy frustrated because he is trapped at home by a disability. When he observes some activity by neighbors that he interprets as a possible murder, he becomes more and more obsessed and voyeuristic. When it looks like he has been correct instead of paranoid, that business about being trapped by a disability takes on a whole new meaning.

Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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TV/Stream of the Week: TOWER – a most original and important retelling of a story that we thought we knew

TOWER

TOWER

This week, the PBS documentary series Independent Lens will feature Tower, a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin. Tower is a tick-tock of the 96 minutes when 49 people were randomly chosen to be shot by a gunman in the landmark tower 240 feet above the campus. That gunman is barely mentioned (and may not even be named) in the movie.

Tower is director Keith Maitland’s second feature. What makes Tower distinctive and powerful it’s the survivors who tell their stories, reenacted by actors who are animated by a rotoscope-like technique (think Richard Linklater’s Waking Life). Telling this story through animation, dotted with some historical stills and footage, is captivating.

Since 1966, we’ve suffered through lots of mass shootings. The UT Tower shooting was especially shocking at the time and prompted the questions about what drove the “madman” to his deed. But, fifty years later, what’s really important today is how the event affected the survivors – what was what like to live through this experience and how it lives with them today. That’s the story that Maitland lets them tell us – and in such an absorbing way.

I saw Tower at the Mill Valley Film Festival.  It plays on Independent Lens on KQED-TV at 10 PM, Tuesday night, February 14.  You can also stream Tower on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

TOWER

TOWER

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Movies to See Right Now

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

Taraji P. Henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

This week’s best choices in theaters are:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.
  • I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).

For the second consecutive week, my DVD/Stream of the Week is the Argentine neo-noir The Aura. Featured last week at San Francisco’s Noir City film fest, The Aura is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

On February 13, Turner Classic Movies presents one of the greatest ever courtroom dramas, Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Inherit the Wind from 1960. The story is taken from the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, so it has elements of culture wars and politics that resonate today. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March are superb as the warring thought-leaders (based on Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan).

Spencer Tracy, Harry Morgan and Fredric March in INHERIT THE WIND

Spencer Tracy, Harry Morgan and Fredric March in INHERIT THE WIND

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Movies to See Right Now

TONI ERDMANN

TONI ERDMANN

This week’s absolute MUST SEE is the wholly original German comedy Toni Erdmann.

You’ll also enjoy these four movies:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • The Founder: the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.

I also recommend I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about the American public intellectual James Baldwin. It’s a searing examination of race in America as analyzed through Baldwin’s eyes and as expressed through his elegant words.

Other top recommendations:

  • Manchester by the Sea: MUST SEE. Don’t miss Casey Affleck’s career-topping performance in the emotionally authentic drama .
  • Elle: MUST SEE (but increasingly hard to find in theaters). A perverse wowzer with the year’s top performance by Isabelle Huppert. Manchester by the Sea is #2 and Elle is #4 on my Best Movies of 2016.
  • Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s gently funny portrait of a poet’s inner life. Starring Adam Driver.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).
  • The Eagle Huntress: This documentary is a Feel Good movie for the whole family, blending the genres of girl power, sports competition and cultural tourism.

Also in theaters:

  • Arrival with Amy Adams, is real thinking person’s sci-fi. Every viewer will be transfixed by the first 80% of Arrival. How you feel about the finale depends on whether you buy into the disconnected-from-linear-time aspect or you just get confused, like I did.
  • The remarkably sensitive and realistic indie drama Moonlight is at once a coming of age tale, an exploration of addicted parenting and a story of gay awakening. It’s almost universally praised, but I thought that the last act petered out.
  • Skip the dreary and somnolent Jackie – Natalie Portman’s exceptional impersonation isn’t enough.

