More Roundtables – Directors and Producers

As I mentioned in my previous post, the annual roundtable discussions curated by The Hollywood Reporter are conducted in this pandemic year via Zoom, rather than the participants being seated at an actual table.  In this post, we have directors and producers in discussion. In addition to The Hollywood Reporter, a second directors roundtable organized by The Los Angeles Times is also included. I watched these yesterday and earlier today, and found them engaging and informing. The first directors roundtable begins below.

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Directors Roundtable #1 (Running time: 55:44)

The seven directors taking part are listed below, along with titles and streaming availability of their films under discussion.

Regina King – One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime)

Spike Lee – Da Five Bloods (Netflix)

Chloé Zhao  – Nomadland (Hulu)

George C. Wolfe – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Paul Greengrass – News of the World (Amazon Prime)

Lee Isaac Chung – Minari (Film Forum & A25 sites through February 25; streaming services TBA thereafter)

George Clooney – The Midnight Sky (Netflix)

This discussion is moderated by Rebecca Keegan of The Hollywood Reporter.

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Directors Roundtable #2 (Running time: 48:12)

Aaron Sorkin

David Fincher

Regina King, Chloé Zhao, Spike Lee, and Paul Greengrass carry over from the previous directors roundtable, but what they discuss is basically new, covering  different aspects of the filmmaking process. They are joined by the following directors:

Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

David Fincher – Mank (Netflix)

This discussion is moderated by Mark Olson of The Los Angeles Times.

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Producers Roundtable (Running time: 41:51)

The six producers taking part are listed below, along with titles and streaming availability of their films under discussion.

Andy Samberg – Palm Springs (Hulu)

Ashley Levinson – Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie (both on Netflix)

Charles D. King – Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max)

Dede Gardner – Minari  (Film Forum & A25 sites through February 25; streaming services TBA thereafter)

Marc Platt – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

Eric Roth – Mank (Netflix)

The presence of Marc Platt and Eric Roth adds some interesting perspective from an older generation of filmmakers. Marc Platt, age 63, has a long list of producing credits going back to 1987, with films projected into 2023. Eric Roth, age 76, is probably better known as a screenwriter. His films include Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and many more. Despite all their experience in the business, they both sound like they’re still excited and engaged by making films.

This roundtable is moderated by Tatiana Siegel of The Hollywood Reporter.

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That’s all for now. See you next time. — Ted Hicks

NEWS FLASH! I just read that movie theaters will be reopening in early March in New York City, subject to limited capacity and other restrictions. This is good news. We’ll see how it works out.

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Posted in Feature films, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Cinematographers Roundtable + Quentin Tarantino & Roger Deakins and Christopher Nolan & Hoyte van Hoytema

The annual roundtable discussions curated by The Hollywood Reporter are conducted in this pandemic year via Zoom, rather than the participants being seated at an actual table. There’s an intimacy that’s lost by this physical separation. It’s a different vibe, but I think it still works. The first of these that I’m posting is a cinematographers roundtable, which I think is fascinating and informative. This will be followed by a video of Quentin Tarantino and cinematographer Roger Deakins debating shooting on film vs. digital. And finally, a video of Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema speaking on, among other things, how they strive to shoot as much in-camera as possible, with a minimal use of CGI effects.

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Cinematographer Roundtable (Running time: 47:31)

The six cinematographers taking part are listed below, along with titles and streaming availability of their most recent films.

Dariusz Wolski  – News of the World (Amazon Prime)

Erik Messerschmidt – Mank (Netflix)

Mandy Walker – Mulan (Amazon Prime)

Tami Reiker – One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime) & The Old Guard (Netflix)

Joshua James Richards – Nomadland (Hulu)

Damián García – I’m No Longer Here (Netflix)

The discussion is moderated by Carolyn Giardino of The Hollywood Reporter.

These are very sharp people who know what they’re doing, and this comes across. Something that Erik Messerschmidt says particularly got my attention: “I think cinematographers are over-credited for how movies look and under-credited for how the stories are told…Cinematographers end up taking a lot of credit for things that belong to the production designer or the costume designer.”

And now the full discussion.

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Quentin Tarantino & Roger Deakins on Digital vs. Film (10:04)

Tarantino sounds a little crazy in his delivery, like Daffy Duck blowing a fuse in a Warner Bros. cartoon. But he always seems excitable and very enthusiastic. That’s who he is. Roger Deakins is definitely the calmer of the two, and also more realistic on the issue.

