DVD/Stream of the Week: DEADFALL – dysfunctional families converge just in time for Thanksgiving

Charlie Hunnam and Olivia Wilde in DEADFALL

Charlie Hunnam and Olivia Wilde in DEADFALL

Deadfall is a solid recent thriller that has flown flew under the radar. Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are brother and sister running for the Canadian border after a casino heist. They wreck their car and split up. The brother sets off overland, leaving a trail of murderous carnage. The local cops are on the alert, including the sheriff’s deputy daughter (Kate Mara). Meanwhile, a bad luck boxer (Charlie Hannum of Sons of Anarchy and The Lost City of Z) is released from prison, impulsively commits another crime and is headed for his parents’ (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) remote northern cabin. The sister hitches a ride with the boxer. Everybody converges at the boxer’s parents’ place for an extremely stressful Thanksgiving dinner.

An essential element of this thriller is that all of the families are dysfunctional. The siblings have survived a hellish upbringing, from which the older brother has rescued his little sister; unfortunately, he has emerged as a psychopath himself and has infantilized the sister. The relationship between the boxer and his father has been poisoned by a long-festering dispute. The sheriff resents and belittles his bright and highly professional daughter while doting on her idiot brothers.

The core of the movie is the evolving relationship between Wilde’s sister and Hunnam’s boxer. Neither knows that the other is on the lam. She cynically seduces him because he is useful. But then she starts to fall for him, and, by Thanksgiving dinner, her loyalties are uncertain.

Sissy Spacek is brilliant as the boxer’s mom, who must steer over the wreckage of the relationship between her son and her husband, and who must then serve a Thanksgiving dinner to a volatile killer who is holding a shotgun on the other guests. She is a great actor, and she’s as good here as in any of her signature performances.

The cinematography, characters, acting and the directorial choices by Stefan Ruzowitzky are excellent. What keeps Deadfall from being one of the year’s best is some trite, TV movie level dialogue along the way. Still, it’s a good watch. 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.

Note: This is NOT the 1993 Deadfall, with Nicholas Cage even more over-the-top than usual.

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Movies to See Right Now

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Woody Harrelson in LBJ

In theaters now:

  • I liked LBJ, an effective Cliff Notes history lesson, with another fine performance by Woody Harrelson.
  • Murder on the Orient Express is a moderately entertaining lark.

The highly acclaimed Novitiate, Lady Bird, Last Flag Flying, Darkest Hour, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Square have reached the Bay Area, but only in a few theaters. Of these, I’ve only seen The Square, an ambitious satire that I liked, but which is not for everyone; I’ll be posting about it soon. Stay tuned.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the smart and bitingly funny dramedy Smoke Signals, a film about Native Americans written and directed by Native Americans. The film won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Smoke Signals is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On November 20, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast the top heist film ever, the pioneering French classic Rififi: After the team is assembled and the job is plotted, the actual crime unfolds in real-time – over thirty minutes of nerve-wracking silence.

RIFIFI

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LBJ: a Cliff Notes portrait of LBJ, traced through three relationships

Woody Harrelson in LBJ

Woody Harrelson captures the essence of Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ.  The best thing about this movie is the main character – probably the most complex and self-contradictory in American history.

LBJ was amazingly talented, aspirational, mean, charming, vulgar and surprisingly needy. LBJ was so masterful and tough and powerful, yet extremely thin-skinned for a politician.  His eternal grasping seems rooted in personal desperation.  LBJ had the need to dominate others and get everything he wants all of the time, and still needed to be loved (which is impossible when you are running over everyone else).

With all of his personal flaws, no American Presidents (except maybe Lincoln and FDR) have been able to roll up a record of legislative accomplishments in two short years to match the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.  Yes, this was a guy who was able to end legal racial segregation and systemic repression of voting rights and to bring medical security to the elderly and the poor.  (And then be capable of an equally huge policy mistake – the escalation of the Vietnam War.)

How do you tell the story of a larger-than-life character in only 90 minutes?  LBJ focuses on an eight-year period of LBJ’s career.  We first see him in 1956 as Senate Majority Leader, at his most energetic, masterful and powerful.  We then see him in his period of frustration and weakness as Vice-President.  The JFK assassination makes him President, and the film concludes after the enactment of Civil Rights Act in June 1964.

