Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sister (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Sister is the second feature from French writer/director Ursula Meier, who got a lot of attention, if not exactly acclaim, a few years ago for Home, one of 2008’s oddest films. Here she abandons the eccentric atmosphere and opaque symbolism of her debut in favor of a straightforward story of young people on society’s fringe. It’s ironic that the film’s North American title is Sister, for it’s quite reminiscent of the work of two brothers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Sister has rightfully been compared by many critics to the Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike, but it also closely resembles Rosetta, assuming Emilie Dequenne’s eponymous character was a thief with confused incestuous yearnings.

Sister is all about Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a 12 year old street urchin - or snow urchin in this case - who makes the daily commute by tram to a tony ski resort. There he stealthily pilfers skis, gloves, sunglasses, sandwiches - basically anything that isn’t nailed down - from the resort’s well heeled clientele. Simon then fences the bounty for a few euros, eeking out a living for himself and his sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). Louise frequently runs off with strange men for days at a time; men who often end up using her face for a punching bag.

Simon and Louise are essentially latch-key kids and by default Simon has taken on the role of family breadwinner. Meier follows Simon’s routine with a coldly objective camera, as though his larcenous lifestyle was just another day at the office. The film’s geography is dominated by class struggle. Simon and Louise live at the base of the mountain bordering a busy highway, and Meier nicely contrasts the pristine winter wonderland of the ski resort with their mucky, slushy world. It’s also a world with secrets - shocking ones - that Meier alludes to in Sister’s quiet, tender moments when Simon and Louise, safe from the threats of the outside world, find comfort in an intimate casualness they have both out grown. When the jealous Simon finally spills the beans, the effect is like a sledgehammer.

Like Rosetta, Simon’s mysterious inner workings are revealed through scant interactions with characters from outside his tightly guarded sphere. He eventually finds a quasi-business partner in an Irish prep cook (Martin Compson) and concocts a doomed path to redemption via an unsuspecting tourist from the UK (Gillian Anderson). But Simon’s life and history prevent any sort of truthful relationship, and his childish delusions wither under the scrutiny. A last attempt at legitimacy only emphasizes his desperate plight when Simon is trapped by his own lies, leaving viewers to squirm while he learns a very hard lesson.

Sister succeeds as an exercise in banal aesthetics; its plain-jane white noise drowning out its characters’ cries for help. Like the cinema of the Dardennes, it issues the most damning of judgements by virtue of its unfailing dispassion and lack of manipulation. Cold hard truths are best revealed on a cold hard stage and Ursula Meier cuts Simon and Louise little slack along the way. Meier also trusts her audience to instinctively infer that the pair can somehow recover from their current straits, despite little foreshadowing of that possible outcome. In a surprising way, Sister forces us to generate our own hope and compassion, and it makes us better people in the process.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Nebraska (2013) ✭✭✭✭✭

The TV series Gunsmoke ran 20 years and a mind-boggling 635 episodes. During that span, no villain uttered the words “Marshall Dillion” with more menacing disdain or posed a graver existential threat to the good people of Dodge City than actor Bruce Dern, who appeared in four episodes in the early 1960s. These shows provided the world with some of the first glimpses of Hollywood’s new wunderkind of evil; an actor with a Faustian gift for creating characters from the darkest recesses of the human soul. Now, fifty years and well over a hundred roles later, Bruce Dern is unquestionably America’s favorite psychopathic sleaze ball.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a fitting bookend to Dern’s career, although at age 78 the actor has new projects in the works and shows no sign of slowing down. This time Dern’s mentally unbalanced effects are put to service crafting a moving, and at times hilarious, portrait of the early stages of senility. Dern plays Woody Grant, a retired mechanic whose age and history of heavy drinking have left him with a mind as jumbled and unkempt as his thinning shock of white hair. He is watched over by Kate, his crusty battle ax of wife (June Squibb, who nearly steals the movie) and his earnest but floundering son David (Will Forte) a forty-ish electronics salesman.

