DVD/Stream of the Week: LION – watch, enjoy, weep

Dev Patel in LION

Dev Patel in LION

The emotionally affecting drama Lion is one of the top crowd pleasers of the Holiday season and of the year. Here are the bones of the plot:

  • An Indian boy is accidentally separated from his family and lost, ending up in a hellish orphanage.
  • He is adopted and raised by a loving Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
  • As a man, (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), he sets out on a quest to find his mother and brother in India – a classic Needle in a Haystack search.
  • Amazingly, it’s a true story.

Before the screening, I was ready to dismiss Lion as a stereotypical family melodrama, what movies studio called a “women’s picture” in the 1940s. But it’s much more than that. The young man has survivor’s guilt that becomes an obsession, explored through how it affects his relationship with his significant other (Rooney Mara). His adoptive parents have another adopted son – one who is severely emotionally disturbed.

Understandably, the young man is driven by an overwhelming need to give closure to his birth mother. What we don’t expect are the needs of the adoptive mother, and what surprises even our main character is what the adoptive mother does and does not need to be protected from.

Lion is the first feature for director Garth Davis, who has made his name in commercials; as one would expect, he is able in manipulating the audience with images and music, but not in a cheap way. The scene where the main character closes in on his search is exceptional.

Patel is remarkably engaging, and our sympathy with his character drives the movie. The other performances are solid. (Wow – Nicole Kidman is now playing the leading man’s Mom!) The two child actors who play the protagonist and his brother as children, Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate, are exceptional.

When The Wife and I saw Lion, pretty much the entire audience was choked up. Stay all the way through the end credits for even more tears. Lion is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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TRUMAN: how people say goodbye

Javier and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

Javier Cámara and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

This may be the best movie I’ve seen this year.  In the deeply emotionally affecting and humane Spanish film Truman, Tomás (Javier Cámara) leaves Montreal to pay a surprise four-day visit to his longtime friend Julián (Ricardo Darin) in Madrid. Julián has been battling cancer and has just received a very grim prognosis. Julián has chosen to forgo further treatment, and his cousin and caregiver Paula (Dolores Fonzi) is hoping that Tomás can talk Julián out of his decision.

Julián is a roguish bon vivant, although now hobbled by illness. Tomás is a responsible family man.  As the four day visit unfolds, Tomás tags along as Julián cavalierly settles his affairs.  Because of the circumstances, even the most routine activity is heavily charged with emotion.  Julián, who has always been a wild card, is now a tinderbox always on the verge of erupting into some socially inappropriate gesture.  Julián is particularly focused on arranging for adoption of his beloved and ponderous dog Truman.

Julián is a wiseacre, but his reaction to a moment of kindness from an very unexpected source is heartbreaking.  Julián goes to say goodbye to his son, and then the  learn a fact afterward that make this encounter exponentially more poignant.  Truman has an especially sly ending  – the granting of one last favor, however inconvenient.

TRUMAN

TRUMAN

The Argentine actor Darin is one of my favorite screen actors: Nine Queens, The Secret in their Eyes, Carancho, The Aura.  As a man living under a death sentence, Julián has adopted a bemused fatalism, but is ready to burst into rage or despair at any moment, and Darin captures that perfectly.

I was blown away by Javier Cámara’s unforgettable performance, at once creepy and heartbreaking, in the Pedro Almodovar drama Talk to Her. Cámara is a master of the reaction, and his Tomás stoically serves as the loyal wing man to a friend with hair trigger unpredictability, often in a state of cringe.

The Argentine actress Dolores Fonzi (The Aura) is excellent as Paula, whose caregiver fatigue finally explodes.

Packed with bittersweet emotions, Truman is never maudlin.  The Spanish director Cesc Gay, who co-wrote Truman, has created a gentle and insightful exploration into how people can say goodbye.  There’s not a single misstep or hint of inauthenticity.  Again, Truman is one of the best films of the year.

(Note: The crappy trailer below fails to capture all the humor and deep emotion in this film.)

