Hank’s Recommendations 12/2/14

hank_paperOUR TV WATCH

Ever since that game-changer, THE SOPRANOS, TV has found itself in a second Golden Age of television: cable shows and HBO movies that don’t have to pander to commercial sponsors, that don’t have to broadcast inoffensive series and films targeted to a dumbed-down, common denominator demographic — shows that offer sophisticated adult fare, that have given freedom to the writer rather than the director in becoming the creative moving force.

It’s hard, of course, to follow on that masterpiece BREAKING BAD, but we’ve come close, at home, with HOMELAND, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, HOUSE OF CARDS and, as a Bronx-born Jersey boy raised in the 50s, my favorite series, MAD MEN.

We’ve recently come late to IN TREATMENT, a finely focused, character-oriented series about a psychotherapist and his patients. We’ve relished each shot (and he’s in most of them) of Gabriel Byrne’s sympathetic, emotively responsive face engaging his therapy patients, engagements that allow us to get involved in their slowly revealed life histories and, hopefully, progress. (Each disc makes up a week of therapy sessions with the five regular patients; four or five discs comprise a season.)

This HBO series was adapted from the original Israeli TV series that starred Assi Dayan (yes, Moshe’s son) as the psychotherapist. What is particularly clever in this series is the way it eventually opens up what would otherwise be a staid structure by, in part, coming to focus on the doctor himself — his restive home-life and questioning of his own abilities. While it took us (as is often the case with ultimately rewarding series) two or three episodes to get into, we found it richly and thoroughly absorbing throughout its four seasons.

Finally, on the cutting edge of TV viewing, we have been totally taken with the HBO series, FARGO, more exploration than exploitation of the multi-Oscar winning movie. While not directed by the Coen Brothers, they are executive producers of the show. It has their whimsical fingerprints all over it. With a superbly gifted cast, humorously surreal plot and engagingly bleak Minnesota atmosphere (it was actually filmed in Alberta), this offbeat character-oriented mystery thriller offers adult fare and one surprise after another that exemplifies how all these TV series invite addictive binge-viewing. Fair warning: these series are hazardous to your free time.

Hank’s Recommendations 11/25/14

hank_paperGOD’S POCKET

A dark, bleak, original film with a great cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro and John Slattery), GOD’S POCKET authentically recreates a Philadelphia neighborhood down at its heels but not its resilience. Hoffman plays a resident with heart and loyalty, a lot of debt, an inability to please his wife and a body he can’t bury. With some of the intensity and atmosphere of “Mystic River” (though not its operatic melodrama), and featuring a suitably valedictory performance by Hoffman (far deeper and wider than his performance in “A Most Wanted Man”), this black comedy is vivid, moving and real.

COLD IN JULY

A decent homeowner shoots dead a home invader and soon finds himself in over his head and his life transformed. A suspenseful, twisty mystery thriller, COLD IN JULY stars Dexter’s Michael C. Hall displaying his considerable acting chops, Sam Shepard (who seems to be in every other movie these days) and a weathered and amusing Don Johnson, who delightfully offers up his own evergreen, sardonic acting chops. With a plot as unusual as the title suggests, this is an entertaining film with, no doubt, the welcome promise of further Don Johnson roles.

THIRD PERSON

That rare thing today—an adult drama. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, who brought us the Best Picture Oscar-winning CRASH, about racial tension in L.A., THIRD PERSON also offers a great ensemble cast (including Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Maria Bello and Kim Bassinger) throwing a wide net over the issues of relationship: caring, risking, protecting. Watching” becomes a key word in this Haggis script as we follow three couples in three cities, with some triangulation of interconnection. Critics were mixed on this ambitious concept, and I suspect many will love or hate it. Watch it, take a risk and see if you care. I did.

21 HOURS IN MUNICH

Two penetrating films about the vengeful aftermath of the so-called “Munich massacre” of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in 1972 (the Israeli film SWORD OF GIDEON and Steven Spielberg’s MUNICH) were preceded by 21 HOURS IN MUNICH, a 1976 star-studded TV movie that describes the massacre and hostage-taking itself. Written by Howard Fast and starring William Holden as a police chief standing off against Franco Nero as the chief Arab terrorist and hostage-holder, this two-Emmy nominated film is briskly paced and suspenseful throughout, justifying its 200 minute length. The behind-the-scenes negotiations between Germany and Israel in determining responsibility for a response, while trying to strategize a tricky, hoped-for resolution, is a fascinating story in itself, grippingly played out by an expert cast.

