Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hitchcock/film buff heaven: Kent Jones' estimable adaptation: HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

Unlike the recently-released Israeli documentary, Censored Voices, in which the attempt to bring to visual life some important audio tapes mostly fails to do so, the new documentary HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, based upon the landmark book in which film directors François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock met and exchanged, over nearly one week, a wealth of ideas about cinema, the resulting movie, adapted, directed and co-written (with Serge Toubiana) by Kent Jones (shown below), succeeds brilliantly on several levels.

First off, it brings Hitchcock to life again, via his looks, his words, his voice and his movies. This is much more about Alfred than it is about François, which is certainly the way Truffaut wanted it. It was his idea to point out and then herald the artistic greatness in Hitchcock, and to show that this filmmaker was so much more than a mere "entertainer."  His book certainly did this, effectively adding enormous momentum to the already rolling idea that Hitch was the movie master. Mr. Jones has not tried to given us the book visually (it's already a hugely visual experience), but for those of us who've read it he has added some marvelous touches. For those who've yet to peruse it, he will certainly have turned them on to doing so.

TrustMovies had forgotten that Jones was responsible for some of the writing of that fine Martin Scorsese doc, My Voyage to Italy, as well as directing other good ones like Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and A Letter to Elia. Here, you might say that he updates Truffaut's original by adding some very smart, incisive interview snippets with some of today's finest filmmakers, who tell us what Hitch and his films have meant to them -- from Fincher to Kurosawa (Kiyoshi: Cure), Assayas to Linklater, Anderson to Desplechin, plus Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Schrader and James Gray.

Their comments are smart, useful, entertaining and often on the mark. Here's Bogdanovich on Psycho. "It was the first time that going to the movies was dangerous." (That was certainly my experience, as a 19-year-old at the time of the film's release.) And Linklater: "The world was ready for a film like that. It didn't know it was. But it was."

Intercut with the interviews, of course, are scenes from a number of Hitchcock's films (as well as from a couple of Truffaut's): We see a lot from the now-somewhat-reinstated Marnie (yes, the use of color and psychology), The Birds,  Sabotage and Saboteur, Notorious, and Rope, with most attention paid to Vertigo (above and below) and Psycho. Fincher talks of the guilt that seems to set off Hitch's work, while Schrader notes the fellow's use of fetish objects. And then we get something that the book used in words that is here both audial and visual. The famous interviews come to life on film!

We hear the master's magical voice and see him talking, motioning, joking, even thinking. I am not sure what your average movie-goer will take away from all this, but for us buffs, it's heady stuff indeed. As narrated beautifully by Bob Balaban, the movie is above all enjoyable -- like picking up the book itself, beginning to read, and then being whisked away into the films themselves (including, briefly, The 400 Blows).

Mr. Fincher, especially, makes remarkable points about Hitchcock's astute use of psychology, even if, as per the actors, he did not really allow them to use it in their performances if those performances went contrary to his plan for the film (Montgomery Clift in I Confess, is a prime example of this). Hitchcock/Truffaut is chock-a-block with thoughtful, intelligent ideas. "As Fincher puts it: "Acting is a great part of movie-making, but it is not the only part." Hitchcock puts it a bit differently: 'That's why all actors are cattle."

From Cohen Media Group and running just 80 exhilarating minutes, the documentary opens this coming Wednesday, December 2, in New York City at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, in Los Angeles on Friday, December 4, at the Landmark NuArt, and in more than a dozen cities in the coming weeks. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jon J. Whelan's STINK! proves a fine American answer to the European doc, Our Daily Poison

Coming about five years behind a similarly-themed French/Belgian documentary, Our Daily Poison, the new American film STINK! attacks a problem all too relevant to how and why the population of the USA is living with (and dying from) the dangerous chemicals residing in just about everything we eat and wear and use in our daily life. Director and co-writer (with Bryan Gunnar Cole), Jon J. Whelan, after purchasing as a Christmas gift some children's pajamas for his daughters from the popular manufacturer, Justice, discovered that those PJs stank. Literally. Trying to determine what chemicals were used in the pajamas proved daunting and frustrating, with absolutely no help coming from the manufacturer.

