TV Shows »Top of the Lake

topofthelake by Jane Campion, on Sundance and Netflix

I am usually hesitant to recommend a show after seeing one episode, but I was so taken with Top of the Lake, I have to share. I’ve long been an advocate for Jane Campion’s other mystery, the unloved and much more explicit In the Cut. Here the master of mood takes us to another world that is at once exotic and strange but is never trite or unbelievable

The series begins with an angry young girl walking into a freezing lake. We soon learn that she is pregnant and visiting Detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) becomes involved in the case. The young girl’s father is a dangerous and compelling man that lives in the woods surrounded by equally dangerous family and guard dogs. Near his compound a caravan of damaged women seeking the guidance of enigmatic GJ (a silver haired androgynous Holly Hunter) have come to escape their demons.

It’s easy to compare to shows with similar premises – I’ve read that it’s The Killing meets Twin Peaks, but that denies the unique ambiance of the show which is incomparable and feels like you’re watching a complex novel.

Here I truly hope the series is as engaging, fascinating, and haunting as the first episode. All are available to watch on Netflix. I kind of can’t wait for tonight when the kids are asleep and I can watch more.


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Posted on June 26, 2013

TV Shows »House of Cards

house-of-cardson Netflix

Alright, alright, I’ll admit it. The House of Cards remake is addictive, beyond that, it’s actually quite good. Look, I’m one of those indignant people that saw the original, (thank you very much!) and the idea of Smug Spacey taking the place of world’s most charming bad old man, Ian Richardson, well it was not something I was prepared to embrace.

When I began the series, it was a guilty pleasure. I mocked Spacey’s ‘Our Town’, folksy asides and I still laugh at the “hip” political blog office where extras must have been paid to gleefully roll around the desk-less room on office chairs for days. But when it’s all said and done, despite its flaws, House of Cards is taut, clever, enjoyable, and very well written.

The cast is mostly great. Corey Stoll and Robin Wright stand out for adding dimension to their tough roles while Kate Mara just teeters on the edge of being annoying enough to ruin a good thing.

I love that Netflix is capable of producing quality programming and embrace that they make the entire series available at once – especially in comparison to, say, HBO who guards their content, even to paying subscribers, as if it were gold.

I’m very looking forward to the next season and have even more high hopes for Arrested Development when it returns in the same fashion.

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Posted on March 17, 2013

Movies »Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

directed by Thomas Alfredson (2011)

I sincerely wish I had the wherewithal, mind space and time to write the intelligent, thoughtful essay the newest adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy deserves … But as I spend most of my days singing The Hot Dog Song to entertain my son, making jam sandwiches and whistling through multiple dirty diaper changes, I do not.

I can say that despite my most sincere misgivings about them even thinking of remaking the original (which is phenomenal and boasts a performance by Alec Guinness that frankly out does Gary Oldman) I was floored by this smart production.

Not only is the writing and direction sharp, the cast is perfection (and includes the thinking woman’s ideal host of hunks including Colin Firth and Tom Hardy) and the art direction is truly impeccable. It takes a certain skill for a film to transport us to a place and time, in this case 1970’s London, without it playing false or costumey.

Make sure you have time to devote to watching carefully, its a complex movie but worth it. The best film I’ve seen in a long time.

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Posted on December 27, 2012

Movies,Spend a Couple Minutes »Rear Window

directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1954)

Some of my absolute favorite movies have never been recommended here because:

A. I assume everyone has already seen them and

B. They’re such known classics that there’s not much left to say except “It’s awesome”.

But I am recommending Rear Window regardless because no one needs me to say much anyways and I am always surprised at how few people have seen what I think are major classic films.

Hey, let’s make a week of it – I’ll call it my Top Best Movies You’ve Probably Seen But If You Haven’t You Better Get On It Marathon.

And if you are already a fan of Rear Window and don’t need me telling you to watch it, check out this stunning time lapse video of the amazing set piece.

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Posted on April 4, 2012

Movies »Timecrimes

directed by Nacho Vigalondo (2007)

Like anything dealing with the phenomena of time travel, Timecrimes is a bit of a conundrum. Rather than being frustrating though, the questions you’re left asking are part of the film’s appeal. Of course I can’t get into those questions here too specifically without giving away plot, so I’ll just have to find others who’ve seen it to debate.