Mike Wheatley’s Picks 10/28/14: Halloween movies for the younger set

Hocus_PocusLooking for some seasonally-appropriate entertainment but don’t want to traumatize your younger children for the rest of their lives? Best Video staffer Michael Wheatley has put together a list of 30 films that would make for fine family-friendly Halloween entertainment.

Boo! (Sorry—hope we didn’t scare you!)

01. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
02. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
03. Twitches (2005)
04. Ghostbusters (1984)
05. The Witches (1990)
06. Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
07. The Addams Family (1991)
08. The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
09. Hocus Pocus (1993)

10. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
11. Casper (1995)
12. Tower of Terror (1997)
13. The Monster Squad (1987)
14. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
15. Gremlins (1984)
16. Return to Oz (1985)
17. Monster House (2006)
18. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
19. ParaNorman (2012)
20. Frankenweenie (2012)
21. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
22. Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
23. Coraline (2009)
24. Corpse Bride (2005)
25. Beetlejuice (1988)
26. Halloweentown (1998)
27. Young Frankenstein (1974)
28. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
29. Labyrinth (1986)
30. The Black Cauldron (1985)

Rob Harmon’s Picks 9/23/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksCLASSIC FILMS FOR FAMILY VIEWING

When most think about family movies nowadays one tends to think of anthropomorphic animals or cars, slick animation, a zany and hyperactive, sugar-addled sense of humor, and usually an overarching syrupy and saccharine tone. But what about older movies?

There are at least three reasons to consider classic films for family movie night. First, before the days of the movie ratings system and our present-day segmented film culture (in which each new major release is slotted for a specific age group and demographic long before filming begins) films were meant to be seen by – more-or-less – people of all ages together (horror films would naturally soften their roughest edges for kids while a chirpy musical might contain a risqué joke or two for the adults in the audience). Hollywood’s worldview may have been heavily whitewashed back in the day (some would point out that it still is…), but classic films do represent a lost art form: that of creating entertainment for a broad cross section of the American public and a wide range of age groups.

Second, until one has exposed a child to non-mainstream films one cannot be certain that they will not enjoy them. In fact, just like putting young and developing minds into contact with the work of Mozart or Dickens, there are many positive effects to introducing youngsters to classic films, for example learning about the history of American culture and society (or other countries, for that matter), and generally opening up their horizons.

Third, some (but not all) classic films will contain neat moral lessons which can be especially powerful for kids, such as the message of non-violence in Destry Rides Again, the dangers of nuclear war in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the populist democracy lessons contained in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Presenting the classics to kids may seem like a hard-sell to many parents but it should be considered as an option. It is true that most kids will probably roll their eyes at the thought of watching a black-and-white or a silent film: I was one of them, too, once. But, coming from a movie-mad family, I had caught the bug myself by the time I was in 8th grade. Family movie night was a tradition on the weekends and we watched both contemporary and classic films together.

I remember one such night particularly well when I was in 8th or 9th grade: my mother had noticed earlier in the week that Gone with the Wind would be playing – commercial-free – on TV that Friday or Saturday and promptly declared it a “movie night.”

That evening – mirroring the grandiosity of the film itself – took on a life of its own and became an “event”: we arranged the chairs and sofa so that everyone would be comfortable for the four-hour running time and adjusted the lights accordingly as the opening credits began. I remember most clearly the chaos that ensued as soon as the intermission hit: blankets and cushions flung aside, cats running for cover, Dad drowsily waking up. No sooner had Scarlett O’Hara uttered the words “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” than was I fussing with the air popper and dumping in the popcorn kernels. Meanwhile, the kitchen around me crackled with activity, my parents and siblings scrounging for ice cream, chips, crackers, anything that was at hand. As the intermission came to a close we rushed to get back to our seats in time and – as in a game of musical chairs – we collided like ten-pins, scattering popcorn and other stuff on the floor, which was sniffed and perhaps nibbled at by the now-skittish cats as they slowly returned to the family room. My mom interjected commentary throughout, usually having to do with actors, costume, music, etc., but also to social issues, for example drawing our attention to the damaging stereotypes of African-American slaves in the film.

The following categories and suggestions are far from exhaustive (feel free to ask for advice at the store) and are composed with children and teenagers from the ages of 8 to 16 in mind. (For movies which have more than one version I have attached a year in order to avoid confusion.)