Worse, when he had to pay for their chemical analysis himself, Whelan (shown at right) learned that, in addition to two known endocrine disruptors, the PJs contained an already-banned flame retardant. Out of all this has come one of the most important documentaries of the year, if not among the most artful. But what Stink! lacks in style and efficiency, it more than makes up for via the information presented and the accompanying, vital call to arms. Whelan lost his wife (and his two daughters their mother) to cancer some time back, and so the movie has at its core a personal element that adds sadness and grief to the proceedings. If the filmmaker concentrates a bit too much on that lost love (and he does), the lion's share of his film is devoted to letting us know how very little we know about what the products we use in our daily life actually contain.

He also fills us in on why we do not know this vital information: So in hock to lobbyists and moneyed interests is our Congress (not to mention the majority of our Supreme Court: Citizens United, anyone?) that even the FDA is not able to do the job for which it was created. We consumers, as this movie indelibly shows, are guinea pigs for industry. We end up doing the testing on the products that ought to have first been tested in laboratories. Oh, but that would cost the corporations extra money!

The ever-growing rise in autism, various cancers, reproductive problems, diabetes and obesity can all be traced to environmental factors. And while most industrialized nations try to protect their citizens from toxic chemicals, the USA does not bother with this. Instead it creates laws and loopholes whereby corporations prosper at the expense of citizens. Via a nice blend of history, statistics, snippets of various congressional hearings, talking head interviews, and folk who suffer from allergic reactions to smell (high-schooler Brandon is  one such fellow), a clear picture emerges of a country in thrall to consumerism with no real thought for the health of the consumer. "It's not a safety system," as one expert points out, "it's a marketing system."

The movie is occasionally clever and funny, too, as when Mr. Whelan decides to invent his own perfume (called Ignorance Is Bliss, below), stocking it with ingredients your won't want to know -- all of this quite legal. When we finally meet a storied lobbyist (Steve Rosario, above), and then a couple of our wealthy elected officials whom lobbyists have unduly influenced, your blood will really begin to boil. Whelan does a fine job of tracking and talking to these people, and listening to their "doublespeak" and "nonspeak" should make you wonder why those nuts-with-guns never seem to turn their weapons upon those who actually deserve it. Meeting Lance of New Jersey and Cal from California provides high-water marks in elected sleaze -- at least until Donald Trump reaches the Oval Office.)

Stink! is enough to get you off your ass and onto the streets in protest. Whelan even covers subjects like the chemicals involved in "fracking," as well as why even the state laws more restrictive-of-industry are now under fire from our bought-off Congress (which has in no way improved since the time of that earlier, excellent documentary, The Best Government Money Can Buy?). Opening today in New York City at the Cinema Village and on December 4 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall, Stink!, running 91 minutes, ought to raise one -- and fast.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Steven C. Miller graduates to the semi-big-time via imperiled-youth thriller, SUBMERGED

Each Thanksgiving TrustMovies tries to acknowledge a deserved "turkey" among the past year's films. Because nothing in particular came to mind this year, and because he had just watched a new-and-not-very-good film opening tomorrow in New York City, I'm afraid it's this one that gets my Turkey Award for 2015. I realize that there were some worse movies this year, but after sitting through 99 long and increasing silly minutes, "turkey" seems a perfectly acceptable description for SUBMERGED. It's a bit of a sad one, too. As one of those critics who enjoyed an earlier film -- a little scare movie called Under the Bed -- by this director, Steven C. Miller (shown below), I was eager to see what he might do with a bigger budget and some better-known and usually quite dependable actors (Tim Daly and Mario Van Peebles, to be specific).

Daly and Van Peebles are not the stars, but they are the most professional in the bunch; the remaining cast members seem practically interchangeable, including the movie's would-be star, Jonathan Bennett (below). The plot has to do with a nicely designed limo that in the opening scenes careens off the road and into the bottom of a body of water, trapping the driver (Bennett) and his "guests." The latter are made up of a couple of post-high-school girls and their would-be boyfriends/drug dealers. While underwater and figuring out how they might escape or be rescued, our "hero" keeps flashing back to better, out-of-water days, and we slowly learn particulars regarding who everyone is and how they got to the bottom of the barrel -- whoops -- the canal. Turns out it was a long journey, filled with sibling problems, sexual attraction and rebuffing, and a local businessman (Daly) who is having to lay off a lot of his current employees.

