Movies to See Right Now

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

Don’t forget to plan to attend Cinequest in San Jose and Redwood City from February 17 through March 11. My festival preview will be online this weekend.

I just watched the splendid Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri again, this time with The Wife.  Before the Oscars, you’re going to want to see Three Billboards and The Shape of Water.   (I’ve also written If I Picked the Oscars – before the nominations were announced.)  Here are the best movie choices in theaters this week:

  • The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative, operatic inter-species romance may become the most-remembered film of 2017.
  • 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.
  • Steven Spielberg’s docudrama on the Pentagon Papers, The Post, is both a riveting thriller and an astonishingly insightful portrait of Katharine Graham by Meryl Streep. It’s one of the best movies of the year – and one of the most important. Also see my notes on historical figures in The Post.
  • Pixar’s Coco is a moving and authentic dive into Mexican culture, and it’s visually spectacular.
  • 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.
  • I, Tonya is a marvelously entertaining movie, filled with wicked wit and sympathetic social comment.

Here’s the rest of my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far. Most of the ones from earlier this year are available on video. Here’s another current (and Oscar-nominated) choice:

  • Call Me By Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer, but I didn’t buy the impossibly cool parents or the two pop ballad musical interludes.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the actor Michael Shannon’s breakthrough film, Shotgun Stories. The first of director Jeff Nichols’ “Arkansas Trilogy”,  Shotgun Stories ranked #7 on my Best Movies of 2007Shotgun Stories is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix and iTunes.

Turner Classic Movies is celebrating 31 Days of Oscars, so we have many good choices of movies that often play on TCM. My choice this week is one of the great American political movies – Network playing on February 24. Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar winning original screenplay is both bitingly satirical and frighteningly prescient. Its leads, Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway both also won Oscars, as did Beatrice Straight for Supporting Actress. Director Sidney Lumet and five others from the cast and crew were nominated.

You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’

Peter Finch’s iconic monologue in NETWORK

Cinequest 2018 is just around the corner

Make your plans now to attend the 28th edition of Cinequest, Silicon Valley’s own major film festival. By some metrics the largest film festival in North America, Cinequest was recently voted the nation’s best by USA Today readers. The 2018 Cinequest is scheduled for February 27 through March 11 and will present almost 100 feature films and dozens of short films and virtual reality experiences from the US and over thirty other countries. And, at Cinequest, it’s easy to meet the filmmakers.

This year’s headline events include:

  • Celebrity appearances by William C. Macy, Andie McDowell, John Travolta, Charlie Sheen and Turner Classic Movie host Ben Mankiewicz.
  • Opening night film: Macy presents his new comedy Krystal, co-starring Rosario Dawson;
  • Closing night film: Brothers in Arms, a documentary on the making of Platoon, co-presented by the narrator, Sheen.
  • New movies with Peter Fonda, Burt Reynolds, Jon Hamm, Marion Cotillard, Hilary Swank, Piper Laurie, Rosamund Pike, Stanley Tucci, Melissa Leo, Kiefer Sutherland, Kal Penn, Robert Forster, Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg, James McAvoy, Alicia Vikander and Michael Shannon.
  • New movies by directors Wim Wenders, Arnaud Desplechin, Melanie Mayron, Jan Sverak (Kolya) and Tony Gilroy.
  • The silent The Wind with Lillian Gish, projected in a period movie palace, the California Theatre, accompanied by world-renowned Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

This year, Cinequest presents 74 world premieres and will host over 800 artists from over thirty countries

Indeed, the real treasure at Cinequest 2017 is likely to be found among the hitherto less well-known films. In the past four years, the Cinequest gems Eye in the Sky, Wild Tales, Ida, The Hunt, ’71, Corn Island, The Memory of Water, Magallanes, Quality Problems, The Sense of an Ending, For Grace, Lost Solace, Class Enemy, Heavenly Shift, Oh Boy/A Coffee in Berlin and The Grand Seduction all made my Best of the Year lists.

