Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/17/16: “The Witch”

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE WITCH (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)

New England, 1630: a family consisting of a father, mother, and four children are exiled from their Puritan settlement for what are called “prideful conceits.” The father, William (Ralph Ineson), contends that it is they who are the true followers of God.

Pushed out of one remote outpost in the New World into an even more remote waste, they settle, after some time, on the edge of a dark forest. Eventually, another baby is born, Samuel, who, while being watched over one day by the oldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. The camera shows – or seems to show – an elderly female stealing away with the child. The family begins to unravel.

Robin Wood once stated that, in a horror film, “normality is threatened by the monster.” If this reliable formula holds true, then Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH presents a satisfying complication: more slow-burner or folk tale (the film is, in fact, subtitled “A New-England Folktale”) than boogeyman body-count or spine-tingler. Normality is definitely threatened but it is hard to say by whom or even by what.

In spite of its title, the monster here is a remarkably disembodied force. While there definitely appears to be a malevolent being crouching in wait in the woods, at the edge of reason, much of the horror here is committed by one family member against another. For example, to make ends meet, William surreptitiously sells his wife Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) treasured silver cup in order to buy hunting supplies. Though he eventually owns up to the transgression, it is too late to spare Thomasin who has already been withering under the implications of guilt due to Samuel’s disappearance, setting the forces of familial disintegration firmly into motion.

The_WitchLike Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one senses that these regular folk are perched – dangling – over the flames. In an existence built upon faith, the implication seems to be that, once the infection of doubt seeps in, everything civilized goes down like a house of cards. Worse, in a world built upon repression, woe unto those who throw the gates wide open….

Horror is a genre which makes its capital through the building of discordancy and unease on the peripheries of perception: most often through visuals but effectively, as well, through sound (see, for example, THE SHINING or the recent IT FOLLOWS). THE WITCH succeeds in these respects in unexpected ways. While its stark beauty – its unburnished wilderness and murky interiors shot through with shafts of natural sunlight or threatening to swallow up the meager flicker of a candle, its achingly spare score and sound effects – invites the viewer to look, the sense of imminent menace dares the viewer to continue that very act of looking. After all, the truest and most intuitive laws of horror films are that the viewer is only as safe as the present moment allows and that the act of looking, itself, is infused with danger. At its best, THE WITCH attracts as it repels: the camera’s steady, unwavering gaze, classically-framed tableaux, and hauntingly minimal score pulling the viewer in opposite directions, making for a queasily satisfying experience.

His debut feature, Eggers writes and directs this with surprising assurance and with a rigorous naturalism rare in the genre, suggesting more of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING or Malick’s THE NEW WORLD than THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN. Eggers is aided by an excellent cast, headed by Ineson, Dickie, and the radiant Taylor-Joy, but also including Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays brother Caleb with wide-eyed earnestness, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as a creepy pair of twins, and an equally unsettling goat named Black Phillip in the definition of a scene-stealing animal role (hint: he has some of the better lines in the movie). Great care is taken across the board with costumes (Eggers was a former costume designer, himself), production design, and accurate recreation of New England accents of the time. Expressionistic flourishes appear just frequently enough to make the viewer squirm, offering a superbly understated creep-out factor.

A bit like later Kubrick or Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, THE WITCH is calibrated like a tonal pitch which builds in intensity to an inexorable conclusion, the hands of fate pushing events forward. This strangely-wrought amalgamation of art film and horror movie may fail to please either extreme, yet is perfectly appropriate to our strange times.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/10/16: “The Apple”

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE APPLE (dir. Menahem Golan, 1980)

Have you ever had an experience so galvanizing that it seemed to drive a wedge into your existence, dividing it, so to speak, between “before” and “after?”

In my mid-twenties, I was living in New York City and my friends and I became fascinated by a trailer being played at a local theater for a largely forgotten midnight movie called THE APPLE, made in 1980. Seemingly no one that I spoke to had ever seen or even heard of the picture. I was intrigued.

When its long-awaited weekend engagement arrived, a large group of us congregated at the theater, took our seats, and waited for the lights to go down. There was a definite hush in the theater that night: though we had found out little about the movie in advance, we expected something very good, and, by that, I mean that we expected something very bad.

As you know, sometimes movies disappoint; other times they meet or exceed our expectations; and still other times — that rarest of rare occurrences — they smash all of our expectations to pieces. THE APPLE, it turned out, was one of the latter.

The movie begins disorientingly enough, hurling the viewer into the action: Screaming teenagers fill a concert hall where thumping percussion and smoke heralds the entrance of a duo of gold and silver lamé-clad pop stars named Dandi and Pandi and a veritable army of spangly and sparkly dancers. Almost before I was aware, the music exploded in a near cacophony, Dandi and Pandi chanting lyrics like “BIM is the power,” the band chugging away at full steam, and the droning chorus “Hey, hey, hey, BIM’s your way!” boring into my head with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The_Apple_1980_film_WebThis was an all-out assault on the senses which I had not anticipated: while the music pummels the viewer from all directions with its pile-driving rhythms, dancers aggressively flail about and fly at the viewer, lights glare, horns blare, and voices soar. Not even three minutes in, I felt as though my brain were on fire, as though I had entered a strange alternate dimension where the production values of third-rate disco were merged with some sort of banal industrial advertisement: what the heck is the BIM, anyway?

