Hank (and Rob Harmon’s) recommendations 12/3/13

hank_paperHANK’S PICKS 12/3/13

WHAT I LIKED LATELY

For those of you who can’t wait for the next installment of DOWNTON ABBEY, there’s HBO’s PARADE’S END, an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s pre-and-post World War I trilogy of novels. This 5-part series, absorbingly written by Tom Stoppard, focuses on a principled aristocrat who feels honor-bound to suffer a tumultuous marriage along with the slings and arrows of a cruelly censorious society. Until the War changes everything. One of the ideas of Downton Abbey was produce a Masterpiece Theater series with HBO production values in mind; but HBO remains king.

THE WORLD’S END is another British film that brings us up to date and a little beyond in its hilarious depiction of a nostalgic pub-crawl that turns into an entirely different kind of movie where everything suddenly changes except the jokes. This sliding into a different genre is a tour-de-force, reminding one (though in no other regard) of Stephen Soderbergh’s self-proclaimed last movie, SIDE EFFECTS, wherein a drama seamlessly slips into a gripping mystery thriller. But rather than being a relevant contemporary puzzle, The World’s End is simply an unending joke-crawl full of wit and parodic fun.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES remains one of the best films of our lives, winner of 8 major Oscars including Best Picture. Four GI’s fulfill their ultimate dream of returning home from the War only to find the dream has turned into a nightmare. What each discovers, how he copes and attempts to change is a theme that resonates today in – as they say, though with nothing here less than the truth – this timeless masterpiece. Its arrival in Blu-ray is nothing less than it deserves. (We also have the DVD.)

In THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, a young Pakistani professor, who may or may not also be a terrorist with the ability to free a kidnapped American professor, tells his story about his life in America and Pakistan. His conversational partner is a CIA operative (Lev Schreiber) who, while he listens and attempts to persuade, also tries to stave off a Special Operations assault on the radical Palistani redoubt in which he is ensconced – an attack that would doom the kidnapped American. Fascinatingly ambivalent characters lime the complexity of our murky post-9/11 world in this tense drama.

In THE ATTACK, a character-driven Israeli drama, a highly lauded Israeli Palestinian surgeon fully assimilated in Tel Aviv is confronted with evidence that his wife was the recent suicide bomber responsible for nineteen deaths. With his life turned upside down, he abandons all he thought was secure to him in order to return to Palestine to uncover the source of the plot that involved his wife’s unimaginable complicity. Strong characters propel a plot that, while initially and inarguably horrific, is also insightful and balanced in presenting Israeli and Palestinian points of view.

In THE CONJURING, based on a case file of the Warrens, famous Connecticut-based paranormal investigators, the couple (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) help a family rid their farm house of a life-threatening presence. The first of a series of planned films based on the Warren case files (another is the source of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR), this film actually delivers the thrills and chills one hopes for in such movies but almost never receives. This film will make you want to check into a motel (hopefully not the Bates Motel).

Finally, we end where we began: HBO, which produced BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, the true story that Liberace had successfully suppressed during his long and successful career: his five year love affair with Scott Thorson, whom he also adopted. Matt Damon is fine as Thorson but in the plumb leading role as Liberace the film reveals the depths of Michael Douglas’s acting chops. His performance alone, along with HBO’s set designs and production details (actual recreations of Liberace’s flamboyant life style) is well worth the price of admission to any front seat at a Las Vegas event.  It’s also worth mentioning that the film is directed by Steven Soderbergh, beginning his commitment to abandon Hollywood movies for the relative freedom of TV production.

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 12/3/13

A NEW LEAF (dir. Elaine May, 1971)

I have noticed recently that I rarely review comedies, partly due to my belief that comedy is one of the hardest things to do well. So I would like to try and correct that, as well as the perception that I am only interested in serious, dark, and morbid fare. How is this for a comedic plot:

Snooty, friendless, and rich Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) tears through money without a thought until the day that he is notified by his attorney (William Redfield) that he has none left to spend. Eschewing suicide as a suitable escape from a life of poverty Henry—encouraged by his long-time butler Harold (George Rose), who loathes the idea of having to seek another employer—decides on the next best alternative: marrying into money, in spite of his revulsion of the opposite sex! However, to aid him in his quest for a suitably wealthy bride, he first must secure a loan from his supercilious cad of an uncle (James Coco) which he has six weeks to repay and absolutely no hope of earning back on his own. Finally, after some hilariously and predictably inopportune adventures in the dating world and with his time running out, Henry meets Henrietta Lowell (writer and director May), an impossibly wealthy woman and professor of botany, whose clumsiness poses an ever-present threat to all people and property around her, and who is possibly the most neurotic, shambling wallflower that the screen has ever seen! Soon, with the knot tied and Henrietta’s thieving lawyer (Jack Weston) and other parasitical servants out of the way, Henry is dreaming about far more than merely repaying the loan and instead has murder on the mind, especially with Henrietta’s plan for a remote botanical excursion together to the Adirondacks.

Cheery, right? Make no mistake about it: A New Leaf is gallows humor at its finest, a lethal and hilarious spin through the underbelly of upper crust society in America. Yet May was reportedly so upset with Paramount’s butchery of an editing job on this, her directorial debut, that she disowned the film and, while there are some ponderous segments (particularly towards the beginning) and an overall uneven flow (the original cut of the film was reportedly much longer), what remains is still masterful, a flawed but fascinating work.

