Film screening: Best Video staffer Rob Harmon hosts Halloween-themed “Secret Cinema” triple bill Mon., Oct. 28, starting at 6:30 PM

Best Video Film & Cultural Center staffer Rob Harmon hosts a semi-regular cult film series under the rubric “Secret Cinema.” The next Secret Cinema takes place Monday, Oct. 28, at 6:308 PM. Along with the night’s movie, Rob shows relevant film trailers and cranks up the Best Video popcorn machine for cinema-appropriate snacking.​

For this special Halloween-themed edition of Secret Cinema, Rob has curated three seasonally appropriate chillers. We don’t promote the titles online but you can call us to find out what is scheduled.

Secret Cinema is free but donations to support Best Video Film & Cultural Center and its programming are always welcome. For more info, call (203) 287-9286 or email secretcinemact [AT]

Click here for the complete list of upcoming events.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/17/16: “The Witch”

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE WITCH (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)

New England, 1630: a family consisting of a father, mother, and four children are exiled from their Puritan settlement for what are called “prideful conceits.” The father, William (Ralph Ineson), contends that it is they who are the true followers of God.

Pushed out of one remote outpost in the New World into an even more remote waste, they settle, after some time, on the edge of a dark forest. Eventually, another baby is born, Samuel, who, while being watched over one day by the oldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. The camera shows – or seems to show – an elderly female stealing away with the child. The family begins to unravel.

Robin Wood once stated that, in a horror film, “normality is threatened by the monster.” If this reliable formula holds true, then Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH presents a satisfying complication: more slow-burner or folk tale (the film is, in fact, subtitled “A New-England Folktale”) than boogeyman body-count or spine-tingler. Normality is definitely threatened but it is hard to say by whom or even by what.

In spite of its title, the monster here is a remarkably disembodied force. While there definitely appears to be a malevolent being crouching in wait in the woods, at the edge of reason, much of the horror here is committed by one family member against another. For example, to make ends meet, William surreptitiously sells his wife Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) treasured silver cup in order to buy hunting supplies. Though he eventually owns up to the transgression, it is too late to spare Thomasin who has already been withering under the implications of guilt due to Samuel’s disappearance, setting the forces of familial disintegration firmly into motion.

The_WitchLike Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one senses that these regular folk are perched – dangling – over the flames. In an existence built upon faith, the implication seems to be that, once the infection of doubt seeps in, everything civilized goes down like a house of cards. Worse, in a world built upon repression, woe unto those who throw the gates wide open….

Horror is a genre which makes its capital through the building of discordancy and unease on the peripheries of perception: most often through visuals but effectively, as well, through sound (see, for example, THE SHINING or the recent IT FOLLOWS). THE WITCH succeeds in these respects in unexpected ways. While its stark beauty – its unburnished wilderness and murky interiors shot through with shafts of natural sunlight or threatening to swallow up the meager flicker of a candle, its achingly spare score and sound effects – invites the viewer to look, the sense of imminent menace dares the viewer to continue that very act of looking. After all, the truest and most intuitive laws of horror films are that the viewer is only as safe as the present moment allows and that the act of looking, itself, is infused with danger. At its best, THE WITCH attracts as it repels: the camera’s steady, unwavering gaze, classically-framed tableaux, and hauntingly minimal score pulling the viewer in opposite directions, making for a queasily satisfying experience.

His debut feature, Eggers writes and directs this with surprising assurance and with a rigorous naturalism rare in the genre, suggesting more of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING or Malick’s THE NEW WORLD than THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN. Eggers is aided by an excellent cast, headed by Ineson, Dickie, and the radiant Taylor-Joy, but also including Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays brother Caleb with wide-eyed earnestness, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as a creepy pair of twins, and an equally unsettling goat named Black Phillip in the definition of a scene-stealing animal role (hint: he has some of the better lines in the movie). Great care is taken across the board with costumes (Eggers was a former costume designer, himself), production design, and accurate recreation of New England accents of the time. Expressionistic flourishes appear just frequently enough to make the viewer squirm, offering a superbly understated creep-out factor.

