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, but it may be hard to find for two more weeks.

Also out today, 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.

I really liked Amy, the emotionally affecting and thought-provoking documentary on Amy Winehouse. In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen is superb as the aged Sherlock Holmes, re-opening his final case.

The coming of age comedy Dope is a nice little movie that trashes stereotypes. This summer’s animated Pixar blockbuster Inside Out is very smart, but a little preachy, often very sad and underwhelming. The Melissa McCarthy spy spoof Spy is a very funny diversion.

In case you missed it, I recently wrote about the BBC’s list of 100 greatest American films and why I cancelled my Netflix DVD service.

Could a sane man devise a con this successful? That’s the question posed by my DVD/Stream of the Week, the documentary Art and Craft. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tonight is the final evening of Turner Classic Movies wonderful Summer of Darkness series of film noir. I particularly like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, one of my Overlooked Noir. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, an anti-death penalty campaigner gets himself framed for a capital crime, but does too good a job – and then there’s a shocker of an ending. In While the City Sleeps, the noir cynicism is so deep that the GOOD GUY uses his girlfriend as bait for a serial killer.

Next, week on August 4, TCM plays the The Best Years of Our Lives, an exceptionally well-crafted, contemporary look at American society’s post WW II adaption to the challenges of peacetime. Justifiably won seven Oscars. Still a great and moving film.

Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

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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

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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THE LOOK OF SILENCE: chilling and powerful

THE LOOK OF SILENCE

THE LOOK OF SILENCE

In the powerful and chilling The Look of Silence, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer explores the aftermath of genocide in a society that has never experienced a truth and reconciliation process. This is Oppenheimer’s second masterpiece on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 in which regime-sponsored death squads executed over one million suspected political opponents. Today, the victims’ families live among the murderers.

The Look of Silence centers on 44-year-old optometrist Adi, as he investigates the murder of Ramli, the older brother he never knew. Earlier, Oppenheimer had filmed Ramli’s killers as they describe and act out Ramli’s savage torture, mutilation and murder. They are unrepentant and even nostalgic about their crimes. Their matter-of-fact recollections are sickening. We see Adi watching this video, trying to contain his rage and disgust. Later, Adi – in the guise of fitting them for new glasses – is able to confront those responsible. He faces the actual machete-wielding killers, the leader of the village death squad, the higher-up who ordered the killings and even one of his own relatives.

What makes this bearable to watch (and even more affecting) is meeting Adi’s family: his earthy 80-something mother, his frail and batty 103-year-old father, his giggly 7-year old daughter and his 10-year-old son. There’s plenty of humor in this warm family. But in one scene, the son receives a ridiculously twisted propaganda version of the genocide in public school.

The “Silence” in The Look of Silence is reinforced by the spare soundtrack. We often hear only “crickets” (frogs, actually).

The Look of Silence is the companion to Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which made my list of Best Movies of 2013. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer got the unapologetic killers to re-enact their atrocities for the camera – even relishing their deeds. The Act of Killing contains some of the most bizarre moments in any documentary EVER, including a cross-dressing mass murderer and a staged Bollywood-like musical number of Born Free, complete with dancing-girls in front of a waterfall, in which the garotted dead reappear to thank the killers for sending them on to the afterlife. The Act of Killing is more of a jaw-dropper. The Look of Silence - because it is more personal, is more powerful.

The Look of Silence stands alone – you can fully appreciate it without having seen The Act of Killing. But what I wrote about The Act of Killing is true for both films: “hypnotically compelling – you can’t believe what’s on the screen, can’t believe that you’re still watching it and can’t stop watching”.

I saw The Look of Silence at the San Francisco International Film Festival before its limited theatrical release slated for July 17. It’s one of the best films of 2015.

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AN HONEST LIAR: deception and the deceived

AN HONEST LIAR

AN HONEST LIAR

The enjoyable documentary An Honest Liar tells the at times surprising story of magician James Randi – “The Amazing Randi”.  A staple of television talk shows for decades, Randi relished exposing and debunking fakirs who claimed that mere trickery constituted some supernatural power.

Randi became famous for hounding celebrity spoon-bender Uri Geller (and good sport Geller shows up in the movie).  I didn’t know that magic fan Johnny Carson had reached out to Randi before Geller’s appearance on The Tonight Show with satisfying results.

The Can’t Miss segment of this film is Randi’s elaborate unmasking of Peter Popov, the Christian “faith healer” – it’s priceless.

Finally, An Honest Liar takes a VERY unexpected turn when there turns out to be a deception at the heart of Randi’s own personal life.  This makes the movie’s ending especially heartfelt.

An Honest Liar is available streaming on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: ART AND CRAFT – could a sane man devise a con this successful?

ART AND CRAFT

ART AND CRAFT

The startling documentary Art and Craft is about an art fraud. Of prolific scale. And which is apparently legal. By a diagnosed schizophrenic.

