Instant Gratification: “Big Eyes” and four other good movies new to streaming


“Big Eyes” (Netflix) — Tim Burton took a break from making Tim Burton Movies last year with the refreshing drama “Big Eyes,” the biopic of ’60s kitsch artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), who really did all the paintings while her abusive husband took all the credit. Likely that Burton was initially attracted to the ironic appeal of the saucer-eyed Keane portraits, but he, perhaps by accident, ended up making an affecting film about an ignored and overlooked woman who finally finds her strength.

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“The Asphalt Jungle”: The best laid plans of some very tough men go awry


John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” was one of the first great heist films, paving the way for “Rififi,” “Bob Le Flambeur” and later “Ocean’s 11” and a ton more.

But those viewers used to the fun of a heist movie will be surprised by how melancholy “The Asphalt Jungle,” now out in a new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, Consider the end of Steven Soderbergh’s “11” remake, where Danny Ocean and his 10 confederates take a moment in front of the fountains at the Bellagio, “Clare de Lune” playing, to wordlessly celebrate a job well done before they smile and part ways.

In “Jungle,” there is no such moment of victory. Each of the conspirators play out their own string separately, ending in quiet failure, alone, the world largely indifferent.

Set in an unnamed Midwestern city (it was filmed in Cincinnati), the caper to steal over a million dollars in jewels is masterminded by Doc (Sam Jaffe), an avuncular German just out of prison. He gets wealthy lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to agree to fund the robbery and fence the jewels afterwards. The team includes a getaway driver (James Whitmore), a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) and some muscle in the form of Dix (Sterling Hayden), a snarling ex-country boy who hopes to buy his family’s horse farm back with the proceeds.

But what we know even before the heist begins, but the players don’t, is that Emmerich is deep in debt and plans to double cross the team after the heist is over. That foreknowledge adds an air of fatalism to the movie’s crisp 11-minute heist sequence, in which the criminals meticulously and flawlessly steal the jewels. Well, almost meticulously — the safecracker is accidentally gutshot during a skirmish with a policeman.

That one mishap ends up spelling doom for the entire team, and the real tension in “The Asphalt Jungle” is watching how, one by one, they fail. Each man’s fate is like it’s own mordant little short story.  Emmerich is found out by the police and ends up taking his own life, but not before writing a tender suicide note to his wife — and then tearing it to bits. A bleeding Dix makes it back to the horse farm, and dies in the pasture, the horses idly sniffing at his corpse.

And, in the ending that haunts me the most, Doc very nearly gets away when he inexplicably gets distracted by a teenage girl dancing in a roadhouse, giving the cops the precious few minutes they need to catch up with him. In the end, law enforcement seems to play a very minor role in the film and in the criminals’ capture — what gets them in the end is their own human nature, the weaknesses and obsessions they can’t get away scot-free from.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray looks exceptional, capturing how Huston and cinematographer Harold Rosson mix empty, expressionistic long shots of the city with tight, claustrophobic shots of the conspirators in small rooms, their faces often looming into the foreground. The Criterion disc also includes a lengthy inteview with film noir historian Eddie Muller and a commentary track from historian Drew Casper, along with archival interviews with Huston.

In the end, what’s so striking about “The Asphalt Jungle” isn’t the clockwork heist at its center, but the tenderness with which the film treats these tough, doomed men. After all, as Emmerich says ruefully, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

“Christine”: A reporter’s meltdown, live and in living color

Production still from set of CHRISTINE, 2015

The folks at Madison Film Forum, LakeFrontRow and Four Star Video Cooperative had a ball this week with the 2nd Annual Missed Madison Film Festival, a “virtual festival” focusing on 20 strong independent movies that didn’t (or haven’t) played Madison yet. The full roster of movies is here, and you can find most of them in a special display at Four Star if they’re out on DVD already.

I thought I’d piggyback onto the party since I’ve seen Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” and it doesn’t look like it will be making it to Madison theaters despite strong reviews. It’s currently available on video-on-demand on iTunes and Amazon, and will be out on DVD on Valentine’s Day.

“Christine” is the second movie this year to tackle the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota TV news reporter who shot and killed herself on-air in 1974. Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” (reviewed by David Klein at LakeFrontRow during the MMFF) is a documentary-fiction hybrid which captures actress Kate Lyn Sheil in the act of portraying Chubbuck.

“Christine,” meanwhile, is more of a straightforward drama that recounts Chubbuck’s last few weeks. Campos resolutely refuses to sensationalize this horrible story, instead opting for a straightforward, empathetic look at Chubbuck and the personal and professional pressures that drove her to suicide. It is extremely hard to watch, especially during the last half hour as the film recounts Chubbuck’s final day with almost agonizing matter-of-factness, but extremely rewarding.

