Monday, February 28, 2011

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes winner UNCLE BOONMEE comes to town

I can't tell you how many blank and/or questioning stares I received following the press screening of UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. That was the visual part. Verbally: "This won at Cannes?" What is it?" fell from a number of lips -- most probably from those who have not encountered any other films (Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours, Mysterious Object at Noon) from Thailand's most famous filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  I've seen all of the above films, and I still couldn't tell you what this movie is. Or why the hell it won at Cannes.

From the looks of things, first film to most recent, Mr. Weerasethakul, shown at right, is a very personal filmmaker. He does -- says and shows -- exactly what he wants, and you either follow along with some mild understanding or you do not. His films are of the gentle sort, even when wild animals (Tropical Malady), erections and hard core sex (Blissfully Yours) ghosts and other odd creatures (below and further below, from Uncle Boonmee) appear. History, politics, protest; infatuation, love (gay and straight), regret; work, play, sex; life, death, afterlife. They're all here, but what to make of them is something else entirely.

I used to imagine that I didn't get Apichatpong because I'm not from Thailand. But from what I have read, most of the Thai population doesn't get him either. Still, they've got to come closer than I (or those folk at the press screening). Moment to moment, scene to scene, we could probably describe what is happening to someone who had not seen the film, and that person would understand what we were talking about. But, as ever, at the end of all the explanation, we'd be left with a big "And...?" Little coheres and practically nothing resonates.

It may be that my own lack of understanding of or caring about any religion (or reincarnation) places me at a disadvantage where Weerasethakul is concerned. But that's just a guess. In Uncle Boonmee, the title character is dying and wants to come to terms with death, and his past, as best he can.  This is a rich, raw subject for a movie and many other films have tackled it. If they were not better films, they at least approached the subject in a more obvious manner with the result that viewers could leave the theater mulling over what they'd seen and connecting a few (maybe a few too many) dots. Here, you'll be lucky to get from dot two to three.

Well, I suppose that the filmmaker will simply continue making his very personal movies, happy to reach his small coterie. Those films are also certain to fascinate the fellow's therapist (if he has one), but for many of us they will continue to leave us scratching our heads. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, from Strand Releasing, opens Wednesday, March 2, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Preparing RENDEZ-VOUS, TrustMovies takes a break....

Even as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance prepare for the annual RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA series, TrustMovies is preparing his annual and complete coverage of this event, which means viewing every one of the 22 new films, mulling and then posting.  

TM can tell you now, however, that the question What do we do with our immigrants? hovers over many of the films in the fest in some manner, major to minor. Whether those immigrants are in prison (above, in Free Hands), singing and dancing in a new musical (below, from Leila), part of a grand comedy of escalating events (as in Top Floor, Left Wing, shown at bottom) or -- as in one of the gems of this year's fest -- opening up the heart and soul of a bourgeiois gentleman of a half century ago in Service Entrance, shown at top), they play their parts sadly, comically, beautifully, meaningfully. And they keep that immigrant question bubbling on the front burner.

With 22 movies to cover (TM has seen almost all at this point), it'll take awhile, so when you hear from him again (early next week), that post will be up.  Meanwhile, you can peruse the entire festival, which this year has four separate venues, here (where you'll find the Walter Reade Theater schedule), here (that of the IFC Center), and here (the BAMcinématek). Opening night this year is at Manhattan's Paris Theater (but, as usual, opening night is already sold out).

Friday, February 25, 2011

EVEN THE RAIN--Icíar Bollaín's movie about movies, life and what's important--opens

First seen here in New York at the end of 2010 during the FSLC's annual series Spanish Cinema Now, EVEN THE RAIN from noted Spanish filmmaker Icíar Bollaín (MataharisTake My Eyes, Flores de otro mundo) and actress (Land and Freedom) finally opened for a theatrical run this past week. I saw it during SCN and was impressed enough to call it a don't-miss movie; ten weeks later it's still resonating.
This deeply-felt, cleverly-conceived movie-about-making-a-movie is Spain's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film. Though it made the nine-film shortlist, the film did not make the cut as one of the five finalists (Dogtooth did?). It's very smart about movie-making (a fact that the Academy no doubt appreciated), and while it's also progressive/liberal, it offers a keen and ironic eye for the film community's endless ability to deceive itself (something that community, perhaps, did not so much appreciate). In fact, an earlier version of the movie's poster offered this interesting and true tag line: Many want to change the world. Few want to change themselves.

Most important, Ms  Bollaín, shown at right, mixes film-making with politics, economics and social justice about as well as I've seen this sort of thing handled. While its flirting with senti-mentality is never quite consummated (the screen-writer is the Ken Loach-collaborator Paul Laverty), we're left with something feel-good that's also based on historical fact: the Bolivian water crisis of 2000. The situation posits a move crew filming a Christopher Columbus tale of colonization, just as that crisis over Bolivia's water, suddenly for sale, comes to a boil. The fine ironies of exploitation -- at which the film people excel, and which the film-with-a-film is also full of -- are brought home via some stiletto-sharp writing and performing.

