Thursday, February 11, 2016

Matthew Heineman's multi-award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary, CARTEL LAND

TrustMovies is not certain why, but there does seem to be a hex on making an acceptable film about what some people call the "drug wars" and the country of Mexico -- whether that film be a narrative (like Oliver Stone's crass, slick and sleazy violence-porn Savages, Ridley Scott's ludicrously pretentious The Counselor, or the Denis Villeneuve's more recent starts-out-well-then-turns-ridiculous Sicario) or documentaries from Bernardo Ruiz's limited-in-scope and somewhat shallow Kingdom of Shadows to the film under consideration here: CARTEL LAND. Is this because the subject is simply too awful, crazy, ugly, impossibly huge and hydra-headed to even begin to pin down? Or perhaps it is due more to the fact that so much dishonesty, venality and betrayal is embedded here that any film tackling the subject runs the risk of embroiling itself in the very culture it depicts.

Whatever, this latest drug cartel documentary via director Matthew Heineman (shown at left), which has found its way into the five films nominated for Best Documentary "Oscar," though one of the better examples TrustMovies has encountered in all of these docs and narratives, still ends up making one question what has been left out of the movie as much as what is actually in it. The film blends two narrative strands, one of which involves an American-set group of para-military vigilantes who say they are trying to stop this violent Mexican drug war culture from entering our country (hello: It has been here for decades now) and is much less interesting and important than the second strand.

That would be the tale of a "noble," small-town Mexican doctor, José Mireles (shown above), who appears to have determined to rid the area surrounding his town of Michoacán of these drug lords and their crews. Why this is so necessary is explained early on, as townfolk tell of the slaughter of a particular family of fruit-pickers. We do not see this but only hear of it, but the telling is particularly horrible. (It was enough to prevent a good friend of mine from even continuing with the film.)

To achieve this riddance Mireles organizes a group of vigilantes who become surprisingly successful in their task. The police and elected officials, corrupt as ever, not only offer no help but actively try to dissuade these "Autodefensas" from bearing down on the particular drug cartel involved in the Michoacán area. So far so good. But when an accident involving a plane crash derails Mireles, and the good doctor turns over the running of the Autodefensas to a cute little gnome-like fellow known as Papa Smurf, things begin to fall apart.

How and why we see glimpses of,  and this is enough to make us question the reliability of just about everyone involved -- including the filmmaker. Director Heineman managed to get enormous access to Mireles and his Autodefensas, so much so that we finally discover things about this good doctor and loving family man that begin to call into question quite a lot. As usual, it appears that power corrupts, and the more powerful a man or group becomes, likewise the more corruptible.

Given what Heineman has chosen to show and tell us, we can't help but wonder what more damning tidbits he may have left out. Clearly, Mireles had control over what he allowed the director to see, hear, and maybe report on, so we wonder why we're discovering certain things but not some others. Ah, it's a conundrum, and the question of who is betraying who consistently crops up.

As for the American set of vigilantes, early on its leader explains that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled his group "extremists" -- and than proceeds to unintentionally explain why this is true. While it is clear that the filmmaker wanted to show us vigilantes on both sides of the borders, it seemed to me that those on the American side were much less interesting or productive (but perhaps more trustworthy?) that those to the south.

As usual with these drug movies, any kind of understandable truth proves so elusive that the viewer's patience eventually wears thin. That's the point, I guess. Of course, "truth" is always problematic. But where Mexico, America and the drug cartels are concerned, it is so multi-layered and out of reach as to seem non-existent. And that, dear reader/viewer, is fucking depressing.

Cartel Land, distributed theatrically by The Orchard and running 100 minutes, is available for streaming now via Netflix and elsewhere. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The wonderful Jonathan Pryce enlivens John Goldschmidt's feel-good dramedy, DOUGH

An unusually smart and intuitive actor, Jonathan Pryce (shown at left and further below) always seems to know just far to go in bringing to life curmudgeonly characters. His latest -- and one of his most low-key charming -- is the Jewish baker/widower who is one of the two main characters in DOUGH, a little wisp of a movie that makes its U.S. debut down here in Southern Florida this Friday and manages to hit almost all its marks, leaving you feeling good and gooey and maybe a little teary, too.