Action/Adventure: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; Jason and the Argonauts; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); The Prince and the Pauper (1937); 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954); tom thumb; The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; The Swiss Family Robinson; Treasure Island (1950); Gunga Din; Captain Blood

Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window; North by Northwest; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); Dial M for Murder

Comedy: The Court Jester; The Inspector General; Way Out West; A Night at the Opera; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; The Nutty Professor (1963); The Road to Morocco; Christmas in July; Bringing Up Baby; His Girl Friday; The Philadelphia Story; Going My Way; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; A Hard Day’s Night

Epics: Gone with the Wind; Ben-Hur; The Ten Commandments; Lawrence of Arabia

Family: Old Yeller; The Yearling; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; National Velvet; Captains Courageous; The Secret Garden (1949)

Horror/Monster: King Kong (1933); Godzilla (1954); Frankenstein (1931); Dracula (1931); The Mummy (1932); The Wolf Man (1941); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); The Creature from the Black Lagoon; The Haunting (1963); The Thing from Another World

Musicals: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; The Wizard of Oz; Mary Poppins; The Sound of Music; Singin’ in the Rain; An American in Paris; My Fair Lady; Meet Me in St. Louis; Easter Parade; The Music Man

Romance/Drama: Roman Holiday; Random Harvest; Now, Voyager; The Quiet Man; Jezebel; Casablanca; The Red Shoes; The Pride of the Yankees; Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939); Young Mr. Lincoln

Science Fiction: Forbidden Planet; The Incredible Shrinking Man; The War of the Worlds (1953); The Time Machine (1960); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); Invaders from Mars (1953); The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Them!; Metropolis

Shirley Temple: Captain January; Heidi; The Blue Bird; The Little Princess

Silent Comedy: Modern Times; City Lights; The Gold Rush; The Freshman; Safety Last!; The General; The Navigator; Seven Chances

War: All Quiet on the Western Front; Sands of Iwo Jima; Air Force; They Were Expendable; The Bridge on the River Kwai

Westerns: Shane; Red River; The Searchers; Stagecoach; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; Rio Bravo; Destry Rides Again; High Noon; The Ox-Bow Incident

Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/15/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksUnder the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

If an alien intelligence were inserted into our midst, what would it make of us? And, if it looked like us, might it eventually begin to develop thoughts like a human being?

Many a science fiction film has delved into just these sorts of philosophical questions in the past but few have done it with the rigorousness and the sheer gravitas of British cinematic visionary Jonathan Glazer in UNDER THE SKIN.

The film begins with mesmerizing imagery as a type of alien intelligence is born or brought into being, and which eventually takes the form of a woman (Scarlett Johansson). After a quick stop at the mall for some clothes and makeup she begins to move freely about the cities of Scotland—mainly at night—in a white van.

She is cruising, or hunting, for men, who seem to satiate her thirst and to be the object of a sort of vampiric inner need. Let’s just say that once she brings these men home they may be expecting a night of bliss but end up having to deal with something else, something which resembles a large mass of black ooze (!), as well as the mysterious, leather-clad motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams) who operates as the woman’s keeper.

Business is good for the woman and the motorcycle man until she hears a child’s scream for the first time and later meets a young man so outcast by society that she is jarred into being, so to speak. She begins to regard herself in the mirror, developing a conscience—or something like it—in a series of encounters which recalls Jacques Lacan’s “mirror moment” of psychological development. She flees her handler and randomly heads towards the mountains where things begin to fall apart quickly, and the film hurtles towards a brain-melting, yet oddly peaceful, conclusion.

By turns kinky, hypnotic, chilling, and hilarious, this is a freak-out of a movie which recalls past collisions of art, horror, and eroticism, like Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, and the films of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, but does them one better.

Additionally, the film knowingly winks its machine-like eye in referencing the works of Kubrick such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE SHINING, but in its meditation on the nature of human identity its closest antecedent is perhaps John Frankenheimer’s woefully under-appreciated paranoia-fest SECONDS (1966) (wherein bored and buttoned-down career man/drone Rock Hudson is kidnapped one day and given a new face—and a new life to go along with it!).

Johansson deserves credit for taking on such a difficult role and making it her own. The film derives much power from her hesitant, alien-like responses to things such as human gender roles or the taste of food. With her bedraggled mop of black hair and cheap clothes—a ratty fur coat, tight, acid-washed jeans, and a pair of fur-lined and heeled boots—she is put through the meat grinder in a way which recalls another suffering cinematic female: the character played by Emily Watson in Lars von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES. The film’s other star is the landscape of Scotland itself, which is depicted in a range of moods, from the grey ugliness of urban decay to the serene and quiet beauty of the mountains.

