What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2016

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13th, By Sidney Lumet, and The Witness are my top picks for 2016 documentaries, but the rest of the titles on my list are very strong as well. Note that I have not yet seen O.J.: Made in America( a nearly eight-hour study of O.J. Simpson directed by Ezra Edelman), Fire at Sea (directed by Gianfranco Rosi), or I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck from writing by James Baldwin). By all accounts these are excellent and would likely be on my list. Also note that the descriptions for a number of the titles below were included in a post I did last June called “Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries,” which can be accessed here if you’d like to see the additional titles I wrote about.

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13th (Ava DuVernay, director)  The importance of this film cannot be overstated. Its starting point is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865 that emancipated slaves. It states the following: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any other place subject to their jurisdiction. The film is densely packed with information and it took me awhile to understand how the “except as…” qualification in this amendment was used to imprison vast numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-American (and still are). We learn that while the United States has five percent of the world’s population, it has a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the highest rate of incarceration on the planet.

I was stunned to learn about the practice of “convict leasing,” which provides prison labor to outside parties. Sounds a little like slavery to me. This is one of many revelations in 13th. It covers so much ground and ties it all together in a way that’s kind of staggering. If you haven’t seen this, you really should. It’s available for streaming from Netflix.

Here is a panel discussion on 13th hosted by the New York Film Festival last Fall. 13th was the first documentary to open the NYFF in 54 years. It has also been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category this year.

An interview with Ava DuVernay in Film Comment can be accessed here.

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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Ron Howard, director)  An incredible amount of fun and nostalgia overload. There is a lot of footage here I’d never seen before. A moment I particularly liked was a shot of Ringo beating the hell out of the drums, his hair flying. There are some present-day interviews with Paul and Ringo, but the heart of the film is in the performance footage. The film took me back with a rush of feeling.

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sydney-lumet-photo-collageBy Sidney Lumet (Nancy Buirski, director)  There have been a number of documentaries recently that have been treasure troves for film buffs. I’m thinking of Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015), De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015), and now Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet. This is a major addition to films that focus on individual directors and actors and their filmmaking process. In both De Palma and By Sidney Lumet we have two directors just talking and taking us through their careers and process, illustrated with clips. For the Lumet film, Daniel Anker shot 14 hours of interviews over several days in 2008 in a project initiated by Susan Lacy of American Masters. Anker passed away in 2014. Nancy Buirski was approached to make a film out of his footage. The result is spellbinding. Lumet is a fascinating storyteller, enthusiastic, articulate, and direct. There’s an intimacy to the  way he speaks that drew me in close. I was completely engaged. The clips chosen by Buirski expand on Lumet’s remarks. What struck me was that Buirski let the clips run at some length, which gave a greater sense of the scenes they were taken from, and the work Lumet had done. An interview with Nancy Buirski about the making of By Sidney Lumet can be accessed here.

When we saw By Sidney Lumet last October, Nancy Buirski was in the theater for a Q&A after.  Christine Lahti, who acted in Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), was also there to talk about what working with him had been like. I hadn’t realized it then, but Buirski had made The Loving Story (2011), an excellent documentary about an interracial marriage in the South in the late 1950s, which became the basis for Jeff Nichols’ equally fine feature, Loving, released at the end of last year (currently available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon). She’s a producer of Nichols’ film as well.

By Sidney Lumet played theatrically last Fall and was aired on American Masters (PBS) earlier this January.

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Cameraperson (Kirstin Johnson, director) This is a film that snuck up on me. I first saw it at a press screening last March. That was nearly a year ago, but I recall that Cameraperson, which is very much first-person for Kirstin Johnson, skipped from location to location and subject to subject in a way that initially seemed scattershot to me. This is footage that Kirstin has shot on various projects over the years. The film loops in on itself, returning again and again to the same locations. The accumulation of all this detail finally comes together in a powerful way. The sense of humanity it reflects is very strong.

An in-depth article about Cameraperson in the September/October 2016 issue of Film Comment can be accessed here.

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Danny Says (Brendan Toller, director)  “You could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened.” This was written by Charles Curkin in the New York Times in 2014. It may seem like an extravagant statement, but Danny Says shows why someone would say that. Danny Fields was manager and publicist in the music industry in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Along the way he managed the Ramones and worked on behalf of the Doors, Lou Reed, Nico, the Modern Lovers, MC5, the Stooges. He wrote about the scene for Cream magazine. Danny Says vividly takes us through this. I moved to New York City in 1977 when the downtown music scene was in full flower, so this flashback to that time and place was a real rush. Danny Fields, who still walks among us, is an irrepressible raconteur, an amazing story-teller. He’s a dynamic character and was a key figure on the scene. And the music will knock you out.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank (Laura Israel, director) My previous post on this terrific film can be accessed here.

