Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Another dancer documentary, Elvira Lind's BOBBI JENE, opens in New York City

After Dancer, Restless Creature, A Ballerina's Tale, and a number of other dance-themed documentaries that TrustMovies has seen over the past few years, the newest example -- BOBBI JENE, directed by Elvira Lind -- arrives as an odd but not uninteresting addition to the genre. The movie of which it most reminds me, however, is not a documentary, but the highly detailed, psychologically astute narrative film, Polina. Interestingly, both movies are being released within a few weeks of each other via Oscilloscope Films.

Filmmaker Lind, shown at right, is clearly fascinated by Bobbi Jene Smith, an Iowa-born women who, more than a decade ago, left her home and family in the USA to go study and apprentice with Ohad Naharin, the director of Israel's famous Batsheva Dance Company, where she became one of the principal dancers and eventually a choreographer, too.

The film begins as Bobbi Jene has made the decision to leave Israel, return to the U.S. and pursue her own career as... well, it looked to me like a combination of dancer/ choreographer/ teacher. The movie details her journey toward all this, even as it gives equal time to her romantic life and sexual relationships, which involve a former connection to her teacher/mentor/lover Narahin, her current boyfriend Or Schraiber (also a dancer with Batsheva), and most bizarrely and importantly with a sack of something (flour, cement?) that she uses as a masturbatory device in her main performance piece that we see in great detail here.

Yes, Bobbi Jene, the movie and the woman (shown above, below, and on poster top), wants to be a ground-breaker and barrier-buster. And they are, to some extent, at least. But for all the shock and awe the "dancer" produces (audiences at her live performances we see do seem stunned and moved to see a nude woman reaching orgasm right in front of them), the movie itself consistently glides along the surface of things, telling and showing us what is happening without much probing.

Which raises the oft-asked question regarding certain documentaries: Would this tale have been better told as a narrative film? My answer is "yes." Because, though the characters we see are clearly "acting" for the camera (and doing an excellent job, too), this is hardly "real life." Some scenes, especially those between Bobbi Jene and Or, seem staged or at least re-created. A narrative movie might have allowed us to experience love making between the pair (rather than discretely cutting away as happens here) so we might compare what our heroine is getting from Or with what she gets from that sack she uses in her dance routine. (This may sound silly, but that sack gets the most sexual-partnering screen time of anything we see.)

Calling Bobbi Jene's routine "dance" is also a little iffy, I think. "Performance art" maybe, but I didn't see much dance here. Her act most reminded me of the work of Marina Abramović, with the sexual element even further front-and-center. This is not difficult to take, however, for Bobbi Jene has a wonderful, beautifully-sculpted body, a pretty face and flowing hair, all of which we see plenty of during the course of the doc. Her commitment to her cause certainly comes through, even if that cause seems at times more than a little one-note.

A narrative movie would also have allowed more probing into subjects that, here, are simply brought up and then laid to rest: Bobbi Jene comes from a hugely Christian, maybe even fundamentalist, family. Surely the split, even the reconciliation was filled with more drama than we experience from the documentary. Ditto the relationship with Or (shown above, left).

So far as her sensational dance piece is concerned, maybe you have to witness this in person. For all the praise and tears and accolades we see the audience heaping on her, post-show, what we actually view via the film certainly did not move me to any extreme whatsoever.

And yet Bobbi Jean's story is a fascinating one. Its combination of needs -- sexual, psychological, practical and career-wise -- makes it unusual and compelling. But the film itself, as much as any I've recently viewed (save last week's very personal and oddball family memoir Red Trees), puts me in mind of how "incomplete" even a good documentary can be.

From Oscilloscope Films, in mostly the English language, and running 95 minutes, Bobbi Jene, opens this Friday, September 22, in New York City at the Quad Cinema; on Friday, October 6, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal; and on Friday, October 13, in San Diego at Media Arts Center. To view any further additions to the playdates/cities/theaters list, click here then click on SCREENINGS (or simply scroll down).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Romania unveiled (again) in Corneliu Porumboiu's funny and exotic THE TREASURE

Exotic? Well, yes. For those of us not reared in Eastern Europe, at least, the latest movie from one of Romania's crack filmmakers, Corneliu  Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective; When Evening Fall on Bucharest), THE TREASURE, is quite the delightful piece of exotica in everything from its characterizations to its situations to the behavior of just about everyone on view. Oh, it's all quite "normal" on one level, and yet all is just different enough in various ways to raise eyebrows and curl lips.