A small film on a seemingly low budget (but not in a bad way) the movie focuses on one afternoon in the life of a normal, middle aged man named Hector. Through a series of unfortunate and unusual events, his calm life is suddenly disrupted by violence, shock and time travel.

Interesting and mind bending, the movie, which is directed by the charming guy playing the scientist is nearly completely satisfying though sadly there’s one point where I couldnt help asking in frustration “Why did he do that?”

Still it’s great to find a gem like this that raises all sorts of fun questions about the always fascinating theory of time travel.

Available on Netflix instant, this is a quick intriguing afternoon watch that will keep you thinking. Oh, and don’t let the poster scare you off, it’s not a Saw-like gore fest as it might suggest.

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Posted on March 23, 2012

Books »City Primeval

By Elmore Leonard (1980)

It’s always a good idea to pepper your reading list with a few Elmore Leonard novels. His snappy crime sagas are always entertaining, always satisfying.

In City Primeval, he takes us to Detroit, where handsome detective Raymond Cruz is on the trail of the seriously dangerous “Oklahoma Wildman” Clement Mansell. Cruz suspects Mansell is responsible for a random double killing and is determined to get justice after Mansell walked away from an air tight murder case based on a technicality. He’s not afraid to go beyond the law to see him pay either.

Throw in a larger than life and corrupt judge, a sexy lawyer, and a bunch of really angry Albanians and you get the kind of thriller we know to expect from Leonard. It’s smart, it’s tense, it’s funny, it’s a perfect quick read.

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Posted on February 11, 2012

Movies »Perfect Blue

directed by by Satoshi Kon (1997)

The bizarre anime Perfect Blue just kind of explodes in front of you. It’s startling, disorienting and rapid. It never allows you to get too comfortable wrapping your head around it. Even the pop songs get truncated suddenly.

While the experience is jolting and one you just have to let take you with it, afterwards the effect is lasting and unsettling. I feel like I’m still not done thinking about it.

The story concerns a pop star turned actress who looses her innocence for stardom and perhaps attracts the murderous attentions of a distraught fan.

People around her start dying (and the movie takes on a Giallo sheen) But to say this is a serial killer movie about a pop star is like saying El Topo is a western.

After lots of twists, Things wrap up neater than expected, I had kind of hoped it would have retained its vagueness- still, this is a wild one and not for the kiddos!

A great companion to the similarly themed Black Swan.

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Posted on December 18, 2011

Movies »See The Sea

directed by François Ozon (1997)

See the Sea is the only film in a while that has left me unsettled and jumping at noises in my apartment. Once you hear the premise, and learn that I am about to vacation on an island, you’ll know why.

A mother is left alone at an island vacation home with her ten month old baby. When a young backpacking woman arrives asking to set up camp in her yard, the mother relents looking for a bit of adult companionship, blind to the stranger’s strangeness. Things get creepy fast but subtly.

Marina de Van is amazing as the wanderer. Rarely do movies offer a villain so realistic and understated and they never cast someone that looks so right too. From her tongue ring, to her vacant stare, from her unkempt clothes, to her only smile in the movie (when she talks of her abortion), she embodies the women you see on true crime documentaries perfectly.

As the mother, Sasha Hails is equally interesting. We sympathize with the loneliness she feels with only an infant as company, (believe me!) but mother of the year she is not. There were so many times I was nervous for the child’s safety, whether left alone on a beach or crying in a bath tub, which only adds to the movie’s overall suspense.

Pretty much the worst thing you can imagine, and you begin worrying and imagining it right away, happens but that the conclusion is expected doesn’t make it any less shocking or the getting there any less tense.

A true gem of understated terror.

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Posted on June 28, 2011

Movies »I Start Counting

directed by David Greene (1969)

If I Start Counting were remade, I know exactly the kind of rote crap it would become: it would star some slutty looking not-quite teen and be slick, boring, and lifeless.

This largely forgotten original however, is none of these things. It’s a bit messy, sure, and definitely unpolished but features a great performance by its actual teen star (who you may recognize from An American Werewolf in London) and really effectively creates an eerie tone.

It might remind one of the tenser quiet moments of Black Swan meets a late 60’s after school movie.

When women are being murdered near an abandoned suburb, a young girl, hopelessly in love with her adopted much older brother begins to come to the chilling conclusion that he may be responsible. Hovering between a world of romantic innocence and the violent, dirty, and painful world of adults, she tries to come to terms with her sexuality and her emotions while trying to disprove her suspicions.