We start with a guy named Mark Landis. He is very good at photocopying (!) great art works, applying paint to make them seem like the real thing, putting them in distressed frames and donating them to museums in the name of his late (and imaginary!) sister. He has done this hundreds of times, fooling scores of snooty museum curators in the process.

Why does he do this? Why can’t he stop? What’s with the imaginary sister? Those answers probably lie within his schizophrenia, a disease which doesn’t impair his skill or his cunning. Landis himself, once you get over his initial creepiness and become comfortable in his Southern gentility and wry mischievousness, is one of 2014’s most compelling movie characters.

Why doesn’t his fraud constitute a criminal act? Because he doesn’t profit from selling his fakes, he just gives them away. And he doesn’t take the tax write-off.

How come he doesn’t get caught? These are PHOTOCOPIES for krissakes! Those answers are in the self-interest and professional greed of the museum professionals – embodied by one puddle of mediocrity who becomes Landis’ obsessive Javert.

All of these combine to make Art and Craft one of the year’s most engaging documentaries. I saw Art and Craft at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was an audience hit.  Art and Craft is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Amy Winehouse in AMY

Amy Winehouse in AMY

Here’s one more plaintive final plea: Do yourself a very, very, very big favor and see the coming of age masterpiece Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

I really liked Amy, the emotionally affecting and thought provoking documentary on Amy Winehouse. In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen is superb as the aged Sherlock Holmes, re-opening his final case.

Besides Me and Earl, two more of my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far are still playing in theaters: Love & Mercy, the emotionally powerful biopic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and the thoughtful and authentic dramedy I’ll See You in My Dreams.

In case you missed it, I recently wrote about the BBC’s list of 100 greatest American films and why I cancelled my Netflix DVD service.

The coming of age comedy Dope is a nice little movie that trashes stereotypes. This summer’s animated Pixar blockbuster Inside Out is very smart, but a little preachy, often very sad and underwhelming. The Melissa McCarthy spy spoof Spy is a very funny diversion. Mad Max: Fury Road is a rock ‘em sock ‘em action tour de force but ultimately empty-headed and empty-hearted.

My DVD of the Week The compelling and affecting true-life drama Omagh, available on DVD from Netflix.

We’re in the final eight days of Turner Classic Movies’ wonderful Summer of Darkness series of film noir. Tonight, of course, TCM plays the groundbreaking French Elevator to the Gallows.

Set your DVR for next Friday’s (July 31) featured noir on TCM.  I particularly like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, one of my Overlooked Noir. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, an anti-death penalty campaigner gets himself framed for a capital crime, but does too good a job – and then there’s a shocker of an ending. In While the City Sleeps, the noir cynicism is so deep that the GOOD GUY uses his girlfriend as bait for a serial killer.

Ian McKellen as MR. HOLMES

Ian McKellen as MR. HOLMES

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AMY: emotionally affecting and thought-provoking

AMY

AMY

Amy, documentarian Asif Kapadia’s innovative biopic of singer-songwriter is one of the most heart-felt and engaging movies of the year.

In a brilliant directorial choice, Amy opens with a call phone video of a birthday party.  It’s a typically rowdy bunch of 14 year-old girls, and, when they sing “Happy Birthday”, the song is taken over and finished spectacularly by one of the girls, who turns out to be the young Amy Winehouse.   It shows us a regular girl in a moment of unaffected joy and friendship, but a girl with monstrous talent.

In fact ALL we see in Amy is footage of Amy.  Her family and friends were devoted to home movies and cell phone video, resulting in a massive trove of candid video of Amy Winehouse and an especially rich palette for Kapadia.

We have a ringside seat for Amy’s artistic rise and her demise, fueled by bulimia and substance addiction.  In a tragically startling sequence, her eyes signal the moment when her abuse of alcohol and pot gave way to crack and heroin.

We also see when she becomes the object of tabloid obsession. It’s hard enough for an addict to get clean, but it’s nigh impossible while being when harassed by the merciless paparazzi.

Amy makes us think about using a celebrity’s disease as a source of amusement – mocking the behaviorally unhealthy for our sport.  Some people act like jerks because they are jerks – others because they are sick.   Winehouse was cruelly painted as a brat, but she was really suffering through a spiral of despair.

The Amy Winehouse story is a tragic one, but Amy is very watchable because Amy herself was very funny and sharply witty.  As maddening as it was for those who shared her journey, it was also fun, from all reports.  Everyone who watches Amy will like Amy, making her fate all the more tragic.

