What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2015

Mozart in the Jungle-poster2Better Call Saul-poster2 _____________________________________________________________

The following shows were new to me last year. I should note that I have somehow not yet seen Jessica Jones (Netflix) or the second season of Fargo (FX), both of which I’m sure would be on this list.

Better Call Saul (AMC)  This prequel to the hugely successful Breaking Bad (2008-2013) had an eager audience of fans primed and ready, and it certainly delivered. The first season shows us Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill on his way to becoming Saul Goodman. By the end of the last episode, Jimmy still hasn’t taken that name, but he’s getting there. A pleasure of this series is seeing more of Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, one of the strongest characters in Breaking Bad. The second season of Better Call Saul begins on February 15.

Bloodline (Netflix)  If you’ve seen this series, you know how good it is. Set in the Florida Keys, Bloodline concerns the Rayburn family and the snake pit of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy them. Flash forwards reveal a little more each time and give warnings of what’s to come. The excellent cast includes Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Chloë Sevigny, and Ben Mendelsohn. Australian actor Mendelsohn is amazing as Danny Rayburn, the black sheep of the family who periodically returns to charm and threaten and screw things up. Bloodline has been renewed for a second season.

Daredevil-posterDaredevil (Netflix) This superhero series is for people who wouldn’t normally watch anything with superheros in it. Based on a Marvel Comics character who first appeared in 1964, Daredevil is darker, grittier, and more reality-based than you might expect. The first season is a 13-episode origin story of how Matt Murdoch, a blind lawyer in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, becomes the crime-fighting Daredevil. It’s a long, bloody, bone-crunching process. Matt is far from invulnerable — not even close. Despite enhanced hearing and martial arts skills, he frequently staggers away from encounters badly beaten and in need of stitches. The cast is excellent, including Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil; Rosario Dawson as a nurse who finds Matt near death in a dumpster and patches him up; Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) as the secretary in Matt’s small law office; and especially Vincent D’Onofrio, truly frightening as Wilson Fisk, the villain of the piece — it’s a powerhouse performance. The second season begins streaming on March 18.

In the following clip from the second episode, Matt fights his way down the length of a hallway in one continuous shot. The camera stays in the hallway, even though much of the action takes place off-screen in rooms to the side. It takes a long time for Matt to get to the end of the hall, because these guys won’t stay down. It’s not the usual way to shoot such a scene. The result is very tense and quite breathtaking. This was when I knew the series really had me.

Dicte-titleDicte (Netflix)  Dicte (pronounced Dee-ta) Svendson, a former crime reporter in Copenhagen, now works on a local newspaper in her home town. The series is as much about her messy personal life as it is about the criminal cases she investigates as a reporter. It’s very engaging and the cast is excellent. There have been two seasons so far, both available via Netflix. The following is an opening credits clip.

Grace and Frankie (Netflix)  Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are very different women who probably wouldn’t spend time together if their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), hadn’t been law partners for 20 years. At the start of the first episode, Robert and Sol announce at a restaurant dinner that they want divorces from Grace and Frankie, and also that they’ve been lovers and plan to get married. When Sol moves out to live with Robert, Grace reluctantly moves in with Frankie at her beachfront home. In the midst of all this, the couples’ grown children struggle to deal with these changes. Sheen and Waterston don’t seem entirely credible as a gay couple, though I suspect their many years in other roles — especially Waterston as Jack McCoy on Law & Order — got in my way; this is quite a departure for them. Fonda and Tomlin are great together. Their interplay is very funny and often quite touching. The second season begins streaming on May 6.

Here’s a trailer, followed by the opening title sequence, which is quite good.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)  John Oliver was a writer and performer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart before taking over his own weekly 30-minute show. The first ten minutes or so are used to recap events of the previous week in satiric fashion. The show really stands out in the final 20 minutes, which are usually devoted to taking a single topic and really working it. These topics have included fantasy sports, televangelists, and sex education. Oliver has a strong voice. He’s very funny, but he’s not really joking. The new season of Last Week Tonight begins on February 14 at 11:00pm (EST).

Here’s a segment about pennies and how they cost more than they’re worth to make.

Man in the High Castle-poster2The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)  Based on the 1962 novel by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, this series posits an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. Germany controls the eastern half of the United States, which is called the National Socialist States of America, while Japan has the Japanese Pacific States, west of a neutral zone known as the Rocky Mountain States. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but The Man in the High Castle has an abundance of provocative ideas. The series is set in a recognizable 1962, except that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole and swastikas are on display in Times Square. It gets a lot of mileage out of merging the mundane with the horrifying. The production and cast are top notch. Rufus Sewell is excellent as an American-born Nazi officer in New York, trying to locate films being transported by resistance members that show a different history — one in which the Allies won the war. What the hell is this? A parallel universe? Don’t expect any real answers in this first season. The final scene of the last episode is a real WTF moment. As a fan of Fringe and The Twilight Zone, I definitely want to see where it goes from here.

Mr. Robot (USA)  The title got my attention right away. Set in a version of present-day New York City, the series’ protagonist is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a depressed cybersecuirty engineer with a social-anxiety disorder who’s also an expert hacker. Christian Slater co-stars as possibly the titular Mr. Robot. He attempts to recruit Elliot into a secret organization dedicated to bringing about financial collapse by erasing all debt globally. Something like that. Mr. Robot is a very stylish house of mirrors. It’s a fairly linear narrative, but twists and whiplash turns keep us off balance and make us question what’s real and what is not. Rami Malek is an intense presence, with burning, bugged out eyes. We’d previously seen him in the eight season of 24 (Fox) and The Pacific (HBO), both in 2010. He makes an impression. Mr. Robot reminds me of William Gibson’s novels, science fiction in the everyday. A second season begins this June or July.

Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime)  I signed up for Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series (along with The Man in the High Castle and Transparent). It’s been a good investment. The jungle of the title is New York City and the world of a symphony orchestra. Lola Kirke plays Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring oboist. Gael Garcia Bernal is Rodrigo De Souza, a hot young conductor hired to replace Malcolm McDowell’s Thomas Pembridge as conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Hailey and Rodrigo have to navigate their way through politics, in-fighting, manipulation, and bloated egos. Mozart in the Jungle is fascinating, comic, with great music. There have been two seasons so far, both of which can be streamed on Netflix.

Nightly Show-Larry w_titleThe Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central)  In January of last year, The Nightly Show moved into the time slot previously held by Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. This might seem like a hard act to follow, but in the intervening year, The Nightly Show has created a strong identity. Like John Oliver, Larry Wilmore came over from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he was known as the “Senior Black Correspondent.” Wilmore is carries on Stewart’s point of view, with a focus on racial issues in particular. Contributors on the show who have emerged as personalities in their own right include Mike Yard, Grace Parra, Robin Thede, Holly Walker, Rory Albanese, and Ricky Valez. Like John Oliver’s show, this is serious underneath the funny. The Nightly Show airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30pm (EST).

Here is a recent segment in which frequent guest Neil deGrasse Tyson schools a rapper who believes the earth is flat.

Penny Dreadful (Showtime)  I began recording this series when it debuted in 2014, but only watched the first episode. I intended to continue watching, but was distracted by this and that. The season ended and I still wasn’t watching, but I didn’t delete it from our DVR queue. A week before the second season began last May, I finally burned through all ten episodes. Penny Dreadful is a deadly serious monster mashup set in Victorian England, created and written by John Logan. Characters include Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, Dr. Van Helsing, and assorted vampires and witches. Josh Hartnett plays an American cowboy named Ethan Chandler, who turns out to be a werewolf. His real name is Ethan Lawrence Talbot, which, for horror movie fans, references Lon Chaney, Jr’s Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, whose daughter Mina was married to Jonathan Harker before she was turned into a vampire. Having these characters from horror films and films interacting in the same narrative is great fun for fans of this kind of material. Penny Dreadful is both goofy and clever, and dripping with atmosphere. It’s presented with a completely straight face and it works. The third season begins on May 1.

River (Netflix)  I wasn’t sure about this one at first. A cop who sees, hears, and converses with dead people? Really? We’ve seen this before. But the series is more than that and gets deeper as it goes along. It didn’t take long to hook me in. River is a six-part series created and written by Abi Morgan. Stellan Skarsgård stars as DI John River, with Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax and MI-5) as his recently murdered partner, DS Jackie Stevenson. Adeel Akhtar is River’s new partner, DS Ira King. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent. River makes it his mission to understand and solve Jackie’s murder, which includes frequent conversations with her. Needless to say, it’s not an easy journey.

Show Me a Hero (HBO)  Based on a 1999 non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, this  miniseries was written by David Simon and William F. Zorzi and directed by Paul Haggis. In my opinion, Simon’s HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) is, , one of the greatest sustained narrative works ever put on television — or anywhere else, for that matter. (Breaking Bad is a close second). I’m interested in anything Simon does and he does not disappoint. Show Me a Hero deals with the resistance of a mostly white middle-class neighborhood to a federally-mandated, desegregated public housing development to be built in Yonkers, New York. Oscar Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, the newly-elected mayor of Yonkers who finds himself in over his head when he tries to comply with the court order. There are no clear heroes or villains. Catherine Keener is especially good as a woman strongly opposed to the housing plan who slowly comes to a new understanding. Show Me a Hero takes its title from a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

Transparent (Amazon Prime)  In this great series, set in Los Angeles, Mort Pfefferman (great last name) announces to his family that he identifies as a woman and will henceforth be known as Maura. How his wife and grown children — and Maura herself — deal with this change forms the comedy and drama of this timely show. Jeffrey Tambor, fully embracing the role of Maura is terrific. After some resistance, I’ve come to really like his wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and his youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Guest actors have included Cherry Jones, Anjelica Huston, and Bradley Whitford. Transparent is funny, sad, human, and quite lovely. Both seasons are available for streaming.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)  This unhinged comedy was co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Fey previously created and starred in 30 Rock (2006-2013), with Carlock as show runner. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a similar tone and anarchic spirit. Ellie Kemper (The Office) plays 29-year-old Kimmy as she navigates life in New York City after being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana. Kimmy and three other women were kept in an underground bunker for 15 years by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). It gets a lot crazier than that. Kimmy is positive and upbeat beyond all reason as she tries to deal with her new world. A new season will be available for streaming on April 15.

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The following titles are carry-overs from last year.

The Affair (Showtime)

The Americans (FX)

Downton Abbey (PBS)

The Fall (Netflix) & Grantchester (PBS)  See my previous post on these two.

The Good Wife (CBS)

Justified (FX)

Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix)

Mad Men (AMC)

Manhattan (WGN)

Masters of Sex (Showtime)

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Ray Donovan (Showtime)

Silicon Valley (HBO)

The Simpsons (Fox)

Veep (HBO)

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Finally, here are some shows derived from comic books and a horror novel about vampires. They probably don’t have the substance of the titles listed above, but I find them very entertaining, which is no small thing.

Agent Carter (ABC)

The Flash (CW)

Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC)

The Strain (FX)

Supergirl (CBS)

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Too many shows, not enough time. Thank God for DVR. — Ted Hicks

Jackass watching Ted TV2

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2015

Listen to Me Marlon-poster4Hitchcock_Truffaut-posterIt was a great year for documentaries. Listen to Me Marlon is my personal favorite, but the others on my list are equally  strong in a variety of ways, and very human.