The film’s cinematography and sound design are superb, adding much to the film’s strangely off-kilter register. Parts of the movie were reportedly filmed with hidden cameras and the use of non-actors and this definitely rings true. Many of the film’s early sequences with Johansson meandering about in public are given an especially creepy and unnerving edge due to their detached, “surveillance camera”-type feel. But equally important in this regard is the score, written by British experimental pop musician Mica Levi, whose discordant sounds and strains will haunt the memory.

Director Jonathan Glazer’s (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH) profoundly visual eye is well on display here, such as in the beautifully dreamy sequence toward the end when the woman takes a nap in a mountain cabin: the next shot is of the mountain’s swaying trees seen from above and an image of the recumbent female is superimposed over it, alien and nature for the moment fusing as one. There is something so subconsciously disturbing about this film that it is hard to tear one’s eyes away.

If you want to know what contemporary movie will be blowing peoples’ minds thirty years from now, what film teenagers and young adults will be staying up late at night to watch and discuss, look no further: cult movie of the future, thy name is Under the Skin!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/8/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

Recently I was at a tag sale when I spotted a children’s book which looked familiar to me. Picking it up I realized that it was a decommissioned library book with Dewey Decimal sticker still intact on the spine and that it was, in fact, a book which I remembered checking out of the library a dozen times or more as a child. I ran my hand over its buckram cover, frayed corners, and weather-beaten, heavily broken-in pages, seemingly softened by the oil from a thousand children’s fingertips as they feverishly thumbed through it over the years. The title, pictures, captions, and the font all seemed vaguely familiar to me and even comforting; the book’s pleasantly sweet, slightly musty smell brought back memories. Sure enough, as I turned to the endpaper, I discovered a library card in its familiar Manila sleeve. As I slid it out I scanned through the names to see if… could it possibly be the same one from my youth?

No, I did not find my name, but that did not alter the essential nature of the experience for me: communing, so to speak, with something from my past; something which, like myself, was once young and new.

A similar quality—the interaction with a shabby-yet-redolent past which yields unexpected and unforeseen insights—could be said to be sprinkled liberally throughout the work of director Wes Anderson, who is not only the cinema’s foremost purveyor of fantastically-tinged comedies about lost youth and the perspectives brought on by aging but, at this point, almost an institution unto himself, much like the title subject of his latest, extraordinary effort, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

The story—introduced through a series of ingenious framing devices—concerns an older man (F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960’s looking back on his youthful adventures in the fictional central European country of Zubrowka, in a time roughly around the 1930’s. Zero Moustafa (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) is an orphan and the newly inducted, wide-eyed lobby boy of the revered Grand Budapest Hotel, a bustling top-tier mountain retreat for Europe’s elite, and Monsieur Gustave (the nonpareil Ralph Fiennes) is the head concierge and his boss.

Gustave, as Zero soon discovers, is a whirling dervish of activity, and the epicenter of the hotel’s daily life, the very glue which holds everything together. Gustave, it turns out, is also popular with the ladies—those of the geriatric set that is, such as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, or “Madame D” (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), who clings to him in her old age for his charm, looks, and impeccable sense of taste. Zero and Gustave become fast friends and when news of Madame D.’s death abroad reaches them it trumps even the forecast of imminent war in Europe. In her will she leaves to Gustave a priceless painting—”Boy with Apple”—which is coveted by her jealous children, especially Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero return to the hotel with painting in hand and later, on trumped-up testimony, Gustave is imprisoned for the murder of Madame D.

The remainder of the story concerns Zero’s first love—an apprentice cake maker named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave’s escape from prison, and Gustave and Zero’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the rise of fascism in Europe, Dmitri, and Dmitri’s bloodthirsty henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), as well as their efforts to finally prove Gustave’s innocence and establish once and for all who the real owner of the Grand Budapest really is.

Wes Anderson burst upon the scene with the impishly exciting BOTTLE ROCKET in 1996 before making career-defining works in RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Thereafter began a period of deep introspection for Anderson where he made the strangely discordant THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)—a bit of rock star-like navel-gazing—and the oddly affecting but not totally satisfying THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007). Adapting Roald Dahl’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX in 2009 as an animated film may have at least freed Anderson to seek new paradigms for storytelling—instead of making films about characters grounded in any sense of reality he seemed to finally embrace pure, unalloyed fantasy… yet fantasy grounded in the real and with a sense of the achingly familiar about it. 2012 brought the wondrous surprise MOONRISE KINGDOM—a sort of comeback picture for Anderson though he had not really gone anywhere—a film of hilarious invention and deep meaning.

