Thursday, January 31, 2013

Apology for yesterday's Instituto Cervantes horror screening--without English subtitles!

Sorry, folk. But Instituto Cervantes did not do its due diligence prior to screening last night's Spanish horror film, Bilbao, from early in the career of Bigas Luna. All eight movies in this horror-film series, which TrustMovies covered two weeks previous, were expected to have English subtitles accompanying them.  But when TM arrived at IC for the screening, he discovered a sheet of paper being handed out that explained that only four of the eight films would have these subtitles. Bad!

Then, just prior to the 6pm start time, an IC representative arrived to explain that Bilbao, from 1978, was impossible to find in any form that had English subtitles. But the rep then assured us that all five of the remaining films would indeed have these subtitles. So, if you plan to show up for any further films and are not fluent in the Spanish language, you'll still be safe. (You can view the entire schedule here.)

This is disappointing, and I don't recall it happening at IC previous-ly. This storied organization, devoted to Spanish culture and art and which has chapters all around the world, seems to be suffering a bit here in New York City. It no longer has a public relations representative, and its web site needs major help. Ah, well. Budget cuts are everywhere these days, and with Spain among the hardest hit European countries economically, I guess we are lucky, at this point, to even have what we have. IC still offers its wonderful library full of Spanish language treasures -- books, magazines, movies, and the like. Many, but not all, of those movies even have English subtitles.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Neil Barsky's KOCH: all about that other divisive mayor who ruled before Giuliani

The very first statement we get from former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch -- one that leads off the new documentary about the man and his time -- is a quiet but funny humdinger. If there was ever any doubt that old "How'm I doin'?" considered the city as his personal fiefdom, this moment should lay it to rest. And yet the opening statement cuts two ways. TrustMovies would guess that probably all mayors feel somewhat this way about their city. Mr. Koch, as was (and is) his wont, simply gives it voice -- a habit the man has always had and that has gotten him into hot water as often as it has served him well. As one of the many people interviewed for this film points out, this guy had a really hard time editing himself.

All of which makes this new documentary (from first-time, full-length filmmaker Neil Barsky, shown at right) so interesting, so much fun, and so full of that peculiar combination of personalities, power, desires and events that makes big-city politics so nasty and fascinating.

From that opening statement, regarding Koch's sense of New York City whenever he flies back to it at night, Barsky moves to the vote taken on whether or not to re-name the Queensborough/59th Street Bridge after the former mayor. Listening to the remarks -- pro and con -- about Koch's record, according to these other politicians, is eye-opening to say the least.

The filmmaker moves relatively gracefully back in forth in time, as he shows us this mayor at work over the couple of decades during which he served and then reigned. This is good history, with all its accompanying high and low points, scandals, betrayals and mis-takes. (Listen to Koch on the "mistake" he made by closing Syden-ham Hospital, in which he manages to all but to pull the rug from under his apology. What? Koch make a mistake? Are you crazy?)

Along with the public history comes a certain amount of personal history, too -- though seldom out of the mouth of Mr. How'm I doin'? himself. Koch, a "confirmed bachelor," is quite sparing in the details of his personal life. The news media, ever alert for hint of scandal, has provided a certain amount of personal detail over the years, and Barsky addresses a good bit of this. Most of the gossip surrounds the "is he or isn't he?" aspect of Koch's sexuality, which the former mayor has always refused to address, even now, when he is long out of office and when being gay is hardly unusual in New York City and elsewhere.

So we visit again the nasty primary between Koch and Mario Cuomo (above, right), in which those rumors took printed form, and in which Mario's son-and-now-governor Andrew was said to have had a hand. Naughty! And so, very suddenly in that campaign Koch was seen everywhere, holding hands with former Miss America Bess Myerson (below, right). Those were the days! Still, it says something about the guy that he has managed to keep his private life private. Bill Clinton, I imagine, can only marvel.

One of the few scenes in the documentary that does capture a more private ex-Mayor is during a visit to his family, with Ed playing the "famous uncle." This proves a telling scene, in which some of his family members give it back to Koch just as good as he gives -- on the subject of opening a mosque in the area of 9/11's Ground Zero.

Ed is no dummy, and another scene in which he goes up against Senator William Proxmire in DC (in the hearings regarding giving a loan to New York City during its tough financial time) is very much worth seeing and remembering. He was a smart man and a good politician -- though supremely divisive. He is simply not cut out, as the movie well demonstrates, for being any kind of a conciliator. (His comment about upstate New Yorkers when he visited there, shown below, probably lost him his ill-advised attempt at becoming governor.)