I pretty much live to find overlooked treasures like this and am thrilled that Netflix streaming has embraced the discarded films of the past as much as the newest releases.

And even though (as noted) a remake would probably only be junk, if someone with a sense of mood and style were to remake it, Peter Sarsgaard would rule as the older creepy brother and like almost everything I re-cast in my mind, Juliette Lewis would find herself in the role of a mysterious lady he goes to visit. As for the teen, I’d cast an unknown.

Click here for the rest of I Start Counting

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Posted on June 26, 2011

Books »Deep Water

by Patricia Highsmith (1957)

Patricia Highsmith‘s Deep Water is a slow simmering thriller. It’s a claustrophobic look inside the very strange and cruel marriage between Vic and Melinda. Living in separate quarters, theirs is a loveless but weirdly co-dependent relationship based on the odd, not quite unspoken arrangement that Melinda can take as many lovers as she pleases.

Teetering between loathing and dedication to his wife, whose affairs are viciously paraded in front of him (often in his own living room), Vic loses himself in his unusual interests, like book printing, poetry, entomology… and eventually murder!

Not since George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has there been a fictional couple so messed up yet willfully entangled in their daily chaos.

Though it’s not written first person, the book is definitely from the point of view of Vic, which makes the reader feel like, if not a cheerleader for him, then at least a confident. It’s not hard to be on the side of Vic, despite his crimes, as his wife is so outwardly awful.

By the end, you feel that uncomfortable queasiness you get when you’ve seen far too much of someones personal life and find it repulsive… but at the same time, you can’t resist hearing more and more details.

I have been meaning to read a book by Patricia Highsmith of Talented Mr. Ripley fame for some time and this certainly won’t be the last.

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Posted on June 16, 2011

Movies »Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (2010)

I know I am late to the Black Swan parade, but since Darren Aronofsky is pretty much a bad word in our house, this recommendation is for those, who like me, were hesitant to believe the hype because they just hate Requiem for a Dream so much.

After watching the stylized sexual thriller, I was both elated and initially a little disappointed. The first half of the film surprised and floored me with it’s incredibly haunting mood, subtle creepiness, and paranoid tone. It reminds me of the best work of Roman Polanski or Ken Russell.

About half way through, though, when everything breaks apart and the more traditional horror movie events come into play, I felt betrayed that the subdued artfulness had gone out the window. However, once I had finished watching it all and looked back at it for what it was, not the movie I expected or wanted it to be, I realized the somewhat repetitive “gotcha” part felt like it had passed in a few seconds and effectively felt like some fever nightmare.

This manic explosion of insanity did have some truly stunning parts – like a particularly cringe inducing scene involving Portman’s legs and the absolutley exquisite final dance where we see her internal transformation into the black swan flawlessly displayed externally in a feat of special effects and amazing costuming.

Still, it’s the slower paced eerieness that sets the tone perfectly and promises a conclusion more complex and strange than we get.

Portman is very believable as a frigid, scared young woman who seems constantly falling victim to the few people she’s let into her life.

One of those people is her mother, played with tight lipped, quiet obsession by an unsung Barbara Hershey. Another is Vincent Cassel‘s predatory director – a role that could have easily fallen into parody in the hands of anyone less French, oddly handsome, and confident in his lechery.

Mila Kundis doesn’t get much praise, maybe because her role is simpler than Portman’s, maybe because she is, after all, some girl from That 70’s Show, but she is effective and necessary as a foil to Portman’s pent up anxieties. It’s also fun to see Winona Ryder as an aging ballerina, even if I didn’t totally buy her wobbly, cocktail spilling performance.

The Tchaikovsky score is, of course, beautiful and Rodarte lends their ethereal touch to the great costumes.

A surprising and very strange delight.

Click here for the rest of Black Swan

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Posted on May 16, 2011

Movies »The White Ribbon

directed by Michael Haneke (2009)

The White Ribbon very much reminds me of a classic “man’s inhumanity towards man” novel taught in high schools and is far more interesting than all the bratty kids reading it will give it credit for. It questions whether man is inherently evil and if you’ve ever seen a Michael Haneke movie, you’ll not be surprised that his answer is yes.

I can even envision the reading comprehension questions at the back of the non existent text book:

1. Who do you think committed all the crimes? And what was their motive?

2. Is the narrator correct in his accusations?

3. What do you think happened to the midwife and her son? What about the Doctor and his family?

All questions I’ve been pondering and frankly wish I had a classroom of people who’ve seen it to discuss.