The renovation of the old Camera 3 Theater into 3Below Theaters & Lounge means that Cinequest will regain its Downtown San Jose vibe, with concurrent screenings at the 1122-seat California, the 550-seat Hammer and the 257-seat 3Below, all within 1600 feet of the VIP lounge at The Continental Bar.  There will still be satellite viewing in Redwood City.

3Below has lost Camera 3’s middle aisle and replaced all the seats.  The decor is sharp, and they’ve added a movable stage for performances, lectures and Q&As.  The once notorious restrooms are remarkably clean (and no longer accessible from the neighboring parking garage, so they have a chance to stay that way).

At Cinequest, you can get a festival pass for as little as $165, and you can get individual tickets as well. The express pass for an additional tax-deductible $100 is a fantastic deal – you get to skip to the front of the lines!

Take a look at the entire program, the schedule and the passes and tickets. (If you want to support Silicon Valley’s most important cinema event while skipping the lines, the tax-deductible $100 donation for Express Line Access is an awesome deal.)

As usual, I’ll be covering Cinequest rigorously with features and movie recommendations. I usually screen (and write about) over thirty films from around the world. Bookmark my Cinequest 2018 page, with links to all my coverage (links on the individual movies will start to go live on Sunday February 25). Follow me on Twitter for the latest.

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.

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.

THE COMMUNE: funny funny squirm

THE COMMUNE
THE COMMUNE

In the Danish family drama The Commune, Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) is an architecture professor married to the television newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm). Erik is very reserved, tends to be harsh and does not suffer fools. Anna is bubbly. They have a watchful 14-year-old daughter.

Erik inherits a huge house and wants to sell it. Anna wants to move the family in. Erik points out that it’s totally impractical and too expensive to keep up. Anna suggests taking in their friends as tenants – essentially starting a commune. After all, it’s the 1970s. What could possibly go wrong?

The folks who move in, of course, are a collection of oddballs. Anna embraces everyone’s eccentricities, and Erik tries, but it’s hard for him. At this point, we think we’re watching a comedy of manners – but we’re wrong.

The Commune is really the story of Erik and Anna and their marriage. Each is having a mid-life crisis that will test their marriage. The foibles of the commune are just a distraction.

Trine Dyrholm gives a remarkable performance as Anna. Is Anna shockingly open-minded and permissive, a desperate enabler or is she masking an internal implosion?

I loved writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s earlier films Celebration (Festen) and The Hunt (Jagten). Vinterberg’s Funny Funny Squirm rhythm in The Commune reminds me of Celebration. But the payoff in The Commune just doesn’t match Celebration and The Hunt, which are exceptionally good films. I especially detested the death of a character in The Commune, which I found to be grossly manipulative.

Still, Dyrholm’s performance is stunning, and Vinterberg remains a master at the cold-eyed observation of human behavior. I saw The Commune at Cinequest.

THE PROMISE: predictable and somnolent

Oscar Isaac in THE PROMISE
Oscar Isaac in THE PROMISE

In a predictable trudge through the Armenian Genocide, The Promise delivers nothing that we haven’t seen before. Oscar Isaac plays an impoverished Armenian from the Anatolian outback who dreams of becoming a doctor. To afford medical school in Constantinople, he uses the dowry available after his betrothal to a sweet and prominently-schnozzed local girl. For his studies, he moves alone to the big city, where he meets a cosmopolitan Armenian beauty (Charlotte Le Bon), who has been living in Paris with her boyfriend, an iconoclastic American journalist (Christian Bale). Just as sparks fly between Isaac and Le Bon, World War I erupts and the Turks persecute and then massacre Armenians, causing the two to flee separately for their lives. Isaac’s medical student finds himself hiding in his home village, married to his fiance. Le Bon’s sophisticate is on the run with Bale’s journalist as he covers the developments. Will the Armenian lovers meet again in Eastern Turkey, and will he stay true to his marital vows?

