Movies to See Right Now

Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT

Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT

In the movie theaters, we are still in the dreaded Mid August Doldrums, but there are some good choices:

  • The End of the Tour is the smartest road trip movie ever, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. Be sure to see it.
  • Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a satisfying thriller – and much more.
  • In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen is superb as the aged Sherlock Holmes, re-opening his final case.

Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is not bad, but empty.  Skip the failed comedy Mistress America, which opens today.

My DVD/Streams of the Week are Cockfighter and Two-Lane Blacktop, with unforgettable performances by Warren Oates.  There’s a Criterion Collection DVD for Two-Lane Blacktop, which is available from Netflix. You can stream Cockfighter on Amazon Instant Video.

On August 29, Turner Classic Movies presents the Otto Preminger masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959). This movie has everything: Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of a wily lawyer, content to underachieve in the countryside, Stewart’s electrifying courtroom face off with George C. Scott, great performances by a surly Ben Gazzara and a slutty Lee Remick, a great jazz score by Duke Ellington and a suitably cynical noir ending.

On September 3 on TCM, we meet Robert Young as one of cinema’s least sympathetic protagonists in They Won’t Believe Me (1947). A decade before Father Know Best and two decades before Marcus Welby, M.D., Young plays a weak-willed and impulsive gold-digging womanizer. He’s married for money, but he also wants his girlfriend (the rapturous Jane Greer) AND his second girlfriend (a gloriously slutty Susan Hayward) AND his wife’s money. He’s making every conceivable bad choice until, WHAM BANG, circumstance creates a situation where he can get everything he wants …until it all falls apart. They Won’t Believe Me has one of the most ironic endings in the movies.

James Stewart and George C. Scott tangle in Anatomy of a Murder

James Stewart (right) and George C. Scott (seated) tangle in ANATOMY OF A MURDER

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MISTRESS AMERICA: another self-absorbed misfire

Lola Kirke (right) with the always annoying Greta Gerwig

Lola Kirke (right) with the always annoying Greta Gerwig in MISTRESS AMERICA

In director Noah Baumbach’s failed comedy Mistress America, an insecure young college student meets her step-sister-to-be (Greta Gerwig), who turns out to be a human whirlwind, dancing on the razor’s edge between frantic excitement and chaos.  The premise of an unsure young person becoming captivated by a high energy and charismatic personality is an interesting one.  Unfortunately, the movie fizzles because of the shipwreck of a screenplay (co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig) and another aggravating performance by Gerwig.

In the first half of the film NOT ONE WORD seems genuine, like a real character would have uttered it.  Mistress America’s worst misfire is the extended screwball sequence at a house in Connecticut – the cast is just flinging the lines as if in a high school play (until a really good actor, Michael Chernus, shows up as a real character).

No actor could save this screenplay, but Greta Gerwig has the gift of making any movie worse and she does here, too.  Gerwig plays the same character in every move because she thinks it’s Cute Kooky like Annie Hall.  But she’s neither cute nor kooky – just annoying to the point of loathsomeness.  Here, her character is a goofy-clumsy social loser, but just so Smart and Wonderful that she uses words like “autodidact” and “my nemesis”.  Gerwig tries to be knowing and ironic, but she’s just cringeworthy, the most embarrassing moment coming when her character explains her own jokey “pretend rewind” gesture.

After the screening, another audience member said that Gerwig’s character is obviously not functional because of a bipolar disorder.  Well, I’ll bet that Gerwig didn’t think that her character was ill – just charmingly idiosyncratic.

The other lead is played by Lola Kirke, who is pretty engaging; I’d like to see her acting with a real script.  There’s also excellent acting by the veteran Chernus (Higher Ground, Men in Black 3, Captain Phillips, The Messenger, Love & Other Drugs).  Jasmine Cephas Jones is stuck in a one-dimensional role as a hyper-jealous girlfriend, but she pulls it off with distinction. Rebecca Henderson is excellent as the bitter woman from Gerwig’s past.

