Movies to See Right Now

Joe
I like the dark and violent Joe with Nicholas Cage and young Tye Sheridan of Mud.   The Unknown Known, master documentarian Errol Morris’ exploration of Donald Rumsfeld’s self-certainty, is a Must See for those who follow current events.

You can still find Jake Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance in two roles in the psychological thriller Enemy. Like all Wes Anderson movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is wry and imaginative, but it’s not one of his most engaging. Dom Hemingway is a fun and profane romp. In the most bizarro movie of the year so far, Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who lures men with her sensuality and then harvests their bodies; it’s trippy, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.

I liked Run & Jump, now available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video. It’s successful as a romance, a family drama and a promising first feature.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is Martin Scorsese’s funniest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, in which the sales meetings make the toga party in Animal House look like an Amish barn-raising. The Wolf of Wall Street is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

This week Turner Classic Movies is showing one of my all-time favorites, the noir mystery Laura, with the detective (Dana Andrews) falling in love with the murder victim he has never met (the lustrous Gene Tierney); Clifton Webb steals the show with a brilliantly eccentric supporting turn. TCM is also showing perhaps the greatest Western movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a mature John Ford’s contemplation of all those shoot ‘em ups from earlier in his career; it features James Stewart and John Wayne, along with Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Vera Mills, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Marvin. And speaking of the Duke, in The Shootist, he plays an aged gunslinger dying of cancer at the end of the Old West; poignantly, Wayne himself was fighting cancer himself and The Shootist was his final film.

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Run & Jump: a romance, a family drama and a promising first feature

Maxine Peake in RUN & JUMP

Maxine Peake in RUN & JUMP

In the indie Run & Jump, a rare type of stroke has changed the personality of an Irish furniture maker; he has survived, but now prone to rages and catatonia, he is never going to be the same as before.  He is returned to his family, led by his firecracker wife (Maxine Peake).  Along comes an American medical researcher (Will Forte from Saturday Night Live and Nebraska), who moves with the family so he can continually film his patient’s symptoms.

The family initially resents the constant filming, although they desperately need the income from the research stipend.  The researcher is so socially awkward that he’s almost catatonic himself, but he is able to provide the adult male presence that the family now misses, and they are eventually drawn to his kindness.  Although he tries to maintain clinical distance, he is inevitably attracted to the vitality of the wife – a real live wire.  But this isn’t going where you might expect…

Run & Jump succeeds both as a romance and as a family drama.  The primary credit goes to co-writer and director Steph Green.  A Bay Area filmmaker who now works in Ireland, Green was Oscar nominated for a live action short.  Run & Jump is her first feature.

Maxine Peake’s affecting performance as the wife drives the film; Run & Jump is really the story of the wife’s struggles as she fights to keep her family afloat while making a near impossible adjustment.

Run & Jump is available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video.

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Under the Skin: unsatisfying…but, then again, there’s Scarlett

under skinUnder the Skin is the most bizarro movie of the year so far – by a long shot.  A space alien in the form of a human woman attracts men sexually and then harvests their bodies. As each man steps forward, entranced in lust, he doesn’t notice that he is sinking into an ever deeper black pool until he vanishes.   Later, we learn that he is suspended in the viscous liquid until, suddenly, his body is deflated like a popped balloon, leaving just the latex-like skin, while a red pulp (presumably pulverized human bone and tissue) heads up on a conveyor belt to the aliens for their use.  This lurid story is set in the gloomy dank of Scotland and yo-yos between the gritty streets of Glasgow and a highly stylized sci-fi world a la Solaris.

Scarlett Johansson, who puts the lure in allure, plays the alien who any heterosexual man would crawl on his knees across broken glass for.  Scarlett is a helluva good sport.  Johansson is that rare A-list movie star who doesn’t take herself too seriously and has VERY good taste.  You can’t criticize her for picking up a paycheck in the occasional comic book movie when you consider a body of top-tier work that is remarkable for a 29-year-old:  Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Her.  Here, she is suitably sensual and perfectly nails the alien’s changing degree of emotional detachment/attachment, which is really the core of the movie (I think).  And she gets naked several times.

Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) co-wrote the screenplay with Walter Campbell from a Michael Faber novel.  This is NOT a movie for those who need to know what is going on at all times.  And, to connect the dots the best we can, we have to sit through some VERY repetitive action.

