Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mafia-lite: Pierfrancesco Diliberto directs, acts in & co-writes THE MAFIA KILLS ONLY IN SUMMER

TrustMovies has long insisted that if you want to see a really good movie about the Mafia, it simply has to be Italian. Italians understand and are able to show these ugly, murdering sociopaths for the walking, talking pieces of crap that they are. American movies and television -- from The Godfather and The Sopranos on down (or up, depending on your viewpoint) always manage to glamorize their subject, no matter how "real" they try to make things. Italian films -- from I cento passi to The Sicilian Girl are a whole other breed.

Now comes something a little different: It's Italian, all right, and it's a kind of Mafia comedy. But not anything of the heavy-handed-but often-hilarious Joe Pesci variety. No. THE MAFIA KILLS ONLY IN SUMMER offers a combination coming-of-age/first-love tale set in Palermo, Sicily, and wrapped around the Mafia as perceived by our little (and then larger, older) hero. The film's creator (director, lead actor and co-writer), shown at right, is a popular Italian comic and satirist known as Pierfrancesco Diliberto, aka Pif.

His movie, initially quite charming and amusing, introduces us to his younger self, as the boy Arturo -- played by a very good young actor in his first role, Alex Bisconti, below, right -- learns about everything from love and parents to school and the Mafia, in the process forming what can only be called a rather warped view of things. Given that the general populace cannot and will not admit even to the Mafia's existence, it is little wonder our confused hero goes his own odd way.

Movie fans of Italian cinema who know and love Il Divo should get a big charge out Pif's use of newsreel footage of the real Giulio Andreotti, who soon becomes the particular hero of little Arturo. There's a journalist who befriend the kid, too, offering some good advice. And then there's the love of his life, Flora, who appears as the school's new girl and has Arturo in the palm of her hand forever after. Into all this is layered various Mafia killings, as Arturo tries to come to terms with what he does and doesn't see and understand. (The movie's title comes from something his father tells him to make things "better.")

All this is reasonably interesting and fun -- until the adult Arturo arrives, in the form of Pif himself, who may be a fine and funny talk show host but plays a bumbling adult hero in a surprisingly charmless fashion. He looks and acts a bit like our own Ray Romano but turns out to be -- at this point in his career, at least -- not much of an actor. The movie soon turns into what it has been threatening to become all along: a network-TV-level, romantic sit-com. As the adult Flora, however, Cristiana Capotondi (of Kryptonite!), shown above and below, right, brings a healthy dose of warmth and beauty to the proceedings.

There is a fairly amusing section during which Arturo works as a "pianist" on a popular TV show (below), on which the host practices his "French," but at the point at which the film moves from the kids to the adult figures, it soon ceases to be very funny,  insightful, or satiric. And its final "homage" to the dead judges and other heroes who stood up to the Mafia -- and died for it -- seems almost tacky and more than a tad out of place. As Arturo teaches his own little son the lessons of how these dead figures stood up to this criminal organization, we are clearly meant to learn and appreciate these lessons, too. But it all comes off as mostly Mafia-lite.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer opens tomorrow, March 6, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and in the Los Angeles area on March 27 at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. Other cities will gain the film during April, as it expands across the country.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Thrills, fun, surprise -- and beer -- in Daniel Alfredson's KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN

Most kidnapping movies these days are nasty affairs, often with torture and murder tossed in for good measure, so it's a pleasure to report that today's film -- KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN (yes, it's that beer guy), based on a real-life event that many Americans might not be familiar with, occurring in (and lasting most of) the month of November, 1983, in The Netherlands -- is a straight-ahead, what-happened-and-why affair that sticks mostly to the facts, while providing pretty good character studies of the participants as it rolls perkily along.

As co-written by and William Brookfield and reporter Peter R. de Vries and directed handily by Sweden's Daniel Alfredson (shown at left), the film presents us with a group of pals, somewhat down on their luck and looking to make a killing somehow or other, who, when one of its earlier get-rich-quick schemes (below) goes bad, decides to kidnap the local beer maven. The IQ level and social/ emotional smarts of this group vary, so its usual leaders -- Cor (Jim Sturgess) and Willem (Sam Worthington) -- take over to see that events go as planned.