Several disturbing acts of violence erupt in a small German village before the break out of World War I. From torture to arson, the crimes are as heinous as they are confounding and Haneke, once again proving he’s one the most compelling and daring film makers working today, isn’t as forthcoming as he seems. These troubling times are told through the eyes of a kind school teacher as he falls in love with a local governess, lending a small glimmer of benevolence among the cruelty.

The film is absolutely beautiful, not only is the cinematography stunning and sweeping, but the details of costume and set are superb. This is a cold, severe, yet elegant take on the themes we love so well in Nick Cave’s “The Curse of Millhaven”, Village of the Damned and Lord of the Flies. The children are impeccably cast.

It is available on netflix instant and I hope that will allow it to find a wider audience despite it’s deliberate pace.

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Posted on May 8, 2011

Books »A Sight for Sore Eyes

by Ruth Rendell (1998)

So, it’s not exactly like I had A is for Alibi sticking out of my back pocket, but even I know reading mass market paper back women’s mysteries with titles like A Sight for Sore Eyes and the author’s name printed in gold is not “cool”. But! When it’s as compelling and unexpected as this Ruth Randell thriller, it sure is pleasurable.

Beach reading time is upon us and if you’re tired of predictable master mind serial killers and tough but gorgeous women detectives, this odd tale of coincidence and murder will be refreshing.

While the psychology might be a tad simplified, Rendell does take us into the minds of her characters, even the most evil ones and gives us a very vivid picture of them and their surroundings. Even a minor character, like a nasty shop owner or a noisy neighbor feel like real people rather than contrived mystery novel plot elements.

As for the main protagonists, you have a beautiful teen whose youth was shattered by her mother’s murder and whose adolescence is marred by an insanely over protective step mother; you also have a vain former hippie living in a London mansion, and finally a psychopath young man who never knew any form of love as a child who despises humanity as much as he praises and adores beautiful objects.

All three lives intertwine in a way I thought would be rote and predictable but was pleasantly surprised to find it stranger, more unusual and almost grimly humorous.

I don’t know too much about author Rendell but she is highly praised among her peers and I plan to look to her again next time I’m in beach reading mode.

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Posted on May 4, 2011

Books »The Looking Glass War

by John Le Carre (1965)

At this point I really shouldn’t be shocked that I share a common interest: a love of John Le Carre, with those greying men in neckties and with golf habits I always hear about but it still surprises me (Does this mean they’re right about Clive Cussler too?). Le Carre is a magnificent story teller, his world of spies and espionage is uniquely intriguing in that is doesn’t include gadgets, studly men and super villains but rather muddled intelligence, old men with often tired or unforgiving wives, and enemies that are vague at best. In The Looking Glass War, the vagueness couldn’t be more pronounced. Set during the Cold War in a department known only as “The Department”, some sketchy intelligence leads to even an even sketchier mission.

The “heroes” are men who thrived during the War and knew exactly their roles within it but who are now feeling ignored, confused and washed up against the less obvious tactics and rules of a War waged without guns and maneuvering. Out of date on the newest technology, flailing when it comes to covert operations and desperate for the honor and respect their previous positions use to garner, the Department headed by Leclerc is overly zealous to send a man into Germany to investigate some blurry photos with possibly significant implications. The recruited agent, a Polish, well dressed ladies man named Leiser also had his heyday years earlier but is completely unaware that he’s putting his life in the hands of those equally rusty and clumsy. After spending time with the men as they prepare for the mission one can see that tragedy is inevitable.

Le Carre always provides a realistic portrayal of spying, but apparently the frank banality of this one made it less popular than his other novels. I found it compelling and a great study of characters. Even our favorite, George Smiley makes several appearances.

It was adapted into a movie in 1969 starring Anthony Hopkins. In my usual habit, I cast it in my mind with James McAvoy as the young Avery, any actor that looks similar to Marco Pierre White as Leiser, Stephen Frye as Woolcroft, Michael Gambon as Haldane, since Alec Guinness has passed, Sir Ian McKellan as Smiley and for some reason I could only see Magnum PI’s John Hillerman as Leclerc.

