Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Flick Picks 8/21/2015: Death of a Cyclist, The Knick, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


We place the focus on series DVDs this week, but have also recently added several interesting indie features and a couple of excellent foreign films courtesy of the Criterion Collection.  All of that and a documentary about the man who has been playing Big Bird since the inaugural season of Sesame Street in 1969.  Which can't actually be a documentary, because it's not true.  Because Big Bird is real.  Which everyone knows.  Right?


Series


THE KNICK, SEASON ONE

Starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Knick takes us into the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City in the early days of the twentieth century.  Despite the limitations of medical science at the time, the hospital maintains a remarkably high mortality rate.  Owen plays Dr. John Thackery, battling cocaine and opium addictions even while introducing life-saving innovations.  Andre Holland plays African American assistant chief surgeon Alergnon Edwards, dealing with the city's and co-workers' racism, as he labors in the hospital and runs an after-hours clinic in the basement of for those turned away from the institution by day.




JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, SEASON ONE

Based on Susanna Clarke's bursting at the seams novel of the same title, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a seven-part BBC miniseries that presents an alternate version of England's nineteenth century history.  You know - the one in which magic exists but is rarely practiced.



DIG, SEASON ONE

The one season and done USA series Dig is a combination thriller and historical mystery.  FBI agents, investigating an American's murder in Jerusalem, discovery a conspiracy thousands of years in the making.






Feature Films

Sure, we  have recent feature film releases with familiar names - Michael Douglas, Nicole Kidman, etc. But it's a good time to look at some films that feature both unfamiliar faces and places - from an American farm to one of the ends of the Earth, all clocking in at a convenient 70 to 90 minutes.

RUNOFF                    

Writer and director Kimberly Levin's Runoff shows us both the beauty and hardship of independent farming, occurring as it does against all economic odds.  Joanne Kelly stars as such a farmer, working in tandem with a husband ultimately less willing than her to take ethical shortcuts to keep the family on their land.  While it takes a turn toward the melodramatic at film's end, Runoff is for the most part a lovely study of characters and place that don't usually appear on the film radar these days.



Olivia Thrilby and Vincent Kartheiser star as a couple whose new marriage is sorely tested on cruise from South America to Antarctica.  Aside from the subtle handling of the young couple's estrangement, Red Knot is well worth the time for its stunning cinematography.   


                                                                                      UNCERTAIN TERMS

Here, yet more marriage problems, as a 30-year-old Brooklynite flees his troubled relationship to work for a time in the country at his aunt's home for pregnant teens.  Trouble ensues when his interest in one of the young women goes beyond friendship.  As with Runoff, Uncertain Terms takes a turn toward melodrama at film's end, but is otherwise a quietly assured story that will draw you into its world with the naturalistic performances of its unheralded stars.  



Also new: Michael Douglas is on the dark side of a version of The Most Dangerous Game in BEYOND THE REACH.  The always interesting Nicole Kidman stars in the Australian drama, STRANGERLAND,   Even more dark and dramatic is EVERY SECRET THING, starring Diane Lane and Elizabeth Banks.


Foreign Film

Bicyclists beware!  Brides too, in this interesting trio of foreign films.


DEATH OF A CYCLIST

One of the great films of the 1950's and evidence of the far-reaching feel and influence of film noir, Death of a Cyclist is a work with which any film lover should acquaint them self.  Beneath its impeccable surface, Death of a Cyclist offers a pointed critique of Franco's Spain.  Not that you need to stray far from the story of Death of a Cyclist to find plenty of enjoyment and substance.  An affluent couple strike a bicyclist on a remote highway and must contend with their consciences and a potential blackmailer in this classic directed by Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier Bardem).  This one is a must see.



HUMAN CAPITAL

Reminiscent in plot to Death of a Cyclist, this contemporary Italian film sees another unsuspecting cyclist struck by car that fees the scene, involving two well-known families in the incident.





DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE

What do you do if you're a middle-aged Sicilian who wants to divorce your wife and marry your cousin in a country where divorce is not allowed?  Well, you could just grow up, but that would hardly be the stuff of film comedy.  Instead, star Marcello Mastroianni seeks a more creative solution.  Like Death of a Cyclist, this is a new Criterion Collection edition of a film classic.



Also new: Viggo Mortensen stars in the beautiful and trippy JAUJA,  Mads Mikkelsen is an ex-soldier out to avenge the deaths of his wife and son in THE SALVATION,

Documentary 

I AM BIG BIRD

The story of the man who has been Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) since the big, beloved character was first introduced to American audiences in 1969.  And quite a story it is.    



