Sunday, July 31, 2011

COLD FISH? Whew! Sion Sono's can't-look-away tale tops his earlier transgressions

Well, TrustMovies should say that Sion Sono's COLD FISH tops -- only in some ways -- his earlier transgressions. The three I have so far seen are Suicide Club (still my favorite), Noriko's Dinner Table and Hazard(I wonder when we will have a release of what is generally considered his best film, Love Exposure?). In Suicide Club, what looks like a ghastly mystery keeps opening up into things more horrible and even more mysterious -- to which there are finally no answers. With Cold Fish what's happening is much plainer, more easily seen and understood, though no less horrible. Yet here the mystery focuses in ever more tightly until it centers on the inscrutability of a single human soul. Who is this father/husband/man? What might he -- and, by extension, Japan and finally the world -- become?

Based on true events, as the movie none too subtly tells us upfront, the tale Mr. Sion (shown at right) tells begins in the supermarket, as mom shops, fast and hard. She then prepares supper, ripping open packages and shoving them in the microwave, which dad and daughter soon eat in a silence broken only by a call from the girl's cell phone, after which she sprints out and away with her bottle-blond boyfriend.

In the following scene, what she has appears to have sprinted away to was a bout of shoplifting, and now the parents -- it's actually dad and step-mom, as we soon learn -- are having to make those very Japanese bows and pleas so that the police will not be called. Ah, but in steps the kindly man who, with his wife, owns a local tropical fish store, and who first reported the shoplifting. He invites the family (coincidentally, Dad owns another, not-nearly-so-successful fish store) to visit his shop, where they are dutifully impressed. Then this impressario suggests hiring the daughter as part of his staff (above). As this nuclear family's home life is anything but swell (see below), all three agree.

Too good to be true? As we should now know -- from other movies, if not from real life -- when something looks too good to be true, it generally is. Just how bad it is, however, is made clear unhurrieldy during this nearly two-and-one-half-hour movie that is never for a moment less than interesting, and often hits a ten on the scale of creep/shock/no!no!no!

The movie is highly sexual, too, but in ways you might not initially imagine. It is even more highly violent and bloody. I am not usually a fan of such films, but there is much more than mere gore going on here. And one of the reasons why it is difficult to look away and certainly impossible to walk out of Cold Fish are the knockout performances from the five-star ensemble, especially those of the two leading men and particulary that of an actor who goes by the name of Denden and plays the "fish" impressario, Yukio Murata (shown in that racy red car, above). Said to be seen most often in the role of the kindly/funny uncle, this fellow is a revelation as a character you just might call Mr. Capitalism, but taken to an extreme rarely seen. Denden is by turns funny, scary, shocking and sensible in ways you won't even have considered. Yet he's always somehow real -- which makes him even scarier.

Murata's foil is the "nice" fish fellow Syamoto, played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi (above), as the worm who may never actually turn, and he, too, gives a fine performance. As the women in each man's life, Asuka Kurosawa (below) proves a randy/dandy foil as Murata's wife, while Megumi Kagurazaka (two photos below) as Syamoto's wife, though with a less showy role, still fills it out quite well. (She is, in the parlance, "stacked," and the movie certainly makes the most of this.)

There is simply no point in going into the various plot twists and turns, as any telling of same unaccompanied by Mr Sion's spectacular visual sense would sound ridiculous. (Even with those visuals, it seems crazy, but I dare you to look away.)

What is this movie trying to tell us?  Has it any message beyond shock and awe (and gore)? I think so. Parenting is up front. But so is nihilism. And what an odd and corrosive match this makes. With a focus so narrowly drawn, it is difficult to form conclusions about Japanese society at large. Once again, as in so many Asian movies, the police -- aka government -- prove ineffectual. But then, so do the crime boss and his men, the Yakuza, whom we briefly see. Nothing is a match for the combination of power, paranoia, smarts and strike-first mentality on view in the person of Mr. Murata.

