Instant Gratification: “Shut Up and Play the Hits” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant


Shut Up and Play the Hits” — My full review is here. This farewell to the dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem is unusually revealing, mixing a concert film of the band’s final Madison Square Garden shows with morning-after footage of frontman James Murphy, whose reasons for ending the band at the cusp of mainstream success seem tortured and self-defeating.

The Jeffery Dahmer Files” — My full review is here. This experimental documentary from Chris James Robinson, who grew up partly in Madison, mixes interviews with three people involved in Dahmer’s crimes (including detective Pat Kennedy, who died in April) with re-enactment footage of Dahmer walking around Milwaukee, nonchalantly purchasing supplies for his gruesome crimes. It’s the restraint that makes the film so chilling.

Lore” — My full review is here. With their Nazi parents seized by the Allies, five German siblings go on the run in a strange and haunting film that’s part family drama, part fairy tale, and part psychological study of how evil can be passed down generation to generation, and rejected.

Intolerable Cruelty” — Unquestionably one of the lesser Coen Brothers movies, but still a lot of fun, as George Clooney plays a hotshot divorce lawyer who meets his match in serial bride Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The Ice Harvest” — Director Harold Ramis takes a surprising but satisfying detour into noir, as John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play down-on-their luck guys on the run from the mob. Oliver Platt’s cameo is priceless.

Blu-ray review: “Lord of the Flies: The Criterion Collection”


When you first encounter William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the political allegories go flying right over your junior-high head. They  certainly did for me when I wrote a book report on Golding’s dystopian classic in ninth grade, preferring to focus, as many first-time readers do, on the excitement and novelty of a group of kids crash-landing on a deserted tropical paradise.

(Our teacher, like many before her, seemed to favor a slightly different interpretation, that the book confirmed her belief that we were a classroom of savages that should never be left alone. One extended trip to the mimeograph machine in the teacher’s lounge might result in finding a pig’s head on a stick when she returned if she wasn’t careful.)

I even used still photos from Brook’s 1960 film in my report. Later on, I re-read the book, saw the 1990 version and connected better with Golding’s theme of the savagery underneath the surface of civilized man, lurking and waiting for a reason to surface.

But I didn’t properly understand the context of “Lord of the Flies” until I saw the Criterion Collection’s new edition, out on Blu-ray this month. The aftermath of Britain’s in two world wars, where millions of young men were sent to suffer, and to do, things no man should ever do was still fresh.

The opening credits make that explicit, with still photos bombers juxtaposed against the laughing faces of schoolboys. I had forgotten that Golding’s story takes place against the backdrop of a third world war, and the planeload of schoolboys has been evacuated from a devastated Britain. The plane crash-lands on a desert island (Puerto Rico in the film), only the children survive.

The boys attempt to create a democratic and fair society, but are undermined by a splinter faction that pursues a more violent and dictatorial path. (Interestingly, the totalitarians are a group of choirboys, and seeing them march down the beach in full regalia is surreal and eerie.) Order breaks down, the strong subjugate the weak through intimidation and fear, and Golding’s bleak vision of the human condition is complete.

The new 4K restoration really brings out the rough grittiness of Brook’s film, which he shot documentary-style entirely on location using non-professional actors. The use of non-professionals is something of a mixed bag; some of the kids are simply not good actors, and deliver dialogue with the stiffness of performers in a school play. But, on another level, there’s something effectively unnerving about that stilted quality, as if these really are boys lost in the wild, and not characters in a movie.

The extras include a commentary track from Brook, cinematographer Tom Hollyman and editor Gerald Feil, as well as a deleted scene and behind-the-scenes footage. The Blu-ray also includes newer interviews with Brook and Feil, and a 1980 talk show segment featuring Golding talking about his inspiration for the film.

There’s a flatness, a matter-of-factness, to Brook’s version that loses the feverish quality of the source material, but that appears to be by design. The book invites the reader to look deep into the darkness of man’s soul, while the movie puts that darkness on full display, in bright sunlight, in a world of laughing, fighting boys.