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.

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Gleason (Clay Tweel, director)  Steve Gleason, a former professional football player for the New Orleans Saints who retired in 2008, revealed in 2011 that he had ALS, known as Lou Gherig’s disease. With he and his wife Michel expecting, Steve began making a video diary addressed to his unborn son. He wanted his child to get to know who his father was before he got sick. The film includes these video entries. Gleason is powerful and moving, but basically clear-eyed in its presentation. It’s not sentimental, but is filled with feeling.

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Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.”

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Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and that she had a line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.

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Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he utilizes Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

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William Burroughs & Howard Brookner

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Uncle Howard (Aaron Brookner, director)  This is an affectionate and engaging study of the director’s uncle, Howard Brookner, who made Burroughs: The Movie in 1983, a highly-regarded film about William Burroughs. In 2012, much of Howard’s film archive (prints, outtakes, sound tapes, etc.) was found to be in William Burroughs’ apartment on the Bowery, known as the “Bunker.” Much of Uncle Howard shows us Aaron’s retrieval of the archive materials, aided by director Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound for the Burroughs documentary. Plus there’s lots of footage of Burroughs, who is always interesting to be around.

Howard Brookner is a gentle, appealing presence here. He died of AIDS in 1989, three days short of his 35th birthday. I hadn’t known anything about him before seeing Uncle Howard, and though the film leads us to his death, it’s a gut-punch when it comes. There’s a real sense of loss. He had a great quote taped to his refrigerator door: “There’s so much beauty in the world. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.” I love that.

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Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him. ** Since originally posting this, it came out that Weiner was still sexting. This is still a terrific documentary, but I’m no longer willing to cut him any slack. He’s sick. What a shame.

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The Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, as if written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.

Judith Trojan wrote at length about this film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when The Witness was recently shown on the PBS series Independent Lens. You can read that here.

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These films are all available for streaming or rental from various sources. – Ted Hicks

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“The Red Turtle” – On the Beach

red-turtle-poster2Almost by accident I saw The Red Turtle last Friday. I’d initially gone to the Museum of Modern Art to see Modesty Blaise (1966), a spy spoof directed by Joseph Losey, starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, and Dirk Bogarde. I’d seen it once when it was first released, but remembered virtually nothing about it (though I had the idea that its approach was similar to the 1960s U.K. television series The Avengers, which I’d liked a lot). About thirty-five minutes after Modesty Blaise started, the screen went black with a pop. A few minutes later there was an announcement that there would be a delay of five to ten minutes. I rarely walk out of films, but this one wasn’t working for me at all, and this was all the excuse I needed.

Walking home, disgruntled because my movie plans had been disrupted, I stopped at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway in the 60s to see what was playing. The Red Turtle was starting in ten minutes, so I went in. I was aware of the title and had seen the poster,  but other than that, I knew nothing about it, except that the Japanese animation production company Studio Ghibli was involved. I’d seen Studio Ghibli films made by the great Hayao Miyazaki, and wondered if The Red Turtle would be anything like those. Then I saw on the poster that it was directed by someone named Michaël Dudok de Wit. Obviously not a Japanese name, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Not knowing what to expect isn’t a bad way to see a film, especially when it’s as wonderful at this one is. Without expectations or preconceptions, everything you see is a discovery. With that in mind, I’m going to say very little about what happens, except that it’s a story of a man castaway on a deserted island. We know nothing about him or even when this takes place. It’s timeless. There is no dialogue (though there is an evocative music score). Eventually he isn’t alone. I’ve probably said too much already.

The look of The Red Turtle runs counter to the currently popular Pixar-style computer-generated 3D animation. Michaël Dudok de Wit is a Dutch animator and illustrator based in London. He loves 2D animation. The Red Turtle looks like it was done in watercolors, with very simple, spare images. “I like films that are monochromatic,” Dudok de Wit says in an article in The New York Times. “It gives a purity and a simplicity to the image that I find very attractive.” The Times piece goes on to say “While he knew the feature would need dynamic landscapes and more color than his shorts had, he still wanted to keep the number of colors to a minimum. He asked his background artist to use one or two main colors and create variations on them in a scene. ‘It’s like in real life when there are days when all the colors are gray because the sky is cloudy,’ Mr. Dudok de Wit said. ‘That’s beautiful.'”

red-turtle-family-seaGhibli’s Hayao Miyazaki had seen Dudok de Wit’s Academy Award-winning short, Father and Daughter (2000), and was interested in working with him on Ghibli’s first international co-production. Dudok de Wit explains how he approached making The Red Turtle in an interview which can be accessed here.