One day, Grant receives a piece of junk mail hawking magazine subscriptions. Enclosed is an official looking piece of paper declaring that he may have already won a million dollars. Believing the come-on to be real, the foggy Grant becomes obsessed with journeying from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska - the point of origin of the mailer - to claim his prize. Despite realizing his father has been suckered by a fraud, David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska, hoping for some quality time as his father’s days draw short.

While set in the present day, one could argue that Nebraska shares many elements of the classic westerns that launched Dern’s career, including rich black-and-white photography and an epic journey through the badlands in quest of fool’s gold. As David and Woody hit the road bound for Lincoln, the pair stop for the night in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown and repository of dark secrets from his distant youth. Hawthorne is a one street burg with a strange resemblance to a frontier town, complete with blue-collar saloons and a newspaper office.

Payne’s most recent features, Sideways and The Descendants, have established his skill at finding light-hearted yet poignant angles in rather ordinary lives. Nebraska’s tableau of people and places carries this process a step further, revealing uncomfortable aspects of modern Americana though gentle humor and painfully accurate characters. Eventually, an entire clan of taciturn Grants assemble in Hawthorne to celebrate the supposed good fortune, laundry lists of Woody’s debts - real and imagined - in hand. As these rural dullards gather around the TV for an afternoon of football and fried chicken, Payne creates a memorable sequence of suppressed family tension that resolves in a sort of redneck call and response that’s hilarious because it’s so true.

Near the end of The Descendants Payne showed signs of breaking through his own delightfully quirky clutter and delivering powerfully real emotion. In Nebraska he drops all facile airs and tells a very simple story that’s rich with the frailties and foibles of humanity. While Woody and David wander off on their aimless ambles, a generation reaching their own golden years revels in the pathos and irony as Bruce Dern, who has gleefully terrorized audiences for a lifetime, now bumbles along a weedy railroad track, seeking his lost dentures in the fading twilight.

Friday, January 24, 2014

TCM for February 2014

February is short on days but long on great classics! My picks below. Full schedule HERE. All times Eastern.


10:00 AM
A coldhearted Soviet agent is warmed up by a trip to Paris and a night of love.
BW-110 mins, TV-G, CC,

2:00 PM
A group of disparate passengers battle personal demons and each other while racing through Indian country.
BW-96 mins, TV-G, CC,

Gone With The Wind  Everybody should see it once. I guess.

10:00 PM
Classic tale of Scarlett O'Hara's battle to save her beloved Tara and find love during the Civil War.
C-233 mins, TV-PG, CC,


10:00 AM

A free-living New Yorker fights to maintain custody of his nephew.
BW-118 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

12:15 PM
A small town teacher tries to overcome her shyness.
C-101 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

2:15 PM
Naval officers begin to suspect their captain of insanity.
C-125 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

Spellbound is overrated, but worth seeing.

2:15 AM
A psychiatrist tries to help the man she loves solve a murder buried in his subconscious.
BW-111 mins, TV-PG, CC,


2:30 PM
A simple country girl is torn between the honest farmer who loves her and a corrupt nobleman.
C-171 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

11:00 PM
In 12th-century Japan, a heroic officer pursues a married woman.
C-86 mins, TV-PG,


6:45 AM

A traveling strongman buys a peasant girl to be his wife and co-star.
BW-108 mins, TV-PG,

8:45 AM
A Japanese musician keeps up the spirits of his fellow soldiers as they flee Burma during World War II.
BW-116 mins, TV-PG,

The Virgin Spring is a light, breezy comedy. Not.

10:45 AM
A medieval knight seeks revenge when his daughter is murdered.
BW-89 mins, TV-14,

12:15 PM
A bumbling railroad dispatcher joins the resistance in World War II to impress the girls.
C-93 mins, TV-14,

1:45 PM
Algiers revolts against the French Foreign Legion.
BW-121 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format
3:45 PM

A political assassination uncovers a hotbed of corruption.
C-127 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

6:00 PM
A French refugee in Denmark transforms the lives of the elderly women for whom she works.
C-103 mins, TV-PG,


Jim Brown about to kick some Nazi ass in The Dirty Dozen

1:00 PM
A renegade officer trains a group of misfits for a crucial mission behind enemy lines.
C-150 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

