Black & White Visions and Pointless Shootouts – 3 Films

Gunman-poster2Last Friday I saw The Gunman, a film I had hopes for, given that Sean Penn and Javier Bardem were in the cast. From the trailer it appeared to be the kind of action film I like when they’re well done. Unfortunately, this one is a cynical misfire from beginning to end. It seems to exist only to showcase endless shootouts and brutal fights. It’s empty and has no meaning whatsoever (in my humble opinion). The difference between The Gunman and a film like last year’s John Wick is one of style and the filmmakers’ enthusiasm (see my previous post on John Wick). Sean Penn seems like an odd choice for this film. Maybe Liam Neeson was busy. I can’t imagine Penn feels the need to re-invent himself as an action hero, the way Neeson has successfully done. The Gunman was directed by Pierre Morel, who previously made Taken (2008), a hugely popular film that launched the new Liam Neeson persona. Perhaps because of that connection I couldn’t help thinking while I was watching The Gunman that Neeson would have been more credible in Penn’s role. Though I doubt that would have saved the movie. I was also surprised to see in the credits that this film was based on The Prone Gunman, a 1981 French novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette that I liked very much when I read the English edition in 2002. As far as I can tell, The Gunman bears virtually no resemblance to the novel, other than retaining the main character’s last name, Terrier (though Martin in the novel becomes Jim in the film).

Penn & Bardem

Penn & Bardem

While this is a definite change of pace for Penn, Javier Bardem has been down this road before, though Bardem’s character here is frequently drunk and appears more foolish than threatening. Idris Elba, who in mind will always be Stringer Bell from HBO’s The Wire, is wasted as an Interpol agent with less than eight minutes of screen time. However, bright spot is Ray Winstone, an actor who brings a solid authenticity to virtually every role I’ve seen him in. The Gunman could have used much more of him.

Ray Winstone

Ray Winstone

The following two clips will tell you all you need to know about The Gunman. The downtime between action sequences in this movie exists only to get us to the next one. It’s not like there’s anything at stake.

Believe me, I wanted to like this movie, but I just couldn’t get on the ride. As a User Review of The Gunman at IMDb put it, “If you have nothing else to do and feel like throwing your money away, you might consider seeing it.”

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Tu dors Nicole-posterI might not have been as hard on The Gunman  if later that same day we hadn’t seen Tu dors Nicole, a terrific French Canadian film written and directed by Stéphane Lafleur. Tu dors Nicole was shown as part of New Directors/New Films, an annual series co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. When you see something this fresh and engaging, it makes a film like The Gunman just seem that much worse.

Tu dors Nicole is set in a suburb of Montreal. It’s summer, and 22-year-old Nicole is on her own while her parents are on vacation. Julianne Côté is wonderful as Nicole. She brings an interesting affect to the character, not flat, exactly, but off-kilter and observant, as though she’s an outsider taking her time trying to figure out what’s going on. Throughout the film, Nicole struggles to get a good night’s sleep (the English title is You’re Sleeping Nicole.) Nicole has a job sorting clothes in a thrift shop, but spends most of her time with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent) as they hang out in Nicole’s house or aimlessly wander about.  Tu dors Nicole-Nicole & Vera3Nicole’s older brother Rémi (Marc-André Grondin) shows up unannounced with his three-man rock band. They move into the house and take over the living room to rehearse at high volume, complete with drum kit, guitars, amps and a lot of cable. Life goes on from day to day. Nicole and Véronique take bike rides. Nicole gets a credit card in the mail and thinks that whatever she buys with it is free. A 10-year-0ld boy named Martin has a serious crush on Nicole. Before he appears, Nicole tells Véronique that Martin’s voice has recently changed. When we first hear him speak, it’s a joke, and a very funny one. His voice is impossibly deep and mature, and the feelings he expresses for Nicole are those of a much older person. This probably shouldn’t work, but it does.

Tu dors Nicole is quirky and unexpected. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it has a kind of Jim Jarmusch vibe at times. It’s also beautifully shot in black and white. I can’t imagine it in color. Black and white feels so perfect for this film that color would almost be an intrusion. Tu dors Nicole is a reminder that great French films can also come from Canada. It was shown at 20 film festivals last year, and will be distributed in this country by Kino Lorber later this spring. Try to see it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Duck Season-posterI mentioned above that Tu dors Nicole reminds me somewhat of a Jim Jarmusch film, which is true, but what it really reminds me of  is a Mexican film titled Duck Season (2004), which was shown at New Directors New Films in 2005. We saw it the following year and absolutely fell in love with it. As with Tu dors NicoleDuck Season feels totally original, though of course it has antecedents in other films from the deadpan school of filmmaking. We watched Duck Season again last Saturday night, and it’s just as good as it was the first time.

Duck Season takes place in a high-rise apartment building on a quiet Sunday from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Flama’s mother has just left to visit a relative, leaving Flama (Daniel Miranda) and his friend Moko (Diego Catana) to fend for themselves in the apartment. As soon as she’s gone, Flama and Moko, both 14 years old, break out Coca-Cola and fire up a video game. Power outages disrupt their game from time to time. They’re also disrupted by Rita (Danny Perea), a 16-year-old neighbor who commandeers the kitchen because her stove doesn’t work and she has to bake a birthday cake. Flama and Moko decide to order a pizza from a place that guarantees delivery within 30 minutes or there’s no charge. When the deliveryman, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), arrives out of breath from having to rush up many flights of stairs due to yet another power outage, they refuse to pay because he’s 15 seconds late. Ulises says he’s not leaving until they pay. A standoff ensues, during which time power is restored and Ulises challenges them to a soccer video game to determine if he gets paid or not. Out of this mix, an afternoon of friendship and communion develops as the film spins lazily from one incident to the next.

Duck Season-group shotI’m a big fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, so the immediate connotation the title Duck Season has is with a great Chuck Jones cartoon, Rabbit Fire (1951), in which Bugs and Duck Season-Bugs & DaffyDaffy debate whether it’s rabbit season or duck season so Elmer will know which one of them to shoot. As usual, Daffy doesn’t stand a chance. This has no immediate connection to Duck Season, though the film does share an anarchic spirit with the Warner Bros. cartoons. And there is, in fact, a painting of ducks in the apartment, the ownership of which is a bone of contention between Flama’s divorcing parents. As the day unfolds, the sources of everyone’s individual loneliness are revealed. Like Tu dors Nicole, Duck Season, directed and co-written by Fernando Eimbcke, is in black and white, which feels just right. The following trailer suggests a madcap tone, but the film is deeper than that.

Duck Season is currently available for streaming from Amazon. Be sure you watch all the way through the final credits, because there’s a great payoff at the end. It really caps the movie. – Ted Hicks

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“Grey Gardens” – Then & Now

Grey Gardens 1975-posterI first saw Grey Gardens nearly 39 years ago at the Film Society of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I saw it again last Friday when it opened for a one-week run at Film Forum. For the current release, Grey Gardens has received a 2K digital restoration by The Criterion Collection that preserves all the grain and grit of the original 16mm footage. The film was shot in 1973 by the Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and produced by the Maysles and Susan Froemke. It had its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1975 and was released the following February.