As it turns out, the year is 1994 and an evil, totalitarian corporation — the BIM (it’s IBM scrambled, get it?), controlled by the nefarious Mr. Boogalow (played by Vladek Sheybal, of the original RED DAWN, with devilish charm) — controls all musical entertainment in the known world as a form of mass mind control. This is ably demonstrated in that headache-inducing opening number — appropriately called “The BIM” — where Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy) gyrate about in pseudo-fascistic fashion to the delight of the crowd of mesmerized youths, who – not realizing what synthetic dreck this is – lap it all up like kittens to milk.

It seems that Dandi and Pandi – pawns of the aforementioned Boogalow – are rolling out their new “BIM” anthem at an international song competition as another calculated move in Boogalow’s plans to mire the world in wide-spread and mindless consumerism (gee, that could never happen, could it?). Indeed, as the chorus pronounces in the eye-popping set-piece “Disco 2000,” “Life is nothing but show business in 1994,” while another of Boogalow’s minions, Shake (Ray Shell), croons “Like the bleary-eyed baboon to an organ-grinder’s tune, mankind screamies for whatever bits of dreamies he might treat them to.”

That is, until the idealistic folk duo Alfie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, NIGHT OF THE COMET) take the stage, strumming away on the acoustic guitar and belting out “Love, The Universal Melody.” To Mr. Boogalow and his loyal henchmen, the oily Shake and the ditzy Ashley (Leslie Meadows), these hicks “from Moose Jaw” are a joke until it becomes clear that the crowd is taking this lovey-dovey, hand-holding stuff quite seriously.

Something will have to be done….

I will not divulge what follows. Suffice it to say that it involves, among other things: betrayals aplenty; dancing nuns; the unveiling of various BIM merchandise, including BIM marks and BIM t-shirts; hallucinogenic drugs; lots and lots of glitter; a musical number which re-stages the Garden of Eden story in Hell with Adam, Eve, a snake, an apple (obviously), and vampires (yes, I said vampires); a randomly-inserted Jewish landlady; a gang of hippies (actually, to be correct, they are “refugees from the 60s”); and a PG-rated orgy – choreographed in Busby Berkeley-fashion to the best beats this side of Donna Summer – that simply has to be seen to be believed! From pop to folk to disco and from power ballads to reggae, the film’s soundtrack buzz saws its way through one genre after another. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll lose your mind.

Filmed in West Germany and directed by Menahem Golan (of Cannon Films infamy, responsible for producing assorted 80’s Chuck Norris and Chuck Bronson schlock, as well as “classy” productions such as Cassavetes’s LOVE STREAMS) with enough gusto for ten films, THE APPLE is far and away the best glam-disco-utopian-luddite-pro-Zionist-Creation-allegory musical ever produced; it’s really one hell of a movie.

I won’t attempt to make overt value judgments about a film like THE APPLE: I could say that it’s terrible, tasteless, and nonsensical in the extreme, its direction ham-fisted, and — in a certain sense — that would be correct. Yes, the film suffers from trying to reinvent the midnight movie on a shoestring, over-extending itself in almost every direction. But that would be missing the point. THE APPLE scores direct hits because of the purity of its ambition and its naïveté; in other words, it succeeds precisely because it fails and does so with such incredible abandon, going so far beyond reason that it cannot, in the end, be anything but utterly charming.

THE APPLE is a movie from another time and place: nothing like it, unfortunately, will ever be made again. It’s 100% amazing, but, more than anything, it’s a social experience, a film that demands to be seen with an audience. That night years ago when my friends and I sat aghast and amazed? It was only the first of many such nights over the years, the film becoming as much a communal ritual for us as anything.

Luckily, THE APPLE screens this Wednesday night, May 11, at 7 at Best Video: why not take a bite? Admission is $5.

Hank Hoffman’s Picks 12/1/15

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebTHE WAYS OF GENIUS

Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, 2014)

No doubt the world is filled with well-adjusted geniuses. Creative masters who relate easily to those around them.

But, often, genius is as much burden as gift, both to the possessor and to those who come within his or her orbit.

Two wonderful movies released on DVD and Blu-Ray this year, LOVE AND MERCY and MR. TURNER, offer compelling depictions of mercurial artists wrestling both with their artistic visions and inner torments. As well, each film also presents superbly realized cinematic renditions of time and place.

Mr_TurnerBritish director Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” portrays the brilliant landscape and seascape painter J.M.W. Turner in the latter years of his life. (Many of Turner’s paintings are on view at the Yale Center for British Art.) Collegial and competitive with his peers in the Royal Academy, he can be irascible and withdrawn when with family and lovers. Actor Timothy Spall gives a powerful performance as Turner. At times, Spall’s Turner communicates in little more than snorts and grunts. But he can also be tender, forging a seemingly kind and affectionate long-term relationship in the final years of his life with the widow Mrs. Booth.