From almost its first scene, you will have little doubt where the movie -- directed by John Goldschmidt (shown at right) and written by Jonathan Benson and Jez Freedman -- is headed. But so charmingly is it conceived and executed that I suspect you will follow along eagerly as it makes its way toward that feel-good ending. From its juxtaposition of rites/prayers and Muslims/Jews to the genuine annoyance/ attraction between its two charismatic stars -- old-timer Pryce and younger veteran Jerome Holder (below, left) -- the movie easily maintains rhythm, focus and thrust.

The plot brings together a pair of mother/son Muslim immigrants, the latter of whom is having trouble finding legal employment, and that aforementioned baker, who has business and family problems of his own.

Toss in an sweet and attractive local widow (a nicely-used Pauline Collins, above) who owns the block that houses the building in which our baker works, a nasty entrepreneur who wants to buy that block, a not-so-nice drug dealer (the fine-but-underused Ian Hart) whose pot the immigrant son is peddling, along with some cops and other locals and you've got a small community's worth of problems on your hands.

Eventually, the movie becomes a simmering mix of baking, marijuana, gentrification and communication in which ideas about doing wrong things for the right reasons, as well as the meaning(s) of family and Muslim/Jew rapprochement bubble repeatedly to the surface.

If a little too much coincidence leads to a little too much melodrama, not to worry. The occasional extra-clever bit of dialog keeps things rolling, as do the good performances. By the time of the feel-good finale, you'll be smiling. shaking your head and muttering, "If only...."

Dough, from Menemsha Films and running just 95 minutes, opens here in South Florida on Friday, February 12, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters FAU and the Regal Shadowood 16; in Delray Beach at the Movies of Delray; in Lake Worth at the Movies of Lake Worth; in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show; in Fort Lauderdale at The Gateway Theatre; in Aventura at the AMC Aventura 24; in Miami Beach at the Regal South Beach 18; and in Miami at the O Cinema Wynwood. This spring it will expand, in limited release, to cinemas across the nation.

Note the  personal appearance -- doing Q&As at several 
of the above theaters -- by the film's young star, 
Jerome Holder (shown above, left). 
On Friday, February 12th, Jerome will appear in Boca Raton 
at the Living Room Theaters FAU (before the 4:15 show); 
at the AMC Aventura 24 (before the 7:00pm show); 
and in Miami at the O Cinema Wynwood (after the 7:00pm show). 
 On Saturday, February 13th, he'll be at the Movies of Delray 
(after the 12:30pm & 3:00pm shows, and before the 5:20pm show); 
in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show (before the 7:15pm show); 
and in Fort Lauderdale at The Gateway Theatre 
(after 7:00pm show and before the 9:45pm show).

Monday, February 8, 2016

Taylor Ri'chard/Zach Davis' THE FINAL PROJECT: the latest found-footage fumble

God damn -- they just keep on a comin', these nothing-new-under-the-sun, hand-held, found-footage exercises that began 17 years ago with The Blair Witch Project. With the exception of the terrific, engaging, funny, creepy and surprising Afflicted, there has barely been a movie in this new genre worth its salt, including that original boring and pretty awful marketing success, Blair Witch. Now arrives a film that marks the biggest waste of time TrustMovies has spent viewing both this year and last (maybe longer, too): THE FINAL PROJECT, the title of which comes via the video project a group of supposed college kids (they look a lot older) must deliver to their professor in order to get a passing grade. (The best thing about the film is its smart poster art, shown above.)

As directed, co-produced and co-written by newcomer Taylor Ri'chard (shown at left) and co-written/co-produced by Zach Davis (also a newcomer), the film begins with some barely understandable babblings (due to perhaps deliberately crummy sound) from a shadowy figure wondering why these kids would deliberately go into a known-to-be-haunted house. As Austin Powers might say, "Oh, come on!"

All too soon we realize that the sound is not the only thing sub-standard here. The visuals are even worse.  And both remain so throughout. I still do not quite understand why the filmmakers who dabble in this fairly new genre insist on providing some of the worst dialog currently going -- crammed with unsubtle exposition and attempting "realism" before art or entertainment.