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Christopher Nolan & Hoyte van Hoytema on shooting in-camera (10:15)

Hoyte van Hoytema & Christopher Nolan by IMAX camera.

It’s interesting that in this video Christopher Nolan holds a view similar to Tarantino’s regarding the value of film over digital, but he explains his views rationally and technically. He’s much less emotional than Tarantino.

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Roundtables on directors, producers, writers, documentary film, and more will follow shortly. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

Posted in Feature films, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

Best Documentaries 2020 – Supplemental

For those who would like to go a little deeper, here is a selection of interviews, discussions, reviews, and performance clips for the documentaries in the previous post. Running times for videos are indicated.

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The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, director)

Frank Marshall interview (9:14)

Director & Producer Q&A (24:45)

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City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, director)

Wiseman interview at the New York Film Festival (27:12)

Wiseman interview at Film Forum (56:51)

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 David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, director)

David Byrne talks with Spike Lee #1 (4:16)

David Byrne talks with Spike Lee #2 (4:50)

Byrne & Lee interview at Toronto International Film Festival (20:41)

Indie Wire review by David Ehrlich

Hollywood Reporter review by David Rooney

Variety review by Owen Gleiberman

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 Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, director & co-writer)

Kirsten Johnson on making the film (3:43)

Kirsten Johnson Q&A (47:23)

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Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy, director & co-writer)

 Viktor Kosakovskiy interview at the New York Film Festival (27:02)

New York Times review by Manohla Dargis

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Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (Gero von Boehm, director & writer)

Gero von Boehm & Isabella Rossellini interview at Film Forum (58:06)

Newton’s dream of photographing a chicken wearing high heels. Yes, the result is rather disturbing.

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, director, 1959)

Chuck Berry — “Sweet Little Sixteen” (4:04)

Anita O’Day — “Sweet Georgia Brown” & “Tea for Two” (8:18)

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 John Lewis: Good Trouble  (Dawn Porter, director)

Dawn Porter Q&A (31:50)

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 My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Eherlich & James Reed, directors & writers)

Pippa Eherlich interview (12:24)

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The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, director)

Dawn Porter & Pete Souza Q&A (52:54)

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Zappa (Alex Winter, director)

Alex Winter interview (10:45)

Alex Winter & editor Mike Nichols interview (23:55)

Ruth Underwood & Joe Travers perform Zappa’s composition, “The Black Page” (1:35)

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Ending this with a sign-off from Porky Pig. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Art, Books, Documentaries, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

What I Saw Last Year – Best Documentaries 2020

I didn’t see nearly as many documentaries in 2020 as I have in previous years. When Film Forum and the IFC Center closed down last March (along with all other movie theaters in New York City), the venues where I’d normally see new documentaries were no longer available. Theaters are still closed here, and much as I hate to say it, I don’t expect them to reopen any time soon.

So I began doing what I’m still doing, which is streaming films online. I didn’t realize until near the end of the year that I’d been concentrating mainly on theatrical features, old and new. The title of this post — “What I Saw Last Year” — is a bit of a misnomer. In an effort to catch up on some of the ones I’d missed, I saw seven of last year’s documentaries in January, and five of those made the cut. I still haven’t seen two of the eleven titles on the list, but I’ll explain why I’m including them.

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The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, director)  This was a huge revelation for me. I never had any of their albums, and before seeing this, whenever I thought of the Bee Gees, which wasn’t that often, the only thing that came to mind was Saturday Night Fever (1977) and the song “Stayin’ Alive” playing under the opening credits. I knew little of their career as it evolved over the years and their impact on pop music. Disco is just one facet of their music. This is an excellent film, and quite moving at times. Available on HBO Max.

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City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest living documentary filmmakers. His contribution has been immense. Wiseman’s films are important and even essential. They show us how our society operates in Wiseman’s granular studies of institutions and communities. I love his films, but still haven’t managed to see his latest, though I’ve had numerous opportunities since last fall. His films tend to run long, and City Hall is no exception. The film’s four and a half-hour running time is daunting, to be sure, but I know it will be worth it. I’ll see it eventually, even if it’s on my computer or our flat-screen. In the meantime, because I’ve never seen a Fred Wiseman film that wouldn’t be on one of my Best Documentaries lists, I’m including City Hall here. I don’t think I’m taking a chance at all.  Available on PBS – THIRTEEN Passport.

