Movies to See Right Now

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is one of the best documentaries of the century and a superb history lesson, crucial to understand the America of today. It’s a Must See for Baby Boomers. For different reasons, it’s a Must See for Americans of later generations. The ten episodes of The Vietnam War can be streamed from PBS through October 15.

Your best chance to see an Oscar-winner is at the Mill Valley Film Festival, now underway at several Marin locations. The MVFF always previews many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season.

In theaters now, there is the often funny and stealthily profound Lucky. Here’s my remembrance of its star, Harry Dean Stanton.

Sure to be near the end of its theatrical run, you can still catch the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the compelling and affecting Short Term 12, set in a foster care facility and starring Brie Larson as kind of a Troubled Kid Whisperer.  Short Term 12 is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, GooglePlay and Xbox Video. It was high on my Best Movies of 2013.

On October 15, Turner Classic Movies presents Diabolique. The headmaster of a provincial boarding school is so cruel, even sadistic, that everyone wants him dead, especially his wife and his mistress. When he goes missing, the police drain the murky pool where the killers dumped the body…and the killers get a big surprise. Now the suspense from director Henri-Georges Clouzot (often tagged as the French Hitchcock) really starts.

And TCM offers something completely different on October 16, the delightful Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? The nerdy academic Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his continually aggrieved fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) travel to San Francisco to compete for a career-launching grant. The luggage with Howard’s great discovery (musical rocks) is mixed up with two identical suitcases, one containing valuable jewelry, the other with spy secrets, and soon we have juggling MacGuffins.

That’s all funny enough, but Howard bumps into Judy (Barbra Streisand), the kookiest serial college dropout in America, who determines that she must have him and utterly disrupts his life. Our hero’s ruthless rival for the grant is hilariously played by Kenneth Mars (the Nazi playwright in The Producers). Austin Pendleton is wonderful as the would-be benefactor.

The EXTENDED closing chase scene is among the very funniest in movie history – right up there with the best of Buster Keaton; Streisand and O’Neal lead an ever-growing cavalcade of pursuers through the hills of San Francisco, at one point crashing the Chinese New Year’s Day parade. I love What’s Up, Doc? and own the DVD, and I watch every time I stumble across it on TV. Boganovich’s hero Howard Hawkes, the master of the screwball comedy, would have been proud.

WHAT’S UP, DOC?

It’s here: the 40th Mill Valley Film Festival

DOWNSIZING – coming to the Mill Valley Film Festival

The Mill Valley Film Festival always showcases many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season. It’s the best opportunity for Bay Area film goers to catch an early look at the Big Movies.

For example, last year’s festival featured La La Land,  Arrival, Loving, Elle, Toni Erdmann, Lion, The Handmaiden, The Salesman and Paterson.

THE SQUARE – coming to the Mill Valley Film Festival

Here is a selection of the MVFF’s Oscar bait:

  • Downsizing from director Alexander Payne of (Sideways and Nebraska).
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri from Martin McDonagh (The Guard) – see trailer below.
  • The Shape of Water from Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).
  • Last Flag Flying from Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise/Susnet/Midnight).
  • Wonderstruck from Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol).
  • The Square from Ruben Ostlund of (Force Majeure).
  • Thelma from Joachim Trier (Reprise, Louder Than Bombs).
  • The Current War from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).
  • Call Me By My Name from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash).
  • Loveless from Andrey Zvyagintsev the director of (Leviathan).
  • The Florida Project by Sean Baker the director of (Tangerine).
THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Celebrity appearances, for those of you who like that sort of thing, will include Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Andrew Garfield and Holly Hunter.  For those of you seeking a chance to hear great filmmakers discuss their work in the flesh, you’ll get your chance with Richard Linklater, Joe Wright, Todd Haynes and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

The directorial debut of actor Greta Gerwig will screen, as will the first German-language film directed by actor Diane Kruger.

There will also be several documentaries featuring musicians:  Paul Butterfield, Bill Frisell, Joe Satriani and Sly and the Family Stone.