The movie, in fact, is about way too much. By the finale, full of action that is not very well or believably executed, you'll realize that the film's screenwriter Scott Milam has read (or at least heard about) the famous Matt Taibbi piece for Rolling Stone on Goldman Sachs as the vampire squid. This is because the movie suddenly turns into a treatise on the evils of corporations, money and especially downsizing.

Prior to this we spend way too much time with characters (above), about whom we grow to care less and less, when it ought to work exactly the opposite. But these clunkers scream and fight and act irredeemably stupid for far too long. On the plus side, Miller makes the fear and dread of imminent drowning pretty palpable, but then forgets that the water level in the buried car needs to keep rising (at one point along the way, it appears to have gone down a lot for no good reason). As contained-space movies go, this one -- by opening up and out every few minutes so that we can learn more of the back story -- loses traction, suspense and much else. And one scene in particular telegraphs the villain all too easily, too early and too obviously.

Otherwise, I guess, Submerged is a barely adequate scare-movie/thriller, if you're not too picky. It hits theaters in a very limited release tomorrow, Friday, November 27 (in New York City, it plays at the IFC Center, in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema), while simultaneously appearing On-Demand.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

With BROOKLYN, John Crowley and Nick Hornby come close to touching pure movie joy

BROOKLYN will knock your socks off. But so quietly and gently that you'll imagine you're still wearing them. It is difficult to explain how and why this movie is so special, but allow me to try.

First off, in the midst of our horrific modern world -- ISIS murderers abroad and hate-filled, stupid Republican Presidential "front-runners" funded by corporations and the wealthy bent on turning us all into minimum-wage slaves here at home -- Brooklyn exists as a reminder of an earlier, lost time. So, yes, this is nostalgia. But it's nostalgia done right, in which actions have consequences and the themes of family, homeland, coming-of-age, and the meaning of autonomy are treated seriously.

Secondly, in their actress/star, Saoirse Ronan (shown on poster, top; above, right; and variously, below), director John Crowley (at right) and screenwriter Nick Hornby have a winner and the strongest contender I have seen so far for the Best Actress "Oscar." Ms Ronan -- never a showy actress and, while quite attractive, no great beauty, either -- possesses the ability to display the kind of cool and collected inner strength that most actors would give up a year of Botox to be able to understand and use. But there it is in full view here -- in her speech, movement, face -- displayed in ways that none but the finest actors can muster. In every role -- from I Could Never Be Your Woman and Atonement through The Way BackHanna and Violet & Daisy to the more recent The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ronan shines differently and brightly. Here, at last, she becomes the movie's spine.

Fortunately, this actress is surrounded by other fine performers that bring fully to life a past time and place, together with the people who inhabited it. The tale is of a young woman in Ireland smack at the moment of mid-last century, with seemingly no real opportunities ahead of her. Consequently, her sister and her local parish priest arrange for her emigration to America -- to Brooklyn, where most of the Irish seem to have ended up.

On the way there. Eilis (that is her name) endures a seasick sea voyage (above), and once she arrives, she is homesick to near distraction and feels greatly out of place. But as helped by a kindly local priest (a nice change of pace for Jim Broadbent), employed at a posh department store, and stationed in a rooming house for young women run by a delightful Julie Walters (below, center), our girl begins to blossom, if just a bit. (The scenes around the dinner table at that rooming house are so wonderfully real, alert and on-the-mark that you may feel you've stumbled into a legitimate theater piece and are suddenly watching live actors.)

Then love enters the picture -- personified by a young Italian kid who likes Irish girls. As played to perfection by Emory Cohen (below), who brings such an unusual combination of sweet masculinity and savvy decency to his role, this performance becomes an indelible portrait of first love.

