Movies to See Right Now

Laura Dern in WILD

Laura Dern in WILD

I really liked Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in WILD.  Just saw THE IMITATION GAME and liked it too.  I’ll be writing about both of them this weekend.  The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher and Whiplash are really good, too. And Birdman, Force Majeure and Gone Girl are three of the VERY BEST OF THE YEAR.   Here are the links to my recommendations:

  • The Theory of Everything is a successful, audience-friendly biopic of both Mr. AND Mrs. Genius.
  • Set in the macho world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher is really a relationship movie with a stunning dramatic performance by Steve Carell.
  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman.
  • 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.
  • If you want a stark and grim look at the Old West, there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ feminist Western The Homesman.
  • 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.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I very rarely recommend a sci-fi movie, but I really liked the thought-provoking romance I Origins that explores the tension between science and spirituality.  I Origins is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Instant Video.

Tomorrow, Turner Classic Movies airs John Huston’s 1949 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s still a gripping yarn – three down-and-outers improbably (and literally) strike gold. But can they trust each other enough to realize their gains once envy and greed appear? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre features one of Humphrey Bogart’s most colorful and compelling performances, which is reason enough to watch this classic.

But I also love watching director Huston’s real life father Walter Huston, who is cast as another of the trio. Most of us know Walter Huston, with his Gabby Hayes visage, from this movie, but Walter Huston was a major movie star as cinema moved to the talkies. Just between 1929 and 1939, he starred in thirty films. I love Huston’s work in this era, and I think that, with his very modern sensibility, he would be successful if he were working in today’s cinema. This is a good introduction to his work. (He also appeared very briefly in John Huston’s directorial debut The Maltese Falcon – as Captain Jacoby, the guy who staggers into Sam Spade’s office with the titular black bird and expires.)

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

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DVD/Stream of the Week: I ORIGINS – a thoughtful romance that muses on the boundaries of science and spirituality

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

The romance I Origins (which opens tomorrow) explores the conflict between science and spirituality. Our scientist protagonist (Michael Pitt) is completely empirical and militantly anti-spiritual. He is obsessed with the study of iris scans and patterns of the eye (the “I” in the title is a pun). He is hoping to prove that eyes can be evolved, which he believes will debunk the Creationist pseudo-science of Intelligent Design. He meets a model (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) – and they don’t meet CUTE, they meet HOT. Through a string of scientifically improbable coincidences, he is able to track her down for a second encounter that is sharply romantic. They fall in love – an attraction of opposites because she is mercurial and vaguely New Agey.

Along the way, he gains a new lab assistant (Brit Marling), who is just as smart and more driven than is he. Together they find the lab breakthrough to prove his theory. The main three characters are affected by a life-altering tragedy. Seven years later, the story resumes with the public release of the discovery. As our hero takes his victory lap over religion, he is faced with new evidence that cannot be explained by science…

Writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, also starring Marling) has constructed a story that sets up a discussion on the limits of empiricism. I give Cahill extra points for raising the issue without ponderosity or pretension. Some critics have harshly judged the movie, but they see it wrongly as a corny religion-beats-science movie instead of a contemplation on the possibilities. And they altogether miss the fact that the film is basically a romance, which Cahill himself sees as one of the two central aspects of I Origins. Cahill explores and compares the intense lust-at-first-sight, opposites-attract type of love with the love relationship based on common values and aspirations.

There are, however, two shots involving pivotal moments in the story (and both involving billboards) that are such self-consciously ostentatious filmmaking that they distracted me, rather than bringing emphasis to each moment.

Pitt, an actor of sometimes unsettling affect, is very good here, as he was in The Dreamers and Last Days. Berges-Frisbey and Marling deliver fine performances, too. If Marling is in a movie, it aspires to being good – I loved The East, which she co-write and starred in. Archie Panjabi, without the boots and the upfront sexiness she wears on The Good Wife, is solid in a minor part.