This year’s MVFF runs from October 5-15,  at the Sequoia in Mill Valley, the Rafael in San Rafael,  the Century Larkspur and the Lark in Larkspur and the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. Check out the program and tickets for the MVFF.

Stream of the Week: ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE – one woman’s climb to a culinary legacy

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE
ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE

The documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table tells the story of the New Orleans powerhouse restaurateur – and it’s one compelling story.

Ella Brennan is a woman who, before she was thirty, started running restaurants in the pre-feminist 1950s.  Ella Brennan started as the little sister and became the matriarch of the famous New Orleans restaurant family.  She launched Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace, the latter still the greatest of New Orleans Creole restaurants.  On her journey, she had to overcome Mad Men-era sexism,  a slew of business cycles and hurricanes – and even family betrayal.

We see a woman with old-fashioned obsession with detail and very high standards.  We also see culinary and marketing creativity that can only be described as genius.  Ella Brennan is responsible for Bananas Foster, the Jazz Brunch and a host of food trends.  Along the way, she mentored the celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Shannon.  Here’s a New York Times profile of Ella Brennan that mentions this film.

I saw Ella Brennan last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table can be streamed from Netflix Instant.

TV/Stream of the Week: TOWER – a most original and important retelling of a story that we thought we knew

TOWER
TOWER

This week, the PBS documentary series Independent Lens will feature Tower, a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin. Tower is a tick-tock of the 96 minutes when 49 people were randomly chosen to be shot by a gunman in the landmark tower 240 feet above the campus. That gunman is barely mentioned (and may not even be named) in the movie.

Tower is director Keith Maitland’s second feature. What makes Tower distinctive and powerful it’s the survivors who tell their stories, reenacted by actors who are animated by a rotoscope-like technique (think Richard Linklater’s Waking Life). Telling this story through animation, dotted with some historical stills and footage, is captivating.

Since 1966, we’ve suffered through lots of mass shootings. The UT Tower shooting was especially shocking at the time and prompted the questions about what drove the “madman” to his deed. But, fifty years later, what’s really important today is how the event affected the survivors – what was what like to live through this experience and how it lives with them today. That’s the story that Maitland lets them tell us – and in such an absorbing way.

I saw Tower at the Mill Valley Film Festival.  It plays on Independent Lens on KQED-TV at 10 PM, Tuesday night, February 14.  You can also stream Tower on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

TOWER
TOWER

TONI ERDMANN: father and daughter, laugh and marvel

TONI ERDMANN
Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek in TONI ERDMANN

Toni Erdmann is a MUST SEE. You might not expect an almost three-hour German comedy to break through, but I’ve seen it, and I think that it should win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.  Writer-director Maren Ade gives us a woman’s perspective of a father-daughter relationship, creating a totally original and unforgettable father who takes prankstering into performance art.

Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a hard charging international management consultant.  She is somewhat estranged from her dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an under achieving music teacher.  You get the impression that Winfried wasn’t the most responsible parent. Regretting the state of their relationship and unable to relate to the workaholic that she’s become, he decides to impose himself on her life. He takes an extended vacation and shows up uninvited at her current corporate gig in Romania – and reinvents himself into a corporate alter ego who crashes her business meetings. It’s hilarious.

Winfried is a compulsive jokester of uncommon imagination, relentless and deviousness. The brilliance in Peter Simonischek’s performance is the devilish determination in his eyes (“Yes, I AM really going there”).  He gets the most out of a set of gag false teeth than any single prop in cinema history.

Ines must react to Winfried’s onslaught of ever more elaborate, outrageous and high stakes practical jokes by maintaining a straight face and carrying on without giving away her shock, embarrassment and desperation. She’s on the verge of abject mortification for the entire movie. Sandra Hüller is a master of the take and the slow burn. It’s a remarkable performance.