Not for nothing do the characters here so often refer to the pre-Communism, Communism, and post-Communism eras. The film -- along with its characters and situations -- reflects all this, in spades.

Filmmaker Porumboiu, shown at right, tackles his tale from three perspectives -- workplace, family and history (personal and country) -- and he, as ever, makes fine use of them all. From the movie's opening in which a very young child berates his father for being late to pick him up from school, to the scene in which dad reads to his little boy from the Robin Hood story (which figures very nicely, subtly and ironically into the goings-on) through dad's job as civil servant, his relationship with his wife, and then with a slightly-too-needy neighbor, the movie teems with life and exotica in terms of how life, love and property all work in Romania today.

That father, Costi, is played by a wonderful actor named Toma Cuzin (above, and last seen on these shores as the hunky prisoner of Aferim!), here in a role that calls for him to play the put-upon peacemaker, which he manages to a "t."

Once Costi becomes involved with the neighbor (Adrian Purcarescu, above), who offers our hero what looks like a possible get-rich-quick scheme involving the title subject, the movie quickly takes off, building up a slow but steady head of steam and not a little suspense.

And yet, suspense and thrills are hardly what Porumboiu is going for. Instead he explores the often funny and ironic manner in which those close to Costi react to his new situation. From his wife to his boss to the local police near the property where this treasure is said to reside, the reactions are simultaneously witty and very telling in terms of the Romanian social contract, such as it is.

One of the film's best performances comes from the fellow (Corneliu Cozmei, above, center) who offers, cut-rate, his services as a "treasure hunter." Here, of all things, class and entitlement vs Communism and the work ethic come into amusing play.

The film's most bizarre scene is probably the one taking place in the local police department, regarding exactly to whom the police must turn to open up a certain locked box. The finale manages to be sweet, sad, and ironic as hell, while losing none of the credibility and satirical edge that Porumboiu has so cleverly built.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films, and running a just-right 89 minutes, The Treasure hits DVD today, Tuesday, September 19, for purchase and/or rental. (It's also available now via Netflix's streaming service, for those who have it.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut for Kelly Reichardt's best yet: the quiet, beautifully crafted CERTAIN WOMEN

TrustMovies has run warm, though not hot, on the work of Kelly Reichardt over the past decade -- from Old Joy though Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Crossing, Night Moves and now a work that brings together all this filmmaker's gifts, while doing away with the ungainly combination of outré plotting, bizarre characterization and unnecessary melodrama that marred certain films (like Meek's and Moves). The great strength of Reichardt's most recent movie, CERTAIN WOMEN, lies in its strong, assured characterizations coupled to performances so specific and lived-in that there is not a single untrue moment in the entire movie.

It may be that Reichardt's greatest strength (the filmmaker is shown at left) comes in telling the movie equivalent of short stories, for that is what we have here: three tales joined in the most interesting of ways. This joining is handled not in the typical overly clever manner we've seen so much of over the years, but rather by the relationships of four women, not so much to each other as to other people in or near their same Montana town. Certain Women is a remarkably quiet movie, too -- considering that it deals with subjects as usually inflammatory as hostage-taking, infidelity and unrequited love.

As screenwriter (adapting from stories by Maile Meloy), Reichardt has, as usual, cast her movie extraordinarily well, using Laura Dern (above) as centerpiece in her first tale of a lawyer whose oddball client (a wonderfully goofy, sad and afflicted Jared Harris) goes calmly ballistic;

Michelle Williams (above) in the second story of a wife trying to save her marriage, family and self via a building project that will stay true to its organic community roots, even as her husband (James le Gros) strays and her daughter grows further distant;

and the duo of Kristen Stewart (above) and Lily Gladstone (below) in her final tale, in which a local ranch hand (the glowing-from-within Ms Gladstone) slowly becomes involved with a night-school instructor (Ms Stewart) who visits the town twice weekly to teach the locals "school law."