Turner lived from 1775 to 1851; Leigh’s film showcases a bustling early Victorian England in the accelerating grip of industrialization. In one scene, Turner paints a steam-spewing train in the proto-Impressionist “Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway.” As a painter, he faces the possibility of obsolescence in the face of the new medium of photography.

Light is the essence of photography and light was the essence of Turner’s paintings. Director Mike Leigh, through the beautiful cinematography of Dick Pope, allows us to see England as Turner saw and experienced it.

The quality of light is different but as integral in LOVE & MERCY, directed by Bill Pohlad. LOVE & MERCY tells the story of Brian Wilson, leader of—and songwriter for—The Beach Boys. In the early to mid-1960s, The Beach Boys’ music broadcast the myth and reality—mostly the former—of California sunshine to the world.

But it wasn’t all sunshine for Brian Wilson. Even without his ill-advised indulgence in LSD, Wilson—a victim of an extremely abusive father—still might have struggled with mental health issues. His musical vision  and experimentation with adventurous harmonies expanded the vocabulary of rock music. It also caused dissension within the group, particularly with singer—and cousin—Mike Love, who wanted Wilson to stick with the formula that had secured the group so many hits.

Love_MercyPohlad deftly tells two parallel stories—that of Wilson’s musical ascension and emotional collapse in the 1960s and that of his entrapment and control by therapist Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s, from which Wilson was freed by the intervention of his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks).

The younger Wilson is played by Paul Dano; John Cusack plays the older Wilson. The fine performances by the two actors make the fact that they don’t look much like the same person at different ages irrelevant—they convey a consistent emotional inner life for the character that overrides the outer appearances.

While Wilson continues to perform to this day, his most creative songwriting is behind him. In LOVE & MERCY, Pohlad not only convincingly depicts a creative genius being overcome by his inner demons. He also convincingly recreates the creative milieu of the 1960s Los Angeles music scene and Wilson’s important role within it.

It wasn’t all “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But notwithstanding the anguish there were plenty of musical “Good Vibrations.”

Rob Harmon’s Picks 10/27/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebHalloween Testimonial for Best Video

“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.”

– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Ah yes, Halloween is here and all that we associate with it: crisp, cold evenings; leaves changing and falling to the ground, crunching beneath our feet; and, of course, candy – sticky and cloyingly sweet on the tongue. Sunset comes a little earlier each day: like a theater’s lights dimming, we slip into another frame of mind, subconsciously giving ourselves over to a greater sense of fantasy and the desire for sensation… much like the experience, in fact, of watching movies!

What better way to celebrate Halloween than with a movie or even a beloved TV special from Best Video? Of course, scary movies are the order of the day, but one need not feel hemmed in by shivers and shocks: there are plenty of delightful classics (I MARRIED A WITCH, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE), “camp” classics (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, TROLL 2, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), as well as family-friendly fare (GREMLINS, HOCUS POCUS, THE MONSTER SQUAD, FRANKENWEENIE, etc., etc.) which are perfectly appropriate for the season.

And yet, though I’ve seen a lot of scary movies in my life, I’ll tell you what would be really frightening: a world without Best Video.

I would be remiss if I did not mention here the upcoming handover of this beloved neighborhood institution from Hank Paper — who opened the business 30 years ago — to the Best Video Film and Cultural Center, a new non-profit board charged with running the video store, café, and performance space and guiding us towards the future. This is the culmination of well over a year’s worth of tireless work on the part of Mr. Paper, the board, and our staff. In essence, this is a critical moment in the life-story of this brick-and-mortar establishment and we need support and involvement from the community.

I have lost track of how many people have come up to me over time and told me that they grew up going to Best Video and now bring their own kids. Some of those grown-up “kids” are now even studying film and working in the film industry. This is no coincidence: Best Video U. is an education unparalleled… and cheaper, too, if you compare late fees to tuition!

Speaking of the future, in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, Marty McFly travels from the year 1985 to the once-unfathomable year of 2015. Isn’t it ironic that Best Video has traversed that same time period?! Why, one could say that the store itself is a sort of DeLorean time machine… except, of course, without those cool flip-up doors and a flux capacitor! Best Video is a time machine, allowing one to travel freely backwards and forwards in time. We may not have kooky stuff like hoverboards and flying cars in our garages just yet, but, thank goodness, we still have Best Video down the street! Here’s to 30 years… and more!

Okay, enough talk. Here’s a review:

It_FollowsIt Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

People watch scary movies for all sorts of different reasons. There are simply innumerable options along the continuum: roller coaster thrill rides, calibrated to deliver maximum jolts to teenagers; atmospheric slow-burners; very mildly creepy kid-friendly stuff.

I’m not completely certain what IT FOLLOWS is. Like any horror film, though, there is a set-up: girl, Jay (THE GUEST’s Maika Monroe), meets boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They have sex. Afterwards, Hugh drugs Jay and, once she awakens, informs her that he has passed “something” on to her (and it’s not what you think): “This thing, it’s gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me and I passed it to you…. It can look like someone you know or it can be a stranger in the crowd, whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone.” Jay, it turns out, is now irrevocably in the cross-hairs of some indefinable “it” and will be mercilessly stalked by this ponderously-moving-but-never-sleeping, shape-shifting, malevolent wraith until she, in turn, has sex with someone else, passing on the ghostly manifestation like an unwanted chain letter. Yikes.