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Amy-posterAmy (Asif Kapadia, director)  I don’t think I’d ever heard any of Amy Winehouse’s music before seeing this film. My awareness was limited to her downward spiral. When I finally heard her voice and the songs she wrote, I was seriously staggered. She had an amazing talent, raw and almost supernatural. What happened to her was a tragedy of self-destruction, aided, abetted, and enabled by her father, Mitch, and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. They are the villains of the story, per the persuasive evidence  by the film. No one was there to take care of Amy. I’d seen the director’s previous film, Senna (2010), about Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One race car driver who was killed on the track in 1994 at age 34. I know very little about Formula One racing and had never heard of Senna, but it was masterful film that drew me in completely. Amy had the same effect. I especially liked the sequence in a studio where she’s recording a duet with Tony Bennett. Winehouse seems fragile and insecure, but Bennett is caring and gentle with her, which is very moving. (Amy is available for streaming on Amazon.)

Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy (Stéphanie Valloatto, director)  I saw this last January at a Film Society of Lincoln Center screening at the Walter Reade Theater,  a little over two weeks after two gunmen armed with assault rifles entered the offices of Charlie Hedbo in Paris and murdered eleven people, wounding eleven more. This made the subject of the film, which is about political cartoonists and freedom of speech, all the more on point. As far as I know, Cartoonists does not yet have a distributor in this country. This is inexplicable, since it couldn’t be any more topical on several levels. Hopefully it will eventually be picked up for distribution in theaters or on television.

Here is a link to the Film Society’s description of the film and a list of the heroic twelve cartoonists from around the world who are profiled: http://www.filmlinc.com/blog/entry/the-film-society-and-french-embassy-to-premiere-cartoonists-foot-soldiers-o

Dior and I (Frédéric Tcheng, director)  With what seems like total behind-the-scenes access, director Frédéric Tcheng follows Raf Simons as he settles in as the new artistic director for the Christian Dior fashion house in Paris. Simons has eight weeks to design a haute couture collection to be shown that spring (2012). This would normally take several months to prepare. The film finds a lot of drama in the countdown to Raf’s debut. It’s fascinating, exciting, and extremely well-made. (Dior is available for streaming on Netflix.)

Everything Is Copy (Jacob Bernstein, director)  We saw this at the New York Film Festival last fall and loved it. Everything Is Copy is a profile of Nora Ephron, the celebrated screenwriter, film director, playwright, novelist, and essayist who died in 2012 at age 71. Her film work includes Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998) As directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein, Everything Is Copy is very personal. I like documentaries where the filmmaker has a strong connection to the subject. When Bernstein is interviewing his mother’s sisters or friends, they often preface answers to his questions with “Your mother…” Bernstein is sometimes an on-screen interviewer, sitting on a couch with an aunt, or with his father, Carl Bernstein. This lends a feeling of intimacy, and draws us further in. Everything Is Copy will air on HBO this March. It’s well worth seeing.

Nora Ephron-photo & quote

From This Day Forward (Sharon Shattuck, director)  We saw this film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC last April. From This Day Forward couldn’t be more personal for filmmaker Sharon Shattuck. When she was around eight, Sharon’s father, Michael, revealed that he’d been dressing in women’s clothing for some time, and wanted to be called Trisha. This was a huge adjustment for Sharon and her sister, as well as their mother Marcia. Marcia considered divorce, but ultimately realized she loved the person rather than the gender. If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because of the Emmy Award-winning Amazon series, Transparent, which has a similar premise. From This Day Forward is such a positive expression of love, tolerance, and acceptance that I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been snapped up immediately for either theatrical distribution or airing on a cable channel. It couldn’t be more topical. So I was very happy to learn earlier this week that the film will be distributed this year by Argot Pictures. From This Day Forward has my highest recommendation. Don’t miss it when it comes around.

Trisha happens to be an accomplished artist. Check out the paintings on her website.

 Giovanni and the Water Ballet (Astrid Bussink, director)  We also saw this 18-minute short from the Netherlands at Full Frame last year. You may never have a chance to see Giovanni and the Water Ballet, but it’s so wonderful that I had to include it here. Giovanni is ten years old, and wants to be the first boy to compete in the Dutch synchronized swimming championship. But first he has to train long and hard in order to qualify. Giovanni’s dream is also a challenge to gender restrictions, which makes it rather timely.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, director/co-writer)  An absolute must-see for film buffs and Hitchcock aficionados in particular, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a lethal overdose of clips, information, and illuminating insights from directors such as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson. The film provides fascinating background on François Truffaut’s lengthy interview sessions with Alfred Hitchcock, which were published in 1967. Kent Jones, current director of the New York Film Festival, even had access to audio tapes of the interviews, which are interspersed throughout. Hitchcock/Truffaut makes the case that Truffaut’s book was responsible for a reevaluation of Hitchcock’s importance as a filmmaker. The copy I’d bought when it first came out disappeared somewhere along the way, but Hitchcock/Truffaut inspired me to get another. It also makes me want to see all of Hitchcock’s films again. Not that I need to be persuaded.

Here are two discussions of Hitchcock/Truffaut: the first between Noah Baumbach and Kent Jones; the second Martin Scorsese and Jones.

Richard Leacock & Valerie Lalonde

Richard Leacock & Valerie Lalonde

How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy (Les Blank & Gina Leibrecht, directors) Richard Leacock was one of the founders of Direct Cinema and cinéma vérité, along with Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers. His importance to documentary filmmaking cannot be overstated. Leacock spent his last years living in France, which is where Les Blank shot this film. I could have listened to Ricky Leacock talk for hours about life and filmmaking. How to Smell a Rose is a rare pleasure. (This film is available for streaming on Netflix.)

In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Fred Wiseman is another documentary filmmaker whose importance can’t be overstated. Over the course of his long career, he’s amassed a staggering body of work. In Jackson Heights, released last year when Wiseman was 85, is as strong as anything he’s done. It struck me the other day that Wiseman is similar to Studs Terkel, in terms of documenting individuals and institutions. Wiseman, without apparent judgement, shows us how things work.

 Iris (Albert Maysles, director)  This study of Iris Apfel was the penultimate film from Albert Maysles, who died last year at age 88. Apfel, a larger-than-life fashionista with an irrepressible personality, reminds me somewhat of Little Edie Beale in Maysles Grey Gardens (1976) — though Iris is a high-functioning, much healthier version. She’s a trip. (Iris is available for streaming on Netflix.)