There’s a sense of wonder in seeing this film that’s what I imagine it’s like having a parent read a fairy tale to you when you’re a child. The Red Turtle is a fable that has a deep respect for nature and the cycle of life and death.

Now you know more about The Red Turtle than I did before I saw it. But not too much, I hope. The film is currently playing in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. – Ted Hicks

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Here is Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2001.

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“Singin’ in the Rain” – Gotta dance!

singin-in-rain-title-numberYesterday I saw a 65th anniversary showing of Singin’ in the Rain sponsored by Turner Classic Movies at an AMC theater here in New York. It was great seeing it on a large theater screen in pristine digital condition. Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be one of the top two or three Hollywood musicals ever made. Audiences love it. Like Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), it transcends genre and is a simply great film, period. It’s a movie about movies; a satire set in 1927 Hollywood about the coming of sound and how filmmakers and actors struggled to make the transition. The comedy is fairly broad, but the story serves mainly to justify the musical numbers, which are amazing. All of the songs had been used in previous MGM musicals, with the exception of two new songs, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” written by Singin’ the Rain‘s screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

I have no memory of when and where I first saw Singin’ in the Rain, but I know the number that blew me away immediately was “Fit as a Fiddle.” It was jaw-dropping; I was transfixed by the energy, by the matching suits worn by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor that had a neon brightness, and by the dancing. I was like, how did they do all that? Here it is:

Singin’ in the Rain opened on March 27, 1952 at Radio Music Hall here in New York. Here’s a newspaper ad announcing it:

singin-in-rain-newpaper-adIt reportedly was not a smash when it opened, but has become one over the years, regularly appearing on best-films-of-all-time lists. I think what people respond to is the exuberance and joy of the musical numbers. Donald O’Connor is off the charts in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” He’s like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. O’Connor, a four pack a day smoker, had to stay in bed for several days following shooting this (which he had to do twice due to a camera malfunction that ruined the first day’s shooting). Here we go:

Debbie Reynolds, 19 years old at the time, had a background as a gymnast, but no dancing experience. Gene Kelly is said to have insulted her because of this. Fred Astaire, who found Reynolds crying under a piano, offered to help her with her dancing. I’ve seen numerous reports that Kelly was not a fun guy to work for. He was co-directing Singin’ in the Rain with Stanley Donen, and demanded things be exactly as he wanted them. There’s no suggestion of this on the screen. They seem like a happy family. I’ve always liked Gene Kelly, he’s my favorite screen dancer. But you can see another side of him in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). He’s cast against type as a sociopath and murderer. It’s especially bleak, even for film noir. Kelly is quite chilling, but that’s not how audiences remember him.

After that digression, back to Debbie Reynolds. The “Good Morning” number features Reynolds with Kelly and O’Connor. It took from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. to shoot. Her feet were bleeding at the end of the day, but you’d never suspect she’d had problems with dancing by watching it.

Here’s what François Truffaut wrote in his journals about this number, specifically an almost documentary moment with Reynolds at the end.

“In the three thousand films I’ve seen, the most beautiful shot is in Singin’ in the Rain. In the middle of the film, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, after a moment of discouragement, regain their taste for life and start singing and dancing in the apartment. Their dance leads them to leap over a sofa on which all three of them have to land seated side by side. During this dancing stunt over the sofa, Debbie Reynolds makes a determined and rapid gesture, pulling her short pink skirt down over her knees with a deft hand, so that her panties can’t be seen when she lands seated. That gesture, quick as lightning, is beautiful because in the same image we have the height of cinematographic convention (people who sing and dance instead of walking and talking) and the height of truth, a little lady taking care not to show her thighs. This all happened just once, fifteen years ago, it lasted less than a second, but it was imprinted on film as definitively as the arrival of the train at La Ciotat station. These sixteen frames of Singin’ in the Rain, this beautiful gesture by Debbie Reynolds, which is almost invisible, well illustrates this second action of films, this second life, which is legible on the editing table.”

Watch the clip again to catch this detail.

In the midst of Singin’ in the Rain is a musical mini-epic called “Broadway Melody.” It’s a huge production and is included in the film by the flimsiest of justifications. It’s a knock-out, though I don’t have the feeling for it that I do for the rest of the film. Still, Cyd Charisse as Kelly’s dance partner in this is a powerful presence, and she’s a good match for Kelly (even though she was taller, which Kelly made sure wasn’t seen). Charisse has impossibly long legs, which the movie makes sure we’re aware of.  See Exhibits A and B below.

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Of all the musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s joyous dance in the rain is what people remember if they don’t remember anything else. It’s the signature flourish of the film.

