DVD/Stream of the Week: AUGUSTINE: obsession, passion and the birth of a science

The absorbing French drama Augustine is based on the real work of 19th century medical research pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of neurology. A young kitchen maid begins suffering wild seizures and is brought to Charcot’s research hospital. He ascertains the triggers for the seizures, and begins to close in on cure. Needing funding for his research, he triggers her seizures before groups of his peers; he is showing off his research, but it’s clear that his affluent male audience is titillated by the comely girl’s orgasmic thrashes.

She is drawn to this man whose kindness to her belies their class difference and whose brilliance is the key to her recovery. The good doctor intends to cure her – but not until she has performed for his potential funders. She is unexpectedly cured just before Charcot’s most important demonstration, and she gets to decide whether to continue her exploitation. In the stunning conclusion, she gets the upper hand and her simmering feelings erupt.

The fine French actor Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) excels at playing very contained and reserved characters, and here he nails Charcot’s clash of decency and professional ambition. The French pop singer Soko is captivating as his patient.

It’s an auspicious first feature film for writer-director Alice Winocour. She has constructed a story that about two sympathetic characters whose interests converge, then diverge and then…

Augustine is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO ITALY

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO ITALY

In theaters:

  • The smart and hilarious The Trip to Italy showcases the improvisational wit of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, along with some serious tourism/foodie porn.
  • Alive Inside: The profoundly moving documentary showing Alzheimer patients being pulled out of isolation by music.
  • Feedback from my readers is almost unanimous – Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood is a special movie experience – and possibly the best film of the decade.
  • The mesmerizing drama Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson again teams with John Michael McDonagh, the writer-director of The Guard.
  • I really liked The One I Love - a relationship romance, a dark comedy and a modern day episode of The Twilight Zone rolled into one successful movie. It’s also available streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.
  • Don’t miss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s explosive final performance in the John le Carré espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man.

Boyhood tops my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far, and Alive Inside and Calvary also make the list.

Poor writing and directing sabotage the delightful performances of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in the romantic drama Love Is Strange. I was also disappointed by the tiresome Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  I nodded off during Woody Allen’s disappointing romantic comedy of manners Magic in the Moonlight.

Here’s my preview of the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the unusually thoughtful romantic comedy Words and Pictures.

On September 16, Turner Classic Movies plays the unforgettable Bogart and Bacall thriller Key Largo.  And the next day, TCM will air the overlooked film noir masterpiece The Narrow Margin, a taut 71 minutes of tension.  Growly cop Charles McGraw plays hide-and-seek with a team of hit men on a claustrophobic train.  Marie Windsor is unforgettable as the assassins’ target.

Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor in THE NARROW MARGIN

Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor in THE NARROW MARGIN

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Mill Valley Film Festival: see it here first

Timothy Spall in MR. TURNER

Timothy Spall in MR. TURNER

The Mill Valley Film Festival always showcases many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season.  It’s the best opportunity for Bay Area film goers to catch an early look at the Big Movies. This year, the film fest is especially rich with Oscar bait:

  • Mr. Turner: A period biopic by Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Another Year).  Lots of Oscar buzz for lead actor Timothy Spall.  Most of us won’t be able to see this in theaters until January.
  • Foxcatcher: Ripped from the headlines psychological drama with possible acting Oscar nods for Steve Carell AND Channing Tatum AND Mark Ruffalo.
  • The Homesman: Writer/director/star Tommy Lee Jones takes Hilary Swank on a pioneer road trip.
  • Whiplash:  J.K. Simmons (Juno) plays the tough love music instructor for drummer Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now).  Huge hit at Sundance promises to be one of the Fall’s top audience-pleasers.
  • Wild:  Reese Witherspoon backpacks solo across the Pacific coast for emotional closure.
  • Force Majeure: This Swedish satirical disaster thriller won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes.
  • The Imitation Game:  Lots of buzz for Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as gay WWII code-breaking genius Kenneth Turing.
  • St. Vincent:  Big crowd pleaser here:  Single mom (Melissa McCarthy) leave young son with boozy, lecherous babysitter (Bill Murray).  The kid actor is getting raves, too.
  • Two Days, One Night: The latest urgent drama from the Dardennes brothers (The Kid with a Bike, The Son).  Their movies always make my annual top ten list – and this one features Marion Cotillard.
  • The Judge: Mixed reviews so far at Toronto for courtroom drama with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall.

Those are the Big Movies, but there’s also a promising assortment of the indies, foreign flicks and documentaries that I usually cover.  Here’s the schedule.

