Friday, April 29, 2016

Flick Picks 4/29/2016: The Revenant, The Lady in the Van, Son of Saul

Of course, we love film here at Flick Picks.  But the Academy Awards - not so much.  Sure, it's interesting to see what everyone's wearing and all that.  But when it comes to the supposed recognition of the year's best in might be better left to group of senile hamsters.  Actually, that may not be far from reality.  And yet, and yet...the Academy got things tolerably right this year.  Hard to quarrel with the Best Picture Oscar going to Tom McCarthy's Spotlight.  

Recent DVD releases  are highlighted by a couple of other winners at this year's Academy Awards, The Revenant and Son of Saul.   

Feature Films


And we complain if we have to scrape some ice off the windshield. Leonardo DiCaprio faces just a bit more wintry adversity in Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's The Revenant.  At least loosely based on the travails of frontiersman Hugh Glass in 1823, the Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge.  DiCaprio plays a trapper mauled by a grizzly and left for dead who struggles to regain his strength and track down the man on whom he hopes to  mete revenge.  DiCaprio collected his first Best Actor Oscar for his bravura performance and director Innaritu won for the second straight year in the Best Director category.  Perhaps the real star of the film is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, another deserving winner of one of those gold statuettes.  We have The Revenant in regular and Blu-ray DVD.

What would you do if a homeless woman parked her van in your driveway and didn't leave for 15 years?  If you're English playwright, Alan Bennett (to whom this actually happened), you'd write a play about it.  The inimitable Maggie Smith stars as the thorn in the playwright's side in this film adaptation, which is poignant and funny by turns.    

Whit Stillman is one of those directors who seems to be a genre unto himself.  Stillman's second film, Barcelona has received the Criterion Collection treatment and we now have the deluxe DVD version of this comedy of manners, based somewhat on the director's experience in the city in the early 1980's.  

Foreign Film

A rightful winner of Best Foreign Language feature at this year's Academy Awards, Son of Saul is yet another of those stories you haven't quite seen before, much as tales about World War II and the Holocaust are perpetually told.  Geza Rohrig stars as Saul, a Sonderkommando, a member of a work unit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.  What's particularly unusual about the debut feature of Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes, which won the Grand Prix award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is the intense point of view, as the camera rarely strays from Saul, whether looking over his shoulder or fixed on the face of the stunned man.  Much as a feature film can do so, we are given a sense of the impossible work and choices of the Sonderkommandos.  Son of Saul is a striking piece of work.    



Nerd alert!  Season two of this critically-acclaimed HBO series has arrived.  Will our young software engineers find success in Silicon Valley?  If so, will they get better haircuts?  Watch and find out.    


Fans of Agatha Christie and whodunnits in general will recognize the title of this miniseries first broadcast on the BBC last December.  There might be several deviations from Christie's source novel, but the production received excellent marks from critics.  The strong cast is headed by Lindsay Duncan, Charles Dance, Sam Neill and Anna Maxwell Martin.  




Documentarian Robert Drew, whom some consider the father of cinema verite, was given unprecedented access to John F. Kennedy, from his presidential campaign through his years in the White House.  The "Kennedy Films" include short films from the 1960 Wisconsin Primary to the poetic "Faces of November," shot in the days after Kennedy's assassination.  We have The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates in a new Criterion Collection edition.    


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Flick Picks 3/29/2016: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Unreal Season 1, Manhattan Season 2

So DVD watchers, would you like green pill or the red pill?  Fans of The Matrix will know exactly what we're talking about.  However, if you're shaking your head in confusion, we speak of a decision between fantasy and reality.  Heading the new releases on DVD, we have strong film examples of both extremes.  Representing fantasy, there is the fourth (and final) Hunger Games film, Mockingjay Part 2.  Holding the banner for reality, is and a well-reviewed but little-seen indie film called James White.  Unlike Neo in The Matrix, you can actually choose both.  As usual, we have many other options as well. 

Feature Films


Is it the end already?  It seems like just yesterday...or perhaps 1983 that the first of the Hunger Games films arrived in theaters.  And yet, here we are!  The fourth and final film in the Hunger Games series is now available on DVD.  Perhaps poor Katniss can finally put down her bow and have a nice rest.  


James White is writer/director Josh Mond's semi-autobiographical story about a troubled young New Yorker who must get his life in order so he can care for a mother suffering from cancer.  Co-starring Cynthia Nixon (herself a cancer survivor) as the mother, James White has been well-received by critics and audiences alike.  