In 1976, I was writing film reviews for The Entertainer, a local paper in Minneapolis that had the sub-heading, “The Newspaper for Young Twin Citians” (very hip). My review of Grey Gardens appeared in the Friday, November 5, 1976 edition. Here is that review in all its glory. I’ve resisted the temptation to make any edits, so this is exactly as it originally appeared (though I’ve added some photographs).

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 Like something out of a fading Scott Fitzgerald dream, the mansion appropriately called Grey Gardens rises above the foliage surrounding it. Though we’re somewhere in East Hampton, Long Island, in the fall of 1973, the feeling is one of dislocated time and space. Grey Gardens, we are soon to discover, is a time and space unto itself, a world apart created by its occupants, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, as a kind of charged-up Proustian Rememberance of Things Past.

Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (at the U. Film Society this weekend) is a feature-length impression of this extraordinary mother and daughter. In 1971, Grey Gardens was raided by a variety of county officials who found “a garbage-ridden filthy 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water, conditions so unsanitary that the Suffolk County Health Department has ordered them to clean up, or face eviction.” This situation had become the concern of socially-conscious neighbors worried over property values and propriety, but it was the Beales’ blood connection to Jackie Kennedy Onassis that made the story a “significant” news item resulting in the headlines the Maysles use to introduce the film.

Grey Gardens serves as a kind of time machine for the Beales. Early in the film Edie says, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” Edith and Edie are constantly seeking to reaffirm who they were, and most importantly to Edie, what she could have been. In a large way, this film is about identity.

Edie Beale @ 56

Edie Beale @ 56

Young Edie Beale

Young Edie Beale

Photographs are unearthed almost like war souvenirs from piles of debris, and examined for the memories they trigger. In the pictures we see two beautiful women at different times in their lives, Edith and Edie in another, earlier reality. A conflicting, overlapping, running commentary is provided by Edith and Edie as they show us the photographs, describing them for us and each other in a tug-of-war for the “truth” they represent.

Grey Gardens is primarily the close study of a relationship as witnessed by two friendly visitors. It’s an antagonistic relationship, sometimes cruel, as recriminations are volleyed back and forth, but finally loving, as we see the need Edith and Edie have for one another. They probably are not so different from any of us, beneath our respective inhibitions. That recognition, I think, is one of the values of this film.

On the surface there’s plenty of melodramatic raw material here: an overgrown Southern Gothic quality to the setting that at times suggests Tennessee Williams in the wings; echoes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; an Eastern aristocratic class spurned in favor of a bohemian life style; etc. To whatever extent we are aware of this is an indication of our conditioning by conventional forms of drama in literature, the stage, and the fiction film. It is to the Maysles’ credit that they didn’t exploit these aspects, but simply presented them as they saw them.

Big Edie, David & Al Maysles, Little Edie

Big Edie, David & Al Maysles, Little Edie

In 1971 Al Maysles said, “We preserve a kind of spontaneous quality of the diary and then make a novel out of the film – without committing it to fiction or an artificial kind of structure.” The documentary filmmaker has an artist’s prerogative to edit and organize the material, but also a responsibility to do so in a way that conveys a sense of the truth as perceived by the filmmaker. To that extent we have to trust the filmmaker. I tend to trust the Maysles.

It’s been charged that Grey Gardens is an invasion of the Beales’ privacy, that they’ve been exploited by the Maysles. And at times, watching Edie dance for an unblinking camera, it seems that maybe they are being taken advantage of. But it’s hard to believe that as we become increasingly aware of just how turned-on by the camera they are, especially Edie. It’s sometimes as though Edie is offering evidence in support of her existence. If the film is taking advantage of the Beales, then they are just as certainly taking advantage of the film.

The Maysles’ presence is never hidden in the film. They are constantly being referred to in Edith and Edie’s often concurrent monologues. They are welcome visitors at Grey Gardens. It’s obvious that the Beales, who are very much aware that a film is being made, regard Al and David with trust and friendship. The Maysles act as a surrogate film audience, and to that extent we are drawn in very close indeed. I really feel that the way Edith and Edie have chosen to present themselves in this film is the way they would have if I were right there, an unlikely visitor at Grey Gardens myself.

Little Edie & film poster

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Grey Gardens was shown at the university on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, with a four-hour workshop with Al Maysles on campus that Saturday. I gave Maysles a copy of my review after one of the Friday night screenings. At the workshop the next day, he told me how much he’d liked it. This made me feel great, as you might imagine. It feels like I saw basically the same film in 2015 as I did in 1976, though I think I had much more compassion for the Beales this time around. This might be because I’m older now myself, and it’s easier to empathize. Big and Little Edie are eccentric for sure, completely crazy at times, and probably very tough to be around for any length of time, but Grey Gardens is not a freak show.

Grey Gardens-musical posterA fascinating thing about Grey Gardens is the multiple lives it’s had over the years. A musical version opened Off-Broadway in February of 2006, subsequently moving to Broadway that November. It was quite successful, and there have been productions in Australia, Canada, and Japan. An Independent Lens documentary about the making of the musical, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, was screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2007, and later aired on PBS. This was the first musical to be adapted from a Grey Gardens HBO-posterdocumentary film. Grey Gardens seemed to me like an odd choice to make into a musical, but if something works, it works. Maybe we’ll see musical versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead on Broadway one of these seasons. But I digress.

In 2009, HBO produced a TV movie called Grey Gardens. Starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, this version dramatizes the shooting of the Maysles film, as well as events occurring both before and after, showing us the Beales earlier in their lives and at the premiere of the actual documentary. I don’t remember it that well, but Lange and Barrymore nailed Edith and Edie’s speech patterns and intonations.

In 2006, Al Maysles put together another documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, assembled from outtakes from the 50 hours of footage shot for the original film. I haven’t seen this film, but I gather it acts as a kind of supplement to the first, expanding on that film and the Beales’ frequently contentious relationship. When a film has generated as much interest as Grey Gardens has over the years, it’s not surprising that people would want to see more of it. The film and the Beales resonated with audiences in ways that have supported the various recreations. Nearly 40 years later, Grey Gardens is just as vibrant and bizarre — and human — as ever.

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Al Maysles3After seeing Grey Gardens last Friday, it was quite a jolt to learn later that day that Al Maysles had died the night before at age 88. Al and his brother David (who died in 1987 at age 54) were major figures in the field of documentary film. True pioneers, along with D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, and Richard Leacock, they helped develop cinema vérité and Direct Cinema as we know it, aided by the new lightweight cameras and sound equipment. Of their many films, standouts also include Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970). Despite pushing 90, Al had not slowed down at all. His new film Iris, about fashion icon Iris Apfel, premiered at the New York Film Festival last year and will open at Film Forum on April 29. Based on the trailer, it looks fascinating. Al also had other films in the pipeline. It’s impossible to over-estimate his importance in the world of film. He will be greatly missed. – Ted Hicks

The Maysle Brothers, Al & Dave

The Maysle Brothers, Al & Dave

 

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On the Merry-Go-Round: A Month of Movies

Chimes at Midnight-posterChimes at Midnight-Moreau & Welles

Sunday, February 1st. I headed down to Film Forum for the 5:30pm showing of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965), aka Falstaff, considered by many to be Welles’ greatest achievement, and which Welles himself has called his best film. Since I’d never seen it before, and since it’s rarely screened and currently unavailable in this country on home video (except as an import), I thought I’d better check it out while I had the chance. I found much of the dialogue — taken from five of Shakespeare’s history plays — difficult to follow, though this may have as much to do with my hearing as anything else. But visually it’s amazing, as you’d expect from Welles.