What’s playing in Madison theaters: July 26-August 1, 2013


All week

The Wolverine” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Hugh Jackman yet again reprises his role as everybody’s favorite snikt-ing superhero, but this looks to be a major step up from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” with a grittier tone, a Japanese locale, and James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma”) directing.

The To-Do List” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — It’s “The Sexual Awakening of Tracy Flick,” as Aubrey Plaza plays a driven teenager who approaches gaining sexual experience with the same organizational skills that she brought to passing her ACTs.

Fruitvale Station” (Star Cinema, Sundance) — This lauded film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival follows the last day in the life of a drug dealer, who was shot in the back while being held by police in an incident that made national headlines.


The Fall” (7 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St.) — Roger Ebert was a big fan of Tarsem Singh’s eye-popping, self-financed spectacle, in which an injured stuntman’s fanciful tales to a young Romanian girl are spun out on the big screen. The visuals are simply breathtaking and need to be seen on the big screen. Free!


“Galaxy Quest” (9 p.m., UW Memorial Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St.) — Trekkies will love this absolutely delightful spoof, as the case of a faded sci-fi TV series gets kidnapped by aliens who think they are the real thing. Free!

Oz The Great and Powerful” (10 p.m. Star Cinema) — Sam Raimi attempts to capture the magic of “The Wizard of Oz” with this prequel, starring James Franco as a young Wiz, but only succeeds in making a lot of pretty pictures that make you long for the original. Admission is only $3, with proceeds going to autism research.


The Croods” (10 a.m., Point and Eastgate) — One of the nicest surprises of 2013 was this animated film, about a cavemen family trying to outrun the apocalypse. The movie is genuinely funny and beautiful, has a surprisingly moving father-daughter relationship, and the teenage girl Emma Stone plays actually looks like a real teenage girl, not a Disneyfied princess. Admission is only $2 as part of the Marcus Kids Dream film series.

Oz the Great and Powerful” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Monday listing.


“The Croods” (10 a.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing

American Graffiti” (Sundance Cinemas) — George Lucas’ film was an elegaic ode to his 1950s California upbringing, as a group of friends (including Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss) tool around town for one last night before adulthood calls. It’s funny and poignant, and still hard to believe Lucas made it.


Oz the Great and Powerful” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Monday listing.


“The Croods” (10 a.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing

As Long as You’re Healthy” and “The Land of Milk and Honey” ( 7 p.m., 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.) — The Cinematheque’s tribute to the great French comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix concludes with this double feature. The first film features four delightful short films; the second is a satirical documentary about French life that essentially got his blackballed from moviemaking. Free!

Sundance Screening Room returns with ‘Dirty Wars,’ ‘Stories We Tell,’ ‘At Any Price’ and more


With the summer blockbuster season winding down (or, in the case of “R.I.P.D.,” grinding to a halt), the Sundance Screening Room calendar is re-launching for the first time since May. The series features foreign films, independent films and documentaries, all exempt from the theater’s usual amenities fees. Coming out and seeing these films is a great way to show Sundance that there’s still a healthy audience for challenging, smaller movies in Madison.

And I’m happy to announced that I’ve been invited back to host some Screening Room films and post-show discussions in the theater’s Overflow Bar. Those are always a lot of fun. I haven’t yet figure out which movies I’ll be hosting, but I will let you know soon in this space.

Looking at the schedule, which starts next Friday, it looks like there’ll be lots for us to talk about.

Friday, Aug. 2-8 — “At Any Price” — Just filmed over the border in the DeKalb, Illinois area, this new film from Ramin Bahraini (“Goodbye Solo”) is a suprisingly unsentimental look at modern farming, with Dennis Quaid playing a smooth-talking farmer desperate to hold on to what’s his, and Zac Efron as his disaffected son.