Some may roll their eyes at this as merely so much millennial drama or nonsense. The plot, certainly, has obvious metaphoric possibilities, and the reader is free to fill in any that they choose (anything from sexually-transmitted diseases to cyberstalking, etc.), yet it would be a disservice to the film to simply end there.

Director David Robert Mitchell (responsible for the ethereal coming-of-age story THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER) injects the film with grit and moments of implacable beauty. Mitchell, aside from his obvious knowledge of horror films and their genre conventions, further infuses his film with a class-consciousness that is both savvy and surprising (at one point the protagonists trace the malignant threat to the slums… and, yet, is it really from there or a better part of town?), proving that genre films are oftentimes better suited (or at least more seamless) at exploring serious issues than so-called “message movies.”

Mike Gioulakis’s camera jitteringly probes the horizon — the modern urban ruins of Detroit and its faceless suburbs — seemingly searching out imminent threats, the protagonists magnetically drawn to open spaces as they attempt to combat and/or escape their nightmarish horror vacui. Yet, while Jay and her friends flee from various dangers, we are also treated to the dreamy interludes which form the meat of their existence. At these moments the camera seems to linger – quite unexpectedly – dwelling on innocuous details such as the shimmering surface of a backyard pool, dirty laundry littering the floor of a teenager’s room, or sunset as one flies down the interstate with a few friends in the backseat.

In this queasy environment adults barely register, often with their backs turned to the camera, their voices barely audible. This is undoubtedly the world of the young, their hopes and regrets, and Mitchell ably creates a frighteningly claustrophobic space for it: drab Americana, drained of its meaning… an empty landscape waiting to be filled with incipient horrors, making for a chilling parable about youth today.

Special mention should be made of the music by composer Rich Vreeland, known as Disasterpeace (he has principally worked in video games up to this point). The synth-y strains of his score perfectly suiting the velvety tones of the film’s images and rhythms. In this respect, IT FOLLOWS links with a classic horror film tradition, its progressive score matching that of the music of such milestones as PSYCHO, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, SUSPIRIA, and THE SHINING in their sheer ability to shock and disrupt the viewer. (A hint: turn up the volume on this one!)

The truth is, IT FOLLOWS is many things: cynical, artsy, dreamy, beautiful… as well as the most ambitious horror film to emerge from the U.S. in a long time. It’s also pretty frickin’ scary.

(The Other) Hank’s Picks 8/18/15

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebTwo Days, One Night (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014)

Solidarity.

Before it was the name of an independent trade union in Communist Poland, it was the ethic that undergirds all unionism. Put in the words most often associated with the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as the Wobblies), a radical American union most active in the early 1900s (although still around today): An injury to one is an injury to all.

A lack of solidarity at a small solar panels manufacturing firm in Belgium is the act that sets in motion TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, a superb drama by Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Oscar winning actress Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother who has been on sick leave from work while she battles depression. As she prepares to return she finds out that 14 out of 16 of her fellow workers, when presented with a choice to receive their promised 1,000-euro bonus or lay her off, have voted her out of a job.

But Juliette—a friendly co-worker who was one of the two who voted to save Sandra’s job—has found out that the foreman interfered in the vote by telling some workers their own jobs might be at risk if they didn’t vote for the bonus. She prevails upon Dumont, the owner of the firm, to allow a re-vote on Monday.

It is up to Juliette but more particularly Manu, Sandra’s husband, to encourage Sandra to visit each one of her co-workers over the weekend and lobby them to allow her to keep her job.

Cotillard is a glamorous star but she thoroughly inhabits the role of Sandra, projecting an intense vulnerability. The film is most certainly a commentary on the struggles of workers in the contemporary economy but in no ways a polemic. In Two Days, One Night, the Dardenne brothers have crafted a riveting drama in which even the bit characters—Sandra’s fellow Solwal workers—feel fully realized.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/19/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebBig Eyes (dir. Tim Burton, 2014)

Not all great artists, writers, or directors become the inspiration for words in the English language: for example, there are no such words as Leonardoish, Hemingwayian, or Truffautian — not officially in the dictionary, anyway. (These words, besides, are a little clunky!) Other artists, however, achieve such a degree of iconicity, either by creating a new brand of art or by coming to embody one that already existed, that inventing or coining an adjective to describe that art, or one particular aspect of it, becomes practically imperative, as in Rubenesque, Aristotelian, or Hitchcockian.

Still, as speakers and as writers, we tend to invent words all the time – whenever convenient, really – boiling the essence of something down to a single adjective or verb, a sort of shorthand referring to something or someone’s most salient aspects. Cineastes do this all the time with directors: for example, if I were to tell you that a certain film was “Carpenter-esque, Lynchian, and Wilder-esque,” you might understand this to mean: a film – possibly horror – with a minimal, widescreen visual aesthetic, and equally minimal music – probably synthesizer-based (à la John Carpenter); which, further, is surreal (David Lynch); and features strongly-written characters and a scathingly acerbic sense of humor (Billy Wilder).