Barsky's documentary is nicely balanced without ever being too simple or easy. Watching Koch here, you'll probably grow angry with him all over again and agree with his campaign manager as she quietly nails him him after one of his tirades. Third terms have proven difficult for many politicians, and Koch's was no exception. That was when all the scandal, long brewing, finally broke, and as one interviewee points out, his wheeling and dealing "was a way to get elected, but years later, you can still draw a straight line from that to all the corruption and the people involved."

Koch, neither the movie nor the man, is likely to convert anyone at this point in time, but for those (like me) who've long been on the fence about the guy, it will provide a lot to enjoy and consider -- even if, on balance, it slants maybe just a tad too much in the direction of hagiography.

From Zeitgeist Films and running a relatively swift 95 minutes, the documentary opens this Friday, February 1, in New York City (where else?) at our Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Did I say "Where else?" Try Los Angeles on Friday, March 1, at Laemmle's new Royal, Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7, and in Santa Ana at the Regency South Coast Village. Evidently our old mayor was something of a nationwide figure, because the film will hit another dozen cities around the country in the months to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

The photos above are from the film itself, except 
for that of Mr. Barksky, which is by Dave Kotinsky 
and comes courtesy of Getty Images NA.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Stephen Vittoria's woefully misguided MUMIA: LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY

Imagine: A feel-good documentary about a guy on death row who gets his sentence lessened to life in prison! That's Mumia (the man, Mumia Abu-Jamal) and MUMIA: LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY, the new movie about him by filmmaker Stephen Vittoria. Unfortunately, there's a black hole in this project, the size of which could suck in one of the universes from yesterday's film, John Dies at the End. And the oddest thing is, Mr Vittoria has actually planned it that way. The below is from the press kit for the documentary: Unlike any other film about Mumia Abu-­‐Jamal, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary does not deal with Mumia’s case but rather his work as a journalist prior to and after incarceration on Pennsylvania’s death row. “I wasn’t interested in re-­hashing the same polarizing standoff between those who want Mumia to fry and those who want him free,” Vittoria states.

Well, Mr. Vittoria, shown at left, may not be interested in re-hashing Mumia's court case, but his audience most definitely is. (And who says it has to be a rehash? In the current West of Memphis, Amy Berg and her producers brought in new information that made a huge difference to the case itself.) At the very least, the filmmaker could have spent a few minutes on a precis of the case from both sides, even if he favored one of those sides. Instead we get, yes, absolutely nothing about it -- except that Amnesty International found it wanting, justice-wise. Great: Show us why.

The filmmaker's decision not to do this sinks what would otherwise have been a reasonably interesting, if repetitive movie full of glow-ing testimonials by everyone from Alice Walker and Angela Davis to Dick Gregory & Cornell West. Many of these are well-consider-ed and -spoken, but there are simply too many of them. After awhile, the movie, well-intentioned as it might be, begins to seems some sort of like a con job -- particularly given that the single thing we most want to get to the bottom of goes missing entirely.

Mr. Vittoria gives us some interesting history of the city of Philadelphia, in which "brotherly love" seems to not have been able to bridge the divide between races, and his history of Mumia's early life is worth seeing. Ditto his exploration of Mumia's career as a writer and journalist. There is plenty here that makes the movie worth a look, but the hole at its center is so staggeringly blatant and ill-conceived that it makes the documentary's execution a fumble for the record books. What a shame.

This story of a bright, articulate, talented man who may or may not have killed a police officer back in 1981 but is serving a life sentence for the deed deserves better. The one good thing that could come out of this is that the film might well send viewers back to the source material. Reading Mr. Abu-Jamal should be a healthy, salutary thing for many of us.

From the usually more discerning First Run Features and sporting a way-too-long 120-minute running time, Mumia opens this Friday in New York City at the Cinema Village. In the weeks to come it will play ten more cities (one of which is in Canada). For all currently scheduled playdates, click here.

The photos above are all credited within that photo, 
except for the one of Mr. Vittoria, 
which is by Shannon Vittoria.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Coscarelli/Wong's JOHN DIES AT THE END: taking sci-fi/fantasy/horror/humor to new heights; at the roundtable with Don & Paul

While waiting for the round-table to begin with adapter/director Don Coscarelli and actor Paul Giamatti, TrustMovies was sitting in the large entry area of Magnolia Pictures, the subsidiary of which, Magnet Rekleasing, is distributing JOHN DIES AT THE END, he noticed several copies of the novel by David Wong upon which the film is based. So he picked one up and began reading. He was immediately taken with how true -- in both dialog and spirit -- to those first few pages was this convulsively energetic and crazy movie. While he knew almost nothing about the film before sitting down to watch it, being a fan of all the genres it so expertly blends (horror, comedy, science-fiction and fantasy), he became almost immediately aware of what a smart, speedy and hilarious movie this looked to be. By film's end he was not in any way disappointed.