Again and again, the alien drives around Glasgow, scanning hundreds of men, asking the ones with the most unintelligible accents for directions and picking up the single ones.  This happens a lot.  She has an alien handler in the form of a human man dressed in motorcycle gear, who strides around with aggressive purposefulness and speeds around the Scottish back roads on his bike and never speaks.  This happens a lot, too.

Under the Skin is getting critical praise (currently a Metacritic score of 77), which I attribute to its novel look and overall trippiness and to its being the first movie in three months that challenges the audience.  But overall, the payoff isn’t really worth watching the repetition, trying to figure out what’s going on and why.

SPOILER ALERT:  As an alien people-harvester, she is initially emotionally uninvolved with humans.  She has no reaction to a family beach tragedy that would highly disturb a human.  Dragged into a disco, she is disoriented until some poor guy chats her up and she can lapse into the role she was trained/programmed for.

But then she picks up an Elephant Man for harvesting; she is touched by his longing for companionship and sex – and ends up letting him go.  Another man shows her kindness and she tries out humanity, tapping her fingers to human music, trying a bite of chocolate cake (and spitting it out, gagging).  She attaches to the kind man but finds herself biologically unequipped to take the relationship to a new level.

And there are some holes in the story.  If this alien race is so advanced, why can’t her handler find her with some GPS-like capacity?  Why don’t the aliens harvest more people, and why do they just pick the solitary loners?  Why don’t they consume the skin? But that’s just thinking too much about Under the Skin.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: The Wolf of Wall Street

wolfWhat do you get when testosterone-fueled and morally challenged stock salesmen discover how to make piles of easy money by defrauding investors? Well, when Martin Scorsese tells the tale, we get three hours of full throttle, hilariously bad behavior. The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of a (real life) guy who found out how to make a fortune scamming middle class investors – and then a bigger fortune scamming rich investors – on penny stocks and shady IPOs. It’s a wild ride that is destined to end in a perp walk, propelled by enormous amounts of recreational drug use. In fact, the movie is really about excess – the sales meetings here make the toga party in Animal House look like an Amish barn-raising.

This is not economic story-telling. Scorsese indulgently lets his scenes run on and on – not so we lose interest, but just so he can milk out every drop of spectacle. Although he could have told the story in two hours instead of three, he just couldn’t resist supplying three hours of exhilaration. Fine by me.

I had never thought of Leonardo DiCaprio as a comic actor, but he does a fine job in the lead role – driving what is essentially a comedy. Speaking of comic actors, this may be Jonah Hill’s finest performance – he plays the top henchman, a character who wears horn-rimmed glasses (without corrective lenses) just to look more WASPish; no one can play schlubby desperation or drug-impaired overreaching better than Hill. There is a huge cast, and some of the year’s best acting gems include:

  • Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights and so brilliant in The Spectacular Now) as the FBI agent targeting DiCaprio. In particular, Chandler performs an exceptional scene on a yacht, where the agent lets the con artist (and the audience) think that his con is working – for just a bit. Top notch stuff.
  • Matthew McConaughey, at the height of his new-found acting powers, as our hero’s first mentor in amorality;
  • Rob Reiner (!) as the hero’s emotionally explosive but common sensical dad;
  • the stunning blonde Australian actress Margot Robbie as the Brooklyn-bred trophy wife; and
  • Joanna Lumley (a top model in London’s 60s Mod scene and popularizer of the Purdey bob hairstyle) as the trophy wife’s conveniently European aunt.

I’m certainly going to add this to my Best Drug Movies. Multiple scenes make this the best Quaalude movie ever, and one extended ‘lude scene with DiCaprio and Hill had the audience howling for several minutes.

Is this one of Scorsese’s best films? No – but it is one of the most entertaining and certainly the funniest.  The Wolf of Wall Street is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Joe: bad ass redemption in the backwoods

JoeIn Joe, Nicholas Cage plays the title character, who lives a solitary life in backwoods Texas – self-isolated by problems with anger management and booze that long ago estranged his family and cost him some time in the state pen.  Somehow Joe has stayed out of trouble for years, but he’s always on a slow simmer, seemingly close to boiling over.  Joe meets Gary (Tye Sheridan of Mud), a boy who belongs to a family of drifters led by a father who beats them and takes all their money to spend on cheap likker.  Joe bonds with Gary, and ultimately finds redemption in a sacrifice he makes for the boy.  Dark and violent, Joe is ultimately successful as a gripping drama.