The following clip is from a press conference with Iris Apfel and Al Maysles at the 2014 New York Film Festival.

 Lambert & Stamp (James D. Cooper, director)  Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp wanted to make films, and they hit on the idea of finding a rock band to manage and then make a film about. The band turned out to be the Who, and despite knowing basically nothing about what was required or how to do it, Lambert and Stamp helped them become one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Kit Lambert has passed on, but Chris Stamp is very much alive. Interviews with Stamp, Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, and others (including Chris’ brother, actor Terence Stamp), take us through the story in extremely entertaining fashion. Anyone interested in the Who has gotta see this.

Listen to Me Marlon (Steven Riley, director/co-writer) See my previous post on this film. (This film is available via Showtime On Demand.)

A Poem Is a Naked Person (Les Blank, director) See my previous post on this film. (This film is available for streaming on Amazon.)

Seymour & SteinwaySeymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke, director)  Actor Ethan Hawke first met pianist Seymour Bernstein when he was seated next to him at a dinner party. They struck up a relationship that resulted in this wonderful film. After receiving numerous musical awards and grants, Bernstein gave his final public Seymour-Ethan & Seymour collageperformance in 1977 at age 50. He is now 88. For nearly 40 years he has been composing, writing, and, most importantly, teaching. He’s a great teacher. In the film, one of his students says Seymour showed him what a musician could be. The music throughout is rapturously beautiful, and even more powerful after hearing Seymour explain why he makes the choices he does as we see him practicing and teaching. The film itself is like a master class in music. Seymour talks about music in a way that’s clear, lucid, and compassionate — qualities he brings to his playing, teaching, thinking, and living. He believes that music is a language of feeling — a universal language. Bernstein has lived in the same studio apartment for 57 years. “I thrive on solitude,” he says, adding that he has to be by himself to sort out all the thoughts that course through his mind in order to escape the hurlyburly of the real world. And yet, at the end of the film, Bernstein agrees to perform publicly for members of Ethan Hawke’s acting class. Seymour: An Introduction offers us the privilege of spending time with this extraordinary person. (This film is available for streaming on Netflix.)

 What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, director)  I knew Nina Simone was a singer, but that’s about it. Seeing this film was a revelation. She had an incredible voice and a strong commitment to civil rights in her life and music. In her determination to be true to herself, Simone didn’t always play nice. This is a powerful portrait of a conflicted artist. (This film is available for streaming from Netflix.)

 The Winding Stream (Beth Harrington, director)  Per Wikipedia, the Carter Family, the subject of this film, “…was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars.” I didn’t know much about their actual history, but this film clearly lays it out, as well as tracking June Carter Cash and her husband, Johnny. There’s a fascinating sidebar segment on the importance of Border Radio stations. But most importantly, there’s the Carter Family’s awesome music, which is ingrained in the history of this country. I especially liked a scene of George Jones in the studio singing “Worried Man Blues.” The Winding Stream employs some cut-out animation that I wasn’t too thrilled with, but this is a minor caveat.

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— Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2015

Brooklyn-poster2Spotlight-poster3I’m not sure how, but I managed to see 300 feature films in 2015. That’s probably nothing to brag about, but I love movies, and since I’ve got time to see a lot, that’s what I do. I thought it was an extremely good year for films. Following are thirty titles that represent the best of what I saw. More than half of these have been released since September, which is not surprising. The films are in alphabetical order, but Spotlight and Brooklyn are my top picks, the best of a really strong bunch. Note: I have not yet seen Beasts of No Nation, Room, or Tangerine, all of which sound very promising.

Anomalisa-poster2Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer; Duke Johnson, co-director) I love this film. It’s so strange, affecting, emotional, and just plain weird that you look at it with a sort of curious wonder. Charlie Kaufman has previously written Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In 2008 he directed, as well as wrote, Synechdoche, New York. These are all extremely original, wonderfully whacked-out visions, and Anomalisa is no less so, despite being set in a realistic, everyday world with realistic, everyday people — albeit puppets. Kaufman uses stop-motion animation to tell the story of a man, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who has flown to Anomalisa-Michael & LisaCincinnati to give the keynote speech at a customer service convention. He’s extremely alienated and lonely. His encounter with Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy customer service rep from Akron, is sad, awkward, painful, and lovely. Thewlis and Leigh bring a great deal of humanity to the film. Tom Noonan voices all the other characters, using the same voice for male and female alike, which takes a while to get used to, but works thematically. Most stop-motion films, and animation in general, deal with fantasy, science fiction, or otherwise extremely exaggerated, often cartoonish worlds. Anomalisa is unique and special.

The Big Short (Adam McKay, director & co-writer) Not as good as I’d expected, but the ensemble cast is great. Despite the pains taken by the filmmakers to make the financial gobbledygook understandable, I still have no idea what happened in 2008, except that a lot of people should have gone to jail and only one guy did. Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller, this film would make a great triple bill with with J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) and Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job (2010), with the addition of a fourth film, 99 Homes (2015).

Brooklyn (John Crowley, director; Nick Hornby, writer) As stated above, this is one of my two favorite films of the year. Saoirse Ronan, whom I first saw in Atonement (2007), plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who, at her sister’s urging, reluctantly leaves home in Ireland in 1952 to live and work in the United States. Her sister Rose has made arrangements through a priest (played by the always authentic Jim Broadbent) for Eilis to live in a rooming house in Brooklyn and work in a Manhattan department store. Eilis begins a relationship with Tony, a young man from an Italian family whom she meets at a dance. As played by Emory Cohen, Tony is sweet, open, honest, and decent. Watching them fall in love is a pleasure. We want it to work. Then Eilis receives news of a death that takes her back to Ireland. She intends to stay only a short time, but then meets Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who begins to tentatively court her. (Gleeson, son of actor Brendan Gleeson, had a strong year in 2015, playing vastly different roles in Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Revenant, as well as Brooklyn.) The big question is who will Eilis end up with, Tony or Jim? This is a film without villains, with the possible exception of the shopkeeper Eilis works for at the beginning of the film, who is just bitter and unhappy and tries to make sure everyone else is, too. The 50s period setting is impeccable, but doesn’t hit you over the head with details. This might sound pretty low key, but it plays out beautifully, and feels very real — or at least, I’d like to think so.