The Grand Budapest Hotel—a rollicking, old-school buddy picture—continues this fascinating trajectory for Anderson and his focus on storybook settings. The film’s framing device specifically reflects his obsessions with the transformative aspects of literature on young readers and the film itself was specifically influenced by the work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Anderson—much like Monsieur Gustave—remains a bottomless source of invention and a tireless perfectionist, changing décor, for example, as effortlessly as the film’s ratio to fit the tenor of the time, from earth-tones, wood paneling, and CinemaScope to represent the 60’s, to bright wool carpets, pencil moustaches, and the postage stamp-shaped Academy ratio (think of films like GONE WITH THE WIND or CASABLANCA, made before the advent of “widescreen”) to represent the 30’s.

The film itself is a paean to mainly pre-World War II European films, such as, but not limited to, Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, and just about anything directed by German great Max Ophüls. The score—by French composer Alexandre Desplat—is filled with the ringing sounds of the Russian balalaika which helps to accentuate the film’s undercurrent of insistent yearning and even pining for the past.

The bravura camera work (courtesy of frequent Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman) features hair-pin 90- and 180-degree turns, lightning-fast dolly-in, -out, and lateral tracking shots, as well as Anderson’s trademark tableaux—shots composed in flattened perspective but with such surprising stores of depth and density of meaning that they seem more like a beautiful, ornate cake (like those made in the film’s fictional bakery, Mendl’s). From every angle it may appear a little different but slice into it and one is presented with endless layers—alternating cake, frosting, cake, etc… delicate, petite, and impossibly sweet.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/1/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Unknown Known (dir. Errol Morris, 2013)

Since the subject of Errol Morris’s latest film-ic conversation THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is fitting that the title of said film derives from a famously obscure bit of Rumsfeld political double-talk. In Rumsfeld’s own words—both when he first uttered the lines at a 2002 press conference while serving in the George W. Bush administration and in the studio with Morris reciting from the original memo—he explains that there are four categories of knowledge: known knowns (things we know and that we know we know), known unknowns (things that we know we do not know), unknown unknowns (things which we do not know and which we do not know that we do not know), and, finally, unknown knowns, things that we thought we knew but it turned out we knew less than we thought… or more… depending on which Donald Rumsfeld is speaking!

Confused? You should be. Welcome to the elusive world of political gamesmanship, a world in which a neoconservative lion like Rumsfeld feels eminently at home. In fact, of all the many archival clips of Rumsfeld in the film, (his career begins in Congress in 1962 and extends through various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations) he seems most at ease between 2001 and 2006, the years in which he served as Secretary of Defense during some of the most difficult and controversial military deployments of our modern era. In these segments Rumsfeld seems to take to his “War on Terror” press conferences like a fish to water, bending truths like a strong man at a carnival bending metal into odd shapes. Like the oxymoron of the title, Rumsfeld’s words oftentimes seem like a form of meta-nonsense, providing the Washington press corps and the American public with some of its more surreal moments in recent memory.

Morris’s style in The Unknown Known will be familiar to those who know his movies. Rumsfeld sits in studio and speaks to Morris’s live video image in a teleprompter screen which covers the camera lens, creating the strange effect that the interviewee is sitting before the audience and speaking directly to them.

The ability to put subjects at ease before the camera is a Morris specialty, as are his use of hypnotic re-enactments (many of which call into question or undermine what the subject is saying, and, at times, even the nature of “truth” itself!), archival footage, and visuals which are skillfully edited and intercut, and the use of mesmerizing music (Danny Elfman being the composer in this case) to settle the viewer into a sort of trance-like state more receptive to the film’s occasionally-omnipotent viewpoint.

The Unknown Known may not be Morris at his strongest or his best, perhaps because Rumsfeld himself is such a frustratingly difficult personality, or perhaps because the career of this Machiavellian kingmaker is still too recent and too shadowy for the proper perspective. But it is a fascinating sparring match nonetheless and worthy of seeing, if only to marvel again at “”Rummy” in his element, greying temples and fixed, vague smile, cheerfully deflecting and volleying questions around the room like a tennis champ, his endless stream of words metaphorically piling up like drops of water in the ocean (an ocean which he invariably does not drown in, it should be noted).

It is also a joy to hear the tone in Morris’ implicitly moral, interrogating voice when—obviously puzzled at why Rumsfeld would agree to sit down with him in the first place—he bluntly asks with part exasperation, part amusement, “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?”

Hmmm, good question. Perhaps Rumsfeld remembers that in 2003—the year in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq—Americans were finding solace in THE FOG OF WAR, another Morris film about another former Secretary of Defense named Robert McNamara who had a few things to say about lessons learned from the Vietnam War? Or, perhaps he is worried about his legacy?