I’m not the audience for Mistress America since I avoid Baumbach and especially Gerwig; I only saw Mistress America because I went to a mystery screening. Now I haven’t liked any Baumbach movie since his initial indie hit The Squid and the Whale in 2005.  I have nothing against a naval-gazing filmmaker filling his movie with neurotic New Yorkers.  Woody Allen has made over thirty of those and seven or eight are masterpieces.  But – as sharp as Woody’s lines are crafted – you believe that this characters have thought them up on their own, not so with Baumbach.

One scene in Mistress America is inspired and true to the characters – a bitter woman confronts the clueless Gerwig character with a grudge from high school.  But that wonderful moment isn’t worth the nails-on-the-chalkboard experience of the film as a whole.  Skip Mistress America (and any upcoming Baumbach/Gerwig project, too, for that matter).

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DVD/Stream of the Week: COCKFIGHTER and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP – two more unforgettable performances byWarren Oates

Hary Dean Stanton and Warren Oates in COCKFIGHTER

Hary Dean Stanton and Warren Oates in COCKFIGHTER

Last week I wrote about the actor Warren Oates and last night’s Oatesathon on Turner Classic Movies.  I even included the 53-minute 1993 documentary Warren Oates Across the Border.  I hope that I’ve kindled (or rekindled) some interest in Oates, so here are two Warren Oates classics that TCM didn’t play last night.

They are both from cult director Monte Hellman: Two-lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974). There’s a Criterion Collection DVD for Two-Lane Blacktop which is available from Netflix. You can stream Cockfighter on Amazon Instant Video.  Hellman was making low-low-budget exploitation films for Roger Corman, and both of these movies are fine specimens.  In both, Oates plays a tough, bottom-feeding grasper who needs a little too much luck.

Two-lane Blacktop is a car chase/road trip movie that was a vehicle for two rock music stars, James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.  Taylor plays a guy drifting across America and challenging drivers of other souped-up cars to races (The Driver); Wilson plays his mechanic (The Mechanic).  They pick up a comely hitchhiker played by Laurie Bird (The Girl) and challenge the Warren Oates character (G.T.O.) to a road race from New Mexico to Washington, D.C.

Two-lane Blacktop turned out to be the only feature film for both James Taylor and Dennis Wilson.  Taylor is pretty good in a very laconic role.

Laurie Bird made only three films – Two-lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and Annie Hall.  Having worked as a model, she was cast by Hellman to co-star in Two-lane Blacktop, and soon a romance blossomed between the 41-year-old Hellman and the 18-year-old Bird.  Bird also was the movie’s still photographer.  After Cockfighter,  she moved on from Hellman and became Art Garfunkle’s partner.  Before she turned 26, Laurie Bird committed suicide in the NYC apartment that she shared with Garfunkle.  In her very limited movie career, she proved to be an appealing and natural actress.

The only professional lead actor in Two-lane Blacktop was Oates. Of course, he was perfect for the role of G.T.O., a guy masking his insecurities with aggressive braggadocio.

In Cockfighter, Oates isn’t the foil, he’s the main guy.  But he’s still a low-life, a guy with a cockfighting compulsion that threatens to consume everything he has – his money, his family, his home and his sanity – as he bets more and more on his fighting chickens.  For those of us not intimately familiar with this pastime, Cockfighter is a soup-to-nuts procedural on cockfighting.  Warning:  Cockfighter contains the very definition of animal cruelty- lethal cockfights staged for the camera; (you couldn’t make this movie today).

But the whole reason to watch Cockfighter is Warren Oates’ performance as a guy with too much desperation and not enough luck.  (And Harry Dean Stanton and Laurie Bird are in the movie, too.)

Courtesy of the Criterion Collection, here’s the scene in Two-Lane Blacktop that sets up the car race.

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IRRATIONAL MAN: not bad, but empty

IRRATIONAL MAN

Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey in IRRATIONAL MAN

Woody Allen’s latest, Irrational Man, is about a burn-out who revives his joie de vivre by committing a very grave crime, in the process self-administering a shot of metaphorical adrenaline.  That’s all there is in Irrational Man, an entirely plot-driven movie.  Skip it.