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David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, director)  This is great. American Utopia is a theatrical experience that transcends the notion of “concert film.” David Byrne is unique, a singular presence. The music, a mix of Talking Heads and newer songs, is  glorious. The presentation is mesmerizing and the effect is emotional and very human. Spike Lee might seem like an odd choice to direct this, but he does a great job of showcasing the material. Available on HBO Max.

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Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, director & co-writer)  I was really struck by Kirsten Johnson’s earlier film, Cameraperson (2016), which was comprised of documentary footage she’d shot over several decades. Her new film is something else again. It’s about her father and their relationship. He’s begun to show signs of dementia, and Kirsten wants to film him and be with him while he’s still lucid and alive. As a rather bizarre way to come to terms with his inevitable death, she stages scenes — with his enthusiastic cooperation — of his demise in a variety of scenarios, such as getting flattened by a falling air conditioner as he walks along a city sidewalk. This is then deconstructed as we see how she shot it. These weave in and out of the film. This might sound morbid, but it comes off as anything but. Dick Johnson Is Dead, narrated by the director, has more than a few surprises along the way. It’s funny and quite touching, with a serious subtext. And no actual fathers were harmed in the making of this movie. Available on Netflix.

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Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy, director & co-writer)  This is the second film on this list that I have not seen yet. It was available for streaming for a short period last fall, but I wasn’t paying attention, and it was gone before I knew it. I’m including it here because I love pigs, and also because Gunda has received virtually unanimous praise. I grew up on an Iowa farm where we raised beef cattle and pigs (but thankfully not chickens). Pigs are great, and I never tired of being amused by them, even as we trucked them off to the slaughterhouse. I regret not seeing it when I had the chance, but I imagine it will become available sometime this year, and I’ll definitely see it then.

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Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (Gero von Boehm, director & writer)  This is a fascinating study of the edgy, provocative fashion photographer, Helmut Newton. Isabella Rossellini is a standout among those interviewed on camera, who include Charlotte Rampling, Sigourney Weaver, Grace Jones, and Catherine Deneuve, and others. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, director)  Originally released in 1959, this is hardly a new film. I was blown away when I saw it for the first time last August. Since Jazz on a Summer’s Day was re-released in a beautiful 4K restoration in 2020, and because it’s so great, I’ve rationalized including it here. The film is filled with outstanding performances by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and many others. I was particularly taken with Anita O’Day’s set (and her incredible hat), along with Chuck Berry’s smooth performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It might seem odd at first to find Berry  playing at a jazz festival in 1959, but music categories are more fluid than that. Available on Amazon Prime.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble  (Dawn Porter, director)  I had been wanting to see this film since it was released last July, but didn’t get around to it until last month. John Lewis was a genuine American hero and a Civil Rights icon. This excellent documentary more than does him justice. Seen in the context of the recent White House administration, John Lewis’ life and character are a powerful example of how things can be. As he says in the film, “Speak up, speak out, and get in what I call good trouble. Necessary trouble, what is right.” He was arrested 40 times in the 1960s, and another five times while in Congress. He also says, “You only pass this way once and you have to give it all you have.” And this: “You get knocked down, you get back up, you keep going.” In 2o18 he said, “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.” Finally, during the end credits I was suddenly practically in tears, overwhelmed by the weight of what I’d seen. This film really gets your attention. Available on Amazon Prime.

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My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Eherlich & James Reed, directors & writers)  After seeing this excellent film, I realized I’d known basically nothing about octopuses. It turns out they are amazing creatures, aware and intelligent. My Octopus Teacher is one surprise after another, and quite moving in the bargain. Available on Netflix.

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The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, director)  The one-two punch of seeing this the day after I saw the John Lewis film was almost two much. I hadn’t heard of Peter Souza, the Chief Official White House Photographer during the Reagan and Obama administrations. What we see of his work in this documentary is amazing. At one point he says, “My goal was to create the best photographic archive of a president that had ever been done. Lasting images for history.” The contrasts we see between the recent administration and those of Reagan, LBJ, and especially Obama are heartbreaking (and infuriating). I was riding waves of emotion throughout this film. Note that the director, Dawn Porter, was also the director of John Lewis: Good Trouble. Both films seem essential to me. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Zappa (Alex Winter, director)  An excellent, seemingly comprehensive study of the life and work of Frank Zappa, an artist whose music transcends categories. His contributions can’t be over-estimated. This film is superior to anything else I’ve seen on him. Alex Winter had an unprecedented access to Zappa’s archives, material that largely hasn’t been seen or heard before.

