“Island Soldier”: Leaving a tropical paradise for hell on earth


Most Americans couldn’t find Micronesia on a map. And yet young men from the island nation (located 2,000 miles west of Hawaii) serve and die in the U.S. military.

That unusual relationship is explored in “Island Soldier,” a new documentary by Nathan Fitch that plays at DOC NYC this year and is touring other film festivals in 2017.

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UW’s Hyphenated American Film Festival kicks off this weekend at Union South


I’ve been a big fan of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Film Committee’s programming over the last few years — they seem to fill the Union South Marquee Theatre with just the right mix of recent hits that will bring in the students and indie films that people might have missed during their brief theatrical runs, or didn’t play in Madison at all.

One thing I’ve really liked is WUD Film’s commitment to use their fall and spring film festivals to target specific kinds of films, and subtly try to make a point with those festivals. Last spring, when there were plenty of articles about how so few female directors get the chance in Hollywood to get behind the camera, WUD responded with the Directress Film Festival, made up entirely of films made by women.

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Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America” is a horror movie for the middle class


In a new interview that’s one of the bonus features on the new Blu-ray Criterion Collection edition of “Lost in America,” Albert Brooks is asked about being cast as a villain by Nicolas Winding Refn in “Drive.”

Brooks says that Winding Refn first saw “Lost in America,” it scared him. He was particular unnerved by the anger in Brooks’ performance, as advertising executive David Howard who tries to “drop out” of society comfortably (in a Winnebago, with a comfortable “nest egg”), only to face real financial ruin when his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) gambles away that nest egg.

It’s odd at first to think of Brooks’ performance as a scary one. But while watching the Criterion disc, I happened to mute the sound during the scene where David is excoriating his wife for losing all that money. And without hearing Brooks’ great, funny dialogue, without hearing him refer to a nest as a “round stick,” it really is startling how angry he is at his wife.

It’s an anger that comes from fear, a fear that we laugh at because we recognize it so deeply. “Lost in America”is one of the best comedies ever made. And it’s also a horror movie.

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Sweet Ginger Brown, “The Flamingo Kid” is Garry Marshall’s best movie


Garry Marshall once quite a TV writing job as a young man because he wouldn’t write what the producer called “schmunny” – i.e. schmaltzy and funny. Ironic, of course, since schmunny would sum up most of Marshall’s career as a director, sometimes tipping towards funny (“Overboard”), oftentimes tipping towards schmaltz (“Beaches”), but always somewhere in between the two.

His second film, 1984’s “The Flamingo Kid,” gets the balance just right, although I’d call it sentimental and nostalgic, but not schmaltzy. The underrated gem may get a second look now that it’s being turned into a Broadway musical next year, and is out this week in a new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber.

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James Ivory’s “Maurice” and “Moonlight” would have a lot to talk about


If nothing else, “Maurice” has the British’s gift for not talking about what they’re talking about on full display. Being gay is referred to, famously, as “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” by one character, and in other instances we hear a gay love affair referred to as a “muddle” or “messiness.” As Ben Kingsley, playing an American hypnotist, says in what may be E.M. Forster’s novel’s most quotable line, “England has always been discinclined to accept human nature.”

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Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” presents a triptych of loneliness on the frontier


Sure, it would have been nice to have a lavish Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.” Multiple commentary tracks, behind the scenes footage, maybe even some animated storyboards for the sequence when the Rancher (Lily Gladstone) cleans out the barn.

But that’s not really the way Reichardt, who makes crisp, economical and devastating indie drams like “Wendy & Lucy” and “Old Joy,” rolls. No shot, no line of dialogue exists in her films without a purpose. So, it’s perhaps fitting that for “Certain Women,” which adapts three short stories by author Maile Meloy, the Criterion disc only has a triptych of short interviews with Reichardt, Meloy and producer Todd Haynes.

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“Heal the Living” is a heart-tugging French drama about life and death


How do you make a movie about a heart transplant and not make it a medical drama?

Katell Quillevere’s “Heal the Living,” out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, achieves this by giving equal weight to the donor and to the recipient as well as the doctors. The result is a humane triptych of a film which, although it lacks real suspense or drama, contains moments of stunning beauty and enveloping empathy.

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“Obit” is an entertaining film about journalists facing the ultimate deadline


Those of us on social media know the feeling; that sense of dread when everybody in your feed is suddenly talking about a famous person you hadn’t thought of in a while. Go back far enough in your timeline and you see why.

A lot of us are amateur obituarists now, posting our remembrances and recollections in 140-character bites on Twitter or a little more on Facebook. That collective outpouring can be a fine and even necessary way to mourn – at least until the point when people in your feed start making inappropriate jokes. But the documentary “Obit,” now out on DVD from Kino Lorber, makes the case for leaving it to the pros.

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“Hopscotch”: His name is Matthau. Walter Matthau.


If Jim Broadbent had been hired to play the next James Bond (and that idea sounds better and better with every word I write), the result might be something like Walter Matthau in “Hopscotch.”

He’s an international secret agent who jets from Germany to Bermuda to London, a master of secret identities who catches the bad guys and stays one step ahead of his pursuers. All while wearing grandpa sweaters and reading glasses.

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“In This Corner of the World”: A family struggles to survive in Hiroshima’s shadow


History is the ultimate spoiler in the Japanese anime “In This Corner of the World,” which follows an ordinary Japanese family as they eke out a simple but happy existence in a seaside village. But as we watch their day-to-day life, we feel a mounting sense of dread, because this is the 1930s and 1940s, and the bay they live by is Hiroshima Bay.

Writer-director Sunao Katabuchi is mostly circumspect about showing the devastation of war, instead focusing on its effect on these characters. But this poignant and heartbreaking film is definitely for older kids and adults only.

“In This Corner of the World,” distributed in the United States by Shout! Factory, is now playing at Marcus Point.

The film follows Suzu (Rena Nounen), a young woman from the village of Hiroshima. As a girl, she loves to draw, and the film brings her pencil drawings and watercolors playfully to life. When she looks out at the bay, the whitecaps look like hopping white rabbits to her, and so they go into the painting.

At 18, Suzu is forced to move to the neighboring village of Kure and marry a quiet young clerk, living with his family. At first, this seems like a hard and unfair life, as the family requires Suzu to do all the cooking and cleaning for them, and Suzu’s new husband seems distant.  But she gradually warms to this new life, and her husband and in-laws prove to be kind people.


As the film moves slowly forward, we see how the war impacts this little family before the first bomb is even dropped. Sugar and soy sauce are rationed, forcing them to get creative at mealtime. The authorities, hunting for spies, are suspicious of Suzu’s artwork, and forbid her from painting.

Then the planes come, and we feel the true terror of life during wartime, the endless air raid drills, the loss of family and neighbors, the destruction everywhere. The film focuses on the resilience of these people, their determination to help each other and keep living their lives as best they can.

The hand-drawn two-dimensional animation is stunning. It captures both the flights of fancy of Suzu’s imagination and the reality of her life in Kure. The animators drew from actual photos of the village to make the world they drew as realistic as possible – even the brands of the candy bars in the store are accurate.

“In This Corner of the World” is a low-key, at times slow-moving film. But it builds cumulative power because we spend so much time, day in and day out, with this family. Their story, and their survival, becomes important to us.