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Friday, July 24, 2015

Flick Picks 7/24/2015: Gett, Tangerines, Slow West

The dog days would seem to be upon us.  For some, the heat, the humidity, like those big budget films crashing through the multiplex, are good things.  For others of us...not so much.  This is a time of year when the flow of substantial films seems to slow to a near trickle, a phenomenon mirrored by the limited number of DVD releases just now.  Fortunately, the new arrivals in DVD offer a rare chance for summer substance.



Foreign Film

TANGERINES

A worthy nominee for best foreign language film at both the Golden Globe and Academy Award ceremonies this year, Tangerines is a particularly graceful entry to the canon of anti-war films.  Two Estonians, Ivo and Margus, find themselves between warring forces in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia in the early 1990's.  The two men are among the few native Estonians who have not fled the area, trying to harvest a tangerine crop before all hell breaks loose.  When a young Georgian and a Chechen mercenary - very much on opposite sides of the conflict -  are wounded near his home, Ivo takes them both in and tries to nurse both back to health while preventing them from killing one another.  Tangerines is very serious subject matter rendered gently, even beautifully.  Not one to be missed.






Feature Films

SLOW WEST

Very well reviewed, Slow West is a western starring the ever-fascinating Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays a bounty hunter aiding a young Scottish man, traversing the American West in the late 1800's to find his lost love.  By most all accounts, an impressive debut for writer/director John Maclean and a treat for those who enjoy smart, moody westerns.  



We have also added two very different films from the Criterion Collection.

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) features Daniel Day Lewis' breakout performance as a street punk who becomes the romantic partner of a young Pakistani man living in London, who aspires to open an upscale laundrette.  Stephen Frears' revered film considers with wit and insight issues as weighty as homophobia, class and racism against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's Britain of the 1980's.







THE BLACK STALLION (1979).  This the very successful film adaption of Walter Farley's beloved novel.  Mickey Rooney won a best supporting actor nomination for his performance as the former jockey, Henry Dailey.







Also new to DVD...In SET FIRE TO THE STARS, Elijah Wood plays an aspiring poet in 1950, trying to shepherd his hero, Dylan Thomas, in a story based on true events .




Documentary/Non Fiction


TOUGH BEING LOVED BY JERKS

The story of Philippe Val, former editor of the satirical French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.  The newspaper chose to publish Danish caricatures of Muhammad in 2005, which has resulted in two deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices.  Daniel Leconte's documentary follows the court cases against Val and his newspaper and their obvious implications for the larger issues of freedom of speech, religious respect and the nature of fundamentalism.




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Friday, July 17, 2015

Flick Picks 7/17/2015: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Crimson Field, Five Easy Pieces


A somewhat light agenda this week, but not without its globetrotting, a few thrills, the perils of war and a classic dose of early 1970's alienation.  All of that, and one of the world's great structures rising before our very eyes....


Feature Films



Okay, the journey might be a bit familiar this time, but we are still in very good company.  Everyone (save the character who perished in first film) is back, as well as silver-haired Yanks David Straithairn and Richard Gere, the latter making the heart Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) go pitter-patter.  Dame Judy returns, so too the wonderful Bill Nighy.  Even Penelope Wilton is back to haunt the happy emigres, hopefully with  a less tragic hairdo and dialog than was the case in the first film.





Foreign Film


Roman de gare is actually a 2007 film from French veteran Claude Lelouch, finally making its way to DVD and international distribution.  The radiant Fanny Ardant stars as a writer looking for ideas for her next thriller, getting much more material than she bargained for.  




Series


Part of the BBC's massive World War I centenary season, The Crimson Field delves into the lives of medical staff and patients at a fictional field hospital in France during the First World War.  





Classics



Director Bob Rafelson and the inimitable Jack Nicholson combined their talents for several films, never more successfully than with Five Easy Pieces.  Nicholson plays Robert Eroica Dupea, estranged from his affluent, dysfunctional family and the world in general.  Poor, good-hearted Karen Black tries to love the alienated Dupea.  Best known for what may be the most tortured and humorous diner order in film history (should it really be so hard to order wheat toast?), Five Easy Pieces is a film of considerable feeling and substance at time rich with films (and audiences) unafraid to venture into uncomfortable ground.  If you haven't seen Five Easy Pieces in years, or never had the pleasure, enjoy this new Criterion Collection edition.  