To be sure, as one would expect with a Woody Allen movie, it is well-acted.  Joaquin Phoenix plays the kind of iconoclastic academic whose womanizing and drinking was part of his dashing charm until he sagged into middle age.  The ever-lively Parker Posey is a faculty member who is bored with her life and her marriage.  Emma Stone plays the precocious but impressionable coed.  Besides the cast, the best thing about Irrational Man is the music, especially a wonderfully raucous version of The In Crowd by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Here’s my discussion on Woody Allen and his filmmaking career.  Despite Irrational Man, I’m a fan.

[SPOILER ALERT:  I don’t understand how it’s possible to make a non-exciting movie scene centered around Russian Roulette, but we don’t even momentarily cringe at this one.  Maybe it’s the combination of having to explain what Russian Roulette IS (to a character who had somehow made it to college without hearing of Russian Roulette), and then having the ONE CHARACTER who we all know is going to make it to the climax of the movie pull the trigger at the mid-point.  Yawn.]

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Movies to See Right Now

Warren Oates in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

Warren Oates in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

Yesterday I wrote about the actor Warren Oates and the biodoc Warren Oates Across the Border. On Monday, August 24, Turner Classic Movies will show seven, count ‘em, SEVEN Warren Oates films: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Ones, Chandler, Badlands, There Was a Crooked Man, The Thief Who Came to Dinner and The Split.  Of these, the best two movies are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (Oates plays one of the treacherous but moronic Gorch brothers)and in Terence Malick’s Badlands (Oates plays Sissy Spacek’s father, blown away by teen punk Martin Sheen).  But the iconic Warren Oates lead performance is in the Peckinpah neo-noir Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  (TCM will not be screening Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, Barquero or Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand – more about the first two on Tuesday).  Set your DVR for Warren Oates.

In the movie theaters, we are in the dreaded Mid August Doldrums, but there are some good choices:

  • The End of the Tour is the smartest road trip movie ever, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. It opens today more widely, so be sure to see it.
  • Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a satisfying thriller – and much more.
  • I really liked Amy, the emotionally affecting and thought-provoking documentary on Amy Winehouse.
  • Listen to Me Marlon is the excellent documentary with Marlon Brando’s own words revealing the keys to his life.
  • In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen is superb as the aged Sherlock Holmes, re-opening his final case.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the inventive, scary and non-gory It Follows - a rare horror movie choice from The Movie Gourmet. It Follows is available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Warren Oates: a gift for desperation

Warren Oates in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

Warren Oates in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

I love the character actor Warren Oates for his idiosyncratic performances in the period 1969-74 – and this is Warren Oates Week at The Movie Gourmet.  Friday, I’ll write about the upcoming Oatesathon on Monday night, when Turner Classic Movies will be presenting SEVEN Warren Oates movies.  And next week’s DVD.Stream of the Week will feature two Oates cult classics that TCM will be missing.

Oates was one of those actors whose performances always make an impression.  He could turn a stock Western Bad Guy into a memorable character by adding a touch of cowardice, dimwittedness or venality.  In Barquero, he was formidable enough to go gun barrel-to-gun barrel with Lee Van Cleef for 115 minutes.

Oates had a special gift for portraying desperation, so he triumphed in neo-noirs like Chandler, Cockfighter, The Brinks Job and his crowning achievement, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  By early 1970s,  the counter-culture was bringing lots of screenplay cynicism and anti-hero roles to the movies – both perfect for Oates.

Warren Oates died in 1982 at age 53.  He has 123 acting credits on IMDb, mostly Westerns.  He was a favorite of directors Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman.  Indeed, he is most well-known for playing one of the Gorch brothers in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Sissy Spacek’s father (blown away by teen punk Martin Sheen) in Terence Malick’s Badlands.

Some of Oates’ best work was in 1974 as the leads in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Hellman’s Cockfighter.   He was also unforgettable in the offbeat Barquero (1970), Hellman’s Two-lane Blacktop (1971) and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971).