With her flat, skeptical Ohio accent and tightly-wound demeanor, Chubbuck already feels like an outcast in the Florida community. Her brand of public affairs journalism, substantive but stodgy, is also out of step with sort of news her exasperated station manager (the terrific Tracy Letts) wants. If she had only been born a generation later, her approach to news — personal stories with an eye towards social justice — might have found an audience on outlets like public radio.

Campos’ camera revels in the tawdriness of the news station, the greasy fingerprint smudges on the tape machines and the frayed carpet located just out of camera’s view at the news desk. But if this is a dead end for Chubbuck (we come to learn that she was previously working at a station in the much larger Boston market but had some sort of nervous collapse), she doesn’t show it. She pushes herself hard, carrying the weight of her self-imposed responsibility to serve the community on her shoulders.

Chubbuck is approaching her 30th birthday and plagued with self-doubt, her personal life at a standstill as she watches her free-wheeling mother bringing men home. A dalliance with the station’s handsome anchor (Michael C. Hall) goes nowhere, and, afraid of being vulnerable, turns prickly and abrasive when co-workers offer overtures of friendship.

“Christine” is a slow burn, held together by Hall’s magnificently controlled performance. We feel for this talented, driven woman who can’t get out of her own way, and holds herself to expectations impossible to meet. In a way, her life shows the cruel underside of the life of a career woman, expected to juggle it all and still smile at the casual sexist jokes the men toss around the office.

In a bit of sad irony, especially given this week’s news, the movie ends with another female co-worker coming home to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the show embodying all the possibilities of being a ’70s career woman that were so hard to achieve in reality. Plagued by mental health issues, thrust into a high-pressure, unfeeling business that didn’t appreciate her talents, Christine couldn’t make it after all.




Slamdance: Grieving does funny things to a person in sparkling “Suck It Up”


I’m not attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, but I was graciously sent screeners for a couple of films premiering at both the Sundance Film Festival and its young upstart, Slamdance. I’ll post reviews of those films here on my blog in concurrence with their premieres in Park City. 

I had two moments of sudden realization while watching director Jordan Canning’s comedy-drama “Suck It Up” that just knocked me flat. The film premiered Monday night at Slamdance in Park City, Utah.

The first moment came about halfway through the film, when the characters sneak into a bowling alley to get high and bowl a few frames. But it was the five-pin bowling I remembered from when I was a kid growing up in Canada, when we would spend summers in Invermere, British Columbia.

Abruptly, I realized that not only was “Suck It Up” shot in Canada, but it was shot in picturesque Invermere itself. My kids and I had just been in a candy shop featured in the film a couple of summers ago. (We didn’t smoke pot in the bowling alley, though.) It gave me such a strange jolt, that this indie film I had more or less at random gotten the chance to watch and write about had such a powerful personal connection for me.

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Sundance Film Festival: “Rumble” rattles rock ‘n’ roll history by celebrating Native Americans’ contributions

RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World - Still 1

I’m not attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, but I was graciously sent screeners for a couple of films premiering at both the Sundance Film Festival and its young upstart, Slamdance. I’ll post reviews of those films here on my blog in concurrence with their premieres in Park City. 

If you could distill all of ’50s teenage rebellion into three chords, those three chords would be Link Wray’s “Rumble.” The sleepy swagger of Wray’s guitar (trust me, you’ve heard it) was so provocative that authorities banned the single from radio stations for fear it would incite violence — even though it was an instrumental.

A lot of great rock music — from The Who to the MC5 to Led Zeppelin, and then the bands they influenced — flowed from those three chords. But relatively few music lovers know of Link Wray, and very few of them know that he was a Native American.

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Instant Gratification: “Captain America: Civil War” and four other good movies new to Netflix


Pick of the Week: “Captain America: Civil War” — On the one hand, you can see the gears moving as the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe moves the pieces in place, setting up the rivalry between Iron Man and Captain America, the rest of the Avengers falling in line behind them. On the other hand, watching those gears is a lot of fun at times, especially a big superhero throwdown at an airport that is like nothing less than a kid pouring all his action figures out of the box and making them fight each other.

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Instant Gratification: “Other People” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix


Pick of the Week:  “Other People”My full review is here. It sounds like every other indie movie ever made. A gay comedy writer comes home to his repressed suburban family to take care of his dying mother. But “SNL” writer Chris Kelly’s debut is wonderful, focusing on the little moments between the big moments that matter. Molly Shannon is terrific as the mom. And, believe it or not, it’s also very funny.

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