Sunday, September 30, 2012

Soaring architecture meets the "revolution" in Alysa Nahmias' & Benjamin Murray's beautiful, troubling UNFINISHED SPACES

For many of us who have long felt that, on balance, the Cuban revolution weighs in as more good than bad -- despite its troubling aspects regarding "democracy," the treatment of homosexuals, and (while admitting the great gains in education and health care) the general standard of Cuban living over more than half a century -- the new documentary UNFINISHED SPACES might very well stand as a symbol for this fractured country. The movie will make your spirits soar -- then crash -- a number of times during its more than fascinating 86 minutes.

Co-produced and co-directed by Alysa Nahmias (shown at left) and Benjamin Murray (below, right), the documentary tracks the tale of Cuba's enormously ambitious National Art Schools project, from its inception as an idea (almost immediately after the revolution's victory) to present-day. What a story!

"For Fidel, everything had to be the best in the world," recalls an architect -- a woman, too! -- of the time that Cuba's new head of state first told her what he wanted. Later, as Castro tries a game of that oh-so-bourgeois sport, golf, it was decided that the art schools would be built on the site of the former country club's golf course. That'll teach 'em! Or not.

We soon meet and hear from a parade of fine architects (the three most prominent are Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro (shown in the photo at bottom) and Vittorrio Garatti, some of whose work at the schools is shown just below) and see the work they contributed to these five schools -- Modern Dance, Plastic/
Visual Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet -- "I wanted my school," one of them explains, "to be open -- like the Revolution. None of the schools have a main entrance; all of them are interconnected."

Notes another: "They told me that I had built a uterus!" And damned if the roof of his work doesn't remind you of just that. From building to building this is beautiful, glorious architecture, shown below and further below, combining the best of the traditional and the contemporary. (Viewing this film made me, more than anything else I've seen, want to visit Cuba.) And then, before it was finished, it all came to a close. Suddenly, it seemed, everything new in the country had to look like the dreaded (to any real artist) utilitarian, Soviet-inspired architecture.

This happened to a huge extent because, after Castro nationalized industry in Cuba, the USA went against his revolution, boycotting and Bay-of-Pigs-ing the little country, while helping turn the western world against Cuba to the point that only Mother Russia was willing to help support the island -- which then became a pawn in the Cold War between Capitalism and Communism. (Both ideologies have now been pretty much discredited in the eyes of the thinking world, so one does wonder what, if anything, is coming next? Perhaps the new Capitalism, with Socialists in charge of it to tamp down its most aggressive, greedy and stupid tendencies.)

But back to those schools and Cuba. The film takes us through the "repressed" 70s into the more open 80s and 90s, and then that "special period" (special meaning horrible) after the collapse of the USSR and no further Soviet support. For a time the schools were even taken over for housing, and their walls turned black from the fires used for cooking. One interviewee explains that he attended the school in the 1980s, along with the Cuban students, whom, he says, did not seem to think much about why the school remained unfinished. "After all, so much else in Cuba was unfinished, too."

The schools and this documentary might stand (a bit unfairly, but still...) as a symbol for all that's wonderful and disappointing about this little country. After initiating the schools project -- and then halting it completely -- it is both bracing and annoying to hear Castro praising the school once again in our new Millennium, as the film shows us. His speech could bring tears to one's eyes -- if one weren't so angry at this pompous little dictator for his decades of stupidity -- brought on to a large extent by the attitude and actions of the USA. Well, power corrupts us all.

Says one of those fine architects currently, "Despite their deterio-ration, the schools still represent the hope for the future and what the revolution meant at its beginning." Even so, or maybe because of this -- with thanks, I suspect, to the good old USA -- when the World Monuments Fund wanted to help with the restoration of the schools, it could not do this because Cuba, being that naughty "nationalizer," was still not allowed to receive any money.

