James Garner’s overlooked masterpiece

James Garner (right) with James Coburn in THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY

Actor James Garner has died at 86, known primarily for a brilliant television career highlighted by Maverick and The Rockford Files.  Yet Garner was also a fine movie actor, and starred in an oft overlooked masterpiece, the 1964 The Americanization of Emily. Set in England just before the D-Day invasion, The Americanization of Emily is a biting satire and one of the great anti-war movies. James Garner plays an admiral’s staff officer charged with procuring luxury goods and willing English women for the brass. Julie Andrews plays an English driver who has lost her husband and other male family members in the War. She resists emotional entanglements with other servicemen whose lives may be put at risk, but falls for Garner’s “practicing coward”, a man who is under no illusions about the glory of war and is determined to stay as far from combat as possible.

Unfortunately, Garner’s boss (Melvyn Douglas) has fits of derangement and becomes obsessed with the hope that the first American killed on the beach at D-Day be from the Navy. Accordingly, he orders Garner to lead a suicide mission to land ahead of the D-Day landing, ostensibly to film it. Fellow officer James Coburn must guarantee Garner’s martyrdom.

It’s a brilliant screenplay from Paddy Chayefsky, who won screenwriting Oscars for Marty, The Hospital and Network. Today, Americanization holds up as least as well as its contemporary Dr. Strangelove and much better than Failsafe.

Almost twenty years later, Garner reteamed with Julie Andrews in one of the all time great comedies, Victor/Victoria.  However, both Andrews and Garner have tagged The Americanization of Emily as their favorite film.

The Americanization of Emily is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.  It also plays several times each year on Turner Classic Movies and is next scheduled for September 24.

J

Julie Andrews and James garner in THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY

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Movies to See Right Now

Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD - opening widely next week

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD – opening widely next week

Pickins are slim in theaters this week, but we’ve got a great week coming up. Opening here in Silicon Valley next Friday are:

  • Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood – potentially the best movie of the year.
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance in the John LeCarre espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man.
  • The quirky indie comedy Land Ho!.
  • Lucy – a Scarlet Johansson action vehicle that looks like it rocks.

While we’re waiting for THOSE movies:

  • Jersey Boys is mostly fun – and features another jaunty performance by Christopher Walken.
  • The Wife enjoyed Code Black – the documentary about emergency rooms in urban public hospitals.
  • I loved the rockin’ Spanish Witching and Bitching – a witty comment on misogyny inside a madcap horror spoof, which you can stream on Amazon instant, iTunes and Xbox Video.
  • Life Itself, the affectionate but not worshipful documentary on movie critic Ebert’s groundbreaking career, courageous battle against disease and uncommonly graceful death Life Itself is streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.
  • The art vs. technology documentary Tim’s Vermeer is a yawner.

My summertime DVD/Stream of the Week recommendations are the superb surfing documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding GiantsStep Into Liquid is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Hulu and Xbox Video.  Riding Giants is available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: hang ten this summer!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on and safari with me

It’s a great time for the two most awesome and gnarly surfing movies, the documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants.

Step Into Liquid (2003): We see the world’s best pro surfers in the most extreme locations. We also see devoted amateurs in the tiny ripples of Lake Michigan and surfing evangelists teaching Irish school children. The cinematography is remarkable – critic Elvis Mitchell called the film “insanely gorgeous”. The filmmaker is Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer (1966) and The Endless Summer II (1994).

 

Riding Giants (2004): This film focuses on the obsessive search for the best wave by some of the greatest surfers in history. We see “the biggest wave ever ridden” and then a monster that could be bigger. The movie traces the discovery of the Half Moon Bay surf spot Mavericks. And more and more, all wonderfully shot.

The filmmaker is Stacy Peralta, a surfer and one the pioneers of modern skateboarding (and a founder of the Powell Peralta skateboard product company). Peralta also made Dogtown and Z-boys (2001), the great documentary about the roots of skateboarding, and wrote the 2005 Lords of Dogtown.