Interestingly enough, Cold Fish was supposed to have been part of the ongoing AMC/Bloody Disgusting/The Collective "Night Terrors" series this past month. But due, I surmise, to the fact that the film is still un-rated (were it to be submitted to our ratings board, it would certainly receive an NC-17), instead of appearing at AMC theaters this time, the film will appear at various... well, you might call them more underground sites -- like Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub theater, here in New York, where the movie opens on Friday, August 5 -- in a rather severely curtailed theatrical run. Like the other films in the series however, it has been promised to be made available eventually via streaming and/or DVD. (You can check out here the other four cities where you can see the movie.)  This curtailing is a shame, really, because Cold Fish is by far the best of the four Night Terrors films yet screened. Despite its gore-quotient, it's closer to crazy art than to sleazy exploitation.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

On DVD: David Schwimmer's TRUST is worth seeing despite its surprising flaws

Among his other credits for acting, directing and producing, ex-Friend David Schwimmer, directed one of the funniest, darkest and most insightful of high-school reunion movies, Since You've Been Gone back in 1998. Since then he has directed for TV and cable, given us the so-so theatrical release,  Run, Fatboy, Run, and now he's back with an unusual and semi-dark drama called TRUST, about a teenage girl and the online relation-ship in which she becomes involved, what happens because of this, and how she, her family and friends react to it all.

This proves very tricky territory, but Schwimmer (at left), his writers (Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger) and his cast negotiate much of it quite well -- showing us how this relationship grows, what it means to the young girl (a standout performance from relative newcomer Liana Liberato, below and further below), and how the importance of the film's title plays into the innocence of our heroine, allowing her to be taken advantage of in grueling ways that do not immediately become apparent to her, those around her -- or to us.

Trust is, first of all, a family movie -- a movie about family, though not necessarily one that you'd want the entire family to see. Although, I think it might be wise to have any family member old enough to be using the computer and the internet view the film, so long as family discussion between the adults and the kids follows the viewing.

There will be plenty of pros and cons about the behavior of the parents, as well as that of the girl, Annie, and why she acts as she does -- both before and after the central event that the movie posits. Thanks to the skills of writers, director and actress, this works surprisingly well, keeping us ever in the mind and the heart of Annie.

What works less well are mom and dad -- as played by the usually fine Catherine Keener (below, center, and wasted here in a fairly rote role) and the always sturdy/studly Clive Owen, above, who is given the kind of near-ridiculous behavior to portray that no amount of "acting" can surmount. Coming from a fellow who initially appears to love his daughter, his conduct is simply a no-go -- making the film's feel-good finale faintly annoying, rather than the moving moment for which the filmmakers clearly hoped.

Besides the wonderful Ms Liberato, the film's other "ace" is to be found in the creation of the character of Charlie (which is imagined nearly as well as that of Annie) and the performance of Chris Henry Coffey in the role (he is shown below, with Ms Liberato). We only see Charlie in two scenes in the film, but both are pivotal, and the final one is quietly and doubly revealing.

I wish Trust were a better film, but it is still an important one -- with a message for kids and families that really needs to be seen/heard. It's available now on DVD for sale or rental.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Steve James' THE INTERRUPTERS: a important documentary that should be better. Or maybe longer.

When I first heard about THE INTERRUPTERS --the new documentary from Steve James (inspired by The New York Times Magazine cover story by Alex Kotlowitz, who co-produced the film) -- it was said to last nearly three hours. When I was notified of the screening for the theatrical-length version, however, its running time has fallen to just over two. Initially -- being forever pressed for time to see yet one more movie -- I was delighted at this news. Now, after viewing the film, I am not so sure.

Taking place around Chicago, in mostly the ghetto area -- where the murder statistics for Americans here beat out those for Americans in Iraq! -- the movie details the lives of a handful of "interrupters," mostly former gang member who've now given their lives over to interrupting and often preventing violent situations from escalating into murder. The great gift of Mr. James (at right), as shown by the two documentaries of his that I have seen -- this one and Hoop Dreams (his narrative-based movies Prefontaine and Joe and Max have been pretty good, too) -- is his ability to point a relentless-yet-seemingly-invisible camera at his subjects and get them to open up as completely as possible. Even when, in the case of some of the male subjects, the fellows have great trouble doing this, their very difficulty speaks volumes and proves in some ways as moving as the women (who generally and typically find it easier to express their thoughts and feelings).

Now this is, of course, the goal of most documentary filmmakers who give us people as their subjects. But Mr. James simply excels at the task. This is true of both the "interrupters" whom he captures and the young (and sometimes not so) people they are interrupting, who begin the film angry-as-hell and bound to do something bad about it but who end up, if not "cured" of their anger, at least more able to deal with it intelligently and fruitfully. If, as the film notes, statistics shows a 40 to 45 per cent drop in violent incidents since these interruptions began, even if the entire drop cannot be laid at their feet, certainly a good portion can be -- which means the saving of many more lives.