Filmmakers Nahmias and Murray have done the civilized world a great service by telling the story of Cuba's National Art Schools, and you'll get one final jolt when you see the latest update as the credits roll.  Unfinished Spaces is currently touring the U.S. at various venues. Below is the remaining schedule of performances. If you're not near one of these cities, however, be sure to catch the film's national television debut, October 12, on PBS (in bold below):

October 1, 2012 Charleston, SC: Association of Preservation Technology International Annual Conference

October 4, 2012 Miami, FL: Historic Tower Theater 

October 5, 2012 Tampa, FL: Cuban Club

October 12, 2012 New York City: Cooper Union

October 12, 2012 PBS National Broadcast: Check local listings 

October 17, 2012 New Orleans, LA: School of Architecture at Tulane University

October 17, 2012 Bristol, RI: School of Architecture at Roger Williams University

October 18, 2012 Union City, NJ: Union City Center for the Performing Arts

October 19, 2012 Athens, GA: CINÉ November 2, 2012 Ithaca, NY: Cinemopolis

November 6, 2012 Ithaca, NY: Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Film Forum, Cornell University

November 20, 2012 Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City Public Library

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Schlock done right: PIRANHA 3DD--from Gulager/Dunstan/Melton/Soisson--on disc

Once in awhile, there is nothing like a piece of utter, irredeemable schlock to make the evening's Trader Joe's three-buck-chuck go down more smoothly. (That's our house wine these days, and, yes -- I know -- on the West Coast, it costs only $2.) So, the other night, over dinner, we watched PIRANHA 3DD, which a kindly PR rep had sent me to cover (it's out now on both DVD and Blu-ray), and we had 83 minutes of sleazy, silly, schlocky fun -- of which at least twelve of those minutes were devoted to credits, outtakes and further Piranha evolution (the next one looks to be even schlockier!). This proved exactly what the MD ordered.

There are boobs here aplenty -- most of them big, bountiful and utterly fake looking. What hath breast augmentation wrought, kiddies? It's ain't pretty, and it ain't natural, neither! (Most of the breasts on display look much more fake than the movie's special effects, which are creepy, goofy fun. And if the film seems to exist solely to outdo the first Piranha remake's use of Jerry O'Connell and his prosthetic penis, let it be said right now that this 3D sequel absolutely outdoes it. TrustMovies is not going to tell you how or why; you'll just have to see for yourself. But it's a lulu of bad taste (though the piranha does seem to be enjoying that taste), something of which Lloyd Kaufman might be proud.

Speaking of bad taste: In this movie -- along with its cast of cutie pies of both genders, with Danielle Panabaker and Chris Zylka (that morning hard-on from Kaboom) among the cutest of the cuties -- appears a certain David Hasselhoff (above) making what just might be the most embarrassing "playing himself" set of sequences ever put to film (or in this case, I am sure, digital). Mr Hasselhoff proves so extraordinary adept at walking that nearly nonexistent line between "Omigod, he thinks this is a real role!" and "Nah -- he's just making fun of his own image" that you will have to pinch yourself many times to make certain you haven't died and arrived in Schlock Heaven.

How does the film manage to levitate to the upper echelons of goofy bad movies? It must be the ever-careful crew of filmmakers, including director John Gulager, (who gave us the terrifically scary/smart Feast and its sequel), and writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (Feasties who also gave us The Collector and its upcoming sequel), along with Joel Soisson. Clearly these guys are all slumming here, making some money while having a good time. And so will you, I expect (the good time, not the money), if you're a fan of this very special kind of movie viewing.

Piranha 3DD, god love it, takes no prisoners: Not even little children are safe from these evil fish.  From Dimension Films, the movie is available now for sale or rental on DVD and Blu-ray (in quite the nice little transfer, too). Bon Appe-teat!

NYFF50: There's PASSION tonight (later, too) as Brian De Palma's newest unveils

Might as well come right out with it: PASSION, the new film from Brian De Palma which has its American debut at the New York Film Festival tonight, is a remake of the two-year-old French film Love Crime by Alain Corneau (which proved to be that director's final movie). That Mr. De Palma would choose to remake a movie this recent that was released in a dozen major countries around the world was by far a bigger shock to TrustMovies than anything he saw in Passion itself. Does that make it a bad movie? Not at all. It's actually a lot of fun -- perhaps even more so for those of us (many, I would wager) who have already seen the earlier version.

As a stylist, M. Corneau was quiet in the extreme (Love Crimes was all icy blues and greys -- as icy as its leading lady, Kristin Scott Thomas -- particularly its interiors, which were "corporate" to a fault.) De Palma (at left), as usual, goes so over the top that you can't (and wouldn't want to) take your eyes off the screen. All or many of his signature tropes are here, from that huge staircase seen from above to the sudden, bloody slash of the knife, from fetish objects to twins. Not that he was the first to make use of any of these, but few have used them better.