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Tim’s Vermeer: 5 minutes of wow and 75 minutes of boring

The documentary Tim’s Vermeer tells the story of Tim, an accomplished technologist with plenty of money and time on his hands, who comes across the theory that the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer used optical devices to paint.  He embarks upon an experiment to prove this theory plausible. He invents an optical device, grinds his own paints, recreates Vermeer’s studio and spends four months trying to copy Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.  Tim, it turns out, is a buddy of the magicians Penn and Teller, so the whole thing has become a film (produced and narrated by Penn and directed – inartfully – by Teller).

There’s one captivating moment in Tim’s Vermeer, when Tim – who is NOT a painter – tries out his Rube Goldberg mirrors with his first ever oil painting.  Tim takes a photo of his father-in-law as a young man and completes an astonishingly perfect copy in oils.

Apart from this moment, Tim’s Vermeer is a yawner.   Although only 80 minutes long, the four months of painting seems like four years.  The film’s content could have been stretched into a 30-minute cable show.  Several critics have been unable to resist pointing out that watching Tim’s Vermeer is, in parts, LITERALLY watching paint dry.

The movie makes one intriguing point:  the idea that art and technology are separate is a modern one.  Now people go to school to learn art OR tech – which wasn’t the case in Vermeer’s time and may not need be today.   It’s interesting to me that, in Tim’s Vermeer, artists were comfortable with the idea that the old masters used technology, but art historians were not.  It didn’t occur to the artists that the use of technology would diminish Vermeer’s artistic genius, but the art historians felt the need to be defensive of Vermeer.  Hmmm.

Tim’s Vermeer is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

SPOILER ALERT:  Tim does paint a reasonable facsimile of The Music Lesson, but it has a paint-by-the-numbers feel and doesn’t have the mesmerizing quality of a real Vermeer.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2: action-packed and fun-filled for the young and young-at-heart

How Train Dragon

By guest bloggers Sean Breen (Nephew 2) & Lisa Breen Strickland (The Wife)

The action-packed and fun-filled How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up four years after the original movie’s story.  Hiccup, the hero, looks much older and has much more confidence.  As the movie begins his father Stoick offers Hiccup the opportunity to succeed him as the Chief of the Berk – their village and its merry band of Vikings and their dragons. Hiccup is not so sure about this plan.  But before he gets to decide Drago Bloodfist, an arch enemy of Stoick, comes back to the region to continue amassing his dragon army, with the intention of controlling Berk and the world.  Hiccup wants to use his persuasive powers to dissuade Drago from his evil plan.  Hiccup discovers more about himself – his past, present and future – as his plan unfolds.

We found this movie to be entertaining, engaging, and touching — and we liked it! We think that others like us – an 11 year old (or younger) and the young at heart – would enjoy the movie because it is even better than the book.  The way the animators portrayed the dragons was amazing – each so different, some scary, some cute – and some we would like to have as pets (especially Toothless).  It was impressive how they could animate the alpha dragons – with different and very useful skills that were used both for evil (when controlled by Drago) and good (when handled by Hiccup).

We say – grab your favorite nephew or aunt, get your popcorn, Slushee and Diet Coke and go see How to Train Your Dragon 2.

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Movies to See Right Now

WITCHING AND BITCHING

WITCHING AND BITCHING

I loved the rockin’ Spanish Witching and Bitching – a witty comment on misogyny inside a madcap horror spoof.  You can stream it on Amazon instant, iTunes and Xbox Video.

Roger Ebert fans will need to see Life Itself, the affectionate but not worshipful documentary on movie critic Ebert’s groundbreaking career, courageous battle against disease and uncommonly graceful death. Life Itself is playing theaters and also steams on Amazon instant, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

It’s not up to Clint Eastwood’s usual standard, but Jersey Boys, is mostly fun – and features another jaunty performance by Christopher Walken.

If you look for it in theaters, you can still find my top movie of the year so far, the transcendent Polish drama Ida.

The documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger has an interesting subject, but the filmmaking is clunky. It does, however, make my list of Longest Movie Titles.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the Erroll Morris documentary The Unknown Known: Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld is apparently completely immune from self-doubt, but ultimately reveals more about himself than he would like. You can find The Unknown Known on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Set your DVRs for Turner Classic Movies on July 23 for 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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In Secret: predictable, stilted and too many clothes

in secret

In Secret is a period romance with the look and set-up of a Jane Austin movie, the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice and the appeal of neither.  A poor orphan girl (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to living with her wealthy relatives, who eventually force a marriage to her sickly cousin Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies).  His hunky friend (Oscar Isaacs from Inside Llewyn Davis) shows up and, before ya know it, he and the young bride are humping like bunnies.  And before you can say “Double Indemnity”, it occurs to them that they could be together forever with a lot of money if only the husband met his end.  This being the 19th Century, the poor cuckold hasn’t yet seen A Place in the Sun or Leave Her to Heaven, so he gets in the boat…

Unfortunately, In Secret telegraphs every point in the plot, so the audience is never surprised.  In Secret fails to deliver the edginess of a noir thriller, but it retains the worst of the Austin period movies – the stilted dialogue and all the boring stuff.

Olsen is a fine actress and she makes the most of the material.  Unfortunately, Jessica Lange, as the family matriarch, has some meltdowns that are embarrassing.

One more complaint: the two lovers may well be having a torrid affair, but one of my pet peeves is movie-sex-in-clothes.  I understand that women wore more layers of garments in the 19th Century, but – trust me – NOBODY has this much sex without undressing.

In Secret is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

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Witching and Bitching: witty comment on mysogyny inside a rockin’ horror spoof

WITCHING AND BITCHING

WITCHING AND BITCHING

The rockin’ Witching and Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi), by Spanish cult director Alex de la Iglesia, features a gang of robbers – one is dressed as a silver Jesus on the cross and another as a Green Army Guy – on the lam rocketing into an occult nightmare.  They run smack dab into a coven of witches – the full-out Macbeth-stir-the-cauldron kind of witches.  This film has the feel of an early Almodovar madcap comedy – if Almodovar were into goth horror. It’s all rapid-pulsed fun – and surprisingly smart.

The underlying theme is misogyny.  The male characters grouse about the stereotypical complaints about women – all while themselves exemplifying the worst of the stereotypical male flaws.  For example, one guy complains that his ex won’t consent to joint custody on the grounds of his irresponsibility – yet he brings their seven-year-old along on an armed robbery.  One underlying joke is that the men see women as bitches, but it’s the men who spend the whole movie bitching.  Another is that the men become trapped by REAL witches whose ball busting far exceeds the men’s most negative misogynistic fantasies.

These Spanish actors are wonderful, including the great Carmen Maura (Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver) and appropriately named hottie Carolina Bang. They’re very adept at the deadpan delivery of lines like this:

Driver: This village is damned. They hold witches sabbaths.
Boy: What’s that?
Robber: Like a kegger but medieval.

De la Iglesia maintains a deliciously frantic pace throughout.  The final orgiastic ritual goes on a long time but maintains audience engagement.

This was the first de la Iglesia movie that I’d seen, but I’m definitely going to check out more of his work.  Speaking of which, he nicely sets up a sequel.  But go ahead and watch Witching and Bitching now – streaming in Amazon Instant, iTunes and Xbox Video.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: The Unknown Known

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 on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Life Itself: an additional personal thought

Yesterday I commented on the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.  Today I’m reflecting on Roger Ebert as the main reason that my love of cinema grew, as did my passion for sharing under appreciated and overlooked movies. In other words, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if not for Ebert.

My college History of Film class and the groundbreaking movies of the 70s (The Godfather, Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces) had awakened my interest in movies.  But Roger Ebert was the leading evangelist for independent and foreign cinema in the US. Without the Siskel & Ebert TV shows, I wouldn’t have known to seek out a French film like La cage aux folles or the debut features of indie directors John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven) and Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It).  Heck, I just looked at my list of 50 Greatest Movies of All Time, and, without Ebert’s guidance, I never would have seen The Seven Up series, Blue/White/Red, Secrets and Lies, and, probably, Do the Right Thing.

Along the way (and from technology to technology), I made it a point to seek out Ebert’s movie recommendations.  The first show that I set up my massive 1982 VCR to record was Siskel & Ebert’s Sneak Previews. In the early 2000s, Roger Ebert’s was the first blog that I checked every day. The reason that I signed up for Twitter was to follow Roger Ebert.

So, thanks, Roger.  Thanks from The Movie Gourmet.

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