Carol-posterCarol (Todd Haynes, director;  Phyllis Nagy, writer) Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, this is the story of a love affair between two women, in a time when such relationships were definitely not accepted. Therese Belivet (played by Rooney Mara) is working at counter in a Manhattan department store, when she meets Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett), who has come to buy a Christmas gift. Carol is an affluent, suburban housewife with children who has a polished and sophisticated air. Her sensuous, seductive voice and manner dazzles Therese from the start. Cate Blanchett is a great actress with a filmography that showcases stunning performances in such films as  Truth (2015), Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), in which she plays a version of Bob Dylan. Carol was exquisitely shot by Ed Lachman, a cinematographer whose work includes Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), The Limey (1999), and the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011, also directed by Haynes). Carol draws us into an early 50s New York world seen in burnished, coppery tones. As with Brooklyn, the period setting feels completely detailed and authentic, with the most realistic use of period automobiles I’ve ever seen. Carol drives a Packard sedan. (When was the last time you saw one of those featured in a movie?) In most period films, the cars all look like they’ve just come off the showroom floor, with nary a dent or smudge. I didn’t see that here. A key element is the music by Carter Burwell, which contributes greatly to the mood and texture of the film. In addition to Carol, in 2015 Burwell also scored Anomalisa and Mr. Holmes. He’s works regularly with Joel and Ethan Coen, scoring 17 of their films so far. Like the title character, Carol is sensuous, seductive, and deeply romantic, with echos of Haynes’ earlier Far from Heaven (2002), and the 1950s Technicolor melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk.

Creed (Ryan Coogler, director & co-writer) Who would have thought a sixth Rocky sequel would be worth seeing? I initially resisted this one, didn’t think I needed another boxing movie. But what I was hearing about it got me interested. And it is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a knockout. This film has a lot of heart and emotion, and is only incidentally about boxing — though the two matches we see are quite brutal. Michael B. Jordon, previously seen in Ryan Coogler’s powerful Fruitvale Station (2013), stars as Adonis, the son of Apollo Creed (Rocky Balboa’s opponent from the first film in 1976). Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis. Stallone’s performance is a low-key revelation, and he deserves all the attention he’s been getting.

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, director & writer) A week in the life of Kate and Geoff, leading up to the celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary. At the outset, unexpected news from the past threatens the stability of their marriage. Told from Kate’s point of view, the film is low-key and methodical, a slow burn of contained emotions and revelations. As Kate, Charlotte Rampling conveys a great deal by doing very little. Rampling, now 69, has been beautiful at every age, much like Catherine Deneuve. Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who plays her husband Geoff, bring the resonance of their long film careers to the screen; Rampling going back to Georgy Girl (1966), and Courtenay to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963).

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz, directors & writers) See my previous post that includes this film along with other films seen last February (Gett is approximately half-way through the post).

The Gift (Joel Edgerton, director & writer). A real sleeper. Based on the trailer and print ads, it looked fairly predictable; it’s anything but. Director and writer Joel Edgerton (who gave a terrific performance last year in Black Mass ) plays a character from the past who insinuates himself into the lives and home of Jason Bateman and wife Rebecca Hall. It’s all very tense and creepy, and then it flips on you.

Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz, directors & writers) See my previous post on this film.

Grandma-poster2Grandma (Paul Weitz, director & writer) This film is edgier and darker than the advertising would suggest. Lily Tomlin plays Elle, an irascible woman in Los Angeles recovering from the recent breakup with her girl friend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle’s eccentricities include cutting up her credit cards to make a wind chime. At the outset, her granddaughter Sage shows up at Elle’s home, announcing that she’s pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion. On one level the film is a comedy of errors, as Elle attempts to raise the money from people she’s alienated at one time or another. One of them is played by Sam Elliott, an ex who hasn’t seen Elle in 30 years. It’s great seeing Elliott turning up as much as he has lately. He was exceptional in another film from 2015, I’ll See You in My Dreams. Elliott was a standout in the final season of Justified (FX) last year,  and will be appearing with Lily Tomlin in the next season of Grace and Frankie (Netflix). Besides writing and directing this film, Paul Weitz is currently a co-creator, executive producer, writer and director of the terrific Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. With his brother Chris, he wrote and directed About a Boy in 2002. Grandma is not warm and fuzzy — at least not like you might expect. People’s emotions get bruised and hurt, but they survive. Lily Tomlin shines in this, as she does in Grace and Frankie.

Love & Mercy-posterLove & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, director; Oren Moverman & Michael Lerner, writers) Paul Dano plays the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson as a younger man, with John Cusack playing him at an older age. I thought Dano’s was the more convincing portrayal. I couldn’t quite believe that Dano’s Wilson would age into Cusack (no fault of Cusack’s). They didn’t seem like the same person. But it was also more interesting seeing him during a more productive period in his life. What stands out in this film are the sequences with Wilson in the studio, working his way through the exacting recording sessions for “Good Vibrations.” The only other time I can recall seeing the creative process on screen in a comparable way was in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), his film about French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. There’s an amazing sequence of Gaudier-Brzeska sculpting a figure out of a block of stone in his studio overnight; you’re seeing an artist at work, just chipping away. The act of artistic creation is almost never convincingly portrayed in movies, but Love & Mercy nails it. As creepy and hateful as Paul Giamatti is as Eugene Landy, the doctor who takes over Wilson’s life, an acquaintance of mine, who wrote for Rolling Stone in the 70s and interviewed Landy, told me the real Landy was even worse than he is in the film. Love & Mercy,  is only the second feature directed by Bill Pohlad, but he has extensive credits as a producer, including Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Love & Mercy was co-written by Oren Moverman, who wrote and directed Time Out of Mind (2014).