If you are interested in the work of one of America’s foremost documentary filmmakers check out our Errol Morris section at Best Video, where you can find movies like GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, The Fog of War, and many others!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 6/10/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksAh, summertime. Do you remember warm nights as a kid, spending hours in the yard after dark catching fireflies, looking at the stars, or watching fireworks? Do you remember what it felt like to step back inside again: the shock of the tungsten light and how you would blink your eyes and all of your other senses would struggle to readjust to the feeling—the safety—of being “home” again?

As a metaphor, there is no better way to describe what it is like to walk into Best Video, especially in today’s media environment: We are a haven, an oasis, civilization, home… if you are thinking “I must be in heaven,” you must be in Best Video!

So, with the theme of summertime in mind, and movies on my mind (as if they ever aren’t!), I move on to this week’s recommendation entitled…

DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE: THE FINE ART OF THE DOUBLE FEATURE

During the summer that I turned 21 I was living in New York City when, on a sweltering afternoon, I went to Lincoln Center to see back-to-back movies: John Carpenter’s taut, low-budget exercise in claustrophobic atmosphere and action ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) and David Cronenberg’s masterfully sick, McLuhan-esque body horror nightmare VIDEODROME (1983). After being cloistered in the air-conditioned darkness all day—my senses assaulted by Carpenter’s and Cronenberg’s twin nihilistic visions—I virtually staggered out of the theater into the sunlight and heat.

I had seen double features before and I have seen them since but that one sticks out in my mind, partly because the films were new to me but also because I admire the unknown genius who thought to pair them up. It took a leap of faith to connect the two and it is in that stretch of the imagination that a good double feature can deliver so much satisfaction, beyond even what movies individually will provide.

No other medium lends itself as well to doubling and the number “2.” For example, film history is filled with genres that explore the idea of couples and marriage—melodrama, romantic comedy, screwball comedy—while others explicitly examine the duality of human nature—horror, film noir, and crime. Some movies, like Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT or Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, even foreground this theme of duality and the ambiguity of identity, making it the film’s primary focus. But most important, of course is the fact that movie promoters early on learned to package feature films in pairs: the aptly named “double feature.”

At Best Video it is very natural to rent two movies at a time (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are 2-for-1 for full-benefits members, after all) and I love to observe how people pair them up: sometimes there is a theme (World War II, Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, New York, L.A., renowned Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, carnivorous fish, etc.) and sometimes the connections seem to be purely random, which is a kind of theme as well. Yes, the couplings that can be made between movies are infinite (think: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) and provide for endless reflection and fun. It is true that one is the loneliest number: after all, watching movies is so nice, why not do it twice?

Here are ten suggested double features:

42nd_Street_DVD42ND STREET or FOOTLIGHT PARADE (both 1933)/THE BOY FRIEND (1971): Try pairing up a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopic song-and-dance original with Ken Russell’s acid-tinged tribute to the great “Buzz” himself, starring none other than Twiggy!

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)/JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963): What’s better than a Ray Harryhausen double feature? One which features lots of sword-wielding skeletons, of course!

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)/THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974): How about a little conspiracy and paranoia, American style?

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941)/A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946): During the dark years of World War II it is no surprise that films set in Heaven became commonplace. These are probably the two very best.

GLORIA (1980)/ALIENS (1986): A fun double bill of butt-kicking, feminist-tinged action flicks!

HIGH SIERRA (1941)/COLORADO TERRITORY (1949): The first is well-known as an important early gangster role for Humphrey Bogart, but director Raoul Walsh later re-made his own film as an excellent Western starring Joel McCrea.

LOVE ME TONIGHT/ONE HOUR WITH YOU (both 1932): Two sensational early, innovative Paramount musicals; the former is directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and the latter by Ernst Lubitsch. Each stars Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier and each is set in Paris (via Hollywood, U.S.A.)!

BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)/THE APARTMENT (1960): Director Billy Wilder based his character C.C. Baxter’s (Jack Lemmon) tendency to lend out his apartment to philanderers on a character who appears in a single scene of David Lean’s classic weepie, about an English housewife and doctor (each happily married) who meet by accident, fall in love, and then decide to part.

SLAP SHOT (1977)/NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979): Two vintage late 1970’s sports flicks, representing ice hockey and football—gritty, insightful and completely hilarious!

THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951)/THE LADYKILLERS (1955): Alec Guinness, ‘nuff said!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/27/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksHer (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

Occasionally science fiction films come along which are so unnervingly close to our own present situation that it can be difficult to parse out what we are already experiencing and what is conjecture on the part of the creator’s imagination. A perfect example of this is Spike Jonze’s latest film, and winner of last year’s Academy Award for best original screenplay, HER.