In the course of the film we see what the taking of lives means to family and friends of the dead. Via the actual, moment-to-moment look at the process of "interrupting," we understand how it works, as well as how difficult and treacherous it can be. (One interrupter was killed in action, though we don't see or hear much about that.) We get some of the background of our "heroes," as well, especially the young woman named Ameena Matthews, above, right, who comes from a gang history. The daughter of a former gang leader and the former girlfriend of another, she is now married to an Iman of a local mosque and is heavily into the Muslim religion (as are some of the folk she interrupts). Her story, as well as her personal-ity, is most impressive. Early on, she reminds us of that old saw, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me."  On these streets, she says, words can quickly lead to death.

Among the interrupted are an array of struggling people: Latoya, with her sons who are at each others' throats and involved in things they should not be; L'il Mikey (above, left) who desperately wants and needs a job; Caprisha, (below, right, with Ameena) an overweight, angry young woman who repeatedly destroys her own best chance; even Flamo (in doorway, one photo down), an older guy who should know better, is ready to wreak vengeance on a neighbor who ratted on Flamo's family.

We go back and forth among these people and their helpers, into community meetings, on the street, at school and home. These interruptions are important and helpful and maybe they'll even catch on in other major cities besides Chicago (maybe they already have). But I would have liked to have known more about why Chicago would have this enormously high crime rate when New York's Harlem evidently does not. (Of course we could be lying about our own statistics, just as, under NYC's most recent two mayors, we have lied -- or let the jiggered numbers lie -- about so many things, from education to crime.)

The movie indicates in a round-about way that these interruptions, while difficult and frightening, are now in place because the normal avenues for populace protection -- government, police, education, etc. -- are not doing their job and or that job is not working. Once again those who need help most are forced to take matters into their own hands and deal with them as best they can. I'd have liked more investigation of the reasons for this. As usual, when the ghetto come up in government, it's all about tamping down crime and little else. Can Chicago really be a more racist and/or less helpful city than New York, Los Angeles, Houston or Philadelphia? And what about Detroit? Clearly, I am asking too much, and this is fodder for further documentaries.

Still I would love to know what was in those missing minutes. As it is, the movie seems simultaneously not long enough and a bit too long. By the finale, the interruptions, as important as they may be, have begun to appear, in the manner that they are presented and achieved, a bit been-there/done-that. Yes, seeing all this is, as other critics have pointed out, "heartbreaking" and/or "heart-bursting." But I think at this point in our documentary movie-going, we ready for something other than having our emotions heightened. A little less of the in-your-face and more of the bigger picture might have been further revealing.

The Interrupters, from Cinema Guild, opens today in New York City at the IFC Center. You can click here to see news of other upcoming screenings, though only in the NYC area. Surely this worthwhile documentary will be opening across the entire country?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Brendan Gleeson & Don Cheadle shine in the other McDonagh's delicious THE GUARD -- plus a very short Q&A with these three

Can "tone" alone carry a movie? I wouldn't have said so until faced with THE GUARD, the new film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Now I must say, 'Sure -- but unless you're this particular McDonagh, I wouldn't risk it." John Michael, you see, is the brother of the more famous playwright and screenwriter (In Bruges) Martin McDonagh. Yet their work -- on the basis of these two films, at least, and while deal-ing with drugs, death and duplicity in a comedic vein -- could hardly be more different. For TrustMovies' taste, Martin is overly assertive, a verbal show-off in extremis, while brother John comes at you sideways, under the radar and a lot more quietly.

The movie begins with a verbal fuck and a bang, and just when we're saying to ourselves, "Well, we've seen this before!", thanks to the sightly bizarre but just-right acting moment from star Brendan Gleeson, we quickly realize that, no, we haven't. And then there are those green walls -- in Gleeson's bedroom, and in the home of the first of several dead people that the movie visits. In the Q&A with the director, McDonagh, shown at left, allowed that he had chosen that green on purpose -- just to give a different spin to things. It certainly works.

But then just about everything does in this enchanting movie about drugs, betrayal,  murder and other bad things. The filmmaker takes all these, and layers them with comedy. This combo of comedy and dark deeds is not particularly new. Atop all this, it's as though Tinkerbell had entered unnoticed with a handful of pixie dust and tossed it over the entire proceedings. Oh, you can see neither Tink nor the dust, but they're there, all right -- in the singular tone of the film. While dealing with the most awful occurrences, McDonagh is almost gentle, kindly, dear.

Note the scene in which the villains (well, some of the villains) must do away with Gleeson's cop partner (a lovely performance from Rory Keenan, above, right, with Gleeson). I believe you will not have seen anything quite like the quirky, melancholy sadness produced by these few moments.