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That wraps up this installment. Supplemental materials for these films will follow in a day or so. As always, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Art, Books, Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Music, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

Feature Films 2020: Best of the Rest – Supplemental

Here is a variety of supplemental materials for several of the titles in my previous post.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer)

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director)

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Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, director & co-writer)

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On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola, director & writer)

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Tenet (Christopher Nolan, director & writer)

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Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, director & writer)

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This wraps up my posts on the Best Feature Films of 2020. Next up will be documentaries, followed by television. See you then. — Ted Hicks

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Feature Films 2020 – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 18 films in alphabetical order. As I said in my intro to last year’s “Best of the Rest” post, I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, a feeling, more often it’s the whole package.

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Bacurau Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonca Fihlo, directors & writers). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, director & co-writer). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa, director). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Emma (Autumn de Wilde, director). Anya Taylor-Joy, who scored so strongly in The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), is excellent as the title character. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of her. And any film that has Bill Nighy in it gains points just for that.  Available on HBO Max.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer). Beyond strange, I don’t think the individual scenes and radical shifting of gears add up to a whole, but I found it very compelling nonetheless, even as I kept wondering “What the hell?” Available on Netflix.

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The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, director & writer). Elizabeth Moss brings a lot of intensity to this very effective sci-fi thriller that’s mainly about getting out of an abusive marriage. But make no mistake, it has nothing to do with the H. G. Wells novel or classic film, other than sharing the title and having a guy who’s invisible in it. But it’s really tense. Available on HBO Max.

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Lost Bullet (Guillaume Pierret, director & co-writer). This film and Sputnik are the two films on this list that got me the most energized and excited. The familiar and quite flexible premise of a good cop vs. bad cops is given an inventive spin that is part Mad Max, part Serpico, and every car chase movie you’ve ever seen. The forward momentum is relentless. Lost Bullet is probably not very credible, but when did that ever get in the way? I enjoyed it a lot. Available on Netflix.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director).  Viola Davis is great as Ma Rainey, but the main attraction is Chadwick Boseman in his final film before his death last year at age 43. His blistering performance is overwhelming and tragic, and probably gets an extra charge from our knowing that he’s gone. I’d hoped for more music, but it’s really about the characters and race. Available on Netflix.

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Mank (David Fincher, director). For me, David Fincher (along with Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, and Ridley Scott) is one of the best living film directors. Mank may not be his best film — that would be Zodiac — but it’s one hell of an achievement. Per numerous profiles and interviews, it’s clear that Fincher exerts total control over every aspect of any film he’s making, and it shows. Mank may be more of a film for film buffs, but it’s stunning in its look and sound and meticulous recreation of its 1940s Hollywood milieu. The casting of Gary Oldman has been criticized because his actual age is much older than Herman Mankiewicz was at the time. I didn’t know that, and anyway, so what? Oldman is a terrific actor and it’s a terrific performance. Available on Netflix.

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Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, director & co-writer). Available on Kino Marquee/Kino Now.

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On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola, director & writer). Delicate, funny, and insightful. And a great performance by Bill Murray, who’s never been better. Rashida Jones is excellent as his daughter. This moves ever so smoothly. Available on Apple TV.