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ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS: his alibi for one murder is another murder

Jeanne Moreau in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Jeanne Moreau in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Tomorrow night, July 24, Turner Classic Movies presents the groundbreaking French noir Elevator to the Gallows.  It’s one of my Overlooked Noir.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) is such a groundbreaking film, you can argue that it’s the first of the neo-noir. It’s the debut of director Louis Malle, shot when he was only 24 years old. It’s difficult now to appreciate the originality of Elevator the Gallows; but in 1958, no one had seen a film with a Miles Davis soundtrack or one where the two romantic leads were never on-screen together.

A thriller that still stands up today, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) is about the perfect crime that goes awry. The French war hero Julien (Marcel Ronet), is now working as an executive for a military supplier. He’s having an affair with Florence (Jeanne Moreau), whose husband owns the firm. Seeking to possess both his lover and his company, Julien implements an elaborately detailed plan to get away with his boss’ murder. Everything goes perfectly until he makes one oversight; then the dominoes begin to fall, and soon he is trapped in a very vulnerable situation. He is incommunicado, and he remains ignorant of the related events that transpire outside.

Almost every character makes false assumptions about what is going on. Florence mistakenly believes that Julien has run off with a young trollop. A young punk and his peppy girlfriend incorrectly assume that they are on the verge of arrest. The police pin a murder on Julien that he didn’t commit – but his alibi is the murder that he DID commit. And there’s a great scene where Julien is striding confidently into a busy cafe, unaware that he has become the most recognizable fugitive in France.

It’s a page-turner of a plot, and the acting is superb, but Malle’s choices make this film. When Florence thinks that she’s been dumped, she walks through Paris after dark. Jeanne Moreau doesn’t have any lines (although her interior thoughts are spoken in voice-over). Instead, she embodies sadness and shock through her eyes and her carriage – the effect is heartbreaking. Mile Davis’ trumpet reinforces the sadness of her midnight stroll.

The Miles Davis score is brilliant, but Malle often makes effective use of near silence, too. And he reinforces the kids’ shallowness and over-dramatizing with strings. Every audio choice is perfect.

There’s vivid verisimilitude in a Paris police station at 5 am – all grittiness with drunks sobering up, and the holding cage filled with thieves and prostitutes. The contrast in how the police treat the wealthy and influential is stark and realistic.

The young couple is completely believable. The joyride is absolutely what these characters would do. The young guy is sullen and the girl is hooked on his moodiness. And, of course, with the self-absorption of youth, they over-dramatize their own situation.

Every scene in Elevator to the Gallows is strong, but the scenes with Moreau pop off the screen. This was her star-making role, and perhaps the definitive Jeanne Moreau role (yes – even more than Jules et Jim).

Marcel Ronet is also excellent as Julien. Julien is a guy with serious skills, and the confidence and poise to use them. When Julien is trapped in the situation that would cause most of us to freak out, he immediately starts working on an Apollo 13-like solution without any hint of panic. The harrowing scenes of Julien’s entrapment and escape fit alongside the mot suspenseful moments in the great French crime thrillers Rififi (1955) and Le trou (1960). The means of his eventual escape is one of the most ironic moments in cinema.

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Eventually we see the marvelous Lino Ventura as the detective captain. A former European wrestling champion, Ventura had debuted five years earlier in the great Touchez pas au grisbi and had followed that with several gangster/cop supporting roles. Immediately after Elevator to the Gallows, Ventura started getting lead roles. Ventura had an almost unique combination of charm, wit and hulking physicality; he’s one of the few actors I can envision playing Tony Soprano.

The high contrast black and white photography, the voiceovers and the city at night all scream “noir”. So does the amorality of the main characters seeking to get what they want by murder, the ironies of the miscommunications and mistaken assumptions and the profoundly cynical ending.

But the look and sound of Elevator to the Gallows is entirely new. The experience of viewing Elevator to the Gallows seems closer to the American indie triumphs of the early 1970s (The Godfather, Chinatown, The Conversation) than to the likes of The Postman Always Rings Twice or The Big Sleep. Elevator to the Gallows remains a starkly modern film that is still as fresh today as in 1958.

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

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BBC’s 100 Greatest American Films

ALL ABOUT EVE - needs to be on the list!

ALL ABOUT EVE – needs to be on the list!

The BBC just surveyed film critics and came up with BBC’s list of 100 Greatest American Films. I’m a sucker for lists, and this is a rare “Best List” that’s focused only on American Cinema. American films only constuitute about 50-65% of the movies on my list of Greatest Movies of All-Time and my yearly “Best”lists, and I relish this chance to delve into the canon of American films.

Naturally, I have opinions, having seen 96 of the 100 (all but The Band Wagon, Love Streams, Letter from an Unknown Woman and the 1959 Imitation of Life).  (Confession – I had never heard of the short film Meshes of the Afternoon, but was able to view it yesterday on YouTube.) The list has got some notoriety because Gone With the Wind is only #97 (which is okay with me).

