Hank Hoffman’s Picks 12/1/15

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebTHE WAYS OF GENIUS

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

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

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

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

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 Collegial and competitive with his peers in the Royal Academy, he can be irascible and withdrawn when with family and lovers.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Releases 5/5/15

Top Hits
Selma (historical drama, David Oyelowo. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 89. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “[Director Ava] DuVernay, in her third feature [after ‘I Will Follow’ and ‘Middle of Nowhere’], writes history with passionate clarity and blazing conviction. [The cinematographer, Bradford Young, captures its shadows and its glow.] Even if you think you know what’s coming, ‘Selma’ hums with suspense and surprise. Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling. And much more than that, of course: It would be hard to imagine a timelier, more necessary popular entertainment in the year of Ferguson, Mo., a reminder both of progress made and promises unkept.” Read more…)

You’re Not You (drama, Hilary Swank. Rotten Tomatoes: 40%. Metacritic: 56. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “In ‘You’re Not You,’ Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Kate, a gifted concert pianist with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is so intensely persuasive that once you’re engaged by her wrenching ordeal, you mostly forgive the movie’s emotional manipulation.” Read more…)

Miss Julie (costume drama, Jessica Chastain. Rotten Tomatoes: 48%. Metacritic: 56. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The patriarchal world of August Strindberg’s dour late-19th-century tragedy ‘Miss Julie’ — with its rigid social hierarchy of masters and servants, and its entrenched puritanical ethos — may seem remote to Americans. But when you remember that there are still societies in which men rule with an iron hand, and women are stoned to death for breaking convention, it doesn’t seem so distant. That thought is worth keeping in mind while watching Liv Ullmann’s austere screen adaptation of the play, which has been relocated from Sweden to Ireland during the same period.” Read more…)

Mr. Turner (historical bio-pic/art, Timothy Spall. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 94. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “‘Mr. Turner’ is a mighty work of critical imagination, a loving, unsentimental portrait of a rare creative soul. But even as it celebrates a glorious painter and illuminates the sources of his pictures with startling clarity and insight, the movie patiently and thoroughly demolishes more than a century’s worth of mythology about what art is and how artists work. You may have had the good fortune to study Turner’s watercolors and martial tableaus up close, to linger over his storms and placid river scenes, but somehow Mr. Leigh makes it all look newly painted, fresh and strange.” Read more…)

Black Sea (adventure thriller, Jude Law. Rotten Tomatoes: 82%. Metacritic: 62. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The British submarine thriller ‘Black Sea’ has an insistent political subtext that distinguishes it from earlier films in the undersea action genre. As its waterlogged treasure hunters brave fire and flood to find and bring back a cache of gold ingots from a sunken Nazi U-boat in the Black Sea, they grouse endlessly about paper-pushing rich guys who don’t know the meaning of real work.” Read more…)

Amira & Sam (drama/romance, Martin Starr. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 58. Fropm Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “Written and directed by Sean Mullin, a comedian and onetime Army officer [he plays a comic in the film], ‘Amira & Sam’ is more successful as a portrait of veteran alienation than as a romance. The script is thoughtful, but its anger is diffuse, with laissez-faire capitalism and the problems of illegal immigrants and returning soldiers jostling for attention.” Read more…)

The Last Five Years (romance/musical, Anna Kendrick. Rotten Tomatoes: 60%. Metacritic: 60. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “‘The Last Five Years,’ the composer Jason Robert Brown’s emotionally fraught musical about a passionate relationship that crashes and burns, almost requires some familiarity with its rarefied milieu: the New York City hothouse of ravenously ambitious performers and writers. Over the years, the show, which had its premiere in Chicago in 2001 and opened Off Broadway the next year, has gained traction as a regional theater staple. It is now a movie adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese. Its lovers, Cathy Hiatt, an aspiring actress played by a winsome Anna Kendrick, and Jamie Wellerstein, by a fire-breathing Jeremy Jordan, fall in love and marry in a whirlwind of romantic hyperbole.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray

New Foreign
Winter Sleep (Turkey, drama, Haluk Bilinger. Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Metacritic: 87. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: :”In genre terms, the movie can be classed as a character study although it often plays more like one of those spiritual autopsies that directors occasionally perform on their protagonists, gutting them with degrees of gravity, glee and precision and extracting flaws like diseased organs. Mr. Ceylan performs this particular operation with rigorous solemnity, technical virtuosity and precision tools — his lapidary visual style rises to the challenge of the natural environment — yet there’s something missing from the very start, namely the spark of breathed-in life.” Read more…)

New British
Mr. Turner (historical bio-pic/art, Timothy Spall. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 94. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “‘Mr. Turner’ is a mighty work of critical imagination, a loving, unsentimental portrait of a rare creative soul. But even as it celebrates a glorious painter and illuminates the sources of his pictures with startling clarity and insight, the movie patiently and thoroughly demolishes more than a century’s worth of mythology about what art is and how artists work. You may have had the good fortune to study Turner’s watercolors and martial tableaus up close, to linger over his storms and placid river scenes, but somehow Mr. Leigh makes it all look newly painted, fresh and strange.” Read more…)

Broadchurch: Season 2 (mystery series, David Tennant. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 73.)

New Television
Masters of Sex: Season 2 (history-based frisky drama, Michael Sheen. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 89.)

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.