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.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 3/17/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE GUEST (dir. Adam Wingard, 2014)

Low-budget genre films — in general — do not get much credit: they are proven money-makers but critics ignore them, audiences look down upon them. As for awards, well, don’t hold your breath.

This is unfortunate because while genre films — horror, science fiction, westerns, gangster, action, martial arts, etc. — have a long history of seeming virtually indistinguishable from one another, some filmmakers, like Edgar G. Ulmer in DETOUR, Don Siegel in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or John Carpenter in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, have wrought minor miracles tweaking well-worn formulae. Operating well below the radar of society’s taste-makers, the low-budget aesthetic is to strip a film down to the bone. A great low-budget genre film can succeed wildly and in ways which other, more respectable counterparts are unable: all technique, no bombast; a solid reminder of the essence of what makes movies so pleasurable in the first place.

Unfortunately, though, the heyday of the genre film (which lasted well into to the 80’s) seems to have passed us by. Many of the programmatic concepts and stories which once would have found their way onto a grindhouse or drive-in screen have now been co-opted by the Hollywood blockbuster (“Aliens controlling human beings from behind the scenes and making us think that everything is hunky dory? Nah, that’s big budget now; that’s THE MATRIX!”), the straight-to-video market, the made-for-Lifetime movie (teenagers and/or housewives dabbling in sex/drugs/prostitution/murder-for-hire, etc.), and the SciFi Channel movie (humans vs. sharks/gorillas/piranhas/monsters/aliens, etc.). It causes one to wonder: those shabby artistic margins once exploited so sensationally by the likes of Ulmer, Siegel, and Carpenter, what has become of them?

Luckily, though, these types of films are not extinct, if less numerous than before, reminding you just how fun it can be to “check your brain at the door,” as the saying goes, while still having that grey matter stimulated in some wholly unexpected ways.

A story treatment for Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST could probably be printed on the label of a very small tin can. It might go something like this: family living in the heartland of America grieves for their dead son, killed in action oversees; handsome, chiseled stranger (Dan Stevens) shows up at door claiming to be close friend of dead son, just released from duty; handsome, chiseled stranger decides to stay with family for a few days and quickly becomes everyone’s best friend and protector; handsome, chiseled stranger also quickly becomes over-protective and is soon revealed to be a bit of a wackadoodle, the subject of some undisclosed top secret military super-soldier experiment gone awry; people die (lots of them, actually).

The_Guest_DVDTruthfully, it is a bit more complicated than that, but not by much, the story being told from the point-of-view of the family’s plucky daughter (Maika Monroe), who first distrusts, then lusts for said stranger, before she and her picked-upon younger brother must hold on for dear life in a hugely entertaining final set-piece in the local high school, which is decked out for… yup, the annual Halloween party!

THE GUEST is a wholly enjoyable roller-coaster ride of a movie: little or no plot development, lots of momentum. The film, in fact, has a sleek and lean widescreen look that resembles part-Euro art cinema, part-Carpenter’s Halloween. This heritage seems to be underscored, literally, by its astonishingly well-assembled electronic score, at times throbbing and muscular like a killer Teutonic dance beat, at others minimal and eerie like a classic synth-y Carpenter score. The film really should be understood as a musical journey or progression, more than anything else, a series of moods building steadily, one after another, to a destination which is familiar, yet ultimately satisfying.

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.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 12/9/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 12/9/14

Season’s Greetings from Best Video!

“Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ‘em all, and, my dear, I’m still here.” – Follies

Random cashier observations from behind the counter at Best Video on a recent, bustling Saturday night:

The door swings open and shut, swishing leaves and chilly air about the entryway as people rush in and out throughout the evening. Kate, at the coffee shop, keeps things lively as she perks her customers up with hot coffee, snacks, and conversation.

A family, new to the store, receives recommendations on Miyazaki films – no, not from my co-worker Mike and I – but from other customers milling about in the kid’s room! (Truly, recommendations can come from anywhere at Best Video.) Off in the direction of Top Hits the boisterous sound of voices rises above the din of the music throughout the night as classmate bumps into classmate, friend into friend, and neighbor into neighbor, even as others mutely scan the shelves of new releases looking for… what exactly? (They’ll know it when they see it!)