Documentary


Amazing as the experience might be of visiting Notre Dame, Chartres, the Hagia Sofia, or Angor Wat, you're obviously seeing great structures that have been completed and in place for centuries.  Not so, with Sagradia Familia, the great Antonio Gaudi's "Expiatory Temple."  It's being built as we speak.  Gaudi saw only a small portion of the church completed before his death 1926.  The Spanish Civil War and further upheaval delayed construction, which now takes place at a furious rate.  Sagrada Familia:  The Mystery of Creation offers some good background and striking visuals, more than compensating for occasionally tiresome and pretentious narration.   





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Friday, July 10, 2015

Flick Picks 7/10/2015: Woman in Gold, While We're Young, '71, It Follows

Flick Picks returns from a brief hiatus with a bumper crop of DVDs, rich in number and variety.  Let's jump right in....


Feature Films


WOMAN IN GOLD

Somewhat loosely based on real events, Woman in Gold dramatizes the attempt of Maria Altman to reclaim the Klimt painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which had been confiscated from her family by the Nazis prior to World War II.  The ever-reliable Helen Mirren plays Ms. Altman, whose case against the Austrian government was ultimately carried to the U.S. Supreme Court.













The case of Maria Altman has been the subject (exclusively or in part) of no less than three documentaries, two of which can be found at the Glencoe Library.  ADELE'S WISH is a 2008 documentary about the case, while the fascinating RAPE OF EUROPA considers the entire spectrum of art stolen or put in emperiled by the Nazis, the theft of the famous Klimpt painting included.



WHILE WE'RE YOUNG

Director Noah Baumbach's happy period continues.  Well...everything is relative.  But with While We're Young, Baumbach has delivered one of his more blatantly comedic efforts, even if the aftertaste is wistful as ever.  Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a childless, 40-something couple who begin to hang out with and even emulate a pair of young New York hipsters.




'71

Almost universally acclaimed, '71 is the story of a young British soldier left behind by his unit in Belfast during the violent "Troubles."  Jack O'Connell (Unbroken), stars as the soldier, who must negotiate a night in Belfast on his own to find his way to safety.  If you're looking for something smart and thrilling (as summer fare goes, about as rare as snow in July), '71 might be the film for you.





A good period for horror films (e.g., the recent BABADOOK and SPRING) continues with the DVD release of It Follows.  Director David Robert Mitchell reminds us what it is to skillfully develop and maintain tension, as opposed to the disposable thrills in Dolby Surround Sound that can be had so cheaply at the multiplex.  With It Follows, it's as much about the waiting for the dreaded thing as it is the actual confrontation with the mysterious presence that is passed from one young person to the next in a kind of very sinister tag.  Mitchell creates a palpable sense of dread and utilizes some haunting locations around the Detroit area (he's a native).  




Also recently added:  Kristin Wiig stars as a lonely woman who parlays a lottery jackpot into her own unusual talk show in WELCOME TO ME.  5 FLIGHTS UP offers the very likable pairing of Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a couple contemplating a move from their Brooklyn apartment.  A prison-bound Will Ferrell tries to get some survival tips from Kevin Hart in  GET HARD.  Al Pacino stars as an aging pop star in DANNY COLLINS.  Sean Penn is THE GUNMAN, on the run and revisiting the scene of one of his crimes.  CAMP X-RAY stars Kristen Stewart as a new guard at Guantanamo Bay.








Series

HOUSE OF CARDS, SEASON 3

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright return as power couple Frank and Claire Underwood, now first couple of the land.  The ruthless Underwood (Frank) quickly discovers how uneasily lies the head that wears the crown as he launches into the first term of his presidency.  Thank heavens our real political situation is always so civilized and honorable....




NEW WORLDS

Set during the tumultuous period of the colonization of America, New Worlds  focuses on four young characters trying to make their way on either side of the Atlantic.



HELLO LADIES, SEASON 1

Yes, irony.  The lanky Steven Merchant  (co-creator of the British version of The Office and Extras) is a web designer in Los Angeles, chasing beautiful women with, shall we say, something less than complete success.  





Also recently added:

HILL STREET BLUES, SEASONS 1 - 7

MANH(A)TTAN, SEASON 1

A PLACE TO CALL HOME, SEASON 2

RECTIFY, SEASON 2


Foreign Film

WINTER SLEEP

Winner of the Palm d'Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Winter Sleep is the latest from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.  As usual, Bilge us up to serious business, examining the gap between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless in contemporary Turkey.



