Movies to See Right Now

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD

We’ve had a surge of universally acclaimed movies open in Silicon Valley: Darkest Hour, Novitiate and The Shape of Water, along with The Disaster Artist (which looks like a hoot and a half).  The Florida Project and Pixar’s Coco have already been playing.   Of the current crop, I’ve already added two Must Sees to my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far:

  • Lady Bird , an entirely fresh coming of age comedy that explores the mother-daughter relationship – an impressive debut for Greta Gerwig as a writer and director.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a powerful combination of raw emotion and dark hilarity with an acting tour de force from Frances McDormand and a slew of great actors.

Here’s the rest of my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far.  Several are in theaters right now, and most of the rest are available on video.

Other choices:

My DVD/Stream of the Week is The Big Sick, the best American movie of the first half of 2017 and the best romantic comedy in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. The Big Sick can be rented in DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

The Movie Gourmet has no television recommendations this week. Go to a theater – this is prime time for movie going.

Frances McDormand and Peter Dinklage in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE BIG SICK

THE BIG SICK

THE BIG SICK

The Must See romantic comedy The Big Sick is the closest thing to a perfect movie this summer. Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh in Silicon Valley) plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian whose parents insist on arranging a marriage with a Muslim Pakistani woman. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), who is neither Muslim nor Pakistani. Kumail is too cowardly to make a choice between Emily and his family, so he keeps delaying the decision by lying to both. At a critical moment in his relationship with Emily, she suddenly and mysteriously becomes very ill and is placed in a medically induced coma. Kumail waits out the coma in the hospital with Emily’s out-of-town parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whom he is meeting for the first time. The parents have relationship issues of their own.

How can Kumail and Emily’s parents weather the stress of an unconscious loved one on a respirator? Will Emily’s parents accept Kumail? Will Emily’s parents stay together themselves? Will Kumail’s parents kick him out of the family? Will Emily wake up, and what will she think of Kumail if/when she does?

The coma may seem contrived, so it’s important that you know that THIS REALLY HAPPENED to Kumail Nankiani’s real-life wife Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote this screenplay, with support from producer Judd Apatow.

The Big Sick is hilarious (and not just for a coma movie). The humor comes from the characters, and how they must individually deal with life’s struggles. Kumail is cowardly delaying a choice between Emily and his own family by lying to both; we know that’s it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out, and the clock is ticking. The Big Sick is flawlessly directed by comedy writer and television director Michael Showalter.

Zoe Kazan, the very talented screenwriter (Ruby Sparks) and actress, makes us fall in love with Emily along with Kumail. Kazan nails the heartbreaking scene when she finds out that Kumail hasn’t been straight with her. It’s a pretty remarkable performance, especially given that she’s in a coma for most of the movie.

The casting of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily parents is inspired. Each of them brings unusual depth and texture to their characters, the tightly wound mom and the conflict-avoidant dad. Each has at least one of the Big Scenes that bring Oscar nominations

The Big Sick is the best American movie of the first half of 2017 and the best romantic comedy in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. The Big Sick can be rented in DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD

The prestige movies are rolling out in theaters and I’ve already added two Must Sees to my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far:

  • Lady Bird , an entirely fresh coming of age comedy that explores the mother-daughter relationship – an impressive debut for Greta Gerwig as a writer and director.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a powerful combination of raw emotion and dark hilarity with an acting tour de force from Frances McDormand and a slew of great actors.

Other choices:

  • My Stream of the Week is Louder Than Bombs, the intricately constructed family drama from writer-director Joachim Trier (his new film Thelma is rolling out). Louder Than Bombs is now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play.

    On December 3, Turner Classic Movies presents Pushover, which is highly recommended on my list of Overlooked Noir. Tracking a notorious criminal, the cop (Fred MacMurray) follows – and then dates – the gangster’s girlfriend (“Introducing Kim Novak”) as part of the job, but then falls for her himself. He decides that, if he can double cross BOTH the cops and the criminal, he can wind up with the loot AND Kim Novak. (This is a film noir, so we know he’s not destined for a tropical beach with an umbrella drink.)

    Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in PUSHOVER

    Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in PUSHOVER

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BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY: the world’s most beautiful woman and her secrets

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is the riveting biopic of a glamorous movie star who invented and patented the precursor to wireless technology; that’s amazing enough, but Bombshell delves deeply into how Lamarr’s stunning face, her Jewish heritage, and mid-century gender roles shaped her career, marriages and parenting. Top notch.

In the last few years, one totally unexpected aspect of Lamarr’s life has become more well-known.  She was a tinkerer/inventor who co-invented a radio guidance system for submarine torpedos, which she donated to the US military.  The US Navy used this technology in WW II.   Modern blue tooth technology stems directly from her innovation.  Today her patent would be worth billions.

