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 2/17/15

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’s PICKS 2/17/15

Top 10 Movies of 2014

The red carpet is being rolled out, the statuettes polished up, and the envelopes sealed, but what speaks “closing the book on movies of last year” like a good ol’ fashioned Top 10 list? Let’s take a look (all are available on DVD/Blu-ray unless otherwise noted):

10. WHIPLASH (dir. Damien Chazelle, available on DVD/Blu-ray Tues., Feb. 24th)

Films about the act of artistic creation seemed to be a major theme of last year (see BIG EYES, THE WIND RISES, and MR. TURNER below) and it was hard to ignore the sheer visceral power of this story of up-and-coming jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) incessantly butting heads with Machiavellian teacher-from-hell Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Aside from the great lead performances, WHIPLASH was one of the best written and most tightly-edited pictures of the year.

9. NIGHTCRAWLER (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Exploring dark material is nothing new for actor Jake Gyllenhaal but he seems to especially be on a roll of late, with last year’s kidnapping drama PRISONERS and this film — a remarkable slice of L.A.-set neo-noir. NIGHTCRAWLER — one of the most breathtakingly shot films of last year — seems perennially set in that moment just after the sun has set in the desert, when the warmth of the sun can still be felt on the skin but darkness has quickly moved in. Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a chillingly amoral blank slate, who drifts from one place to the next, attempting to nose out job or economic opportunity from his bleak surroundings whilst spouting strange business-ese and corporate-isms until he chances upon his destined avocation: enterprising and unscrupulous cameraman for the “if it bleeds, it leads” local news cycle. Needless to say, Bloom takes to it like a fish to water: NIGHTCRAWLER is a fascinating hero’s progress for our time.

8. BOYHOOD (dir. Richard Linklater)

Much has been said and written in recent months about Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama about one boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) growing up. Though large and unwieldy — due to the film’s unprecedented structure (cast and crew assembling to film for only a few weeks each year, over a 12-year period!) — BOYHOOD is really a marvel and gets better as it goes, with the final half being easily the strongest of the movie. This should come as no surprise: Linklater’s stock-in-trade are characters who move freely (usually either walking or driving) and talk, so it makes sense that BOYHOOD would not really take off until its protagonist has finally “grown up” and wrested control of the film from the half-baked subplots which held the film hostage early on.

7. SNOWPIERCER (Bong Joon-ho)

Based on a French comic book about a dystopian future world which has been encased in ice and snow after a climate-engineering accident, SNOWPIERCER is set on a state-of-the-art juggernaut of a train which endlessly circles the earth and contains the final remnants of the human race, living in a strictly class-divided society and battling for survival. In spite of its bleak and strange scenario, SNOWPIERCER – the English language-debut from Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, MOTHER) – proved to be one of the most thrillingly visual films of last year, a marvel of effects and production design. As an added bonus, Tilda Swinton chews the scenery, in what was easily the scene-stealing role of the year.

6. BIG EYES (dir. Tim Burton, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Destined to be overlooked this film award season is Tim Burton’s latest, about artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings and mass-produced prints of sad-eyed waifs in the late 1950’s and 60’s became the essence of American kitsch and whose work was for years claimed to be that of her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz). While the film is — in typical Burton fashion — a brightly-colored, comic book-ish, and, yes, even googly-eyed evocation of time and place, it is hard not to see that Burton sees in Keane a compatriot. BIG EYES is a clever, understated, and warm tribute to the artistic impulse and the need to create, even when the value of one’s labors is a little in doubt.

5. THE WIND RISES (dir. Hayao Mizazaki)

Is this Miyazaki’s swan song? I hope not, but if it is, he picked an excellent, and fitting, note to end on. THE WIND RISES tells the story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of Mitsubishi aircraft used during World War II, which at first seems like strange subject matter for a committed pacifist like Miyazaki. What emerges, though, is a portrait of an obsessive artist and one man’s struggle for meaning through the years – themes which Miyazaki would naturally take to heart. THE WIND RISES is an all-around lyrical and beautiful film about the value of persistence.

4. MR. TURNER (dir. Mike Leigh, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Mike Leigh — best known for kitchen sink realism of the likes of LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES, and NAKED — has made occasional forays into period drama (TOPSY TURVY, VERA DRAKE), which he here returns to with his portrait of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), famed 19th century British painter of seascapes. Many of Leigh’s troupe of favorite actors are on display, as is the gorgeous cinematography of frequent Leigh collaborator Dick Pope. A slow and ponderously-paced film, that – in typical Leigh fashion – builds to an emotionally powerful, though quiet, climax.

3. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson)

Part rollicking buddy movie, part paean to lost love and the vanished past, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was the most fun one could have at the movie theater last year: a sickeningly-sweet confection, a treat that can’t be beat!

2. GONE GIRL (dir. David Fincher)

Perhaps the most talked-about film of last year was also one of its best, and certainly the twistiest and most serpentine of thrillers, proving that David Fincher is still in top form. Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn GONE GIRL details the fallout over the apparent murder of wealthy housewife Amy (Rosamund Pike) by her bored, philandering alpha male husband Nick (Ben Affleck) in a middle-class Missouri neighborhood. A stylish and moody evocation of the desert of modern emotional life GONE GIRL really gets under the skin (not to be confused with Under the Skin, see below). Pike’s Amy emerges as one of the most complex female characters in recent memory, while Nick and Amy themselves may just be the cinematic couple for our time.

1. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Mind-blowing, strange, and eerie to the max, UNDER THE SKIN was also the most substantial film of last year. Jonathan Glazer’s whats-it about an emotionally-detached alien vamp (Scarlett Johansson), nocturnally roaming the streets of Scotland and searching for male victims, is far more than it initially seems: a sustained and austere meditation on the search for identity in a modern, scorched landscape.

(The Other) Hank’s Recommendations 2/10/15

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebFORCE MAJEURE

A pull-quote on the cover of the new Swedish film FORCE MAJEURE touts it as a “must-see dark comedy.” I can agree with the “must-see” sentiments. But comedy? Not so much (although there are comedic moments). Rather, FORCE MAJEURE is an intense, squirm-inducing relationship drama.

It begins with a bourgeois idyll, a young attractive Swedish family—dad, mom, sister and brother—on skiing holiday in the French Alps. On their second day, as they dine al fresco on the hotel restaurant patio with a view of the majestic mountains, an explosion sets a controlled avalanche cascading down the mountainside. As the diners watch, however, the wall of snow barrels towards them, provoking a rising panic. The mother, Ebba (played by Lisa Loven Kongsli), gathers their two children to hustle them to safety. But the father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), grabs his iPhone and gloves and runs away, leaving Ebba and the kids to fend for themselves.

The avalanche never quite reaches the diners; everybody is safe. But it sends an icy chill through Tomas’ and Ebba’s marriage. Fight or flight—Tomas, in the instant, chooses the latter and ends up with the former. Once the avalanche comes, it’s all downhill from there.

Hank’s Recommendations 1/13/15

hank_paperFor a good bet try the staff recommendation shelves on the way (to your right) to the Top Hit area. I’ve recently changed my pics; here are three of them. You can’t lose!

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

In A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, two brothers rebel against their stern minister father (Tom Skerritt) in different ways: one (Craig Schaefer) as a writer, the other (Brad Pitt) as a charming daredevil challenging the world. Oscar-winning director Robert Redford captures the majesty of the Montana Wilderness and the strength of the American family in this acclaimed adaptation of Norman Maclean’s uniquely affecting memoir.

CAST AWAY

In CAST AWAY, an unusual and deep film, a FedEx systems engineer’s ruled-by-the-clock existence abruptly ends in a harrowing plane crash that leaves him isolated on a remote island. Tom Hanks offers one of his most absorbing performances in this life-changing adventure of body and spirit.

CAPE FEAR

In one of his two most menacing roles (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is the other one, reviewed next week), Robert Mitchum plays a sociopathic ex-con determined to exact a terrible – and terribly legal – revenge on both the attorney (Gregory Peck) who put him away and the attorney’s family. CAPE FEAR is a masterpiece of tension-building, shock and suspense that eclipses the later De Niro remake.

Hank’s Recommendations 12/30/14

hank_paperIDA

This is an eloquent film whose spare dialogue is as brief and succinct as its title, IDA, a Polish film where a picture (a scene, even a frame) is worth a thousand scripted words.

On the cusp of her ordination, Anna, an eighteen-year old novice, is sent by her prioress on a final journey into the “real” world to visit an aunt, her only known family. The aunt, it turns out, is a cynical, cigarette-smoking, alcoholic former judge who reveals “Anna” is Jewish and that her real name is Ida.

Partly out of curiosity and partly out of whim, the aunt takes Ida on a further journey to their old family home to locate the circumstances of Ida’s parents’ death during the Nazi era. The ensuing revelations, along with the collision of innocence and newly found experience, lead to the suspense of whether or not Ida will take her vows. Stunningly filmed in black and white (another kind of brevity), the film portrays a world where things are not simply black and white — certainly not the black and white of a nun’s habit. Or are they?