Indie writer-director David Gordon Green excels at authentic character-driven Southern dramas (George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow).  Here he brings us to a world of nasty chained-up dogs, where everyone smokes cigarettes and eats canned food, and nobody has heard of espresso or the Internet.

Cage’s performance is excellent – never over-the-top and much more modulated and realistic than we’ve come to expect from him.

Sheridan, so good in Mud, might be even better here; he smolders at the abuse and neglect the family suffers at the hands of his father. He’s become a strapping kid who came employ violence against an adult, but the father-son tie keeps him from unleashing it on his despicable father. Sheridan is especially brilliant in an early scene where he playfully banters with his drunken dad and in another where Joe teaches him how to fake a pained smile to attract girls.

The biggest revelation in Joe is a searing performance by non-actor Gary Poulter as the drunken father who may shamble like a zombie, but is always cruising like a shark, on the hunt for someone to manipulate or rob.  It’s stirring portrait of final stage alcoholism, where there is no moral filter anymore – he will resort to ANY conduct for some three dollar wine.  There is nothing left but evil borne of desperation for a drink.  Although Poulter was a reliable member of the filmmaking team, within two months after the conclusion of photography, he had resorted to his previous self-destructive lifestyle and died.  Thanks to Green, he leaves one great cinematic performance as his legacy.

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Movies to See Right Now

Rumsfeld: unruffled by the Errol Morris documentary treatmentThe Unknown Known, master documentarian Errol Morris’ exploration of Donald Rumsfeld’s self-certainty, opens widely today. It’s a Must See for those who follow current events.

You can still find Jake Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance in two roles in the psychological thriller Enemy. Like all Wes Anderson movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is wry and imaginative, but it’s not one of his most engaging. Dom Hemingway is a fun and profane romp.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the well-paced, well-acted and intelligent sci-fi adventure fable The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with Jennifer Lawrence. HG: Catching Fire is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tune up your TiVo – this is a particularly strong week for Turner Classic Movies.  There are two of the best comedies of all time – My Man Godfrey and Sullivan’s Travels.   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.  And there’s that guilty pleasure, Shaft; it’s not a good movie, but it always makes me wish that I had my own theme song.

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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The Unknown Known: Rumsfeld exposed…by himself

Rumsfeld: unruffled by the Errol Morris documentary treatmentErrol Morris is a master documentarian (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure), so he is the perfect guy to explore the personality and career – and, above all, the self-certainty – of Donald Rumsfeld, architect of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  For most of the film, Rumsfeld himself is on-screen talking to Morris’ camera.  Rumsfeld is apparently completely immune from self-doubt, but ultimately reveals more about himself than he would like.

The title of the picture comes from a Rumsfeld memo that describes a policy maker’s “unknown known” as that which you thought you know but it turns out that you didn’t.  Of course, the classic “unknown known” is the certainty that the Iraq War would be justified and would turn out well.

In contrast, the “unknown unknown” is something that you don’t know that you don’t know and that Rumsfeld says that you have to imagine (such as the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks).  Of course, the imagining of all kinds of such attacks drives the neo-conservative theory of preemptive war – to strike at those who can be IMAGINED to threaten you.

Rumsfeld is remarkably glib and very effective at selling his own version of reality.  Morris takes this on early in the documentary by getting Rumsfeld to deny linking Saddam with Al Qaeda and then shows him doing exactly that in a pre-Iraq War news conference.  Indeed, Morris himself is an effective off-screen participant throughout, sparring with Rumsfeld, with each guy winning his share of verbal tussles.

When Rumsfeld thinks that he’s won a point, he grins the infuriating grin in the image above.  The one time he loses his smile is when Morris mentions a moment when Rumsfeld almost became Reagan’s Vice-President (and then future President), and Rumsfeld acknowledges that, yes, this was possible.  The film is brilliantly edited, and Morris knows EXACTLY how long to extend a shot to catch Rumsfeld in moments of reflection.