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, director) Coming out of this movie, I was as pumped as I’ve ever been . It’s visceral forward motion throughout. The action has a particularly bone-crunching impact, probably because much of it was done with little use of CGI effects. You can feel the difference. I’m a big fan of The Road Warrior (1981), the second film in the Mad Max series. When I subsequently saw the first, Mad Max (1979), it was a let-down by comparison. The third film in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), seemed a mistake. (What was Tina Turner doing in it anyway?) So it was a real surprise that at age 70, George Miller, director of the original three, would  return with a new Mad Max film that is easily the best of them all. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the great action movies of all time. It should not be forgotten that Miller is the same director who gave us Babe (1995) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998). An interesting aspect of Mad Max: Fury Road is that Max is basically Charlize Theron’s sidekick; she’s clearly the top dog here. But sidekick or not, Tom Hardy makes a powerful impression as Max.. He’s a terrific actor, as evidenced by Locke (2013) and Legend (2015). I don’t think this movie can make any claims to socially-redeeming value, but it’s an amazing rush.

The following clips show how inventive and unhinged this film is. (I know this is not for everyone, which is probably a good thing.)

Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors & writers) See my previous post discussing this film along with several other films (it’s at the end of the post).

99 Homes-poster299 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, director & writer) While The Big Short dissects the housing market collapse of 2008, this film shows the human cost. When I first saw 99 Homes last fall, I liked it well enough, but could understand why people wouldn’t want to see it. It’s like Time Out of Mind, where audiences stayed away in droves. Nobody wanted to see homeless people close up; it’s hard enough ignoring them in real life. At least, that’s my theory. 99 Homes shows families getting evicted from their homes with all their possessions left on the lawn. Depressing, right? I saw it again at the Museum of Modern Art, with the director in attendence for a Q&A after. This time I thought it was great, really powerful. Still depressing, but well worth the ride. Michael Shannon, one of my favorite actors, plays a former real estate agent who’s making a profit out of evicting people from foreclosed homes. Andrew Garfield is a single father who is evicted with his son and mother (Laura Dern) by Shannon. He then goes to work Shannon evicting other families. This is a stunning irony, but Garfield justifies it with the intention of earning enough to buy back his family home. Shannon brings his usual level intensity to the film.

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, director). See my previous post on this film.

Spotlight-cast photoSpotlight (Tom McCarthy, director & co-writer) This is it, the best film of the year, and that’s saying something. I’ve been a fan of Tom McCarthy’s films since seeing his first, The Station Agent in 2003 (see my previous post from 2012). As you probably know by now, Spotlight concerns an investigation by a team of Boston Globe reporters into pedophile priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church . This is as close to a perfect movie as you can get. There’s not a false step. The cast is exceptional, with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as standouts in a group of actors that includes Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and Rachel McAdams as the lone female on the team. It’s all portrayed so authentically it doesn’t feel like they’re acting. Like All the President’s Men (1976) and Zodiac (2007), this is a film is about process. Everything in Spotlight is tightly focused on the actual work of getting the story, and also the characters’ belief that they are absolutely doing the right thing. This is why I go to movies, in the hopes of seeing something this good.

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In the interest of attention spans — yours and mine — my remaining picks are listed by title only.

Inside Out-posterLearning to Drive-poster3The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, director & writer)

Inside-Out (Pete Docter, director)

It Follows (Robert Mitchell, director & writer)

Learning to Drive (Isabel Coixet, director)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, director)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, director)

The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-writer)

Son of Saul-Dutch posterSon of Saul (László Nemes, director & co-writer)

Spy (Paul Feig, director & writer)

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, director; Aaron Sorkin, writer)

Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, director; Amy Schumer, writer)

Tu Dors Nicole (Stéphane Lafleur, director & writer) See my previous post discussing this film along with two others.

Wild Tales (Damián Szifron, director & writer)

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, director & writer)

It Follows-poster4

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That’s all for now. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks

Ted at the movies

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Happy New Year from Films etc.

Keaton-New Year's resolutionsI generally don’t do New Year resolutions, but if I did, one of them would be to not let procrastination prevent me from writing more posts. It’s time to get this thing out of the ditch and back on the road. To that end, here’s a short note wishing everyone HAPPY NEW YEAR — along with shots from a few of my favorite films to take us out.

Gun Crazy - 1950

Gun Crazy – 1950

The Bride of Frankenstein - 1935

The Bride of Frankenstein – 1935

The Wild Bunch - 1969

The Wild Bunch – 1969

King Kong - 1933

King Kong – 1933

Finally, here’s a great clip of Gene Kelly dancing the title song from Singin’ In the Rain (1952). It’s joy personified, absolutely exhilarating.

Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff wishing you a great 2016.

Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff wishing you a great 2016.

I’ll be back shortly with lists of what I think were the best feature films, documentaries, and TV shows for 2015. In the meantime,  we’re bingeing our way through the second seasons of Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon) and Dicte (Netflix), plus catching up on films we haven’t seen yet. See you later. Ted Hicks

WB Bugs intro logo

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Brando doc on Showtime this Saturday!

Listen to Me Marlon-posterI had emergency gallbladder surgery a little over three weeks ago, which kind of slowed me down a bit. At least I’m able to blame this latest lapse on something other than procrastination. I’m just now getting back to working on a post for this blog, my first since October 2. I’ve started writing short takes on the films I saw last week, but we’re leaving tomorrow on a five-day trip to Minneapolis, and that won’t get finished until we return. Though earlier today I opened the new issue of The New Yorker to see an announcement that Listen to Me Marlon, a great documentary about Marlon Brando, will be aired on Showtime this Saturday, November 14, at 9:00 pm. I wanted to get the word out, so I’m knocking this out quickly. You’ve got to see this amazing film, if you haven’t already. It takes us inside Brando’s life and thought in a completely unique way. It’s a must-see.