The 53-minute 1993 documentary Warren Oates Across the Border  includes clips of Oates’ work, along with commentary from his widow Teddy Oates, Hellman, and fellow actors Ned Beatty, Robert Culp, Ben Johnson, Peter Fonda, Stacy Keach and Millie Perkins.  Here it is.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: IT FOLLOWS – scary because you haven’t seen this before

IT FOLLOWS

IT FOLLOWS

The Movie Gourmet doesn’t watch many horror movies, but I really liked the inventive, scary and non-gory It Follows. 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with a guy who then tells her that he has passed on to her a kind of supernatural infection – a monster will follow her and kill her if she doesn’t pass it on to someone else. The monster shambles along at zombie speed and takes the form of a different human being each time. It’s terrifying – there’s a constant sense of dread and a convulsive shock every time It appears.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell has created a very scary horror film with an excellent soundtrack and a minimum of makeup, special effects and hardly any blood. It’s even more frightening that she’s being stalked by something that usually looks normal.

Before the screening, I had to sit through several trailers from the horror genre. There was NOTHING in those trailers that I hadn’t seen before in The Shining, The Exorcist or a multitude of less elevated films. I have to note the contrast with It Follows, which is definitely something that you haven’t seen before.

The very talented actress Maika Monroe is almost always on-screen and she proves that she can carry a movie. I first noticed her in At Any Price , where she played the son ‘s girlfriend. That role was especially well-written – beginning as a simple teen from a broken family looking for some fun, her journey takes several surprising turn – and Monroe’s performance was memorable. Until fairly recently, Monroe was pursuing a professional career in freestyle kite surfing.

All the acting is good in It Follows, but Keir Gilchrist is especially good at portraying the ACHING sexual frustration of a teenage boy.

It Follows has a wonderful sense of place. It is set and was shot in the Detroit suburbs, the rural lakefront and the decaying inner city. The extraordinary High Lift Building in Detroit’s Water Works Park serves as the exterior for the climactic set piece.

But the key to It Follows is its originality – without expensive f/x or disgusting gore – it’s likely the best horror movie of the year. It Follows is available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in THE END OF THE TOUR

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in THE END OF THE TOUR

The End of the Tour is the smartest road trip movie ever, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. It opens today more widely, so be sure to see it.  Other top recommendations:

  • The chilling and powerful documentary The Look of Silence is not for everyone, but it’s on my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far. It’s unsettling, but it’s an unforgettable movie experience.
  • Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a satisfying thriller – and much more.
  • I really liked Amy, the emotionally affecting and thought-provoking documentary on Amy Winehouse.
  • Listen to Me Marlon is the excellent documentary with Marlon Brando’s own words revealing the keys to his life.
  • In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen is superb as the aged Sherlock Holmes, re-opening his final case.
Alicia Viksander inEX MACHINA

Alicia Viksander inEX MACHINA

My DVD/Stream of the Week is one of my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far, the intensely thoughtful Ex Machina. It’s available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

On August 16, Turner Classic Movies will present the 1957 Elia Kazan classic A Face in the Crowd,a cynical political thriller.  In his first feature film, Andy Griffith shed the likeability and decency that made him a TV megastar and became a searingly unforgettable villain.

Andy Griffith is the dangerous Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd

Andy Griffith is the charming, phony and venal Lonesome Rhodes in A FACE IN THE CROWD

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THE END OF THE TOUR: smartest road trip movie ever

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in THE END OF THE TOUR

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in THE END OF THE TOUR

[Note: I’m repeating this post because The End of the Tour, which opened two weeks ago is being released much more widely today, and will be much easier to find in theaters.  See also my The End of the Tour: the filmmakers speak.]

The brilliantly witty and insightful road trip movie The End of the Tour isn’t great because of what happens on the road – it’s great because we drill into two fascinating characters and see how their relationship evolves (or doesn’t evolve). Leads Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg are both Oscar-worthy, and The End of the Tour is on my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far.

In 1996, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a novelist of modest success, having deeply embraced the New York City writer’s scene, and is supporting himself as a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. Suddenly- and out of nowhere – David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) explodes on the scene with his masterpiece Infinite Jest and is immediately recognized as a literary genius. Lipsky is confounded by Wallace’s meteoric rise – and jealous and resentful, too.