The villainous but philosophy-quoting threesome themselves are somewhat melancholic (the director noted in the Q&A that he wanted them that way), but as played to a fare-thee-well by (left to right, above) David Wilmot, Liam Cunningham and the ubiquitous Mark Strong, they are memorable. Likewise the pair of hookers with whom Gleeson spends his day off: This scene is sweet as pie and -- thanks to the work of the three actors involved -- utterly believable, too.

Fionnula Flannigan (above, right), as Gleeson's dying mom, does her usual fine work, as does relative newcomer and eastern European actress Katerina Cas as Gleeson's partner's "arranged-marriage" bride. Calexico provide the very nice musical score,

The movie is being made much of as a fish-out-of-water, opposites-attract, buddy movie, and yes, it's all that. Yet even with the super-pro work of the two leads (Don Cheadle, above, with less screen time, still registers very strongly), this is at heart an ensemble piece, with the voice and tone of the screenwriter in the catbird seat. The movie is alternately weird, funny, exciting and sad -- all of which you often get in the comedic-crime genre. What you can't get, except here, is the... well, call it the state of grace that seems to waft lightly over everything. Thank you, Mr. McDonagh.

The Guard, 96 minutes, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Friday, July 29 in New York (at the AMC Empire 25, Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles at The Landmark  -- and in the weeks to come at various Laemmle Theaters.


At the Q&A with Gleeson (bluff, pleasantly gruff and full of life) and Cheadle (slight, svelt and exceedingly dapper), both men were in fine form and talked about how enjoyable it was to work together. My question concerned whether or not they realized, upon reading the script just what kind of tone the movie would eventually have. Both men agreed that, yes, that tone was indeed there on the page, and so the movie resulting from it was no surprise to either of them.

McDonagh was quieter, as writer/directors often are, but seemed a surprisingly generous fellow. He noted that he particularly enjoyed giving all the actors in the film a visual as well as a "name" credit at the film's finale. (This is a very generous thing to do for actors, and a nice help to the audience in identifying who they have just seen.)  To my question about the enchanting quality of his movie, the director allowed that, yes, he does have a quieter tone, and that he trying to upend much of the stuff we viewers usually see in cop movies and crime investigations.  In fact, he would deliberately do the opposite of much that occurs in these films, just to see what would happen. Fortunately the actors were happy to go along with him, and the resulting film bears out his theories.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fun film of the year so far: Joe Cornish's hilarious and exciting ATTACK THE BLOCK

How can a movie that steals so much from so many different genres (alien, thriller, inner-city kids, damsel-in-distress -- to name a few) seem so damned inventive and first-hand? So wonderfully new, hold-your-breath exciting, laugh-out-loud funny? Ask writer/director Joe Cornish, whose marvelous mash-up ATTACK THE BLOCK (his first full-length feature) opens this week after knocking the socks off festival audiences around the circuit. I'd heard a lot about this movie -- all of it great -- prior to sitting down in the screening room to finally take a look. Perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it did not, in the least, disappoint.

Mr. Cornish, shown at right, posits an alien invasion, timed -- by plan or by chance -- to hit Britain on the night of celebratory fireworks. When there are so many bright flashes of light and color ascending, who's gonna notice a few of 'em descending? Scene after scene works near-perfectly, beginning with the initial "mugging" of a young women (a fine and feisty Jodie Whitaker, below center) by a pack of not-so-awful "hoodies," led by young actor John Boyega (below, left), here making his screen debut  If this talented, charismatic man plays his cards even half right, he's going to be a very big star. The chemistry -- including power, vulnerability, grace, intelligence and sex appeal -- Mr. Boyega exudes via-a-vis Whitaker, the rest of the cast members, and most memorably with the camera itself, is simply stunning. This fellow is the "find" of the year.

Once the aliens arrive -- immediately post-mugging -- the pace quickens and only lets up slightly during the scenes that take place on a "pot" farm located atop one the project's buildings. This farm, along with its keepers and users (below), is good for a number of the movie's best laughs. (I would not have imagined I could still find funny a scene in which characters hold on to that first lengthy drag before exhaling. But I did.)

The medium-size cast is made up of the usual tossed-together misfits, but each is given a strong enough character to embed in your memory. (There's even a little dog in the group.) When, from time to time, one of our friends expires amidst all the humor and excitement, this even carries its own jolt of sadness -- no small achievement in a movie such as this.

The aliens themselves are mid-size miracles of humor, terror and economy.  Except for the first one, which we see in close-up alive, dead, and midway between, the rest are fuzzy black bundles of shaggy fur and very sharp, iridescent teeth -- a great combo that's easy to do anything with, while still scaring the pants off us (as we giggle merrily).