Julie Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in the SECRET IN THEIR EYES.  Stepfather Will Ferrell and biological father Mark Wahlberg vie for the affection of their children in DADDY'S HOME.  MY ALL-AMERICAN is based on the inspirational true story of Freddie Steinmark, who played for the 1969 Texas Longhorns national championship team.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is based on the Oscar-winning Argentine film, EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS, well worth checking out.  



With Unreal we have nice mix of fantasy and (sort of) reality.  Shiri Appleby stars as a reality t.v. producer urged by her demanding boss to do whatever it takes to enhance the racy goings-on of her "reality" dating show, Everlasting.  


As in the Manhattan Project.  The second and final season of this fictionalized look at the secret development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico includes the always-excellent Olivia Williams as a botanist and wife of one of the lead scientists on the project.  


The first two seasons of this Comedy Central series are now available, starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.  The duo has won a Peabody Award and has been nominated for Writers Guild, NAACP Image and Primetime Emmy awards for their topical sketch comedy. 


The 2015 Doctor Who Christmas special sees the return of the character River Song (Alex Kingston), making her first appearance beside the 12th and latest Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi.  


All of those miniseries of the 1970's and 1980's (Rich Man, Poor Man; The Thorn Birds; etc.) were rich with satire potential.  At last, The Spoils of Babylon, brought to us by the people responsible for Funny or Die.  Kristin Wiig heads the all-star cast, happily chewing up scenery and actually earning an Emmy Award nomination in the process.  

Foreign Films


Somehow, this Criterion Collection edition of Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day is the film's first home video release in the United States.  Better late than never for the Taiwanese master's sprawling masterpiece.  Get comfortable and enjoy one of world cinema's landmarks. 



Alex Gibney (Going Clear:  Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room) turns his attention to the increasingly mythic Steve Jobs in this 2015 documentary.  


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Flick Picks 3/23/2016: The Big Short, Carol, Game of Thrones Season 5

Two prominent 2015 features highlight this rich, early spring (use your imagination, people of the Midwest) batch of DVD releases.  From the global economic collapse to forbidden love.  From high satire to broad comedy.  From a series about perilous moments in the 1980's to a remembrance of the Thin White Duke.  If Bitter Rice is too bitter, chase it with That Sugar Film.  If spring is a little too theoretical for you at this point, insert those Game of Thrones discs and hunker down until warmer weather arrives to stay.  

Feature Films

Perhaps it's a little too soon to fulfill the old equation, "comedy is tragedy plus time."  However, Adam McKay's The Big Short proves that a film about the financial crisis of 2007-2008 can be extremely entertaining without any loss of cutting insight.  Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt play some of the men who actually saw the disaster coming, alternately disgusted and betting against housing market.  Other celebrities make amusing cameos to explain rather esoteric economic concepts.  Unlike our financial industry at the time, The Big Short works very well.  

Based on the groundbreaking novel by Patricia Highsmith (which she published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Carol is the love story of the relatively unformed Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and soon-to-be divorcee Carol (Kate Blanchett).  Like director Hayne's Far From Heaven (2002), Carol is a story of forbidden love set in the more repressive 1950's.  Also like that earlier film, Carol provides impeccable period settings and costuming.  


Golden Globes dream hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continue to look for movie magic with their latest pairing, Sisters. The Saturday Night Live alums play siblings who decide to spend one last rowdy weekend in the house in which they grew up before it is sold.  

Also new:  Dakota Fanning and Emmy Thompson (along with a host of eminent English actors) star in the period drama, Effie Gray



No introduction or explanation is really necessary for fans of the 
hugely popular HBO historical fantasy series, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin.  We have season five of Game of Thrones in both regular and Blu-ray DVD.  Binge forth.  


This German series is set amid the Cold War tensions of the 1980's.  Jonas Nay plays a young spy from East Germany, infiltrating both the West German military and youth culture of the time in the series which has received near-perfect reviews from critics and viewers alike.  

Ever-so-slightly removed from the complexities of the Cold War and the 1980's...we have Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Ellie Kemper stars as the 29-year-old Kimmy, newly rescued from an Indiana doomsday cult (presided over by none other than Jon Hamm), starting life anew in New York City, armed mainly with a very positive attitude.  Reviews have been almost universally good for this Netflix series, (co-created by Tina Fey) with one critic calling it "the first great sitcom of the streaming era."  