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The Quarry (Scott Teams, director & co-writer). A slow-burning neo-noir with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham. That was enough for me. I wish the ending had been stronger, but the performances and tone carry it a long way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Radioactive (Marjane Satrapi, director). Rosamund Pike is very convincing as Marie Curie, whose discovery of radium and radioactivity resulted in the two Nobel Prizes (Physics and Chemistry) and eventually her own death from radiation poisoning. Pike has been excellent in films that include David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017), and most especially Matthew Heineman’s A Private War (2018). I hadn’t known that she endured a lot of prejudice in France due to her Polish background. Radioactive also features Anya Taylor-Joy as Curie’s daughter Irene. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Rhythm Section (Reed Morano, director). This is a familiar premise. A man or woman seeks revenge because of a loss — family, friends, job, etc. — and has to first learn the skills to do so. But it’s all in the telling, and this film pulls it off  with style and feeling. Blake Lively is very good as a young woman intent on avenging the deaths of her parents and brother at the hands of a terrorist bomb maker. Jude Law is her reluctant mentor in the ways of killing and survival. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sputnik (Egor Abramenko, director). An astronaut returns to earth, but he’s not alone, something has come with him. We’ve seen this before, too, but seldom as inventively done as in this Russian film. Alien (1979) is an influence here, as it has been on just about everything since, but Sputnik is its own thing, literally. It’s pretty creepy and feels very concrete, very physical, and very scary. It’s not for everyone, but then, anything good seldom is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Tenet (Christopher Nolan, director & writer). I’ve basically recovered from having to see this the first time on a 41″ television set instead of the IMAX screen at Lincoln Square. Though I hope to be able to do that at some point in the post-pandemic future, whenever we get there. Meanwhile, seeing it smaller was better than not seeing it at all. John David Washington is excellent as the unnamed main character. I especially liked Robert Pattinson as Washington’s partner of sorts. The narrative is incredibly complex and has to do with time travel or time shifting or inversion, something like that. I had a feeling for what was going on, but I don’t pretend to understand it. That will require a few more viewings, hopefully one of which will be in IMAX. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Traitor  (Marco Bellochio, director). Available on STARZ.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, director & writer). This is a very engaging telling of the famous (and infamous) trial of a group of men accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Since I was around at the time, most of the people involved were familiar to me. Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, and Mark Rylance are excellent as (respectively) Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and defense lawyer William Kuntsler. Frank Langella is properly loathsome as Judge Julius Hoffman. But the standout for me is Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. For anyone who thinks of him as only Borat, and doubts his acting ability beyond that, I refer them to this film, and even more so to the Netflix series Spy, in which he plays an undercover agent in Syria spying for Israel. Available on Netflix.

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That about wraps up this installment. I’m going to take a break now to watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), then do a final edit and post this later today. I’ll post supplemental materials for a few of these titles tomorrow. In the meantime, stay tuned and be safe! — Ted Hicks

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Best Feature Films 2020 – Supplemental

For those of you interested in a closer look, here are supplementary materials for six of the films on my top-10 list.

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The Assistant

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First Cow

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

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Nomadland

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Sorry We Missed You

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Sound of Metal

This is a lot of material for this title. As always, just pick what you want. There won’t be a test.

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That’s all for now. Stay tuned for “Feature Films – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw” in two or three days. Best documentaries and TV yet to come. Keep safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2020

A year without blockbusters or movie theaters. 2020 was a radically different year for everything, not just movie-going, and 2021 still is. If someone had told me at the outset that theaters would be closed nearly a year later, I don’t think I could have gotten my head around it.

The last film I saw in a theater was Stage Fright at Film Forum on Saturday, March 14. Not a great film, but it was a Hitchcock I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to check that box. Besides, film screenings had already begun shutting down, such as MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center. Film Forum would close that Sunday, AMC and other multiplexes by Monday. Some theaters across the country have re-opened — I don’t know how many — but film venues in New York City remain closed.

I saw 61 films in theaters before they shut down. Since then I’ve been watching them mainly online via Amazon Prime and Netflix, with some on HBO, Showtime, and from my DVD & Blu-ray disc collection. Even with theaters not open last year, I didn’t see fewer films in 2020, I actually saw more. But get this, of the 392 films I saw, only 95 of them were new films. The remaining 297 were old films, either ones I’d seen before or ones I hadn’t seen that looked interesting. Most of the year I was, in effect, running a random repertory program at home.

But of those 95 new feature films, many of them were excellent, even great. I’ve come up with a top-10 list again this year, to be followed in part two by 18 films that were very strong and deserve to be included. The hell of it is, at the start of the new year I realized that while I’d spent an inordinate amount of time last year watching old films, I’d neglected many of the new ones that were turning up on various streaming services, such as Ammonite, Another Round, and Babyteeth. I intend to catch up in the days to come, and will cover the best of those in a later post. Meanwhile, on to the best of what I saw last year, in alphabetical order.

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Dear Comrades!