Lipsky arranges to accompany Wallace on the last few stops of his book tour and record their conversations, so Lipsky can write a profile of Wallace for Rolling Stone. It’s clear that Lipsky plans to write a sensationalistic celebrity take down – and Wallace is so odd that there’s plenty of ammunition.

All of this REALLY HAPPENED. Years later, after Wallace’s death, Lipsky wrote a memoir of the encounters, on which the movie is based. Eisenberg and Segel got to listen to the tapes of the actual conversations between the two.

The End of the Tour is a battle of wits between two very smart but contrasting guys. Wallace is new to fame, very personally awkward, not at all confident and gloriously goofy; he seems to be an innocent, but he’s VERY smart and not entirely naive. Lipsky is all Chip On the Shoulder as he probes for Wallace’s weaknesses. As different as they are, the two are competitive and snap back and forth, verbally jousting for the entire trip. At one point, Lipsky accuses Wallace of pretending to be not as smart as he is as a “social strategy”.

As funny as is their repartee, it becomes clear that Wallace is inwardly troubled, and clinging to functionality by his fingernails. Wallace gets more confident and begins to trust Lipsky, but Lipsky is still predatory, glimpsing into Wallace’s medicine cabinet and chatting up an old flame of Wallace’s. Still, the intimacy of a road trip forces them to share experiences, which COULD become the basis for a bond.

They even share moments of friendship. But will they become friends? Is there real reciprocity between them?

Who has the power here? Wallace has the power of celebrity, and dominates Lipsky’s chosen vocation. Lipsky has the power to destroy and humiliate Wallace. Ultimately, as we see in the movie, the person who NEEDS the most will cede the power in the relationship.

Director James Ponsoldt has succeeded in making a brilliantly entertaining drama about two smart guys talking. There’s never a slow moment. We’re constantly wondering what is gonna happen. Ponsoldt has already made two movies that I love – Smashed and The Spectacular Now. No one else has made conversation so compelling since the My Dinner with Andre, and The End of the Tour is much more accessible and fun than that 80s art house hit.

Ponsoldt fills the movie with sublime moments. In one scene, we see the two watching a movie with two female companions. In the darkened theater, two characters are focused on the screen and two are gazing at others. It’s a shot of a couple of seconds, nothing happens, and there’s no dialogue – but the moment is almost a short story in and of itself.

For a true-life drama, The End of the Tour is very funny. The humor stems from situations (the two rhapsodize on Alanis Morisette, of all people), behavior (Wallace’s peculiarities and Lipsky’s limitless snoopiness) and the very witty dialogue. There’s a classic moment when Lipsky has Wallace talk on the phone to Lipsky’s wife (Anna Chlumsky) and is very uncomfortable with the results.

What is the funniest line in the movie? Who wins the battle of wits? And what’s their relationship at the end? Those questions propel the audience along the smartest road trip movie ever – The End of the Tour.

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TRUE DETECTIVE: second season sooooo disappointingly lame

Rachel McAdams in the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE

Rachel McAdams in the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE

So my friend Steve emailed me: “If you include the second season of True Detective in your top ten films of the year you should be required to walk around with a paper bag over your head for at least six months.” He was right – True Detective’s second season was disappointingly lame.

I had high hopes because I loved the first season, and creator Nic Pizolatto returned to write this year’s version. The cast seemed promising, too: the story revolved around three cops (Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch) from different agencies investigating a corrupt Southern California city. Vince Vaughn played a shady – and once criminal – businessman, with Kelly Reilly as his wife.

But I never really cared about Kitch’s or Vaughn’s characters. The plot was disjointed and, at time, risible. Pizzolato tried to echo Chinatown’s water scandal with a wholly improbable High Speed Rail scheme. The Wife and I were constantly asking each other “Where are they now?” and “Who is that guy?”. There are many ridiculously impossible coincidence and the like, but I just don’t care enough about True Detective to list them.

Rachel McAdams, forced to wear perhaps this year’s worst hairdo, is very good. So is Farrell, who, as he ages, is more and more compelling in dissolute roles. I always appreciate the chance to see Kelly Reilly – she elevates (almost) everything she’s in.

But the 2015 True Detective is a stinker. Don’t waste your time.

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