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.

New releases 7/15/14

Top Hits
Under the Skin (horror, Scarlett Johansson. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 78. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial femme fatale cruising the streets of Glasgow in Jonathan Glazer’s cerebral sci-fi horror fantasy Under the Skin is an indelible personification of predatory allure. Wearing a dark wig and a fake-fur jacket, her character, an alien with a sinister agenda, is as fetishized an object of desire as Marlene Dietrich admired through the lens of Josef von Sternberg. You may also think of Ava Gardner, as perfect a female specimen as Hollywood ever produced, coldly working her wiles.” Read more…)

The Lunchbox (India, drama/romance, Irrfan Khan. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 76. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, is a romance that takes place in Mumbai, but its style is more Hollywood than Bollywood, and Old Hollywood at that. Though Mr. Batra and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, shot the film on location in the bustling modern city, with a naturalism alien to both American studio-era back-lot fantasies and present-day Indian musical extravaganzas, “The Lunchbox” has the measured pace and Classical restraint of a romance from the ’30s or ’40s. The comedy is more wry than uproarious, the melodrama gently poignant rather than operatic, and the sentimentality just sweet enough to be satisfying rather than bothersome.” Read more…)

A Birder’s Guide to Everything (drams, Ben Kingsley. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Metacritic: 61. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “This gentle comedy, the first feature directed by Rob Meyer, is an eye opener for anyone who takes the everyday natural world for granted. It is also a quiet brief for the cultivation of intellectual curiosity and scientific exploration at an age when hormones rule so much behavior. The reminder that all around us exists a fascinating realm of almost infinite variety is stimulating. Although the movie doesn’t shrink from the notion that serious bird watching is the tiniest bit cuckoo, its overall attitude toward these juvenile naturalists and their mentor is respectfully affectionate.” Read more…)

Nymphomaniac Vols. I & II (drama, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Rotten Tomatoes: 75% (I), 60 (II). Metacritic: 64 (I), 60 (II). From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I: “Given his talent for provocation, for tweaking critics and blurting out idiocies — including his unpersuasive assertion that he was a Nazi, during a news conference at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival — it would be easy to dismiss his latest, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, sight unseen. The title is preposterous, a huckster gimmick; it may also be a dig at those who, I think wrongly, label him a misogynist because of the abuse he rains down on his female characters. It’s a charge that’s dogged him since Breaking the Waves, his sometimes brutal, sometimes sublime 1996 film about a woman who endures a crucible of suffering [her paralyzed husband asks her to have sex with other men] before dying. Women suffer in Mr. von Trier’s films, yet they also dominate, shape and haunt his work.” Read more…
From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. II: “To keep our interest, Mr. von Trier falls back on some old tricks. He is a master of intimate dread, at moving his camera past the comfort zone into psychic and visual territory fraught with danger and shame. The scenes between Joe and a man she calls K [Jamie Bell], who tends to her needs with the help of rope, duct tape and a riding crop but refuses more conventional sexual relations, show an intriguing, unnerving blend of tenderness and cruelty. But at other moments, you are mostly aware of the effort being made to freak you out.” Read more…)

Rio 2 (animated feature, Bruno Mars [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. Metacritic: 49. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “The cinematic equivalent of attack by kaleidoscope, Rio 2 sucks you in and whirls you around before spitting you out, exhausted. A tropical tornado of cadmium and cobalt, magenta and marigold, Carlos Saldanha’s frantic follow-up to his well-received 2011 animated feature, Rio, ups the ante on sound and movement but pays scant attention to story.” Read more…)