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Supplemental:

singin-in-rain-comic-book-coverA publisher called Movie Lore published a comic book version of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 to coincide with the release of the film. The complete comic can be accessed here.

A musical stage production was first produced in 1984 and has been revived over the years. It’s slated to be on Broadway again in 2017.

Film scholar Peter Wollen has written a monograph on Singin’ in the Rain for the excellent BFI Film Classics series. I haven’t read it yet, though a copy I ordered is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. This guy goes deep, so it should be pretty interesting.

Stanley Kubrick used the song “Singing in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell sings it during a home invasion where he and his gang beat the husband and he beats and rapes the wife (Gene Kelly sings it over the end credits). I love Kubrick, but the clip I have is just too ugly to include here.

Here’s a video of Debbie Reynolds talking about Singin’ in the Rain. I don’t know the source of this or what year it was, but it’s interesting to hear what she has to say.

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I’m sure you’ve all seen Singin’ in the Rain at least once, but if you haven’t, you really should. It’s bursting with the joy of movie-making. We may be in for more musicals now that La La Land is such a success, but it will be hard to match this. – Ted Hicks

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What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2016

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If you don’t count the presidential election, 2016 was a very good year, for films at least. Out of the 346 features I saw last year (yeah, I know, get a life), here are the ones that got my attention. They’re in alphabetical order, but if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to say that Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, La La Land, and I, Daniel Blake are my top picks, though I think all the films here are very strong. The majority of these are not studio films, but are “smaller” independent productions. It’s also interesting that for twenty-three of the thirty-two titles listed, the director was also the screenwriter .

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, director) Cerebral sci-fi thriller (also a puzzle and a meditation) with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker trying to determine why alien spacecraft are poised over a dozen locations around the world. Adams is a top linguist enlisted to decipher the aliens’ language. I wish Jeremy Renner had been given more to do, but it’s Amy Adams’ movie, she’s its heart and soul. Arrival reveals itself slowly and in ways that don’t necessarily register until later. Time becomes non-linear; at one point an alien tells Adams that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. A second viewing would be helpful, but I haven’t managed that yet. From the director of Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), and the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049.

certain-women-posterCertain Women (Kelly Reichart, director & writer) The following description by Polly Kat on IMDb covers it well: “Certain Women drops us into a handful of intersecting lives across Montana. A lawyer Laura Dern tries to defuse a hostage situation and calm her disgruntled client Jared Harris, who feels slighted by a workers’ compensation settlement. A married couple Michelle Williams and James Le Gros breaks ground on a new home but exposes marital fissures when they try to persuade an elderly man to sell his stockpile of sandstone. A ranch hand Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to a young lawyer Kristen Stewart, who inadvertently finds herself teaching a twice-weekly adult education class, four hours from her home.” There’s nothing conventionally dramatic about the Reichart films I’ve seen. Her Wendy and Lucy (2008) with Michelle Williams is a good example; unsentimental but deeply felt, keenly observed and respectful of all her characters. Her films have almost always had women at the center.

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, director & writer) This is one of several titles on my list that has deeply humanist concerns. In Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, a man, woman, and her daughter form a family out of necessity to relocate to a France. The title character has a strong sense of what’s right, and he’s not about to be pushed around by the drug dealers and hoodlums who control the housing project where he’s been sent. In this time of refugees trying to find new homes in other lands, Dheepan is especially resonant.

Disorder (Alice Wincour, director & writer) Slow-burn thriller in which a French Special Forces soldier with PTSD back from Afghanistan pulls security duty in a house where everything is definitely not all right. An excellent French film with Matthias Schoenarts and Diane Kruger.

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, director & writer) Haille Steinfeld as a high school student struggling to find out how she fits into her life and Woody Harrelson as the teacher she confides in are excellent in this freshly observed coming-of-age story.

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, director & writer) A true mind-blower, this film is a trip in every sense of the word. Shot in crisp black & white, Embrace of the Serpent slips from 1909 to 1940 and back again, and again. In 1909, a German scientist enlists the aid of an Amazonian shaman to help find the yakuna, a legendary plant with healing and hallucinogenic powers; in 1940, an American, who has read the diaries of the German scientist, persuades the same shaman to help locate the same plant. At times Embrace of the Serpent has vibes of both Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You’ve got to see it for that to make sense. This film is disorienting in ways you’re not even aware of until you find yourself out in the lobby wondering what just happened. Embrace of the Serpent is a unique experience.