It’s almost worth watching the whole movie for a deadpan rendition of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All“, all the funnier because it contains the lyric “they can’t take away my dignity”. There’s the funniest nude brunch you’ll ever witness. And the most random Romanian folk monster. Yet Toni Erdmann will still leave you choked up at the end.

Now the daughter is obsessively ambitious, and she has embraced cut throat global capitalism. And, if the father were related to you, you’d often want to kill him. If you hate these people, you’re not going to like the movie. But I think that Ade has made their human needs so universal, that you’ll become invested in them. I sure did.

I saw Toni Erdmann at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and I’ve been waiting months to share it with you. It’s #3 on my Best Movies of 2016. Toni Erdmann opens Friday, January 20 in San Francisco and wider throughout the Bay Area on January 27.

AQUARIUS: spirit, thy name is Sonia Braga

Sonia Braga in AQUARIUS
Sonia Braga in AQUARIUS

In the Brazilian character-driven drama Aquarius, Sonia Braga plays Clara, the last owner of a beachfront condo who hasn’t sold out to a developer who owns the rest of the condos.  The conflict is between Clara, who refuses to sell and those her want her to.  But Aquarius is really about Clara, and it takes its time setting up her character; it’s 26 minutes before we even see the developers.   We must understand her to understand her motivation – and her will.

Aquarius moves through scenes with a lifeguard at the beach, with girlfriends at club, at family parties,  not to move the plot, but to invest in revealing aspects of Clara’s character.  Having conquered cancer, lost her husband, raised children and built an artistic career, Clara has some mileage on her – enough to know what she wants and needs. Having earned the authority to live her life as she pleases, Clara is a wilful free spirit.  And, as everyone finds out, she is absolutely fearless.

It’s a career-capping performance for Sonia Braga, still luminous 40 years after Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands.  Mid movie, there’s a scene when Clara’s adult children try to have an awkward conversation about the financial benefits of selling the apartment.  She doesn’t make it easy for them, and their long-submerged feelings about their father and their mother surface.  With piercing observations and cold-eyed disappointment, Clara is as masterful over her children as when they were infants.  It’s hard to imagine a better movie scene this year.  Braga is brilliant.

The young Brazilian television actor Humberto Carrão is exceptional as Clara’s ever smiling foil Diego, whose youth and punctilious civility mask a capacity to engage in any tactic, even very dirty tricks.

I viewed Aquarius at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Aquarius is critical of the political status quo, and the Brazilian government’s refusal to submit it for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar has created a controversy detailed in this New York Times article.

TOWER: a most original and important retelling of a story that we thought we knew

TOWER
TOWER

 

Tower is a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin.  Tower is a tick-tock of the 96 minutes when 49 people were randomly chosen to be shot by a gunman in the landmark tower 240 feet above the campus.  That gunman is barely mentioned (and may not even be named) in the movie.

Tower is director Keith Maitland’s second feature. What makes Tower distinctive and powerful it’s the survivors who tell their stories, reenacted by actors who are animated by a rotoscope-like technique (think Richard Linklater’s Waking Life).  Telling this story through animation, dotted with some historical stills and footage, is captivating.

Since 1966, we’ve suffered through lots of mass shootings.   The UT Tower shooting was especially shocking at the time and prompted the questions about what drove the “madman” to his deed.  But, fifty years later, what’s really important today is how the event affected the survivors – what was what like to live through this experience and how it lives with them today.  That’s the story that Maitland lets them tell us – and in such an absorbing way.

I saw Tower at the Mill Valley Film Festival.  It opens theatrically in the Bay Area today at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

TOWER
TOWER

TONI ERDMANN: Must See at MVFF

TONI ERDMANN
TONI ERDMANN

One MUST SEE at the Mill Valley Film Festival is Toni Erdmann, from writer-director Maren Ade. You might not expect an almost three-hour German comedy to break through, but I’ve seen it, and I think that it’s a lock to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture. Ade gives us a woman’s perspective of a father-daughter relationship, creating a totally original and unforgettable father who takes prankstering into performance art. This is a movie with the funniest nude brunch you’ll ever witness that still will leave you choked up at the end.