Although TM was not a fan of Mr. Coscarelli's last film, the much-loved in certain circles Bubba Ho-Tep, which he found too slow and obvious, he has a great fondness for the filmmaker's earlier work like Phantasm and The Beastmaster -- both enjoyably old-fashioned in the extreme (though Phantasm probably seemed sort of new-ish at the time of its release). John Dies at the End (henceforth to be known as JDATE), however, is about as new-fangled as they come, and he can't tell you how much he admires the ability of Coscarelli, shown at right, to give us a film that keeps up with all this so very well. The effect is bracing indeed, so much so that you may feel, while watching, that if you stop to take a breath you'll miss something. You won't be alone.

Those who did take a breath and then couldn't catch up are probably still rubbing their heads in disbelief. (The friend who attended the screening with me -- we're both in our 70s -- hated the movie. "We must have read very different comic books when we were young!" is all he had to say.)

So what's the movie about? Well, a crazy new drug that has side effects unlike anything ever seen; two screwy friends -- Dave (beautifully played by relative newcomer Chase Williamson, above) and the titular, sexier and dumber John  (Rob Mayes, below) -- who get involved with this drug; time travel; other worlds; and a fellow named Arnie Blondestone (played by the amazing and wonderful Mr. Giamatti (two photos below), in what may very well be his weirdest role in a career of them); and a lot more. Or maybe a lot less. Don't hold me to it. See the movie and figure it out yourself.

Things happen, we go back and forth in time, and the world may be coming to an end. And all of this is racing by us with the kind of speed that, until this movie appeared, only drugs could provide. I don't claim to have understood it all but I had one hell of great time trying. For the Chinese restaurant scene alone, to which we keep returning and returning, and for what's in the trunk of that car, I will be forever grateful. And confused.

JDATE, in fact, is so satisfyingly swift and and swoony, with just enough sense and philosophical underpinning to give it the ounce or two of hot air it needs to propel, that it becomes a kind of instant classic -- a term tossed about far too often but here, I think, actually worth using. The movie will be imitated, for sure, but not successfully. One of a kind, after all, means one of a kind.

This oddity of oddities is currently playing in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt. It opens Friday in New York City at the Sunshine Cinema, hits another seven cities on February 8, and will then continue opening around the country in the weeks to come. (Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.) JDATE has also been playing via VOD since the end of December, where I suspect it has racked up a lot of viewings.

Note: Director Don Coscarelli will appear at the 7:30 
and 10:00 pm shows on Friday, 2/1, and Saturday, 2/2, 
at the Landmark Sunshine, 143 East Houston St., NYC 


At that round-table held a couple of weeks back (which I don't have time to transcribe fully), Coscarelli and Giamatti were in wonderful form: easy-going, affable, charming, funny and happy to address any questions tossed out to them. Mr. Giamatti (below) looked far younger than expected. He so often plays older roles, that I think many of us may have pegged him as a decade more senior than he actually is.

The two gentlemen told us how they came to this project and how young Mr. Williamson was cast. Giamatti in particular was lavish with his praise. Because the younger actor was more of a novice, there was some thought that perhaps Giamatti should slow down a bit until Williamson could catch up. ("Chase was way better at this dialog than I initially was, Giamatti told us") So instead, the award-winning actor noted, he found that he himself had to to catch up with Williamson, so on the mark and in tune with his character and dialog was this young actor.

How involved with Wong with writing the screenplay? "I pretty much did that myself. I would have loved to work with him," Coscarelli (shown below) explained, "but Wong had gotten another job and didn't have that much free time." The director and adaptor had a plan of how the book might be shorn down from 350 to 100 pages. When he approached Wong with his ideas, the novel writer, it turned out, had quite similar ones.

Has Mr Wong seen the finished film? Yes and he liked it a lot, for, as Giamatti points out, "The movie skillfully condenses the book, while keeping its tone quite well."

At one point, the actor was asked about all his upcoming films, which he then took the time to describe to us in some detail. (You can peruse the list of them by clicking here, then scrolling down. This guy works a lot.)

"When you saw the finished special effects," one blogger asked, "were you surprised at how great they were?" The director noted that he knew the effects team was going to do great stuff. Giamtti added, "When you think about how small this movie actually is, it is kind of astonishing how much it accomplishes and how good it actually is."

What's its like to see yourself on film? one person asked of the actor. "It's all right. You get used to it. I can watch myself now pretty easily."

Regarding how unusually fast the movie moves, "It might help if you have seen tons of other horror movies already," TrustMovies offered. "What amazes me is how well it works. And even though it gets beyond complicated, you can still follow it somehow."

"This is a genre that invites so much weirdness," explained Coscarelli, "so that a lot of interesting and good stuff can pop out of it." The director remarked that Hollywood and movie funding seems to run in cycles. He recalled trying to pitch a zombie project in the mid-90s. "Nobody would even look at it. A Zombie movie? Forget it!  But Hollywod is like that. Something new comes along, like J-horror, and then after a few years, it's imitated way too much. But some brilliant filmmaker is out there right now, doing something new and great. Horror fans are such optimists:  Once they've experience a really great scare in a horror movie, it stays with them."

The question, What's your favorite horror movies? drew interesting responses: Giamatti goes for the old Val Lewton films, and mentions in particular The Seventh Victim. "I really love them cause they are so very weird and were made for practically nothing. Lewton made six or seven and they are all great." Coscarelli: loves the old Univeral horror films from the 30s and 40s, and then Invaders from Mars and Godzilla from the 50s. "The 70 brought us Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Suspiria.  And now Cabin in the Woods -- which is so good it can't have a sequel!"

The director also brought up the concept of reality not always being what it appears. "This is always fun and worth thinking about.  When I first approached Wong about making the book into a movie, he said, "Yes this is perfect. In fact, one of your earlier movies is like the template for this." I said, "Of course: Phantasm. And he said no, no: Bubba Ho-Tep!

What is the soy sauce? one blogger wanted to know. "I always thought it was almost something sentient -- like a third character! Hmmmm. Now, that's interesting.

Has Giamatti ever done a horror movie before? "I can't remember any," TrustMovies told the actor. "Hmmm. Well, maybe something close to sci fi, but no, never a real horror movie. And that was one reason I was so intereted in doing this film. It gave me the chance to do some things I'd never done before."

I'll say. One of the treats of film is to seeing the actor do exactly that.

The round-table thanked the actor and director for their time. These guys were fun and smart and have now, along with novelist Wong, provided us with something new and different. This genre doesn't get much better than that.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

ON DVD: SPEECHLESS -- This quiet, semi-silent melodrama is Simon Chung's best yet

It has been awhile since Simon Chung's early, full-length films First Love and Other Pains (1999) and Innocent (2005). Both were flawed but certainly worth seeing. I missed his End of Love (from 2009), but now we have this Chinese-by-way-of-Canada filmmaker's latest (and definitely the best that I've yet seen): SPEECHLESS -- in which a very good-looking young man disrobes at the side of a river, then floats naked down to the sea and is later found by a group of schoolkids, alive and washed up on a beach. He is soon taken into police custody -- we're in China, it seems, though this fellow is Caucasian -- given some clothes and then questioned. But our hunk, though he can hear, is unable (or unwilling) to speak.

Mr Chung, shown at right, enjoys toying with us, offering small hints of the past as his movie moves along. After a short stint with the police, Mr. Mysteri-ous is moved to a nearby hospital (we're clearly in small-town China, rather than any metropolis), where a young orderly takes a fancy to our stranger and tries to help him.

From there, events (somewhat melodramatic but never uninteresting) pile up, and we are introduced to a few other characters, most notably a young woman (very well played by Yu Yung Yung) who appears to know this man of mystery -- though in what way and exactly what she was to him remain foggy, if not deliberately skewed.

At this point, the past becomes more than the mere tiny flashbacks we've been given, and the story, via lengthy remembrance, fleshes out, as our silent hero speaks -- if only in time past. He's a Frenchman, played by an first-time actor (Pierre-Mathieu Vital, shown above and below), whose comely face and svelte body should coral most viewers of a certain persuasion.

The movie's quietness and restraint go a long way toward making it work as well as it does. As the plot grows more florid, with more information revealed, the film has hooked us well enough to allow our suspension of, well, not quite disbelief. But after leaving us in the dark for so long, and then hitting us with a number of big events, one after another, until we reach the heavy-duty climax, Mr. Chung is taking quite the chance.

Overall, though we hold on, partly because we've been hooked and also because of the two Chinese actors who plays the other important roles: one enlisted to play mystery man's current helper (the sweet, sincere Qilun Gao, above, right) and the other a more sophisticated dreamboat named Han (Jian Jiang, below center), the university student who embarks upon something new and exciting, relationship-wise.