Bombshell adds layer upon layer to this tale of beauty and brains, as it traces Lamarr’s remarkable life.   Hedy Lamarr had no control over being born a woman, being born to Jewish parents and being born to be a beauty.  These three accidents of birth set the parameters of her journey – granting her access to some professional opportunities and stunting others, even threatening her life.

She burst into celebrity – and notoriety – at age 19, as the star of the film Ecstasy.   Not only was Hedy the first actress filmed in full frontal nudity, she was the first screen actress to portray female orgasms.  She was soon the young trophy wife of an Austrian industrialist, a formidable and fearsome supplier of munitions to Hitler.  Hedy’s life seemed headed along the Bimbo Track, but she realized that her husband was powerful enough to keep her trapped in the marriage, but not powerful enough to protect her from the Nazis.  At this point, she orchestrated an international escape that is the stuff of thrillers.

At age 24, often nominated as the most beautiful woman in the world, she launched a Hollywood career.  Professional ups and downs, marriages and affairs and children followed, along with her work in technology.

Her beauty was often a blessing and sometimes a curse, but always affected her trajectory.  Someone that beautiful is just different – the rest of us can’t help our reactions to her. But how many times can you be a trophy wife?

She was a person who survived troubling times, which left scars on her.  How Hedy handled her Jewishness, how she raised her kids and how she was treated by the military are unsettling.  Documentarian Alexandra Dean, Bombshell’s writer-director brings us witnesses, including Hedy’s children, to deliver an inside peek at a real life that would not be believable as a work of fiction.

I saw Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story this summer at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SJFF).  It’s coming to theaters this week.

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Stream of the Week: LOUDER THAN BOMBS – an intricately constructed family drama

Devin Druid in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

Devin Druid in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier’s new film Thelma is rolling out, so it’s a good time to check in with his recent – and overlooked – American movie Louder Than Bombs.  All of Trier’s work (with his writing partner Eskil Vogt) focuses on the psychological, and Louder Than Bombs is an intricately constructed family drama.

Gabriel Byrne plays the father of two sons – a man whose vital wife (Isabelle Huppert) has died suddenly in middle age.  His young adult son (Jesse Eisenberg) is superficially achieving, but it turns out, has some real issues.  But the younger teen son (Devin Druid) is clearly troubled; the dad is trying, but he just can’t get ANY traction with younger son.

The unstable younger son is about to find out that his mother committed suicide, and Louder Than Bombs is a ticking clock, as we wait to see what happens when younger son finds out.   The audience has an ever-present fear that tragedy is going to erupt.

Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

In flashback, Huppert’s character is strong and Sphinx-like, ever dominating the three men she left behind.  The rest of the cast is also excellent: Byrne, Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan, and David Strathairn.  Young Devin Druid is a revelation as the younger son.

Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in LOUDER THAN BOMBS

In Louder Than Bombs  Trier employs flashbacks, dream sequences, and even the same scene replayed from a different point of view a la Rashomon.

Joachim Trier previously made Reprise, a wonderful film about sanity and the creative process in which two young novelists send in their manuscripts at the beginning of the film, just before one suffers a psychotic breakdown. Reprise was #4 on my list of Best Movies of 2008. w Trier’s next film was the well-crafted and utterly authentic Oslo August 31, which I didn’t like as much as most critics.  Trier’s newest film, Thelma, opens this fall.

The critical response to Louder Than Bombs has been mixed from middling to rhapsodic.  Right after seeing it, I wasn’t sure that I’d recommend it, but the film stayed with me for several days.  Eventually, I realized that this is an excellent film to see and then mull over.

Louder Than Bombs is now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play.

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WESTERN: alienated man goes native

Meinhard Neumann in WESTERN

In the evocative and thought-provoking German drama Western, a crew of German hardhats sets up a construction camp on a remote Bulgarian mountainside to build a water power plant.  They aren’t cultural tourists and certainly not diplomats, and they see the nearby Bulgarian village as a distraction from, even an impediment to, their project.  Of the Germans, only Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) seeks out contact with the Bulgarians.

Writer-director Valeska Grisebach lets the audience connect the dots about what’s going on. The Germans and the Bulgarians have encounters at the camp, at the riverside swimming hole and in the village.  As one would expect from any modern German filmmaker, Grisebach shines a harsh light on the German sense of superiority and entitlement.  One German even says, “They know we’re back. 70 years later, but we’re back.”  But the characters have dimension.  The blustery project boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) is an asshole, but even he has his own personal and job problems.

Of the Germans, only Meinhard makes Bulgarian friends.  Meinhard is a loner among his co-workers, yet he seems to be searching for something among the Bulgarians and their alien language and culture.  Meinhard is well-traveled and looks like he Has Lived a Life.  He’s not a misfit (he’s very functional), but he hasn’t found where he DOES fit.

