Instant Gratification: “Bill Cunningham New York” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now

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Just last Friday, a friend of mine was bemoaning over coffee how hard it was to find good movies on Netflix Instant. Especially when you let your kids use your account, and it screws up the algorithm so that all the films in your “Recommended” queue are movies about teen mermaids.

So, every Tuesday, Instant Gratification brings you five good movies that are streaming on Netflix right now. The pickings were a little slim this week, because Netflix is preparing a major purge of titles on Wednesday, May 1, including a lot of MGM titles (such as all the James Bond movies). I didn’t want to include any of those on this list because of their short shelf life, but you might want to go on an eleventh-hour binge tonight on those.

Top pick of the week: “Bill Cunningham New York“: Here’s my full review. This delightful documentary follows the New York Times’  longtime fashion photographer, as he toodles around New York on his bicycle, looking for chic regular people to photograph for the Sunday Styles section. As much as it’s a movie about style, it’s a movie about finding your passion in life and devoting everything to it.

Foreign film of the week: “In Another Country“:  Here’s my full review. Isabelle Huppert stars in master South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s playful film, which scrambles the same characters and situations into three different vignettes about a Frenchwoman on vacation.

Thriller of the week: “The Good Thief“:  Nick Nolte gives a terrific performance in director Neil Jordan’s 2003 update of the Jean-Pierre Melville classic “Bob Le Flambeur,” playing a gambler and drug addict on the French Riviera who has to pull himself together to mastermind a casino heist.

Comedy of the week: “Manhattan“: Seeing this on the big screen at the Wisconsin Film Festival (here’s my report) was a wonderful reminder of just how good Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy was — as actor Michael Murphy said at the screening, it may be the closest we ever get to seeing the real Woody on screen.

Bad movie of the week: “The Paperboy“: Here’s my full review. For connoisseurs of bad movies, Lee Daniels’ overheated 2012 noir is a buffet of bad acting, bizarre directing choices, and just plain scuzziness. I think it was the worst movie of 2012, and yet it is so pure in its awfulness that I can’t help but half-recommend it, just for the spectacle of it all.

 

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“Oconomowoc (the film)” easier to like than it is to pronounce

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New York. Paris. Los Angeles. Berlin.

Add Oconomowoc, the Wisconsin town that is hard to pronounce but fun to type, to the list of great cinematic cities. Granted, so far Oconomowoc’s film oeuvre consists of one film, “Oconomowoc (the film).” But it is a start.

The indie comedy by writer-director Andy Gillies has been premiering around the state recently, and has its Madison premiere this Wednesday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Gillies and Joe Hass, the film’s composer, and director of photography, will be at the screening to talk about the film afterward. More info is available at http://www.oconofilm.com, and the trailer is up on YouTube.

The film follows Lonnie Washington, a young man who slinks back to his old hometown to live with his mom and gets entangled in the lives of his family (including a stepfather who is younger than he is and dreams of designing lingerie) dreams.

I haven’t seen the movie, but judging by the trailer it look like a fun, deadpan character-based comedy that find laughs in ordinary folks’ misguided attempts to “hit the big time.”

“I wanted to write a story that was more character and dialogue-based and less of a traditional, plot-based story,” Gillies told OnMilwaukee last week. “There’s a loose plot, but it’s more so about the characters and personality types..I’ve always enjoyed stories about disconnection and misrepresentation and delusion.”

Shot on location (naturally, because what other town could simulate Oconomowoc?) the film features a mix of pro actors and friends and family, most from the area. Gillies said the film has been submitted to festivals in the hopes of reaching an audience beyond those who can already pronounce Oconomowoc.

Oh, and by the way, it’s Oh-KAHN-a-ma-WALK. I think.

“Arthur Newman:” Colin Firth and Emily Blunt, all-Americans

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“Arthur Newman” is now playing at Point and Star Cinema. R, 1:41, two stars out of four

If acting was real, they wouldn’t call it acting. There’s artifice in every performance, but it’s seldom seem more pronounced in the comedy-drama “Arthur Newman,” in which two fine British actors pretend to be two Americans pretending to be other people.

