Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Onetti family's very low-end Argentine giallo, FRANCESCA, hits Blu-ray, DVD & CD

Putting the "lo" in giallo, this bizarre example of how-did-it-ever-get-made-let-alone-released? Italian giallo homage hit home video late last month. TrustMovies is catching up with it only now, and is posting this short review simply to give his readers warning. FRANCESCA is such a poorly-made movie -- flat, tiresome, pretentious and very nearly senseless -- that I can see no reason, even for die-hard giallo fans, to actually view it.

Though it cribs from Dante, that great Italian poet would cringe at how his work has been degraded. Aping the style and look of the 1970s (when giallo reigned supreme), the film was actually made, so far as I can determine, in 2015. I suppose this is an accomplishment of sorts. But the movie's plot is so minimal and dumb -- a bunch of murder victims strung together mostly by silliness -- and the screenplay a total embarrassment (plodding and hugely expository), that its co-writer (with his brother, Nicolás) and director, Luciano Onetti (shown at left) deserves little more than a loud, large raspberry. Granted that giallo is itself a rather low-end genre, but this is ridiculous.

The movie's only interesting moments come at its beginning and end, when the screen seems to literally open up vertically (and close back at the end), as a sliver of light expands slowly into full widescreen. What is on the screen, however, isn't worth that nifty opening/closing effect.

The writing and direction are amateur in the extreme, as are most of the performances. The film is arty-farty, as well. (Piano- playing in gloves: has any pianist ever managed that very well?)  The Onetti family -- who contributed to the writing, direction, music and acting -- has a lot to answer for.

Running a thankfully brief 80 minutes and being released by the only-too-appropriately-named Unearthed Films, Francesca comes to home video via the sometimes more discerning MVD Entertainment Group

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In Drew Waters' rom-com tear-jerker, NEW LIFE, cancer and cute prove a deadly combo

The new indie rom-com-drama NEW LIFE (Nouvelle vie) is a made-in-the-USA product so why, I wonder, does it it need that French translation? One of its subsidiary characters lives in Paris; maybe that's the reason. The movie, co-written and directed by Drew Waters (shown below), begins with a hunky young man in a bathtub offering up a bit of narration that seems immediately troubling because it sounds a tad pompous, generic and clichéd. But then he tells us of his first and only love, whom he met when the two were seven years old (she's is missing her primary front teeth and waiting for that second set to appear). Cute. And sweet.

The movie, which is reasonably well-acted and has at least relatively believable dialog, is a love story that hits just about all the bases: love-at-first-sight, long-distance relationships, love vs work, attraction to another, pregnancy, sickness, and so on. In fact, it could be the Love Story (Erich Segal variety) for the millennial set. It is professionally filmed, with a certain elegance that carries over right through to the end credits. When, at the 20-minute mark, what usually happens at the end of most rom-coms has already occurred, you will realize that you are in for something like long-term love. And so it is. Sort of.

Along the way, however, there will be little red flags that pop up: Why are these people talking so loudly in a public library? Why is that character stopping his stretch limo in the middle of the street and blocking traffic? None of these incidents have any consequences, either, which gets a red flag all of its own. Also, our hero and heroine (played by Jonathan Patrick Moore and Erin Bethea, shown above and below) are just so cute together that this soon borders on the cutesy.

When cancer finally rears its ugly head, cute is perhaps not its best companion. But there you have it. New Life -- which is, it turns out, dedicated to showing us that you can indeed have this titular endeavor -- is also saddled with that really terrible narration that we noticed up front. Each time we hear it, it simply gives a verbal voice to what we are either simultaneously seeing or already know. The final line of narration, in fact, you will no doubt be able to voice, right along with our narrator.

What we get from this by-the-numbers movie is utterly generic: generic love, generic happiness, generic grief, generic resurgence -- that last via a plot line that proves both convenient and coincidental. If you are relatively new to motion pictures, or really love the tried-and-true, you may cozy up to this film, bigtime. What New Life engendered in me was a wish to view again a really good -- specific, unusual, and adult -- love story: something like, say, 5 to 7.