Burtonesque is not in the dictionary (I just checked, although one website offered up this priceless definition: “a general feeling of mystical and somewhat dark wonderfulness”), and may never be, but for those who know movies well the word evokes rich and potent images: a darkly Gothic and comic, fairy-tale-like atmosphere; the subtle satire of suburbia, middle-class values, and the dysfunctional family unit; the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, and England’s Hammer Studios; the campy-but-endearing theatrics of Vincent Price; wounded, child-like heroes cast adrift in a world they never made; and, of course, the hauntingly innocent musical stylings of frequent-collaborator and composer Danny Elfman (former frontman of legendary band Oingo Boingo; for more on this “other” side of the versatile Elfman see 80s midnight classic THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in our Cult section!).

Director Tim Burton achieved such astonishing success early in his career (PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) that he had solidly established a house style – call it “Burtonesque,” if you will – at a point when most other filmmakers are still struggling to find their voice.

Yet, for a time, all of that seemed to work against Burton, as he fought to stabilize his career after the days of heady, early success. As he labored through a seemingly endless array of remakes and remodels, Tim Burton seemed to be forever in the shadow of… well, his younger self. Tim Burton – the wunderkind who shook up Hollywood with his whip-smart comedy/horror pastiches – now seemed a shadow of his former self, an illustrator of others’ ideas, his patented Burtonesque house-style forced into servitude. Not long ago it would have been legitimate to ask: “Whatever happened to Tim Burton?”

2844957BIG EYES is based on the life of painter Margaret Keane, beginning in 1958 in a typically-ordered and candy-colored Burtonesque suburbia somewhere in northern California, as soft-spoken housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) works up the courage to walk out on her stifling, loveless marriage. With young daughter Jane in the back seat she drives to San Francisco and sets up a new life as a single mother (San Francisco in 1958? Shades of VERTIGO, anyone?), struggling to find employment, before, ultimately, succeeding.

Additionally, fueled by the energy of the city around her, she channels her latent artistic impulses by going to art fairs on the weekends and applying paint to canvas: her pet theme the portrayal of children – inspired by her daughter – with eerily large and disproportioned eyes. The windows to the soul, she says. It is while rubbing elbows with the bohemian set that she meets the larger-than-life Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist and all-around-operator, whose secret that he is actually a well-off real estate agent proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. Walter and Margaret are married and Margaret continues to develop her portraits of destitute and lachrymose, staring waifs. Recognizing that the rapidly-growing middle class has a healthy appetite for the snobbery associated with art, Walter hits upon new, undreamt-of ways of promoting Margaret’s paintings to the masses, even taking his role as salesman to another level by assuming credit for his wife’s work once it begins to sell… and sell and sell…. Ultimately, of course, as Keane Mania sweeps the nation, attracting the supercilious derision of the critical establishment, the fraudulent enterprise becomes ever more difficult to keep under wraps….

BIG EYES was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a team best known for biopics, such as Miloš Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN ON THE MOON, as well as Burton’s exceptional ED WOOD. BIG EYES is well-acted, particularly by the two leads Adams and Waltz.

Proving that there are second acts in life, Burton’s BIG EYES manages to be: a smart and subtle parable about art and the artistic process; a send-up of the unholy marriage of art and commerce; a pseudo-feminist statement, as Margaret struggles to find her voice in a patriarchal society, with daughter Jane’s staring eyes (and, by extension, the eyes of her painted subjects) calmly recording the abuses which mother is subjected to; as well as a meditation on the greater values of cheap, mass-produced “art” (as in, *ahem*, movies…): all-in-all, an understated work from a matured director – one whose career has already seen its fair share of ups and downs.

Burton clearly recognizes Margaret as a kindred spirit in kitsch, a fellow creator whose private obsessions may too easily be dismissed or written off as specious. Burton seems to also identify, up to a point, with husband Walter, a sort-of P. T. Barnum of the art world, whose business savvy ignites a firestorm of demand in the belly of Middle America. Margaret and Walter are presented as two halves of a duality, as yin and yang, two forces who can’t seem to live together or apart: a powerful metaphor, indeed, for the creative process.

For more “Burtonesque” works check out our Tim Burton section in Best Directors!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/12/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebHoliday (Dir. George Cukor, 1938)

When you were a child, did you have a secret place — a special kind of ultra-secret-type place — that you generally did not share with adults? Maybe you had a few? If you had siblings maybe you shared one, or with friends and neighbors? But with grown-ups — those overly-serious, sometimes grim sorts of people who seemed to carry the weight of the whole world on their backs — they usually didn’t get it, right?

HOLIDAY is not a film about children or childhood, but about adults still caught up in its eddy. It is a film about people – dreamers and nonconformists – who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else. It’s about finding your place.