Toni Erdmann opens January 20 in the Bay Area, but you can see it at the MVFF today, October 8, and on October 13; both screenings are at the Rafael in San Rafael.

This year’s MVFF runs from October 6-16, mostly at the Sequoia in Mill Valley and the Rafael in San Rafael, but also at three other Marin venues. Check out the program and tickets for the MVFF. I’ll be adding more festival coverage, including both features and movie recommendations. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest coverage.

TONI ERDMANN
TONI ERDMANN

Movies to See Right Now

TONI ERDMANN
TONI ERDMANN this week at the Mill Valley Film Festival

The Mill Valley Film Festival is underway – don’t miss Oscar hopeful Toni Erdmann this week; after the MVFF, Toni Erdmann won’t be screened again in the Bay Area until it opens theatrically on January 20, 2017.

You might be able to find the best movie of the year so far – the character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water. It’s atmospheric, gripping, and packed with superb performances. Hell or High Water is a screenwriting masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan. Must See.

Here are other movie choices:

        • Opening today, Girl Asleep, is an offbeat coming-of-age story with more than a splash of Australian magical realism. From a first-time woman director.
        • Another odd tale from Down Under is the uneven but entertaining period tale of revenge, The Dressmaker.

My DVD Stream of the Week is based on the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, the sharply witty Love & Friendship with Kate Beckinsale. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix (and coming soon to Redbox) and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and DirecTV.

On October 10, Turner Classic Movies has The Haunting, which show us what happens when a paranormal investigator invites you to join him at a haunted house. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom wish they hadn’t said “Yes”. It’s one of the very scariest black-and-white films.

On October 13, TCM plays one of my Overlooked Noir, Raw Deal with its ménage à noir, some of the best dialogue in all of film noir and the superb cinematography of John Alton.

Claire Trevor in RAW DEAL
Claire Trevor in RAW DEAL

Mill Valley Film Festival: the documentaries

THE TOWER
TOWER

Here are my top documentary picks at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival:

  • Tower is a remarkably original retelling of the 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin.  Tower is a tick-tock of the 96 minutes when 49 people were randomly chosen to be shot by a gunman in the landmark tower 240 feet above the campus.  That gunman is barely mentioned (and may not even be named) in the movie. What makes Tower distinctive and powerful it’s the survivors who tell their stories, reenacted by actors who are animated by a rotoscope-like technique (think Richard Linklater’s Waking Life).  Telling this story through animation, dotted with some historical stills and footage, is captivating. October 7 and 9.
  • Death by Design is an important environmental exposé on the toxic impact of personal electronics. Most of us have heard that some very dangerous materials and some horrific working conditions are used in the manufacturing of our favorite devices. Death by Design is the first film to successfully tie it all together, with historical perspective, global sweep and a possible way out. October 7 and 11.
  • Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table tells the story of the New Orleans powerhouse restaurateur – and it’s compelling.  This is a woman who started running restaurants in the 1950s before she was thirty, the mentor of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Shannon and responsible for Bananas Foster, the Jazz Brunch and a host of food trends.  October 15 only.

Ella Brennan leads the MVFF’s Focus: Culinary Cinema program, along with documentaries on chefs Massimo Botturo (Theater of Life) and Jeremiah Tower (Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent) and a road trip narrative, Paris Can Wait, starring Alec Baldwin and Diane Lane.

Of course, the big family hit of the Holiday season may turn out to be, of all things a documentary about a Mongolian girl – The Eagle Huntress; reportedly it’s both a crowd pleaser and spectacular eye candy.

This year’s MVFF runs from October 6-16, mostly at the Sequoia in Mill Valley and the Rafael in San Rafael, but also at three other Marin venues. Check out the program and tickets for the MVFF. I’ll be adding more festival coverage, including both features and movie recommendations. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest coverage.

DEATH BY DESIGN
DEATH BY DESIGN
ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE
ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE