Saturday, August 31, 2013

In I AM BREATHING, Emma Davie & Morag McKinnon take us somewhere very special

What separates us as human beings from other life forms? This question's been asked and answered many times, but according to Neil Platt -- the subject of what is certainly the most moving and maybe one of, even the best documentary of the year -- it's our adaptability. As shown here, Neil certainly proves adaptable. He's dying, you see, and must adapt to that.

How he does it makes for the meat of this 73-minute movie that had me -- and everyone around me -- at the press screening for us cynical critics moved to the point of long silence at the movie's close, followed by an audible inhale/exhale. We won't even go into the tears. How the filmmakers -- Emma Davie (below) and Morag McKinnon (at right) -- achieve this is exactly right. They go for, and capture, such intimacy that we're right there, as close to Mr. Platt as possible,
not only in terms of distance but of thought, feelings and spirit. And, my, does Neil have a lot of that last one! This just-right combination of intimacy coupled to Neil's history, the blog he begins once his diagnosis is plain, and the views we get of his wife, child and dearest friends allows us to become part of it all -- and in a manner that seems utterly natural and non-intrusive. The two filmmakers make it all seem so simple and immediate that the movie almost sneaks up on us.

Of course we expect to be moved. Someone is dying, after all. Neil (shown above, and below, after the disease has him paralyzed from the neck down) has what, in Britain, is known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND); here, we call it Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease -- a rapidly progressive and fatal disease that attacks the motor neurones that send messages from the brain to the muscles, leaving people unable to walk, talk, feed themselves or finally, I believe, even to breathe.

Seventy-three minutes is an awfully short time to tackle any man's life and death, yet the filmmaker's make the most of that time and end up allowing us to see and hear what we need to in order to understand what Neil, his wife Louise and child Oscar were going through. So full of specific details is the film that it goes by remarkably fast; when it stops for a breath, it's mostly so that Neil (and we) can pause to appreciate how beautiful and precious is this world we inhabit.

It is clear throughout that Neil wanted this film to happen, so there is no sense of impropriety on the part of the filmmakers or of us as somehow being unwanted voyeurs. This, as well as the skill by which Davie and McKinnon have constructed their tale, does much in balancing the sorrow on view with hope -- not for Neil, for whom it is clear death must arrive, but for those who remain, including, yes, us viewers.

It is difficult to explain, given the simplicity of what we're seeing, the enormous impact of the film. By the end, however, it should be clear. This was Neil's plan all along, and the movie is his gift.

I Am Breathing will open this coming Friday, September 6, in New York City at the IFC Center, and the following Friday, September 13, it will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. For more information, simply go to the film's web site.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Nicolas Philibert's LA MAISON DE LA RADIO Who knew French radio was so much fun?

The name Nicolas Philibert rang a small bell with me, but until I looked him up I didn't realize he was the filmmaker who gave us one of the best-ever explorations of children and education, To Be and To Have, along with other worthwhile documentaries such as Nénette. He's back this coming week with a new film that is so different from those other two that all I could find in common was an extraordinarily talented documentarian behind the camera.

LA MAISON DE LA RADIO, which translates roughly to Radio House, takes us into Radio France (that huge, oval building, above), a cultural institution much loved by French men and women and something like, according to the press materials for the film, that nation's equivalent our own NPR or the Brits' BBC. But how do you make a visual film about radio, particularly when the language here is French, and which, if you do not speak and understand it, you will have to be reading sub-titles throughout?

Damned if M. Philibert, shown at left, hasn't done it. And interestingly enough, the film I thought of almost immediately as I was watching this one is the current indie hit In a World..., in which another very talented filmmaker, Lake Bell, gets us enormously interested in the importance of the aural: sound, speech, projection and pronunciation. Almost at the start of Philibert's film, an older female Radio France employee offer a very good critiques on a cub reporter's news story -- from all sorts of angles -- and we come back again to more of this critique as the movie progresses.

Of course, if we spoke and understood French, we could better appreciate other critiques throughout the movie, yet this is the least of it. What shines through is Philibert's own appreciation of the many employees of the company and how they do their various jobs and handle the many "guests" -- singers, musicians (wait till you see the xylophone players!), authors -- as well as everything from news reports to quiz shows and a late-night radio call-in program, France Bleu.

You'll find yourself chuckling often and occasionally laughing aloud at some of what goes on here. It's the most horrifying new reports -- more bodies found in a local river, one million dead sardines off the coast of California (or is it actually anchovies?) -- that brings out the biggest laughs from the employees like the woman pictured above. Clearly, black humor reigns where daily news in concerned. It would have to.

All along the way, the filmmaker includes charming visuals whenever possible: from cars in the garage to umbrellas opened up on a rainy day; deserted hallways to cubby holes for mail. Musicians range from rap singers to a gorgeous sounding choral ensemble, news of the day covers everything from those bodies in that river to traffic and shipping news to Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square.