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The Assistant (Kitty Green, director & writer)  This excellent, quietly disturbing film stars Julia Garner as a recent hire as an assistant in a film production office. She gets in before sunup and leaves well after sundown. Over the course of one very long day she endures many small humiliations and sexist attitudes that are taken for granted by others in the office. Her boss, never seen but always intimidating and looming via phone and intercom, is what the Me Too movement is all about. The narrative proceeds at a slow burn, an accretion of small details, and often feels like a horror movie. Garner, who we first saw in the great FX series The Americans and more recently on the Netflix series Ozark, is excellent as a wary observer struggling to get her bearings and deal with what’s expected and demanded of her. There are no histrionics or blowups that I recall, but the atmosphere is nonetheless extremely tense. It’s like a grenade waiting to off. This is a small jewel of a film, but no one would call it feel-good. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalofsky, director & co-writer)  Konchalofsky is a well-known Russian director, but I first became aware of him in 1985 when I saw his English-language film Runaway Train, with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as escaped convicts in Alaska who end up on a runaway train. That film ends with a powerful, existential image of Voight standing on top of the speeding train in the midst of a blizzard as it speeds through the night. I don’t remember much else, but that scene has stayed with me. Konchalofsky’s new film is based on an actual event that took place in 1962 in a small industrial town when government forces fired on factory workers who were striking to protest higher food prices and lower wages. Many were killed in the ensuing massacre, news of which was officially surpressed until the 1990s. Yuliya Vysotskaya, the director’s wife, plays Lyudmilla, a loyal Communist Party executive. Her frantic search for her rebellious daughter, who took part in the strike, makes up the heart of the film. It’s a great performance in a powerful film. Available via Film Forum/Neon on January 29.

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First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, director & co-writer)  Kelly Reichardt is an excellent director whose previous films have included Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Certain Women (2016). Her new film is quite special in conception and execution. In 1820, Cookie (John Magaro) is the cook for a group of trappers in Oregon territory. He meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run after killing a Russian. They hook up and set up house in a settlement that’s more or less overseen by a wealthy Englishman called Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie makes biscuits that sell like hot cakes at the local marketplace, but he needs milk to continue to make them. Chief Factor has the first and only cow in the region. Cookie and King Lu begin milking the cow at night, stealing the milk, which works until it doesn’t. This is a wonderful film, filled with unusual detail. At one point, King Lu says to Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” I think it’s unlikely that anyone at that time would say something like that, but it gives a great sense of this being a country in the making, and the beginnings of a social order. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, director & writer)   Autumn, played by Sydney Flanigan in her debut film role,  is 17 years old and pregnant. She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, where her options are limited, to say the least. She and her cousin Skylar (played by Talia Ryder) take a bus to New York City where she plans to terminate the pregnancy. They don’t really know what they’re doing, and while paperwork and finances get sorted, they spend two nights in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which becomes a character in its own right. I was reminded of how stressful and uncomfortable bus stations can be, always transient, and how lonely at 2:00 am. Sydney Flanigan’s performance feels very authentic and completely natural. This film is an example of what we’re seeing more and more, narratives that don’t advance in traditional ways, that are less dramatic and less plotted. Stories develop more indirectly. Not having everything mapped out and spelled out can feel fresher and more real. That’s certainly the case with this film. Available on HBO Max.

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Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, director & writer)  Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, was one of my top three favorite films of 2018. I absolutely loved it. Nomadland is a worthy followup, and then some. Nomadland has been almost universally praised. Traditional storytelling falls away and it feels like you’ve discovered something totally authentic. This is due in part, I think, to Zhao’s method of casting real people as close versions of themselves who use their real names and experiences, as she did in The Rider. A difference this time is that Zhao employed a big-name actor, Frances McDormand, to play the lead character, Fern. This undoubtedly raised the profile of the film. Zhao also cast the quietly outstanding David Strathairn as Dave, who Fern encounters at various times on the road. Fern has lived all of her adult life in a Nevada mining town. With the death of her husband and the closing of the mine that effectively closes the town, even eliminating its zip code, Fern packs up and goes on the road, taking seasonal work where she can get it. She becomes part of a community of transient older Americans living in RVs and vans. They are fiercely independent and frequently on the move — nomads.

Zhao based the film on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder published in 2017, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Many of the people profiled in the book are characters in the film. As it did in The Rider, this lends a strong documentary aspect, a kind of non-fiction fiction, if you will. Nomadland was filmed over four months on locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, and California. These people were living their lives as the movie was being filmed. You get a sense of their dignity and self-sufficiency, which is exemplified by Frances McDormand’s fearless performance. At one point, when concerned friends back in Nevada offer Fern a place to stay, she says, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.” Scheduled to be available for streaming February 19 on Hulu.

Note: In what feels like a cognitive disconnect, Chloé Zhao has signed to direct Eternals, a Marvel superhero film expected later this year (pandemic permitting). Her distinctive and very specific sensibility should yield very interesting results, though it’s a little like hearing that Ozu had directed a Mad Max film. Actually, that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, director)  Ken Loach is a great director whose films reflect committed humanist, social, and political concerns. These include Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), My Name Is Joe (1988), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and I, Daniel Blake (2016). Loach is nearly 85 years of age, and Sorry We Missed You is strong evidence that his craft, skill, and sensitivity have not diminished in the least.