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Forsaken (Jon Cassar, director) An old-fashioned western with a few twists. Kiefer Sutherland is a gunfighter returning home and trying to lay down his guns. His father, Donald Sutherland, is the town’s preacher who can’t forgive his son for the life he led after the Civil War. There’s a local bad guy (Brian Cox) set on acquiring as much property as possible by forcing ranchers off their land even if he has to kill them. This is a classic premise and you know Sutherland will be forced to pick up his guns before the end credits roll. There’s not much new here, but it plays out very well, with the added bonus of seeing Kiefer Sutherland and his father  together in a movie for the first time in their careers. Michael Wincott is especially good as a gentleman gunman for the other side.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, director) Fascinating film from the South Korean director of Old Boy that stops and starts over about a third of the way in, showing us what “really” happened from a different point of view, then flips that again as more layers are peeled away. It’s sexy and creepy, twisty and twisted, and feels totally original.

Here is a collection of clips from The Handmaiden, followed by a trailer.

Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, director; Taylor Sheridan, writer) I really love this film. I saw it again last month at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Contenders” series and it was a good as I’d remembered. My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

hidden-figures-poster3Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, director & co-writer) This is an important movie that tells the little-known story of African-American women with math skills working for NASA in the early 60s at the dawn of the space age. We see the challenges they face as women in a male-dominated workplace, as well as experiencing the casual racism of the period. There’s nothing innovative about the filmmaking — it’s very straight-forward and direct — but the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, and Kevin Costner are very strong, and the story is very resonant with today. Hidden Figures shows how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, director; Paul Laverty, writer) This is one of the best I saw. Ken Loach has been called a director of socialist realism, and while that’s an accurate description, what always comes through for me in his films is the sense of humanity that’s present in every frame. Loach, who will be 80 in June, has been working in film and television for 50 years. His commitment has never wavered. Films of his I particularly like are Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), and My Name Is Joe (1998). I, Daniel Blake ranks with his very best. The title character is a basic, decent man struggling to get through a snarl of bureaucratic bullsh*t designed to be as unhelpful as possible. Daniel, played by Dave Johns, spends hours on hold trying to reach officials who can’t help him anyway. We can all identify with that. Along the way he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two children, recently moved from London to Newcastle. Katie is also thwarted by a system filled with Catch-22s. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. It’s a beautiful film.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, director & writer) There was a lot of enthusiastic buzz for this film before it opened. I have to say, it delivers and then some. I was enjoying it well enough, and then there was a point about midway through — during an argument between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — when I realized with a rush that I was seeing a great movie. Stone and Gosling are wonderful. I’ve been a big Ryan Gosling booster since seeing him in Half Nelson (2006). Emma Stone is dazzling. La La Land hits you with positive energy. It’s like somebody juggling chainsaws and spinning plates at the same time. The filmmaking is very fresh and inventive. I had a problem with Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014). The music in that film was great, and the big drumming finale at Carnegie Hall was incredibly exciting, but I had a hard time accepting that a teacher as verbally and physically abusive as J.K. Simmons’ character could last for any length of time in a school. He was more like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I had no such reservations about La La Land. The music and dance numbers are great, and the bait & switch ending keeps your head spinning. This film justifies all the attention it’s been getting.

loving-posterLoving (Jeff Nichols, director & writer) Loving is the true story of the relationship between a white man and a black woman in Virginia in the late 1950s, a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most states. I’ve been a big fan of Jeff Nichols’ work ever since seeing his first film, Shotgun Stories (2007). Since then he’s made a series of exceptional works: Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special, released earlier in 2016. Nichols’ approach to filmmaking is low-key, minimal, unsentimental, and naturalistic.  Loving refines his style even further. The film is made up of the small, day-to-day details of living. There’s nothing melodramatic about it. Scenes of racial confrontation are largely absent. Richard and Mildred Loving, excellently portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, aren’t even present when the Supreme Court decision comes down in 1967 that legalizes interracial marriage. The same day we saw Loving, we also watched Nancy Buirski’s excellent documentary, The Loving Story (2011), which the feature was closely based on. Loving would make a great double-feature with Hidden Figures, as they both deal with crucial advances in civil rights.