How director Crowley -- who, by the way, has so far given us nothing but excellent, under-seen, independent films (Intermission, Boy A, Is Anybody There? and Closed Circuit) -- brings all this to fruition is key. He never pushes, but instead allows Hornby's excellent, full-of-specifics screenplay to keep things on track by making every moment count. It would seem that Crowley has at last connected with a subject that will resonate hugely with the masses -- and then done that subject full justice.

The odd thing about Brooklyn is that so much works out so well for our heroine that one might wonder along the way just where the "conflict" will come from. Interestingly, it arrives directly from Eilis herself as she returns to Ireland to visit mom and finds herself more than a little attracted to her former home and its people.

Holding the film together is Ms Ronan, who simply gleams with hope and promise. And strength. This actress will pull you into her world like nothing you'll have seen, then hold you in her strong, clear gaze until you imagine that, yes, anything is possible, after all. And you may feel, as though for the first time (certainly at the movies after a very long dry spell) real, radiant joy for characters you have come to love.

Brooklyn, from Fox Searchlight and running 111 minutes, opens today in South Florida and elsewhere. Click here, then scroll down and click on THEATER LISTINGS to find a theater near you in just about any state on the map. Your friends are probably already telling you that this is the movie to see. If not yet, they soon will be.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jay Roach's TRUMBO proves star-studded, knockout entertainment. History and reality? Maybe not...

Even being aware of its superb cast of first-rate performers, TrustMovies found himself totally unprepared for how extraordinarily entertaining the new bio-pic TRUMBO turns out to be. Although heralded as Oscar bait, the movie may actually be too much fun to qualify for that, despite some dead-on turns from ace actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren and John Goodman (among many others -- not to mention Bryan Cranston's lovely job in the title role). For those of us who were alive at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, or for any dyed-in-the-wool movie buffs, Trumbo is simply a must-see. For any others seeking star-studded entertainment, I don't think you can go far wrong.

Yeah, but what about sticking to history and the facts at hand? I'm not so sure as to that part -- having seen some years back the fine documentary about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, also titled Trumbo, which was written by Christopher Trumbo, the (now late) son of the famous screen scribe. In that one, we learned a lot more (about the family's exile in Mexico, for instance) and still had a pretty entertaining time. In this new narrative version, directed by Jay Roach (shown at right), with a screenplay by John McNamara from the book by Bruce Cook, we learn a few things -- though nothing that a follower of the blacklist and those particularly nasty times wouldn't already know.

What we get, however, and what makes this movie such a delight, is some superb casting that combines the right "look" with the talent necessary to create a cast of characters right out of both central casting and, seemingly, life itself. This is more than mere stunt because each performer (that's Ms Mirren as Hedda Hopper, above, left, and Mr. Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson. below, right).

These are names that ring a bell, but interestingly enough one of the most moving and odd characters in this movie is a much lesser known screenwriter (actually a composite character made up of traits of several Jewish members of the Hollywood Ten), whose situation provides grist for the filmmaker's mill. That would be the blacklisted screenwriter, played quite beautifully by Louis C.K. (above, left), who becomes the most important of the many satellite characters revolving around Trumbo. Mr. C.K. imbues this man with as much humanity -- fear, fight, acceptance, love -- as any supporting performance this year. Academy: take note.

Around halfway along we meet Frank King, the B-moviemaker who gave Trumbo a second chance. As played by an all-stops-out John Goodman (above), this character -- and his baseball bat -- just about walk away with the film.

By the time, we get to the likes of the Spartacus period and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman, above) and then to Exodus and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, below), we've arrived in, well, movie heaven. Juicy doesn't begin to describe the dribbling delights of all this Hollywoodland fun.

If that fine actress Diane Lane (below, with Cranston) seems a bit wasted as Trumbo's ever-faithful, ever-lasting wife, Cleo, well, that's small price to pay to the rest of this notable "entertainment." In the film's final major speech by Trumbo, we also hear an interesting "take" on the blacklist -- which will probably irk both left- and right-wingers. And stick around for the newsreel clips during the end credits: They're quite something, too.

