Hank’s Recommendations 03/05/13


THE INTOUCHABLES — In this based-on-a-true-story, a charming, self-taken ex-con from the projects is hired to take care of a charming  but strong-willed disabled French aristocrat. What seems to start out as a formulaic French movie about two people from different worlds coming together for some life-changing experiences soon broadens into a highly humorous story wherein all the characters’ captivating stories (UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS anyone?) come to the fore. Moving beyond a film about a household task the film turns into an unpredictable adventure in the streets and countryside of Paris involving the upturning of preconceptions about life as well as class distinctions. As Mrs. Video proclaimed at the end: The Intouchables is unforgettable!

THE BAY — This is an eco-horror film that Barry Levinson (DINER, THE NATURAL, TIN MEN, GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM, RAIN MAN, BUGSY, SLEEPER, WAG THE DOG) directed with the producing help of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise producers. What’s “paranormal” here, however, is not ghosts but the environment, specifically that of the Chesapeake Bay in his beloved home state of Maryland, where Levinson grew up (see his affecting drama LIBERTY HEIGHTS) and many of his films are set,

Apart from CLOVERFIELD, CATFISH and THE LAST EXORCISM, I never did much care for that BLAIR WITCH PROJECTParanormal Activity sub-genre (which is almost always horror) where the entire film is seen through shaky, hand-held video or found footage of digital devices such as cell phones, security cameras and webcams. The style is supposed to make the film seem more real; to me the reality is simply low budget and not much else. But it’s a new world we’re in and nothing should be dismissed out of hand, though I do believe it takes a certain director (and writing!) to do this sub-genre well. Barry Levinson, it turns out, is that man.

The film is a montage of found footage put together by a then highly unseasoned young reporter who had reported on the events for a local TV station of the weekend in question three years ago. Conscience ridden, stealthy and now seasoned, she has decided to expose a three-year governmental cover up of a major environmental disaster that happened back then.

The ironic occasion of that earlier footage, honoring the independence and happy times of our nation, is a July 4th celebration in the quaint bayside town of Claridge: flags, parades, families, and a crab eating contest whose participants will soon all be throwing up.

Before you can say “lobster bib” an epidemic of blisters and boils and worse strikes many of the citizens. A woman wanders hysterically across suburban lawns, bleeding from every orifice. One witness’s initial response is to “run in to get my camera.” Talk about first responder.

Both horrifying and parodic, Levinson makes his faux found footage work with canny and clever camerawork, mounting suspense, and inadvertent humor interspersed with shocking images as overwhelmed local hospitals and the Center for Disease Control race to discover the source of this sudden and unprecedented epidemic.

These elements, along with good writing rather than the mostly silent footage of the Paranormal series, proves that Levinson does this sub-genre better than his producers have done with their own Paranormal series.

He doesn’t quite know how to bring it to a conclusion. But then, it’s still going on.

Hank Recommendations 02/19/13


hank_paperBen Affleck’s ARGO has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but not an Oscar for Best Director. This is unusual in Oscar history. The former award is usually accompanied by the second. Affleck has somewhat been compensated by the Golden Globes and, more importantly, the Directors Guild who both gave him the Best Director nod for Argo. The Golden Globes—foreign journalists all—are more critically honest, telling it like it is, and the Directors Guild directors know their film history in order to know how to make their own films effective.

The Oscars are about money, glamour and politics. An Oscar Nomination and, especially, Winner, is money in the bank at the box office. While critical acumen is thin in Hollywood, what’s layered on thick is media publicity and people voting en bloc for their own studio or film company or a person voting for the next director or star they are going to work with in order to heighten their own profile. Sentiment also plays a role in people voting for a certain issue or person (LINCOLN and Daniel Day-Lewis anyone?).

In my opinion, in nominating Argo for Best Picture, and yet not Best Director, Oscar got it backward. Here’s why:

This true-life entertaining thriller takes place in 1979. Six US embassy employees in Tehran barely escape to the Canadian Embassy as sixty of their colleagues are taken hostage by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Stateside, the CIA asks: How do we get them out in the short time before they are discovered and, most likely, tortured and executed?

Ben Affleck not only directed this film but also stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfil,” i.e. someone specializing in getting people out of hostile or enemy countries.