The movie also uses some good actors in supporting roles, such as Bill Cobbs (two photos up) and Terry O'Quinn, above. From Argentum Entertainment and running 90 minutes, the film opens this Friday, October 28, in 20 cities around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

Monday, October 24, 2016

FINDING BABEL: A Russian writer returns in David Novack and Andrei Malaev-Babel's doc

Here's a new documentary about Issac Babel that I suspect will appeal much more to confirmed Babel-ophiles than to folk like TrustMovies (who has heard of Babel down the decades but has never gotten around to actually reading any of his work). Consequently, watching this somewhat disorganized movie (that does eventually come together better than you might expect) proves a bit of an endurance test. Granted, Babel's personality and character may have been elusive to his readers, but the work itself -- from what we hear of it here (read well enough by actor Liev Schreiber) -- seems even more elusive, given that we get such minute snatches accompanied by a rather obvious and overdone visuals.

Director and co-writer (with Babel's grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel) David Novack (shown at left) has other documentaries to his credit, so he does not arrive at this project as a total newcomer. Perhaps the combination of his goals, along with those of Malaev-Babel, were not so easily and/or simultaneously satisfied because the end result -- for quite awhile, at least -- seems scattered and all over the place.

First, we get a (very) brief history of the man and his life (mostly of his early disappearance and death, which was not even told to his closest relatives. Ah, those Russians: They sure know how to do "disappeared."). Then we're given smidgens of Babel's writing, along with increasing talking-head interviews, and eventually we come to realize that this documentary is not really about Babel himself, but instead concerns the journey his grandson, Andrei (shown below), is making to "discover" his grandfather.

Andrei is front-and-center throughout and this proves -- eventually -- to be enough to hold our interest, mostly because of some of the people he chooses to contact and interview. From them, we learn snippets about the famous writer, yes, but really more about Russia then and now. It is a land to avoid. Unless of course you were born then, and then you'd best simply go with the flow, from one horrendous, murderous dictator like Joseph Stalin, whose power and paranoia ended Babel's life, to the country's current Putin-ous leader, about which, toward the film's end, we see, hear and experience some modern-day corrupt power.

In between we meet a number of interesting folk, chief among these the noted French actress Marina Vlady (above, whose father was Russian-born) and the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, below, who as might be expected, has some succulent things to tell us. (One of this writer's poems, Lies, was given to me in calligraphy by a good friend when my daughter was born. It has hung on my wall for decades now. It is brilliant and on-the-nose, though many in my family hate it. You can read it in translation in the link above -- or here.)

Most of all, we meet and spend a bit of time with Babel's widow and Andrei's grandmother (shown below), a woman who was apparently rather cold but talented (she designed a famous Russian subway station) and who, even as this documentary was being filmed (she died during the filming), found it hard to dredge up and/or part with certain feelings.

We even pop in on rehearsals for a play that Babel wrote, and watch the performers and hear a bit of dialog. But, again, all this is so brief and offhand that it does not add much to our understanding of the writer. By the doc's finale, if Babel (shown in an archival photo below) remains pretty much the enigma he was at its beginning, Andrei's journey has at least been salutary for him and somewhat interesting for us, too. Maybe the movie will send viewers off to peruse the writer's work that still remains. (Much of Babel's unpublished stuff was destroyed by Stalin and his apparatchicks: Yes, those Russians certainly know how to "disappear" people, along with their ideas.)

Finding Babel (rather a misnomer overall, I think) -- a co-production of Canada/France/Russia/ USA/Ukraine and running 88 minutes -- opens this Friday, October 28, in New York City at the Cinema Village and at the RED Cinema Stadium 15 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The film opens December 2 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Town Center 5, and then in Williamsburg Virginia beginning Thursday, December 8, at the Kimball Theatre. To find an update on currently scheduled screenings, click here.

Personal appearances: 
There will be Q&As 
with director David Novack 
and various guests 
at NYC's Cinema Village 
every evening during this one-week run. 
Consult the theater for exact times.

TrustMovies bonus: Watch HOTEL NOIR -- Sebastian Gutierrez's latest (and still in limbo) charmer -- for free!

