Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Further thoughts on FLIGHT since its disappointing NYFF debut last month

Dat ol' devil, drink, along with the wonders of AA, make a not-so-welcome resurgence in the coincidence-prone, starts-like-a-house-afire-before-fizzling-out film, FLIGHT -- which, after making its debut to close the recent New York Film Festival, opens its nationwide theatrical run this Friday.

The new film (from director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins) stars Denzel Washington, one of the few American movie stars who can still pack 'em into theater seats -- even when, as in this film, he plays a fairly obnoxious alcoholic druggie who can still fly a damaged plane more successfully, it would seem, than anyone else in the world.

It is encouraging to have Mr. Zemeckis (shown at right) -- who in former decades delighted us with everything from I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Back to the Future to Forrest Gump and Roger Rabbit -- directing something other than that faintly obnoxious brand of animation he now seems to prefer, but I wish I could feel a bit more welcoming about the end result: a very well-acted, alternately feel-bad/feel-good, manipulative and mostly mediocre movie. Once the wham-bam beginning-and-succeeding-scenes are over -- which, if you've seen the movie's trailer (and what red-blooded citizen possessing a TV set has not?), you know the entire plot-set-up -- there is little to so but sit back and allow yourself to be lulled by coincidence (isn't it handy that she's being tossed out of her apartment just as he arrives on the scene?) and hammered by nonsensical sentimentality (Mr. Washington's big finale epiphany occurs over a character we barely know and thus seems utterly manufactured).

Consequently, we must content ourselves with some very good acting from just about everybody on board. Washington comes up with his most complex characterization since maybe Training Day; it's not his fault that the movie betrays him via its simple-minded plotting and feel-good (through sadness and tears) resolution.

Ditto Kelly Reilly (above, with Washington) as his off-and-on significant other, who is either in the movie for too lengthy a time or not long enough. Ms Reilly has never given anything less than a sterling performance (that I have seen); she brings to the table such specifics that she can handle just about anything thrown her way. But this movie makes, first, too much of her character and then too little.

Zemeckis' and Gatins' use of that wonderful actor John Goodman (above) is another problem. In his couple of major scenes, Goodman registers so strongly and comically that he throws the film off balance. In his final scene, we go from a kind of sleazy, creepy hilarity to the movie's big, faux-emotional set-piece, and these tonal changes are jarring, to say the least.

Other big names on view include Don Cheadle (above, center), Bruce Greenwood (above, right) and Melissa Leo -- all working hard, in roles that are simply beneath their talent. They're fine, all right, but you end expecting more from--not them--their roles. It's Brian Geraghty, in fact, as Washington's co-pilot, who probably comes off best overall, in terms of his performance matching his character's importance to the movie. (That's Tamara Tunie -- below, right -- and Nadine Velasquez as part of Flight's flight crew.)

On balance, I suspect that the trailer for this film, as exciting as it was, does its source a disservice by raising audience expectations for one kind of movie, done well, while actually delivering another, done in only so-so fashion. Flight premieres this Friday, November 2, all over the U.S. and Canada. Click here, and then enter your zip code next to GET TICKETS NOW, and click on GO to learn if the film is playing near you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Avi Angel's HERE I LEARNED TO LOVE: two brothers' Holocaust history explored tardily

They're arriving weekly now, these remembrances of horror and hope. The latest is another family journey made by brothers, now in their 70s, as they track their own history in the 1940s from Poland and the Jewish ghetto through escape, fleeing through local fields, impri-sonment again, and on to Hun-gary, Germany, Switzerland and finally Israel. One brother, Izhak, is much more familiar with the tale than his younger sibling, Avner, who has long preferred humor/avoidance as a means of getting by.

As written and directed by Avi Angel, shown at left, HERE I LEARNED TO LOVE is short (just 60 minutes) and to the point. Almost at the beginning we hear someone (I am guessing it's the filmma-ker) explain, "Avner Kerem (shown below, foreground), my sister-in-law's father, never spoke about his experience in the Holocaust as a child. When he turned 70, he accepted my offer to set out with his older brother Izhak (below and behind Avner) on a journey that would trace their survival route and perhaps, on the way, important insights would be gained."

The above is pretty close to exactly what the film achieves. From an early scene in which the brothers spar lightly about their various medicines (and end up toasting by clicking their pill boxes) through the journey they take, the facts that come to light, along with the feelings they engender, turn this short film into yet another unusual and moving Holocaust story.

The film is based on a memoir written by Izhak called Three Mothers for Two Brothers, and the heart of the tale involves the three women who acted as mother and protector to the siblings: their birth mother, her sister (or perhaps sister-in-law) into whose care the children were given when their parents were taken to the concentration camp, and finally another young woman, Naomi, who became their protector in one of the camps.

The details of the story are full of the kind of specificity that startles and moves, and their effect on Avner (above, who has, up to now, kept himself from leaning of them) is major. For Izhak, who already knew all this, the goal is to finally share this with his brother.

Of all the specifics we learn, probably the most moving and awful is that of the aunt who took the children from their birth mother. Already herself pregnant, how she saves the brothers and then is herself made childless, is as horrible as it is memorable.

One thing I would have liked to know, as the film moved along, was who these brother are now -- who they had become. At movie's end, the filmmaker gives us this via still photos and written information. This is a quick and efficient way to manage this; adding it into the film itself would probably have increased the running time to that of a full-length documentary.

Here I Learned to Love (that title and where it comes from is probably worth an entire film unto itself) opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema, where the filmmaker is said to be making some personal appearances during the run.  Check the Quad's website (above) as the opening nears....

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Wachowskis/Tykwer CLOUD ATLAS: Ignore critics, go see it, watch, listen, wait

We were never for a moment bored during the first half of the eight-minutes-short-of-three-hours  CLOUD ATLAS. The half-dozen stories, together with the dozen actors who, among them, play maybe 40 to 50 roles, are simply too interesting, bizarre, colorful and compelling not to keep us riveted to the screen. Yet I admit to being somewhat flummoxed as to "what this all means." I did not read the novel upon which the film is based, and I am told it is much better than its film (when is this not true?), yet the film is plenty good enough. It's great, maybe: challenging but not impossibly so, and when its meaning slowly comes together in the second half, possessing a payoff that is profound and moving.

If TrustMovies were to pick three filmmakers to collaborate on a project such as this, it would not have been Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer (the three are shown above with Lana, center, and Tom at right).  Yet so well have the three worked together to produce something seamless that I am most impressed. What they (and their work) have in common is a striving for something better, not always achieved. Their reach exceeds their grasp, even here to an extent, but it is, as they say, close enough for jazz.

What you, as an audience, need to do, I believe, as I suggest in my headline above is to simply go see the film, settle in for that three-hour period, open up, look, listen and wait.  The movie, and its meaning, will arrive. And as it does, you'll be treated to a batch of good actors and a battery of star power -- from Tom Hanks and Halle Berry (above) to Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw (below, left and right, respectively).

Also on board are Jim Sturgess (below, right), Doona Bae (below, left) and Hugo Weaving (shown at bottom). Don't waste time and effort distracting yourself from the stories and themes by trying to identify the actors. Just follow and process. The rewards are great.

Along the way, you'll also be treated to some splendid visuals -- from the beautifully exotic (above) to the special-effects worthy below. (The time frames here are past, present and future.) As quickly as things move, you'll still have time to consider ideas like slavery and fascism, freedom and creativity, need vs greed, and a lot more.

Cloud Atlas has opened wide and reportedly flopped at the box-office over its first weekend. No matter. Real movie-lovers will seek it out, probably more than once. I'll watch it again, too, but not until it appears on Blu-ray, with subtitles, so that I can pick up some of the "odd dialect" dialog between Hanks and Berry that I missed the first time around.

This movie, from Warner Brothers, has and will continue to divide audiences. But its very jumping around and ability to condense and combine themes and time frames gives it a light touch that enables it to render something like slavery with more meaning and art than did Spielberg with his Amistad. So consider this one a must-see. Click here, then click on TICKETS AND SHOWTIMES, to learn where it's playing near you.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The holiday onslaught begins -- with Sue Corcoran's cute ALL I WANT IS CHRISTMAS

Every year around this time, "entertainment" is seized by holiday cheer -- or something approximating same -- as movies, television, cable, DVD, and this year evidently VOD become inundated with holiday programming and/or releases. If TrustMovies, holiday curmudgeon that he is, must cover at least one of these, he's glad that it's the straight-to-VOD movie ALL I WANT IS CHRISTMAS (aka Ira Finkelstein's Christmas). If that original title lets the cat out of the bag -- yes, this will be one of those Jewish-boy-jealous-of-the-big-Christian-holiday movies -- then you are probably thinking, Oy, we're gonna get a lesson in cultural tolerance! Well, yes and no.

The film's director (as well as co-writer and -producer), Sue Corcoran (shown at left), keeps any moralizing about religion/culture to a minimum and instead concentrates on family and the importance of togetherness at holiday time. She also concentrates on a better-than-average storyline that offers some good fun.  Instead of having just one kid-with-a-problem, her movie offers two.