Ms Bollaín has assembled a crack cast, every one of whom comes through beautifully: Gael García Bernal (below, right), Luis Tosar (below, left), Karra Elejalde, Raúl Arévalo and particularly an unforgettable newcomer named Carlos Aduviri (above), as a native Bolivian who gets himself, together with his friends and family, involved with both the movie and the water.

The film has taken some criticism about trying to "have it both ways," which strikes me as foolish. Of course the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too.  That is part of the hypocrisy at work, and there is simply no chance that the filmmaker is not acutely aware of this (she certainly makes us aware of it!). More to the point of problematic might be that last-minute conversion of one of the film's characters, while another chooses an opposite scenario. Well, it convinced me. Ms Bollaín's understanding of and correct use of actors Tosar (last year's Cell 211, who radiates about as much strength as one performer can manage) and Bernal (who, despite his great beauty and skill, has a certain innate weakness about him) make both men's final decisions ring not just true but practically unavoidable.

Even the Rain (the title of which comes from the fact that, under this new "selling" of water rights, even the rainwater will no longer be free), from Vitagraph Films, is currently playing in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire 25. And probably elsewhere soon. Try to see this one, if not now, then later on DVD.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Xavier Beauvois' OF GODS AND MEN opens: the worthwhile uses of religious faith

If you follow this blog much, you'll know how little use TrustMovies has for religion of any kind -- or even a belief in what's-his-name. Yet TM was greatly moved, provoked and made to think and feel strongly by the new film from Xavier Beauvois, shown below, who a few years back gave us the fine Le Petit Lieutenant. His new movie OF GODS AND MEN is about faith: that experienced by a group of monks in Northern Africa who, for years, have ministered to the generally impoverished local people living around their hilltop monastery, and who, when civil war and terrorist acts threaten the lives of all foreigners in the area, must decide whether or leave Africa, as both the French and Algerian governments suggest/command, or  to stay and continue what they see as God's work and their job.

The monks' decision, how they arrive at it, and what follows shortly after is the meat of this two-hour movie, which is among the best of the year, from any country. In one of the unaccountable, and I am afraid rather typical (and for film lovers, shameful) acts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences this year was to not even shortlist the movie for Best Foreign Language Film and instead nominate a piece of dreck boasting one clever idea with little follow-through (but lots of transgressive sex and other odd behavior -- Dogtooth -- in order, one assumes, to prove its ability to be meaninglessly au courant. Of Gods and Men, which, in addition to being a fine and artful film, actually rose to the top of the French box-office for several weeks when it opened in its home country last year. The French, of course, occasionally allow challenging films with ideas and gravity to trump comedies and those films with special effects -- as even we do when something like The Social Network comes along.

Of Gods and Men deals with the hastening threat to the lives of these Christian monks, shown above, as well as with their day-to-day activity helping the Muslim locals (below), and the peaceful co-existence of the two religions is heartening to see -- until it begins to fall apart, through no fault of either the locals or the monks. The film appears to put the blame nearly equally on the pro-fundamentalist, anti-Algerian-government forces -- and perhaps even more so on the failing Algerian government itself. What happened to these monks is now history but who did the deed (or ordered it done) seems less certain.

As the danger nears and grows, and the monks themselves argue whether to stay or go, you'll find yourself hanging on every word and being jerked one way, then another. Over time, and as the monks talk and think and pray, minds change and a more mutual understanding looms.

Meanwhile, the insurgents come to the monastery for medical help -- and being good Christians, the monks provide it. (That's the indispensable octogenarian Michael Lonsdale, above, as the monk most familiar with medicine.)

The leader of the group is played by the oft-seen, handsome leading man Lambert Wilson (above, left), and this role is perhaps his finest among many good ones. All the monks, as well as the few locals we come to know at all, are well cast and make their characters as memorable as possible under circumstances that shorten and darken as the movie proceeds.

What makes Of God and Men so special is that Beauvois and his cast treat faith as something from which acts -- not simply thoughts and feelings -- are fashioned, and so becomes as meaningful for the people who possess it as life itself.  The viewer need not even believe in the existence of a higher power to cheer these strong, frightened, torn and caring men. Their work, their lives prove reason enough.  The film -- from Sony Pictures Classics -- opens this Friday, February 25, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Landmark Sunshine, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. Further cities and theaters will shortly follow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From here to fraternity: Will Canon's BROTHERHOOD opens in L.A. and Dallas

Doing for frat houses pretty much what Holocaust movies do for Nazi Germany, BROTHERHOOD, the new knock-your-socks-off movie -- his first full-length -- from Will Canon, starts with a scene that will have you holding your breath but doesn't let you take that breath until its swiftly-paced & sweaty-palmed 79 minutes are over.  "You know what they forgot about?" my companion offered, only minutes before the movie ended. Hello -- "they" didn't forget about a thing, as it turns out, including that "loose end." Mr. Canon, pictured below, is surprisingly deft in how he brings his movie home in a manner as appropriate and believable as it is fair and just.
And riveting.  