A bit like later Kubrick or Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, THE WITCH is calibrated like a tonal pitch which builds in intensity to an inexorable conclusion, the hands of fate pushing events forward. This strangely-wrought amalgamation of art film and horror movie may fail to please either extreme, yet is perfectly appropriate to our strange times.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/10/16: “The Apple”

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE APPLE (dir. Menahem Golan, 1980)

Have you ever had an experience so galvanizing that it seemed to drive a wedge into your existence, dividing it, so to speak, between “before” and “after?”

In my mid-twenties, I was living in New York City and my friends and I became fascinated by a trailer being played at a local theater for a largely forgotten midnight movie called THE APPLE, made in 1980. Seemingly no one that I spoke to had ever seen or even heard of the picture. I was intrigued.

When its long-awaited weekend engagement arrived, a large group of us congregated at the theater, took our seats, and waited for the lights to go down. There was a definite hush in the theater that night: though we had found out little about the movie in advance, we expected something very good, and, by that, I mean that we expected something very bad.

As you know, sometimes movies disappoint; other times they meet or exceed our expectations; and still other times — that rarest of rare occurrences — they smash all of our expectations to pieces. THE APPLE, it turned out, was one of the latter.

The movie begins disorientingly enough, hurling the viewer into the action: Screaming teenagers fill a concert hall where thumping percussion and smoke heralds the entrance of a duo of gold and silver lamé-clad pop stars named Dandi and Pandi and a veritable army of spangly and sparkly dancers. Almost before I was aware, the music exploded in a near cacophony, Dandi and Pandi chanting lyrics like “BIM is the power,” the band chugging away at full steam, and the droning chorus “Hey, hey, hey, BIM’s your way!” boring into my head with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The_Apple_1980_film_WebThis was an all-out assault on the senses which I had not anticipated: while the music pummels the viewer from all directions with its pile-driving rhythms, dancers aggressively flail about and fly at the viewer, lights glare, horns blare, and voices soar. Not even three minutes in, I felt as though my brain were on fire, as though I had entered a strange alternate dimension where the production values of third-rate disco were merged with some sort of banal industrial advertisement: what the heck is the BIM, anyway?

As it turns out, the year is 1994 and an evil, totalitarian corporation — the BIM (it’s IBM scrambled, get it?), controlled by the nefarious Mr. Boogalow (played by Vladek Sheybal, of the original RED DAWN, with devilish charm) — controls all musical entertainment in the known world as a form of mass mind control. This is ably demonstrated in that headache-inducing opening number — appropriately called “The BIM” — where Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy) gyrate about in pseudo-fascistic fashion to the delight of the crowd of mesmerized youths, who – not realizing what synthetic dreck this is – lap it all up like kittens to milk.

It seems that Dandi and Pandi – pawns of the aforementioned Boogalow – are rolling out their new “BIM” anthem at an international song competition as another calculated move in Boogalow’s plans to mire the world in wide-spread and mindless consumerism (gee, that could never happen, could it?). Indeed, as the chorus pronounces in the eye-popping set-piece “Disco 2000,” “Life is nothing but show business in 1994,” while another of Boogalow’s minions, Shake (Ray Shell), croons “Like the bleary-eyed baboon to an organ-grinder’s tune, mankind screamies for whatever bits of dreamies he might treat them to.”

That is, until the idealistic folk duo Alfie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, NIGHT OF THE COMET) take the stage, strumming away on the acoustic guitar and belting out “Love, The Universal Melody.” To Mr. Boogalow and his loyal henchmen, the oily Shake and the ditzy Ashley (Leslie Meadows), these hicks “from Moose Jaw” are a joke until it becomes clear that the crowd is taking this lovey-dovey, hand-holding stuff quite seriously.

Something will have to be done….