We only get bits and pieces of any of the cultural programs, yet the little we hear indicates a fine intelligence and intellectual curiosity at work. The movie appears to include but 24 hours in the life of this fabled radio house, but I suspect the filmmaker spent many more days to get all that he's garnered, then trimmed it down to its just-about-right, 100-minute running time. Whatever: The people you'll meet here (that's the fellow in charge of all the music, below, and another who handle books and culture at bottom) and the things you'll see and learn will surprise you and probably stay with you longer than you'd imagine.

La Maison de la Radio -- from Kino Lorber -- opens its U.S. theatrical premiere with a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum beginning this Wednesday, September 4. October and November will see the film reach at least four more cities. You can check all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here and then scrolling down.

Personal appearances: Filmmaker Nicolas Philibert will appear in person on Wednesday, September 4, at the 7:50 pm screening, while critic and author Phillip Lopate will appear in person on Friday, September 6, at the 7:45 pm show.

Netflix streaming tip: So-so sci-fi via Eron Sheean's ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY

Children, family, genetics and rogue science all get an interesting workout in the sci-fi/mutant disease thriller, ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY, directed and co-written (with Shane Danielsen) by Eron Sheean. This German/U.S.A. co-production features some bleak German interiors and exteriors, an international cast of some note, one pretty good surprise at the finale, and a story that keep threatening to matter but never quite does. Oh, yes-- and a really fab performance from a white mouse who pulls out all the stops and who ought to get the best animal actor award for this past year's efforts.

This mouse (above and on poster, top) is toyed with, abused, loses its tail and finally all but drowns, and the scene in which it struggles valiantly for breath and life is something to see. Luckily it has no dialog to deliver. The human actors here are not that fortunate, and it proves to be the dialog, as much as anything, that finally sinks the movie. What we hear is serviceable and moves the plot along, but often enough it just doesn't sound much like real conversation.

The plot, such as it is: A relatively young and hunky scientist/doctor Michael Eklund, holding that mouse, two photos above), after the terrible death of his son via some unknown virus that deforms and kills the infant, goes abroad to Germany to work for a new labora-tory involved in experiments that appear to have to do with what killed his son. There he gets involved with some weird co-workers (Karoline Herfurth, above, from We Are the Night) and Tómas Lemarquis (below, and yes! from Nói, the Albino, and Painless), who seems to be compiling quite the resumé of odd characters.

Errors of the Human Body is not at all difficult to watch. It offers several of those buttons that many of us want pushed: the weird, the scary and the moving (there ain't much humor here, however). But it is unable to do more than show us those buttons; when it comes to pushing, the film's fingers go limp. There is that final surprise, however, which is probably the very thing that fueled the fire for the idea for this screenplay. Yet even that surprise, by the time it arrives, seems too little too late.

The movie, from IFC Films and running 101 minutes, is available now from Netflix streaming and probably elsewhere, too. But if you're looking for a really good sci-fi/fantasy/scare movie about genetic tinkering, take a look at Splice.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Netflix streaming tip: Murnberger's Holocaust com-dram MY BEST ENEMY

Slick, fun, smartly directed (by Wolfgang Murnberger) and written (by Murnberger and Paul Hengge), and very well acted, MY BEST ENEMY deals with things we know went on during the Holocaust: the theft of great art, for instance, and the betrayal of Jews by those they considered their Aryan friends. The film is alternately exciting, moving, and funny, with the ironies often coming so thick and fast that you'll be tempted to call the film a comedy (the IMDB actually does, while positioning it as drama,  as well.).

The cast is aces: the ubiquitous and always fine Moritz Bleibtreu (above, left) plays the leading Jew, the son of a famous German art dealer; Ursula Strauss (above, right) is his affianced; and Georg Friedrich (above, center) gets maybe the juiciest role, that of the long-time Aryan friend and son of this wealthy family's housekeeper (yes, we have a class issue here). It's also great to see Marthe Keller, still quite beautiful, as Bleibtreu's mom. You'll note that the costumes above would seem indicate otherwise than what I've just stated, and this is part of the film's continuing surprise and fun.

Still, there hangs over the movie -- and this becomes more and more obvious as it moves along and is also more strongly felt perhaps than in almost any other film about the Holocaust that I can recall -- something that renders the whole thing less than important, as though the movie's real raison d'etre is simply to entertain us, however it can. Which it certainly does, and very well. Perhaps those of my generation -- older folk who remember, and/or have friends who experienced the Jewish Holocaust firsthand -- will not be quite yet ready to watch this landmark of genocide and horror, particularly in a film from Germany, used in this way.