Each section is filled with the kind of rich, right detail that holds the viewer fast, while deepening story and characterization. So real and so vital is moment after moment that, despite the lack of what we might call normal "drama," the movie remains consistently riveting. In all, Certain Women proves a profound and beautiful experience, involving growth, change and deep disappointment.

Had I seen this film during at the time of its theatrical release, it would certainly have made my last year's "Best List."  As it is, I am grateful to have viewed the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc in a lovely transfer that captures equally well the majestic Montana landscape and these actresses' near-perfect performances. The movie hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, Tuesday, September 19 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS--"meaningless mess" or Quentin Tarantino masterpiece?

Quentin Tarantino's provocative World War lI revenge fantasy now on Netflix is off-putting -- also comic and worth pondering. At film's end, Brad Pitt's red neck German scalp hunter, Aldo Raine, carves a swastika deep into the forehead of Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award for the role). Aldo says: 'This may be my masterpiece'. The remark is Tarantino's editorial comment on his film.

Even if some think Basterds (2009) is a mess, you can still identify with Tarantino's glee at his revision of history. Here in 1944 is the destruction of the entire Nazi high command, Hitler included, as they sit, dressed to the nines, viewing a film premier in a darkened cinema that is suddenly engulfed in a fiery conflagration fueled by nitrite-laden unspooled celluloid. The work calls to mind the difference between insisting your fantasies are real [your m.o., Mister President] and an artist crafting make-believe into a message. Here, as Tarantino has said, is his story of how cinema can save the world.

It is also wicked satire, filled with references to American war movies, Westerns, and Italian-made 'spaghetti' Westerns (see note at end) that emerged in the 60's and 70's to exploit/satirize American 'shoot-em-up's'.

The prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone, now about 90, scored many spaghetti Westerns and his sweeping compositions dominate Basterds. (Morricone fully scored Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' in 2015).

The 'spaghetti' is dominated by excess -- a satirized vision of our mythical West. Villains are crazed, violence explodes hysterically, and the music swoons. Tarantino pauses his action to add 'spaghetti' touches -- the score changes, the characters freeze into iconic poses, and the action speeds or slows in homage to his objects of satire.

One insider bit is Pitt's Aldo Reine likely named for Aldo Ray, an actor famous for his roles in Westerns and war films. But while the other players exaggerate their characters with some nuance, Pitt plays Aldo as a one-note comic-book villain. His dumb, Southern red-neck schtick is almost dismissible except that it stands out so unfavorably from the rest of the ensemble. In particular, Waltz as Jew-hunting Col. Landa (below) steals the lead from right under Pitt's nose. Waltz is so droll, so full of smarm and deceptive insinuation, you can't resist loving this one you are supposed to hate. (Tarantino has inverted our natural sentiments toward these two.)

Tarantino exploits the film-insider and spaghetti-Western thing to the hilt -- Basterds is his own 'spaghetti'; its inside jokes compete for attention with the WWII story to the film's detriment. It unfolds in five busy acts that do not build to its fantastical climax. Chapter One, 'Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France', is the bucolic opener that introduces the sly Landa in the act of uncovering a family of Jews hidden in a farmhouse in rural France. One escapes, Shoshanna, (the lovely Mélanie Laurent, below, four photos down, and on poster, top, in middle row, left), who goes on to become the proprietor of a small Paris cinema which she uses to stage violent revenge against the Nazis.

Chapter Two, 'Inglourious Basterds' (below) depicts the group of Jewish-American terrorists led by Aldo, whose mission is to kill Nazis and scalp them. (Aldo is part Apache; each Basterd owes him 100 scalps.)

Chapter Three, 'A German night in Paris', takes place in a basement bar at which Basterds and other cohorts are shaping their own plot to assassinate the German high command in Shoshanna's theater. Among the co-conspirators are suave British spy and snooty film critic Archie Cox (is he named for Cary Grant whose given name was Archie?) played by Michael Fassbender, and a glamorous German film star turned Allied spy, Bridget von Hammersmark, the delightful Diane Kruger (both, below). Their German night in Paris climaxes as some old memory of yours of a crazed shoot-out at the OK corral.