What has caused Meinhard’s alienation?  That’s not clear, but it doesn’t need to be.  Hell, Jack Nicholson just shows up alienated in every movie from Five Easy Pieces through The Passenger, and that works out just fine.

Meinhard has no ties.  Asked if he is homesick, he queries, “what is homesick?” He thrives in the simpler culture, and this solitary man finds himself becoming social.  He develops a deep trusting friendship with a local leader, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).

We have the advantage of subtitles, so we know what is being said in German and in Bulgarian. The characters are not understanding about 90% of what is spoken in the other language.  The friendship between Meinhard and Adrian transcends language. The highlight of Western is a beautiful dialogue in which the two don’t understand all (or even most) of each other’s words.

Meinhard goes native.  Will it work out for him?  The Germans and the Bulgarians learn that they are competing for the same scarce resource.  The Germans are always on the verge of provoking a riot.  The insular Bulgarians are wary of strangers.

Western is not a brisk movie, but Grisebach paces it just about perfectly.  This character-driven story is a sequence of revelations, and we need Grisebach to take her time. Grisebach uses the handheld camera effectively to plunge us right into the experience of the characters, who are often trying to discover something about the other guys.

Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov in WESTERN

So that’s what is on the screen. I was astounded to learn that Grisebach used no professional actors in Western.  She reportedly auditioned 600 working folks to get her cast.  She snagged two sublime natural talents in Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov. Not only that, but Grisebach did not use a script.

Quoted by Stefan Dobroiu in Cineuropa, Grisebach said, “I wanted to get closer to the solitary, inflated, often melancholic male characters of the western.”  Grisebach may not have intended it, but she nailed the Going Native subgenre of Westerns, where a first world man becomes immersed into a native culture, which he ultimately embraces.  Examples include A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves.

I saw Western in October at Camera Cinema Club. It played the Cannes and Toronto film festivals in 2017. Western has a US distributor (The Cinema Guild), and a US theatrical release is planned for 2018.  Western is a strong film and should satisfy art house audiences.

The trailer below has no English subtitles.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: raw emotion and dark hilarity

Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a powerful combination of raw emotions and dark hilarity, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a small town woman consumed by the unsolved murder of her daughter.  Mildred doesn’t have the power to solve the murder herself, but she has the power to make everyone else uncomfortable until she finds justice and closure.  She buys billboards that personalize the stalled murder investigation, laying the blame on the popular town sheriff (Woody Harrelson).  She intends to rile people up, and, boy, does she succeed.

There are consequences, both intended and unintended.  In addition to the murder mystery, there are two new whodunits related to the billboards and some violent outbursts by two of the characters.  There’s a heartbreaking letter, and two more utterly unexpected letters.

The murder of one’s child is shattering enough, but Mildred also piles guilt on herself.  The murder has enraged the entire family, including Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges of Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband (John Hawkes).  All three express their rage in different ways.  This is a showcase role for McDormand.

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

This might be Woody Harrelson’s best performance.  His sheriff is an island of common sense, decency and levelheadedness in a turbulent sea of upset and idiocy.  The character of the sheriff is a remarkably fine father and husband in ways that are fun and interesting to watch.   The sheriff is facing his own mortality, and his feelings are hurt unjustly, but we only see glimpses of the pain in Harrelson’s eyes.  This is a performance that would have been in the wheelhouse for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, and Harrelson nails it.

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, one of the sheriff’s deputies.  Dixon is an unfortunate muddle of bad instincts, no impulse control, stupidity, racism and rage.   Then he gets an unexpected opportunity for redemption…

Sandy Martin also sparkles as Dixon’s Momma.  It’s a very small part, but Martin practically steals the movie  with her white trash Svengali. Martin’s 128 screen credits include roles in Transparent, Big Love and as Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite (she’s the one who says Knock it off, Napoleon! Just make yourself a dang quesa-dilluh).

Samara Weaving is really perfect as the inappropriately-young-girlfriend-on-the-rebound of Mildred’s ex.  Weaving is drop dead beautiful with a remarkable sense of comic timing and a mastery of deadpan.  Fully invested in her character’s goodhearteredness and  airheadedness, she reminds me of Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Banks as a comic actor.

Peter Dinklage plays a character that provides comic relief and one important plot point, and he brings an unexpected and profound feeling to the part.

Here’s one thing that is uncommonly great about Three Billboards:  the story would have worked with characters of far less dimension, but the roles written by Martin McDonagh and performed by the cast elevates Three Billboards.  Mildred could have been only a shrew, the sheriff could have been only a cardboard foil and Dixon could have been only a buffoon.  Instead McDormand, Rockwell and Rochwell add layers of complexity to their characters, and Hawkes, Martin, Weaver and Dinklage each contribute more to the mix.