Tuesday, February 3rd. Back to Film Forum for the final day of the five-week Welles series to see A Man for All Seasons (d. Fred Zinnemann, 1966), in which Welles makes a brief but powerful appearance as Cardinal Wolsey. I don’t think I’d seen this since the initial release in ’66. This film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Paul Scofield is great in the lead role Sir Thomas More, as is Robert Shaw as Henry VIII. But there’s a bit of an embalmed feeling to the film seeing it now.

Man for All Seasons-posterJamaica Inn-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, February 6th. Off to Film Forum again for a 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1939), which kicks off a three-week series of Charles Laughton films. This is a rare period piece for Hitchcock. He’d already made The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), which are unmistakably Hitchcock films, but it’s hard to see his hand anywhere in Jamaica Inn. Nonetheless, it does crank up a fair amount of tension and excitement in the climactic sequence. Maureen O’Hara is quite good in her film debut, but Laughton’s performance is overcooked beyond belief.

Losing Ground-posterSaturday, February 7th. Seeing Losing Ground (d. Kathleen Collins, 1982) at the Walter Reade Theater. My wife read about this film, which was part of a series from the Film Society of Lincoln Center called “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986,” and thought it sounded interesting, so we went. The Film Society’s website describes it as “…one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman, and a groundbreaking romance exploring women’s sexuality, modern marriage, and the life of artists and scholars.” There’s a kind of roughness to the production, but the film is carried by strong performances and the dynamics of the situations.

Monday, February 9th. Mutiny on the Bounty (d. Frank Lloyd, 1935) at Film Forum. Mutiny on the Bounty-poster2Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh is pretty definitive, though his performance seems a little overdone. This is probably reflective of the more theatrical acting styles often seen in films of this period. Clark Gable’s and Franchot Tone’s performances are restrained by comparison, and somewhat more relatable. It’s a rousing story, and everything leads to the mutiny, but I didn’t like it as much as I remembered when I’d seen it before.

Wednesday, February 11th. Once more in residence at Film Forum, this time for the start of a week-long series of ten features directed by John Boorman, starting with Point Blank (1967), one of my favorite films. This is a kind of sunshine noir, set in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Lee Marvin as the vengeful Walker, possibly back from the dead or dreaming, who just wants the money he was cheated out of by the best friend who shot him and took his wife in the bargain. Influenced by European filmmaking styles in terms of editing and structure, Point Blank put Boorman on the map with only his second feature, and it’s a showcase for Lee Marvin in one of his most iconic roles. Here’s a clip of Marvin in one of the all-time great screen entrances (he appears in scenes before this in the film, but this is his real entrance).

Thursday, February 12th. Jupiter Ascending (d. Andy & Lana Wachowski) had been pretty thoroughly trashed in reviews, but I guess I just had to see for myself, so I went to the AMC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex for a mid-morning showing. The movie is truly insane, and not in a good way. The Wachowskis made a huge impact with The Matrix (1999), a film I really love. But they failed to follow though with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both 2003), sequels that are tiresome and ridiculous. Cloud Atlas (2008) was visually stunning, but grossly overdone. The Jupiter Ascending-Kunis falling2Wachowskis are world builders who somehow manage to get super-huge budgets to make movies, though after the thud of Jupiter Ascending, it will be interesting to see if they can continue to do so. Mila Kunis spends a good deal of the film falling from great heights while suffering no damage whatsoever. Channing Tatum, an actor who Jupiter Ascending-TatumJupitor Ascending-Eddie Redmaynehas impressed me in a wide variety of roles, here looks more like an elf-man than the genetically-engineered wolf/man hybrid he’s apparently supposed to be. It’s hard to take him seriously with those ears. And Eddie Redmayne is probably lucky that Academy voters didn’t see him in this film before voting on his performance in The Theory of Everything.

**** I emerged relatively unscathed from Jupitor Ascending with enough time to get down Old Dark House-posterto Film Forum (again!) to see two more films in the Charles Laughton series: The Old Dark House (1932) and Devil in the Deep (1932). I normally don’t choose to see three films in one day, but sometimes it happens. The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale with his usual playful touch, is more of a farce than a horror film, though it was marketed as such by Universal. Disparate groups of travelers are forced by a severe storm to take shelter in a house inhabited by a totally off-kilter family. To say they’re eccentric is putting it mildly. In his first American film, Laughton is part of an ensemble cast that includes the great Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, with Boris Karloff as a mute, alcoholic butler who lurks about the premises lending a horror movie vibe.

Raymond Massey, Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger

Raymond Massey, Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger

I’d seen The Old Dark House once or twice before, but had never heard of Devil and the Deep. The casting is intriguing. Laughton plays a jealous submarine commander based in North Africa, with Tallulah Bankhead as his deeply unhappy wife, and Cary Grant and Gary Cooper as naval officers.  She is drawn first to Grant and then Cooper, after the insanely jealous Laughton has had Grant transferred far away. My interest was mainly in seeing Grant and Cooper at this early stage in their careers. Laughton was once again over the top, but effectively so. For me, the film is more of a curiosity than anything else.

Cooper, Bankhead, Laughton

Cooper, Bankhead, Laughton

Friday, February 13th. What We Do in the Shadows at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. I’d been wanting to see this since I first heard about it last year. Written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who also act in the film, What We Do in the Shadows takes the form of a faux-documentary being shot in a house shared by four vampires in New Zealand as they go about their daily (or nightly) undead lives. Much of their existence is taken up by very mundane stuff — such as arguing about who has been slacking on his assigned chores, not doing the dishes, etc. This is all very funny, given the context. What We Do in the Shadows is definitely a comedy, albeit one with lots of splattered blood.

What We Do in the Shadows-bathroom

Saturday, February 14th. At the AMC Loews 84th Street 6 to see Kingsman: The Secret Service (Director/Writer: Matthew Vaughn). I’d been looking forward to this and was not disappointed. One of the kicks is seeing an actor like Colin Firth in a secret agent actionKingsman-church massacre film loaded with James Bond gadgetry and exploding heads. For me the centerpiece of the film is a massacre in an evangelical church in the South set to the instrumental break from Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird.”  This is the best use of that song since Robin Wright teetered on the edge of a high-rise balcony contemplating suicide in Forrest Gump (1994). This movie may have no redeeming social value whatsoever, but what a rush that sequence is!