I Origins works both as a scientific detective story and as a meditation on romance. I found it to be smart and entertaining.  I Origins is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Instant Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

It’s time to catch the some of the VERY BEST MOVIES OF 2014: Dear White People, Birdman, Force Majeure and Gone GirlThe Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher and Whiplash are really good, too.  Here are the links to my recommendations:

  • The Theory of Everything is a successful, audience-friendly biopic of both Mr. AND Mrs. Genius.
  • Set in the macho world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher is really a relationship movie with a stunning dramatic performance by Steve Carell.
  • I really don’t want anyone to miss 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.
  • 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.
  • If you want a stark and grim look at the Old West, there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ feminist Western The Homesman.
  • 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.
  • 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 appealing musical Jersey BoysJersey Boys is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

And here’s a bonus DVD/Stream:  I really liked Blue Ruin, an entirely fresh take on the revenge thriller. Blue Ruin was an audience favorite on the festival circuit in 2013 but didn’t get a theatrical release.  It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video.

Tune your DVRs to Turner Classic Movies on December 14 for three unforgettable classics. There’s the sexy, cynical prototype film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. Then Henry Fonda is at his most appealing in the subversive WW II comedy Mister Roberts.

Finally, there’s Blow-up. Set in the Mod London of the mid-60s, a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) is living a fun but shallow life filled with sports cars, discos and and scoring with supermodels (think Jane Birkin, Sarah Miles and Verushka). Then he discovers that his random photograph of a landscape may contain a clue in a murder and meets a mystery woman (Vanessa Redgrave). After taking us into a vivid depiction of the Mod world, director Michelangelo Antonioni brilliantly turns the story into a suspenseful story of spiraling obsession. His L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse made Antonioni an icon of cinema, but Blow-up is his most accessible and enjoyable masterwork. There’s also a cameo performance by the Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page version of the Yardbirds and a quick sighting of Michael Palin in a nightclub.

BLOW-UP

BLOW-UP

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DVD/Stream of the Week: JERSEY BOYS – evocative pop and a dash of Christopher Walken

Erich Bergen, John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda in JERSEY BOYS

Erich Bergen, John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda in JERSEY BOYS

Jersey Boys, while not great cinema, is definitely a fun time at the movies. We might have expected great cinema because this is Clint Eastwood’s version of the Broadway musical, itself a show biz bio of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The acting is a little uneven, the female parts are underwritten and some parts drag. But what Jersey Boys does offer – the Four Season’s evocative pop hits, a couple charismatic performances and a dash of Christopher Walken – is worth the trip to the theater.

The story’s arc is a familiar one – after paying their dues with years of bottom-scraping gigs, a bunch of nobodies achieve overnight fame and wealth and then destruct. Three things are a little different about these guys. First, the core of the group is mobbed up (and you can see how the real Frankie Valli could later play a mobster so well in The Sopranos). Second, their catalyst is the pop music-writing genius Bob Gaudio, a suburban teen who joins the hardscrabble threesome from a tough neighborhood and serves them their hits: Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Dawn (Go Away) and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Finally, the cause of the group’s downfall is neither external (e.g., crooked business manager or evil record company) nor pervasive substance abuse.

Eastwood tells the story in four segments – each from the perspective of one of the guys – and this works pretty well. He gets a big boost from the performances of Vincent Piazza as the cocky group leader, Erich Bergen as the creative mastermind Gaudio and Mike Doyle as their flamboyant producer. John Lloyd Young reprises his Broadway role as the group’s big star, lead singer Frankie Valli. Young can do Valli’s very distinctive voice, but has a very limited emotional range. And it turns out that Valli, because he’s a pretty square guy, has the least interesting story of the group. When Valli does have relationship angst, the story gets bogged down. Michael Lomenda plays the fourth guy and gets to ask the plaintive question, “What if you’re Ringo?”

Jersey Boys also contains yet another delightful turn by Christopher Walken, this time as the Four Seasons’ mobster mentor. Walken himself started out as a chorus boy, and it’s fun to see him holding his own in the grand musical finale. And remember the young and dreamy Christopher Walken belting out The Four Seasons’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You in The Deer Hunter’s great bar scene? It’s near the beginning of this trailer.