These found footage "epics" desperately need characters with a trace of intelligence and wit, so that they can mouth some dialog that's fun and clever for a change, rather than the supposedly "realistic" but uber-tiresome stuff that comes out of the mouths of these cretins. The difference between the characters (their concerns and their dialog) in a joy like Paper Towns or the formerly mentioned Afflicted and the kids seen and heard here gives us the difference between a real movie and a big, fat waste of time.

Worse yet: So little happens for such a long while that audiences are likely to tune out well before the first scare (a comic one) arrives at the 49-minute point.  There's another scary scare at the 69-minute point, if you're still around. The entire film lasts only 79 minutes, with an extra full minute or more devoted to a supposedly frightening scratching sound on the soundtrack while the screen is black -- then appears a visual of a final newspaper article about disappeared students. All this extra nonsense allows the movie to reach its requisite 80-odd-minute running time.

Not a scene in the film has any originality; it's all been-there/done-that -- from playing the game of "Never-have-I-ever" and the inevitable sound of things that go bump in the night to dialog like "Mama, don't worry. Nuthin's gonna happen" and "We're gonna get outta here! It's gonna be all right!" If we are told -- and you can bet we are -- about an apparition in a white dress, you can be sure we'll see her eventually (as in the window above). Some of the other things we hear about, we don't see -- Civil War soldiers, for instance -- but as the budget here is miniscule, we are not surprised.

For awhile, the movie appears as though it might be more a simple murder mystery than anything to do with occult.  But so poorly made is the film that you can't be certain this was an intentional red herring on the filmmakers' part or the result of sheer laziness and lack of talent. The acting, from all concerned, is only as good as the dialog and characteri-zations make possible. The most interesting performance comes from Arin Jones (shown center, below, and three photos above), as the movie's most mysterious presence.

The surprising thing about The Final Project, however, is that it comes from the distributor, CAVU Pictures. CAVU releases a diverse slate -- from art films (Sunset Edge) to documentaries (The Real Dirt on Farmer John) to genre movie (Lucky Bastard). What unites these is their quality and originality. So I don't know quite what to make of this company's latest, well..., "surprise."

In any case, the movie opens this Friday, February 12, in Houston and Atlanta, and the following Friday, February 19, in Broussard, Louisiana, and on March 4 in New York and Los Angeles, and then expands nationwide. You can view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Foyle's War -- our war from across the pond

You may have watched some of this British series (2002-2015) on PBS filled with absorbing stories and British acting elite. But a serial watch on Netflix of all 28 feature-length episodes is better. Taken as a whole it feels like 3-D immersion into World War II years (later of the post-war and early Cold War) in bucolic Hastings by the sea, while combat rages in Europe.

Every chapter of FOYLE's WAR has an intriguing mystery, several layered story-lines, believable conversation, and memorable imagery. At end you've grown completely fond of the exacting, self-effacing Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle (accomplished actor Michael Kitchen), his plucky, quirky, entrepreneurial assistant Sam (Samantha) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and their mate, Sergeant Paul Milner, home from defeat at Trondheim missing half a leg, to help Foyle solve crimes (Anthony Howell).

Foyle has an RAF pilot son, Andrew, played by charming Julian Ovenden, below, left (Lady Mary Crawley's suitor, Charles Blake, in Downton Abbey). Ovenden left the scene before Andrew and Sam had progressed beyond 'will they, won't they', but several RAF-related stories unfold first. In one, a pilot who loves Andrew conceals his homosexuality and pays with his life; in another, an airforce officer (Roger Allam) resorts to crime to cover up sexual abuse of a young subordinate. But Andrew doesn't leave the scene before we share his flying experiences testing radar technology and experiencing "battle fatigue."

Our affection for the main characters is maintained by side-trips into their private lives and vicarious participation with Foyle in the moral choices he must make in each case -- he is the foil of wrong-doing, the moral center, our better selves. There's satisfaction also in the body of work as a whole -- the circumstances of war are so deeply, accurately embedded in the story lines that one absorbs history by osmosis, aided by many guest stars such as below (l to r) a youthful Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, and Emily Blunt from early episodes.