Of course they don't -- which is part of the fun. Other parts are provided by the back stories, especially that of Willem and his family. His father, it seems, spent much of his working life in the Heineken employ and was treated with something less than care and respect when he was let go. Mr. Worthington (below) keeps his anger at a simmer throughout and is quite effective.

Mr. Sturgess (below), on the other hand, seems the more chipper of the two: smart and quick to respond, but with the occasional flciker of anger and hurt that is never fullly explained. When you read the end titles that tell us what eventually happens to each of our fellows, this will give you some interesting information upon which to chew. Meanwhile, you can sit back and enjoy the thrills and surprises -- one of the best of which is provided by, of all things, a Xerox machine.

Not a surprise: how very good is one of the stars of the film, Anthony Hopkins, in the title role. We usually expect good things from this actor, and he does not disappoint here, bringing a fierce intelligence and a certan charm to the role of the beer magnate. Despite the care he appears to show for his chauffeur, who is also kidnapped and threatened with death, you can, without too much effort, ascertain in this man the ability to cast aside anything or anyone that stands in his way.

Hopkins' role, however, is but a supporting one. We could have used more of him, for sure, but that would have taken away from the propulsion and momentum the movie gains as it goes along. The rest of the supporting cast is OK, too, though only Mark van Eeuwen stands out as the worst of these bad apples. Ryan Kwanten is given so little to do that he once again mostly fades into the woodwork as one of the crew, but David Dencik registers well as Heineken's cowed driver.

Any women's roles are mostly decoration, though the actresses do what they can, given their minimal screen time. This one is all about boys being boys, and as such, it comes through as decent fun and games. If it doesn't generate as much box-office as it might, that's probably because it opts for character, time and place over violence and gore,

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, from the newly christened distributor Alchemy, opens this Friday, March 6, in a limited release. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

BUZZARD's memorable oddities: character, movie, and filmmaker/actor, Joel Potrykus

If you caught indie filmmaker Joel Potrykus' earlier film, Ape, and saw its lead performance from actor Joshua Burge, you're one up on TrustMovies. I came to the new film, BUZZARD, as a virgin to the work of Mr. Potrykus and so was promptly blown-away by the bizarre Mr. Burge and the film in which he takes center stage. What a face this guy has! Every bit as strange and memorable as that of Julian Richings (from last week's oddity, Ejecta), Burge's is younger and a tad more handsome (in a strange way), and the actor uses his face very well, passing from loony to nasty, vulnerable to empty and finally into something quite frigh-tening. And yet this actor manages to hold us and make us somehow care.

Burge is helped considerably by the filmmaking skills -- mini-budget as they may be -- of Mr. Potrykus, shown at right. The writer/ director sticks his camera in Burge's fluid face and captures those features, large and handsome-grotesque, in their constant and amazing mobility. Burge plays Marty Jackitansky (he's White Russian, rather than Polish) a slacker/scam artist who works as a temp at some kind of bank, where his co-worker and friend (were this guy capable of actu-ally having a friend), Derek (shown at bottom and played by the filmmaker himself) have fun and do very little work. Marty's scams, minor and funny as they initially seem, grow larger and more dangerous as the movie unfolds. As does our non-hero, as well.

Yes, Marty is an anti-social asshole, but he is also a medically-challenged, problemed person, with whom we ever so gingerly begin to empathize. This empathy, which actor Burge allows us to feel despite his character's huge flaws, is what makes the movie more than mere caricature or deadpan humor. Burge, shown above and below, lets us enter the mind and soul of Marty and, hellish place that this is, also allows us to engage with him.

Along the way, we see our guy taken advantage of by an even-more-powerful scammer, and then hightail it off to Detroit, where he stays in a posh hotel and eats spaghetti and meatballs (above) and get into even more trouble. The threat of violence hangs over Buzzard from the very first scene (involving an odd glove). And though this violence does come to fruition, it is both worse and better than we might have imagined.