There are differences in plot and character between the movies, but mostly it's a matter of style. The American, being a practitioner of giallo (well, he's Italian American!) gives us a far wide color palette, stylish but not plentiful gore, a number of goosebumps and the promise and delivery of some transgressive sex, though not of the lesbian variety that is rather expected.

In the roles created by Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnuier, we now have Rachel McAdams (above, going fairly far afield from her usual sunny-disposition roles) and Noomi Rapace (below, left, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). To add to the same sex mix, Rapace's assistant is now played by a women (Karoline Herfurth, below, right) rather than a man, with designs -- and ambitions -- of her own regarding her boss.

Comparions may be odios, but as De Palma has practically courted them, they're inevitable. I suspect there will be at least as many positive as negative. Passion plays tonight at 9 at Alice Tully Hall; Saturday, October 6 at 9 at the Walter Reade Theater; and Thurs-day, October 11 at 3:15 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

NYFF50 offers a fine opener in Ang Lee's and David Magee's adaptation, LIFE OF PI

What an unusual film -- lovely, rich and nipping at the heel of profundity -- has been chosen to open the New York Film Festival at its half-century mark. LIFE OF PI, written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee, from the internationally award-winning novel by Yann Martel, proves a genuine "family film": intelligent, thought-provoking, mysterious, emotionally resonant, and likely to leave both and adults and older children fulfilled on certain levels, even as they question and attempt to understand and appreciate it more fully on others. The movie's reach exceeds its grasp to perhaps just the extent necessary to make it miss greatness but achieve wonder. This is, as they say, no small potatoes.

Mr. Lee is working once again in a genre different from anything he's formerly tried -- a fantasy adventure pillared upon precepts both religious and rational -- and he is surprisingly successful at this, just as he has been at very nearly every genre he has attempted (though there is that Hulk problem). TrustMovies has not read the original Pi novel, but he suspects that Lee hews pretty closely to it in terms of both the letter and the spirit because this director has done so in all his other adaptations, as far as I can recall. He's a humanist intent on making us better understand and accept our humanity, and his films, one after another, achieve this in different ways, depending on the particular genre. If the film's characters don't always manage the necessary understanding and acceptance, we viewers thankfully can.

In telling this story of a young Indian lad and his family from Pondicherry, the zoo they manage, and what happens when they and their menagerie set sail for North America, Lee and Magee (and Martel) dissect storytelling itself as their tale unfolds in present time and past, with a narrator who is both his younger self and the wiser, more mature man he becomes. Along the way, we're treated to some spectacular visuals that somehow stay grounded in reality, even as they soar into fantasy. (The night scene above, complete with jellyfish, recalls Bright Future times 10,000.)

I am guessing that Lee was influenced somewhat by Michael Powell's The Thief of Bagdad. His leading man, at least -- played quite nicely by newcomer Suraj Sharma (above and on poster, top) -- though taller and longer-limbed, will put some of us in mind of Sabu.

The film has been shot in as glorious an example of 3D as we've yet seen, outdoing I think, even Hugo and Pina. (The photography, not in the least "too dark," as are so many of this latest batch of 3D, is by Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda.) The use of this process for depth in the ocean and the vast seascapes seems near-miraculous, while the occasional in-your-face effects -- a school of flying fish and, of course, that tiger -- are exciting and fun. And the relationship of the animal kingdom vis a vis humanity is brought home with wonderful courage and understanding. If only Grizzly Man had had our hero's father to educate him! And how understandable and moving is the scene in which the young man must kill for the first time.

I'll have more to say when Life of Pi, from 20th Century Fox and which played but twice last night at the NYFF, opens for its theatrical run on November 21.

Friday, September 28, 2012

David Fisher's SIX MILLION AND ONE: Another Holocaust doc? Yes, but this one's a keeper; a short Q&A with the filmmaker

Doesn't it sometimes seem, at this point in film history, as though we've actually seen six million Holocaust documentaries commemo-rating the six million Jews lost to Europe-wide Antisemitism during World War II? Well, here comes SIX MILLION AND ONE, the new documentary by Israeli filmmaker David Fisher (shown at left), and
it's something quite different. Oh, it covers in passing some of the atrocities, all right -- there are a couple of anecdotes/incidents here that struck me as new and awful -- yet the film is a combination of family and history done in a manner that can only be called rare. Despite its sometimes grim subject matter, the film will make you laugh out loud as it introduces you to some people with whom you'll be pleased to have spent some quality time.