One boy, Ira Finkelstein (Elijah Nelson, above), lives in Los Angeles with his either sleazy or just-stupid movie producer dad (David DeLuise) and pines for cold, snow and holiday cheer; the other, Mikey Amato (played by newcomer Justin Howell), comes from cold weather and a fractured family and longs for some sun and warmth.

How each gets what he wants is part of the fun of the film, which fortunately stays with the kids more than the adults and gets good performances from all of them, including the snowy town's mean bully (another newcomer Ashton Herrild, above).

In passing, the movie manages to take in our current depressed economy, living on credit, child (and dog) abuse, and a few other timely issues without messing up the necessary feel-good finale. While some of the jokes are tired and thin -- particularly those to do with the making of a sci-fi Christmas movie by Ira's dad involving elves and ray-guns (at right) and a typical Hollywood diva with an attitude and a yappy little dog -- those that stick with the children and their situations, especially those that involve Ira's grand-dad (Elliott Gould, below right), result in some good chuckles.

Sure, the movie is no great shakes, but compared to many that squeeze every last bit of sentimentality out of things, this one seems relatively easy-going, charming, and benign. It doesn't even bother to tie up all the loose ends too neatly, and the 84-minute running time (plus end-credits) makes it an easy watch.

All I Want Is Christmas makes it VOD debut on November 1 via Amazon, Brighthouse, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Dish, iTunes (Canada and U.S.), Microsoft (Canada and U.S.), Verizon Fios, Time Warner and YouTube.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Twilight time: In GREGORY CREWDSON Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro shows an amazing photographer at work

How much can one photographer pack into a single photo? Whatever you might have previously imagined regarding this question, I think you'll be surprised at what the shutterbug (that's not quite the right word) profiled in the new documentary GREGORY CREWDSON: Brief Encounters can manage.

If TrustMovies has seen up to now any of Crewdson's work (shown above and further below), he was unaware of this, so he came quite fresh to the film. And he wonders: Had he seen this man's photos before watching this movie, would he have been remotely aware of how much work -- time, money, energy, and above all detailed planning -- goes into each shot? He'd like to think so, but maybe not. How could any mere observer imagine what taking each of these photographs entails? Still, the end product in every case -- rich, resonant and haunting -- is certainly impressive.

In this film, directed by Ben Shapiro and starring Mr. Crewdson (seen at left), the photographer shows us (as well as explaining) why he prefers shooting at twilight time, when day is no longer but night has yet to arrive. Others have found a sense of menace and nightmare in the man's work; I find mostly melancholy and sadness, as well as a rich vein of beleaguered humanity and maybe just a tad's worth of hope. The photographer takes us to his small town in Massachusetts, where the photos from Beneath the Roses -- the series from which the work shown here comes -- and then involves us in everything from his earliest thought processes and connections to the idea for the photo through its planning and set-up and completion.

For audiences members interested in art and where it comes from, not to mention specifically photography and photographers, this is fascinating stuff. And filmmaker Shapiro is careful to temper the technical talk with interesting reflections on family and history, along with how Crewdson works with his "actors" (below) and his crew to achieve the particular results he demands (above).

Crewdson thinks of his work as a kind of film-making and the comparison is apt. Yet, insisting on the kind of detail he does here (see below!) in a full-length film would demand a budget that would make even James Cameron or Michael Bay blanch.

Along the way we learn about the photographer's psychologist father, his early life in Brooklyn (he played in a band while in high school, and the group even wrote one song about photography -- a snippet from which we hear), and how his early viewing of a Diane Arbus show affected him. We also hear from novelists Russell Banks and Rick Moody regarding this man's art. By the time we leave Crewdson -- wandering through the old Cinecitta studios in Italy -- we can't wait to see what this world-class photographer does with that.

From Zeitgeist Films and running just 77 minutes, the movie opens this Wednesday in its U.S. theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York City. To view all currently scheduled playdates around the country, with cities and theaters shown, click here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

DVDebut (and Blu-ray): Aussi BAIT proves better--smart, scary, funny--than expected

In theaters, the Australian "shark" movie BAIT was known as BAIT 3D, and from the looks of the fine Blu-ray transfer, I imagine that the 3D was pretty good, too. A couple of weeks back TrustMovies received a press release telling him that the movie, which had just opened in China,  bested at the box-office both Looper and Taken 2. That's believable, considering how popular 3D currently is in China. But it is also due, I am sure, to good word-of-mouth. Bait is the best shark movie in a long while and for a number of good reasons: it's surprising, scary, funny and a lot of fun.

Much of that fun arrives from the movie's more than a little creative scenario which finds a group of people trapped in a supermarket, up and down the aisles of which is swimming an enormous Great White Shark. How all this came to be is part of the film's great, loopy fun. And while the special effects don't outdo those of the Eastwood movie Hereafter, they're perfectly acceptable -- better actually, than you average B-movie. In every way, in fact, Bait outperforms one's expectations. (Granted, one came to this film with those expectations rather low.)