This week’s DVD/Stream of the Week is the Argentine neo-noir The Aura.  Featured last week at San Francisco’s Noir City film fest, The Aura is available to rent on  DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

On February 6, Turner Classic Movies brings us two INTENSE movies. First, there’s The Deer Hunter from 1978. This was director Michael Cimino’s three hour masterpiece. Cimino chose to spend the first hour setting up the characters and their hometown life – just so we can later measure the personal cost of the Vietnam War. When we are plunged into the War, it is terrifying. Then Cimino’s third act – also with some suspenseful moments unmatched in cinema – explores the personal aftermath. After I saw this in a theater for the first time in 1979, I settled myself with a whisky.

And then we have another classic just as INTENSE: Deliverance from 1972. It’s one of my all-time favorites – still gripping today – with a famous scene that still shocks. Jon Voigt, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox form an impressive ensemble cast. Beautifully and dramatically shot by the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

DELIVERANCE

DELIVERANCE

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I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO: searing thoughts in elegant words

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

James Baldwin in I AM NOT A NEGRO

The documentary I Am Not Your Negro centers on the American public intellectual James Baldwin.  It’s a searing examination of race in America through Baldwin’s eyes and through his elegant words.

Those words are voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, and there is no third-party “narration”.  The spoken words are Baldwin’s, either voiced by Jackson or spoken by Baldwin himself in file footage.  Baldwin’s associates Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. are heard in file footage, but that’s it – the rest is all Baldwin.

The content of those words is about the African-American experience in America and Baldwin’s insistence on understanding and acknowledging the grievance and the moral imperative for remedy.   The very last thing that Baldwin cared about was the comfort of his readers and listeners.

I Am Not Your Negro is an important film because Baldwin’s words today, stripped of their relation to temporal events, are stirring as we hear them again, naked and with urgency.  Lest we fail to connect the dots to our current situation,  snippets of current day events (Obama, Black Lives Matter, etc.) make it clear how relevant Baldwin’s thinking still is today.

The choice to present Baldwin’s thinking through only his own words, unadorned by talking heads is very successful.   Director/co-writer Raoul Peck gets the credit for that, and the film that he has constructed with editor Alexandra Strauss is compelling.

It occurred tome that we really don’t have “public intellectuals” (thought leaders who were authors and columnists) as we did before cable television and Internet.  Today we must make do with Talking (or Yelling) Heads on cable TV and bloggers (hey, I’m one of those); the current focus is more temporal and focused on instant reaction instead of presenting a coherent body of thought.

But, in the Good Old Days, book and newspaper publishers and network television producers were the gatekeepers of public discourse.   Those gatekeepers in Baldwin’s time were older white heterosexual men, and even the well-meaning could not have shared his experiences.  Given that, it’s surprising and fortunate that Baldwin’s words were able to become accessible to a wide audience.

Baldwin was living the life of an ex-pat in Paris until he watched the newscast of Charlotte, North Carolina, school integration with a lone African-American girl walking thru agitated and abusive racist mob.  That’s what motivated him to return to his country and to try to fix it.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE AURA – smart enough to plan the perfect crime, but is that enough?

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA

The Aura is a brilliant 2005 neo-noir from Argentina that I wasn’t familiar with until the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller programmed into the 2017 Noir City film festival.

The Aura is about a taxidermist who leads a boring life, but fantasizes about the Perfect Crime. He is perpetually cranky because he is so dissatisfied, but he resists getting out of his life rut. It’s not easy to be his friend (nor, apparently, his wife). Unexpectedly, he finally finds himself in position to participate in a major heist.

He is epileptic (the movie’s title is from the sensation just before a seizure); he and we never know if and when he will pass out from an episode, a particularly dangerous wild card in a thriller. He also has a photographic memory, and that can help him if he has the nerve to go through with the crime.

The taxidermist is played by one of my favorite actors, Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens, The Secret in their Eyes, Carancho, Wild Tales) . I like to think of Darin as the Argentine Joe Mantegna. Darin can expertly play a slightly twisted Every Man, and he excels at neo-noir.

The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Walter Reyno as The Real Thing criminal, Alejandro Awada as the taxidermist’s long suffering only friend and Dolores Fonzi as the intriguing woman in the woods.