Foreign Films


The title of this 1949 neo-realist classic is actually a pun, as the Italian riso means both rice and laughter.  Appropriate for a film replete with earthiness, sex and even a social conscience.  We have Bitter Rice in a new Criterion Collection edition.  


This Israeli drama follows Eyad, a Palestinian teenager who moves to Jerusalem to study at an elite Jewish high school.  As he tries to fit in, he befriends another outsider, a student with muscular dystrophy, and eventually falls in love with Jewish student Naomi.  

If you'd like to see and discuss this thoughtful and well-regarded film, join Susan Benjamin on April 15 for her monthly "Talking Pictures" series.  The screening and discussion are held in the Hammond Room.  No registration is necessary.  



The penultimate silent film from the great Fritz Lang, this early German espionage thriller was restored to its original 178-minute length in 2003 and 2004.  Expect lots of intrigue, lots of shadows and even some romance.  But who can trust whom?  Find out.    



If you know anything about the recently-departed David Bowie, you know that he was much more than a shape-shifting rock star.  Get to know the erudite and mercurial Bowie a little better through the series of filmed interviews that make up David Bowie:  In His Own Words.  

Also new:  Similar in concept to Morgan Spurlock's SUPERSIZE ME, Damon Gameau's THAT SUGAR FILM traces the serious and sometimes comedic effects of an intensely high-sugar diet.  The redoubtable Michael Pollan takes a less gimicky approach in IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, based on his best seller of the same title:  "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants."  Good advice, although your friends at Flick Picks posit that a life entirely bereft of the sweet stuff might not be worth living at all....


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Flick Picks 3/10/2016: Creed, Room, The Night Before

A major batch of new releases before Flick Picks goes on a brief hiatus.  We'll be back on March 24.  In the meantime, a passel of new feature films, a couple of which figured in Academy Awards competition.  And we must say, Oscar did alright this year:  Best Original Script and Best Picture for Spotlight; Best director to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (for The Revenant, coming this spring); Best Documentary Feature to Amy; Best Foreign Language Film to Son of Saul (also coming this spring).  

Feature Films

Sorry, Sly.  No Best Supporting Actor statuette for you.  Mr. Stallone was perhaps the sentimental favorite (and even the betting favorite after winning in the same category at the Golden Globe Awards) at the Academy Awards.  But this latest entry in the never-ending Rocky franchise has gotten good grades all around.  Stallone wisely (late wisdom is better than none at all, perhaps) stays out of the ring, come fight time, yielding the canvas to the son of his old friend and rival, Apollo Creed (Michael B. Jordan as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson Creed).  Up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) directed.

If you've been following the career of Brie Larson in films like The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12, her strong work in Room should come as no surprise.  Ms. Larson collected an Oscar for Best Actress as a young mother held hostage for years with her son.  The premise of Room is quite dark, but the film concerns itself even more with the aftermath of that captivity as it does with the grim particulars of the seven years when Joy Newsome and her son are held hostage.  Joan Allen, always a welcome presence, plays Larson's mother, trying to help her adapt to a normal existence.  

It's Christmas in March!  Or Christmas Eve!  Well, comedy is always in season, right?  Three old pals who have long convened on Christmas Eve for a night of debauchery realize it's almost time to put away childish things.  But first, they go in search of the mother of all Christmas parties. Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie play the buddies looking to end their youth with a bang.

The always magnetic Michael Fassbender has won raves for his portrayal of the troubled Thane of Cawdor, in this latest film adaption of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play."  Marion Cotillard plays, shall we say, Macbeth's rather encouraging wife.  

Also new: LIFE is based on the relationship Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock and James Dean.  Also based on a true story, WOODLAWN gives us the inspirational tale of a high school football team that enjoys a spiritual awakening in troubled Birmingham, Alabama of the 1960's.  The latest comedy from Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) offers hijiinks in the Holy Land in DON VERDEAN.  VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is the latest film adaption of Mary Shelley's rather famous novel.  MISS YOU ALREADY chronicles the travails of two long-time friends, played by Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is based on Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction book of the same title about the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820, which inspired another novel of which you might have heard, Moby Dick.






Tamsin Grieg (Black Books, Episodes) plays an investigator who must decide if she wants to take up the case of a missing child which she had had to drop five years previous in The Guilty.  