'Kino', the word for cine or cinema in a number of languages, is half the title of Chapter Four: 'Operation Kino'. 'Kino' refers to the erudite in film, the visionary themes and messages that elude mass film goers but show up in art houses dubbed 'cinema's'. In this chapter the two murder plots advance as the pure opposite of erudite cine, rather as gruesome comedies of error -- anything that could go wrong goes wrong. The 'kino' in-joke is too "in", but the underplayed slapstick is a delight. 

Chapter Five, 'Revenge of the Giant Face', opens on the premier of 'Nation's Pride' which documents the 'true' story of German Private Frederick Zoller's miraculous war exploits (Zoller below, playing himself on screen). The versatile Daniel Brühl is Zoller, who follows the beautiful Shosanna around like a hopeful puppy. Their acquaintance doesn't end well.

Meanwhile Hitler is machined-gunned over and over (see last picture) by Aldo's Basterds (attired in various disguises), as Shoshanna's giant face, spliced into Zoller's film, announces Jewish revenge on the Nazi audience as the theater explodes into the street.

In rewatching Basterds,  I found its bits witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Yet it was too long, too talky, too violent. The chapters are so busy and discreet from each other that the momentum of the narrative is thwarted. This armchair critic thinks the plot might be as smooth as ice cream if staged as a musical or operetta -- better vehicles to absorb the non-through story line, the humor, the violence -- like Little Shop of Horrors or Sweeney Todd. In film, Joe Wright found an inventive frame for his Anna Karenina: he turned his cameras on a fully constructed theater to tell the story, interspersing set theater pieces with a few scenes filmed in natural locales. In short, some kind of distancing mechanism is needed to stage Tarantino's bloody satire more explicitly as fantasy. Still, I liked it -- Basterds' characters are wonderful and the collective revenge on the Nazis for their despicable horrors is immensely satisfying.

Note: For more on Spaghetti Westerns, click here 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Michael Cross' SECOND NATURE provides some fairy-tale gender-bending that's frisky fun

Its always a pleasure to receive, out of the blue, a new indie movie of which one has never heard (likewise its filmmaker and cast) but that turns out to offer enough surprise and fun to make the watch worthwhile. So it is with SECOND NATURE, the very good-natured, charming, silly little movie that tackles the subject of a sudden switch of genders in an amusing and interesting manner.

We've seen enough "magical" body-switching movies by now that another one, even if it's done gender-wise, might not impress. But filmmaker Michael Cross (shown below) has the better idea to leave his two lead antagonists alone, while flipping the entire environment around them.

This "flip" makes his movie not only a nice surprise but an increasingly funny one, too, as we discover a Hooters-type restaurant switched to "Peckers," in which the scantily-clad waiters are ogled and their "packages" squeezed by the female diners to a world in which men must protest their right to equal pay, paternity leave, and especially their "choice" to get a vasectomy.

Sure, this is all kind of obvious and by the book, and some of the jokes land more deftly than others. Yet by and large, most of this works, and the movie's basic idea smartly carries the day.

Mr. Cross is helped considerably by the talent and charm of his able cast, in particular its two leading actors --- Collette Wolfe and Sam Huntington (shown above, left and right, respectively) -- who play small-town antagonists both running for the office of mayor.

Their game performances and their ability to fill out their characters with traits both good and bad (well, he's mostly the entitled bad guy, but Mr. Huntington manages this with enough humor to make it work) help the movie reach its foregone conclusion with wit and charm.

The plot revolves around the Wolfe's characters grandmother (Carolyn Cox, above, left) and a certain powerful mirror she has buried. Once unleashed, that power must be curtailed within a certain time frame or it will remain in place forever.

Yes, this is fairy-tale stuff, but director and co-writer Cross has paced his film well enough (and made it short enough: 80 minutes) that it doesn't drag and we're smiling and sometimes outright laughing along the way. Special effects are minor but effective, and supporting performances range from OK to just fine.