Gett-posterSunday, February 15th. A total change of pace with Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz have written and directed this film about the efforts of an Israeli woman (played by Ronit Elkabetz) to obtain a divorce, or “gett,” from her husband. In Israel, only a rabbinic court can sanction marriages and grant divorces. The husband has all the power; if he doesn’t agree to the divorce, the court can’t force him. Viviane is frustrated every step of the way, in a process that drags on for five years as her husband Elisha refuses to grant the divorce. The filmmakers’ approach is minimalist and controlled. We are never out of the small courtroom or adjacent waiting areas. There are no windows or decorations in the rooms, no distractions whatsoever. Music is used sparingly and to great effect. This film wears you down and makes you angry, but it needs to be seen.

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In the interest of time, space, and attention span, I’m going to speed this up a bit for the remaining films.

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Thursday, February 19th. Timbuktu at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times provides context that I wish I’d had going in, but it’s an extraordinary film in any event.

Timbuktu-poster2

Friday, February 20th. Wild Tales at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, directed by Damián Szifrón.

Friday, February 20th. Queen and Country at Film Forum, directed by John Boorman. This is great, the latest and possibly final film from this director. I plan to write about it and other Boorman films at a later date.

Sunday, February 22ndBallet 422 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, directed by Jody Lee Lipes.

Tuesday, February 24th. Seymour: An Introduction, directed by Ethan Hawke. This is a wonderful documentary focusing on a truly special soul, pianist Seymour Bernstein. I plan to write about this film when it opens on March 13th. It soars with Seymour’s spirit. The music is so unbelievably beautiful that it’s almost supernatural.

Man on the Eiffel Tower-posterThe Bribe-posterWednesday, February 25th. Back to Film Forum for two more Charles Laughton films, The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949, directed by Burgess Meredith) and The Bribe (1949, directed by Robert Z. Leonard). Both are vaguely noirish. I hadn’t heard of either of them, but they’re pretty intersting, especially The Man on the Eiffel Tower.

Advise & Consent-poster2Thursday, February 26th. Film Forum again for the final day of the Charles Laughton series with Advise & Consent (1962, directed by Otto Preminger). This was  Laughton’s final film; he died six months after it was released. Laughton is excellent as a cantankerous Southern senator. Walter Pigeon is also very good in a large cast that includes Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, and Gene Tierney. It was interesting seeing this film the day before Netflix began streaming the third season of House of Cards. The political manipulations, in-fighting, and backstabbing don’t seem all that different from then to now.

Friday, February 27th. Maps to the Stars at the IFC Center, directed by David Cronenberg. Cronenberg got his start making science-fiction horror films that were a cut far above the usual fare. But even when his films are set in the so-called “real” world, they tend to convey exceedingly strange, uneasy feelings. This film is no exception. No one can create a sense of dread in ordinary settings the way Cronenberg can. Julianne Moore is great in this.

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

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“The Fall” & “Grantchester” – The UK Strikes Again!

The Fall-posterGrantchester-posterI had planned to include The Fall in my recent recap of the best (in my opinion) TV shows of 2014, but decided not to when I found that we’d watched the first season in September 2013 instead of sometime last year, as I’d initially thought. The second season began streaming on Netflix this January, so I thought it was out of bounds. I hadn’t heard of Grantchester until just before it starting airing last month on Masterpiece Mystery following Downton Abbey on Sundays. Both series are so good that rather than wait, I want to write briefly about them now.

The Fall (BBC Two, Netflix)  This series was written entirely by Allan Cubitt, who also directed all six episodes of the second season; Jakob Verbruggen directed the five epsiodes of the first season. Yes, it’s another cop show with yet another serial killer of women at the center of the plot, but this one is rather different, it seems to me. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is assigned to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to evaluate a murder investigation that is still open after 28 days. When it becomes apparent a serial killer is involved, she stays on to oversee the operation. We see the killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), almost immediately. Each episode alternates scenes of Spector with scenes of Stella; almost equal time is given to both. I like police procedurals, but The Fall is also a kind of serial-killer procedural, which puts us uncomfortably close to this guy.

As Spector, Jamie Dornan is intensely methodical, precise, controlled, and focused almost like a machine, rarely showing emotion. We see him at his day job as a bereavement counselor, which he seems to be very good at, and very empathetic. This is quite disturbing considering his night work as a serial killer, at which he’s also very good. Jamie Dornan, a former Calvin Klein model, is authentically frightening in the role. He’s about to gain a much bigger profile after the much-hyped Fifty Shades of Grey opens, in which he plays the male lead.

Jamie Dornan - "The Fall"

Jamie Dornan – “The Fall”

Fifty Shades of Grey-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gillian Anderson is outstanding as Stella Gibson, a cop every bit as focused as Paul Spector. Stella is a layered character with demons of her own. Anderson is best known for her role as FBI agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, which she played for nine years from 1993 to 2002. The Fall also features Archie Panjabi as pathologist Dr. Paula Smith. I’ve known her mainly as Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, so it was great to see her in another guise.

Here’s Stella in action as she’s being questioned about her dalliance with a police sergeant on the force. This is from season one.

There’s talk of a third season, which seems inevitable considering how well The Fall has been received both here and in the UK. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

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Grantchester (ITV, PBS)  What got our attention when we started seeing Masterpiece Mystery promos for this series was that James Norton was in the cast. He was still fresh in our minds for his committed performance as the villain in Happy Valley, one of my favorite shows from last year. His character in that series, Tommy Lee Royce, was as threatening and disturbing as Paul Spector was in The Fall. Here he plays an Anglican vicar in the village of Grantchester, near Cambridge in England, in the early 1950s. There was no period of adjustment; we immediately accepted him in this radically different role.

©ITV All images are Copyright of LOVELY DAY PRODUCTION and Pictures can only be used in relation to GRANTCHESTER 2014. For more info please contact patrick.smith@itv.com or call 0207157 3044Based on novels by James Runcie, the series follows a vicar, Sidney Chambers, as he goes about his life in the community, and manages to help solve murders along the way. He forms an alliance with an initially reluctant local policeman, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating. Keating is played by Robson Green, who was in Touching Evil (1997-1999) and A Wire in the Blood (2002-2008), two British series I’ve heard good things about but haven’t seen. He and Norton have great chemistry and their characters make a good team.

We’ve only seen four of the six episodes in this season of Grantchester, but so far it’s been excellent, very easygoing and a pleasure to watch. The mysteries often don’t seem any more important than the problems and challenges Sydney is having in his personal life. For example, the woman he’s in love with has announced her pending marriage to another man. And while it might not seem credible that Sydney would encounter a murder one week after the next, it doesn’t really matter; that’s what the show is, and I gladly accept it. While it doesn’t have the noirish, hardboiled edge I usually look for in these things, Grantchester nonetheless plays for keeps. A second season has been announced.