From IFC Films and running 109 minutes, the movie is available now via Netflix streaming - and elsewhere, too, I'm sure.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

You little deer! Mythic Korean folk tale turns urban in Lee Isaac Chung's ABIGAIL HARM

It's almost always a pleasure to see Amanda Plummer at work, though how much enjoyment you derive from her new movie, ABIGAIL HARM, will depend, I think, on your tolerance for somewhat heavy-handed whimsy (we need a new word for this sort of thing: maybe whamsy). This new film from Korean-American filmmaker, Lee Isaac Chung (shown below), is said to be based on a Korean folk tale, The Woodcutter and the Nymph, though here the sexes seem to have been transposed, for Ms Plummer plays an odd middle-aged woman, evidently in no particular need of money, who reads aloud to the blind and has no compunctions about what she reads or says. With her first client, she is asked to describe some naughty pictures and seems to thoroughly enjoy doing it, just as the client enjoys hearing it. (Her second client is played by Burt Young, who has so little to do or say that the sole reason for the character's being here would seem to be the fact that he is played by Mr. Young.)

Abigail appears a very private person, who herself tries her best to keep from being seen by others. She lives in a surprisingly deserted area, somewhere in New York City's five boroughs, and keeps to herself in what appears a nearly unoccupied apartment building. Not quite unoccupied, however, as suddenly we see a large deer ambling up the hallway. The deer then (I think --all this is very fable-like with little connecting tissue) turns into Will Patton, an actor who is always interesting to watch and who gives our gal helpful hints on how to land a love interest -- and keep him. Before you can say bibbity-bobbity-boo, Abigail is more or less following his instructions, looking quite lovely and vulnerable against flaking paint (below) and, sure enough, finding her significant other.

He, who was most likely also a deer just a tad earlier in the game, sheds his magical cloak and takes a bath (Mr. Patton has a bathing scene, too, by the way), and then, just as predicted, moseys along home with Abigail. The two bond slowly, as she introduces her guy (played by a sweet and lovely-looking Tetsuo Kuramochi, below, left) to life, lunch and finally lovemaking. He's adept at maybe two out of three.

But, ah, can Abigail keep him, trust him, and form a real bond with her new friend? Perhaps. Abigail Harm is a parable about love -- how to get it, how to keep it, how to lose it and how to play with it a little -- the moral being , I  am guessing: If you love it, let it go. Chung's film does have a fairy-tale/myth-like quality, but it's not accessible enough or specific enough on any level to make a great deal of sense or hold our attention. For awhile, you may find yourself wishing for more dialog. But then, around 50 minutes in, when Abigail starts talking more, you realize that this does not help the movie at all.

Visually, there are some nice touches, lovely compositions (see above) and so forth. These, together with the dreamy, urban myth-like quality, may be enough to hold you. They didn't hold me. The combination of the barely-told story, together with the overly-bizarre title character, proves too much. Abigail Harm, more so, I suspect, than are most movies, is very much a matter of taste.

The movie -- from Almond Tree Films and running 80 minutes -- after a number of festival plays, opens this Friday, August 30, in New York City at the Quad Cinema for a week's run.

Personal Appearances: Director Lee Isaac Chung (and select crew members) will appear for a Q&A after the 7pm & 9:20pm shows on Friday 8/30 and Saturday 8/31. Star/Lead actress Amanda Plummer and Director Lee Isaac Chung will appear for a Q&A after the 7pm screenings on Sunday 9/1 and Tuesday 9/3.

Jill Soloway's AFTERNOON DELIGHT is a potent, if strange, delight--any time of day

If you're anything like TrustMovies, a new film that features Juno Temple turns immediately into a must-see. And though Ms Temple has one of her best recent roles in AFTERNOON DELIGHT -- a movie that offers a look a modern marriage among the Los Angeles semi-elite -- the real star and driving force of the film is Kathryn Hahn. Ms Hahn is an actress with nearly 50 credits on her resume over a 30-year period, including some popular TV and cable shows, and I believe that she is most often seen in supporting roles. Nothing she has done till now quite matches the opportunity given her here. As with Olivia Wilde in last week's opener Drinking Buddies, Ms Hahn's work in this film would turn the heads of AMPAS, if only its members paid as much attention to intelligent, low-budget films as they do to many of the higher-budget, would-be independents, as well as the lame-brained "blockbusters-for-big-boys."

Written and directed by Jill Soloway (shown at right: this is her first full-length film), Afternoon Delight places us in the mind, body and spirit of its heroine, Rachel, and then slowly lets us watch and experience as she goes to pieces. Ms Hahn, however, is such a fine-yet-tamped-down comedian, as well as a realistic enough actress, that she keeps us entertained and glued to her character throughout, even as we become awfully uneasy about some of Rachel's choices. From the initial scene inside her car as it moves through a car-wash, Rachel is clearly insecure in her life as a stay-at-home mom. In scene after scene, something is always a bit off, yet Ms Hahn (below) handles the acting chores with dry wit and an easy, toss-away manner.

