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A Movie for the Political Season Vol. I

10 Sep

As I noted a few weeks ago, when it comes to politics I tend to keep my big fat mouth shut. I’m not going to change my current habit. Instead, over the next eight weeks or so, in line with my previous posts about Great Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen (Volumes I, II and III), I’ll feature a few outstanding movies many haven’t seen that everyone should encounter. These films also have eye-opening parallels to our current season.

The first is the groundbreaking masterpiece, Children Of Men.

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Released at Christmas in 2006, Children Of Men is a dazzling thriller loosely based on a novel by the great P. D. James. James’ idea was a not too distant future where humankind has gone infertile. The movie takes place in 2027, 18 years after the birth of the last baby, Diego Ricardo. Opening with the death of Diego, which causes worldwide grief, Children of Men thrusts us into a dystopian society that is immediately unsettling given how similar much of this crumbling civilization is to our current world. Britain, where the movie takes place, is the only stable government remaining in the world though it too seems on the verge of collapse. The movie explores what happens when the first woman in 18 years becomes pregnant.

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A Food and Film Affair

10 Feb

This is mostly for my Texas friends and readers, although anyone is welcome to make the journey to the utterly charming town of Fredericksburg, Texas!

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Fredericksburg, Texas

Friday, February 19th, I’ll be in the glorious hill country of Texas hosting a “Food in Film” benefit for The Hill Country Film Society, a terrific organization I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the past 5 years.

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Bluebonnets of Texas Hill Country

In partnership with Hoffman HausOtto’s German Bistro and Pedernales Cellars, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite “food in film” clips and discussing film while we all share in a multi-course meal designed with the clips in mind. The menu is incredible, it’s going to be delicious.

Better yet, your ticket will help benefit a great organization dedicated to supporting Texas filmmakers, independent film and children interested in filmmaking. (Proceeds benefit the Hill Country Film Society’s year-round programming: the Hill Country Film Festival, Indie Film Series and Summer Film Camp.)

Five Star ranked Hoffman Haus is offering 20% off accommodations if you are not local. 

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Hoffman Haus

So come out and join us for what should be a blast of an event. Click the link below for more information and tickets. Feel free to contact me as well! Would love to see you there.

For tickets and information click here: 

https://www.universe.com/events/film-affare-tickets-fredericksburg-ZM6R58

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Clemenza teaches Michael how to make Spaghetti Sauce

 

 

Best of 2015 Pt. 2 (Books & TV)

15 Jan

Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:

Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:

A MONSTER CALLS

No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

WEST OF SUNSET

If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

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Best of 2015 Pt. 1 (Movies)

10 Jan

I’m breaking my ‘end of year’ posts into Part 1 (movies) and Part 2 (everything else). Would love to hear your own favorites in the comments!

MAD MAX

I loved this so much, I did a full blog post on the movie (click link below). Suffice to say, it is still the best movie of the year:

https://onfoodandfilm.com/2015/05/20/mad-max-fury-road/

THE WALK

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Tri Star couldn’t pay people to go see this incredible movie, which is a tragedy. Not the movie! But a tragedy people did not go see it. A glorious return to form by one of our best directors, Robert Zemeckis, who wrote the terrific screenplay with Christopher Browne, this magical, breathtaking recreation of  Philippe Petit’s death defying tightrope walk between the towers of the just opened World Trade Center was many things: a caper picture, an adventure film, a beautiful recreation of 1974 New York City, and a love letter to the buildings we lost on September 11th as well as moviemaking in general. I saw it three time and happily wept three times, particularly during the final moments and images. Made for the biggest screen possible, I can only hope it will work as well at home and that people begin to discover it. This movie fills me with joy.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

20 May

There is a car chase in Michael Bay’s The Rock that became instantaneously famous when the movie debuted in 1996. This action sequence, involving Nicolas Cage pursuing Sean Connery through the streets of San Francisco, completely changed the way action sequences were shot and edited in Hollywood. It also is annoying and frustrating and not very good.