Along the way, a lot of sociology/politics/economics are aired, but glancingly, as they should be. This is a very smart movie, and perhaps the smartest thing about it is that Mr. Cornish refuses to unduly show off. But them why would he need to, when he's produced one of the best and most screwball/memorable movies of the year.

My only quibble with the film is that the constant chatter amongst these kids is generally so on-target and delightful that I wish I could have understood more of it.  Rat-tat-tatted in the vernacular of the projects, with British accents, of course, too much of the dialog gets lost in the tussle. (Not enough to lose your interest or excitement, however.) I definitely want to see the film again, and it will be on DVD, where English sub-titles,  one hopes, will be available.

Attack the Block, distributed in the USA by Sony's Screen Gems division, opens Friday in seven major cities: Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto. More assuredly will follow.  One more note: the movie's "R" rating once again demonstrates the stupidity of our ratings board.  If Hanna, with all its violence, could get a PG-13, why not this film -- which kids absolutely ought to see, despite -- hell, even for -- its real, really funny, and often four-letter dialog.

THE FUTURE looks grim in the film of the same name by Ms kitty-cute Miranda July

THE FUTURE?  There ain't much. Or so it'll probably seem to many viewers who brave the new movie by Miranda July, the lady who, a few years back, gave us the much lighter (on its feet and otherwise) Me and You and Everyone We Know. Folk who loved her last film (yours truly, for one) will flock to her latest endeavor. Their feelings upon exiting will depend heavily on how far they are willing to go down Ms July's increasingly dark road.

Her movie begins with a cat narrating (with Miranda, shown at right, providing the animal's near-ideal voice). This seems amazingly right (to me, at least; detractors will loathe it), including the cat paws, one bandaged from an accident. (See the final photo in this post for a look at that.) Paws and voice collude to create an indelible presence, who immediately takes us in with its own story of abandonment, near-death and then salvation, at the hands of a very odd couple, Sophie (played by Ms July) and Jason (played by Hamish Linklater, below, right). The cat's story -- it comes back and back again as the film progresses -- is of equal importance to that of Sophie's and Jason's, for the animal's future is dependent upon these two twerpy "adults" adopting it prior to euthanization.

The thought of taking responsibility -- the movie's theme -- for someone (or even some thing) sets these two would-be free spirits into a terrible fright about aging, creativity, attractiveness, and lots more. So they quit their respective jobs -- he works from home as an IT helper, she teaches dance to pre-school-age kids (the kids are under that yellows cloth, in the shot below) -- in order to pursue their dreams while there's still time. Yes, these are dumb choices, but our twosome does not radiate like a bright bulb.

What happens to these two (they are generally more passive than active at any given time) makes up the meat of the movie and involves another man for her (for him, too -- but no, it's not sexual). Jason's man (Joe Putterlik, below) proves one the film's true delights and distractions. As quirky as its lead characters, Joe composes dirty ditties for his late wife and later on in the movie becomes the voice of the moon in a conversation with Jason.

As for Sophie, she gets involved with Marshall, a widower dad in suburbia (well, this is L.A., so it's all sort of suburbia) whose daughter (below) is growing more and more desperate.

Sex with Marshall is good, or at least better, or maybe just different from that of Jason, but poor Sophie is followed literally by her own crunched-up yellow t-shirt or chemise (the color yellow must mean something here, but what?) and in one of the film's most telling and odd scenes, below, she dresses/hides in this large piece of material and does a strange/wonderful dance of sorts -- a kind of re-birth, perhaps?

TrustMovies doesn't usually give away so much of a film's plot, but in this case, the connections and meanings, more than the incidents themselves, are what count. And The Future does count -- as a strange ode to failure and hope. That hopeful cat has, if not the last word, probably the best. What happens to it and what it tells us coincides, I think, with what Patricio Guzmán has to say in his wonderful docu-mentary Nostalgia for the Light. The Future, simplicity itself, may also be a little simple, but it is not simplistic. July and her characters are struggling, just like me and you and everyone we know. We are not growing up, But things are indeed growing darker.

And yet, could Rogers & Hart, in their wildest dreams, have imagined how one of their most durable songs would be used in a movie? I doubt it. See for yourself, as The Future -- 91 minutes and distributed in the USA by Roadside Attractions -- opens this Friday, July 29, in New York City at the IFC Center.  There'll be more cities and theaters to come, I am sure, though Roadside isn't telling, as of the time of this posting, at least....