Aug. 9-15 — “Dirty Wars” — Investigative journalist (and Wisconsin native) Jeremy Scahill made this documentary about his dogged hunt for information on America’s covert wars.

Aug. 16-22 — “Love is All You Need” — A lighter film from Danish director Susannah Bier (“Brothers”), with Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm playing a widower and a divorced woman who fall for each other at their children’s wedding in Italy.

Aug. 23-29 — “The Act of Killing” — Werner Herzog and UW grad Errol Morris collaborated as executive producers on this disturbing documentary about death squads in Indonesia.

Aug. 30-Sept. 5 — “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — An outlaw (Casey Affleck), a sheriff (Ben Foster) and his wife (Rooney Mara) collide in this acclaimed film from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.


Sept. 6-12 — “Stories We Tell” — This 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival sellout is one of the best films of the year, as actress-director Sarah Polley’s investigation into her own family’s secrets reveals insights about how we shape our own personal narratives.

Sept. 13-19 — “Crystal Fairy” — Michael Cera plays a callow tourist seeking a mysterious drug in Chile whose plans are waylaid by a free-spirited hippie (Gaby Hoffman).

Sept. 20-26 — “Hannah Arendt” — This documentary looks at the life of the acclaimed German-Jewish philosopher and theorist, whose coverage of the Eichmann trial shaped much of how we perceive the Third Reich.

DVD review: “Starbuck”: Teach your 533 children well

"Starbuck" Day 06 Photo: Jan Thijs Caramel Film

“Starbuck” writer-director Ken Scott is remaking the French-Canadian hit for American audiences as “The Delivery Man,” with Vince Vaughn in the starring role. The movie comes out on Thanksgiving Day, and although Scott’s hand on the till bodes well, I’ll be surprised if the Hollywood version will be as charming as the original 2011 film, out on DVD this week.

The film deftly balances its comic and feel-good aspirations, making a film that’s surprisingly gentle and warm-hearted for a film that, after all, kicks off with a masturbation montage. David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) primary income in his early 20s seemed to be heading down to a Montreal sperm bank and making donation after donation.

It seems to be his primary achievement in life — when we meet him again at 42, he’s a screw-up who grows pot in his apartment, owes loan sharks big time and works as a delivery driver at his family’s butcher shop, a job he hangs onto by the skin of his nepotism.

But then he finds out all those donations bore fruit — 533 children were born as a result of his donations, all now of college age. And 142 of them want the clinic to void his confidentiality agreement and find out who their biological father really was. Wozniak (who the clinic nicknamed “Starbuck” after a prize Quebec bull) is initially aghast at the thought of having such a large brood. But when he starts looking into the lives of the kids — including a drug addict, an aspiring actor, a subway busker, and others — his essentially decent heart wins out.

Without revealing his identity, he befriends them and acting as a kind of guardian angel. If he can’t turn around his own life, he reasons, he can help out each of these kids a little. Of course, he get sucked more deeply into their lives than he anticipated. In one scene, he accidentally ends up in the middle of  a ballroom surrounded by hundreds of his offspring, who have created a kind of support network for each other. It’s a surprisingly moving scene, as Wozniak surveys this strange, gigantic, devoted family that he unwittingly created.


“Starbuck” is well-paced and has some nice supporting roles, including Antoine Bertrand as Wozniak’s long-suffering lawyer. But the film rests entirely on Huard’s shoulders. Huard, a celebrated French-Canadian actor and comic (Wisconsin Film Festival fans will remember him as the “Bon Cop” in “Good Cop, Bon Cop,” which sold out the Orpheum Theater in 2006.) Slightly beefy and grizzled, Huard is in nearly every frame of this movie, convincing as both a man who has made a lot of mistakes but would like to figure out how to stop making more. I’ll be curious to see if Vaughn, who tends to play more aggressive Type-A motormouths, can match his sheepdog charm.