Listening in Washington to a panicky array of ill conceived escape plans, he tells the State Department emergency gathering: “Exfils are like abortions. You don’t wanna need one…but when you do, you don’t wanna do it yourself.” His own idea is hatched when he happens to see a scene from PLANET OF THE APES on TV: enter Iran as a Canadian film company making a science fiction movie in Tehran and spirit the six out as part of the film crew. As he later tells an incredulous and slack jawed State Department official:

“There are only bad options…it’s about finding the best one.”

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?”

“This is the best bad idea we have so far.”

And, in fact, the film really takes off in Hollywood, where Affleck recruits a wizened and sardonic semi-retired producer and a prosthetic special effects designer, respectively played by Alan Arkin (deservedly nominated as Best Supporting Actor) and John Goodman. Here the wit flies fast and furious with knowing jokes about and often at the expense of Hollywood. What then ensues is clever chicanery and white-knuckle suspense as the faux film is credibly concocted and the escape plan goes into action.

This is a interesting subject for a film that is complexly directed by Affleck. Taking place in Tehran, Washington and Hollywood, it alternates quick cutting among crowd scenes with intimate one on one or ensemble encounters that heighten the initial confusion and then gradually ratchet up the stakes and finally the suspense. The noose for the six escapees tightens as the focus grows tight on the actual escape attempt.

In short, this is a Hollywood blockbuster, an entertaining thriller, and definitely a good movie. But it does not have the substance or depth, the gravitas, of a Best Picture Oscar (Lincoln, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR anyone?) On this score, better than Argo is Ben Affleck’s earlier film GONE BABY GONE (which, in fact, we screened last night in Blu ray on our 120” screen in the Performance Space).

So Oscar got it wrong. But you’ll certainly get it right by directing yourself to watch this film for the good, well-directed movie it is.

Hank’s Recommendations 10/16/12

MOONRISE KINGDOM — Following BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Wes Anderson’s live action films—LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and DARJEELING LIMITED—seemed to me an attempt to replace what was totally original and winningly eccentric into with a “Wes Anderson” formula that was simply precious and coy.

Moonrise Kingdom, his latest, however, is a brilliant return to form.

Taking place on a New England island in 1965, the film opens with a stately albeit whimsical introduction to an oddball family and their home called Summer’s End. The parents, the Bishops, are two lawyers who are most compatible when citing law cases to each other. He (Bill Murray) is otherwise distracted while she (Frances McDormand) runs their rambunctious household with the help of a bullhorn while carrying on a clandestine flirtation with the island’s lonely self-effacing sheriff (Bruce Willis). Suzy, their twelve-year-old daughter, jaundiced about her family, including a trio of much younger male siblings, loses herself in fantasy novels she steals from the library and wishes she was an orphan. But she is part of a clandestine plot of her own.

For on the other side of the island is a Boy Scout camp strictly but lovingly run by Ed Norton, who finds not one of his uniformed charges up to standard—except for Sam who does everything Scout-wise right but is alienated from the rest of the troop. He actually is an orphan who loses himself in landscape painting and whose off-island foster family doesn’t really want him anymore.

A year ago the two momentarily, and wordlessly, met at a school pageant. A subsequent correspondence of letters espoused their mutual devotion and sealed their pact to escape the adult world together. And sure enough they do, galvanizing the entire island adult world—parents, scout leaders (along with their troops), neighbors, social services (Tilda Swinton) and the island’s sheriff—to rise to the madcap search and rescue. Of course these adults, so rooted in their ways, don’t realize they will be totally outpaced by Sam’s mastery of survival techniques and skills. All this just as an offshore storm approaches.

So much of the filmmaking, in its framing and with its judicious use of split-screen, slow motion, flashback asides, is witty; the art direction and cinematography scrumptuously eye-catching. The dialogue, with not a wasted word, is a touch surreal, yet realistic enough to evoke sympathy and even suspense.

When Bruce Willis’ sheriff acknowledges that twelve year old Sam is smarter than himself, he adds: “But even smart kids stick their finger in the electrical socket sometimes…It’s been proven by history, all mankind makes mistakes. It’s our job to try to protect you from making the dangerous ones if we can. [Handing him a beer] Want a slug.”

The Bishops lying in bed with the rain falling:

“I’m sorry Walt.”

“It’s not your fault. [Beat] Which injuries are you apologizing for, specifically?”

“Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.”

“Half of these were self-inflicted.”