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Both seasons of The Fall can be streamed via Netflix. Grantchester is currently airing on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday nights following Downton Abbey. – Ted Hicks

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What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2014

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The Affair (Showtime)  This 10-part series is a jig-saw puzzle to be sorted out by the viewer. By the end of the season finale, the complete picture is only beginning to take shape. The Affair has been renewed for a second season, and I have the feeling that things will completely fall into place only after everything is over. I was irritated at times by the scrambled chronology and different takes on the same events, as seen by the two main The Affair-cast photocharacters. I wasn’t sure why the story was being told that way, other than to be different. I’m still not sure, but I always found the episodes compelling, and they kept me watching. The cast is especially strong, lead by Dominic West, who has a knack for playing deeply flawed characters (which he did to perfection in The Wire and The Hour), Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson.

The Americans-posterThe Americans (FX)  This is a great series. I was skeptical of the premise when I first heard about it: KGB sleeper agents raising a family in Washington, D.C. in the early 80s while they spy for the Soviet Union. But it really works, and The Americans quickly became our favorite new show when it debuted two years ago. As is frequently the case, strong performances help immeasurably. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are great as Elizabeth Jennings and her husband Philip. Noah Emmerich quietly stands out as their neighbor Stan, an FBI agent who so far has no clue that Russian spies live just across the street. Margo Martindale is awesome as usual as Claudia, the Jennings’ KGB handler, though her character has apparently been phased out.

Fargo (FX)  This 10-part series really captures the tone and spirit of the Joel and Ethan Coen feature film from 1996. While not repeating the plot line of that film, the series definitely exists in the same universe the Coens created. Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, and Billy Bob Thornton are standouts in a cast that is terrific all around. Tolman’s Deputy Molly Solverson and Freeman’s Lester Nygaard are analogs to characters played by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy in the feature film. I hadn’t seen Allison Tolman before this, but she really nails it. Martin Freeman has been terrific as Dr. Watson in the great BBC series, Sherlock, and he’s equally amazing here. Fargo is violent, sad, funny, twisted, noirish, and quite moving — sometimes all at the same time.

Fargo-poster2The following compilation of teaser spots that aired in advance of the show’s premiere last April conveys a good sense of what to expect.

The Game (BBCAmerica)  This labyrinthine spy story, set in London in 1972 in the midst of the Cold War, has a distinct John le Carré vibe, which may not be surprising when you have MI5 agents working to uncover and understand a covert Soviet plan called “Operation Glass,” mixed with enemy agents, moles, betrayals, in-fighting, and lost loves. The central character, Joe Lambe, is played by Tom Hughes, an actor who projects a somewhat otherworldly quality, with a combination of vulnerability, intelligence, and toughness. The head of the MI5 unit, known as “Daddy,” is played by Brian Cox, a veteran actor with 198 film & television credits going back to 1965. I first remember seeing him as Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s excellent Manhunter (1986), the first on-screen appearance of Lecter. He made quite an impression in that film, very disturbing with none of the silky charm that Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter often had. The rest of the cast is equally good in this satisfying and involving series.

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Happy Valley (Netflix)  I’m a sucker for BBC series, and this is another great one. Created and written by Sally Wainwright, the six-part Happy Valley follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a police sergeant in a small town in Yorkshire, as she goes after Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who she believes is responsible for the rape and subsequent suicide of her daughter. Along the way there is drug-trafficking and an ill-fated kidnapping plot that spirals out of control, much like the one in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Lancashire is great as Cawood, a tough-minded cop who shows she can take a punch and then some. Cawood’s sister Clare, a recovering drug addict, is played by Siobhan Finnernan, who it took me awhile to realize was the same actress who played the scheming O’Brien on Downton Abbey. James Norton’s Royce is a monster, a truly bad man. It’s a bit of a jolt to now be seeing him as a sleuthing vicar in postwar Britain on Grantchester (PBS), a genuinely charming fellow. I guess that’s why they call it “acting.” Happy Valley is very tough and very human. A second season is in the works.

Happy Valley led us back to a previous series created and written by Sally Wainwright Last Tango in Halifax-cast photocalled Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix). There are two six-part seasons currently available, and we proceeded to burn through both in short order. Sarah Lancashire also stars in this, along with Derek Jacobi, Ann Reid, and Nicola Walker. Jacobi and Reid play former almost-sweethearts, both widowers in their 70s, who re-unite via Facebook and decide to get married. The series shows how this works out, along with the impact on their grown children and grandchildren, who have their own dramas. This is a different world from Happy Valley, though both are set in Yorkshire, but it’s just as good.

House of Cards-Frank & ClaireHouse of Cards (Netflix)  In a role he was born to play, Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a Washington politician who schemes with every breath he takes. Equally strong is Robin Wright as Frank’s wife Claire, who is every bit as ruthless as her husband. Together they make a modern-day Lord and Lady Macbeth, though I doubt Claire will ever worry about washing blood off her hands. This is the series that established Netflix as a major player, with Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Awards to prove it. It’s an A-list show. David Fincher directed the pilot episode and is an Executive Producer on the series. Other directors include Carl Franklin, James Foley, Joel Schumacher, and Jodie Foster. House of Cards is utterly compelling, and in a creepy way makes you feel that it’s probably pretty close to how Washington works. These are horrible people, but you can’t take your eyes off them.

House of Cards is based on the excellent BBC series of the same name that ran for three seasons from 1990 to 1995. That series can also be streamed on Netflix.

Manhattan (WGN)  This excellent 13-part series is a fictionalized account of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, focusing on the civilian scientists and military working in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The setting is evocative of the many 1950s science-fiction films that took place in the desert, which adds to the somewhat surreal ambience. This is like retro sci-fi. The ensemble cast embodies the personal dramas and many storylines that play out within the confines of this hothouse atmosphere, all against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project. Manhattan has been renewed for a second season.

Masters of Sex (Showtime) This series, which began in two years ago, follows the relationship between William Masters and Virginia Johnson during their ground-breaking research into human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Michael Sheen portrays Masters as a pioneer convinced of his superiority and the importance of his study. His Masters is also petty, vindictive, tightly wrapped, and deeply repressed — which is ironic considering the nature of the work he’s doing. It’s a consistent performance that never wavers, but I frequently hoped that someone would punch him. As Virginia Johnson, Libby Caplan is

Masters of Sex-Bill & Virginiathe heart of the show. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, and she’s just great. Standouts from the first season include Beau Bridges as the closeted provost of the university where Masters works, and Allison Janney as his wife. Their characters and storylines were so strong that I wish they’d been around more in the second season. Masters of Sex is an excellent series that captures the 50s and 60s without hitting you over the head with period detail.

Mindy Project-cast photoThe Mindy Project (Fox)  Created by and starring Mindy Kaling, previously a writer and actor on The Office (NBC, 2005 – 2013). Though I find it irritating at times, the strong cast and performances often conspire with great writing and timing to achieve a kind of surreal lunacy that’s quite wonderful. For me, The Mindy Project is at its best when it’s most unhinged. It can also be a refreshing palate cleanser for some of the heavier stuff we watch.

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)  Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her year in a women’s prison, this fictionalized series expands on that book. It concerns Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) after she’s been sentenced to 15 months for transporting a suitcase full of drug money nearly ten years earlier. There have been two seasons so far, with a third available later this year. A large ensemble of memorable characters embodies a storyline that’s both funny and harrowing. As with all the series cited in this post, the cast is great.