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Movies to See Right Now

Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z photo courtesy of SFFILM

Charlie Hunnam in THE LOST CITY OF Z
photo courtesy of SFFILM

Recommended movies to see in theaters this week:

      • My top recommendation is The Lost City of Z, a thoughtful and beautifully cinematic revival of the adventure epic genre.
      • In Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, writer-director Joseph Cedar and his star Richard Gere combine to create the unforgettable character of Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish Willy Loman who finally gets his chance to sits with the Movers and Shakers.  This may be Gere’s best movie performance ever.
      • Free Fire is a witty and fun shoot ’em up.
      • Their Finest is an appealing, middling period drama set during the London Blitz.
Richard Gere in NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER

Richard Gere in NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER

And four movies to avoid:

      • Kristen Stewart is excellent in Personal Shopper, a murky mess of a movie; don’t bother.
      • I found the predictable Armenian Genocide drama The Promise to be a colossal waste of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale.
      • Song to Song is yet another visually brilliant storytelling failure from auteur Terence Malick.
      • Also avoid the horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which is out on video and, UNBELIEVABLY, getting some favorable buzz.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is The Founder starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who created the global corporate superpower that is McDonald’s. It’s both the vivid portrait of a particular change-maker and a cold-eyed study of exactly what capitalism really rewards. The Founder is available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and tp stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On May 11, Turner Classic Movies will air not one, BUT TWO movies on my list of Least Convincing Movie MonstersThe Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion.

THE GIANT CLAW

THE GIANT CLAW

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE FOUNDER – moneygrubbing visionary

Michael Keaton in THE FOUNDER

Michael Keaton in THE FOUNDER

In the enjoyably addictive The Founder, Michael Keaton brings alive Ray Kroc, the man who created the global corporate superpower that is McDonald’s. It’s both a vivid portrait of a particular change-maker and a cold-eyed study of exactly what capitalism really rewards.

Speaking of capitalism, it’s hard to imagine a truer believer than Ray Kroc, not even Willy Loman. When we meet Kroc, he is grinding through small town America selling milkshake mixers none too successfully. Each night he retires to yet another dingy motel for heavy doses and Early Times bourbon and a motivational speaker on his portable record player.

Then Kroc stumbles across the McDonald brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). In their Riverside, California, hamburger stand, the McDonald brothers invented the industrialization of food service, their achievement being “fast food” as we know it today. One the most fascinating sequences in The Founder is a flashback of the McDonald brothers designing the most efficient fast food kitchen possible with chalk on a tennis court. The brothers are passionate about their business, equally devoted to their product and their customers.

Kroc falls in love. Having driven through every town in the country as a traveling salesman, he can appreciate the untapped market. He persuades the brothers to let him take over franchising McDonald’s restaurants. It turns out that that the 50ish Kroc is well-equipped for the job because he’s driven, absolutely ruthless and always on the verge of desperation. He HAS to succeed. Kroc is hungry, perpetually hungry, and learns to identify potential franchisees who are not complacent investors, but are who are also driven enough to accept his discipline and run each franchise by the numbers. Egotistical as he is, Kroc is also smart enough to adopt a brilliant idea from someone else – the key to making McDonald’s his.

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in THE FOUNDER

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in THE FOUNDER

Dick McDonald is a humorless detail freak with brilliant ideas; Mac is the conflict-avoidant, supportive brother, always unruffling Dick’s feathers and keeping their options alive. Both are proud and true to their values. The McDonald brothers are authentic American business geniuses, but are they too principled to fight off a double cross by Kroc?

In much of the movie, Dick is on phone with Mac listening to Dick’s side of the conversations. Both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are superb, but Lynch’s performance is Oscar-worthy. There’s a “handshake” scene where WE know and MAC knows that he is going to get screwed, and Lynch’s eyes in those few seconds are heartbreaking.

As far as I can tell, The Founder is very historically accurate. Thanks to screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), we also meet some other historical characters – Harry Sonneborn, Fred Turner, June Martino and Joan Smith Kroc – and appreciate their contributions to the McDonald’s business.

The Founder’s Ray Kroc is shitty to his wife (Laura Dern), shitty to his partners and, basically, shitty to his core. But we HAVE to keep watching him. Do we root for him because only HE can build this empire? We Americans have a heritage of empire building. And the idea of someone building something so big and so successful with only his smarts, persistence and opportunism is irresistible to us.

This is a good movie. I’ll even watch The Founder again. And I’ll have fries with that. You can watch it on DVD from Netflix and Redbox or stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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RADIO DREAMS: stranger in a strange and funny land

RADIO DREAMS

RADIO DREAMS

The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair.  That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority  He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste.  This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)

With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty.  But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity.   His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.

The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.

Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin.  As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity.  There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.

Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller.  As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.

Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”.  This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor.  He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.

Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors.  Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.

As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams.  I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.

Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe.  He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco.   About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised.  The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.

Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.

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NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER: big deals are not for little men

NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER

Lior Ashkenazi and Richard Gere in NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER

In Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,  writer-director Joseph Cedar and his star Richard Gere combine to create the unforgettable character of Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish Willy Loman who finally gets his chance to sits with the Movers and Shakers.  Norman’s gig is to find two real businessmen that he does not know, pretending to each to be the confidante of the other, and introduce them, hoping that they make a deal (a deal that he neither engineers or invests in), hoping that he can get a percentage as a finder’s fee.