A Night In Old Mexico (western/drama, Robert Duvall. Rotten Tomatoes: 44%. Metacritic: 45. From Daniel M. Gold’s New York Times review: “Robert Duvall won his Oscar for his finely calibrated portrayal of a recovering alcoholic country singer in Tender Mercies, and much of his best work is in service to nuanced roles. Yet his most memorable performances also include some where he goes big, as in, for example, the napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. When he has fun, he lets us in on it. Mr. Duvall has fun in A Night in Old Mexico as Red Bovie, the latest in a series of ranchers he’s played in recent years.” Read more…)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (documentary/sci-fi, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 79. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “A making-of special about a film that was never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune details the mid-1970s efforts of the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky to translate Frank Herbert’s extravagant science fiction novel Dune to the big screen. ‘Big’ being the operative word. ‘For me, Dune will be the coming of a god,’ recalls Mr. Jodorowsky, the very picture of a man who doesn’t easily adopt the mantle of failed midwife. Capitalizing on his subject’s mobile face, authoritative voice and glorious ego, Frank Pavich directs by ceding the stage to their owner, a handsome devil of 85 who remains convinced of the would-have-been magnificence of his forcibly abandoned project.” Read more…)

Byzantium (horror, Gemma Arterton. Rotten Tomatoes: 62%. Metacritic: 66. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “The two thirsty women in Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s enjoyably lively and different vampire tale, don’t look or act like most bloodsuckers. True, they’re both preternaturally pale with the long flowing hair of Pre-Raphaelite beauties. But the older, Clara [Gemma Arterton], wears teetering heels and push-up bras, and when you first see her she’s wearing the kind of peekaboo black lingerie that turns undies into a steamy promise. One minute, she is delivering a lap dance to a feverish customer and the next she’s bloodied his nose.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
The Lunchbox
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Under the Skin
Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II

New Foreign
The Lunchbox (India, drama/romance, Irrfan Khan, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 76. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, is a romance that takes place in Mumbai, but its style is more Hollywood than Bollywood, and Old Hollywood at that. Though Mr. Batra and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, shot the film on location in the bustling modern city, with a naturalism alien to both American studio-era back-lot fantasies and present-day Indian musical extravaganzas, “The Lunchbox” has the measured pace and Classical restraint of a romance from the ’30s or ’40s. The comedy is more wry than uproarious, the melodrama gently poignant rather than operatic, and the sentimentality just sweet enough to be satisfying rather than bothersome.” Read more…)

Inspector Lavardin Collection:
Chicken with Vinegar (France, 1985, mystery, Jean Poiret)
Inspector Lavardin (France, 1986, mystery, Jean Poiret. From Caryn James’ 1991 New York Times review [log-in required]: “In the long, healthy career of Claude Chabrol, from his New Wave classic The Cousins through his sumptuous Madame Bovary, which opened yesterday, Inspector Lavardin is a trifle. But this lighthearted detective movie shows that trifling entertainments do not have to be hack work. This wily film has first-rate appeal and plays into some cherished stereotypes about the French: it is blase, stylish, filled with effortless charm.” Read more…)

New British
Case Histories: Series 2
Vicious: Series 1

New TV
Hell on Wheels: Season 3

New Documentaries
Jodorowsky’s Dune (documentary/sci-fi, Alejandro Jodorowsky, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 79. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “A making-of special about a film that was never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune details the mid-1970s efforts of the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky to translate Frank Herbert’s extravagant science fiction novel Dune to the big screen. ‘Big’ being the operative word. ‘For me, Dune will be the coming of a god,’ recalls Mr. Jodorowsky, the very picture of a man who doesn’t easily adopt the mantle of failed midwife. Capitalizing on his subject’s mobile face, authoritative voice and glorious ego, Frank Pavich directs by ceding the stage to their owner, a handsome devil of 85 who remains convinced of the would-have-been magnificence of his forcibly abandoned project.” Read more…)

Generation Iron (weight-lifting, Mickey Rourke [narrator]. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 61. From Nicole Herrington’s New York Times review: “Early in Vlad Yudin’s new documentary,  Generation Iron, Phil Heath is weighing whether he’s prepared to defend his Mr. Olympia title. ‘Can I get better than I just did?’ he asks. It’s more of a challenge than a question, since the answer for him and the other bodybuilders profiled here — ahead of and during last year’s Mr. Olympia contest — is always an unequivocal yes. They may have 23-inch necks and who-knows-how-many-inch thighs, but they are indefatigable in their quest for the perfectly sculptured body.” Read more…)

New Children’s DVDs
Rio 2 (animated feature, Bruno Mars [voice], in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. Metacritic: 49.)

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!