Jersey Boys is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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BLUE RUIN: fresh take on the revenge thriller

Macon Blair in BLUE RUIN

Macon Blair in BLUE RUIN

Here’s an entirely fresh take on the revenge thriller. Blue Ruin, an audience favorite on the festival circuit in 2013, didn’t get a theatrical release, and I would have missed it entirely but for a suggestion from my friend Jose.

As the film opens, we are following a homeless man and observing his survival tactics; once we’re hooked, we learn that a traumatic incident led to his homelessness.  Then we watch him methodically prepare for an entirely different mission.  There is very little dialogue in the first 30 minutes.  And then we have 60 minutes of lethal cat-and-mouse, with intense suspense about which of the characters will survive and how.  As a thriller, this is first class.

What makes Blue Ruin so fresh is the lead character, who has been shattered by a tragedy in his life – and who isn’t at all confident about his ability to redress it. This ain’t a Charles Bronson or Liam Neeson type hunter-of-bad-guys. Instead, our hero is as scared and fragile as most of us would be if we were being hunted for our lives – and so we relate to him.

Macon Blair is superb as the protagonist. He’s entirely believable both as a damaged down-and-outer and as a man-on-a-mission. Man, I hope Blair gets cast in more movies – he’s just great here.

Devin Ratray, one of the execrable, buffoonish cousins in Nebraska, is very good in an entirely different role here – a slacker scarred by his war experiences who nevertheless remains very skilled.

Blue Ruin was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. He is responsible for the wholly original lead character and the intense pace of the film, along with the meticulously economical storytelling; the exposition never relies on even one extra word of dialogue.

Blue Ruin is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

We’re in Movie Prime Time – with fine Holiday movies big and small.  Here are the best:

  • The Theory of Everything is a successful, audience-friendly biopic of both Mr. And Mrs. Genius.
  • Set in the macho world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher is really a relationship movie with a stunning dramatic performance by Steve Carell.
  • I really don’t want anyone to miss 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.
  • 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.
  • If you want a stark and grim look at the Old West, there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ feminist Western The Homesman.
  • 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 still the singular Dutch thriller Borgman – a smart and relatively non-gory horror film for adults.

Yesterday I wrote about the late filmmaker Mike Nichols, and his films The Graduate and Primary Colors.  Turner Classic Movies is airing The Graduate and two mother Nichols classics tomorrow, December 6.  Primary Colors is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, Vudu and Xbox Video.

THE GRADUATE

THE GRADUATE

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Mike Nichols: a belated remembrance

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols

I didn’t get a chance to weigh last week on the passing of the seminal filmmaker Mike Nichols, but on this Saturday Turner Classic Movies is airing three of Nichol’s movies: The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. The superb Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Nichol’s directing debut. Imagine, as a rookie director, handling the world’s two biggest movie stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, at the height of their media circus celebrity, tempetuous relationship and individual willfulness. Three quick reflections on Mike Nichols:

1. It’s easy to recognize the greatness of The Graduate today, but it’s hard to appreciate how groundbreaking it was – all because of Nichol’s directorial choices. Dustin Hoffman’s performance was central to the success of the film, yet he was a nobody at the time and Nichols had to fight for him – the studio preferred a conventionally handsome leading man. Nichols sure wasn’t copying anybody else when he put the Simon and Garfunkle songs in the soundtrack. And the final shot – where Nichols kept his camera lingering on Hoffman and Katherine Ross until the actors became uncomfortable – is one of cinema’s best.

2. Nichols was still at the top of his form in 1998 with the Bill Clinton story Primary Colors. We can see his continuing comedic mastery when Allison Janney’s teacher union president emerges in a Walk of Shame from the candidate’s hotel room. And when the Hillary character explains the “momma” phenomenon where the Bill and Carville characters are weeping about their mommas. Primary Colors is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, Vudu and Xbox Video.

3. And this precedes his movie career, but it occurs to me that Mike Nichols’ comedy sketch collaboration with Elaine May was really the precursor of the 50’s becoming the 60’s in America. Just search on YouTube for “Mike Nichols Elaine May” and watch some clips – you’ll see why.