LBJ shows us the many sides of LBJ by tracing three of his personal relationships:

  • Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), the leader of Southern segregationists and one of LBJ’s most important mentors.  LBJ rose to power with Russell’s guidance and loyalty, but LBJ, to find his own place in history, needed to destroy everything Russell stood for.
  • Lady Bird Johnson (a superb Jennifer Jason Leigh), the only person who could handle the vulnerable, needy, whiny, disconsolate LBJ.
  • LBJ’s nemesis Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). Because RFK was a martyr, the public tends to forget about his nasty and “ruthless” side, which did exist.  LBJ and RFK took an instant dislike to each other in the early 1950s, a situation which built into a profound and fundamental mutual hatred.
  • Bill Pullman plays Senator Ralph Yarborough, a very minor character in history, but one who serves here as a composite for liberal politicians and for those bullied by LBJ.

The highlights of LBJ are found in that fateful week in November 1963.  At Dallas’ Love Field, it’s clear that JFK’s star power has eclipsed the weakened and resentful LBJ even in Texas.  Then we see LBJ just after the assassination, taking command and plunging into action, taking command and knowing exactly what to do when everyone else was paralyzed by shock.

The history in LBJ is very sound.  I’ve read and re-read the over three thousand pages of Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Johnson.  Much of LBJ’s dialogue is word-for-word historically correct; I’ve even heard the real LBJ himself utter these words on phone calls that he taped himself.

Woody Harrelson is excellent, capturing both the human tornado and the vulnerable sides of LBJ.  The fine actors Randy Quaid, Rip Torn, Michael Gambon, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber and Tom Wilkinson have all had their cracks at playing LBJ on the screen.  Woody is significantly better than all of those guys, but I still prefer Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in All the Way.

Yes, it’s a Cliff Notes version, but LBJ, with its top rate performances by Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is a fine historical introduction and pretty entertaining, too.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Woody Harrelson in LBJ

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: moderately entertaining lark

Kenneth Branagh in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Although I love mysteries, I have never warmed to Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot.  In this year’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh actually made Poirot marginally appealing to me.  Branagh, who also directed, brings to the role a more explicit OCD diagnosis and a mustache that has its own architecture.

It’s the same plot as in the 1970s version – as the increasingly more improbable coincidences pile up, it becomes clear that they may not be coincidences at all.  And this year’s Murder on the Orient Express is also star-studded, with fine performances from Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judy Dench, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi and Johnny Depp, who can pull off a pencil thin mustache better than anyone in the last 60 years.

Murder on the Orient Express begins with a spectacular overhead shot of the Wailing Wall and concludes with an amusing Last Supper tableau (see M*A*S*H*).  It’s moderately entertaining, at its best when it acknowledges that it’s just a lark.

Michele Pfeiffer in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

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DVD/Stream of the Week: SMOKE SIGNALS – Native American roadtrip to laughs and a long-buried secret

Evan Adams and Adam Beach in SMOKE SIGNALS

The smart and bitingly funny dramedy Smoke Signals is a film about Native Americans written and directed by Native Americans.  Evans Adams plays Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an Indian nerd, a character type almost certainly unique in cinema.  Adam Beach plays his oft-surly friend Victor.  The two had contrasting relationships with Victor’s father, who has recently died.  Thomas and Victor embark on a road trip to unearth a family secret.

Smoke Signals was written with an acerbic wit and is often downright uproarious. The laugh lines are as funny as in any screwball comedy: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to have breakfast. One of the high points is a rendition of the original song John Wayne’s Teeth.

As Thomas and Victor banter, we get to glimpse inside both Indian Country and mainstream culture from the Indian point of view. Smoke Signals unflinchingly takes on alcoholism and other issues within the Native American community, as well as resentment of how Native Americans are treated by the dominant American culture.

Adam Beach and Evan Adams in SMOKE SIGNALS

Smoke Signals’s screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie, based on his own novel. Alexie set the core of the story on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation on which he grew up. It was directed in 1997 by then 28-year-old Chris Eyre. Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho, has since directed the Native American-themed Skins and Edge of America, along with episode of Friday Night Lights and American Experience.