The Rock‘s car chase is certainly is visceral and intense. So is accidentally sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Neither are much fun and both eventually are a complete mess. The main problem in The Rock‘s car chase is that everything is shot so close and edited so tight there is very little spatial sense of what is happening. Where the hell is anyone in relation to anyone else? A car chase is suspenseful only if we know what is going on: is Cage one block or ten blocks behind Connery? How can there be suspense if we don’t know?

Re-watching it, the sequence is rather tame by today’s standards because what it began has intensified and ramped up so ridiculously. Movies like Man of Steel and The Furious Saga are shot and edited so close, so fast… and often so dark… that all spatial sense goes entirely out the window. These movies no longer are about actual suspense, narrative tension or, god forbid, character. They are designed instead to bludgeon the audience into submission.

The use of CGI has also completely taken over these movies, actors mostly performing in front of green screens with everything digitally created around them. Consequently, nothing we see can actually happen in real life which also drains the action of any real intensity.

All of which is why George Miller’s long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road, six days now in theaters, is so incredibly thrilling, exhilarating and, please Lord, game changing. 

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Given that everything about Fury Road is awesome and mind-blowing, I will only cover a few things here. Let’s start, however, with the spatial. George Miller is not just a visionary (see almost any image within this often gorgeous movie). Miller is a master at coherent, definable space. Coherent does not mean tame! Much of this movie is absolutely insane. Take, for instance, the much talked about blind bungee jumping guitar player, hung from the front of a massive rig, who plays a real flame-throwing guitar as he blindly bungee jumps:

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Insane! But whatever is happening in Fury Road, no matter how chaotic, fast or explosive, we the audience always know exactly what is going on. Who is doing what. Where people are in relationship to one another. What is at stake. (We will get to the fact something is indeed actually at stake in a moment.)

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Favorite Films of 14

9 Jan

It’s been a different year for movies. A good friend of mine noted there didn’t seem to be any big ‘Oscar movies’, nothing that screamed Must see! or that has a lock on Best Picture… and that is true. But for me, this has been a good thing. In an age where so many movies are huge depressing blockbusters: sequels ad nauseam with the same old, same old tired CGI action that makes me numb, my personal favorites of the year were movies that were small, indie and often very weird. Some of these even blew me away.

In no specific order:

EDGE OF TOMORROW / LIVE. DIE. REPEAT

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Whoa, whoa, whoa! Isn’t this the type of big budget blockbuster you were slamming above?

Actually… no. This terrific, very smart, very suspenseful movie is what every big budget action movie should be. It’s the most sheer fun I had at the movies all year. A blast of a picture, Edge Of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat.) is extremely clever and, along with terrific supporting performances, has two kick-ass lead performances by Tom Cruise and the heavenly Emily Blunt. Wretchedly marketed by Warner Bros, (the movie’s name has even changed!) the ads looked like same old same old and revealed none of the humor (it is very funny), none of the romance (it has a heartbreaking romantic subplot) and hid just how good Tom Cruise was as he played one of the great cowards ever to be portrayed onscreen. That’s right, a total, yellow bellied coward. I confess, I love the guy, he is a superb actor (watch Magnolia if you disagree) and he clearly had a ball playing very against type. You probably missed it on the big screen, which is a bummer, but see it anyway. It’s a @%#$ blast.

 

SNOWPIERCER

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This is a wild, weird, phenomenal twist on the action thriller by one of the most inventive directors alive, Joon-Ho Bong. Very hard to describe, the entire movie takes place on a futuristic speeding train containing all that is left of humanity. With splendid action scenes and extremely inventive set pieces (wait until you get to the ‘classroom scene’ with a deliriously upbeat Allison Pill) Snowpiercer has a wild, weird sensibility that is all Bong, who also directed the equally wild and wonderful movies The Host and Mother. Chris Evans does his best work yet on screen. He’s terrific. As are all the supporting players. And then there’s Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton. Her part, Mason, was written for a man. When she was cast, they changed not a word, she transformed her appearance and this remarkable, fearless actress gives a hilarious, biting performance unlike anything you’ve ever seen. While the movie is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, it has a classic revenge suspense plot holding it together that will keep you leaning forward. Experience something wonderful and trippy. See this movie.