From Bleecker Street and running 124 (not one of them boring) minutes, Trumbo opens here in South Florida and elsewhere throughout the USA as part of your Thanksgiving pleasures, tomorrow, Wednesday, November 25. Click here and scroll down to find a theater near you.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ivano de Matteo's screen version of Herman Koch's popular novel, THE DINNER, hits DVD

I hadn't read the novel (by Herman Koch) on which the award-winning Italian film, THE DINNER, was based. My spouse had, however, and he pronounced it a very fine film, as good as, though somewhat different from, that novel. The movie's tag line -- How far would you go to protect your children? -- should quickly bring to mind another Italian movie that hit US screens early this year: Human Capital. Both are, in their way, scathing critiques of Italian life today, though "Dinner" has the edge on "Capital" in some interesting ways.

First off, the film's director and co-adaptor (with Valentina Ferlan), Ivano de Matteo (shown at left), seems less interested in singling out for shame and reprisal the Italian upper classes and bourgeoisie than he is in offering up the human condition in all its complexity: love, anger, hypocrisy and occasionally even some self-examination.

The film begins with an act of road rage involving two drivers and one of their children and ends with a rather different sort of rage on a road. In between we meet those involved in that initial incident, as well as an extended family of two generations who find themselves also involved, from very different angles, in the results of that road rage. Before long, the family is also enmeshed in another, even darker and more unsettling incident that proves a much stranger example of, well, road rage again.

One of the strengths of this film is that it does not go where you expect. and when it goes elsewhere, it does so quite honestly and believably. It's a short film, too -- only 92 minutes -- yet in that time de Matteo and Ferlan lay their groundwork so well that there is no way we can say that the characters we are left with have not evolved from the characters we've been watching all along.

Those characters include two brothers, a highly-paid lawyer played by Alessandro Gassman (two photos up) and a pediatric surgeon (Luigi Lo Cascio, just above)

and their respective wives, Barbora Bobulova (below) and Giovanna Mezzogiorno (above). You will find your sympathies moving back and forth, but slowly, as character further reveals itself, goosed ever onward by the situation conceived by Koch in his novel and brought to fine life by the filmmaker.

Those children who (may or may not) need protecting are played all too believably by Jacopo Olmo Antinori (below, left) and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (below, right) and will make many of us parents want to take a second look at our own children, whom we may not know as well as we might imagine. The film will also make us take another look in the mirror and wonder what we would do under the circumstances found here.

This is the film's major achievement. It does not judge. It simply unveils. And it does this spectacularly well, with unusual economy and precision. The finale, in fact, is a case study in how little you need to show to make clear your point. The Dinner, distributed by Film Movement, arrives on DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, November 24. As with many of Film Movement's releases, the film will soon be available digitally as well, as it debuts on Netflix as of December 23.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

THE BAT takes us back to the 1950s mystery movie genre--but unfortunately, pretty batly

Well, it has Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead in in leading roles among the ensemble cast, but it also boasts a tale by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a popular mystery writer of the early-to-mid 20th Century, whose work has not stood the test of time. The story, based on a play Rinehart co-wrote in 1920, is by far the weakest and silliest thing in the film, though it gets some competition now and again from the dialog and performances, most of which seem to hover just this side of camp.

Moorehead (shown at extreme right) and Price (near right), both of whom certainly knew how to tease camp into entertaining fun, do their thing here, with Moorehead in particular providing the movie a sense of professionalism that never wavers. The plot somewhat clunkily combines bank fraud and embezelment with a serial killer preying on women (and when necessary, men) in that typical mystery setting of the old, dark house. The identity of the killer, known as The Bat, is supposedly the hook that audiences will bite, but that identity, after awhile, at least, is fairly obvious, despite the scattered red herrings along the way.

Some good fun is also provided by Lenita Lane as Moorhead's maid/cook/companion. (Ms Lane was married to the film's writer/director, Crane Wilbur.) It is also some dumb fun to see what passed for B-movie, would-be mainstream entertainment toward the end of the 50s (this one's from 1959), so if you're inclined, you can obtain The Bat via The Film Detective, running only 80 minutes but still a little long (in the tooth, too). Click here and then here to learn how.