Ray Donovan (Showtime)  This series is hardboiled from head to toe. Ray Donovan is a “fixer” in Los Angeles. For example, if you’re a pro basketball player who wakes up in a hotel room with a dead woman in your bed, Ray’s the guy you call. It’s like that. Ray can take care of anything. But he has too many irons in the fire, and his life is spiraling out of control. Liev Schreiber brings a lethal authority to the character. Jon Voight has the role of a lifetime as Ray’s ex-con father Mickey. It’s a performance with all the stops pulled out. Nothing good happens when Mickey is around.  Eddie Marsan, a veteran of many Mike Leigh films, plays Terry Donovan, Ray’s angry older brother, an ex-fighter with Parkinson’s who runs a boxing club that’s the nexus for many scenes. Another standout among many is Hank Azaria as a conviving FBI agent. A wide variety of characters move in and out of Ray’s world. It’s not a happy place and it’s short on laughs. Noir is alive and well in this totally compelling show.

Sherlock (PBS)  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman couldn’t be better as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this modern-day updating of the classic stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock was created and largely written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both of whom are also involved with the Doctor Who series (where Moffat has been the showrunner and lead writer since 2010). I came late to this series (yet another great one from the BBC), but I truly love it. One of the neatest things about it is the way Sherlock incorporates present-day technology in the reworking of the original stories. Holmes Sherlockdefinitely exists in the 21st century, but he’s also the traditional Holmes. I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch as British prime minister William Pitt in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006). He’s become a real star during the last several years, turning up with increasing frequency on magazine covers and in many productions such as Parade’s End (HBO mini-series, 2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and The Imitation Game (2014), as well as voicing the dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s last two overblown Hobbit films. I think his current status as a hot commodity was mainly launched by the intense popularity of his performance in Sherlock. And he’s become quite the sex symbol, in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the asexual vibe his Sherlock gives off. Martin Freeman is a great Dr. Watson, often angry and frustrated with Holmes’ behavior, leagues away from the bumbling Watson seen in the Basil Rathbone films. Andrew Scott as Holmes’ nemesis, Jim Moriarty, is a truly frightening character, completely nuts, and as smart as Sherlock, which makes him even scarier.

My favorite moment in the entire series so far (to date there have been three seasons with three episodes each to date, all available for streaming on Netflix) is when Sherlock gives his “Best Man Speech” at the reception for Watson’s marriage in “The Sign of Three” episode from last year. Here is Sherlock at his most alien and his most human. It’s a powerfully emotional scene, and very funny to boot.

Silicon Valley (HBO)  Co-created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, this series follows the efforts of six young men to get a startup off the ground in Silicon Valley. The more or less central character is Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), a socially-inept programmer who has created a music app called Pied Piper, which is subsequently found to contain a radically advanced data compression algorithm. TheSilicon Valley-cast banner team plans to present Pied Piper at something called TechCrunch Disrupt, a competition for unfunded startups. These characters are classically nerdy, simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, none more so than Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the deluded heart of the show. The following scene from the season finale is my favorite of the entire season. In it, Erlich says that, despite a serious setback at the competition the day before, “We’re going to win even if I have to go in the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience.” This absurd non sequitur inspires them to try to figure out how this would even be possible. They apply the same rigorous logic to it as they would to anything they were trying to solve. To me, it’s not at all salacious or vulgar because of the way it’s dealt with. The content may be juvenile and ridiculous, but to the team it’s just a problem to be worked out. (When you click to play, this message appears: “Watch this video on YouTube.” Click on that line and the video will play in all its glory.)

True Detective-poster2True Detective (HBO)  As dark and bleak as it gets, hardcore and hardboiled. Created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, with all episodes directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, this eight-part series stars Matthew McConaughey and Wood Harrelson as Louisiana State Police homicide cops. Both actors have never been better, which is saying something. The relationship between Rust Cohle (McConaughhey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) during their involvement with a serial-killer case over the course of 17 years is at the heart of the story. Rust’s coldly pessimistic world view confounds and often angers Marty as they confront a sad and mournful landscape that has a profound evil breathing just beneath the surface. The following scene goes a long way to define that relationship.

Veep (HBO)  I first became aware of Armando Iannucci’s lacerating dialogue in the feature film In the Loop (2009). In that film, Peter Capaldi spewed an endless barrage of breathtaking profanity in everyone’s direction. Veep, created by Iannucci, proudly extends that tradition. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, the foul-mouthed Vice President of the United States. She’s great in the role. Standouts in the excellent cast include Tony Hale as Gary Walsh, Selina’s personal aide, and Matt Walsh as Mike McLintock, her Director of Communications. Selina is constantly screwing things up, usually with the help of the people around her. The writing is amazing. It’s a very funny show.

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Holdovers from my “Best TV of 2012” post (due to severe procrastination, I didn’t do a wrap-up for 2013):

Downton Abbey (PBS)

The Good Wife (CBS)

Justified (FX)

Mad Men (AMC)

The Simpsons (Fox)

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Most of these shows are available for streaming from one source or another. – Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2014

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CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, director). Most documentaries, much like histories, tell their stories in retrospect, looking back to evaluate events that have already happened. Citizen Four unfolds largely in the moment. During the long opening section, Laura Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald are sequestered with Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong. We’re with them for several days as they discuss and debate the best way to release classified information that shows evidence of widespread, invasive surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). We see this happening right now, and it’s quite thrilling. It’s interesting watching Snowden as he becomes increasingly aware that he’s got a tiger by the tail. A superior film all the way, and pretty scary to boot.

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, director). In 2010, the Islamic Revolutionary Court convicted, Jafar Panahi, a major Iranian film director, of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He was sentenced to six years of house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years. Despite that, in 2011 he managed, using a digital camera and an iPhone in collaboration with filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmsb, to make This Is Not a Film, which was put on a USB thumb drive, smuggled out of Iran hidden inside a cake, and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Spy movie stuff, right? This Is Not a Film is close to unclassifiable, stretching the boundaries of fiction and documentary as it does. Closed Curtain goes even further. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (Chiemi Karasawa, director). See my previous post on this film.

Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra Farahani, director). In 2010, Mitra Farahani, an Fifi Howls from Happiness-posterIranian filmmaker living in Paris, found out that Bahman Mohassess, an Iranian painter and sculptor, had been reclusively living in exile in Rome during the many years since disappearing from public view. She convinced Mohassess to let her make a film about his life and work, and what he’s been up to. Fifi Howls from Happiness (is that a great title or what?) is the result, and it’s quite special. It would be difficult to make up a character like Mohassess. Much of his work had been destroyed (often by Mohassess himself, which is hard to fathom). This is a real shame, based on what has survived that we see in the film. Fifi Howls from Happiness is funny, sad, quirky, self-reflexive, and altogether different than you might expect going in. Not that the wonderful title gives you any clue (though it is explained before the film is over).

The New York Times review of the film goes into more detail.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, directors). The bizarre story of Vivian Maier, an eccentric and reclusive nanny in Chicago who, it turns out, was an anonymous street photographer who took over 100,000 photographs. Finding Vivian Maier shows director John Maloof’s efforts to unravel this woman’s strange life and hidden career. As the film goes deeper, things just gets weirder. It’s utterly compelling.