Adams is hysterically funny as Thomas, and Beach is a capable straight man. Smoke Signals also features the fine Native Canadian actor and actress Gary Farmer and Tantoo Cardinal and the Native American actress Irene Bedard. Michele St. John and Elaine Miles are very funny as Victor and Thomas’ reservation friends Velma and Lucy.

The film won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Smoke Signals is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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Movies to See Right Now

Melissa Leo in NOVITIATE

So the highly acclaimed Novitiate, Lady Bird, Last Flag Flying, Darkest Hour and The Square have reached the Bay Area, but only in a few theaters.  The festival audience favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri arrives next weekend.  Of these, I’ve only seen The Square, an ambitious satire that I liked, but which is not for everyone; I’ll be posting about it soon.  I liked LBJ, an effective Cliff Notes history lesson.  I’ll also soon be writing about LBJ and Murder on the Orient Express.  Stay tuned.

IDA

Because the big Prestige Movies are arriving in theaters and Oscar campaigns are being launched,  I’m giving you a movie that you can compare to 2017’s Oscar Bait. The Polish drama Ida won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture and the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ida was my pick as the best film at Cinequest, where it won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.  Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

On November 15 , Turner Classic Movies presents the Otto Preminger masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959). This movie has everything: Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of a wily lawyer, content to underachieve in the countryside, Stewart’s electrifying courtroom face-off with George C. Scott, great performances by a surly Ben Gazzara and a slutty Lee Remick, a great jazz score by Duke Ellington and a suitably cynical noir ending. That jazz score is one of the few movie soundtrack CDs that I own. The music perfectly complements the story of a murder investigation that reveals more and more ambiguity as it proceeds. Stewart’s character relaxes by dabbling in jazz piano, and Duke himself has a cameo leading a bar band in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (of all places).

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

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

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DVD/Stream of the Week: IDA – something to compare with this year’s best

Ida

The big Prestige Movies are arriving in theaters and Oscar campaigns are being launched, so this week I’m giving you a movie that you can compare to 2017’s Oscar Bait the recent Polish drama Ida.

The title character is a novice nun who has been raised in a convent orphanage. Just before she is to take her vows in the early 1960s, she is told for the first time that she has an aunt. She meets the aunt, and Ida learns that she is the survivor of a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. The aunt takes the novice on an odd couple road trip to trace the fate of their family.

The chain-smoking aunt (Agata Kulesza) is a judge who consumes vast quantities of vodka to self-medicate her own searing memories. But the most profound difference isn’t that the aunt is a hard ass and that the nun is prim and devout. The most important contrast is between their comparative worldliness – the aunt has been around the block and the novice is utterly naive and inexperienced (both literally and figuratively virginal). The young woman must make the choice between a future that follows her upbringing or one which her biological heritage opens to her. As Ida unfolds, her family legacy makes her choice an informed one.

The novice Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, is very quiet – but hardly fragile. Saying little, she takes in the world with a penetrating gaze and a just-under-the-surface magnetic strength.

Superbly photographed in black and white, each shot is exquisitely composed. Watching shot after shot in Ida is like walking through a museum gazing at masterpiece paintings one after the other. Ida was directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski, who also recently directed the British coming of age story My Summer of Love (with Emily Blunt) and the French thriller The Woman in the Fifth (with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke). He is an effective and economic story-teller, packing textured characters and a compelling story into an 80 minute film.

Ida is also successful in avoiding grimness. Pawlikowski has crafted a story which addresses the pain of the characters without being painful to watch. There’s some pretty fun music from a touring pop/jazz combo and plenty of wicked sarcasm from the aunt.

Ida won 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture and the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ida was my pick as the best film at Cinequest, where it won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.

Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Humphrey Bogart and Martha Vickers in THE BIG SLEEP

I haven’t yet seen The Florida Project, and other than that, your best bets are on video this week. I really can’t recommend Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House.

If you’re following special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of the Russian election hack and collusion by the Trump campaign, you’ll be interested in Get Me Roger Stone, which can be streamed on Netflix Instant. The recently indicted Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort is a character in this documentary.