Then, when Rachel, her husband Jeff (a very good Josh Radnor), and another couple go out on a double date to a strip club and Rachel is talked into getting a lap-dance from a stripper named McKenna (played by Ms Temple, below), things begin to change. And not necessarily for the better -- but necessary, all the same.

Ms Soloway seems to know and understand this segment of L.A. society pretty well. She nails it, with humor and satire but also with enough empathy that we don't entirely lose sympathy for these wives/mothers, or for their husbands who maybe have a little too much money but have not, as yet, grown up. This is never truer than the climax of the film, in which polite convention seems irreparably broken and so a price must now be paid.

These scenes skirt melodrama yet stay focused and truthful due to the superb build-up that Soloway has achieved, based strongly on character. Everyone here -- from the husbands (that's Mr. Radnor, above), wives and children to the hooker and her john -- come across as real, even as the juxtaposition of these two sets of characters sometimes seems more than a little bizarre.

Soloway also shows us sex as industry, along with an interesting mix of class and economic differences. (The religion here is mostly Jewish, and Soloways's take on this, too, is both timely and smart.) If the McKenna character proves more a catalyst than anything else, due to smart writing and a sweet, sour, spot-on performance from Ms Temple (above, left), she comes to beautiful and moving life. When she is seen as a friend and helper, this is how she behaves; when treated as a whore, she gives you exactly that.

The movie also possesses an interesting arc: When things are going well -- or at least OK -- for the characters on view, they can seem eminently resistible. It's when things begin to fall apart that they grow more interesting and empathetic. You'll change your mind about a lot of these people as the movie moves onward. By the end, I think, you've be glad to have met them.

Afternoon Delight, from The Film Arcade and running 93 minutes, opens this Friday, August 30, in L. A. (at The Landmark) and New York (at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema. The following week and throughout September, it will roll out to some 20 more cities nationwide. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

OUR NIXON: A really odd walk down memory lane -- from Penny Lane

Whew! This is one bizarre documentary, particularly for folk like me who lived as an adult through the Nixon years, often kicking and screaming. (It is made further strange for me by the connection with the bizarre Christian Science religion that I shared with some of Nixon's top staff -- Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Egil Krogh -- though I had left the faith by the point in time that this documentary covers.) What makes OUR NIXON strangest of all is its style: Collected here are what looks like a bunch of home movies, often made by the people at and in the Nixon White House, so that these snippets most resemble the kind of thing that you and I and our own families might have put together. Except, of course, that front and center is -- not granny or your favorite uncle, but instead Richard Milhous Nixon and his parade of (what he would surely want us to imagine as) world-shattering events.

Director and co-producer (with Brian L. FryePenny Lane (shown at left) has contrived to give us many of the typical events and usual suspects but not from the usual viewpoint we received at this time from newspapers or the nightly news. Instead we get the view as though it were via the one big happy family that served its master and just happened to film it all. All this functions in a couple of ways: defusing, at least somewhat, much of what many of us feel about this 37th President of the U.S. and at the same time giving us a look at things from a perspective we have not seen. The effect is bracing, often disorienting -- and undeniably weird.

Though maybe it will all seem much less strange to dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Here it all is: the Pope arrives; there goes John Mitchell (but where is some wonderful footage of his Martha?!); Nixon blathers as men walk on the moon; we get a look at the very early Barbara Walters (above, center, right) as Nixon "opens" China; wow--a visit from Romania's Ceaucescu and his wife (the USA always did -- still does -- love those dictators!); the "Don't tell Henry" moment (gosh, the petty jealousies between Nixon and Kissinger!); and of course Watergate and so much more. There's even a song (below): "Nixon Now for You and Me!")

If you are in any way political, you'll already know how you feel about all of this. Yet, as they say, time is a healer of sorts, so seeing it again via home movies does rather tamp down those angrier feelings. All-home-movies-all-the-time would require more narration, I suspect, so Ms Lane smartly includes quite a bit of official or news footage from the era, which has the effect of adding some professionalism into the mix, while helping keep us alert.

By the time we see "our Nixon" send packing his two right-hand men, Haldeman (above, quite the shutterbug!) and Ehrlichman (below) to prevent, the Prez hoped, his own resignation or worse, and then follow this with his sanctimonious "God bless America -- and every one of you," we're more than ready to bid this guy the long good-bye.

But don't leave your seat too soon. Stay for the end credits that fill you in on what happened and to whom -- as well as let you see the famously unbearable, and it turns out also un-airable, TV commercial for ice cream hawked by Mr. Ehrlichman in his post-administration days. This is a hoot-and-a-half.

Our Nixon -- from Cinedigm and CNN Films and running just 80 minutes -- opens theatrically this Friday, August 30, in New York City at the IFC Center, followed by a limited national rollout.