The dialogue of the two young escapees—neither coy nor precious nor littered with faux-kids-speak—are credibly appropriate to their ages yet somehow uttered with a wisdom beyond their years, its palimpsest of innocence leavened with the foreknowledge that innocence won’t be likely to survive childhood. About a deceased pet:

“Was he a good dog?”

“Who’s to say. But he didn’t deserve to die.”

In this wonderful eye-catching, ear pleasing film that is a fable, a satire, a parody of adult speech and manners, of escape films, war films, westerns, therapy dramas, pageants and religious miracle plays, not to mention HIGH SIERRA and KEY LARGO, there are plenty of surprises, which I could never spoil even if I wanted to. True art is original, and never duplicable.

Oh yes, and Harvey Keitel is in it.


Hank’s Recommendations 10/09/12

DETACHMENT — This powerful film about a good teacher who is compelled to be a substitute so he won’t have to commit doesn’t offer easy answers to the problems that plague inner city schools. If you’re looking for answers, a la STAND AND DELIVER  or  LEAN ON ME, you’ll have to look deeper, but you will find some in this tough, uncompromising film. I suspect it’s the film’s integrity—along with its strong writing—that attracted Adrian Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, William Peterson and Bryan Cranston to sign up for this low budget, independent movie.

And you should too.

Henry Barthes (Adrian Brody), himself the product of a troubled past, makes the substitute circuit among city schools, staying long enough to inspire the students and then cutting out. No long-term relationships for him. But then, despite chronic resistance, he does becomes involved with three women—an overweight student with fiercely budding artistic ambitions (Betty Kaye), a young, annoyingly insistent street hustler (Sami Gayle), and a lonely fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks, from Mad Men) who awaken Henry to the scary prospect of change.

Especially notable among this great cast is James Caan, delivering a cleverly sarcastic performance in confronting the endemic hostility of students, a teacher trying to ride the wave of a career while fending off the pressures of an untenable vocational situation. Everyone acquits themselves well. Brody, in particular, is the perfect center of the film. An Oscar winner for THE PIANIST, here he is smart and tragic, sympathetic and detached. He draws you in to both his and the schools’ dilemma.

Directed by Tony Kaye, who did another tough, uncompromising film (Edward Norton’s debut) called AMERICAN HISTORY X that’s had a cult following and a very popular history in our store, this latest film is also a no holds barred film without the consoling streamlining of mainstream films. But it certainly has good writing and acting and honesty in its corner. It’s hardly detached from the problems that infest our schools.  And what it ultimately suggests as a solution to Henry Barthes’ issues also pertains to the change that’s required in our schools. In fact, that suggestion pertains to all of us. Who should watch this movie.

Hank’s Recommendations 10/02/12

SOUND OF MY VOICE — Two would-be investigative journalists—Peter, a third grade teacher in an all-girls school, and his girlfriend Lorna—go underground to expose a secret cult led by Maggie, a beautiful charismatic woman (Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future and is amassing followers in the basement of a suburban home.

Peter and Lorna want to do something that matters. But will that “something” be exposing the cult or wind up being sucked in by it? For one can readily see they are also unwitting fodder for Maggie. Peter is the product of a lonely childhood after his mother suddenly died and “abandoned” him. Lorna, the daughter of a Hollywood film producer, has spent a wasted adolescence at club parties and movie openings.

As the two plot how to hide a tiny camera, we hear Obama’s voice in the background commenting on the Gulf BP oil spill caused by an underground explosion: nice metaphor for what’s about to happen as they go underground.

There are amazing scenes in this movie that I won’t spoil by describing them. This film is, in part, about the future though the climactic plot strand—beginning with a request by Maggie of the skeptical Peter—involves an eight-year-old girl (one of Peter’s students) about to go on a field trip to the beginning of time at the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s a nice irony; and it’s where all the answers lie waiting in this questing film.

Like ANOTHER EARTH (also written by and starring Brit Marling), this is a personal human drama with a sci-fi background whose tautness never lets up, and that moves to a perfect and profound resolution bordering on the metaphysical. The style of both films is to negotiate the sensational in a matter-of-fact way that sucks you in.

One of the defining elements of a cult is secret knowledge. In this film, all of the characters wind up having secrets from one another: everybody is his or her own cult. It’s fair to say that Brit Marling is developing one of her own. This is a film that has you in its grip all the way.