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**For the rest of my “Best of”, click here —>  Continue reading

A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. III

26 Oct

Miles: Sometimes I hurt things. And sometimes at night…

when everything was dark…. they screamed.

One of the most famous literary mysteries of all time revolves around the unspeakable secrets swirling through Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn Of The Screw. Published in 1898, the novella is told mostly in the form of a remembrance by a governess hired to oversee two young children at a remote country estate. Numerous ambiguities in the story have frustrated and delighted both readers and critics ever since, particularly the main question, one James refused to answer: is our narrator, the governess, reliable or insane, i.e. are the ghosts in her account real or the figment of a twisted imagination?

It’s a mind bending debate made even more maddening by James’ prose. My graduate students last year wanted to have me lynched for making them read it, so difficult can it be to understand his sentences. For instance:

“I can’t express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself–which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength–became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order, and pass, with my eyes on the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured, straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.”

That’s not even one of the really difficult sentences!

Suffice, then, to say that, even though a ghost story–still as popular a genre as it was in 1896–a novella of even this critical magnitude and renown might make difficult an adaptation into the cinematic form, particularly given the immutable truth this masterwork, at least according to some, is most famous for ambiguities, literary mysteries and twisting sentences, three elements one must agree modern audiences don’t rush to embrace, elements that also would make it seem, even to the greatest, most brilliant talent, un-filmable.

Take that, Henry James!

Yet towering over every other cinematic ghost story, perfect for this Halloween week, stands The Innocents.

Innocents Title Card

It is difficult to discuss this remarkable movie without giving away its malevolent pleasures. As such, I will avoid my usual lengthy diatribe. Yet along with encouraging you to find the movie and give it a watch, let me note only a couple of things that make the film so amazing, the first being the cinematography. Quite simply, The Innocents is one of the greatest achievements in cinematography. Filmed in Cinemascope (ultra, ultra wide screen) director Jack Clayton and DP Freddie Francis use both the frame and the lighting in remarkable ways.

Even the simplest of images, in the bright of day, have an unsettling quality:

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 Or take the introduction of Flora, the little girl in the story. The first shot of her, a reflection in the water, not only gives her a ghostly appearance but calls into question from the start her motivations and honesty.

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Many scenes are shot in very long takes, maximizing the tension. And there are numerous layers to every shot. See below the creepy statue way in the background through the door? Clayton and Francis stick these statues everywhere to very unsettling effect. These statues become a character unto themselves, always seeming to peer into the house. Rather than standing guard, their effect is to create a trapped, claustrophobic feeling. Someone or something is always watching.

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 Here we see their use of layers of reflection:

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 Of course, given the movie is a ghost story, there is masterful use of pitch black including a lengthy, very scary sequence of the governess exploring the house late at night, a sequence that also has some of the best sound I’ve ever heard in a film.

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I can’t even show you some of the greatest examples of why the movie is so brilliant, as they would give away some of the best moments. Besides being gorgeous, the movie is edgy and very ahead of its time in terms of content. For just a hint at many WTF moments from the movie, check out this still from a scene that sent executives at Fox into a tailspin when they saw the final cut:

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It must also be noted that Deborah Kerr’s performance is stunning, the best in career dominated by wonderful performances. A six time Academy Award nominee, I’ve never seen Kerr give anything less than a stellar performance. She is one of the most reliable, capable performers in film (and stage) history. Yet even with such a pedigree, her work here is phenomenal, navigating the mystery of the narrator’s mental state brilliantly. The great mystery of the novella remains just as debatable in the movie due to her subtle, complex turn. 

Another reason to screen this movie? After years of there only being a crappy DVD to watch, Criterion has released a stunning transfer with incredible visuals and sound. It’s gorgeous.

Find this version, make some popcorn and settle in. You’ll be happy you did — though you might not sleep.

As a reminder, “A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen Vol. I and II can be found here and here.