There's a school-boy duel between Freddy Krueger and a Star Wars laser, and some back-story hints dropped now and again. But to Potrykus' great credit, he has turned Buzzard into a fine character study of a sad but fascinatingly marginal figure -- and in the process given his star a creepily star-making role to play.

The movie -- from Oscilloscope and running 97 minutes -- debuts tomorrow, March 4, at BAM in Brooklyn, and then opens theatrically this Friday, March 6, at 13 cities across the country, and further, too, in the weeks to come. (In NYC, it plays the Film Society of Lincoln Center; in L.A., Laemmle's Noho 7.) To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Bulgarian learning experience: Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov's riveting THE LESSON

There are so many lessons learned by the school-teacher heroine of THE LESSON (Urok), not to mention by us enrapt viewers, that it is difficult to know where to begin: First, maybe, this: Don't under any circumstances allow your vehicle-obsessed, no-account husband to handle the family's finances. Moving on, once it is clear that your very home is about to be auctioned off from under you by your local bank, please don't get involved with your town's skeevy, sleazy money-lender unless you're comfortable with paying back your loan via sex work. There are many of these life lessons, small and large, to be gleaned -- if you've got the balls to watch. Our protagonist, who is offered little choice in the matter, very quickly manages to put herself smack in the middle of lies, avarice, bureaucracy and corruption involving both the individual and the state.

Writers/directors Kristina Grozeva (below) and Petar Valchanov (at left, who also edited the film) begin their little game in the classroom, as we see written on the blackboard, "My wallet has been stolen." We westerners will immediately imagine that this is a class for visitors to Eastern Europe who need to know the important catch phrases that will be of use to us. But, no: Our teacher, Nade, has written the phrase to alert her class that her wallet really has been stolen -- by one of them. And she intends to get it back.
Things do not go quite as Nade plans, and it soon seems clear that this woman has a tad too much certainty about how life should roll out. (Perhaps she was raised elsewhere than Bulgaria, where the film is set.) In any case, she is soon up to her ears in stuff that she ought not to have to handle, and watching her wriggle and cajole, plead and insist is painful but somehow also bracing.

This is due in large part to the work of the fine actress -- Margita Gosheva (above and below, right) -- who plays Nade. Ms Gosheva manages to swing on a dime from confused and vulnerable to angry and determined without missing a beat, including all of those little moments that lead from one fraught state into the next.

In the course of the film, we meet everyone from Nade's insignificant other (center, right, above), though he proves awfully good with the couple's young child (at left, above); her successful and fairly wealthy father (center left, above) whom she accuses of causing her mother's untimely sickness and death; the fellow she does freelance translation for and who owes her a lot of back pay; her students and co-workers; and a few other townspeople who interact with our gal, as the vise in which she finds herself grows tighter, faster.

One of the odd and interesting things about this movie is how suspenseful it is, even as we're learning more and more about Nade and the ins and out of Bulgarian society. It is finally a toss-up as to which consumes us more. Nade's moralistic tendencies both help and hinder her, as she must lower her "standards" over and over in order to achieve her ends. By the film's finish, little remains of the "ordered world," pretense though it may have been, that greeted us at the film's beginning.

The fungibility of everything from relationships and power to forms of payment and transportation come into play here, and Nade proves surprisingly adept at rolling with the punches. Some of the strongest scenes include an apology she must make to her father's girlfriend and her coming to understand exactly what her use of the loan shark (above, right) means to the well-being of her family.

If there is a weakness to the movie, it arrives with the penultimate scene in which the filmmakers have our heroine decide to make things right -- but then neglect to show us how this happens. Oh, we know what has happened, all right, but leaving the scene out makes the ending seem far too easy and thus unearned. We allow this because we so keenly hope that Nade will succeed. But this is not quite the same thing as giving us a fully realized film.