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, director & writer) Before I saw Toni Erdmann, I would have said this was the best feature film of 2016. But it’s so close, the difference probably doesn’t matter. This is only the third feature from Kenneth Lonergan, after the stunning You Can Count on Me (2000) and the messy but amazing Margaret (2011). I can’t recall a film that deals with grief, loss, and responsibility to the powerful degree that Manchester does. Scenes in a hospital of people struggling to process the fact that someone has died are amazing. Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler is astonishing. You have to wonder how someone does that. Michelle Williams is equally good as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. A heartbreaking loss in their past was too much to bear. I especially liked C.J. Wilson as George, the partner of Lee’s brother Joe on their fishing boat. Lucas Hedges is also very good as Patrick, the nephew Lee is reluctant to take responsibility for following his father’s death. This is a heavy movie, though it’s also quite funny at times.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, director & writer) A deceptively simple story of the life of an African-American boy told in three parts; the first when he’s an adolescent; the second when he’s a teenager; the third when he’s an adult. None of these parts have obvious endings or resolutions. They just happen. Mahershala Ali plays a Miami drug dealer, Juan, but he’s not a stereotype. He takes the young Chiron, known as Little, under his wing and becomes a mentor of sorts, giving Little a safe space away from his crack-addicted mother (Naomi Harris). Janelle Monáe is Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, who also cares for Little. (Mahershala Ali has been turning up frequently. He and Janelle Monáe are in Hidden Figures. He’s been in House of Cards (Netflix) and the Marvel series Luke Cage, also on Netflix.) In parts two and three, Chiron has the growing awareness that he’s gay. All of this is dealt with in an understated way that feels very real. As with a number of films of 2016, there’s a profound sense of humanity at the core.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, director & co-writer) Based on the print ads and trailers I’d seen, I had no desire to see this film — it looked stupid — and wondered what Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were doing in it. Then I got an invite to a pre-release screening with Shane Black in attendence for a Q&A after, so I figured what the hell. I’m really glad I went, because it turned out to be great, a real kick. Crowe and Gosling are terrific in this violent comedy. Gosling channels The Three Stooges in a couple of WTF moments. Black began his career getting record amounts of money for his screenplays, beginning with Lethal Weapon in 1987. I’d liked Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a convoluted meta private eye thriller with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer that he wrote and directed. The Nice Guys has a similar vibe. It may not be high art, but it’s hugely entertaining.

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, director & writer) This is a touching and delicate Japanese film concerning three sisters who discover they have a half-sister, and embrace her as a member of their family. It’s a wonderful, smoothly told story with no villains. I first became aware of Kore-eda with Mabarosi (1995), followed by After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004), the glorious I Wish (2011), and Like Father, Like Son (2013). He frequently has children as protagonists and does wonders with them. His films feel very special.

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer) Paterson is a quintessential Jim Jarmusch film, quirky and dead-pan, with a sharp eye for odd detail. Adam Driver plays a character named Paterson, who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. He also writes poetry,paterson-marvin which we hear in voice-over from time to time. Sets of twins turn up frequently for no particular reason. The English bulldog Marvin is a silent observer around the neighborhood and in the house Paterson shares with Laura (Golshifeh Forahani), a self-styled designer of clothing and interiors, and aspiring singer-songwriter. Paterson gets up every morning, has breakfast, drives the bus, comes home, walks Marvin and hangs out in a bar, goes home and spends time with Laura. Along the way he observes life around him and writes poems about it. That’s pretty much it and it’s great.

The Shallows (Jaime Collet-Serra, director) A nasty piece of work about a woman (Blake Lively) being stalked by a shark while surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. It’s tightly wound, single minded, and sharply focused. After some initial doubts about seeing The Shallows, I was quite surprised at how good it was. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, this one comes along.

toni-erdmann-naked-inesToni Erdmann (Maren Ade, director & writer) This is my top pick for the year. We saw it the night before New Year’s Eve, so it’s still fresh in my mind. Astounding, amazing, unique, jaw-dropping, all that. Or, as my favorite blurb from the poster says, “It’s absolutely nuts!” It’s incredibly funny, but also serious and touching in its depiction of a frayed father-daughter relationship. Sandra Hüller is Ines, a driven corporate professional working for a consulting company trying to convince a company in Bucharest to outsource their work. Peter Simonischek plays her father, Winfred, who identifies himself as Toni Erdmann much of the time. Toni is a prankster, given to whoopee cushions, popping a set of buck teeth in and out of his mouth, and showing up unannounced in Ines’ life at the most inopportune moments. He’s an incredibly engaging character. An extended scene of Ines struggling to get out of a too-tight dress is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Toni Erdmann runs for  2 hours & 42 minutes, but doesn’t feel long at all. If it had kept going, we would have kept watching. It’s really unique, in a class by itself. Do not miss it.

Train to Busan (Yeon Song-ho, director & writer) Zombies on a train, everything just gets worse and worse and then worse than that. It’s unrelenting, high-octane, propulsive, amazing, and great. If you like this sort of thing — and you know who you are — Train to Busan is not to be missed.

20th Century Women (Mike Mills, director & writer) An award-worthy performance by Annette Bening as a single mother in 1979 Santa Barbara and a killer soundtrack are obvious attractions in this fine film from Mike Mills.  His previous feature was Beginners (2010), fwith Ewan McGregor playing a son whose father, Christopher Plummer, has come out of the closet at age 75. Beginners was great, but I think 20th Century Women is even better. Mills’ approach reminds me of Ira Sachs’ films, whose Little Men is also on this list.