Made in 2012 but, after a brief pay-per-view window, still stuck in distribution limbo, HOTEL NOIR is the latest film to have been written and directed by one of TrustMovies' favorite filmmakers: Sebastian Gutierrez. No other movie-maker that I can think of has this guy's oddball sense of humor coupled to an enormous love of women (in so many ways). His product is as charming, enjoyable and off-the-wall as it gets, as demonstrated by his trio of "lovely lady" movies -- Women in Trouble, Elektra Luxx and Girl Walks Into a Bar.  This trilogy (I'd call it that, anyway) offers non-stop delight, with the additional "plus" of an anything-goes attitude that views sexuality as something that ought above all to be enjoyed as pleasurable and joyous -- hell, even humorous, too.

Gutierrez, pictured at right, may not be the first to make a movie that harks back to 1950s noir, but it is certainly one of the more lovingly recreated. It doesn't so much make fun of noir as it does pay it a grand homage -- while at the same time taking the kind of multiple stories and plot strands that this filmmaker so dearly loves and bouncing them into each other with pizzazz and finesse.

My biggest surprise here in that the movie does not have quite the buoyancy and lightness of that earlier trilogy, the reason being, I suspect, that the themes and concerns of film noir -- mystery, murder, betrayal and love (generally unrequited when not out-and-out trashed) -- don't exactly lend themselves to things graceful and lighter-than-air.

Still, what Gutierrez has accomplished here is quite lovely to look at -- the black-and-white cinematography is aces -- with performances from some fine actors, many of whom have graced his earlier work, that pull you in and keep you amused and impressed throughout.

Chief among these is Gutierrez regular, Carla Gugino (above), as a cocktail lounge chanteuse with connections to quite a number of other characters in the film. One of these is the good-looking cop played by Rufus Sewell (above, right. and below, whom the filmmaker used earlier to fine effect in his "naughty mermaid" cable movie She-Creature).

Malin Akerman (below, center) plays a night club performer with ties to the mob and a yen for Mr. Sewell, while Kevin Connolly (in the rain-soaked auto three photos up) plays a nasty piece of work who evidently has attributes that make him very good in the sack.

Since its title would indicate than there's a hotel involved here, most of the film indeed takes place in one -- in which another of our favorites, Rosario Dawson, below, works as a maid who moonlights as, well... other things. 

Along the way she encounters another Gutierrez delight, Danny DeVito, below, who actually begins this movie with a shaggy dog narration that leads to.... No. I don't want to give one more thing away.

Completing the major cast members is another favorite, Robert Forster, below, playing the older, kindly and more seasoned cop who is partner to Sewell. Sex, mostly straight with a little gay tossed in, rears its lovely head, as do a robbery, several killings and a number of surprises along the way, a couple of the best of which are saved for the last.

For folk who are partial to noir, you can relax into this one, knowing that for all the fun to be had, the movie still plays it straight, never descending into camp. The actors are all on the same page regarding style, and much of the fun comes from their very genuine, straight-faced line readings provided by Gutierrez's smart and charming script.

The filmmaker tells me that Hotel Noir came about because YouTube, which commissioned Girl Walks Into a Bar, asked for a follow-up (not a sequel but a similar size/cast movie), so he responded with the idea of a black-and-white period film noir.  

Shot in just 15 days (by Gutierrez regular, Cale Finot), the result can now be viewed by TrustMovies' readers free-of-charge. Gutierrez has graciously agreed to keep the movie up on line for a month, but don't wait too long. I'd hate to have you all ready for a nice evening of noir, only to discover the movie is suddenly gone. To access the film, click here , and if that does not work for you, copy and paste the following link into your web browser: .  Oh -- and Mr. Gutierrez suggests that you view the movie in as high a definition as possible because, yes, it does look good! 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gardeners, arise! Rosie Stapel's gorgeous doc, PORTRAIT OF A GARDEN, is your new must-see

Who'd have imagined that spending 98 minutes (that span a full year) inside the incredible garden on a large estate in The Netherlands could provide such pleasure and interest? For anyone who is a gardener, or loves gardening, TrustMovies should think that PORTRAIT OF A GARDEN will be a "must." Even for someone like me, who hasn't tended a garden since around age eight, the movie proved captivating. It is certainly one of the most beautiful visual and philosophical looks at the productive collaboration between man and nature to find its way onto film.