Ceylan's films are usually striking,  if rather ponderous.  His work is not for all tastes, but patience and attention are certainly rewarded.  If you would like to see other films from one of the world's preeminent directors, we have two other examples:  ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA and THREE MONKEYS.  



Documentary




A documentary of post-Holocaust generations examining their family histories, Farewell Herr Schwartz offers echoes of another documentary, THE FLAT.  In the case of Farewell Herr Schwartz, filmmaker Yael Reuvany discovered a strange family history in which two Jewish siblings managed to survive the Holocaust, only to be separated after the war.  Michla Schwartz moved to the soon-to-be-founded Jewish state of Israel, while her brother, Feiv'ke (assumed dead), almost inexplicably remained not far from the site of his suffering, marrying a German woman and living in what would become East Germany.  Farewell Herr Schwartz was the winner of the Best Documentary Prize at the Haifa International Film Festival.   



ALEXANDER CALDER

This the DVD release of the PBS American Masters profile of the sculptor best known as the inventor of the mobile, examples of whose exuberant work can be found all over Chicago, inside and out.




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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flick Picks 6/26/2015: Run All Night, Zero Motivation, The Duff

Poor Liam Neeson  Always having to exact revenge on one villain or another.  Never a moment's rest.  And now he's made to run all night.  The poor man could use a vacation.  In addition to Mr. Neeson's latest travails, we have dispatches from that even more daunting battlefield - high school. This in the form of the likable teen comedy, The Duff.  If this classic summer fare offers less substance than you're looking for, consider a couple of excellent foreign films, Timbuktu and Zero Motivation.     




Feature Films


RUN ALL NIGHT

So, yes.  The big guy is running away this time instead of pursuing the bad guys.  In a plot reminiscent of Road to Perdition, Liam Neeson plays Jimmy Conlong, a.k.a, The Gravedigger, a mob hit-man on the run with his estranged son, trying to outwit an assassin hired by his former boss and friend.  




THE DUFF

Bianca is trying to navigate her senior year of high school.  She reluctantly attends a party only to find out that's she been invited as a "DUFF" - Designated, Ugly Fat Friend.  Never mind that Bianca is really neither of these things  Will Bianca find happiness and acceptance?  Aren't we really all "DUFF's" in our way?  Watch, find out and ponder.  We have The Duff in both Blu-ray and regular DVD.    





Foreign Film




The most successful Israeli film of 2014, Zero Motivation follows the lives of a group of young women performing their required military service at a remote base.  The dreariness of their administrative work is alleviated by extended sessions of Minesweeper, dreaming of transfer to Tel Aviv and occasionally brandishing staple guns like automatic weapons.  A black comedy that deftly balances its lighter and more serious moments, Zero Motivation is the impressive first feature by Talya Lavie (Best Director winner at the Ophir Awards, the Israeli Oscars).  




TIMBUKTU

Almost universally praised and nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2015 Academy Awards, Timbuktu is based on the 2012 occupation of the Malian city (Timbuktu) by Islamists. Despite the weighty subject matter, this protest film has been described by critics as graceful, poetic, even witty.  




Series


RIPPER STREET, SEASON THREE

It's now 1894 in the season three of the British series which began six months after the Jack the Ripper murders in London's Whitechapel neighborhood.  Many of the series principal characters are reunited by a train accident in the beleaguered district of the city as the third season begins.   




Flick Picks will be on hiatus next week, but will return with lots of new DVD news on July 10.



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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Flick Picks 6/19/2015: The Newsroom, Wild Tales, Chappie


Conflict, conflict and more conflict this week.  Some dark, some light.  Some funny, other instances...not so much.  If you get a little too worked up, we also have a good bit of music to calm the savage breast.  


Foreign Film


Revenge is a dish best served cold?  If the film Wild Tales is any indication, the preferred manner of serving in Argentina is piping hot.  Wild Tales was a box office sensation in its home country.  Not so surprising, given the difficult decades that have beset the once great nation.  There's all sorts of instant karma to be had for the outraged in this black comedy, even as the tone of the six vignettes ranges from serious to the outlandishly comic, culminating with a wronged bride running absolutely amok at her own wedding.  If your sensibilities aren't too delicate, this is great, smart fun.   