The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardonne, co-directors & writers)  Like Ken Loach, the Dardonne brothers are deeply humanist filmmakers. Their earlier films, which include Rosetta (1999); The Son (1999); L’enfant (2005); and Two Days, One Night, are ample evidence of this. The Unknown Girl is no exception. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor filling in at a walk-in clinic in Liege. When someone rings the buzzer after a long day, an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), wants to let the person in. Jenny stops him, saying it’s already an hour past closing. When the person who rang, a young African immigrant woman, is found dead the next day on the bank of a river, Jenny feels responsible. She makes it her mission to find out who the woman was, so that she won’t be buried without a name.

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Other films I liked a lot last year include the following:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven, director)

Indignation (James Shamus, director & writer)

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)

The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, director)

Little Men (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer)

Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, director & writer)

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, director & writer)

Sing Street (John Carney, director & writer)

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, director) My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

I haven’t yet seen Lion, A Monster Calls, or Kubo and the Two Strings, all of which have received strong positive response. I’m sure there are others that slipped past me.

Many of these films are already available for streaming, rental, or purchase.

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travis-in-movie-theater2That’s all for now. See you at the movies! – Ted Hicks

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Happy New Year 2017: Duck and Cover

2016 has been a good year for films, but not so great otherwise. Too many people have died, famous and not so famous. The weird voodoo of the presidential election, which seemed to take place in an alternate Bizarro World universe, still defies belief, at least on my side of the wall. So we’re seeing Casablanca tonight at Film Forum, a great way to close out any year. Life goes on. And remember, we’ll always have movies.

casablanca-sam-rick-ilsadicaprio-gatsby-toast2three-stooges-drink-upcthulhu-trumpthe-fly-scream3seconds-hudson-on-guerney2happy-new-year-crosby-astaire______________________________________________________

  Stay tuned for recaps of my favorite feature films, documentaries, and TV & cable programs for 2016. In the meantime, here’s something to help get your heart started in the morning. Play it LOUD. – Ted Hicks

 

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Movie Poster Art for Art’s Sake

bordertown-poster-1935supernatural-1933-posterrain-1932-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some time ago I was looking for posters for a particular film when I chanced upon others that immediately got my attention. Some of these were for films I’d never heard of before. These are great posters, with colors and images that really pop. These posters — mostly from the late 1920s and through the ’30s — rely less on photographs and more on illustration. They’re imaginative and engaging, evocative and atmospheric. I’m seldom knocked out by film posters today the way I am by just about any of these.

Many reflect a pulp magazine sensibility, as can be seen below. Compare the “Argosy” magazine cover with the “Behind the Mask” film poster,  both from 1932. They’re practically interchangeable.

argosy-1932-pulp-coverbehind-the-mask-1932-posterHere is a sampling of what I found.

white-shoulders-1931-posterbad-girl-31-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dawn-patrol-1938-postermetropolis-posterthe-silver-streak-1934-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

shadow-of-chinatown-posterBelow are two beautiful Italian posters for To Have and Have Not (1944) and Flamingo Road (1949), and a French poster for Shanghai Express (1932).

to-have-and-have-not-44-itaian-postershanghai-express-1932-french-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

flamingo-road-49-italian-posterI was startled to see the following poster of Love Before Breakfast, a screwball comedy from 1936. It was apparently considered amusing to advertise the leading lady with a black eye and a coy smile. Times have changed.

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Movie posters used to reflect a level of artistry not much in evidence today. Here are some of my favorites from the 1960s through the 1990s. Many of these have become iconic.

vertigo-1958-postertaxi-driver-1976-poster2taxi-driver-1976-poster

mean-streets-1973-posterjaws-1975-posterdawn-of-the-dead-1970-posteralien-1979-poster

silence-of-the-lambs-1991-posteronce-upon-a-time-in-the-west-68-posterfear-loathing-1998-poster

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Dates for films not already indicated are as follows (in the order they appear above and below):

Bordertown (1935), Supernatural (1933), Rain (1932), White Shoulders (1931), Bad Girl (1931), Dawn Patrol (1938), Metropolis (1927), The Silver Streak (1934), Shadow of Chinatown (1936), Vertigo (1958), Taxi Driver (1976), Mean Streets (1973), Jaws (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1970), Alien (1979), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Chinatown (1974), Things to Come (1936), Blade Runner (1982).

This post is a follow-up to one I did at the end of June in 2014 titled “Movie Poster Art: Foreign Versions,” which can be accessed here.