The movie traces Rumsfeld’s remarkable life and career from his marriage and early start as a young Congressman  thru his roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations with the end of Watergate, the fall of Saigon, his salesmanship for defense spending increases in the 1970s and his service as Reagan’s Middle East envoy.  After a time in the wilderness during Bush I, of course, he came to his greatest power during Bush II.  He gives a stirring first-person account of the 9/11 attack of the Pentagon, relating what the scene was like even before the first responders arrived.  But the core of the film is about the Rumsfeld decisions about Iraq.

Unusual for a current events documentary, there’s also some top shelf music from Danny Elfman, Oscar nominated for Good Will Hunting and Milk.

You can find The Unknown Known tomorrow in theaters and streaming now on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video

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Swerve: predictable action and one scary dude

Jason Clarke in SWERVE

Jason Clarke in SWERVE

In the Australian thriller Swerve, a Good Samaritan drifter gets caught up in a deadly entanglement involving a briefcase full of drug money, some very dangerous guys and a sexy woman of uncertain loyalty.  The movie gets its title from some key moments when vehicles swerve and move the plot along.  There’s a lot of convincing action (there not even any dialogue for the first seven minutes and two fatalities), but writer-director Craig Lahiff is a better director than a writer. If you’ve seen a femme fatale and some action thrillers, nothing in the plot will surprise you. Unfortunately, the wife with wandering thighs is played by Emma Booth, who is unable to elevate the Bad Girl to Kathleen Turner/Lana Turner territory.

The best thing about Swerve is that hulking Jason Clarke (Animal Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless) is really good at playing menace and indestructibility, and here he adds a mad glint in his eyes. Plus there some pleasingly absurd touches with marching bands randomly wandering into otherwise tense scenes. Bottom line: Swerve is one hour forty minutes of unsurprising and predictable action peppered with one fun performance.

Swerve is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is another gripping episode from the popular and acclaimed young adult fiction trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Just like The Hunger Games, it’s a well-paced, well-acted and intelligent sci-fi adventure fable. And it’s yet another showcase role for Jennifer Lawrence.

To review, the story is set in the future, where several generations after a rebellion, an authoritarian government plucks teenagers from the formerly rebellious provinces to fight to the death in a forest. It’s all broadcast on reality TV for the entertainment of the masses. Children killing children – it doesn’t get much harsher than that.

This time, the malevolent tyrant picks his gladiators from the winners (i.e., survivors) of the past Games. Because they have survived by killing off the other children, they could constitute their own PTSD support group; they range from emotionally fragile to raging bonkers. This adds a particularly flavorful set of roles, acted especially deliciously by Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone.

The main purpose of a second act is to tee up the third, and Catching Fire is very successful, with the help of a new character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who, sadly, will not complete the sequels). Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) does a fine job directing his first Hunger Games movie – and he’s set to direct the final chapter in the trilogy (which will actually be two movies – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and – Part 2).

[Gary Ross, the director of the original The Hunger Games, is in pre-production on two new Jennifer Lawrence movies - Burial Rites from the Hannah Kent novel and Steinbeck's East of Eden (where Lawrence's role is the one played by Julie Harris in the 1955 Elia Kazan/James Dean version).]

But, at the end of the day, it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence, who must carry the movie as she plays the determined and resourceful Appalachian heroine. She’s an amazing screen presence, capable of believably portraying both panic attacks and action hero sequences. She’s worth the price of admission all by herself.

The source material may be aimed at tweens, but I haven’t met an adult yet who hasn’t enjoyed and been impressed with The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. HG: Catching Fire 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

Actually, there’s no MUST SEE in theaters right now, but here are three pretty good movies, plus a recent hit and an overlooked classic.

Jake Gyllenhaal is brilliant in two roles in the psychological thriller Enemy.  Like all Wes Anderson movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is wry and imaginative, but not one of his most engaging.  Just out today, Dom Hemingway is a fun and profane romp.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the gloriously entertaining American Hustle.  Amid an all-star cast, I think that Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and Louis C.K. steal the show. American Hustle is now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Reportedly, James Garner and Julie Andrews have each tagged the biting anti-war satire  The Americanization of Emily as their favorite movie, and Turner Classic Movies will be playing it on April 6.

Finally, baseball season has begun, so it’s time to check out this wonderfully mad movie list: Bob Calhoun’s Zombies in the Outfield and Cats in the Owners’ Box: The Top Ten Odd and Overlooked Baseball Movies for RogerEbert.com.

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