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, director). This is the 43rd film Frederick Wiseman has made since Titicut Follies in 1967. He’s made a career out of examining institutions of all kinds, often at lengths of three to four hours, without identifying titles, narration, or talking-head interviews. Nothing fancy; we’re just there. This is immersive, in-the-moment filmmaking. Wiseman is one of the greatest living filmmakers, who at age 85 does not appear to be slowing down; if anything, he seems to be at the peak of his abilities.

Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, director). Here’s what I wrote to a friend after seeing this film last March: “Just saw Particle Fever. It is f**king amazing, mind-blowing. I know virtually nothing about physics and am weak in math, but this film makes all the theoretical and experimental stuff about the Hadron Collider in Geneva and the search for the Higgs bosun “God particle” very exciting and almost accessible to someone such as slow as myself. You’ve got to see this.” One of my favorite scenes shows two physicists in Princeton discussing this stuff as they play ping-pong, using the ceiling and walls as playing surfaces as well as the table. I’d never seen anything like this. It was such a literal representation of how these guys’ minds work. Particle Fever is terrific filmmaking with fascinating characters. It plays like a thriller.

Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio, director). Until recently, my awareness of the Mekons was limited to just having heard their name. I knew nothing of their music. Sometime last year there was a post about them on Facebook, and I ended up watching a You Tube clip of their song, “Memphis Egypt,” which I loved. When I saw Revenge of the Mekons last October, I found out they’d been around for 30 years, and that there was a lot more to them than that song, great as it is.

To Be Takei (Jennifer Kroot, director). Is there anyone who doesn’t like George Takei? This film is a lot of fun, and also takes us into areas of his life I certainly didn’t know about, such as his years with his family in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and his relationship with his husband, Brad. To Be Takei may not impress technically or stylistically, but George and his life transcend any limitations that might suggest.

We Come as Friends (Herbert Sauper, director). This is a devastating documentary thatWe Come As Friends-poster plays almost like science fiction. We follow filmmaker Herbert Sauper as he flies around the Sudan in a tiny homemade airplane with a single-prop engine. This enables Sauper to visit places he wouldn’t have been able to reach, landing in fields and small air strips. The film begins shortly before North and South Sudan were partitioned in 2011. Rob Nelson in his Variety review wrote that “We Come as Friends” becomes more disturbing as it goes, building to a terrible crescendo…” This film shows us that colonialism is far from dead, and that Christian missionaries still roam the earth. We Come as Friends tells an ultimately tragic story. It should be necessary viewing, but so far remains unreleased, except for playing a number of film festivals earlier last year where it received nominations and awards from them all. I saw it last March in the annual New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. I’ve forgotten many of the details, but not the sense of growing outrage I felt as I watched.

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All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Citizen Four, National Gallery, and Revenge of the Mekons. I would expect that these films will be available soon. These things happen pretty fast these days. In the meantime, let’s let Mr. Sulu take us out. – Ted Hicks

To Be Takei-poster

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2014

Locke-posterAMVY_120_WEB.inddOf the approximately 230 feature films I saw last year, here are the 30 new films that stood out for me. Some of these choices are pretty obvious, others maybe not so much. These are films that entertained and sometimes challenged me, films that stayed true to the worlds they created, and generally made me feel better for having seen them. Or in some cases, just gave me a real kick.

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The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, director & writer). This Australian movie is scary as hell, though not in the obvious, cliched ways we usually see in run-of-the mill horror films. The Babadook is anchored, though in a very destabilizing way, by the extraordinary performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, as mother and son. This one takes you through the wringer.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams, co-directors). The energy and the look of this film reminded me of The Incredibles (2004). Very detailed and just great.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-writer). This whirlwind of a movie is something else. You either get on the ride and go with it, or get thrown off on a sharp turn. The conceit of having it edited in a way that suggests the entire film is one continuous take is quite thrilling, and adds to the feeling of non-stop momentum. The performances are great; this is acting with all the stops out. And for New York audiences it’s great that so much of it was shot in the Broadway theater district, which gives the film an authentic sense of place.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, director & writer). Shot over a 12 year period from May 2002 to October 2013, this film tells the story of Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) as we watch him age in real time from 6 to 18. There’s a documentary aspect to this that relates to Michael Apted’s great 7 Up series, which films the same set of people every 7 years (the most recent installment is 56 Up). When I was seeing Boyhood I started wondering if the story by itself would be strong enough to support all the attention the film has received if we didn’t know the extraordinary and unique way it was made. Because there didn’t seem to be anything much actually happening each time we checked in with Mason and his family. Then I realized that was sort of the point, that this is the way life plays out. There’s a point late in the film that was almost an epiphany for me, when Mason says with wonder, “It’s always right now!”

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Chef (Jon Favreau, director & writer). Not always believable, but extremely entertaining and it made me feel really good. Plus it was something of a revelation to see Sofia Vergara play a fairly realistic character instead of a caricature. Also nice seeing Jon Favreau gear down to a smaller, more personal scale from the blockbusters (Iron Man, for example) he’s been making the last few years.

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Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.

Cold in July (Jim Mickle, director; Nick Damici, writer). This is a very smart neo-noir that reinvigorates and upsets genre expectations. Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson are terrific. Johnson, especially, nearly walks away with the picture after his flamboyant entrance, and takes it in a darkly comic, though no less deadly, direction. The director’s and writer’s previous film, the excellent Stake Land (2010), was a take-no-prisoners tale of trying to survive in an economically and environmentally wasted landscape overrun by very down and dirty vampires. These filmmakers’ approach to genre reinvention is similar to what Adam Wingard and Simon Barret have done with this year’s other pleasant surprise, The Guest (see below).

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, director & writer). Jude Law, paunchy and dissolute, really gets his teeth into the role of the title character much the way Jon Voight does in Showtime’s Ray Donovan series as Ray’s monster of a father, Mickey. Law’s character is totally outrageous and extremely entertaining. With Emilia Clark, who plays Daenerys Targaryen — the “mother of dragons” — on HBO’s Game of Thrones, as Dom’s estranged daughter, and Richard E. Grant, who I’ll always remember from the equally out- there Withnail & I (1987), as Dom’s prickly sidekick.

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Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.