A group of teenagers comes in looking for THE WARRIORS and I cannot help but smirk to myself, remembering that I, too, was once a teenager about to see THE WARRIORS for the very first time. Lucky them! A man looking for a fourth title for the four movies/four nights deal finally decides upon CREEPSHOW but he cannot find it in Horror or Best Horror: Mike directs him to the George Romero section in Directors.

Meanwhile, a woman cannot find the taped stage version of Kaufman and Hart’s THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER with Nathan Lane where it usually resides in Performance/Drama: “That’s over in the holiday section in Top Hits,” I tell her. Another customer checks out THE REF, confiding that it is the only holiday film he will watch this Christmas season.

In this day and age of brick-and-mortar stores shuttering their doors, while online streaming services generate movie “recommendations” through algorithms and endlessly cut back on their inventories, Best Video is still here. That is something we should all be grateful for this holiday season.

Yes, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Best Video was the anti-Blockbuster, just as today we are the anti-Netflix and the anti-Redbox. I will write it one more time, if only just to savor it:

Best Video is still here.

Unquestionably, the greatest Christmas present we here in the Hamden/New Haven area can give ourselves is a robust and healthy Best Video for many years to come. The cost of such a gift is your continued business: it may be only a rental or two a week, DVDs or BluRays ordered for purchase (especially with the holidays approaching), a cup of coffee, or the cover charge for a musical performance or screening, but it is needed. The modesty of such actions belies their power.

Do you remember the character old Fezziwig in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol?” A generous and gregarious businessman, Fezziwig hosts a rollicking party — at his own expense — for the benefit of the community on Christmas Eve, and his beaming nature seems to lift the entire neighborhood up. As Scrooge wistfully recalls it so well, though this contribution was a modest one, it was “quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

With a healthy Best Video we are all rich throughout the year.

Neglected Holiday Treasure: REMEMBER THE NIGHT (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1940)

If you are looking for a little something to snuggle up with this holiday season check out 1940’s REMEMBER THE NIGHT, with screenplay by Preston Sturges, the last he would write, in fact, before directing his own feature films beginning with THE GREAT McGINTY.

The story concerns Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), arrested for shoplifting a bracelet just before the Christmas holiday in New York City. Slick assistant D.A. John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is assigned to prosecute and, recognizing that the jury will be unlikely to convict a woman just before the holiday, shrewdly has the trial put off until after Christmas.

However, realizing that Leander will now have to spend Christmas behind bars, he gamely bails her out before driving home to Indiana to visit his mother (Beulah Bondi), aunt (Elizabeth Patterson), and cousin (Sterling Holloway). Recognizing that Leander, too, is from Indiana, and, further, taking pity on her as she has nowhere else to go, he invites her along for the road trip. Cue: romance!

Leisen is one of the few directors in Hollywood who worked his way up from the art and costume departments and it shows: his films tend to be classy, well-produced affairs, and often well-acted, as in this case. Stanwyck and MacMurray would team up a number of other times, most memorably of course in Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), but also in Douglas Sirk’s excellent THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956). Reportedly, Sturges was so impressed with Stanwyck on the set of this film that he promised to one day pen a screwball comedy for her, resulting in that gem-of-all-gems, THE LADY EVE (1941)!

REMEMBER THE NIGHT is, in many ways, a journey through an American landscape that no longer exists: the action may begin and end in the big city, but its heart is in the countryside, small country back-roads, snow-covered farms, fireplaces, and simple, homespun family values which fill the middle section.

But do not be fooled into thinking that this is mere holiday schmaltz: within REMEMBER THE NIGHT, as with many of Sturges’ other films, beats a very adult heart, and the ending may surprise. Still, the movie exercises moments of perfectly-attuned sentiment, such as the scene where Stanwyck plays the song “A Perfect Day” on the Sargent family piano, with Holloway singing and the rest of the family later joining in. A perfect day, indeed: Leander has at last found a home far from the shriek of car brakes and horns, yet the pain which suddenly registers on her face is a recognition that somewhere — far away — the jury awaits.

For another great Preston Sturges film set around the holidays, also check out the madcap, hilarious MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944)!