As in many of his films, the characters in Sorry We Missed You are everyday people, working class, the common man (and woman). Sorry We Missed You was filmed in Newcastle, as was I, Daniel Blake, and concerns a family struggling to make ends meet and get by. Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a somewhat hapless character, has just started working for a package delivery company managed by an abusive boss. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) works as a home care nurse. Ricky pressures her to sell the car she uses to get to her clients in order to have the down payment for the van he has to buy to make deliveries. Abbie then has to take buses and cabs. Their teenage son Seb skips school to be with his small crew of graffiti taggers around town, and is just generally contrary. Their young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), is stressed out by the constant bickering between her father and brother.

Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has created a deeply heartfelt film, sad and tragic, an essential statement. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director & writer)  Riz Ahmed, who was great in the HBO series The Night Of (2016), here plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Ahmed’s performance sharply conveys his confusion, anger, and fear as he struggles go adjust to his new reality. Members of the deaf community portray characters in the film, which adds a level of authenticity that you can feel. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Unhinged (Derrick Borte, director)  This film is the wild card of the bunch. When I first saw Unhinged I was totally turned off. I thought it was irresponsible and gratuitous. Here’s what I had to say on Facebook one day after my initial viewing:

“Why, after a career that includes films as good as Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander, would Crowe choose for his latest something as useless and empty as Unhinged. He plays a character as ugly and irredeemable as any I’ve seen in a long time. I was relieved to learn that he was wearing a fat suit and hadn’t actually gained 200 pounds for the role. His character is completely nuts from the start when he charges into a house, brutally kills a guy and then burns the house down. No spoilers here, this is the very first scene. The film seems to exist just to exhibit a whole lot of car crashes and Crowe savagely killing a whole lot of innocent people. I tend to like violent movies, but not when they’re as gratuitous as this one is. It’s very well made, but so what? Something else is that Unhinged was touted as the first film to play in reopened theaters since the pandemic lockdown began in March. If this film reflects the times and the mood, we’re in more trouble than I thought.”

Given that, you might well wonder how it is that Unhinged is on my Best Features list. Well, a day or so after posting those sentiments I was still thinking about the film. I wanted to better understand why I’d had such a visceral reaction, so I watched two interviews with Russell Crowe (these will be included in the Best Films Supplemental post in a day or so). He talks about his initial reluctance to play this kind of basically irredeemable character, and he breaks down how he thinks the film works. He’s very articulate and insightful. What he says basically turned my head around and gave me a new way to consider what I’d seen.

What’s most disturbing about Unhinged is that there’s absolutely no rationale, justification, or explanation for what his character does. Simply called “The Man” in the credits, he’s road rage personified and that’s it. He’s unstoppable, he’s a Terminator. Invariably, in the wake of murders, mass shootings, and violent events, there are always “experts” who attempt to explain and understand what has happened. We don’t want to accept that sometimes there are no answers. That’s hard to deal with. But there’s more than road rage is going on here. Crowe’s character is a darkness that just is.

Unhinged is very well made and it’s a rough ride. The narrative is single minded, unrelenting. It winds tighter and tighter. There are no distractions or relief, comic or otherwise, to ease the tension. It’s our worst nightmare. There’s an Itchy and Scratchy level of violence, except it’s not a cartoon. Unhinged is an example of transgressive cinema. It crosses the line, goes way over.

Unhinged is not a film I plan to see again, but probably will, if only because I don’t want to. And at the same time, I do. That may not make any sense, anymore than I can explain why it’s on my list of Best Films. Like Russell Crowe’s character, it just is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, director)  I love this film. I’ve seen it four times and it holds up strongly. If anything, it just gets better. I wrote about it last summer, which can be accessed here. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Working Man (Robert Jury, director & writer)  It’s great to see Peter Gerety finally get a leading role after many years of solid supporting work, mainly in TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1996-1999), The Wire (2002-2008), Sneaky Pete (2015-2019), and Ray Donovan (2019-2020). Like Nomadland and Sorry We Missed You, this film takes place in a working class environment with everyday people. Gerety plays Allery Parkes, who has worked for 30 years in a factory in a Rust Belt town. When the factory shuts down, Allery isn’t ready to stop working. He finds a way back into the plant and continues to go in, day after day, doing his work. That he’s not supposed to be there and is not getting paid is beside the point for Allery. How this plays out in his life and in the community is very interesting and touching. Talia Shire, known for The Godfather and Rocky films, plays his wife, Iola. Billy Brown, who my wife recognized from the series How to Get Away with Murder, plays Walter Brewer, who joins Allery in working in the closed factory. It’s a feel-good scenario, but Working Man has some bite and a few twists along the way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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That wraps up the first part of my annual survey of the feature films I liked the best from last year. Supplemental materials for these ten films will follow in a day or two. In the meantime, Happy Inauguration Day! Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 4 Comments

Happy New Year 2021 – To Infinity and Beyond!