Generation War (Philipp Kadelbach, director; Stefan Kolditz, writer). Shown in three episodes on German television in 2013, Generation War was released theatrically in the U.S. in two parts. With a combined running time of over 4 1/2 hours, it’s a long haul, but definitely worth it. The plotting frequently has the five main characters, who are scattered all over the Eastern Front during World War II, manage to meet up in the same places at the same times. This contrivance pushes coincidence a little too far, but the strength of the film for me is in the combat sequences. These scenes are harrowing and brutal, the strongest I’ve seen since Stephen Spielberg radically raised the bar with Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, director & writer. Another of Wes Anderson’s incredibly detailed miniature worlds, filled with an assortment of eccentric characters portrayed by a great cast rushing from one absurd development to another. The increasingly frantic plot is secondary. Sometimes Anderson’s films get a bit too precious, but I really enjoyed this one. The performances are totally committed. The characters and events may be ridiculous, but the actors go at them with a deadpan seriousness.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, director & co-writer). I loved this movie beyond all reason. Which is ironic, since the print ads and trailers I’d seen before it was released made the film seem goofy and silly. I had no intention of seeing it, since I take my science fiction more seriously than that. Then I read some things that piqued my interest, so I gave it a shot. Amazing, the movie more than succeeded on every level. It felt like the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing from start to finish. Having the lead character listen to 80s pop songs throughout was a stroke of genius; the nostalgia they trigger somehow helps us connect more directly to the space-opera setting, and took Guardians to another level. This film was a thoroughly entertaining experience, and I must have been smiling a lot. Though I think my wife got a little tired of me saying “I am Groot!” for a couple of weeks after.

Groot

Groot

The Guest (Adam Wingard, director; Simon Barrett, writer). Dan Stevens is a long way from Downton Abbey in this very satisfying, tightly made thriller. The director and writer had previously made You’re Next (2013), another film I had no intention of seeing, based on the print ads. I didn’t need another home invasion movie, but I did see it and was totally sold. These guys have a way of taking familiar genre scenarios and twisting them into new shapes. You’re Next is probably a slightly better film — certainly a better title, which involves you right away — but The Guest does not disappoint. Part of the punch is seeing Dan Stevens inhabit this kind of character.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowska, director & co-writer). A very minimalist film, shot in luminous black & white in the old 1.33:1 screen ratio. Very quiet and very understated, both a road movie and a kind of thriller. I’ve seen it three times, the last at a screening room with Thelma Schoonmaker, editor of all of Martin Scorsese’s films, in the row behind us. On the way out, she said she thought Ida was a “little forced.” I don’t agree with that opinion, but considering the source, it made me think.

The Imitation Game (Morton Tyldum, director; Graham Moore, writer). The otherworldly Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and closeted gay man who helped to break the unbreakable German Enigma code during World War II, creating a prototype computer in the process. Morton Tyldum previously directed Headhunters, one of my favorite films from 2011.

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, director; James Lapine, writer). Before seeing it, I knew this had been a Broadway musical that combined several traditional fairy tales into one storyline, but not much more than that. We saw it on New Year’s Day at the Ziegfeld Theater, one of only two remaining single-screen theaters in Manhattan (the other is The Paris), and loved it. The musical numbers by Stephen Sondheim are quite thrilling. The entire cast is great, with Meryl Streep amazing as usual. Maybe even a little more so.

John Wick (Chad Stahelski, director; Derek Kolstad, writer). See my previous post on this film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, co-directors & co-writers). Everything in this movie is made out of Legos, even the water. The whole thing is a hoot. I especially liked Lego Batman. It took days after to get the song “Everything Is Awesome” out of my head. Talk about hooks, this was diabolical.

Locke (Steven Knight, director & writer). Some kind of great movie. If I had to pick only three or four films for the year, this would be one of them. This film takes place entirely inside a car with a single character on one stressful phone call after another, attempting to put out out fires while he drives through the night to London, determined to get there in time for a birth. It’s a bold experiment for a feature film, and it completely works. Tom Hardy is great in this — he’s also very good in The Drop (2014), starring with James Gandolfini in Gandolfini’s final film.

Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer). John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are great as two gay men who lose their New York apartment and have to live apart for the first time in 39 years until they can afford a new place. In the meantime, they stay with relatives and friends, which is an adjustment for everyone. This is an unsentimental film that respects its characters and conveys strong emotions.

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, director & writer). Oscar Isaac looks more and more like a leading man these days. After strong performances in Drive (2011) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), he steps up to a new level in a film that has echos of The Godfather Part 2, with a character that suggests Michael Corleone at times. Despite the title, this is not a particularly violent film, but set in the New York City of 1981, there’s an abundance of violence and tension in the air. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Isaac’s wife, probably the scariest character in the film. This is only the third feature written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Margin Call (2011) and All Is Lost (2013) are terrific; A Most Violent year continues the concerns and themes of those films.

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, director; Andrew Bovell, writer). See my previous post on this film.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, director & writer). Mike Leigh’s films are rather unique in that they are created from the ground up by Leigh and his cast over a long period of time with lengthy rehearsal periods before shooting begins. His films are put together in a truly organic way. You feel that life is being represented from the inside out. This is true for his period films as well as those with contemporary settings. Mr. Turner, which is about the life of British painter J.M.W. Turner, is no exception. Timothy Spall feels totally authentic in the title role, and the look of the film is extremely beautiful.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer). I have liked vampire movies since I was a kid, but most of them are pretty disappointing. Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula (1957), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993) are strong exceptions. That’s why I was happy to see Jim Jarmusch’s take on the subject, which sets up its own rules and stays true to them. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are vampires as hipsters, with homes in Detroit and Tangier. One of their vampire friends is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who talks of having written Shakespeare’s plays.  And they listen to the coolest music.

Salvo (Fabio Gassadonia & Antonio Piazza, co-directors & co-writers). An minimalist gangster film that weirdly reminded me of Camus’ The Stranger in terms of tone and spareness. There’s also a melancholy and sadness to the main character, Salvo, a hit man ordered by his boss to kill the sister of an enemy who tried and failed to assassinate the boss — no loose ends. It has one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in a long time.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, director). David Oyelowo gives a monumental performance as Martin Luther King Jr, making him more of a real person and less of an icon. A large cast of committed actors in both large and small roles brings to life the 1964 march on Selma, Alabama, a key event in the Civil Rights movement. There is, however, ongoing controversy, both pro and con, over the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever the truth of that, this is an important film, and very timely, given recent events.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, director; Anthony McCarten, writer). Eddie Redmayne has been getting a lot of attention for his performance as Stephen Hawking, and rightly so. Felicity Jones more than holds her own as his wife, Jane. Designed to be uplifting, and it is.

Time Out of Mind-Richard GereTime Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, director & writer). We saw this at the New York Film Festival last fall. Richard Gere plays a homeless man on the streets of NYC, which is unlike anything he’s ever done before. He said in a Q&A after the screening that this was the film he was most proud of being a part of. Time Out of Mind is a truly powerful film that may alter the way you regard the homeless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a distributor yet, which is a shame. I also liked Oren Moverman’s 2009 film, The Messenger, with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster members of a Casualty Notification Team tasked with informing families, wives and husbands that someone wasn’t coming home from the war. That film was really powerful, but this one feels way beyond that.

Tracks (John Curran, director; Marion Nelson, writer). See my previous post on this film.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, co-directors & co-writers). For over 20 years the Dardenne brothers have been making films with deeply humanistic concerns. This is the first time they have worked with a major star, Marian Cotillard, and she more than delivers. Two Days, One Night is a quietly detailed study that plays like a life and death thriller, which it is.

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All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Big Hero 6 (available 2/24/15), The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, John Wick (available 2/3/15), A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Time Out of Mind, Track, and Two Days, One Night. 

See you at the movies. - Ted Hicks

 

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