The movie begins with a hazing/initiation "prank" that is both beyond stupid and utterly believable, given our current times and the state (Texas, I'm assum-ing, as the movie was filmed there) in which we find ourselves. When things go wrong, escalating like mad, even as the participants are disintegrating badly, the film-maker captures all this with uncan-ny skill and precision, considering how crazy things become.  There is an immediacy to Canon's work and the performances of his up-to-snuff cast that keep the movie barreling ahead like there's no tomorrow -- which for some of these guys, there may not be.

The very speed the director maintains, together with the quite real sense of dislocation and fear that grabs both the pledges and the senior frat boys, pull us so thoroughly into the situation that these easily cover up any logic lapses that may occur (though, while the movie was going on, none were apparent  to me).

The reality built by the screenplay and dialog gives a wonderful sense of improvisation gone right, for a change. And the actors, to a man (plus a couple of excellent performances from women: Katherine Vander Linden, as the butt of a particularly nasty prank, and Jennifer Sipes -- above -- as an angry sorority girl) come through in sterling fashion.

This is a "guy" movie, however, and Canon and cast have done a fine job of differentiating characters surprisingly well, given the little time there is to manage this. Registering most strongly in the ensemble are Trevor Morgan as the pledge torn between fraternity admittance and doing the right thing, Lou Taylor Pucci (above) as the mistaken victim, Arlen Escarpeta (below) as an even more unjust victim, and Jon Foster (two photos below) as the SIC (sleaze-in-charge).

According to the press materials for Brotherhood, the movie is based upon an earlier short made by the filmmaker. For a rare change, here is a full-length film derived from a short that fully deserves its feature status.

In addition to providing a fast, fun ride, the movie nails the nastiness of so many fraternities, along with the sexism, racism and unbearably smug sense of entitlement of which they reek. Hardly a recruiting poster for Wi-Fi-Pi and the rest, Mr. Canon has, besides offering up some savory entertainment, produced a kind of public service announcement.

Brotherhood opens this Friday, February 25, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5, while playing currently in Dallas at the Angelika Film Center, and opening in Brooklyn at the reRun Gastropub on March 11. The film is also available now via VOD. Check with your local TV reception provider for details.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Xavier Dolan's HEARTBEATS tracks a doomed, screwy, one-sided love affair

Stay away from the wealthy. That's just one of the many life lessons viewers might garner from HEARTBEATS -- the droll, slow (and full of slo-mo), alternately funny/sad new movie from Xavier Dolan, the fellow who gave us I Killed My Mother (a film TrustMovies still has not seen. When's it finally gonna get a real release?). Dolan's new one tells of gay boy/straight girl best friends who simultaneously notice the curly strawberry-blond locks of a sexily angelic young man (Niels Schneider, below) for whom they both tumble in absolute-forever-after love. They then spend the rest of the movie trying crazily, vainly to consummate that love.

Anyone who has ever carried a torch for someone unattainable will probably fall hard for Heartbeats, and legitimately so, for Dolan -- pictured on the poster above: he wrote, directed, produced and stars in the movie -- absolutely captures the incredible need, the attendant pain, the irrational jealousies, the desire to please and everything else that goes along with this kind of must-have-but-can't fixation.

And because both Francis (Dolan's character) and his best friend Marie (Monia Chokri, above) have set their sites on the love object Nicolas, the movie also delivers a secondary story about how friendship wanes when one of those friends is bound to lose. In real life, friendships tend to include one person who is more forceful and another who hangs back, thus complementing each other nicely. Not here. Both Marie and Francis go after what they want with nails out and teeth bared. But while they are perfectly happy to let each other know what they want, they can't quite reveal their feelings to the love object himself.

All this makes for some fun, a modicum of pain, gorgeously compo-sed shots with enough slow-motion to sink a lesser movie -- Dolan does slo-mo about as well as any director I've seen, outside of maybe Johnnie To -- and lot of frustration, some of which, unfortu-nately, may be felt by viewers. At 102 minutes, Heartbeats is fifteen minutes too long for what it has to say. Which is a shame, because it says (and shows) things quite well until it begins to sag around the two-thirds point.  It perks again, fortunately, for the finale -- which offers a momentary glimpse of independent cinema's favorite French bad boy, Louis Garrel. Dolan's choice of music is excellent, too -- particularly if you're a fan of the song Bang Bang.