3:30 PM
A young man comes of age when he stows away in his grandfather's stolen car.
C-111 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

5:30 PM
An American pioneer raised by Indians ends up fighting alongside General Custer.
C-140 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
Three returning servicemen fight to adjust to life after World War II.
BW-170 mins, TV-PG, CC,


8:00 PM

An academic couple reveal their deepest secret to a pair of newcomers during an all-night booze fest.
BW-131 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

10:30 PM
A misfit fights for happiness in the world of swinging London.
BW-99 mins, TV-PG, CC,

12:30 AM
 n eccentric artist wages an all-out campaign to stop his ex-wife from remarrying.
BW-97 mins, TV-PG, Letterbox Format

A Man and a Woman. Don't try to walk down Champs-Élysées today. You'll get run over.

2:15 AM
A widow and a widower find a special bond at their childrens' boarding school.
C-103 mins, TV-PG, Letterbox Format


10:30 AM
Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue.
BW-100 mins, TV-PG, CC,

12:15 PM
Three generations of pioneers take part in the forging of the American West.
C-165 mins, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format

3:15 PM
A naval officer longing for active duty clashes with his vainglorious captain.
C-121 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format


6:45 AM

A possessive son's efforts to keep his mother from remarrying threaten to destroy his family.
BW-88 mins, TV-PG, CC,

Like Downton Abbey? You'll love Remains of the Day.

2:30 PM
A proper British butler sacrifices happiness to remain faithful to his position.
C-134 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

5:00 PM
A false rape charge threatens British-Indian relations.
C-164 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format


11:15 AM

A veteran returns home to deal with family secrets and small-town scandals.
C-136 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

1:45 PM
Two mothers, one white, one black, face problems with their rebellious daughters.
C-125 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

4:00 PM
A Korean War hero doesn't realize he's been programmed to kill by the enemy.
BW-127 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

2:45 AM
The friendship between distant cousins makes their spouses jealous.
C-96 mins, TV-MA, Letterbox Format

Autumn Sonata gets better with every viewing.


1:30 PM

A concert pianist faces the daughters she's neglected for years.
C-93 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
A British family struggles to survive the first days of World War II.
BW-134 mins, TV-G, CC,


8:00 AM

A young French couple is separated by the war in Algiers.
C-91 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
An advertising man is mistaken for a spy, triggering a deadly cross-country chase.
C-136 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

2:30 AM
A small-town lawyer gets the case of a lifetime when a military man avenges an attack on his wife.
BW-161 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

5:30 AM
A headstrong girl fights the strictures of the Catholic church in Europe and the Belgian Congo.
C-152 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

Peter O'Toole at his best in The Stunt Man


3:00 AM
A man on the run joins an embattled film company run by a maniacal director.
C-131 mins, TV-MA, Letterbox Format

5:15 AM
A flamboyant star throws a TV comedy show into chaos.
C-92 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format


3:30 AM
Three prospectors fight off bandits and each other after striking-it-rich in the Mexican mountains.
BW-126 mins, TV-PG, CC,

10:15 AM
Two vagrants try to outrun the police after committing a savage crime in this real-life shocker.
BW-134 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

Great vistas of Monument Valley in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

12:30 PM
An aging Cavalry officer tries to prevent an Indian war in the last days before his retirement.
C-104 mins, TV-PG, CC,

2:45 AM
Changing times take their toll on high schoolers growing up in a small Western town.
BW-126 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

4:45 AM
A hairdresser expresses his fear of commitment by seducing his female clients.
C-110 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format


6:00 PM
Two American journalists get more than they'd bargained for during an Indonesian revolution.
C-115 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

Butterfield 8 Liz always looked her best in a slip carrying a cocktail.

2:00 PM
A party girl ruins her life when she falls for a married man.
C-109 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

4:00 PM
A widow tries to get her daughter to safety in World War II Italy.
BW-96 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

6:00 PM
A headstrong young teacher in a private school ignores the curriculum and influences her impressionable charges with her world view.
C-116 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format