Ricardo Darin THE AURA

Ricardo Darin THE AURA

Sadly, writer-director Fabián Bielinsky died at 47 after making only two features – the wonderful con artist film Nine Queens (also starring Darin) and The Aura. Those two films indicate that he was a special talent.

Darin’s taxidermist is smart enough to plan a Perfect Crime, but professional criminals have that sociopathic lack of empathy needed to carry out crimes. Does he? Does he get the money? Does he get the girl? Does he even escape with his life? It’s a neo-noir, so you’ll have to watch it to find out.

By the way, the dog in this movie is important. Watch for the dog at the very end.

The Aura is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream on Amazon Instant.

Dolores Fonzi in THE AURA

Dolores Fonzi in THE AURA

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Farewells: John Hurt, Mary Tyler Moore, Emmanuelle Riva

John Hurt (center) in THE HIT

John Hurt (center) in THE HIT

In the past few days, we have lost the actors John Hurt, Mary Tyler Moore and Emmanuelle Riva.

John Hurt’s magnificent career started in the 1960s, but I first noticed him in 1976 when he leaped out of the screen as the lethally mad Caligula when PBS broadcast the BBC miniseries I, Claudius. Hurt is probably most recognized (by my generation) for his Oscar-nominated performance as the title character in 1980’s The Elephant Man or as the first victim of the alien in Alien. But Hurt was always able to stay current with performances in popular films like V for Vendetta and Hellboy and he played Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies. He also recently made Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) and Snowpiercer (2013), and was the best thing (as The Priest) about the awful film Jackie (2016). My own favorite John Hurt performance was as the more disciplined hit man in the 1984 British neo-noir The Hit.

John Hurt (left) with Derek Jacobi in I, CLAUDIUS

John Hurt (left) with Derek Jacobi in I, CLAUDIUS

John Hurt with Natalie Portman in JACKIE

John Hurt with Natalie Portman in JACKIE

Mary Tyler Moore, of course, is a giant of television history because of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and all the fine shows produced by her MTM Enterprises.  And her Mary Richards instantly became a societal icon.  If ever anyone doubts the genius of her comic timing, they can just watch the 4-minute Chuckles the Clown funeral from the Mary Tyler Moore Show (it’s on YouTube).

She made very few movies, but they are worth remembering.  She was Oscar-nominated for her still, emotionally distant parent in Ordinary People – a performance that she later said that she had modeled on her own father.  She was hilarious as Ben Stiller’s mom in Flirting With Disaster.  And she was also Elvis Presley’s last movie leading lady in the unintentionally funny Change of Habit, in which she played a social worker nun (!) who had to choose between her religious order and the ghetto doctor (Elvis!).

Mary Tyler Moore with Donald Sutherland in ORDINARY PEOPLE

Mary Tyler Moore with Donald Sutherland in ORDINARY PEOPLE

 

Emmanuelle Riva’s 89 screen credits are spread over the past SEVEN decades.  She was a fixture of the French New Wave, beginning with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959.  We remember her Oscar-nominated performance in 2012’s heartbreaking Alzheimer’s drama Amour.

Emmanuelle Riva in ARMOUR

Emmanuelle Riva in ARMOUR

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Movies to See Right Now

TONI ERDMANN

TONI ERDMANN

I love the wholly original German comedy Toni Erdmann, and today it opens widely throughout the Bay Area. It’s a Must See.

You’ll also enjoy these four movies:

  • La La Land: the extraordinarily vivid romantic musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
  • Lion: an emotionally affecting family drama that makes the audience weep (in a good way).
  • The Founder:  the enjoyably addictive story of how a the money-grubbing visionary Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s food service empire.
  • Hidden Figures: a true life story from the 1960s space program – a triumph of human spirit and brainpower over sexism and racism; the audience applauded.

I also recommend Noir City, the world’s best festival of film noir, running through Sunday in San Francisco. This year’s festival theme is the Heist Film, and they’ve got some bang up choices from classic film noir, international noir and neo-noir.