Last July I wrote about the film in a post titled Listening to Marlon — Beyond the Screen, which can be accessed here. – Ted Hicks

Brando & catBrando-Streetcar

 

 

 

Brando & son

 

 

Brando-Last Tango

 

Brando & daughter

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“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – As Good as It Gets

Last week the New York Film Festival held a 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which I hadn’t seen it since its initial release. I remember liking it, but it didn’t get to me the way Blood Simple (1984) or Fargo (1996) had. But when I saw it listed on this year’s NYFF schedule, I was interested, especially since the Coen brothers and unspecified cast members were slated to be at the screening.

Films on the main slate of the NYFF are held at Alice Tully Hall, where seating is reserved. My seat was centrally located in the second row, which is a bit closer than I usually prefer. At this distance, it initially feels like the movie screen might fall on top of you, but the eye and mind tend to adjust pretty quickly. And as it turned out, I was glad to be this close to the stage. Before O Brother began, Kent Jones, director of the NYFF, introduced the Coens, who in turn brought out the film’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and actors John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and finally George Clooney himself. This was quite a rush, and had me hot-wired for the film itself.

I was amazed by how much I enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou? this time around. I thought it was great, especially when compared to most of what’s in theaters these days. Of course, knowing that the filmmakers were in attendance might have made me more disposed to like it, but I don’t think so. The Coens have a wonderfully off-kilter way of looking at things, and this film is no exception. Loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and relates the surreal adventures of three convicts who escaped from a chain gang. The three are Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), a hapless and somewhat dimwitted trio chained together at the ankles. The ostensible reason for their escape is to recover a cache of money Ulysses claims he took when he knocked off an armored car.

O Brother Where Art Thou-trioO Brother Where Art Thou-Trio2The following clip will give you an idea of their collective skill set.

The entire cast is excellent, and most have been in other Coen films. John Turturro had already been in three: Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Big Lebowski (1998). Tim Blake Nelson had been in films and television since 1992, but this was his first starring role, as well as his first Coen film, and he killed it. O Brother was also George Clooney’s first film with the Coens, followed by Intolerable Cruelty (2003); Burn After Reading (2008); and the upcoming Hail, Caesar! (2016).

John Goodman previously was in Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski. Here he plays”Big Dan” Teague, a one-eyed Bible salesman who mugs Ulysses and later turns up under a hood at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Holly Hunter, who was also in Raising Arizona, plays Ulysses’ ex-wife Penny. Returning to her and his children is the real reason for Ulysses’ escape. Charles Durning especially shines as Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the incumbent governor of Mississippi, who’s running for another term. His dance on stage near the end of the film is a joy.

Charles Durning

Charles Durning

In addition to references and parallels to The Odyssey — many of which I probably didn’t get — O Brother Where Art Thou? brings in two storylines that add a lot to the texture of the film. Chris Thomas King, a real-life blues musician, plays Tommy Johnson, first seen wearing a natty suit and carrying a guitar. After our heroes pick him up at a country crossroads and give him a ride, Tommy proceeds to tell them he sold his soul to the devil in order to be a great guitar player. This immediately evokes the real-life Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul at such a crossroads. Tommy becomes a fourth member of the travelers. At another point, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar encounter George “Baby Face” Nelson just after he’s robbed a bank. Nelson is played with unrestrained exuberance by Michael Badalucco. In brief notes I made when I first saw O Brother in 2000, I’d written “There’s a great moment when a cow gets hit by a speeding police car.” You can see this after George gives the boys a lift in the following clip. I’d forgotten about this until I saw it again last week. It really has a punch.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was filmed by Roger Deakins, a British cinematographer. If you don’t know his name, you certainly know his work. With the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Deakins has shot every Coen brothers film since Barton Fink in 1991 — eleven total including the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, to be released next year. In addition to Coen films, he’s been director of photography for many other films, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Skyfall (2012), and most recently, Sicario, currently in theaters. I was surprised to see how many there were.

For those who are interested, here’s an interview with Roger Deakins from Filmmaker magazine this past July.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou? is filled with great period music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. He worked on the music selection with the Coens even before the script was completed, and the soundtrack was recorded before the start of filming. A subsequent album of the music won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. Musicians who contributed to the soundtrack, including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, and many others, went on a tour called Down from the Mountain, performing music from the film. A documentary of that title was made by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob.

Here is a clip of Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” near the end of the film. The brief dialogue has been dubbed into French, but this should not distract.

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After the film ended, I was preparing to leave when I saw chairs being set up on stage in front of the screen. I hadn’t realized there would be a Q&A, but there was no way I was going to miss this. It was great. I was especially impressed with what a class act George Clooney is in person. He comes across as funny, quick, self-deprecating, smart, and genuinely a nice guy. I know he’s an actor, and he has a public persona, but it feels pretty authentic to me. It was a memorable night and I’m glad I was there. – Ted Hicks

In the photo below, left to right: Roger Deakins, George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Kent Jones (moderator)

O BrotherClooney,Turturro,Nelson

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is available for streaming or purchase from Amazon, and for rental from Netflix. I hope you’ll rediscover it, as I did.

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Coming Soon, or Already Here: Notes on Six Films

Creeping Garden-posterThe Creeping Garden – Directed by Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp. This documentary from the U.K. is about the wonders of slime mold. Who knew? The trailer, which grabbed me from the first time I saw it, promises something weird and alien, unknown but to a dedicated few; in other words, yet more proof that the world has more dimensions than I can even begin to imagine. This could be from a 1950s science fiction film. A few days ago, I watched Tarantula (1955), about a giant spider on the loose in the Arizona desert, and Them! (1954), about giant ants also on the loose. I have a feeling that actual slime mold will be just as bizarre. The Creeping Garden opens in New York at Film Forum on Wednesday, September 30 for a one-week run.