We'll hope that the next movie from this pair, individually or together, proves even better because, clearly, the two are banging on the door to the pantheon of first-rate realist filmmakers. We shall hear from them again. Meanwhile, The Lesson -- from Film Movement, in Bulgarian with English subtitles and running 105 fast minutes -- opens this Wednesday, March 4, at Film Forum in New York City. To see further screenings around the country, click here and scroll down.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Parade's End -- an acquired taste. (Scroll down for the companion review of Downton Abbey)

This post is written by our "Sunday Corner" 
corresponent, Lee Liberman

Parade's End (BBC/HBO), a psychological drama, and cream puffy Downton Abbey (PBS) treat the effects of world war and industrialization on tradition-bound Edwardians, especially on women. Parade's End, in 5 episodes based on novels by Ford Madox Ford, is a tougher go; it takes a few takes to dig itself into your heart, but the payoff is far more interesting -- you feel world war shaking the ground and savor a bit of well-earned joy as the parade ends. Despite excellent reviews here, the series, directed by Susanna White, slipped under the radar quickly but was widely celebrated and honored across the pond.

Tom Stoppard (prolific playwright, screen-writer) can't have had a simple time distilling Ford Madox Ford's four-novel series because the work unfolds in non-linear fashion, jumping around dizzily. Written close to the period, the novels were called by poet W.H. Auden and others 'great', but they aren't easy -- as though Ford meant his work to be as contrary as he made his characters. The first go at the mini-series is also off-putting. I didn't get into it until the re-watch; then became engrossed in the story of the protagonists and also their being metaphor for the bloom being off the rose of the aristocracy. It did help to know where the story was headed before focusing on how the words and actions of the characters contribute to the synergy of the whole.

The antiheroes of the drama are Christopher and Sylvia Tietgens, a miserably-married aristocratic couple whom anyone will recognize who has encountered a relationship in which the parties don't get each other, talk past each other, relentlessly disappoint, and make each other angry or depressed. Yes, toxic, but Christopher and Sylvia turn each other on -- he thinks she is "glorious" and his braininess and impeccable taste have spoiled her for other men. Sylvia wants to keep her husband but cannot help repelling him. Duty compels him to wear the hair shirt: 'I stand for monogamy and chastity and not talking about it,' he says. Benedict Cumberbatch (at far left) is so quietly, deeply expres-sive that Christopher's suffering is palpable -- his 'romantic feudalism', his nostalgia for a time of 'rights, duties, and supposed orderliness' (Julian Barnes, the Guardian, 8/2012) making him a dinosaur in his own time. (Press here for Barnes's rich analysis of Ford's characters.) 

Sylvia (the beautiful, formidable Rebecca Hall, above, right), acts out the narcissism of the aristocracy with the seductive charm of a sociopath. Her mother (Janet McTeer) calls her manipulative behavior 'pulling the strings of the shower bath'. Christopher, an intellectual savant, shoulders the guilt and unhappiness of an aristocracy that is becoming anachronistic. Although brilliant, he nevertheless courts failure through one self-deprecating act after another. He works at the Imperial Department of Statistics and perfectly predicts the outbreak of war. But when asked to manipulate data, he quits, deeply offended, and joins the army. Through the war years, Sylvia's sadistic antics and Christopher's own self-effacement conspire to ruin his reputation. He is banned from his club and sent down to a combat unit at the front.

Appearing early but not often in the story is young, brainy suffragette, Valentine, (Adelaide Clemens, below, right), middle-class daughter of a classics professor and journalist mother (Miranda Richardson at her most winsome). Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time on a golf course where she and a friend are demonstrating for the vote among 'fat golfing idiots' (whose own view is that suffragettes are whores and deserve to have their bare bottoms spanked). Christopher chivalrously foils arrest of the girls by heaving his clubs in the way of a police officer who is giving chase. In this and later brief chaste encounters, we see the exact opposite of mutual repulsion. Christopher and Valentine "get" each other, make each other think, and disagree amiably. Their fresh good will is hope for the future, but he is not ready to shed his old-fashioned honor.