The stories begin in 1940 with pro-fascist, anti-Semitic views rife in the British upper classes and general hostility brewing as refugees pour into England to escape the Nazi's. The authorities are detaining enemy aliens and the public is griping about foreigners. In tracking down the killer of 'the German Woman', Foyle discovers that his superior (Edward Fox) had previously pulled strings enabling his judge colleague's German wife to avoid internment as an enemy alien. Meanwhile, a renown Jewish musician is locked up for shamefully trivial reasons.

Another episode is led by Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as Guy Spencer, self-styled British patriot, who whips public opinion and schmoozes pro-Nazi political elites. Spencer is relishing his glorious future under the Nazi's; Foyle needs to take him down without violating his right to free speech -- fortunately there's treason.

And onward, episode by episode, to the abuse of conscientious objectors (and anyone with a whif of socialist leanings), food shortages and other privations. Land girls tend the fields and kids collect trash (a chop bone yields enough glycerine to make cordite for two cartridges). Random bombs fall on Hastings and secret installations are multiplying. One hides the building of coffins; another conceals anthrax experiments. A Hastings murder leads Foyle to the secret SOE -- Special Operations Executive, MI5's branch of 'secret ops and dirty tricks' and (below) agent Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington), a spinster of complexity.

We meet English tycoon, Sir Reginald Walker, doing illegal business with the Germans. Sir Reginald's son Simon has built himself a Nazi shrine in the basement of the family estate where he meditates on German greatness. Below, Laurence Fox (nephew of Edward Fox, episode 1) has a juicier part in Simon than ever he did as the sidekick of Inspector Lewis.

After Pearl Harbor, American troop arrivals upset Hastings. A landowner has his acreage paved over for an American air base. The Yanks are paid more and they eat more. Racism against black soldiers creates incidents and Yanks impregnate local girls. One episode features Charlotte Riley as a young mother dying to emigrate to America with her baby's black father and maliciously blocked by red tape and violence.

At last, VE day, but not all flags and balloons; folks are exhausted, poor, and lives have to be rebooted. Now come the post-war stories. One is the repatriation of prisoners of war, except that our wartime ally Stalin has revenge in mind. Returning Russian POW's who had fought with the Germans are massacred fresh off the Ship Almanzora in Odessa -- a famously open secret. Foyle, assigned to recover a Russian escapee, finds that the Russians do not want to leave. And he doesn't want to see them murdered off the boat in Russia either.

Special mention goes to Andrew Scott (below, who also plays Moriarty in Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock), for his moving portrayal of a soldier who as a boy saw his aristocrat father murder his mother. Aiming to des-troy his father's reputation, he faces hanging, refusing to defend himself against false charges. (Hints are that Foyle himself may be his real father.)

The last season finds Foyle induced into working for MI5 in London where the mood and color of espionage is gray. I agree with creator Anthony Horowitz who says this may be some of his best work especially 'Elise', the very powerful final episode, in which MI5 contributed to the deaths of many agents dropped into France. The testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico is recreated and Cold War engaged, and Sam gets a life of her own. Now the question is will prolific mystery maker Anthony Horowitz and his endearing policeman Christopher Foyle be coaxed back for more? Will Foyle's War ever be recognized here for the exceptional work it is?

Anthony Horowitz (shown above, right, with Prince Charles) is also the author/adapter of Agatha Christie's Poirot in the 1990's and early Midsomer Murders; he was commissioned by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to pen Sherlock Holmes novels (The House of Silk and Moriarty) and to add to the Ian Fleming list of Bond novels with Trigger Mortis. He has many screenplays to his credit and has made himself a national treasure with all, as is now Michael Kitchen's Christopher Foyle, himself.

Click HERE for Anthony Horowitz's excellent discussion of the making of the last series, which I think can be taken to mean that he's got more Foyle in him before he quits.