For all the films we've seen that cover the holocaust, few have gone into great detail on how this has affected the generations that came after. When we seen this, it is more often in a narrative film (the recent Matchmaker or Sarah's Key) than in a documentary. Six Million and One details the journey taken by the Fisher siblings, three brothers and a sister (above), sometime after the death of their father, Joseph Fisher, who was himself a concentration camp survivor (and from what we learn here, a rather remarkable one).

David Fisher, it turns out, is the only one of his sibling to have actually read his dad's memoir. Why the other three have not (and will not) is discussed briefly, but we'd have to really know and understand these people to fully appreciate the reasons behind their refusal. The refusal in itself, however, brings to the fore that children-of-the-Holocaust theme. The more these clearly troubled adults cling to the old "Let's just move on" scenario, the more clear it becomes that, on some level, they can't.

This quartet argues, banters, laughs and (eventually) cries, and we're pretty much with them at every step and its accompanying emotion. Once David convinces the other three to travel with him back to Austria and Germany, where Dad was imprisoned, they go, grudgingly, then argue and joke in order to keep any contact with those deeper feelings at bay.

Along the way, David speaks with locals about then and now, and we learn that the old granite quarry, where the slave laborers worked and died, is soon going to be turned into a housing project. Generally the documentary is pretty standard, talking-head stuff (plus that family, of course) but occasionally Fisher does a nice turn with his own camera and history's archives, melding both into a single frame, as above.

It is in the tunnel (pictured above) where Dad worked -- and by all rights, should have died, notes one local historian, because so very few survived this particular "workplace" -- that the family has its most profound moments. And yet, for me, perhaps as an American, the most moving section involves the very old American servicemen who were among those who liberated the death camps. Hearing these guys speak, even now, some 65 years later, about the shock they endured back then is terrible. They are still going through post traumatic stress from the event. Notes one, shown below: "I've never seen a horror movie that came close to what we've seen or heard or smelled."

Six Million and One, from Nancy Fishman Film Releasing and running 97 minutes, is an altogether different, stranger, deeper, second-generation take on the Holocaust. Funny, angry and haunting, it's a film you're unlikely, nor will you want, to forget. After playing the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last July, it opens today, Friday, September 28, here in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.


Over a quick lunch this past week in Greenwich Village, I sat down with David Fisher to talk about his documentary, family and the Holocaust. With the New York Film Festival currently in full swing, I don't have the time now to transcribe and post that interview, but I will just as soon as possible.  More important, right now, is getting the post up about the film (above), so that you can see it during its one-week run.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Michael J. Bassett's SOLOMON KANE (from the Conan man) gets tardy theatrical debut

The character of Solomon Kane was first intro-duced in 1928 by the pulp fiction/sci-fi/fantasy writer Robert E. Howardwho also created Conan the Barbarian, and who was immortalized by the excellent actor Vincent D'Onofrio early in his own career in Dan Ireland's fine film, The Whole Wide World.

TrustMovies is leading off with the above information because the back-story here beats out considerably what we see on screen, even though what we see is very well produced (there must have been quite a budget for this one!) and decently acted, but written and directed (by Michael J. Bassett, pictured at left) just a little too slowly and heavy-handedly to keep the film's (and our) juices flowing fast enough. The other big problem may be that the story's rather odd combination of a religious (sort of), sword-wielding hero in the 1700s and some kind of not very well-explained but seemingly all-powerful and supernatural evil force is neither a marriage made in heaven nor hell. Instead it simply sits there on screen without ever quite coalescing. The combo seems somewhat original--let's give it that--but also rather unnecessary.

We want to be, and sometimes are, caught up in the human actions and reactions of the characters. And, then, dat ol' devil stuff (above) intrudes and interferes -- with special effects galore -- and it's as though we've entered another movie.

According to Wikipedia, the film was a critical success in England and was also well-received in France and Spain. If so, I wonder why it has taken three years for it to hit U.S. theaters? (One of its fine supporting actors, Pete Postlethwaite, above, has been dead for almost two of those years.)