The third season of this FX series created and produced by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg has arrived.  Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play two KGB officers posing as an American couple during the Cold War of the 1980's.   

This highly-regarded BBC crime series set and filmed in Northern Ireland stars Gillian Anderson as a police superintendent whose main task is building a case against a suspected serial killer.  

This BBC series has us in dear old Blighty, but in the ninth century AD.  Based upon the The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom is set at a time when what we think of England was actually composed of several separate kingdoms.  The series main character, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) is pulled between the Danes who reared him and the kingdom that shares his Saxon ancestry.

Foreign Film

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has responded to his 20-year ban on making films by...continuing to make films.  His previous two efforts - This Is Not A Film and Closed Curtain were made indoors and in relative secrecy.  But for Taxi, the amiable and irrepressible Panahi takes to the streets of Tehran as Iranians from a variety of backgrounds confide in the amateur driver.  As Anthony Lane said in the New Yorker, "Panahi's status as a martyr for his art could have gulled him into loftiness and pride; and yet, by some miracle, Taxi stays as modest as his smile, the point being not to recruit us to his cause but to put us on the side of his compatriots."  


Friday, February 26, 2016

Flick Picks 2/26/2016: Spotlight, Fargo Season Two

On the verge of the Academy Awards, this week's new releases on DVD are highlighted by one of the contenders for Best Picture.  And a very worthy contender Spotlight is.  With new series, its a matter of the darkly comic and the just plain dark.  Never fear, Sarah Silverman is here!  And you probably know how funny she is.  Well, actually,...Ms. Silverman plays it very straight as a troubled wife and mother in I Smile Back, a performance that has won the comedienne considerable acclaim.  Quality we have this week.  Laughs, not so much.  If you need a little escapist fun, there's always the red carpet at the Oscars....         

Feature Films

Arguably the best American film of 2015, Spotlight takes its name from the special investigative unit of the Boston Globe that in 2002 broke the story of widespread and long-occurring abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy.  With material that would lend itself to operatic treatment (see Martin Scorcese), writer/director Todd McCarthy instead handles this big story like a precise, rending piece of chamber music.  The players in this case are an impressive ensemble, filling out the major roles (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams) as well as the minor.  For all its journalistic procedure and general restraint, Spotlight's story is no less powerful.

With Spotlight, Tom McCarthy is finally receiving major recognition and some measure of mainstream success.  Aside from his work as an actor (Law and Order, The Wire, Good Night And Good Luck), he's been making excellent character-driven films for more than a decade.  Check out earlier examples of writer/director's work, generally lighter in tone than the outstanding Spotlight.

Also new:  Comedienne Sarah Silverman has won raves for her decidedly dramatic turn in I SMILE BACK, playing a wife and mother struggling with mental illness and addiction.


Based on the 1996 film of the same name by the Coen Brothers (who serve as executive producers), Fargo is back.  But true to the anthology, decade-jumping format of the series, we have an entirely new cast and time setting.  Season two is set in 1979 with another excellent ensemble, including Patrick Wilson (pictured), Kirsten Dunst, Kieran Culkin and Ted Danson.  What hasn't changed is the almost universal acclaim for this black comedy. 

 This 2014 British miniseries is based on the actual life and crimes of Englishman Malcolm Webster.   

This delightfully creepy Fox series features yet another impressive cast, headed by Matt Dillon as a Secret Service agent investigating the disappearance of two of his fellow agents in the mysterious small town of Wayward Pines, Idaho.  Carla Gugino, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo and Terence Howard also star.  

Foreign Films

Lastly, a vintage addition to our foreign film collection.  This little-known Italian classic has been reissued by Criterion, with all the great extra features typical of the series.  From the Criterion Collection summary:  

Following the gorgeous, seemingly liberated Adriana (Divorce Italian Style’s Stefania Sandrelli) as she chases her dreams in the Rome of La dolce vita, I Knew Her Well is at once a delightful immersion in the popular music and style of Italy in the sixties and a biting critique of its sexual politics and the culture of celebrity. Over a series of intimate episodes, just about every one featuring a different man, a new hairstyle, and an outfit to match, the unsung Italian master Antonio Pietrangeli, working from a script he cowrote with Ettore Scola, composes a deft, seriocomic character study that never strays from its complicated central figure. I Knew Her Well is a thrilling rediscovery, by turns funny, tragic, and altogether jaw-dropping.

Also new:  DIFRET