Honoring the rules of the 'parade' of the social elite (aggressively flouted by Sylvia), Christopher does not take up with Valentine until the war has dragged on, his parents have died of disappointment, and Sylvia has exhausted him with histrionics. The last straw is her having the ancient tree at Groby Hall felled because it darkens the parlor. (Groby, the Tietgens family seat in Yorkshire, is 'older than Protestantism'.) In a decisive change in behavior, Christopher dismisses Sylvia with an unforgiving stare and throws a log from the old tree on the fire. Peace is declared, the troops are released, and in the final frames Christopher is at last happy as he finally joins his heart with Valentine.

More British acting elite add depth to the parade, among them are Rufus Sewell, a batty cleric; Rupert Everett, Christopher's older brother (above, left), who lives with his mistress and wants no part of Groby; and Anne-Marie Duff (below, left) as whiny Edith, a middle-class snob who has snared Macmaster, (Stephen Graham, below, right), a writer, to enhance her social climb among the literati.

Parade's End is streaming on HBO; it's worth the work.


Compared to Parade's End, the PBS series DOWNTON ABBEY is the soap opera version of the cracking Edwardian facade during and after WWI. Created by Julian Fellowes, shown below, Season 5 has ended and season 6 ordered -- could be the place to stop.

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), hapless head of the aristocratic Crawley family, broods over the inability of his land-rich, cash-poor estate to support itself. Fortunately his modern daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) is able to walk the line between appreciating papa's decency and prodding him toward running the estate like a business. The growing assertiveness of women in the new century is punctuated by daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) running off with the chauffeur, cousin Rose (Lily James) falling for a black jazz musician followed by snagging a Jewish banker-- at least avoiding an interracial scandal.

But an hour special that ran on PBS at the start of Season 5 spelled out the premier obsession of this series: 'The Manners of Downton Abbey' (for sale at PBS). The host, Alastair Bruce, historian and consultant, bobs about the film set adjusting posture, bits of dialogue, and scene to assure perfect replication of the ballet of manners that dictated daily life of the Edwardian elite upstairs and staff downstairs.

Bruce explains that the aristocracy were so traumatized by contageous disease and the violence of the French Revolution that habits of restrained physical contact and emotion even among family solidified into protocol. The Edwardians enveloped themselves in a complexity of nuanced formalities, insulating them from change. Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith, below), Butler Carson (Jim Carter), and Lord Grantham keep the flame, resisting slippage of the status quo.

There are few if any story lines in Downton that do not revolve the Edwardian code in one way or another. One stays tuned to find out what's coming next (or what Violet will say next). Soap opera is geared to the gossip gene or the ginned-up fear response as plots charge to and fro, anticipating a favorite character's horrible dilemma. All the talk, tears, wit. joy, grief at Downton Abbey are skin deep. In season 5, the only character whose painful struggle (with his sexuality) makes us care is Thomas, the devious under-butler, played by marvelous actor Rob James-Collier (below), who is owed lead roles as soon as possible. There is something behind those eyes, and you want more.

DA's success is aided by "camp and class", said one reviewer; it surely is beautiful and fans feel elevated by its British toniness (reputedly some royals tune in). Perhaps one more season is enough, though, as plots are repeating themselves and going stale. It is quite a contrast to feature-film who-done-it, Gosford Park, also scripted by Fellowes. But Gosford had director, Robert Altman, who, like great writers, make us care about the inner life and motivations of characters. Taking place during a weekend gathering at a country estate, a murder is committed by a character whose pain we begin to understand and share as the crime is solved. At Gosford Park, as in Parade's End, we are slowly drawn into the inner lives of a number of characters. Parade's End and Gosford Park can be mined over and again; repeat visits to Downton offer thin gruel.

Downtown Abbey Season 5 will be available for a short time on line at PBS. Only the first four seasons are available on DVD in the NTSC version compatible with our DVD players, but for those who own an all-region player, the UK version of Season 5 is now for sale. (It can't be long before Season 5 is available here, too.)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Branden Blinn's REMARKABLE SHADES OF GAY opens theatrically at New York's Cinema Village

The second movie attempting to ride the marketing coattails of 50 Shades of Grey (the first was the faith-based film Old Fashioned), REMARKABLE SHADES OF GAY -- a new "omnibus" movie offering nine short tales of gay and bi-sexual life from a filmmaker named Branden Blinn (aka William Branden Blinn), who directs each episode, often writes or co-writes it, and occasionally edits, and usually helps produce, as well -- takes us back to an earlier era of gay movies but does it using all the accouterments of modern filmmaking. These would include actors who can handle dialog well and moment-to-moment truth, the use of decent video equipment coupled to a sensibility that harks back to television sitcoms of an earlier day.