The cramped drama was first written by Becky Johnston (“Seven Years in Tibet”) and only finally makes it to the screen now with first-director Dante Ariola. Both Firth and Blunt are fine actors, and likely leaped at the chance t work together and play two roles far removed from their usual coterie. But the parts are so underwritten, and given so little to do, that the actors connect with each other and the material only intermittently.

Firth is Wallace Avery, a sad-sack Floridian with thwarted dreams of being a pro golfer. One day, on the course, he gives a rich man some pointers on his slice, and on the spot invents a new identity for himself — Arthur Newman, golf pro, just back from years working at some of Asia’s finest golf course. The rich man happens to own a country club in Terra Haute, Indiana, and offers him a job.

So Wallace jettisons his old life, including a girlfriend (Anne Heche) and teenage son (Sterling Beaumon), makes up a complete new identity for Arthur, and hits the road for Indiana in . . . of course . . . a convertible. Along the way, he comes across Mike (Blunt), a pickpocket and drifter who has severe emotional problems. We know that because she keeps telling Arthur about her severe emotional problems, and because she wears a hoodie a lot.) Mike likes this reinvention thing Wallace/Arthur is trying, so she hops in the convertible with him.

The couple head cross-country, stopping along the way to break into people’s houses, dress up in their clothes and have sex. I’ve nothing against role-playing in the boudoir, but couldn’t they rely on their imagination a little more. Obviously the theme of “Arthur Newman” is the American dream of starting over, but Johnston’s screenplay hits it so obviously that it loses its resonance. Thuddingly off-key moments abound, such as a scene in a restaurant when Arthur remembers choking on a championship putt that ended his golf career, and HE STARTS CHOKING ON A MEATBALL.

Blunt slips into her rest-stop klepto role more easily than we might expect, but Firth seems to have more trouble with his American accent, hitting his Rs so hard  you’d think they owed him money. But Arthur is drawn so willfully bland that we can’t work up much sympathy for him. I’m also mystified by the occasional scene back in Florida where we see Arthur’s son and girlfriend wondering where he is, which trip up the momentum of Arthur and Mike’s journey.

“The Company You Keep”: Redford is a radical on the run

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“The Company You Keep” opens Friday at Eastgate and Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:05, 2.5 stars out of 4.

What’s the one thing I never thought I’d see missing from a political thriller directed by Robert Redford? Politics.

“The Company You Keep” is a film about former ’60s antiwar radicals on the run decades later, but it takes no stand – has no interest, really – on the rightness or wrongness of what they actually did. Instead, it’s an intriguing thriller with a heavyweight cast from top to bottom that only intermittently realizes its potential.

Redford stars as John Grant, a do-gooder lawyer in upstate New York. When a member of the Weather Underground (Susan Sarandon) is captured nearby after 30 years on the run and charged with the murder of a bank guard, Grant declines to take her case. Which strikes ambitious local newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) as a little odd, since it’s the sort of bleeding-heart case that Grant would usually jump at.

So he greases some palms in local government, pulls at some threads, and discovers that Grant himself is a former member of the Underground, Nick Sloan. Grant/Sloan goes on the run, reconnecting with a web of old comrades (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie among them) as he crosses the country (including a quick stop in Milwaukee).

Meanwhile, Shepard digs into the Michigan bank case and starts raising doubts about Sloan’s guilt. The film criss-crosses between both characters before they finally reunite in remote mountain cabin, the FBI closing in.

I’m not quite sure, in the broadest strokes, what Redford or screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Limey,” “Haywire”) were going for here. They don’t want to re-litigate the politics of the Vietnam era, for sure. But the film only makes a passing attempt to be a tense “Fugitive”-like innocent-man-on-the-run style thriller. (And Terence Howard, who plays the FBI agent in charge of the manhunt, is no Tommy Lee Jones.)