Norman has not so much a ready smile as a compulsive one. Unencumbered by any sense of boundaries or propriety, he literally stalks the rich and influential like paparazzi stalk celebrities.  He feigns familiarity and drops names (“a high official, I can’t say his name”).  All he time, he tries, usually successfully, to stifle the odor of desperation.

I’ve spent over thirty years in politics, and in my business, it is said that there are Who Ya Know consultants and there are What Ya Know consultants. The most effective consultants combine both. If you’re only at the table to peddle the influence of Who Ya Know, you might be a little shady.  That’s Norman.

I know the world of powerful and important people, a world that hustlers try to crash, and I’ve known people like Norman.  And I know the Whack-A-Mole pressure of shepherding home a complex, multi-faceted deal. Norman’s character, while extreme, rings true.

Norman is everybody’s acquaintance but has no actual reputation of his own.  No one knows where he lives or what deals he has structured before.  He is so mysterious that we find ourselves even asking, is he homeless?

This may be Richard Gere’s best movie performance.  Gere perfectly distills Norman’s obnoxious ambition to play with the high rollers and then his stress and bewilderment once he’s gotten to the high stakes table.  The critic Christy Lemire writes, “You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him.”

Norman ingratiates himself to an Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) and hits pay dirt when the politician unexpectedly becomes prime minister.  Norman says, “for once, I have bet on the right horse”, and indeed Norman did spot a uniquely optimistic quality that other observers failed to recognize and appreciate.  For the first time, Norman is relevant and at the exhilarating  center of power.

Lior Ashkenazi is brilliant as the politician, a man who is able to recognize his own specific gifts.  He is ebullient, and it’s easy to see how people can be attracted to his charisma and infectious confidence.  His vulnerability is an appetite for fine things and a neediness for the flattery and attention that a poser like Norman can offer.  Ashkenazi played a totally contrasting, much more nerdy, character in Cedar’s 2011 inventive and mostly successful character-driven dramedy Footnote.

Norman is juggling multiple balls in air, and he must make all of his deals pay off because they are all interlinked.  It’s kind of like making an exotic bet at the racetrack like an exacta, a superfecta or a pick 6.  If one part unravels, the whole thing will come crashing down.  Norman has always been able to get by on bullshit, but now he’s has gotten his wish – to play at the highest level, where, at some point you’ve got to deliver.  Here’s where “the tragic fall” comes in.

The stellar performances of Gere and Ashkenazi are but two highlights of Norman’s superb casting:  Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Harris Yulin, Steve Buscemi.   Josh Charles plays a magnate who can sniff out a bullshit artist and can dismiss one with blistering efficiency.  The always excellent Isaach De Bankolé (Night on Earth) is memorable in a tiny part.  Hank Azaria  sparkles as a character who confounds Norman with a taste of his own medicine.   And we get to hear the glorious singing voice of Cantor Azi Schwartz.

As they say, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.  Big deals are not for little men.

Note: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer weighs in at #16 on my list of Longest Movie Titles.

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Movies to See Right Now

FREE FIRE

FREE FIRE

Three movies to see in theaters this week:

  • My top recommendation is The Lost City of Z, a thoughtful and beautifully cinematic revival of the adventure epic genre.
  • Free Fire is a witty and fun shoot ’em up.
  • Their Finest is an appealing, middling period drama set during the London Blitz.

And four to avoid:

  • Kristen Stewart is excellent in Personal Shopper, a murky mess of a movie; don’t bother.
  • I found the predictable Armenian Genocide drama The Promise to be a colossal waste of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale.
  • Song to Song is yet another visually brilliant storytelling failure from auteur Terence Malick.
  • Also avoid the horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which is out on video and, UNBELIEVABLY, getting some favorable buzz.

My Stream of the Week is the important and absorbing documentary Zero Days, which traces the story of an incredibly successful cyber attack by two nation states upon another – and its implications. It’s that rare documentary which has become even more topical today.  Since Zero Days’ release last June, we have endured the successful Russian cyber attack on the US election process. And we face an unpredictable foe in North Korea, and our only practical protection against North Korea’s nuclear threat may be our own preemptive cyber attacks. Zero Days is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On May 1, Turner Classic Movies will be broadcasting one of the great movies that you have likely NOT seen, having just been released on DVD in 2009: The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). Max Ophuls directed what is perhaps the most visually evocative romance ever in black and white. It’s worth seeing for the ballroom scene alone. The shallow and privileged wife of a stick-in-the-mud general takes a lover, but the earrings she pawned reveal the affair and consequences ensue. The great Italian director Vittorio De Sica plays the impossibly handsome lover.