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FOXCATCHER: the worst mommie issues since Norman Bates

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in FOXCATCHER

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in FOXCATCHER

It may be set in the macho world of Olympic wrestling, but the docudrama Foxcatcher is really a relationship movie. The relationship triangle is between Olympic gold medal winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and the billionaire wrestling enthusiast John E. du Pont.  Mark is uncomplicated and naive and seduced by du Pont’s offer to get him out of his older, more worldly, brother’s shadow.  But du Pont turns out to be one sick puppy, with tragic results.

And the character of John E. du Pont, as brilliantly revealed by Steve Carell, is what makes this story so fascinating.  He’s a zillionaire who is passionate about a relatively low profile Olympic sport and wants to sponsor US wrestlers – that’s all within the normal band of rich guy behavior.  But he also fancies himself a coach, a Vince Lombardi-like Leader of Men, and his wealth enables him to act out his pathetic fantasies.  It’s pretty clear that he’s driven by the worst mommie issues since Norman Bates in Psycho.  (Vanessa Redgrave, in a brilliantly understated performance, plays his perpetually disapproving mother.)

Carell wear a prosthetic nose to resemble the real du Pont (just perform a Google image search for “John E du Pont” to see the real thing).  But Carell knocks this role out of the park with his eyes – cluelessly confident, then raging when denied what he wants, then searching for a glimmer of maternal approval.  Carell deserves – and I’m sure will secure – a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  The guy can do more than comedy, that’s for sure.

All three of the main actors are getting Oscar buzz. Mark Ruffalo, is exceptional as Dave Schultz.  Two of his scenes are extraordinary.  In one, he is listening to Mark’s big plans and we can tell he thinks it’s too good to be true, but he doesn’t want to rain on his brother’s parade.  In the other, he is being prompted to say something that disgusts him in du Pont’s vanity documentary.  The story is centered on Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz.  I generally like Tatum, and he’s OK here, but I couldn’t get past his device of jutting out Mark’s chin to capture the dumb jock look.

Foxcatcher is directed by Bennett Miller, whose two other films were Capote and Moneyball.  He lets us understand Mark Schultz by watching him in his daily routine.  He lets us understand John E. du Pont by contrasting his empty, blathering coachspeak with his posing as someone accomplished in his own right.  Bennett keeps the camera right on his characters and stays out of the way, especially with his effectively spare soundtrack.  It all works very well.

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THE HOMESMAN: a dark, feminist Western – and not for eveybody

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in THE HOMESMAN

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in THE HOMESMAN

Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote, directs and stars in the dark Western (I love Westerns!) The Homesman. Hilary Swank plays a single woman in bleak frontier Nebraska who volunteers to take three madwomen to respite, a hard five weeks wagon ride to the east in civilized Iowa. She conscripts an irascible reprobate (Tommy Lee Jones) to help her. About Jones’ character, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote “It’s as if Yosemite Sam had turned up in the pages of a Willa Cather novel.” As in any odyssey or road trip story, they face obstacles that make it an adventure – and, in a Western, we expect those to include harsh natural conditions, hostile Indians and bad gunmen.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, The Homesman doesn’t romanticize the Wild West. The three passengers have suffered mental breakdowns. Each of them has clung to sanity through almost the unbearable hardships of frontier life, and then has been broken by a distinct trauma.

The Homesman has been labeled a “feminist Western”, and this is accurate. Swank’s character is independent, industrious and earnest and responsible to a fault. She’s a great catch for any guy post-1900, but her very independence repels any hope for male companionship in the mid-19th Century Old West, where the local yokels travel all the way Back East for women that are suitably submissive. As to the three broken passengers, really bad things have happened to the women, and the fact that they’ve been isolated with patriarchal and, in some cases abusive, men, has made it that much more unbearable.

Jones directs with a steady hand, and as in his exemplary Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, proves to have a special gift with a western setting and in getting good performances. Here, he and Swank are just as good as we would expect, which is pretty damn good. The cast is dotted by the likes of John Lithgow and even Meryl Streep, but the standout, most memorable performances are the supporting turns by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.

Unless you’re on a date or looking for an escapist lark, The Homesman is a fine movie on all counts; but be prepared for unrelenting grimness in this starkly, dark tale.

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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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