I will not divulge what follows. Suffice it to say that it involves, among other things: betrayals aplenty; dancing nuns; the unveiling of various BIM merchandise, including BIM marks and BIM t-shirts; hallucinogenic drugs; lots and lots of glitter; a musical number which re-stages the Garden of Eden story in Hell with Adam, Eve, a snake, an apple (obviously), and vampires (yes, I said vampires); a randomly-inserted Jewish landlady; a gang of hippies (actually, to be correct, they are “refugees from the 60s”); and a PG-rated orgy – choreographed in Busby Berkeley-fashion to the best beats this side of Donna Summer – that simply has to be seen to be believed! From pop to folk to disco and from power ballads to reggae, the film’s soundtrack buzz saws its way through one genre after another. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll lose your mind.

Filmed in West Germany and directed by Menahem Golan (of Cannon Films infamy, responsible for producing assorted 80’s Chuck Norris and Chuck Bronson schlock, as well as “classy” productions such as Cassavetes’s LOVE STREAMS) with enough gusto for ten films, THE APPLE is far and away the best glam-disco-utopian-luddite-pro-Zionist-Creation-allegory musical ever produced; it’s really one hell of a movie.

I won’t attempt to make overt value judgments about a film like THE APPLE: I could say that it’s terrible, tasteless, and nonsensical in the extreme, its direction ham-fisted, and — in a certain sense — that would be correct. Yes, the film suffers from trying to reinvent the midnight movie on a shoestring, over-extending itself in almost every direction. But that would be missing the point. THE APPLE scores direct hits because of the purity of its ambition and its naïveté; in other words, it succeeds precisely because it fails and does so with such incredible abandon, going so far beyond reason that it cannot, in the end, be anything but utterly charming.

THE APPLE is a movie from another time and place: nothing like it, unfortunately, will ever be made again. It’s 100% amazing, but, more than anything, it’s a social experience, a film that demands to be seen with an audience. That night years ago when my friends and I sat aghast and amazed? It was only the first of many such nights over the years, the film becoming as much a communal ritual for us as anything.

Luckily, THE APPLE screens this Wednesday night, May 11, at 7 at Best Video: why not take a bite? Admission is $5.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 10/27/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebHalloween Testimonial for Best Video

“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.”

– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Ah yes, Halloween is here and all that we associate with it: crisp, cold evenings; leaves changing and falling to the ground, crunching beneath our feet; and, of course, candy – sticky and cloyingly sweet on the tongue. Sunset comes a little earlier each day: like a theater’s lights dimming, we slip into another frame of mind, subconsciously giving ourselves over to a greater sense of fantasy and the desire for sensation… much like the experience, in fact, of watching movies!

What better way to celebrate Halloween than with a movie or even a beloved TV special from Best Video? Of course, scary movies are the order of the day, but one need not feel hemmed in by shivers and shocks: there are plenty of delightful classics (I MARRIED A WITCH, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE), “camp” classics (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, TROLL 2, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), as well as family-friendly fare (GREMLINS, HOCUS POCUS, THE MONSTER SQUAD, FRANKENWEENIE, etc., etc.) which are perfectly appropriate for the season.

And yet, though I’ve seen a lot of scary movies in my life, I’ll tell you what would be really frightening: a world without Best Video.

I would be remiss if I did not mention here the upcoming handover of this beloved neighborhood institution from Hank Paper — who opened the business 30 years ago — to the Best Video Film and Cultural Center, a new non-profit board charged with running the video store, café, and performance space and guiding us towards the future. This is the culmination of well over a year’s worth of tireless work on the part of Mr. Paper, the board, and our staff. In essence, this is a critical moment in the life-story of this brick-and-mortar establishment and we need support and involvement from the community.

I have lost track of how many people have come up to me over time and told me that they grew up going to Best Video and now bring their own kids. Some of those grown-up “kids” are now even studying film and working in the film industry. This is no coincidence: Best Video U. is an education unparalleled… and cheaper, too, if you compare late fees to tuition!