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Posted on April 20, 2011

Movies »Klute

Directed by Alan J Paluka (1971)

Deliberate framing and pacing, rich, artistic cinematography, and an adult story that ignores the teen market, Klute is a film of it’s time – the great 1970’s, far before the music video era. Not that I dismiss everything made in the last several decades, just that there’s something distinct about a classic film like this one and though it hasn’t come to be remembered as well as some of its contemporaries, it will be worth checking out if only for our generation to grasp onto the fashions: feathered shags, midi skirts, sequins, and caftans…

Jane Fonda is Bree Daniels, a skilled prostitute trying to become an actress. She’s self-sabotaging, tough, world weary, angry, intelligent, vulnerable, mean, and kind hearted. She’s one of the most damaged characters put to screen and Fonda deserved the Academy Award she earned for her fierce portrayal. Her foil is Tom, played by Donald Sutherland (love) who is quiet, forgiving, seemingly naive and passive but proves himself to be complicated and brave. They are thrown together when Tom’s friend disappears leaving behind only a stack of obscene letters to Bree as any clue to his whereabouts.

As self appointed private detective and reluctant assistant, they traverse the sometimes opulent, often dismal seedy underground of the sex trade in New York, where Rod Schneider is deliciously seedy as a pimp. The mystery is tense at times, with almost horror movie like music and great sets for thrills, but it’s really the relationship that develops between these two unlikely lovers that is at the heart of the movie.

If you want to make an after noon of it, watch along with The Parallax View and All The President’s Men for what’s been called director Alan J Paluka’s “Paranoia Trilogy”.

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Posted on December 3, 2010

Movies »Winter’s Bone

directed by Debra Granik (2010)

Jim is a bigger fan of back woods noir author Daniel Woodrell but after seeing Winter’s Bone, the exceptionally gritty, atmospheric and unique film based on one of his novels, I may just take second look. Woodrell specializes is grim mysteries in the deep south and this particular story about a tougher than nails Ozark teen forced to look after her sick mom and siblings made its way to the big screen with tremendous dignity with haunting suspense.

What looks at first glance like Independent film award fodder: downtrodden Americans shot against grim but undeniably beautiful landscapes (the cinematography is brilliant) of a country falling apart, is much more than an outsider’s glimpse into a mostly unknown world. While I can not claim to know what the cabins and trailers of the Ozarks look like, the sets, settings and actors here feel genuine and are neither pedantically  glorified or demonized. The cast that (like almost anything of value these days) includes actors from Deadwood is superb with Jennifer Lawrence as the heroine, Ree, earning every bit of buzz and praise she’s received.

At heart, Winter’s Bone is a mystery. Ree must find her father, or perhaps the remains of him in order to keep the house he put up for bail on a recent meth arrest. The journey, that climaxes in an act of savage, cold survival, is wrought with tension as she makes her way through the rough, complex order of a dangerous society populated by the stoic, hardened, and vicious.

We were taken with the movie more than we expected. Maybe it’s so effective because Debra Granik is less interested in forcing her opinion of the characters than letting them exist within the simple but gripping plot.

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Posted on November 11, 2010

Movies »The Square

directed by Nash Edgerton (2008)

Lofty comparisons to Coen Brothers or the noir great (and recent Brix Pick) Body Heat are given out generously but rarely to a movie that actually deserves it. Australia’s neo-noir The Square comes pretty close. Set in a suburban town among thugs and working men, the script seems interested in seeing just how very wrong plans can go when they involve taking a bag full of money.

Actor David Roberts plays Ray, a man desperate enough to go to greats lengths usually preserved for characters in just this kind of movie for a woman he loves with iron jawed realism. The rest of the cast is notable too for their believable portrayals, particularly Joel Edgerton (who also wrote the film – brother Nash directed) as a criminal for hire. After all, as film like as the plot is, with hired killers, black mail, and affairs, I’ve seen enough true crime shows in my life to know that normal people do bad things like this all the time. Though presumably without as much bad luck as Ray.

Can’t reveal too much without giving away the enjoyable suspense, but there are enough twists and surprises delivered with gritty, bleak gravitas to forgive that it doesn’t exactly live up to the comparisons its garnered. In a  drought of decent new movies to watch on DVD (Marmaduke or Tooth Fairy anyone?) this lesser known thriller is a godsend.

I look forward to following the Edgerton brothers future directing projects (Nash is also a stunt coordinator on movies like Knight and Day that are less intriguing).

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Posted on September 18, 2010