Taxi-poster2Taxi Directed by Jafar Panahi, the celebrated Iranian director whose films win awards but are usually banned in his native country. His films have put him in conflict with the Iran government for years, and in 2010 he was arrested and sentenced to a six-year prison term and a 20-year ban on making films. He was subsequently released under house arrest; he can travel freely in Iran, but can’t leave the country. None of this has kept Panahi from making films. In 2011, using a digital camcorder and an iPhone, shooting over a ten-day period inside his apartment, he made the extraordinary This Is Not a Film. Per a title at the end of the film, it was then smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival (The flash-drive-in-a-birthday-cake statement was widely believed to be true, but per an article by Rachel Donadio in the September 27 New York Times, Panahi’s friends now say this was a joke and that the film was sent to Cannes by other means. If so, too bad, because it makes a great story). Panahi followed up This Is Not a Film with the equally amazing Closed Curtain (2013). Like the previous two, Taxi is a dislocating combination of documentary and fiction. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, was staged and what wasn’t; but it doesn’t really matter. In any event, Taxi received the top prize, the Golden Bear, at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The film takes place entirely inside a taxi, which Panahi drives around Tehran, having conversations with people he picks up. This setup recalls two films by another great Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami: Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002), both of which take place inside taxis. Taxi opens in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center on Friday, October 2.

In Jackson Heights is the 40th feature documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a  filmmaker whose importance cannot be overstated. This At Berkeley-posterNational Gallery-French posteris Wiseman’s third film in three years from, preceded by the four-hour At Berkeley in 2013, the three-hour National Gallery in 2014, and now In Jackson Heights, which clocks in at three hours, ten minutes. Substantial running times are necessary to Wiseman’s films, where we’re immersed in institutions and communities. He’s interested in seeing how things work, without voice-over commentary, interviews, on-screen titles, or judgement. Wiseman just puts us there and let’s us see for ourselves. In Jackson Heights is set in a Queens, New York, neighborhood of incredible diversity where 167 languages are spoken. Here is a description from Film Forum’s calendar and website:

Frederick Wiseman-photo“In the course of his brilliant, nearly half-century career, Frederick Wiseman has tackled both great social institutions (a prison for the criminally insane, high school, military, police, juvenile court, the welfare system) and cultural ones (La Comédie Franҫaise, the Paris Opéra Ballet, American Ballet Theater, London’s National Gallery). Here he profiles a community, Jackson Heights, one of New York’s most diverse neighborhoods, with immigrants from Peru, Colombia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (167 languages are spoken) — as well as elderly residents of Jewish, Irish and Italian extraction. Under the elevated train, a hodge-podge of stores sell whole baby goats, saris, and Bollywood DVDs; they offer HIV testing, Tibetan food, and classes for would-be cabbies. Jackson Heights is home to an activist LGBT community, to recent survivors of terrifying border crossings, students of the Quran, and small shop-owners who mobilize against the Williamsburg-ization of the nabe. Wiseman embraces a community that revels in still being affordable, 20 minutes from ‘the city,’ and resolutely unhip.”

In Jackson Heights will be shown at the New York Film Festival on October 4, and begins a two-week run at Film Forum on November 4.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead – Directed byDouglas Tirola. This documentary about the surreal rise and fall of National Lampoon is fascinating. Like me, if you’re old enough to have read the magazine as it was being published, this film will resonate. The main title sequence, punched up by David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” on the sound track, is a dense montage of covers and inside pages. It’s a killer. The rest of the film never quite matches the energy of this opening, but it’s incredibly entertaining and informative, with lots of interviews and great visuals. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead opened on September 25 at the IFC Center in New York.

The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, is completely insane — and I think that’s a conservative estimate. The film drove me crazy while I was watching it, and I remember thinking I’d never want to see it again. But it’s stayed with me. The Forbidden Room is some kind of demented epic. And that’s a good thing. It’s like a dozen narratives in a salad spinner that never stops. Stories spin off of stories and back again, then off again, on and on. We’re never any one place for long. At times it looks like an old silent film with degraded images and suddenly melting frames; or it feels like a 1930s serial, or a Krazy Kat cartoon, or every Monty Python episode mashed together with experimental cinema of the 1960s. Everything is heightened, everything is filtered, nothing is real. Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, and Mathieu Amalric are among the many actors who turn up in these multiple realities. The Forbidden Room is a unique experience. It’s also very funny.

The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room

The first Guy Maddin film I saw was Careful in 1992. I knew right away it was something very different, though compared to The Forbidden Room, it’s a model of narrative cohesion. Careful takes place in the 1880s in an Alpine village that’s under constant threat of sudden avalanches. So delicate is the balance that everyone has to whisper and not make any noise, which is very funny given the extreme melodrama of the story line. Maddin has an unusual sensibility, and his films have a home-made quality that’s probably not easy to achieve. The Forbidden is being shown at the New York Film Festival and begins a two-week run at Film Forum on October 7.

Mississippi Grind is the fourth feature written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I haven’t seen their third film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), but the first two, Half Nelson (2006) and Sugar (2008), are great. In Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays a history teacher and girls basketball coach at a Brooklyn high school in who also has a drug problem. This is the first time I’d seen Gosling, and he really got my attention.  In Sugar, a young Dominican baseball player gets signed by a pro baseball team in the States and sent to a farm team in Iowa. In these films, and now in Mississippi Grind; nothing is forced, the narratives proceed at a relaxed, unhurried pace, filled with incidents more than plot points. Everything feels very natural.

Mississippi Grind-posterIn Mississippi Grind (great title), Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) meet at a poker game in Dubuque, Iowa. Gerry practically has “loser” stamped on his forehead, but Curtis seems like he might be more together. They obviously enjoy each other’s company, and ultimately hook up for a road trip to New Orleans, where a high-stakes poker game awaits. Ben Mendelsohn was amazing in the Netflix series Bloodline, and he’s terrific here, as is Ryan Reynolds. Plus the soundtrack is filled with excellent blues music. Mississippi Grind is currently showing in theaters, and will also be available for streaming from iTunes on October 13. It will be released on home video on December 1. Don’t miss this one. – Ted Hicks

 

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