The talents of Isaac and Bale are wasted in this movie. Isaac’s character is so top-to-bottom decent and so buffeted by developments that are not his fault, there just isn’t much texture to portray. Similarly, Bale’s reporter, while purportedly an international man of mystery, is just a Jeff Bridgesey teddy bear of a guy at his core.

The Promise is not as bad as the epically bad epic The Ottoman Lieutenant, and has much higher superior production values and a moderately better screenplay. Both movies share the beginning of World War I and the Armenian Genocide, along with an American protestant mission in southeastern Turkey. As in The Ottoman Lieutenant, there’s an unintentional audience laugh – when Isaac’s mother intones “I told them you were dead”.

Keep walking.

THE ASSIGNMENT: hit man becomes hit woman

Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT
Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT

In the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment, a vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) captures a hit man (Michelle Rodriguez) and performs sexual reassignment surgery on him, releasing a new hit woman (also Michelle Rodriguez) into the world – and lethal mayhem ensues.

The Assignment comes from the master of the genre thriller, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs.). Hill is a story-teller who enjoys a brisk pace, and The Assignment flies along its 95 minutes.

Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, nails the hit man/hit woman roles. She plays the male character very naturally (with a little CGI help in a glimpse of his naked frontside). When the protagonist becomes a woman, Rodriguez keeps her eyes very male – and very pissed off. Her performance at the moment of gender reveal is perfect.

Sigourney Weaver had the audience roaring at her character’s narcissism. Weaver and Tony Shaloub successfully pull of the highly stylized genre dialogue. Anthony LaPaglia is excellent as a mid-level gangster.

Don’t expect Brokeback Mountain for the trans set. This is, after all, an involuntary gender reassignment. The main character is a man who is turned biologically into a woman, while still identifying internally as a man. The gender reassignment is a plot device, and it is a hostile act, not a means of self-fulfillment.

75-year-old Walter Hill was present at the Cinequest screening. Costing only $2.8 million, The Assignment was shot in Vancouver over only 25 days. Hill said that he was “wanted to do a neo-noir comic booky kind of thing” (which well-describes The Assignment). The film was adapted from Hill’s graphic novel, which has been out in France since last year; it will be released in the US before the end of March. Hill expects a sequel to the graphic novel.

The Cinequest audience – by no means the usual action thriller crowd – reacted very favorably to The Assignment. Shown at Cinequest with the title (re)Assignment, this film is being released with the title The Assignment. It’s available now on Ultra VOD and YouTube. It will opens nationally tomorrow, but only on 30 screens. I’ll let you know when it becomes more widely available – because I enjoyed it!

CARRIE PILBY: genius misfit afoot in Manhattan

CARRIE PILBY
CARRIE PILBY

The title character in the agreeable misfit comedy Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) is literally a genius, a girl with such high intelligence that she enrolled at Harvard at age 14. That experience proved to be better for her intellectual development than for her emotional development. Now she’s 19, a year out of college and holed up in her Manhattan apartment pretending that she’s anti-social because no one is smart enough to engage with her. She emerges only to see her therapist (Nathan Lane), who assigns her some tasks to draw her out, and comic adventures ensue.

Carrie sequentially encounters three dreamy-looking guys and all of the male characters except one are very sensitive. But Carrie Pilby isn’t one of those Chick Flicks that men won’t enjoy.

Powley is very good at making the audience relate to someone by definition very unlike us. She has mastered the comic take and has excellent timing.

I watched Carrie Pilby at a Cinequest screening with director Susan Johnson. Johnson says that the source material, a popular novel, “was about not judging a book by its cover”. She continued, “Think about your own journey and not judging others – that’s kind of deep for a comedy”. Johnson, who shot the film in only 20 days, said that her favorite scene was the prayer scene.

Carrie Pilby is an enjoyable comedy. It opens theatrically on March 31, on VOD on April 4 and will be on Netflix in September.