The filmmaker, Rosie Stapel, shown at left, is a relative newcomer to the documentary field, though she has worked in art departments, on production design and as an art director for nearly two decades. Though this is her first film, as director, producer, cinematographer and editor, she has very skillfully woven together visuals, conversations and ideas into a tapestry that takes us through a full year in the garden, beginning in January, 2013. Winter has set in, yet there is, as always, plenty to do, and her film's two protagonists, who, we see constantly at work -- Jan Freriks, the 85-year-old pruning master (shown below, left), and Daan van der Have (below, right), the estate's owner and gardener -- must get that job done.

The movie may put you in mind of that little-seen gem, A Little Chaos, directed, co-written by and starring the late Alan Rickman, and not only because some of the vegetation here is descended from cuttings from the palace garden of King Louis XIV, but many of the rules of pruning used in this garden date back to that time period, as well.

The pruning master and the gardener have a number of conversations throughout the film, and these are pertinent not only to the garden but to the lives we're living today, and to the way the world is changing. The film's subtitle, Everything Has Its Time, turns out to be applicable not just to the pruning and harvesting -- of which we see much -- but to our world outside that garden, as well.

Unless you are yourself a gardener or are very well-acquainted with a multitude of fruits and vegetables, you will not have seen so many varieties as you will here. While we don't learn all that much about any single one of these, the very act of seeing them and knowing that they exist proves its own reward.

What we do learn is something of the character of the two men we spend most time with: Daan and Jan. The former tells us early on, "To have a beautiful garden, you have to have a very strong desire -- and also be able to deal with the fact that this desire will never be fulfilled." Learn to love what is beautiful and special, he advises, rather than feeling only the frustration. The old-timers have a dry sense of humor, too. "I wish I were 60 again," says Jan. "You mean really young," answers Daan.

Along with all the pruning, and eventually the copious harvests (really something to behold!), we learn some interesting history (fifty years ago, folk spent nearly half their income on food; today it's more like 10 percent) and even a get a recipe or two (fish fried on a fig leaf will capture a delicious taste in the skin). We watch as apprentices are trained, mildew hits the grapes, and seasons change from (seemingly) barren (below) to verdant and lush (at bottom).

By year's end you will have experienced a garden as beautiful and fruitful as any you're likely to see -- by a filmmaker we are sure to hear from again -- and soon, I hope.

From Grasshopper Film, in Dutch with English subtitles, Portrait of a Garden opens this Wednesday, October 26, in its theatrical premiere for a one-week-only run at New York City's Film Forum. It will then play The Screen in Santa Fe on November 18, Time & Space Limited in Hudson, New York, on November 27, and then the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, come February 5, 2017. Click here (then click on Where to Watch) as the weeks go by to see if further playdates/cities have been added.

Of parentage, parenting and naughty genetic experimentation: Anders Thomas Jensen's wacky/remarkable MEN & CHICKEN

The poster quote comparing this very odd film to a combination of The Three Stooges and The Island of Dr. Moreau is actually not that far afield. MEN & CHICKEN, the Danish/German co-production written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam's Apples, The Green Butchers) offers more proof, if any were needed, that Mr. Jensen's inclination toward the bizarre remains in full swing. In his latest oddball wonder, the filmmaker takes two rather weird brothers, having discovered that their suddenly dead dad is not their biological father, on a road trip to a very un-populated island on which they meet, greet and get to know their whole-lot-weirder extended family.
Further discovery ensues.

Granted that Mr. Jensen, shown at right, has peopled his movie with an array of characters so far from what most of us would call "normal" that it takes some adjustment to weather this movie. The adjustment is worth it, however, for beyond the very dark comedy and search for sexual outlet of the first maybe two-thirds of the film, the final half hour is so increasingly full of surprise, shock, dismay and hope that, should you persevere, you will leave the movie in quite a different state of mind and heart than you found yourself, even a short time earlier.