Three of the main characters in HOLIDAY – grown-siblings Linda, Ned, and Julia Seton (Katharine Hepburn, Lew Ayres, and Doris Nolan, respectively) — once shared such a private place when they were children — a playroom buried within the heart of a big, stuffy Fifth Ave. mansion, comfortably decorated by their long-since-deceased mother, and stocked with toys, musical instruments, puppets, and even a small trapeze. Now, years later, each sibling deals with their stifled dreams of youth in a different way: Ned drowns his sorrows in a constant stream of alcohol, Julia resents being reminded of the past at all and looks instead to a future of financial security and wealth, and… Linda? Well, she keeps the fire burning, literally and figuratively, in that secret spot, the playroom, where the influence of her dimly-remembered-but-beloved-mother is still strong, and that of her tyrannical financier father is, thankfully, minimal.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Ages before J. D. Salinger and Wes Anderson wove tales of the whimsical and wounded outcasts of New York’s elite there was George Cukor’s sparkling 1938 romantic comedy HOLIDAY, adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman from Philip Barry’s 1928 play. (Hepburn had, incidentally, been an understudy for the role of Linda on Broadway, while Barry would later write his hit play, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, with Hepburn in mind for the lead role, which she, of course, ended up playing.)

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a free-spirited businessman returning home to New York from a winter holiday to tell his friends — the bohemians Prof. Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and his wife Susan (Jean Dixon) — the great news: He met a woman named Julia and he plans to marry her. The only problem is that when he shows up at her house he finds it to be the aforementioned Fifth Ave. monolith – confusing, really, since she had neglected to mention that she came from money… – but he takes it all in stride, even when sparks fly between he and Julia’s nonconformist, spitfire of a sister, Linda. While dipsomaniac brother Ned looks blearily on, Johnny does his best to sell Julia’s stuffed-shirt of a father as he unveils his big plan: to retire young and enjoy himself a little, before returning to work later, when he really knows what he wants out of life. The problem is, not only that father-in-law-to-be is upset, but even Julia doesn’t seem so hot on the idea. Meanwhile, Linda waits in the wings….

HOLIDAY shares many of the characteristics of screwball comedies of the 1930s: the theme of heavy, stilted patriarchy, money, and social pressures squaring off against free-thinking and free-wheeling, middle-class values, and, of course, the war of wills between a headstrong male and female as they careen towards the altar, the tension running through the audience more a question of, not “if,” but “when” and “under what circumstances” will this man take this woman to be his lawfully-wedded… etc., etc. Holiday, in fact, is a perfect example of a strong ending made more memorable merely by staving off plot-resolution until the very last few frames.

HolidayHOLIDAY has even more than many of the best screwball comedies: there is a note of melancholy and even distress which underpins Linda’s and Ned’s precarious positions within the family and New York society, while there is a strong undercurrent of yearning for both Johnny and Linda, two free-spirits struggling to be free, and to be together.

Even so, and as the film’s title would  suggest, there is a carefree and ludic air to the proceedings: Grant and Hepburn are both magnificent (one of their four on-screen pairings), even performing a few athletic tumbles together, while Horton and Dixon lend admirable support as the sort of unflappable, upstanding best friends that everyone wishes they had. Ayres, in a performance which would help land him the part of Dr. Kildare and effect a resurrection of his then-stalled career, is excellent in the challenging role of loving-but-pathetic Ned. Cukor’s direction is sensitive and draws out the tenderness of Linda and Johnny’s plight.

What a movie! What an ending! (Someone please pass me the kleenex….)

***Today, May 12th, is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday!***
***May also marks the 30th birthday of Best Video!***
***Every day is a holiday… at Best Video!***

Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/21/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTwo by Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I Wish (2011)
Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda burst onto the international scene in 1995 with his debut feature MABOROSI before solidifying his position over the following fifteen years with additional art house hits such as AFTER LIFE (1998), NOBODY KNOWS (2004), and STILL WALKING (2008).

Yet, in spite of this admirable track record, Kore-eda remains something of an elusive presence outside of Japan, likely because of his tendency to eschew “safe” material in favor of more personal, idiosyncratic work, seemingly never following a predictable pattern. In short, because Kore-eda is unconcerned with simply producing a single type of film, he has probably never “materialized” in the minds of many Western viewers, which is a shame.

One of the things Kore-eda should be better known for in this country is his ability to work effectively with children. He is the rare filmmaker patient enough to film kids in their element, ensuring that they are not relegated to the role of mere devices in movies that are actually about adults. Kore-eda’s worldview is expansive and his two most recent films illustrate this fact beautifully.

I_WishI WISH tells the story of young brothers Koichi and Ryunosuke, dealing with the unpleasant reality of being separated for the first time in their lives, their parents having recently split up. Sullen Koichi (Kohki Maeda) lives at his grandparents’ house with his mom in Kagoshima, in the shadow of a volcano which daily spews ash into the air. Cheerful Ryunosuke (real-life brother Ohshiro Maeda, with a 1,000-watt smile) lives in Fukuoka with his dad, a slacker who works a menial job and spends much of his time strumming on the guitar and dreaming of rock band success with his bandmates. (Indeed, if anyone comes off as a little childish in this movie it is the parents!)