The fest runs October 2-11 in Mill Valley, San Rafael and Corte Madera. Tickets are now available to members and will go on sale to the public on September 14.

Steve Carell (yes - that's really him) and Channing Tatum in FOXCATCHER

Steve Carell (yes – that’s really him) and Channing Tatum in FOXCATCHER

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DVD/Stream of the Week: WORDS AND PICTURES: an unusually thoughtful romantic comedy

words picturesIn the unusually thoughtful romantic comedy Words and Pictures, Clive Owen and the ever-radiant Juliette Binoche star as sparring teachers. The two play world-class artists – Owen a writer and Binoche a painter – who find themselves in teaching jobs at an elite prep school. As they spiritedly disagree over whether words or pictures are the most powerful medium of expression, they each admire and are drawn to the other’s talent and passion.

Words and Pictures contains the wittiest movie dialogue in many moons and reminds us that real wit is more than some clever put downs. Owen’s English teacher worships the use of language to evoke original imagery and also revels in pedantic wordplay – the more syllables the better. When his boss asks him, “Why are you always late?”, he retorts “Why are you always dressed monochromatically?”.

The reason that he IS always late is that he’s an alcoholic hellbent on squandering his talent and alienating his friends and family. This is a realistic depiction of alcoholism and of its byproducts – unreliability, broken relationships and fundamental dishonesty. In an especially raw scene, he expresses his self-loathing by using a tennis racquet and tennis balls to demolish his own living space. Top notch stuff.

Binoche plays a woman of great inner strength and confidence who has been shaken by the advances of a chronic illness. According to the credits, Binoche herself created her character’s paintings.

Words and Pictures sparkles until near the end. When the students make the debate over words vs pictures explicit in the school assembly, the intellectual argument loses its force and the tension peters out. So it may not be a great movie, but Words and Pictures is still plenty entertaining and a damn sight smarter than the average romantic comedy.

I saw Words and Pictures earlier this year at Cinequest. It’s available now on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Vudu and Xbox Video.

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The first Orange Is the New Black – coming up on TV

Hope Emerson and Eleanor Parker in CAGED

Hope Emerson and Eleanor Parker in CAGED

Want to see the prototype for Orange Is the New Black? On September 6, Turner Classic Movies airs the 1950 Caged. Eleanor Parker (who died last year) played the naive young woman plunged into a harsh women’s prison filled with hard-bitten fellow prisoners and compassion-free guards. Parker was nominated for an acting Oscar, but her performance pales next to that of Hope Emerson, whose electric portrayal of a hulking guard also got an Oscar nod. Caged also features the fine character actresses Thelma Moorhead, Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) and Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton here as a young woman). Sixty-four years later, Caged might still be the best women’s prison movie ever.

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Movies to See Right Now

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE

Plenty of good choices in theaters:

  • The smart and hilarious The Trip to Italy showcases the improvisational wit of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, along with some serious tourism/foodie porn.
  • Alive Inside: The profoundly moving documentary showing Alzheimer patients being pulled out of isolation by music.
  • Feedback from my readers is almost unanimous – Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood is a special movie experience – and possibly the best film of the decade.
  • The mesmerizing drama Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson.  Gleeson again teams with John Michael McDonagh, the writer-director of The Guard.
  • I really liked The One I Love - a relationship romance, a dark comedy and a modern day episode of The Twilight Zone rolled into one successful movie.  It’s also available streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.
  • Don’t miss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s explosive final performance in the John le Carré espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man.

Boyhood tops my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far, and Alive Inside and Calvary also make the list.

Poor writing and directing sabotage the delightful performances of Alfred molina and john Lithgow in the romantic drama Love Is Strange.  I was also disappointed by the tiresome Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  I nodded off during Woody Allen’s disappointing romantic comedy of manners Magic in the Moonlight.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Go For Sisters , a border thriller with three more great movie characters from master indie writer-director John Sayles. Go for Sisters is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Netflix Instant, Amazon and Vudu.

As I wrote yesterday, Turner Classic Movies is airing the prototype for Orange Is the New Black - Caged from 1950 – set your DVR tonight..

On September 7, TCM plays The Battle of Algiers (1966), 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 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. Re-released to theaters in 2004, The Battle of Algiers made many critics’ top ten lists the second time around.