Speaking of the future, in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, Marty McFly travels from the year 1985 to the once-unfathomable year of 2015. Isn’t it ironic that Best Video has traversed that same time period?! Why, one could say that the store itself is a sort of DeLorean time machine… except, of course, without those cool flip-up doors and a flux capacitor! Best Video is a time machine, allowing one to travel freely backwards and forwards in time. We may not have kooky stuff like hoverboards and flying cars in our garages just yet, but, thank goodness, we still have Best Video down the street! Here’s to 30 years… and more!

Okay, enough talk. Here’s a review:

It_FollowsIt Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

People watch scary movies for all sorts of different reasons. There are simply innumerable options along the continuum: roller coaster thrill rides, calibrated to deliver maximum jolts to teenagers; atmospheric slow-burners; very mildly creepy kid-friendly stuff.

I’m not completely certain what IT FOLLOWS is. Like any horror film, though, there is a set-up: girl, Jay (THE GUEST’s Maika Monroe), meets boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They have sex. Afterwards, Hugh drugs Jay and, once she awakens, informs her that he has passed “something” on to her (and it’s not what you think): “This thing, it’s gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me and I passed it to you…. It can look like someone you know or it can be a stranger in the crowd, whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone.” Jay, it turns out, is now irrevocably in the cross-hairs of some indefinable “it” and will be mercilessly stalked by this ponderously-moving-but-never-sleeping, shape-shifting, malevolent wraith until she, in turn, has sex with someone else, passing on the ghostly manifestation like an unwanted chain letter. Yikes.

Some may roll their eyes at this as merely so much millennial drama or nonsense. The plot, certainly, has obvious metaphoric possibilities, and the reader is free to fill in any that they choose (anything from sexually-transmitted diseases to cyberstalking, etc.), yet it would be a disservice to the film to simply end there.

Director David Robert Mitchell (responsible for the ethereal coming-of-age story THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER) injects the film with grit and moments of implacable beauty. Mitchell, aside from his obvious knowledge of horror films and their genre conventions, further infuses his film with a class-consciousness that is both savvy and surprising (at one point the protagonists trace the malignant threat to the slums… and, yet, is it really from there or a better part of town?), proving that genre films are oftentimes better suited (or at least more seamless) at exploring serious issues than so-called “message movies.”

Mike Gioulakis’s camera jitteringly probes the horizon — the modern urban ruins of Detroit and its faceless suburbs — seemingly searching out imminent threats, the protagonists magnetically drawn to open spaces as they attempt to combat and/or escape their nightmarish horror vacui. Yet, while Jay and her friends flee from various dangers, we are also treated to the dreamy interludes which form the meat of their existence. At these moments the camera seems to linger – quite unexpectedly – dwelling on innocuous details such as the shimmering surface of a backyard pool, dirty laundry littering the floor of a teenager’s room, or sunset as one flies down the interstate with a few friends in the backseat.

In this queasy environment adults barely register, often with their backs turned to the camera, their voices barely audible. This is undoubtedly the world of the young, their hopes and regrets, and Mitchell ably creates a frighteningly claustrophobic space for it: drab Americana, drained of its meaning… an empty landscape waiting to be filled with incipient horrors, making for a chilling parable about youth today.

Special mention should be made of the music by composer Rich Vreeland, known as Disasterpeace (he has principally worked in video games up to this point). The synth-y strains of his score perfectly suiting the velvety tones of the film’s images and rhythms. In this respect, IT FOLLOWS links with a classic horror film tradition, its progressive score matching that of the music of such milestones as PSYCHO, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, SUSPIRIA, and THE SHINING in their sheer ability to shock and disrupt the viewer. (A hint: turn up the volume on this one!)

The truth is, IT FOLLOWS is many things: cynical, artsy, dreamy, beautiful… as well as the most ambitious horror film to emerge from the U.S. in a long time. It’s also pretty frickin’ scary.

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.

Rob Harmon’s Picks 9/23/14


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…


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!