Three Billboards is brilliantly written by director Martin McDonagh.  McDonagh’s 2008 In Bruges was either the funniest hit man movie ever or the darkest and most violent buddy comedy ever.  Three Billboards shares the same dark/funny flavor.   Three Billboards also has a really fine soundtrack with a couple of spaghetti western-inspired cues.

The emotion in Three Billboards is genuine and deeply felt.  There are some especially grim moments, peppered with lots of laughs.   As I ponder this film, I keep coming back to the characters, the performances and the surprises in the story. Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri was an audience favorite on the festival circuit and is a Must See in theaters now.

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Movies to See Right Now

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

For your Thanksgiving viewing pleasure, complete with four new movie recommendations, here are my picks for the long weekend. My top two recommendations are

  • Lady Bird , an entirely fresh coming of age comedy that explores the mother-daughter relationship – an impressive debut for Greta Gerwig as a writer and director.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a powerful combination of raw emotion and dark hilarity with an acting tour de force from Frances McDormand and a slew of great actors.

Other choices:

.

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD

My DVD/Stream of the Week is a different kind of Thanksgiving movie – a dysfunctional family thriller. Deadfall is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On November 29, Turner Classic Movies presents The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Ford was the greatest director of Westerns and this is his masterpiece, showcasing both James Stewart and John Wayne. It took one kind of man to explore and tame the West and another kind of man to bring peace and prosperity. Ford uses the genre of the Western to deconstruct the mythology of the West. It’s also a mature Ford’s contemplation of all those shoot ’em ups from earlier in his career. Jimmy and the Duke are joined by Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Vera Mills, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Marvin. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is on my list of A Classic American Movie Primer – 5 to start with.

Lee Marvin and Jphn Wayne in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

John Wayne and James Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

James Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

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LADY BIRD: genuine and entirely fresh

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD

In Greta Gerwig’s triumphant debut as a writer-director, Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a Sacramento teen in her final year of high school. I’ve seen lots of good coming of age movies and lots of high school movies, but rarely one as fresh and original as Lady Bird. Gerwig is an insightful observer of human behavior, and she gets every moment of Christine’s journey, with all of her aspirations and impulses, exactly right.

Movies rarely explore the mother-daughter relationship, but this is the biggest thread in Lady Bird.  Christine and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) deeply need each other but just can’t get out of each other’s way, perpetually on each other’s very last nerve. Christine insists on being called “Lady Bird”, rejecting even the name her mother gave her.  From the very first scene to the last, Lady Bird probes how this most complex relationship evolves.

A girl’s relationship with her father is also pretty central, and the great writer Tracy Letts’ understated performance as the dad is extraordinary.  Letts can play a despicable character so well (Andrew Lockhart in Homeland), I hardly recognized him as Christine’s weakened but profoundly decent father.  The dad is a man whose career defeats have cost him his authority in the family and he is suffering silently from depression.  Yet he remains clear-eyed about the most important things in his children’s lives and is able to step up when he has to.  It’s not a showy role, but Letts is almost unbearably authentic.

There isn’t a bad performance in Lady Bird.  Ronan soars, of course.  The actors playing her high school peers nail their roles, too, especially Beanie Feldstein as her bestie.

Lady Bird’s soundtrack evokes the era especially well. Thanks to Sheila O’Malley for sharing Gerwig’s letter to Justin Timberlake, asking to license Cry Me a River. It’s a gem.

Visually, Gerwig is clearly fond of her hometown, and fills her film with local landmarks. It’s not my favorite California city (and I’ve worked in the Capitol), but Sacramento has never looked more appealing than in Lady Bird.  I did really love the shots of the deco Tower Bridge and the Tower Theater sign.

I don’t care for Gerwig’s performances as an actress, and, in writing about them, I have not been kind. As a director, she is very promising, eliciting such honest and singular performances from her actors and making so many perfect filmmaking choices.  As a writer, she’s already top-notch.  Write another movie, Greta.

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THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED): who cares and why?

Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest family comedy, is entirely character-driven (usually a very good thing). We really don’t see anything on screen that isn’t intended to reveal something about a character – a man’s lack of confidence, his father’s vanity, his daughter’s surprising well-groundedness. The story (not really a plot) moves from set piece to set piece, beginning with a funny (and futile) search for a Manhattan parking space, each depicting the family quirks and tensions.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is star studded (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch, a cameo by Sigourney Weaver) and very well-acted. The problem is that, once I was introduced to these characters, I really wasn’t interested in what would happen to them next. I only lasted 42 minutes before reaching for the remote.

Baumbach has become somewhat of a brand name for naval-gazing (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, Mistress America), and his work has tended toward the Woody Allen neurotic New Yorker genre, only with less depth and FAR less comedy.

You can stream The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) on Netflix Instant, but I can’t imagine why you would want to.

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