My Halloween Stream of the Week is the indie ghost story The House on Pine Street. I saw The House on Pine Street at Cinequest, and now it can be streamed from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

I also wrote about the documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, the podcast Inside Psycho and the classic Psycho itself.

On November 4, Turner Classic Movies presents Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled LA detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Bogart’s performance is iconic, and The Big Sleep is famous for its impenetrably tangled plot. It’s also one of the most overtly sexual noirs, and Lauren Bacall at her sultriest is only the beginning. The achingly beautiful Martha Vickers plays a druggie who throws herself at anything in pants. And Dorothy Malone invites Bogie to share a back-of-the-bookstore quickie.

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP

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Paul Manafort ripped from the headlines in GET ME ROGER STONE

Roger Stone in GET ME ROGER STONE

So this week’s biggest news has been the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort.  The indictment comes out of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of the Russian hacking of last year’s presidential campaign.   Earlier this year, Netflix released the documentary Get Me Roger Stone, and IMDb bills Paul Manafort third in the “cast”, right behind Roger Stone and Donald Trump.

Get Me Roger Stone is an insightful look at the career of political consultant/provocateur Roger Stone, one of the most outrageous characters on the American political scene.  What’s especially relevant today is that Roger Stone and Paul Manafort together invented a new model of lobbying – where the political consultants who help get a candidate elected to high office, then sell their influence over said elected official.

Even without the Manafort angle, Get Me Roger Stone is an entertaining watch, although you might find Roger Stone himself too loathsome to watch.  Stone will do anything – no matter how duplicitous – to win a political campaign.  He will do anything to bring public attention (i.e., notoriety) upon himself.   And he is utterly unapologetic about both.   Stone is the political world’s version of a pro wrestling villain.

Roger Stone is the unmatched master of high jacking a news cycle with a preposterous smear.  The man has a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, which tells you a whole lot about him.

Get Me Roger Stone also chronicles Stone’s decades-long quest to get Trump to run for president, and then Stone’s role as an unofficial/official/unofficial Trump strategist.  The documentary also touches on a Roger Stone sex scandal.

Anyway, it’s ripped from the headlines, and you can stream it from Netflix Instant.

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Stream of the Week: THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET – does she really see a ghost?

Emily Goss in THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET

Emily Goss in THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET

So here’s the thing with every movie ghost story – either the ghost is real, or the protagonist is crazy enough to hallucinate one. The beauty of The House on Pine Street is that the story is right down the middle – ya just don’t know until the end when the story takes us definitively in one direction – and then suddenly lurches right back to the other extreme.

Jennifer (Emily Goss) is a very pregnant urbanist, who reluctantly moves from her dream life in Chicago back to her whitebread hometown in suburban Kansas. Unlike Jennifer, her husband hadn’t been thriving in Chicago, and Jennifer’s intrusive and judgmental mother (Cathy Barnett – perfect in the role) has set up an opportunity for him in the hometown. They move to a house that is not her dream home AT ALL, “but it’s a really good deal”. Jennifer overreacts to some crumbling plaster.

Jennifer is pretty disgruntled, and, generally for good reason – her mom’s every sentence is loaded with disapproval. Her mom’s housewarming party would be a social nightmare for anyone – but it’s too literally nightmarish for her. One of the guests, an amateur psychic (an excellent Jim Korinke), observes, “the house has interesting energy”.

Then some weird shit starts happening: knocks from unoccupied rooms, a crockpot lid that keeps going ajar. And we ask, is the house haunted, or is she hallucinating? Her sane and sensible and skeptical BFF visits from Chicago as a sounding board, and things do not go well.

Co-writers and co-directors Aaron and Austin Keeling keep us on the edges of our seats. Their excellent sound design borrows from The Conversation and The Shining – and that’s a good thing.

The Keelings also benefit from a fine lead – Emily Goss’ eyes are VERY alive. She carries the movie as we watch her shifting between resentfulness, terror and determination.

The total package is very successful. I saw The House on Pine Street at Cinequest, and now it can be streamed from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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