The film's half-dozen writers are led by Russell Mulcahy and John Kim, and the director is a fellow named Kimble Rendall (shown at left), and together, with their cast of ace Aussi actors (none of whom I'm much familiar with, but all of whom do the job just fine), they've made a movie that delivers a kind of combo of Jaws and The Poseidon Adventure (especially where the old Who Will Survive? question is concerned). Lots of plot lines converge here, all of them relatively believable and cogently handled, and the mix of horror, humor, suspense, scares and gore proves heady stuff indeed, with the shark him/herself handled with aplomb by the special effects department.

One of the best things about the movie is how those early plot lines (above and below) begin and then open up into further interesting characterization possibilities later on.

While the movie will earn few awards, it will, I suspect leave most audiences breathy with anticipation about what lies around the next flooded aisle.

Bait, via Arclight/Darclight Films, while still opening in theaters internationally, is available now in the USA on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray from Anchor Bay.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Minimalism du jour: Julia Loktev's THE LONELIEST PLANET opens in New York

"A film you will never forget," trumpets a critic used in the current advertisement for this new film. He's right. I'm certainly not going to forget a film that made me angrier than any I've seen all year (maybe in this whole new millennium). Its maker, Julia Loktev, shown below, made a stir a few years back when she gave us Day Night Day Night, another minimalist movie that at least had a hook: Terrorism. Its protagonist might or might not be going to blow up part of New York City. Even that did not make the movie as interesting as it ought to have been, but it did keep your eyes on the screen and your mind engaged, off and on, for 90-odd minutes. Ms Loktev's new one THE LONELIEST PLANET, minimalist-unto-empty, does not begin to manage even that, and it goes on for an unconscionable nearly-two-hours.

Exactly one single event happens in this entire movie, somewhere around midway, as I recall. The event is a humdinger, all right, a game-changer, a truth-teller, a turning point. But while it surprised me, I quickly realized that I didn't give a shit because I had no idea in hell about the character of the people involved in the event. How can this be, since there are but three main characters in the entire movie and we spend almost our entire time with only them? I'll tell you. Ms Loktev has no idea whatsoever about how to create full-bodied characters. This was true of her first film, as well, regarding her main character (all others were mere satellites), but the suspense of that character's intention carried us along.

Her three characters here are a young couple, soon to be married, and the guide they've hired to lead them around the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. (I am told that the mountains are beautiful, but, as filmed here, they look like an exceptionally boring and repetitive landscape. And I won't even go into the dismal "look" of the night scenes.) Since we spend so much time with these three people, you'd think we might learn something about them, either by way of dialog or by watching all the tiny little bits of human behavior add up. Dream on.

The movie has very little dialog (neither did her earlier film, so I suspect Ms Loktev is not that adept at writing it) and what there is proves so extraordinarily mundane and character-free that I suspect that me and you and everyone we know (to quote a much more interesting filmmaker, Miranda July) could spout more specific and thoughtful verbiage in our sleep. This couple could be anyone at all, or more likely nobody at all, as folk this boring and character-free probably do not exist in our world.

Sometimes, if we're lucky in bad movies, strong actors can skirt lousy dialog and empty screenwriting. Not here. Gael García Bernal (above, right) is certainly a competent actor, but his perfor-mances tend to rise only to the level of what he's given, so expect little of him here. His co-star, Hani Furstenberg (above, left, from the Israeli films Yossi & Jagger and Campfire) seems likewise at sea so far as character is concerned. These two do what they can, which is simply to exist and bore us silly. The camera is often kept at a discreet distance, which holds us further from these people.

The third wheel, that guide, is played by Bidzina Gujabidze (above, center) in his first film endeavor, and he comes across as a less sensual and interesting Luis Tosar-type. He and Ms Furstenberg share the second best scene in the film, in which something actually, or almost, happens, and then, back to very little once again. Human beings are curious, inquisitive creatures, and the fact that no one would discuss the event that happened earlier in the film -- at least, why the initial event that inspires the reaction happened (I am willing to believe that these characters might be too embarrassed to discuss that reaction) is but one clue to the immense failure of this film.

Of course it is easier to leave out the more difficult and problematic. To the untutored eye and mind, this may make your movie look bold and uncompromising. In reality this withholding is just a cheat. And withholding on the kind of mammoth level that The Loneliest Planet achieves makes the movie a con game of epic proportions -- which has taken in, I must say, a number of our critics. The movie, from Sundance Selects, opens this Friday, October 26, in New York City exclusively at the IFC Center and hits VOD just four days later on October 30.