If you’re interested in film posters, there are many more where these came from. They can be easily found online. It’s a kick to discover ones you’ve never seen before.

That’s all for now. See you next year. – Ted Hicks

things-to-come-1936-posterblade-runner-1982-poster

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“Dog Days” – A Pilgrim’s Progress

dog-days-title-montageDog Days is a six-part comic web series on YouTube that follows the misadventures of a fledgling dog walker named Max Miller. It was created and written by Sam Rubinoff, a stand-up comedian for five years and a dog walker himself. He also plays Max. Sam  started his own dog-walking business four years ago because he needed a day job that wouldn’t require him to get up too early, since he’s out late most nights performing in comedy clubs. Out of that grew the idea that became Dog Days.

(At this point I should probably mention that Sam is my nephew, the son of my wife’s sister. We’ve known each other for fourteen years now. I’ve been wanting to write about the series since it debuted last November, but concerns about conflict of interest and objectivity, as well as my chronic procrastination, always got in the way. That said, I’ll be as straight as I can here.)

At the beginning of Dog Days, Max, a young lawyer, is working in a law office sharing a cramped cubicle with his sex-obsessed friend, Steve (Michael Blaustein, a James Franco look-alike). A humiliating encounter — the first of many — with an abusive boss (Aaron Berg, frighteningly intense) ends with Max quitting his job in flamboyant crash-and-burn fashion. After storming out of the office, a chance encounter with a dog walker inspires Max to make dog walking his new career.

Each episode is between four to seven minutes long. The entire series runs approximately thirty-five minutes, with Max bouncing from one dog to the next with varying degrees of failure. A rather hapless character, Max emerges slightly dazed from most encounters. But, like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Woody Allen, and others in this tradition, he keeps plugging away in the face of adversity (and absurdity). Max also reminds me of Griffin Dunne’s character in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 feature, After Hourswho struggles to survive an increasingly surreal night in Soho. Nothing that happens to Max is as threatening as that, but along the way he has to deal with the challenge of walking a dead dog (episode 3 – “Lucy”), owned by a somewhat demented lady named Edna (Marilyn Seide), who thinks Dick Nixon is president and that Ed Sullivan is still on television. Then there’s Morgan (played by the wonderfully named Boomer Tibbs). Morgan is a Nazi lover with a TV tuned to the Hitler Channel who hires Max to make sure his dog, the appropriately-named Hunter, doesn’t pee on Morgan’s Persian rug (episode 6). And then there’s Vlad (H. Foley), the boisterous Russian who attaches himself to Max in the first episode and becomes his biggest supporter. I was initially put off by Vlad, but he has a good heart and I liked him a lot by the end.

Not everything in Dog Days works, but most of it does. I’ve watched the series a number of times, and my only real reservation is the character Patricia, played by Jo Young (episode 2 – “Kevin”). She’s exaggerated and over-the-top, which is a bit jarring compared to everyone else. But overall Dog Days is funny and clever. It’s easy to relate to Max’s dumbfounded reactions to the farcical situations he finds himself in. He’s the normal one, relatively speaking.

Sam took the first draft of his Dog Days script to Evan Levine, a friend who helped trim it down and punch it up. Most of the actors are people Sam knows from the stand-up comedy world in New York. He found Boomer Tibbs and Marilyn Seide online through Actors Access. Cameraman Jeff Carton shot the series on a Canon 6D Digital SLR. Sam and Jeff created the shot lists. H. Foley (who plays Vlad) directed five episodes; Evan Levine directed one. All six episode were shot before editing began. Sam admits this was a “little crazy.” He did a rough cut of his own before sending it off to Dan Hirshon to edit. Sam says about Dan, “…it helped that he used to be a stand-up comedian, so he has great timing and helped me create funny moments that I didn’t even think about when I was writing the script.” The shoot was nine days over two months, with an additional half-day for pickups.

What fascinates me is that Dog Days can exist at all. When I was in film school in the 60s, you needed a lot of stuff to make a film: expensive cameras and other equipment, film stock, lab processing and prints, projectors, etc. And in the end all you had was a 16mm student film. With digital technology it’s much easier to make films, and the Internet makes it possible for those films to be widely seen. Of course, you still need a script, actors, luck, and talent, but now anyone crazy enough to try has a shot. The feature film Tangerine (2015) was shot with three iPhone 5S smartphones. It received great reviews and 22 awards from 33 nominations. When films can be shot with smartphones and digital cameras, the landscape has definitely changed.

Dog Days is an impressive achievement by a first-time filmmaker and a lot of fun. Here it is. The trailer is followed by the six episodes. – Ted Hicks

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After Hours and Tangerine can be streamed from Amazon.

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