Other top recommendations:

  • Manchester by the Sea: MUST SEE. Don’t miss Casey Affleck’s career-topping performance in the emotionally authentic drama .
  • Elle: MUST SEE (but increasingly hard to find in theaters). A perverse wowzer with the year’s top performance by Isabelle Huppert. Manchester by the Sea is #2 and Elle is #4 on my Best Movies of 2016.
  • Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s gently funny portrait of a poet’s inner life. Starring Adam Driver.
  • The Salesman is another searing and authentic psychological family thriller from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past).
  • The Eagle Huntress: This documentary is a Feel Good movie for the whole family, blending the genres of girl power, sports competition and cultural tourism.

Also in theaters:

  • Arrival with Amy Adams, is real thinking person’s sci-fi. Every viewer will be transfixed by the first 80% of Arrival. How you feel about the finale depends on whether you buy into the disconnected-from-linear-time aspect or you just get confused, like I did.
  • The remarkably sensitive and realistic indie drama Moonlight is at once a coming of age tale, an exploration of addicted parenting and a story of gay awakening. It’s almost universally praised, but I thought that the last act petered out.
  • Skip the dreary and somnolent Jackie – Natalie Portman’s exceptional impersonation isn’t enough.

This is Imogen Poots Week at The Movie Gourmet, and my Stream of the Week is A Country Called HomeA Country Called Home can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play. And last week’s pick was the TOTALLY OVERLOOKED neo-noir romance Frank & Lola, available to stream on the very same streaming services.  After seeing it at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I put Frank & Lola on my Best Movies of 2016.

On January 28, Turner Classic Movies will play Robert Altman’s superb 1992 satire of Hollywood, The Player. Wickedly funny, it features a stellar cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Lyle Lovett, Dean Stockwell, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard E. Grant, Vincent D’Onofrio, Peter Gallagher, Sydney Pollack and Dina Merrill.

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

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NOIR CITY 2017: a bang up final weekend

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

I’ve been recommending  the Noir City film fest, underway in San Francisco and running through Sunday. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.  Here are the highlights of Noir City’s bang up final weekend:

  • Charley Varrick: the shamefully underrated American neo-noir from the 1970s with Walter Mathau.  To survive, he’s got to outsmart the mob all by himself.
  • The Aura: A completely overlooked 2005 neo-noir from Argentina about an epileptic taxidermist.  He’s smart enough to plan the Perfect Crime, but does he have the sociopathic ruthlessness?
  • Before the Devil Know You’re Dead: A masterpiece from the then 84-year-old director Sidney Lumet, it features one of the best performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then there’s Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon – but Albert Finney steals the movie at the end.
  • Victoria: A 2015 European thrill ride filmed in a single 138-minute shot.
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

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THE SALESMAN: an authentic slow burn with very high stakes

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in THE SALESMAN. Photo: Cohen Media Group

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in THE SALESMAN. Photo: Cohen Media Group

The Salesman is another searing and authentic film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Set in contemporary Iran, a young educated, middle class couple (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) has to change apartments in a rush. He’s a literature teacher by day, and the two are starring in a production of Death of a Salesman. The new apartment is sketchy, and something traumatic happens to the wife, something that she says she can’t fully remember. He embarks on a whodunit while doing everything he can to support her – but it turns out that he’s not equipped to keep up with her reactions to events. By the end, the two must determine the fate of a third character, and the stakes are very high.

Farhadi is perhaps the world’s leading master of the family psychological drama. The two Farhadi films that have received wide release in the US are the award-winning A Separation and The Past . Those two films are constructed with astonishing brilliance and originality, and the audience shifts allegiance between the characters as Farhadi reveals each new layers of his stories. The story in The Salesman is more linear than in its sister dramas, but it is compelling nonetheless. Both A Separation and The Past can be rented on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Farhadi does not make Feel Good movies; his dramas are challenging. That’s because he makes the audience care so much about his characters that we ache along with them. The payoff is that Farhadi delivers genuine human behavior and authentic human emotion.

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