Koichi and Ryu desperately miss each other and want to reunite their family, when Koichi hits upon a solution, a variation, in fact, on a common Japanese folk belief: if one makes a wish at the point where two trains pass each other at top speed — in this case, a newly-opened bullet train line — the wish will come true. Koichi and Ryu (and assorted friends) concoct a pal, involving saving money and feigning illness to get out of school, to join each other at the crossing point miles and miles away. Meanwhile, Grandpa has a starry-eyed scheme of his own: to start a business manufacturing a traditional Japanese confection, the karukan. Just about everyone in this film is filled with desires and dreams… in short, with wishes.

Instead of following the expected fairy tale trajectories, Kore-eda’s parable of fraternal devotion chugs along at its own pace, never sabotaging the children’s characterizations for saccharine plot turns, the story luffing along like a summer’s breeze. Kore-eda even reserves a stylistic flourish for the climax, a “montage of wishing” which is both unexpected and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is the story of an affluent couple, Ryota and Midori, who are informed that their six-year old boy Keita is not, in fact, their own — there was a mix-up at the hospital at birth — and they, and the parents, Yudai and Yukari, who have been unknowingly raising their boy, Ryusei, must now decide whether to switch back, or….

Like_Father_Like_SonClearly, Kore-eda closely examines the idea of familial bonds and the meaning of family in LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Also undoubtedly, the scenario seems, on the surface, formulated to maximize the tearjerker potential. The theme of children being separated from their parents is common enough in melodrama and Hollywood history — think of Jackie Coogan being pulled from the arms of the little tramp in the THE KID or Barbara Stanwyck as the quintessential self-sacrificing mother, STELLA DALLAS, bedraggled and standing in the rain, watching her daughter’s wedding through a window from the street — scenes which can be generally counted upon to open the lachrymal floodgates of the audience.

However, Kore-eda again hijacks audience expectations by making the protagonist Ryota the least sympathetic character in the film. Though a crackerjack salaryman in the office, at home he is cold and aloof, an overly-pedantic taskmaster, both to his wife and his son. Kore-eda, in other words, challenges the audience to relate to someone who is a bit of a jerk, while his opposite, Yudai, though provincial, disheveled, and a bit of a loser, seems more the salt of the earth and is revered by his children. Ryota, in fact, is revealed to be the son of a remote and unfeeling father, and he struggles with his impending decision and the conflicting emotions that are awakened within him. Later on in the film, when it is revealed that the switching of the boys was no mere accident but a deliberate act on the part of a wayward hospital employee, Kore-eda defies expectations for a showdown in favor of a far more emotionally measured and realistic outcome.

If anything Kore-eda’s aim in this film seems to be to defer the moment of cathartic emotional release, and not to bring it on, wave after wave after wave. Given the immense emotional power of its material, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is remarkably restrained. Such restraint lends the entire film more beauty, and the “moments,” when they do come, more power.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/7/15

Rob_photo_031715_Web“MEET ME AT BEST VIDEO”

Do you ever have an experience that should seem utterly familiar but, instead, suddenly feels foreign, sort of like déjà vu-in-reverse?

Recently I had to drive a good distance for an appointment and I was returning home. I was winding my way across the highways and roads of the state – you know, take interstate X to exit Y and merge onto rte. Z going south – and I felt my brain zoning out. It all seemed so routine, so commonplace, and yet…

My morning caffeine buzz quickly ebbing away, I began to see the twisting roads about me as the arteries and veins of some vast, unidentifiable body, while my car and the others whizzing around were the white and red blood cells, darting in and out, maybe pooling up here for a moment before gushing out over there. Looking at the highway entrance and exit ramps I imagined great muscles and tendons, the grass and trees were like skin and hair.

I was fascinated by the image of this humongous and complex, living, self-contained network, of which we all form only a tiny part, and I understood, albeit briefly, why some people contemptuously see our state simply as a highway connecting New York to Boston, or equate/confuse Connecticut with the Turnpike that bears its name. In short, I sensed for a moment how large the world actually is, with Connecticut merely a blip.

Eventually, I began to get closer to home and I read off the town names on signs as I got nearer: “Meriden, Wallingford, North Haven…” With this heightened perspective I was struck with how Hamden is just one town among many: to borrow my previous analogy, think of Hamden as just a single cell within this enormous body, with all of these blood cells rushing past it, day-in and day-out.

My point here is not to say that Hamden is insignificant — because it clearly is not — but to underline just how amazing it is that it contains one of the last and — aptly named — best video stores on the planet. Think back to the cells in the body and imagine that, at one time, each contained one or more specialized structures — a mitochondrion or a ribosome, say — but that now this specialized structure has been whittled away, dwindling down to only a few trace elements here and there. Think of all of the video stores that once dotted the face of the land, like little points of light seen from above at night, but now darkness has settled in as those lights go out, one by one.

Rob_Harmon_Open_letter_040715_pull_quoteSuch is the sad fate of the video store in our society, at least up ‘til this point. Once a mighty presence in the land, but now receded, practically to extinction. Blockbuster? Gone. Tommy K’s? Gone. Mom & Pop stores? (Almost all) gone.

Really, with all of the changes in media in recent years and the different entertainment “options” (if you can rightly call them that) available to the consumer, how would a blood cell — er, car — whizzing down the highway know that that little town over there contained a place like Best Video, a veritable Garden of Eden for movie-lovers, a place where everything from ALPHA DOG to THE OMEGA MAN is available to rent?