From IFC Films, Heartbeats begins its theatrical run this Friday, February 25, at the IFC Center in NYC, and will simultaneously be available via IFC On-Demand (starting Wednesday, February 23).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Welles' THE STRANGER now on Hi-Def DVD

Until the other evening, when we popped this newly-released Blu-Ray version of the old Orson Welles movie THE STRANGER (from 1946) into our player, it had been decades since TrustMovies had seen the film, which holds up better -- and worse -- than he'd remembered. Welles both directed and starred in the film (and supposedly had an uncredited hand, along with that of John Huston's, in writing the movie), and his fingerprints, not to mention his mug, are everywhere to be seen. Orson was never one to avoid the florid (his The Lady from Shanghai would arrive the following year); if anyone could make too-muchness work, it was this guy.

The film remains quite enjoyable, albeit sometimes in "camp" noir fashion, though at the time of its release -- the year after World War II ended -- it was anything but. Its subject is Nazis (and not neo-Nazis, but the real thing): one in particular, who managed to escape from Germany and has now set up housekeeping in the USA. I suspect that this was one of, if not the first film to give Americans even a very brief view of the Holocaust atrocities -- which were held back from our innocent and pristine view for far too long.

The film takes the form of a melodrama/mystery, with an early Nazi-hunter (the great Edward G. Robinson, shown on poster, top, and two photos above, left) tracking our man (Welles) who is now a teacher on a northeastern college campus and about to be married to the lovely Loretta Young (above, right). The film is full of charming scenes of "standard" American life at the time, from the soda fountain to a game of checkers, the small-town church (with its all-important clock tower) to the family dog. Yet all these are subverted by the subject at hand, together with Welles' directorial style, into a much darker versions of themselves. Performances are fine -- except, oddly enough, from Welles himself, who bugs his eyes and carries on like crazy. Good film actors usually realize that they must play down, or even against, the moment to convince. But Welles plays right into things and thus turns The Stranger into a camp artifact that yet remains great fun to view.

The new DVDs (one regular, the other Blu-Ray) in a single combo set and priced suggested retail at $15.99, hit the street this past Tuesday, February 15, from Film Chest/HD Cinema Classics and Virgil Films & Entertainment. Digitally restored in hi-def from original 35mm "film assets" in a full-screen aspect ratio of 4x3 and original sound, as well as a new 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Special features include Spanish subtitles, before-and-after film restoration demo and trailer. Overall, the quality of the image and sound is quite good but not ideal. However, if you try streaming the version available from Netflix, not in this new hi-def quality, you will immediately see the difference. Both versions are watchable, but the new one is preferred.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Phil Karlson's KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL now available on Hi-Def DVD

A fine example of a "B" movie from the 50s ('52 to be exact) that holds up better than most, KANSAS CITY CON-FIDENTIAL is also a good example of the smart, fast, no-nonsense work of director (and very occasional, uncredited writer) Phil Karlson (at left), who turned out over time a bevy of good noir-ish crime, western & action flicks (including the original Walking Tall), as well as comedies, musicals -- even some Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys films.

KC Confidential is one of Karlson's better movies, featuring a nice, twisty plot; an underdog hero (John Payne, above, right) for whom you can really root; a smart, curvy dame (Coleen Gray, above, center) who's cramming for the bar exam (yes, women did that way back in the early 50s!); and a good, thought-out story that contains equal doses of surprise and sense. Oh, and some crisp black-and-white cinematography, too (from George E. Diskant).

We're in the old armed-robbery genre, with some particularly nasty hoods -- Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand -- and a police officer (Preston Foster, below, right) who also happens to be the father of our soon-to-be-a-lawyer gal. That's it for plot because this one's too good to spoil.  I'll just say that practically all the stuff we see in todays' would-be neo-noirs can be found here -- in a movie made some 60 years ago. The pacing may be slower (it's actually pretty swift for its time), and the violence and bloodshed tamped down from our current level (though it was considered hard-boiled in its day).

You may want a bit darker an ending, though I found the way things work out to be pretty sweet, in both senses of the word. The new DVDs (one regular, the other Blu-Ray) in a single combo set and priced suggested retail at $15.99, hit the street this past Tuesday, February 15, from Film Chest/HD Cinema Classics and Virgil Films & Entertainment. Digitally restored in hi-def from original 35mm "film assets" in a full-screen aspect ratio of 4x3 and original sound, as well as a new 5.1 Surround Sound mix.  Overall the quality of the image and sound is good but not great.  Nothing'll take your breath away, but you won't mind viewing it, either.  The movie itself is also available via streaming from Netflix, though not in this new hi-def version.