Her is highly unusual for a film of its type, its terrain emotional, psychological, dreamy, and reflective rather than concerned with the usually grandiose issues dealt with in movies which are set in the future: primal fears of war, economic collapse, invasion, and technological advancement. If Her seems claustrophobic and more than a little bleak it is because its essential theme is our increasingly narrow and compromised emotional space—a shrinking beachhead of sanity—in a society which is continually being crowded out and run over by a clutter of static and inane sounds and images.

The film begins with an arresting close-up of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he stares into the camera and dictates a passionate letter somewhere off-screen, yet his viewpoint is confusing: could these possibly be his own feelings? Surely he is voicing the sentiments of someone much older than he could possibly be? This riddle is resolved once the action cuts away and the audience recognizes that Theodore is in an office—a über-chic one, at that, modern and minimalist—and that this is “the future,” where Theodore and his co-workers “write” letters—in a wide range of styles and levels of intimacy—on demand for their unseen clients. The effect of these early sequences, as the camera follows Theodore through an office filled with synthetic and contrived emotions and tracking along with him on his commute home through a familiar yet strange cityscape, is hypnotizing and magisterial, though also downbeat and mellow.

We soon find that Theodore lives a simple life. He works, he goes home, he daydreams about his faded marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) whom he finds endless ways to delay his divorce with. He occasionally hangs out with frumpy friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams)—a video game programmer—and her neurotically controlling husband Charles (Matt Letscher). He spends a lot of time on the computer, answering e-mail, playing games, searching for a quick and anonymous phone sex partner (voice of Kristen Wiig in a hilarious sequence), and mainly interfacing with the male, monotone voice of his operating system through a small earpiece and a tiny remote module which fits snugly in the palm of the hand (about the size of an old-fashioned little black address book). Soon, Theodore notices that a new operating system with artificial intelligence has hit the market and he picks it up. When installing the new OS, the machine asks him a few basic questions about himself and whether he would like a male or a female voice; he replies “female.” It thereupon addresses him in a smoky, husky female voice (Scarlett Johansson) and names itself “Samantha.”

As Theodore navigates the stiflingly lonely frontiers of his existence he comes to rely more and more upon Samantha, not just for information and data retrieval, but for her growing emotional maturity. Soon, it is clear that love has bloomed for both Theodore and Samantha but what sort of consequences can there be for a man-computer relationship in a not-so-distant future?

The experience of watching Her is disorienting and a little bit strange as it is a love story where only one of two characters has a body, presenting the viewer with some interesting challenges in where to apply their mental focus. Luckily, the film enjoys an enormously talented lead actor in Phoenix, who is able to defy the odds and hold the picture together. His Theodore is a uniquely sympathetic introvert, whose shambling Everyman presence, glasses, and bland mustache disguise a rich emotional life. If any man could be said to be “passed by time,” it is surely the withered and reflective Theodore. The other performances in Her are equally good top-to-bottom, from important supporting roles like that of the continually impressive Adams right down to a bit voice part by Jonze himself as an ornery pipsqueak of an AI video game character.

The music in Her, by indie superstars The Arcade Fire, is appropriately elegiac and moody and the beautifully muted camerawork is by upstart Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, THE FIGHTER, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Jonze, who—like the subject of last week’s post Jonathan Glazer—got his start in the biz with acclaimed work in the music video field, is best known as the director of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. His latest work, charting emotional fallout of a decidedly futuristic but eerily-familiar variety, finds him in full command of his powers.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/20/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksJoin us as we search this week for… Buried Treasure at Best Video!

Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

“I don’t like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, ‘I really dug your message, man.’ Or, ‘I really dug your play, man, I cried.’ You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?'”
– Jeff (Bill Murray), Tootsie (1982)

With the release earlier this year of Jonathan Glazer’s—one of contemporary cinema’s most prodigiously gifted stylists—latest film UNDER THE SKIN (due out on DVD in a couple of months) and a long-overdue emergence from self-imposed exile it seems as good a time as any to re-examine his last, which is already now 10 years old: the gorgeous and unclassifiable whatsit—as well as an unfairly neglected treasure—BIRTH, about a woman who comes to believe that her deceased husband has been reincarnated in the body of a young boy.