Much better-liked in England and on the continent than over here in the USA, the movie offers a combination of philosophy, religion, morality and education all wrapped up in black comedy, mystery and family that results in the kind of intellectually horrifying climax (in which the mystery we've been wondering about for most of the movie is finally solved -- but, don't worry, it's not via blood and guts) followed by a denouement that gives new meaning to the idea of "the other," while simultaneously proving almost unbearably moving -- all the more so because it is not "pushed."

The expert cast is led by two fine Danish actors, the peripatetic and versatile Mads Mikkelsen (above, left) and the not-so-well-known but equally fine David Dencik (above, right). The supporting cast of family "brothers" -- Nicolaj Lie Kaas (below, left),  Søren Malling (center, two photos below) and Nicolas Bro (below, right) -- is equally good, though their countenances are obscured by very effective make-up (all our boys here have a tendency toward the hare-lip and other varied deformities).

Because the movie spends a lot of its time on matters related to sex, along with the inability of this family of men to get any, it may strike some viewers as too crass or gross. Again, stick with the film. Its decision to rub our noses in certain things does have a point. (Dad's nickname, it turns out, is "The Sausage of Death," and not without good reason.)

A word must also be said for the Oscar-worthy set design and the amazing location in which much of the movie was filmed. This is a house to remember,  The special effects, too, are first-rate -- often barely there, and just for a moment or two, so that you may find yourself from time to time asking, Did I just see what I think I saw?

TrustMovies missed this film at the time of its theatrical release, as I suspect many of you also did. No matter. You can catch Men & Chicken now, via its Blu-ray/DVD/Digital copy debut from Drafthouse Films.and MVD Entertainment Group. Running 104 minutes and in Danish with English subtitles, the movie hits the street this Tuesday, October 25 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dutch deadpan in Alex van Warmerdam's very dry hit-man comedy, SCHNEIDER VS BAX

Remember Borgman -- that dark, Dutch, sort-of-variation on Boudu Saved from Drowning (and other what-to-do-about-the-trashy-tramp movies)? Alex van Warmerdam, the writer/director of that strange, cunning little film is back again with another bizarre, deadpan, dark comedy-of-menace titled SCHNEIDER VS BAX. It arrives this coming week on DVD, and if your taste runs to this sort of thing, the movie is a good example of this sub-genre.

Mr. van Warmerdam (shown above, right, and at left) also co-stars in the film, as he did in Borgman, and his gruff, low-key, macho presence is quite right for both his role and the film. He handles the screenplay and dialog with ease, and his direction ropes his entire cast onto the same page and style, making the most of this kind of deadpan, at which you often don't know whether to laugh or wince. (You'll probably do both at once.) The filmmaker has created a cast of characters that you may find it hard to warm up to, but this is fine, since some of them will not survive the trip.

The tale here is of a pair of hit men, evidently quite good at their jobs, who -- for some reason which we never really learn -- have been pitted against each other by the fellow who gives them their assignments. Van Warmerdam plays Bax, and another actor from Borgman, Tom Dewispelaere  (below), plays Schneider. Neither character knows the other, and though they fairly quickly learn that their boss is playing them against each other, they still evidently feel they must kill that other in order to survive.

Bax gets a surprise visit from his grown daughter (Maria Kraakman, shown below and further below, who is very good in this role) and then from his father -- both of whom complicate his life and reactions -- while Schneider becomes involved with a pimp and whore who equally complicate his assignment. How this all works out managers to be very dark, often funny, and even surprising. You will imagine that you know what is going to happen here, but I can tell you with some certainty that you will be wrong -- in at least a couple of important instances.

Coincidence does occur, and certain scenes seem a tad incredible, and yet so bleak, bizarre and weirdly funny is it all that, somehow, credibility is maintained -- if barely. Simply for the scenes between Bax, his father and daughter, the movie manages to rivet you in its own, special, this-can't-be-happening-but-oh-my-goodness-it-is manner.

In its odd way Schneider vs Bax turns out to be a kind of very late coming-of-age tale -- and a pretty good one, at that -- even though it is not clear for quite some time just who it is that's doing the coming.

From Film Movement and running a fairly sleek 96 minutes, the movie arrives on DVD this Tuesday, October 25 -- for purchase or rental.