This is necessarily a performance-centered movie, which should come as no surprise from a theater vet like May, with the film at times resembling a series of drawn-out set pieces where the actors and their studied characterizations firmly hold center stage, and everything else revolving around them. The acting of all is superb with Matthau delightful, as always, as a fastidious and spineless heel who manages to find his inner-mensch. But it is May’s impeccable performance as the nasal-voiced Henrietta who leaves the most lasting impression: she is a vision of frumpiness, a one-woman disaster scene—somehow both gauche and sincere, pathetic and lovable—an all-around nerdy and disheveled send-up of American femininity!

Much of the scenario and set-ups of A New Leaf are delightfully old-school, echoing romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Yet the societal upheaval of the early 70s boils up everywhere and is particularly evident in the satirical portrayals of the life of the vampiric upper classes—a sort of scathing and cynical mirror image of the way in which wealth is portrayed in films of the Depression, say—and of a nightmare marriage which forms an endless Möebius strip: a woman who would be in dire peril save for her extreme neediness, forcing her tormentor instead to become her keeper!

When these misfit seeds finally take root in A New Leaf they form an unexpected, believable, and, yes, organic love chemistry, a sort of screwball scenario turned on its silly head, with the woman playing the part of the abject and sniveling lovesick fool and the man the predator, whose instincts for self-preservation ultimately reveal hidden talents—and a beating heart—of which he was completely unaware. A New Leaf may have struggled to find its audience in its day, but today feels as fresh as ever.

For juxtaposition compare A New Leaf with 1971’s other great odd couple romance: Hal Ashby’s superlative HAROLD AND MAUDE!

New Releases 10/22/13

Top Hits
The Conjuring (horror, Vera Farmiga. Rotten Tomatoes: 87%. Metacritic: 68. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “The dread gathers and surges while the blood scarcely trickles in The Conjuring, a fantastically effective haunted-house movie. Set largely in 1971, it purports to tell a story based on ‘true case files’ about a family of seven whose pastoral dream became a nightmare soon after they moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse. One day, Mom, Dad and the girls are settling into their conveniently sprawling, creaking, squeaking two-story house — the rooms quickly become a disorienting maze — and the next, they’re playing hide and creep with a mysterious, increasingly malevolent force.” Read more…)

The Internship (comedy, Owen Wilson. Rotten Tomatoes: 35%. Metacritic: 42. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Whatever Mr. Vaughn’s motivations, with The Internship he has charted possibly new, definitely uneasy terrain by helping create a big-studio release that, from start to gaga finish, is a hosanna to a single company, its products, philosophy and implicit politics. Plenty of movies sell stuff from fashion to wars and religion; this one sells the Tao of Google.” Read more…)

Before Midnight (romance, Julie Delpy. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 94. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Where did the time go? Has it really been nine years since we last saw Celine and Jesse, in Paris, rekindling the romance that first sparked nine years before that, in Vienna? Luckily [for us and for them] they are still together, having hatched a pair of sweet blond twin girls and glided, or maybe stumbled, into their 40s. And, of course, because they are played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Celine and Jesse are still better looking than most of the rest of us, and still have quite a lot to say about themselves, each other and the world.” Read more…)

The Way Way Back (comedy, Steve Carell. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 67. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Though it takes place in what looks like the present — the familiar now of ear buds and smartphones — The Way, Way Back, a summertime coming-of-age tale written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is infused with nostalgia. The movie’s title seems to refer to the rear-facing third seat of the massive old station wagon where we first encounter its hero, a glum 14-year-old boy named Duncan [Liam James]. But it also describes a hazy, bittersweet mood of recollection that hovers around the action like July humidity.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
The Internship
The Conjuring
Before Midnight

New Foreign
The Wall (Germany/Austria, drama/adventure, Martina Gedeck. Rotten Tomatoes: 72%. Metacritic: 67. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “In a few weeks CBS rolls out a mini-series called Under the Dome based on a Stephen King novel. It’s about a Maine town cut off from the world when a clear dome materializes over it. The story focuses on the power struggles among those caught inside, but there is another direction you can take the same premise: the one of The Wall. In this absorbing German-Austrian film, a transparent barrier also imposes itself, but the woman it traps is, by all appearances, alone. Martina Gedeck plays that unnamed character in what is essentially a one-woman study of physical and mental survival.” Read more…)

New Docs
The Waiting Room (health industry, hospitals. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 84. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “The crowded emergency room of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., is the setting of Peter Nicks’s wrenching documentary The Waiting Room. Shot in 2010 over five months, the film, which has no narrator, titles, statistical analysis or overt editorializing, observes a composite day there during which nearly 250 patients — most of them uninsured — pour in.” Read more…)

Room 237 (film history and interpretation, Kubrick’s “The Shining”. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 80. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Mamohla Dargis’ Times review: “An ode to movie love at its most deliriously unfettered, Room 237 is a nonfiction look at some very serious film fans who take The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, very, very seriously. They know — deep in their obsessive, sometimes demented cinephile hearts — that Kubrick did more than make a feverishly entertaining film about a family falling apart in an isolated hotel called the Overlook. He also embedded amazing messages in The Shining, cunningly weaving secrets and signs into the film’s very fabric, leaving clues about the Holocaust in elevators and messages about the Apollo 11 Moon landing in a sweater. In books, blogs and now this movie these fans carry forth the godhead’s gnostic communiqués.” Read more…)