More than a hint of misogyny hangs over these proceedings, mostly due to the character portrayed, and well, by Ms Yu (center, left, above), who does more than a bit of damage, some of it permanent, to all concerned. The other women characters, however -- from the female police officer who finds the naked stranger to the mother of the sweet hospital orderly -- are written and played as kind and caring.

There remains something special about a speechless person that usually draws enormous sympathy, particularly when that person is played by a good-looking actor. That's certainly the case here, and it, along with all else mentioned above, goes a long way toward making Speechless an enjoyable, moving melodrama.

The movie, from QC Cinema, a division of Breaking Glass Pictures, and running 96 minutes, is available now on DVD.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

On DVD -- the oddest of Oz movies: Hugh Gross' provocative AFTER THE WIZARD

A good, but highly unusual, family movie, AFTER THE WIZARD tells the tale of a modern-day Dorothy -- a girl confined to an orphanage where the folk in charge imagine that she's either looney or gifted with way too much imagination -- who is desperately needed back in Oz. Or so say the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow, the later two of whom travel to our world to bring Dorothy back to theirs.

As written and directed by first-time filmmaker Hugh Gross (at left), the movie does almost nothing you expect it to, starting with taking us to Oz. Our trip there is brief and bare (for budget reasons, no doubt). We see a pack of those flying monkeys -- they've taken over, we're told -- and spend a few moments with the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow, after which Tin and Straw take off to find Dorothy in the land of us. Mr. Gross clearly loves and appreciates the Oz tales of L. Frank Baum, but I suspect he has bigger fish to fry.

As bad as things may be in Oz, once the Tin Man and Scarecrow reach the USA, we find that they're not so hot over here, either. Gross makes it clear that the country is in terrible disarray and just about non-functional. And even though this is a movie from our "heartland" (Kansas is not these days known for its intelligence or empathy), as you watch the film, you're made aware that the filmmaker would like to see things happening differently.

After the Wizard is firmly in the heart and mind of our country's 99 per cent. Consequently, almost everyone our two Oz characters encounter, rather than imagining that they are on their way to some costume party, instead know instinctively who they are and how important is their journey. It's as if everyone in the USA knows and understands the Oz story (and, really, don't most of us?) and so give them all the help they can offer. There is something awfully moving about this, crazy as it all seems.

As the pair makes its way across the country, from New Jersey to Penn Station and finallly to Kansas and the orphanage where their Dorothy resides, we observe all kinds of scenes of people helping people, sometimes in the oddest, and rather mysterious manner. A scene with a blind man on a train (an excellent job from Peter Mark Richman, below) may put you in mind of a reincarnated Frank Baum, combined with Mark Twain and maybe Mahatma Gandhi. (I'd like to watch this scene again, paying more attention to the very interesting dialog.)

Once the pair finds Dorothy (actually, they find her at the very beginning of the film and then we flashback to see the journey that brings them here), instead of taking her back with them, we get a philosophical discussion of "to go or not to go" that helps bring Dorothy around to a more realistic attitude concerning herself, her life and the orphanage where she resides. The Oz pair learn something, as well -- as do literally all the characters who interact with them and with Dorothy, including the soon-to-retire administrator of the orphanage (a lovely job from Helen Richman, at left below) and her replacement.

Now, this movie is hardly perfect. In fact, I wonder if adults might not find it more interesting than children (I've given it to my 7-year-old granddaughter to see what she thinks of it).  As a novice filmmaker, Gross has actually bitten off a lot more than he can chew. Why, for instance, can Dorothy and all the folk along the journey see and interact with the Oz pair, and only the orphanage administrators cannot? I also wish that the performances were more consistently professional.

Tin Woodman (Orien Richmanabove, left) and Scarecrow (Jermel Nakia, above, right) are fine, as are many of the small, one-off actors who have a single scene and give it their all. But it takes awhile to warm up to Jordan Van Vranken (below) as the Dorothy (or Elizabeth, as she is called in the orphanage) character. Ms Van Vranken seem to find her footing as an actress but slowly as she goes along. By the end, however, we're in her corner.

I don't want to over-praise this little film, as it is definitely the work of a beginner. But it does have something to offer our current trying times, and I should think it will be a must for Oz-lovers everywhere, as an odd and very interesting addition to the catalog of the Emerald City and what it continues to mean to so many of us.

After the Wizard -- something different indeed from Breaking Glass Pictures and running just 80 minutes -- after a very limited, here-and-there theatrical release, is available now on DVD and via InDemand and Redbox. And, yes, there's a Toto here, too.