The overarching theme seems to be that of reflection, of old firebrands reckoning with what they did as young radicals, and if it was worth it. “We’re a story told to children now,” Sloan says at one point. “But I’m glad somebody’s still telling it.”

If the energy and purpose of the overall film flags at times, there’s still enough to hold your interest in “The Company You Keep.” That’s largely due to the almost ridiculously high-level cast, including not only the names mentioned above but Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick and Chris Cooper. By the time Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling appear late in the film as the retired detective in charge of the bank robbery case, and his daughter, I actually laughed out loud. It’s like the “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of political thrillers.

Redford seems more concerned with keeping all the characters and all the different threads of plot from getting tangled, and I think he keeps a steady hand on the till. He’s so concerned with story that he’s less successful with giving his cast enough room to breathe, but there are moments that shine. Sarandon has a dynamite interrogation-room scene that rings with both exhaustion and conviction, and Redford and Christie spar effectively in a scene late in the film over the legacy of the Weather Underground.

But the breakout star, shockingly for me, was LaBeouf, an actor I’ve never particularly cared for. His Ben Shepard is one of the best portrayals of a journalist I’ve ever seen in a film, a mix of drive and pride and ambition, often confusing personal ego for the public interest. It’s not a terribly likable portrait but it rings true, one of those last, flawed crusaders in a slowly dying print newsroom.

“Room 237”: Film obsessives check in, but they don’t check out

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Room 237″ opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:38, 3.5 stars out of 4

You know when “Room 237” starts getting really scary? When the people in the film start making sense.

Rodney Ascher’s playful and engrossing documentary looks at another film, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” through the perspectives of five absolutely obsessed fans. And I don’t mean obsessed as in “watches it every Thanksgiving” or “has the poster framed in their rec room.” I mean obsessed as in doing frame-by-frame analyses of the film, looking for hidden objects, continuity errors and other Easter Eggs they believe Kubrick left there to support their theories.

One critic insists that “The Shining” is really Kubrick’s veiled confession that he was involved in faking the footage of the Apollo moon landing. Why else would the sign “Room N. 237” be so prominent in one shot, if it wasn’t an anagram of “moon”? (Plus an ‘R”, I grant you.) Another sees cans of food in the hotel kitchen bearing the likeness of a Native American chief, a clue that Kubrick has really made a movie about the betrayal of Native Americans.

A repeated phrase throughout the film is a variation on “Most people wouldn’t catch this, but . . .” and goes on to make some connection that absolutely nobody would see (such as, supposedly, Kubrick’s face superimposed in the clouds during the opening credits). The obsessives always assume that they have some secret connection to the film that allows them to see what’s really going on. An interest in Holocaust history, for example, makes one uniquely qualified to see the Holocaust references in the film, such as a German typewriter. The thought never occurs to them that they are imposing their own interpretations onto the film. If these are conspiracy theories, it’s a conspiracy of two people — Kubrick and the “enlightened” obsessive.

We never see these theorizers; instead, we hear their voices throughout the film, which visually is made entirely of clips from “The Shining” and occasionally other movies. Fitting, of course, because these obsessives can’t see beyond the frame of the film. As one puts it late in the movie, they’re as trapped in the Overlook Hotel as much as Jack Torrance, doomed to roam around and around its halls, looking for patterns, looking for answers. When another fan talks about playing “The Shining” simultaneously backwards and forwards, one image imposed upon the other, it’s a perfect visual metaphor, turning the film into an endless Moebius strip to get lost in, with no entrances and no exits.

But then somebody actually makes a good point, and it jars you. For example, one woman points out that, in the scene where Jack is talking to the hotel manager in his office, bright sunlight is pouring through the window. However, if you examine the layout of the hotel, that office should be right in the center of the building, with no access to an outside window. So we may scoff at these outlandish theories, but a healthy dose of respect should go along with that; they may be seeing a lot that isn’t there, but they’re seeing some things that are, too.

So where is the light coming from? Was it a just a continuity goof-up, or was Kubrick making some sort of secret metaphor? Or, more likely, did he just think it looked right for the shot, and never a million years expected that diehard fans would be studying his film so closely?