The above post is written by TrustMovies' 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Streaming tip: Riley Stearns' indie, FAULTS, proves a superb surprise in every way

One of those streaming surprises that catch you up between breaths in their twisty, funny, spacey logic, as well as a movie that knows exactly what it's doing while keeping a number of steps ahead of its audience, FAULTS , written and directed by Riley Stearns, opened theatrically in a very limited released almost one year ago, and, as often happens to low-budget independent films, simply disappeared. It's available now via Netflix streaming and Amazon (and probably elsewhere), and it is a don't-miss movie for anyone who enjoys something different that is just about perfectly executed.

Mr. Stearns, shown at left, has come up with something equal parts darkly comic, timely and increasingly bizarre, and he has cast it to perfection, too, -- using his wife, that superb actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and an equally fine actor, Leland Orser, in the leading roles.  Ms Winstead (shown below and currently getting her long overdue moment in the sun in the new PBS series, Mercy Street), has given nonstop great performances in everything from the latest remake of The Thing to Smashed. I would say that she has outdone herself with Faults, except she always outdoes herself. That seems to come naturally to the woman.

Her co-star, Mr. Orser (shown below), too, proves a surprise. A fine actor (and one of the reasons Taken 3 was a better movie that most critics wanted to admit), he matches Winstead scene for scene and surprise for surprise. What these characters do and go through in the course of this 89-minute movie is, as we used to say, a humdinger.

The story is a simple and sturdy one: a down-on-his-luck fellow whose career has been all about deprogramming victims of cults, is hired by the parents of a young woman who's been recently "cultivated."  His job is to deprogram her as quickly as possible. That he himself is in big financial trouble proves no small inducement to take this latest case.

The movie is by turns funny, bizarre, dramatic and understated. And the performances from the entire cast are simply terrific. These include Beth Grant and Chris Ellis and the parents, Jon Gries as Orser's boss, and Lance Reddick as the boss' hired hand.

Everything works in Faults, and the beauty of the film is how it works. Part mystery, part comedy, part drama, part "exposé," a movie this good does not appear all that often. Pounce, please -- and do so before you learn much more about this very special film. (I am adding it now to my best-of-last-year list.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sean Mewshaw's rom-com TUMBLEDOWN: loss and recovery, with some fun in between

There are those of us film lovers who would never miss a movie starring Rebecca Hall, one of the finer and more versatile actresses working today. A keen intelligence coupled to deep feeling radiates from this woman. If her co-star, Jason Sudeikis, can't quite match the depths of Ms Hall, he still manages to partner her quite nicely in the new rom-com, TUMBLEDOWN, directed by Sean Mewshaw (shown below: this is his first full-length film), from an initially intelligent and occasionally off-the-wall funny screenplay by Desiree Van Til.

In the film, Hall (below, left) plays Hannah, the widow of a famous folk rock musician who died far too early in his successful career, leaving his many fans and Hannah bereft. Enter Sudeikis (below, right) as Andrew, a college professor with a Random House contract to write a book about the late musician -- even though the widow is supremely protective of her late husband's life and work and, in fact, plans to write about him herself. Do we expect conflict, humor and budding romance? You got it. And for about two-third of the film, this all works quite entertainingly -- buoyed by Hall's commanding presence and Sudeikis' looney, sexy charm.

In the supporting cast are a number of stalwarts like Blythe Danner (as Hannah's mom), Richard Masur (as her dad) and Griffin Dunne as the local bookstore owner and friend, each of whom does wonders with relatively small screen time.

The biggest problem in the film arises with the current "significant others" of our protagonists: Diana Agron (above) as Andrew's girl, and Joe Manganiello (below, right) as Hannah's main squeeze. These two are treated so cavalierly by the filmmakers as to be almost beside the point. Yet they exist; we meet and get to know them a bit, and then they're summarily disposed of with less than a "by your leave."

Granted Hannah has made it clear that she uses the Manganiello character merely for sex (so does that mean he's not worth a goodbye?), but Agron, caring and supportive of her man, is treated even worse.

All this might perhaps not be a deal-breaker, except for the fact that the movie runs downhill during it's final third. There's too much repetitive angst from Hannah about not being able to "let go," and the movie ends with that typical and cliched  race-to-declare-oneself-before-the-love-object-gets-away.