The star of the film is the brawny, buff actor James Purefoy, above, who has had success in films both intellectual (the TV version A Dance to the Music of Time and the movie version of Mansfield Park) and action-filled (Resident Evil and Ironclad) -- though he may be best-known over here for the HBO series Rome, which combined his plentiful acting ability with some equally plentiful full-frontal work. As Solomon, in which he is mostly lock-jawed, taciturn and usually fully-dressed, he is perfectly OK but not, after all else we've seen him do, particularly interesting.

The surprisingly stellar (and really enormous) cast also includes Alice Krige, Max von Sydow (above), Rachel Hurd Wood (below) and Jason Flemyng, but they tend to get lost amidst all the glum and gloom, the many other cast members, and finally those special effects (just a taste of which are shown two photos up and at bottom).

The rights for filming this property are said to have been negotiated some fifteen years ago, back in 1997. I am surprised somehow that Mel Gibson did not grab them immediately and do the film with himself in the lead. I mean, there is a scene here in which Solomon is crucified, for goodness sake. What more could our masochistic martyr Mel have wanted in a role?

Solomon Kane, distributed by Radius TWC (that's some web site the company has bothered to set up!) and running 104 minutes, opens this Friday, September 28, here and there, I guess. In New York, look for it at the AMC  Empire 25.  In the Los Angeles area, try the AMC Burbank 16. Elsewhere? Your move.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL hits 50 with --whew!-- this terrific and extensive line-up

On paper, anyway. That's always the way it is with festivals. But even the paper involved in this one looks pretty amazing: for instance a new giallo type thriller, below (which is actually a remake. Hint: that's Rachel McAdams, below, in the Kristin Scott Thomas role). And its director is Brian DePalma (above), returning, after a six-year hiatus, to the genre he helped perfect.

Ang Lee doing 3-D (that's The Life of Pi, opening night, below).

A tribute to Nicole Kidman, including her new film, The Paperboy (below).

A cast/director reunion for The Princess Bride, below, after 25 years. (For local fans of this charming movie, I should think the event will be a "must.")

Plus the new Assayas, Carax, Haneke, Kiarostami, Larraín (yup--we can use only his last name now!), Potter and Resnais (the last's film is shown at bottom of post) -- plus all those new names, the work of a few of which will have become buff-must-sees by the time the films are (we hope) released theatrically next year. The shot below is from Here and There, a new Mexican film by Antonio Méndez Esparza.

And of course the annual Views From the Avant-Garde (below), now in its 16th year, and even further expanded, naturally.

For me, the saddest part of the festival will be saying good-bye to Richard Peña (below), for the past 25 years the Film Society’s Program Director and Selection Committee Chair of the New York Film Festival, who is stepping down at the end of this year. This fellow has been such a welcoming fixture at the Film Society, while bringing so many wonderful films and filmmakers to our attention, that it is difficult to imagine movie-going there without him at the helm. Little wonder this 50th New York Film Festival is devoting a gala evening to this very special gentleman.

I shouldn't be sad, I suppose, since Mr. Peña -- on a bus ride up Broadway to Lincoln Center, following the luncheon for this year's Open Roads fest of new Italian films -- assured me that he was looking forward with great anticipation to going on to an entirely new chapter of his life. And it is his life, after all. He also, on that bus ride, told me to be certain to see one in particular of those Italian films, The Arrival of Wang (below, click and scroll down to learn about that film), which proved a major delight of that fest and a movie I would never have wanted to miss. This is exactly this kind of thing -- accessibility and friendliness coupled to knowledge and wisdom -- that will make me miss Richard all the more.

If I were to go at length about this year's NYFF, the way I'd like, this post would last for-f-ing-ever and I would slight the other films I've promised to cover this week. So, after I've caught a few of these films at their press screenings, I'll post a short work-up on that movie here, under the headline of NYFF50: -- with the title and director following. (A fuller review will appear if and when that film receives a theatrical, DVD, or digital release.)

And now, to give you quick access to the fest -- which begins this Friday, September 28, and runs through Sunday, October 14 -- simply click on any of the fifteen links below, the first of which brings you the entire fest at a glance, while the others detail each individual section. You're on your own from there. Believe me, you could spend hours just browsing this entire site and its mouth-watering-for-film-buffs delights....