VISION

Two weeks ago in our Performance Space we had a screening, along with a lively discussion led by Fairfield University professor Elizabeth Dreyer, of a staggeringly beautiful film — VISION, by famed German director Margarethe von Trotta. The movie portrays the life of early twelfth century Benedictine nun, Hildegard von Bingen, a Christian mystic, composer, playwright, poet, painter, physician, herbalist and ecological activist, who iconoclastically was determined to expand the role of women in the religious order she led. Touching on feminism, power, sexuality and art, this unexpectedly modern film about a medieval subject envelops the audience not only in the light of Hildegard’s visions but in the lushly exquisite lighting of a movie that brings us back to a woman whose thinking was centuries ahead of it time.

THE DEAD

His final movie, which he directed on a respirator from a wheelchair while half blind, THE DEAD is one of John Huston’s most beautiful films, and certainly his most intimate. This largely interior and poetic yet unsentimental drama, a long way from the scope and adventure of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, portrays a turn-of-the century Christmas dinner in Dublin where the snow falls ceaselessly and the conversation ranges widely. The dinner, in the end, leads to a ravishing revelation in an upper middle-class couple (Anjelica Huston and Frank Patterson) about the difference between existing and living. This film, a paean to his Irish homeland, is Huston’s valedictory to his enduring theme of the fickleness of time and fate and, above all, the difference between existing and living.

Hank’s Recommendations 12/16/14

hank_paperHANK’S PICKS 12/16/14

WINTER’S BONE

WINTER’S BONE was my favorite movie of 2011. An independent film that only grossed seven million dollars, it rocketed Jennifer Lawrence to fame (SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK, THE HUNGER GAMES franchise) and made a supporting star of John Hawkes. I saw it three times (a recommendation right there). Nothing can be as perfect (to my mind) as this film, but all of the films below partake, to some good extent, of its setting and virtues. (Yes, even — and perhaps especially — Jerry Lee Lewis.)

JOE

Nicholas Cage has had, as they say, a storied career. For the last ten years, due to personal financial trouble, he’s been an action hero in second-rate films that — since they don’t rely heavily on character and dialogue — play well in international markets. But do you remember LEAVING LAS VEGAS (he won the Best Actor Oscar for that), MOONSTRUCK, ADAPTATION, GUARDING TESS, RED ROCK WEST, WILD AT HEART, RAISING ARIZONA (The Coen Brother’s second movie), PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, BIRDY? All Nicholas Cage headliners that feature his great acting range.

Well, Nicholas Cage is back — in JOE, a small independent film about a hard-drinking ex-con with anger management issues who finds himself taking on a 15 year old boy trying to escape a violent father. In this emotionally powerful drama, Cage is a firm but empathetic foreman of a Mississippi crew that clandestinely poisons trees for a lumber company that wants to plant stronger pines. But he’s got a decent stake and a shot at redemption. Can he make a move toward a stronger self?

OUT OF THE FURNACE

A beautiful rural part of the country is disintegrating under war and the economy in OUT OF THE FURNACE, and so is Christian Bale, a decent man with a violent past trying to lead a life of integrity. He’s abiding by his own work ethic through a meaningless job at a steel mill while loyally trying to protect his impulsive, self-destructive brother (Casey Affleck) — just returned from Iraq — from his involvement in a crime gang. Unfortunately for Bale, decency, integrity and loyalty only seem to point him to an act of revenge he doesn’t want to take.

Made by Scott Cooper, the writer/director of CRAZY HEART, the film features an amazing cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, the ubiquitous Sam Shepard, and Woody Harrelson as a bad-to-the-bone crime gang leader whose very presence on the screen raises anxiety.

LAST MAN STANDING

Rick Bragg just came out with a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis (reviewed in this week’s NYTimes Book Review by Stephen King), but, in a sense, the real bio is this DVD, JERRY LEE LEWIS: LAST MAN STANDING. Boogieing through a wide selection of material, this generous live show features on-the-money performances of his hits along with duets with a dozen top tier music stars (including Willie Nelson, Ron Wood, Buddy Guy, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, John Fogerty and Kid Rock).

Some of these pairings, as with Tom Jones, and with Norah Jones, would seem to be unlikely, which only proves the point of his talent: “the Killer” is smooth as silk with whomever he plays with and whatever the material. His voice styling is unique and his piano playing pyrotechnic and, yes, gorgeous (he never even glances at the keys, only at his partners).

The man is an iconic confluence of boogie-woogie, country, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, all drenched in the blues; he even invests fresh feeling in old chestnuts such as “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Over the Rainbow, and “That Lucky Old Sun.” He may not literally be “the last man standing” of his generation of greats (there’s Mick Jagger, for one), but his resilience is unpredictable and explosive.

And since it’s the holiday season, you can special order a copy from Best Video for your favorite cousin.