Too bad, because the build-up is winning, and the performances are fine. But somebody didn't think things out well enough before the filming began, and so the movie leaves us exceedingly unconvinced. Tumbledown, from Starz Digital and running a too-long 103 minutes, opens theatrically in New York (at the Village East Cinema) and Los Angeles (at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas) tomorrow, February 5, then goes nationwide and hits VOD the following Friday, February 12.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO: It's the new Peter Greenaway and very sexual. 'Nuff said.

OK. So it's gorgeous (that pretty much goes without saying regarding most movies by Peter Greenaway). With EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO, black-and-white cinematography moves into color; the screen splits, then splits again. Sometimes we see black-and-white and color simultaneously. And as happens with Greenaway now and again (remember The Pillow Book?), there are a number of shots featuring uncut cock (belonging here to famed film director Sergei Eisenstein -- or at least the actor who's playing him, Elmer Bäck).

I would say that Mr. Greenaway, shown at right, is up to his old tricks, but these are rather new tricks, and simply for that color, exquisite sets and locations, not to mention all of the full-frontal beauty, the movie is worth seeing. As an exploration into the life and desires of filmmaker Eisenstein, I do not know enough about the filmmaker to be certain. But maybe Sergei himself would fall in love with this movie. I certainly did.

I want to see it again, too -- with English subtitles included, because, even though the film is spoken mostly in English, the accents of its two stars (one Finnish, the other Mexican) are so strong that I suspect I missed enough of the dialog to need a second viewing. Visually, too, it's such a knockout that it warrants another look.

Historically, the movie tampers with the time that Eisenstein, having departed the United States for Mexico in 1931, where he hoped to make a film (he did indeed shoot more than two miles of film stock), but instead -- as shown here, at least -- gets more involved with his guide, Palomino Cañedo (played by the quietly commanding Mexican actor, Luis Alberti), who opens Eisenstein's heart, mind and ass to new worlds of pleasure and ideas.

In addition to its gorgeous location photography and interior sets, much of the movie takes place in and around a very large bed (above) that proves pivotal to a number of scenes. In the role of Eisenstein, Mr. Bäck seems a rather inspired choice. The actor, below, who looks a good like like his real-life counterpart, combines a kind of loopy, clownish behavior with a physicality and sexuality that prove oddly charismatic.

In the role of his guide, Señor Alberti (shown below, right), a man of small, thin stature who possesses very large penile/genital package, seems born to disrobe -- which he does several times in the course of the film.

Greenaway uses this character of "guide" in ways both obvious and symbolic, never more so than in the film's prize sex scene in which this man of clearly Indian ancestry tutors our filmmaker in the joys of sex, as well as the philosophy of the conquered and conqueror, planting a flag in a place where, up till now, I don't think we've seen it dwell.

For all its visual pleasures -- including a couple of dramatic and gorgeous sudden changes of perspective -- Eisenstein in Guamajuato is also full of history (the entourage of Upton Sinclair makes an appearance here), ideas and provocations.

The filmmaker seems to have taken what is known of Eisenstein's time in Mexico and embroidered this with extravagant visuals that perfectly underscore what is going on physically and emotionally: exploration, loneliness, discovery, transgression.

If we get much more into the mind and body of the filmmaker rather than the guide, that's fine, as Palomino's character exists mostly to bring forth the repressed -- sexually and politically -- side of Eisenstein. What the filmmaker needs, as his wife tells him in one of the several phone conversations, "Is a secretary, a nurse, and a bum wiper."

Intercut periodically are scenes from the filmmaker's greatest hits, as well as some sexual animation that stands in for what arthouse/mainstream audiences are not quite ready to view just yet.

All in all, this is one hell of a surprising, eye-opening, mind-expanding ride. And I can't help but wonder what its viewers will think the next time they see one of Eisenstein's classics?

From Strand Releasing and running 105 minutes, the movie opens this Friday in New York (at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7). In the weeks to come, it will hit theaters nationwide on a limited basis. Click here, and then click on "Screenings"  to see all currently scheduled playdates.