Either way, “Room 237” is both kind of an affectionately cracked ode to filmophilia as well as a warning sign as to its perils. And it’s also the greatest recommendation ever to go watch “The Shining” again.

Mini_Indie Film Festival brings more indie goodness to Madison this weekend

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Well, you’ve had a week to recover from the cinematic splendors of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Time to refill the popcorn bucket and head back into the theater, because the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Mini_Indie Film Festival runs Thursday through Sunday at Union South’s Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St. The student-programmed festival brings a whole new raft of documentaries, foreign films and indies to the screen, all for free.

Here’s a day-by-day rundown of what to expect. Visit union.wisc.edu/film for more information.

Thursday

God Loves Uganda” (7 p.m.) — This clear-eyed documentary looks at the impact of Christian missionaries in the Third World, both the good that they do and the potential harm, with a particular look at how homophobic philosophies have spread in Africa.

Caesar Must Die” (9:30 p.m.) — Like a harsh opposite version of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” this docu-drama brings Shakespeare into contemporary times with stunning black-and-white photography. Only this time, the actors are inmates at a maximum-security prison in Italy, incarcerated for murder, drug dealing and mob activity. For them, theater is not “therapeutic,” but a way for them to tap into their deepest, sometimes darkest currents in a way that blurs the distinction between real life and theater.

Friday

Revolutionary Optimists” (5 p.m.) — This documentary looks at an organization that empowers and educates poor children in India, as well as focuses on a few children trying to rise above their dire circumstances.

Searching For Sugar Man” (7 p.m.) — This Oscar-winning documentary, about a long-lost songwriter named Rodriguez and the fans who search for him decades later, is a true crowd-pleaser, both a mystery tale and an ode both to obscure musicians who toil for their craft, and the fans who love them. Plus the soundtrack is dynamite. Here’s my full review.

Broken” (9:30 p.m.) — This British drama appears to follow in that country’s miserablist tradition, showing the hard and often unfair lives of middle-class Brits living on a suburban cul-de-sac. Impressive newcomer Eloise Lawrence plays 11-year-old Skunk, who observes some painful goings-on in the lives of the adults around her. She has a sweet relationship with her father (Tim Roth, nicely understated) and a friendship with a developmentally disabled boy across the street, as well as with her teacher (Cillian Murphy).

But a widower also leaving on the block, Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear) brings a note of chaos; in the opening scene, he brutally beats the disabled boy after one of his daughters falsely accuses him of molesting her. Everyone else on the block is too afraid to stand up to Oswald or his three bullying daughters, and the film starts to tilt towards tragedy. Kinnear, best known as Bill Tanner, the Basil Exposition of the recent James Bond movies, is unrecognizable and terrifying as the brutal Oswald, who uses his grief as an accelerant poured over his anger to verbally and physically attack any one he perceives as a threat.

Fortunately, director Rufus Norris tries to balance the encroaching darkness with lighter moments, especially in the warm relationship between Skunk and her father, and the film ends up being a more well-rounded portrait of suburban ennui than expected, with young Laurence more than capably carrying the film on her shoulders.

“John Dies at the End” (midnight) — Don Coscarelli is known for making gonzo horror movies, such as “Bubba Ho-Tep,” in which a geriatric Elvis battled an ancient mummy. But he may have topped himself with this one, spoilerrific title and all, about two teenagers defending humanity from a new drug.

Saturday

Deflowering of Eva Van End” (2 p.m.)  — This Dutch comedy has been compared to “Little Miss Sunshine,” telling the story of a dysfunctional family that is upended when a German boy comes to stay with them for an exchange program.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” (4:30 p.m.) — Jay-Z is one of the executive producers on this drama, focusing on a couple whose relationship is teetering between friendship and romance, seen through the perspective of the man.