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THE TRIP TO ITALY: wit, more wit and amazing food

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO ITALY

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO ITALY

The smart and hilarious The Trip to Italy showcases the improvisational wit of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, along with some serious tourism/foodie porn.   As in The Trip, the two British comics are sent off on a hedonistic road trip to review spectacular restaurants – this time in Italy’s most stunningly beautiful destinations.  Along the way, they needle each other and virtually any occurrence can trigger a very funny riff.  As in The Trip, they compete for the funniest Michael Caine impression; but this time, their funniest impression is of a harried Assistant Director trying to give notes to the mask-wearing Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises.

And – if you enjoy travel and fine dining – the restaurant scenes are unsurpassed.

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LOVE IS STRANGE: gentle and poignant, but contrived and random

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in LOVE IS STRANGE

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in LOVE IS STRANGE

In the almost satisfying romantic drama Love Is Strange, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play New York City men who, 39 years into their relationship, marry and then are separated by circumstance. By far the best part of Love Is Strange is that Molina and Lithgow develop unique characters, credible and truthful, neither a stereotype in any way. It’s a pleasure to watch these guys, and their embrace on a rainy night is shattering. Another good part: they have a teen nephew, and there’s some truth in the movie’s depiction of the difficulties of being a teenager and raising a teenager.

Unfortunately, Molina’s and Lithgow’s talents are left high and dry by co-writers Ira Sachs (who directed) and Mauricio Zaharias. The set-up to split up the couple’s living arrangements is contrived and unrealistic. Several plot points range from random to confusing (why do some characters steal some library books?), and some fade out without any resolution. Sachs also makes some directorial missteps. There’s a concert scene in which we are jarred with closeups of four or five non-characters (and, I think, non-actors) that really can’t be explained unless these are vanity shots of the movie’s investors. And a climactic shot of a character crying in a stairwell goes on one count, two counts, then twenty counts too long.

Love Is Strange is not a bad movie – and it does contain the splendid performances by Molina and Litgow – but it sure ain’t a Must See.

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Movies to See Right Now

Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD

Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD

OK – it’s the Labor Day weekend – we all have three days off and a need to seek an air-conditioned theater.  So there’s just no excuse if you haven’t yet seen these movies on my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far:

  • Alive Inside: The profoundly moving documentary showing Alzheimer patients being pulled out of isolation by music.
  • Feedback from my readers is almost unanimous – Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood is a special movie experience – and possibly the best film of the decade.
  • The mesmerizing drama Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson again teams with John Michael McDonagh, the writer-director of The Guard.

I really liked The One I Love - a relationship romance, a dark comedy and a modern day episode of The Twilight Zone rolled into one successful movie. Don’t miss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s explosive final performance in the John le Carré espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man.

I was disappointed by the tiresome Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  I nodded off during Woody Allen’s disappointing romantic comedy of manners Magic in the Moonlight.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Go For Sisters , a border thriller with three more great movie characters from master indie writer-director John Sayles.  Go for Sisters is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Netflix Instant, Amazon and Vudu.

On September 1, TCM is airing The Crying Game – with one of the great movie plot twists of all time and one of my Best Films About the Troubles (Northern Ireland).

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THE ONE I LOVE: a relationship enters the Twilight Zone

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in THE ONE I LOVE

Opening tomorrow, The One I Love is one of the year’s most original stories – a romance, dark comedy and sci-fi fable rolled into one successful movie.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a couple in that place in their relationship where quirks have become annoying instead of endearing, some trust issues have emerged and the two are just generally misfiring.  Their couples therapist recommends a weekend at an idyllic, isolated vacation cottage, which also has a second (presumably unoccupied) guest house.  The beautiful setting is enhanced by a bottle of wine and a reefer, and the desired rekindling of romance and intimacy occurs.  So everything goes as we would expect for this first nine minutes of the movie, and then – WOW – a major plot development that involves the guest house.

As soon as one of the characters explicitly references TV’s The Twilight Zone, the story becomes what would have been a perfect episode in that Rod Steiger series.  Screenwriter Justin Lader pulls off a What’s Gonna Happen Next? story that has its moments of creepy thriller and madcap comedy.  But, at its heart, the story explores these questions:  what is it about our partners that keeps us in or drives us out of a relationship?  How do we stay in love with someone who has changed from who we fell in love with?  Or who hasn’t become the person we had projected?  The One I Love is only 91 minutes, so the tension and the thoughtfulness can slowly build while keeping us on the edges of our seats.

Moss and Duplass are simply remarkable here – these are two great performances.

MINOR SPOILER ALERT: Both Duplass and Moss play other characters in this movie – and they excel at creating subtle differences in the characters that are revealing, thought-provoking and scary.

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