THE LAST WORD: a forceful dose of Shirley MacLaine

THE LAST WORD
THE LAST WORD

In the comedy The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine plays a control freak of absolutely unstoppable will. This is a person who is obsessed with getting her own way on even the most inconsequential detail. She is living a wealthy retirement, having been forced out of the company she founded when her behavior becomes too unbearable for everyone else. Facing her mortality, she decides to employ an obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) to favorably pre-write her obit. The challenge, of course, is that no one – family members, former co-workers, anyone – has anything nice to say. This sets up an Odd Couple comedy until it becomes an Odd Trio when Harriet seeks to improve her obit profile by mentoring a disadvantaged nine-year-old (AnnJewel Lee Dixon).

Often contrived, The Last Word isn’t a masterpiece, but it has three things going for it:

  • Shirley MacLaine is in full willful grandeur, and her performance is tour de force.
  • Supporting players: Anne Heche is priceless in a “she is your daughter” scene. AnnJewel Lee Dixon is a force of nature herself, kind of a Shirley Mini-Me. Philip Baker Hall is a wonderful match for Maclaine. Thomas Sodoski is always appealing.
  • The remarkably smart soundtrack, which almost becomes a character of its own.

I did also appreciate the brief homage to Reservoir Dogs, the slo-mo power stride with sunglasses (pictured above).

I saw The Last Word at Cinequest at a screening with director Mark Pellington, who noted that The Last Word took 25 days to film. Crediting his music supervisor for finding obscure and affordable songs, he said, “the music works on an infectious level”. Describing the scene where the three actresses take a moonlit dip in a pond, he said, “I love that their laugh deflates the symbolism of it”. His favorite scene was the obne when Philip Baker Hall tells Shirley MacLaine, “I knew what I was getting when I married you”, which inspired Pellington’s next movie Nostalgia (now in post-production).

Cinequest: (re)ASSIGNMENT (now THE ASSIGNMENT)

Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT
Michelle Rodriguez in THE ASSIGNMENT

In the gloriously pulpy revenge thriller The Assignment, a vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) captures a hit man (Michelle Rodriguez) and performs sexual reassignment surgery on him, releasing a new hit woman (also Michelle Rodriguez) into the world – and lethal mayhem ensues.

The Assignment comes from the master of the genre thriller, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs.). Hill is a story-teller who enjoys a brisk pace, and The Assignment flies along its 95 minutes.

Michelle Rodriguez, the toughest of the Tough Chicks, nails the hit man/hit woman roles. She plays the male character very naturally (with a little CGI help in a glimpse of his naked frontside). When the protagonist becomes a woman, Rodriguez keeps her eyes very male – and very pissed off. Her performance at the moment of gender reveal is perfect.

Sigourney Weaver had the audience roaring at her character’s narcissism. Weaver and Tony Shaloub successfully pull of the highly stylized genre dialogue. Anthony LaPaglia is excellent as a mid-level gangster.

Don’t expect Brokeback Mountain for the trans set. This is, after all, an involuntary gender reassignment. The main character is a man who is turned biologically into a woman, while still identifying internally as a man. The gender reassignment is a plot device, and it is a hostile act, not a means of self-fulfillment.

75-year-old Walter Hill was present at the Cinequest screening. Costing only $2.8 million, The Assignment was shot in Vancouver over only 25 days. Hill said that he was “wanted to do a neo-noir comic booky kind of thing” (which well-describes The Assignment). The film was adapted from Hill’s graphic novel, which has been out in France since last year; it will be released in the US before the end of March. Hill expects a sequel to the graphic novel.

The Cinequest audience – by no means the usual action thriller crowd – reacted very favorably to The Assignment. Shown at Cinequest with the title (re)Assignment, his film is being released with the title The Assignment. It’s available now on Ultra VOD and YouTube. It will open nationally on April 7, but only on 30 screens. I’ll let you know when it becomes more widely available – because I enjoyed it!