Bottom line: it’s a really good list. I especially appreciate the inclusion of some films that are truly great but tend not to get recognized on “great” lists: 25th Hour, In a Lonely Place, Deliverance, Groundhog Day, The Right Stuff, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, It’s a Wonderful Life and Pulp Fiction. I also was tickled by the inclusion (at #85) of George Romero’s 1968 seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, which really was a groundbreaking film.

I do have some quibbles. I can’t fathom why anyone would think that Marnie and Johnny Guitar would rise to this list. Michael Cimino’s cinematic disaster Heaven’s Gate was reassessed by critics a couple of years ago; I rewatched it again, too, but I still found it laughably awful today. Just as indefensible as including Heaven’s Gate was the omission of Cimino’s REAL masterpiece The Deer Hunter.

Though I personally loathe Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a critic can make a plausible argument for them. Still, the list is too reverential  to Kubrick, Malick and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive AND Blue Velvet?).

Documentaries are represented here by Killer of Sheep and Grey Gables, two groundbreaking films from the late 60s/early 70s that have been seen by everyone who’s taken a film course between 1980 and 2000. But I actually prefer Salesman from that period. And there are much better American documentaries that I would include instead: Harlan County USA, Hoop Dreams and the entire work of Errol Morris, especially Gates of Heaven or The Thin Blue Line.

Here’s another serious beef. The only animated film on the list is The Lion King, which I think is an excellent movie, but probably not in my top ten of American animated films. The BBC list excludes the Toy Story series and Fantasia (and all of the other Disney movies from Disney’s classic period) – CRIMINAL!

There’s also an “Eat Your Broccoli, It’s Good For You” aspect to the list – as if every movie important to study in film class is “great”. There are some hard slogs on this list. I wouldn’t recommend that most movie fans run out and see, as important as they are, Sunrise, Greed, the Cassavetes films, Killer of Sheep, Meshes of the Afternoon or The Magnificent Ambersons. (By all reports, Orson Welles made a masterpiece in The Magnificent Ambersons – but none of us has seen it because it was mangled by studio editors; frankly, I have really tried to embrace the available version of Ambersons, but it’s never rang my chimes.)  Hey, Bonnie and Clyde is a really important movie, too, and it’s not on the BBC list.

There are some missed opportunities, too. Any list of great American cinema MUST include: All About Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Fargo, Out of the Past, Laura and last year’s masterpiece, Boyhood. The BBC also whiffed on the entire work of Clint Eastwood; I would have included Million Dollar Baby, but Mystic River and Unforgiven are deserving, too.

Woody Allen gets two of his deserving movies on the list, but how about Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, too?  Similarly, Robert Altman’s recognition should also include The Player (and Gosford Park, if it counts as an “American” film).

I could also make a case for: The Producers, High Noon, All the President’s Men, American Graffiti, All That Jazz, Bull Durham, Cool Hand Luke, Five Easy Pieces, My Man Godfrey, Best in Show and Sideways.

Still, I always enjoy haggling over a list, and it’s great to focus once in a while on purely American cinema.

25TH HOUR - getting its due.

25TH HOUR – getting its due.

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DVD of the Week: OMAGH – after an atrocity, a search for justice

Gerard McSorley in OMAGH

Gerard McSorley in OMAGH

The compelling and affecting true-life drama Omagh (2004) begins with the infamous 1999 car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. But Omagh is more about the aftermath – the pain and grief of the survivors as they strive for justice and accountability.

The bombing, by a nationalist splinter group, killed 29 on the small town’s market street. It had been just four months since the Good Friday Accord, and both mainstream republicans and unionists were getting used to the day-to-day peace of a post-Troubles era. The bombing was a jarring interruption of that peace, and many felt even more betrayed because the “warning” actually worked to draw more victims toward the lethal blast.

Omagh vividly depicts the carnage and chaos after the blast. The desperate search for loved ones amid the confusion is profoundly moving. We experience Omagh through the perspective of Michael Gallagher, father of one of the victims. He takes the helm of the survivors group as they seek answers – and run into a series of stone walls and cover-ups. The soft-spoken Gallagher may be the least histrionic leader in human history, and he is able to lead because the other survivors rely on his decency, good sense and quiet courage. We also see that – as in real life – people grieve at different paces, and the obsession of some in the family doesn’t work for others.

Michael Gallagher is played by the veteran actor Gerard McSorley (In the Name of the Father, Widow’s Peak, Braveheart, The Boxer, Bloody Sunday). It is McSorley’s powerful and profoundly sad performance that elevates Omagh.

Director Pete Travis employs a jiggly camera and a spare soundtrack to focus our attention on the characters with intimacy and immediacy. When we hear the door closed after the last guest leaves a funeral, the sound of the latch communicates more finality than would any dialogue.

Omagh is high on my list of Best Movies About the Troubles. It is available on DVD from Netflix.

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