The opening sequence of Birth is a marvel of diaphanous invention: a man’s voice is heard off-camera describing to an audience his non-belief in the idea of reincarnation, which fades into a series of shots of the same man running in New York’s snowy Central Park, where he eventually stumbles to the ground and dies peacefully. These shots are accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s distinctively ringing score—all high, piping flutes, low, puffing brass, and pounding kettledrums—while a final, silent shot depicts a baby being born.

The man, named Sean, is seen only from behind and, but for one shadowy close-up, we never see his face. Instead, the viewpoint of the camera soars above him—bird-like, serene and ethereal—as though guardian angels were hovering over the proceedings, pulling invisible strings. This tour de force of an opening—five shots, running a total of three-and-a-half minutes—ably sets the table for what is to come.

Ten years on we see Sean’s widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) at his graveside. She, it turns out, has just accepted the proposal of her long-time boyfriend Joseph (Danny Huston). At a swank engagement party for the couple soon afterward Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche), Sean’s brother and sister-in-law, show up to pay their respects, but Clara ducks out suddenly when she has second-thoughts about her present, and she is watched from a distance by a mysterious young boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright). Later, at Anna’s family’s Fifth Avenue residence, the clan has gathered together to celebrate the birthday of the matriarch, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), when young Sean slips in the door with some party guests. He resolutely informs Anna that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband and orders her not to marry Joseph.

Anna, Joseph, and the rest of the family greet this baffling news with emotions ranging from stifled amusement to outright anger, and they soon appeal to Sean’s working class mother (Cara Seymour) to reason with him and bring this behavior to a stop. Still, as Anna’s sister prepares to have a baby of her own and the engagement begins to run off the tracks young Sean persists: He seems to know just too much about Anna’s husband to be a mere coincidence, but….

Birth is a fascinating picture, though flawed, and it invited both criticism and controversy at the time of its release due to its overly serious, funereal atmosphere and its courting of the taboo subjects of reincarnation and children’s sexuality. The film is co-written (along with Glazer and Milo Addica) by legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who, though he has worked with the likes of Godard, Forman, Wajda, Schlöndorff, and about a million other directors, is certainly best known for his collaboration with Luis Buñuel throughout the 1960’s and 70’s on pictures like BELLE DE JOUR and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE.

In fact, though Birth bears the influence of Hitchcock, Polanski (especially ROSEMARY’S BABY), and Buñuel, its closest cousin in celluloid must be Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s outrageously surreal comedy MAX MON AMOUR (which is, unsurprisingly, co-written by Carrière), wherein Charlotte Rampling abandons her über-stable and conservative life with perfect hubby and son when she decides to take a new lover… a chimpanzee named Max! Birth may lack Oshima’s gravitas in playing the film completely, 100% straight and pushing the audience to the edge of the cliff—and sometimes over it—but, on the reverse side, it never descends into being a mere joke. This very seriousness in Birth has also preserved the film in an extraordinary way, like an insect stuck in amber: so opaque is the storyline about a woman in love with a 10-year old boy (Is it meant to be funny? Serious? Satirical? Sad?) that it gives the film a sort of crystalline quality, gaunt and saturnine, yet still breathing and alive. Far from being confusing or slight, in fact, Birth is an open book… approachable from many different directions.

The film is also well-acted. Kidman is riveting, peeling away layers of genteel social respectability to ultimately reveal a willowy and vulnerable core. Bacall, in her role as society dowager, lends the film a dash of majesty with her poise, high cheek bones, and impeccable Hollywood pedigree. Bright’s round, moon face and steady gaze is an opaque mask that gives the film its greyish, inscrutable quality: a poker face which almost never cracks. Huston is a picture of high-society conservatism, but his tailored suits and power ties disguise hidden stores of anger and rage as—with the film progressing—his character’s masculine identity and social position are increasingly compromised by events out of his control. His nuanced portrayal, as he senses that he is losing Anna to the spirit of her deceased ex-husband, is at times both hero and villain in a very challenging role.

Glazer, like other modern-day auteurs (Fincher, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze, to be exact) cut his teeth on the music video circuit, working with acts such as Radiohead, Massive Attack, and Jamiroquai, before making his breakthrough debut feature, SEXY BEAST (2000). Indeed, Glazer, who has made his name primarily as a visual stylist, here acquits himself beautifully in a richly textured mood piece. Glazer, who is British, deserves massive credit for giving foreground consideration to elements of social class, which are all too commonly ignored in American culture. Indications of money and position are everywhere and it is no accident that the three households depicted in the film represent distinctly different economic backgrounds.

Ten years on, Birth retains a strange and eerie beauty: by saying just enough—and no more—Glazer encloses his elegant metaphysical mystery with a lingering veil of questions and doubts.