Mr. Blinn, pictured at left, loves happy endings, whatever the particular tale might cover -- from parenting and dying to the closet, threesomes and seducing would-be straight men. (Collectively, these tales would seem to indicate that there is hardly a straight man around who isn't champing at the bit for some good, hot cock. File under: happy endings at any cost.) So, don't come here hankering for real life. But if you're in the mood for feel-good fun featuring a whole lot of hunky guys (everyone in nearly every episode is good looking) involved in inventive but unbelievable situations, here's your movie. Despite its title, expect no bondage in the film, although, unlike 50 Shades...,  this one does features occasional full-frontal, and Mr. Blinn's final episode even takes in a couple of budding erections. So, yes, you'll probably want to stay through the end. Herewith, a short run-down on what to expect in each episode:

Thirteen or So Minutes involves two young men who claim to have been straight and who've suddenly enjoyed male-on-male sex for the first time. One wants to embrace this, the other, not so much. A little tsuris and a lot of talk ensues....

Chased introduces us to two (yes, presumably straight) friends who, as they leave a bar, get into a argument with another group of guys and must hightail it on the run. This evidently sets their testosterone to raging, and later they must come to terms with the consequences of their sudden -- and extremely unbelievable -- amour....

Never or Now offers a kind of gay homage to a certain famous scene from Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, as an old and dying man in a rest home/hospital, as soon as his wife leaves for a few hours, picks up the phone and hires a hustler to visit him. Cue loads of kindness, tinkly sentimental music, and your oh-so-typical hustler who doesn't even demand his money. Sweet -- and, gosh, such uber-realism!

Triple Standard tackles guys and sports, via a gay couple, one of whom refuses to come out of the closet and, further, gets overly macho and nasty when another male dares to joke about his sexual preference. So what's his poor lover to do. You'll find out. Hint: Things just might be OK....

Without a Mom offers up a gay couple who've raised a strapping and straight hunk of a son who is suddenly having girlfriend problems. Gosh, one of the dads wonders, maybe he shoulda had a mom instead? In a movie like this one? Don't bet on it.

Life lesson after life lesson -- gay variety -- is taught us during the course of this film, and many of these lessons seem to have to do with men who profess zero interest is sex with another male -- and then suddenly come around to seeing the light. So it is in Toeing the Line, in which, during the course of coffee in a local hangout, one hot guy comes on to another by letting it drop that, yes, he a has a very big dick. Size matters, and before you can say Show Me, Please, we're off and running. This one's nicely acted but features utterly improbable behavior taking place in a public coffee shop.

A la Carte takes on a threesome -- husband. wife and the twinkie whom hubby has brought home to screw them both. Age and intergenerational sex matter here more than size, but doncha know that everything gets resolved in lightning speed and to everyone's satisfaction.

Size matters again in Truth or Dare, as two boy/girl couples decide to play the titular game one evening. But funny how girl-on-girl action just doesn't seem to raise the collective temperature the way that boy-on-boy stuff suddenly does. This one may make you laugh, at least.

Mr. Blinn saves his hottest visuals for the closing story, in which ageism and infidelity rear their heads -- and have absolutely no negative effect whatsoever. The filmmaker's rose-colored glasses simply refuse to lose their hue, no matter what, and there is nothing life can throw at these participants that can't be managed with a good long kiss and some hot sex. If only. But I have to say that Blinn, shown below with a couple of his actors, makes it all seem like lots of fun. If you're in the right mood, you might be seduced, too.

Remarkable Shades of Gay -- self-distributed and running two hours and six minutes -- began its theatrical premiere yesterday, February 27, in New York City at the Cinema Village. But you can bet it'll be available eventually on DVD and to stream.