Series


THE NEWSROOM, COMPLETE THIRD SEASON

Jeff Daniels has become the grouch laureate of American film and television in the past decade or so.  This applies to any number of film roles in which Daniels plays smart, wisecracking types that do not suffer fools gladly, if at all.  Such is also the case in Aaron Sorkin's HBO series, The Newsroom.  Here Daniels is Will McAvoy, controversial anchor for the fictional Atlantis Cable News.  Like any Aaron Sorkin series, the verbiage comes fast and in great abundance as behind-the-scenes intrigues play out for the McAvoy, his colleagues and the fictional network itself. Featuring an excellent ensemble cast, The Newsroom by most accounts was at its best in season three.  




Feature Films


CHAPPIE

With District 9 and the subsequent Elysium, South African Neil Blommkamp became the preeminent purveyor of science fiction at the movies, with big ideas to match all the big action on screen.  His latest, Chappie, is about a population fighting back against a mechanized police force, aided by Chappie, a police droid stolen and reprogrammed to think and feel for itself.  We have Chappie in Blu-ray, with a couple of copies in regular DVD on the way.   



Also new:  Johnny Depp adds to his collection of accents, playing an unscrupulous art dealer and swindler working on the right side of the law in the comedy MORTDECAI.


Documentary

THE WRECKING CREW



Here, another documentary spotlighting little-known contributors to some of the biggest hits in rock and roll and American popular music.  In this case, the Wrecking Crew was a name given to Los Angeles studio musicians who played on everything from  t.v. theme songs to film scores to advertising jingles.  And of course, almost every genre of music, backing up artists as diverse as The Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra and Bing Crosby.  


We also have several of those aforementioned documentaries about other not-so-famous contributors to songs we all know so well.  Even music afficiandos will pick up lots of rich nuggets of American musical history by watching these absorbing films.  


20 FEET FROM STARDOM

This Oscar-winning documentary focuses on the backup singers whose importance to countless rock and pop classics can hardly be overestimated.  Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and others are featured, singers who never quite became stars themselves or quite consciously avoided the spotlight.   




"Now muscle shoals has got the Swampers/And they've been known to pick a song or two."  So goes the bit of homage in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" to the ace musicians in a sleepy town on the Tennessee River.  The Swampers were the studio musicians at FAME Studios in the unlikely musical Mecca of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  FAME and the eventually competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (run by those same Swampers) were a font of hits for artists from Aretha Franklin to The Rolling Stones.  Every bit (and usually more) charismatic than any of the musical luminaries in Muscle Shoals, FAME Studios co-founder Rick Hall presides, one of those grand southern characters like Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips.  



There was a little more to the Motown magic than the star power of The Supremes, Smoky Robinson, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye.  Standing in the Shadows of Motown shines a light on the studio musicians hand picked by Motown founder Barry Gordy, affectionately known as The Funk Brothers.  



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Friday, June 12, 2015

Flick Picks 6/12/2015: Kingsman; The Secret Service, Focus, Justified Final Season


A very quiet week for DVD releases is highlighted by Kingsman:  The Secret Service.



Feature Films

KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE

You've seen Colin Firth play the proud Darcy.  Battle for Bridget Jones Love.  Portray the stammering George VI of England.  Even dance and sing in Mamma Mia.  But have you seen him decimate a gang of toughs in an English pub using only his fists and a very special umbrella?  Well, here's your chance.  In "Kingsman," Firth plays veteran Agent Galahad, battling evil-doers and shepherding budding agent Gary "Eggsy" Unwin.  Like Firth, Samuel Jackson plays amusingly against type in "Kingsman," as lisping billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine, who has no stomach for blood or violence, despite the fact that he's intent on liquidating a good portion of the Earth's population.  The violence is hard to avoid in "Kingsman."  But much as the body count is very steep, the mayhem grows increasingly cartoonish as the film approaches its mad crescendo.  There's some fun to be had here if you don't think too much.




FOCUS

There's more light, summer fun to be had with Focus.  Will Smith plays an experienced con-man whose relationship with a young female grifter extends rather beyond that of  mentor and student.



Also new...

SERENA

 Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper combine their talents for a third time (after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) in SERENA, as a couple running a timber business in Depression-era North Carolina.




JUPITER ASCENDING

The Wachowskis (of Matrix fame) lose themselves in space with JUPITER ASCENDING.



PROJECT ALMANAC

A precocious high school student his friends discover the blueprints for a device with almost unlimited powers.  What could possibly go wrong?  Find out in PROJECT ALMANAC










Series

JUSTIFIED, FINAL SEASON



The story of a tough U.S. Marshal keeping the peace in and around his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky concludes with its sixth season.   Timothy Olyphant is Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX series set in eastern Kentucky, which has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards.




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