The Earrings of Madame de...

The Earrings of Madame de…

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Remembering Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme

If he had made no other films, Jonathan Demme, who has died, would be forever remembered for his horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Rarely has a film had such an immediate, visceral impact on me. I had unwisely super-caffeinated myself just before watching it for the first time, and I became so anxious when the door to the storage facility was opened that I had to leave the theater. Of course, my curiosity about what would happen to Clarice and Hannibal soon drove me back to sit through the whole thing.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of only three movies to win Oscars in all four major categories:  Best Picture, Director (Demme), Leading Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Leading Actress (Jodie Foster).  It also won the Screenwriting Oscar (Ted Tally).

Jonathan Demme, however, was a director who could master many genres. He started out with genre exploitation movies, and I first admired his work in the little indie Melvin and Howard (1980), with its delightful performances by Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat. Then he made one of the two or three best ever rock concert films, Stop Making Sense (1984) with The Talking Heads. Then he directed the topical drama Philadelphia (1993) and the wonderfully engaging addiction dramedy Rachel Getting Married (2008).

His body of work screams versatility, and his masterpiece…Well, his masterpiece just screams.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

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Stream of the Week: ZERO DAYS – cyberwar triumph? maybe not

ZERO DAYS

ZERO DAYS

My Stream of the Week is a movie that has actually become MORE topical since its release last year.  The important and absorbing documentary Zero Days traces the story of an incredibly successful cyber attack by two nation states upon another – and its implications. In Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, the centrifuges used to enrich uranium began destroying themselves in 2010. It turned out that these machines were instructed to self-destruct by a computer worm devised by American and Israeli intelligence.

No doubt – this was an amazing technological triumph. Zero Days takes us through a whodunit that is thrilling even for a non-geek audience. We learn how a network that is completely disconnected from the Internet can still be infected. And how cybersecurity experts track down viruses. It’s all accessible and fascinating.

But, strategically, was this really a cyberwarfare victory? We learn just what parts of our lives can be attacked and frozen by computer attacks (Spoiler: pretty much everything). And we learn that this attack has greenlighted cyberwarfare by other nations – including hostile and potentially hostile ones. Zero Days makes a persuasive case that we need to have a public debate – as we have had on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – on the use of this new kind of weaponry.

And here’s why it is more topical today.  Since Zero Days’ release last year, we have endured the successful Russian cyberattack on the US election process.  And we face an unpredictable foe in North Korea, and our only practical protection against North Korea’s nuclear threat may be our own preemptive cyberattacks.

Director Alex Gibney is one our very, very best documentarians. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the superb Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Going Clear: The Prison of Belief and Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine.

Gibney’s specialty is getting sources on-camera that have the most intimate knowledge of his topic. In Zero Days, he pulls out a crew of cybersecurity experts, the top journalist covering cyberwarfare, leaders of both Israeli and American intelligence and even someone who can explain the Iranian perspective. Most impressively, Gibney has found insiders from the NSA who actually worked on this cyber attack (and prepared others).

Zero Days is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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THEIR FINEST: the appealing side of propaganda

Gemma Arterton in THEIR FINEST

Gemma Arterton in THEIR FINEST

Rosie the Riveter meets Nora Ephron in Their Finest, where Gemma Arterton plays a wannabe secretary summoned to write the female dialogue in a British propaganda movie aimed at easing America into WW II.  Of course, she discovers that she has a gift for screenwriting and a passion for it.  As in Mad Men, there are plenty of snickers at the assumed sexism the of the era. The driven lead writer (Sam Clafton) is a contrast to her nogoodnik common law husband (Jack Huston).

Originally, the plot of the movie-within-the movie is set to be a more or less true (okay – less true) account of the Dunkirk seaborne rescue, but a hook for American audiences is required.  So the filmmakers slap on a superfluous character to be played by a bonafide war hero (Jake Lacy):  he’s a real hero, he’s American, he’s stunningly handsome with a gleaming smile, but he’s absolutely talentless.

One of the sound reasons to watch any movie, and this especially applies to Their Finest, is Bill Nighy.  Here, he plays a vain actor sliding down the down slope of his career.  Nighy, as always, is able to summon both hilarity and poignancy, from his character’s foibles and vulnerability.

I’ve always liked Gemma Arterton, and she’s good here, too.  Arterton is an underappreciated actress, with winning roles in Gemma Bovary, Tamara Drewe and as the Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace.

Their Finest contains elements of the romance, comedy, historical and Girl Power genres.  The romantic element might have worked had not Sam Clafton delivered such a one-note performance.  Jack of some aspects and master of none, Their Finest is a harmless and appealing diversion.

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