Breakup at a Wedding” (7 p.m.) — Madison is getting an early look at this mockumentary comedy, which purports to be the wedding videos for the disastrous nuptuals between a couple who end up calling it quits before the ceremony even starts. But since the flowers are bought and everyone’s RSVPed, why not go through with it anyway?

This movie should be mandatory viewing for anyone stressing out about their own impending wedding, as mishap piles upon mishap, from the groom’s plans to switch his best man at the last minute, to the bride’s half-assing her personal vows, to a fight with a rival wedding party over free booze at the reception. Not all the jokes stick the landing, and I was pretty annoyed at the videographer’s voiceover explanations at the beginning (the last thing a movie that shows people acting ridiculous needs is a narrator saying “Aren’t these people acting ridiculous?”).

But the film is genuinely funny, from the OCD bride to the distracted groom, and manages to inject just enough sweetness among the cynicism about the outrageous expense and lavishness of modern weddings. Writer-producer Anne Martemucci will be at the screening and will talk about the film afterwards.

Rust and Bone” (9:30 p.m.) — This searing romantic drama from Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) is a gritty look at a relationship between a street fighter (Matthieu Schoenarts) and a whale trailer who has lost her legs in a tragic accident (Marion Cotillard). It’s a film that avoids cliches and provides complex, not always likable characters with a shot at redeeming themselves. My full review is here.

Sound City” (midnight) — Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl made this celebratory documentary about the legendary analog recording studio, the birthplace of many classic albums but a dinosaur in the age of digital recordings.

Sunday

Student Short Film Competition (2 p.m.) — The films of UW undergraduates and grad students will be shown.

“Laurence Anyways” (4 p.m.) — A French Canadian professor tells his girlfriend he wants a sex-change operation in this drama, which spans 10 years of their relationship.

 

 

Instant Gratification: “The Fairy” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now

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Today I’ll be debuting a new weekly feature here on Madison Movie, “Instant Gratification.” While Netflix Instant and other online streaming services are great ways to access tons of good movies, searching for stuff you haven’t seen before can be a hit-and-miss proposition.

So, every Tuesday, I’ll feature five winners that were recently added to Netflix Instant, trying to focus on movies that you might not have heard of. And I may include other streaming sources as well. If you’ve seen something good that you think I should include in this column, let me know in comments. (And hat tip to my brother Dave for this column idea.)

Top pick of the week: The Fairy“: One of the sheer delights of the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival was this ingeniously daffy film about a seedy motel clerk who meets a zany fairy who grants him three wishes. From there comes some truly inspired physical comedy and oddball musical numbers, all delivered with charm and brio. Highly recommended.

Action movie of the week: “Safe“: Jason Statham action movies are a dime-a-dozen, but I enjoyed this gritty R-rated film about an ex-cop protecting a young girl from both cops and criminals alike. The action scenes are filmed with style but relatively believable (by “Transporter” standards anyway) and the movie actually takes a little time to develop the relationship between Statham and the girl.

Arthouse film of the week: “Alps“: Greek writer-director Yorgos Lathimos followed up his black comedy “Dogtooth” with this unsettling film about a group of well-meaning people who volunteer to play the part of deceased people for the benefit of their grieving families. When a thirtysomething woman gets too attached to her new role as a high school tennis star, chaos ensues. The comedy is so dark and so dry that I can’t say it elicits any laughs, but “Alps” is still a strange and singular film.

Kids movie of the week: “ParaNorman“: This stop-motion animated marvel got a little overshadowed by Tim Burton’s similar “Frankenweenie,” but shouldn’t be missed. It’s a nifty twist on the “ghouls-invading-a-small-town” plot, as a boy who can see dead people must deal with a vengeful spirit. The painstaking animation, filmed one frame at a time, is simply gorgeous to look at.

Documentary of the week: “The Island President“: Unfortunately, we’re starting to see movies that don’t just talk about the effects of global warming, but can actually show us the real-world damage being caused. To “Chasing Ice,” add “The Island President,” a stirring film about the president of the Maldives, whose country is literally being submerged around him by rising sea waters, as he urges the global community to act. My full review is here.