We should all marvel — we should all be deeply proud of what we have here — right here in our own backyard. I have worked at Best Video for almost five years and, surrounded by movies all day long, it can be easy to forget how good we have it sometimes. Owner Hank Paper has fought against the odds to keep the store open and gambled by adding the coffee shop and movie screenings. Managers Richard Brown and Hank Hoffman brought live music to our performance space. And – myself and my co-workers? – well, we put away the movies, we wait on customers, and we recommend films, day after day after day. We’re here in the snow, we’re here in the rain, we’re here in the morning and at night (within business hours, naturally!).

Best Video is a crossroads and a pillar in our community. If Hank opened the store in 1985 (30 years ago next month!) to be the best around, then we now have a new mandate: to simply be around. Our role in the neighborhood has changed and evolved over the years and we want to continue doing so, adding more music, film screenings, and other cultural events in the future. The Board of Best Video Film & Cultural Center, a new organization planning to take over — and save — the store, has a plan to reconfigure our business as a non-profit arts organization, which could, hypothetically, keep us around from here… to eternity. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

The little guy — the underdog — rarely wins in real life, but in movies, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, they often do. With our fundraiser event coming up on Saturday, Apr. 25, at the Outer Space’s Ballroom here in Hamden, please consider what Best Video means to you.

We want to stay here and we want to keep turning the lights on. We should not take Best Video for granted. We should not forget to be amazed by it.

Think about it: a weary traveler — perhaps imagining the world as arteries, veins, and cells, perhaps just wanting to rent a movie — may be pulling off of the highway right now, may be making their way down Whitney Ave., past the Sleeping Giant, past the university, and… there… off in the distance… Best Video…

Yup, the lights are still on!

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), final scene:

Mrs. Smith (marveling at the World’s Fair): There’s never been anything like it in the world.
Rose: We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel, its right here in our own hometown.
“Tootie”: Grandpa, they’ll never tear it down, will they?
Grandpa: Well, they better not!
Esther: I can’t believe it. Right here where we live – right here in St. Louis!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 3/24/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2010)

Teen-oriented ensemble films, perhaps because of their emphasis on the entry and awakening into adulthood, have a tendency to focus on a short and very specific length of time, usually a day followed by a night (followed by a morning). Movies have a long history of this, stretching back at least as far as the granddaddy of the genre, Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but also including such distinguished fare as George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI, John Hughes’ THE BREAKFAST CLUB and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, and Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED. Once the sun goes down, so these films would imply, teens – whether jocks, nerds, stoners, dorks, or cool kids – tend to collectively drop their social disguises, rendering them suddenly somnambulant and reflective, like wandering philosophers in the night (a bit like adults, incidentally!).

Like the cinematic fountain of youth, these types of films seem to ask adult viewers: how cool would it be to be young again, and yet mature enough to appreciate it? Or, in a more general sense, remember what it was like to have your whole life ahead of you?

From the overly wordy title alone – THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER – it is clear that first-time writer/director David Robert Mitchell is well-versed in this body of work, yet he proves wise enough not to resort to a mere tribute or rehash.

Myth_American_SleepoverThe film follows four main characters: Rob (Marlon Morton), a sensitive middle schooler about to make the jump to high school, whose hormones are raging and can’t get that girl he saw at the grocery store out of his head; high schooler Claudia (Amanda Bauer) – new in town – who stumbles upon evidence that her boyfriend may not have been quite honest with her; high schooler Maggie (Claire Sloma), who yearns for at least one sexual adventure before summer’s end; and Scott (Brett Jacobsen), home from college, but whose life has seemingly stalled out and who suddenly cannot seem to shake the memory of a girl – or girls, as it may be – from his younger, more exciting, high school days. Aside from these main characters the film features a dozen or so other supporting ones, giving the film a fully-fleshed out feel. Like Linklater, Mitchell does not seem to believe in throw-away characters.

THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER is a true indie, filmed mainly in the suburbs of Detroit, and Mitchell works wonders with a cast of near-unknowns, wringing all of the expected dreams, hopes, and angst from a group of characters perched incipiently on adulthood. The film features a number of unexpected and well-thought-out plot-turns, but is also wise enough to dwell upon the ephemeral details: the tap-tap-tapping of a girl’s toe ring against the side of a bathtub, the emotional and physical rush of a first kiss, the reek of a cigarette or the sting of a beer in the nostrils on a warm summer’s night. The film’s soundtrack, though minimal, is effective and features a few lovely songs.

Much like those long summer’s nights we remember as kids and teenagers, The Myth of the American Sleepover may draw out the moment for maximum impact, but it also eventually – and necessarily – draws to a close and the sun comes up, its characters wistful, but wiser. Youth here is treated like a whisper – eminently worth savoring, but over almost before we know it.

Incidentally, Mitchell has recently released his second movie – continuing his interest in the worlds of youth and teen-oriented genres – with the nerve-jangling IT FOLLOWS, an indie horror film which will necessarily garner favorable comparisons to THE SHINING and Asian shockers such as RINGU, THE EYE and PULSE.