The DVD release of “Starbuck” on eOne Entertainment contains two brief junket interviews with Huard and Scott, a blooper reel, and seven deleted scenes (although the film feels plenty long enough at 110 minutes.)

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


Here’s five more movies that just hit Netflix Instant in the past couple of weeks, from an eco-horror film that’s unsettlingly perfect for summer viewing to the brilliant original version of a highly-anticipated upcoming remake.

Pick of the week: “The Bay”:  My original review is here. Barry “Diner” Levinson is about the last person I’d expect to make a found-footage horror movie, but his eco-horror film about a seaside town invaded by inch-long parasites brought on by a nasty mix of nuclear and chemical dumping is clever and creepy.

Documentary of the week: “Hot Coffee”: My original review is here. A documentary on tort reform may sound like the dullest thing imaginable, but this engaging 2011 film looks at the real-world costs when juries are prevented from fairly awarding damages to victims of corporate neglect. The film looks at three cases, including the infamous McDonald’s hot-coffee case that received so much derision, and shows you what really happened behind the punchlines.

Action film of the week: “Oldboy”: My full review is here. With the first trailer for Spike Lee’s remake now out, Netflix is releasing the original 2003 film from Park Chan-wook, in which a man seeks revenge against the mysterious kidnappers who held him for 17 years. Spike, you have your work cut out for you.

Sci-fi film of the week: “Strange Days”: Back in 1995, Kathryn Bigelow made a terrific sci-fi/action film starring Ralph Fiennes as a ex-cop who dealt in virtual reality devices that allowed you to experience the world from another person’s perspective. When a murder victim’s “sim” crosses his path, he reluctantly investigates.

Drama of the week: “The Truman Show”: Or maybe it’s a comedy? Either way, Peter Weir’s media satire, in which a man (Jim Carrey) learns that his entire life has been the soundstage for a 24/7 television show, keeps inching closer to reality with each passing year..

Blu-ray review: “The Producers”


There’s something so wrong about the original “The Producers.” The premise, of course, is totally out of bounds; a rapacious Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) bullies his panicked accountant (Gene Wilder) into helping him make a deliberate flop, a sunny musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” so they won’t have to pay back their financial backers. This was in 1968, only 23 years after the end of World War II. Imagine seeing a remake in 11 years that  features a 9/11 musical instead, and you get some idea of the fire Mel Brooks was playing with here.

But even look past the whole Nazi thing, and there’s enough objectionable material in “The Producers” to fill letters-to-the-editors columns for weeks. There’s a swishy gay stereotype, objectification of women, and above all a cheerful celebration of avarice. Mostel is a spitting, sweating, giant greedy baby who never shows an ounce of remorse. Wilder should be the straight man, but instead he’s a hysterically frightened man-child in need of his “blankie.”

Despite all this (or, let’s face it, because of it), “The Producers” has earned its status as one of the great film comedies ever. Shout! Factory, which has released a couple of excellent Mel Brooks documentaries and retrospectives recently, has just put out “Producers” on Blu-ray. If you haven’t seen it, or need to remind yourself how gleefully transgressive it really is, pick it up.

“The Producers” is also closing out the UW-Cinematheque’s tribute to Roger Ebert on Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1206 W. Dayton St. Ebert, in a 2000 appreciation for his Great Movies column, called the film “a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety.”

The Blu-ray carries over most of the extras from the latest DVD release, including a pair of making-of features. One is a documentary-style interview with most of the players, in which we learn that Kenneth Mars, playing the pigeon-and-Hitler-loving playwright, wore his Kaiser helmet to bed with him every night during the shoot. The other is an excerpt from “Mel and his Movies,” in which Brooks himself tells of the unlikely success of the film, which went from almost not being released to winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Paul Mazursky also reads a glowing full-page ad that Peter Sellers posted in Variety about the film, which is credited with giving the film a push when it really needed it. Genius recognizes genius.