Overall, Second Nature should provide enough fun for those who discover it to make that discovery worthwhile. It arrives on VOD this coming Tuesday, September 19, on most major platforms, while extending its theatrical run in Seattle (the movie takes place and was made in Washington State) at the Ark Lodge Cinemas through September 21. Click here to find out more about how and where to see it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

In the loop: Gareth Tunley's compelling puzzler, THE GHOUL, arrives on Blu-ray/DVD

A knockout -- even if it may leave you more puzzled going out than you were going in -- THE GHOUL, a movie written and directed by Gareth Tunley so consistently genre-jumping that it's probably sui generis, proves a kind of enigmatic mystery-thriller with over/undertones of everything from the occult to a master class in psychology. Think Repulsion meets... oh, hell, comparisons are pretty useless here. Just watch and wonder. And enjoy. Whatever your opinion at film's end, you'll be hooked throughout and thoroughly enjoying yourself, TrustMovies suspects.

The name most bandied about in the film's advertising is that of Ben Wheatley, who acted as executive producer. And why not -- since his is the most famous of anyone connected with the movie? Yet this is quite unfair, as the movie is better than literally anything Mr. Wheatley has so far accomplished. If any justice remains in the movie world, we shall be hearing from Mr. Tunley (shown at left) again and again.

What this filmmaker has done is to give us the movie equivalent of a Möbius strip or an M.C. Escher drawing. And yet The Ghoul is no mere stunt (or if it is, it's one of the better stunts in film history). It is also a living breathing, beautifully conceived, executed, written, directed and acted tale of... what?

That is the question that will dog you as you watch. The possible answers are plenteous, with character dissolution and/or the take-over of one person's mind and actions by another the most prominent. Our leading man, Chris, played by the unforgettable Tom Meeten (shown above and below) is the film's central character, and he is on-screen for practically the entire movie. Mr. Meeten possesses a face and a body that manage to be, by turns, dowdy, handsome, plain, sexy, riven, graceful, graceless, and always compelling.

The movie is Chris's journey, and Meeten makes it -- thanks to camerawork (Benjamin Pritchard) that consistently finds the right subject and view and editing (which seems to be divided amongst several folk) that couples all this with precision and speed -- something from which you cannot avert your gaze. As writer and director, the filmmaker provides smart detail after detail in the foreground, background, and via the strange and varied cast of supporting characters that makes that journey utterly riveting.

The plot make perfect sense. For awhile. From the opening scene, in which we learn of a bizarre double murder to the penultimate one that provides a kind of climax that explains (and yet maybe doesn't) all that has gone before, Mr. Tunley is able in something like 85 minutes to bring us full circle and yet keep us going even farther (afield).

Along the way we meet a would-be girlfriend (Alice Lowe, two photos up), a bizarre best friend (James Eyers, above), a therapy companion (Rufus Jones, below, right), and especially a couple of very strange but interesting therapists (beautifully brought to life by Niamh Cusack and Geoffrey McGivern) who, together, bring the movie its most unsettling blend of kind, charming compassion and utter manipulation.

There is even an oddball character (Paul Kaye, below) whose entire job in the movie, it seems, is simply to tell a most interesting and funny shaggy-dog story. What drives the film forward (and may simultaneously drive you nuts) is how believable everything seems. Until it is clear that -- yes? no! -- something quite else is wrong here. Still, we and Chris persevere until we've reached... ummm, you'll see. What you'll make of it all is up for grabs.

On the Blu-ray disc's Special Features is a delightful short film featuring the director and much of his cast -- all of who, it tuns out, are comedians known for their character-driven, stand-up comedy routines. Considering that The Ghoul may be one of the most dour, dark creations ever to hit video, this seems particularly intriguing. It's like that clown who so wants to play Hamlet (and then does it damned well) -- times ten.

From Arrow Video and released here in the USA via MVD Entertainment, The Ghoul arrived on Blu-ray (in a fine transfer) and DVD last week, and is available now for purchase and/or (I hope) rental. For folk who demand something different, compelling and lots of fun, this one's a don't-miss deal.