2020 has felt like the longest 10 years of my life. I sure won’t miss it. The new year has got to be better, right? A vaccine that will hopefully bring the pandemic under control and get us back into movie theaters and inside restaurants. A new president who probably won’t throw tantrums or rant nonstop on Twitter. Being able to see people’s entire faces once again and not having to experience everything virtually. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of all this. If we’ve been in an alternative timeline this past year, some sort of bizarro world, I’m ready to be done with it.

This year’s farewell to 2020 will be the usual random collection of images and videos that may or many not make any sense together, but they struck my fancy and just feel right.

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One of my favorite actors, Sterling Hayden, in a scene from Nicholas Ray’s wonderfully bizarre Johnny Guitar (1954) that gets down to the basic necessities of life.

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Speaking of Chinatown (1974), I recently read an excellent book by Sam Wasson on the making of the film, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. It goes deep.

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And now, one of the greatest moments in all of Buster Keaton’s films, or anybody else’s for that matter. Also a metaphor for getting out of this year intact, assuming we do.

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And to end on a slightly more hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note.

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That wraps it up for this year. Stay tuned next month for my annual recaps of the best feature films, documentaries, and television shows for 2020. Meanwhile, wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay safe. Hang in there and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! Live long and prosper. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Comics, Feature films, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 6 Comments

Off the TV Screen – A Brief Diversion + Posters

While taking pictures of movies on a TV screen might seem like something one would do to pass the time while sequestered at home during a pandemic, these were taken sometime in 1978 for reasons that escape me now, though I suspect I just got a kick of doing so. Here are some that survived the ensuing years.

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At the time, I had a B&W 17″ table-model TV I’d brought with me from Minneapolis when I moved to New York in January 1977. This was before cable and flat screens, and definitely before I could buy a color set. So I have to see wide-screen films, such as Spartacus, in all their pan & scan glory, which meant seeing maybe a third of the original screen image. Of course, this was common at the time for scope films shown on television.

I was able to date these shots by the Film Comment issue on the shelf below the TV. This was the January/February 1978 issue, which I still have, along with every Film Comment issue I’ve acquired, though most of them reside in one of our closets. To its left is a copy of Leonard Maltin’s  TV Movies, the first of his many movies-on-TV books. This one was published in 1969, but I was obviously still using it in ’78.

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The following shots were taken sometime in the early to mid-1980s. By that time I’d acquired a 17″ Sony Trinitron, which was a definite step up for me — color! Dark Shadows was a weekday TV show originally shown on ABC from 1966 to 1971. I didn’t see it then, but channel 13, the local PBS station, had begun running two episodes a day, and I started watching. The series was a hoot, with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, time travel and more in the New England fishing community of Collinsport. If you’ve ever seen it, you know. Ten months into its initial run, producer Dan Curtis came up with idea of bringing the supernatural into the mix in a effort to raise the show’s low ratings. And so vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced. Dark Shadows took off and never looked back.

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Before my wife-to-be moved in with me in 2004, my apartment was basically a movie poster gallery and library. It turned out Nancy thought we should have some actual furniture for grown ups, such as a sofa and maybe some lamps, and stuff other than film posters on all the walls. Here’s what the living room was like before. This shot was taken in the ’90s before I’d had the old rug taken up and the wood floor refinished.

Here’s what it looks like now.

Definitely an improvement, a much more comfortable space, looks like people live here. And we’re both big readers, so there are a lot of books. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss some of what had been on display before, especially the King Kong poster, but that’s okay.  Here are some of those.

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This beautiful Metropolis poster was nearly six feet tall. I actually parted with it long before Nancy moved in. The shot on the right was taken after I’d put it on the landing in our building for someone to claim.

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I think that wraps up this little tour. See you later. In the meantime, stay safe. Better days are coming. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, photography, TV | 2 Comments