Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Streaming possibility--Christopher Menaul's FIRST NIGHT: opera and love on a lavish estate


Everything seems in place for a fun and frisky entertain-ment, as Adam, a wealthy business magnate with a yen to sing  (Richard E. Grant), hires a professional group of singers, orchestra, director and costumer to stage a production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte on his gorgeous estate in Britain. If only. The director and co-writer (with Jeremy Sams) of this gaudy and overcooked concoction, Christopher Menaul (shown below), has packed it so full of plot and subplot, comings and goings, and loves lost and found that the final film, titled FIRST NIGHT, desperately needs better focus and above all some genuinely clever dialog and a more consistent style.

What is does have, and which helps considerably, is a good cast, all of whom do a decent job in roles that ought to have given them more to work with. It also has some fine singing -- dubbed into the mouths of the cast, who lipsynch rather well. (This actually assures that the most enjoyable sections of the film are those in which we see and hear pieces of Mozart's opera staged.) There is also a beautiful Rottweiler named Baskerville who helps push the plot along. That plot mostly has to do with love: between the randy leading man (Julian Ovenden) and leading lady (Mia Maestro); between Adam and the woman he's brought in to be the musical director (played by Sarah Brightman, shown two photos below with Mr. Grant); and the opera's director (Oliver Dimsdale), his singer/girlfriend (the standout performance here, by Emma Williams, below) and his best friend (Nigel Lindsay).

The plotting, an exceedingly connect-the-numbers sort of thing, gives little chance for the oddities of human nature to surface, so we wait for the next snatch of opera to appear -- which, fortunately, is never long in arriving.

This sort of thing -- the let's-put-on-a-show movie -- has worked well before (most recently in the Minnie Driver vehicle Hunky Dory), but it requires some real creativity and originality, rather than the paint-by-numbers variety used here.

By the time the movie reaches its foregone happy ending, my better half had vacated the premises and left me alone to watch the final few minutes (which were mostly devoted to very lengthy credits). You can do the same, as the movie is now available via Netflix streaming.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Martin Lund's THE ALMOST MAN: this original from Norway offers a very "late" coming-of-age


"Can you dance without irony?" asks Mia to her boyfriend, Henrik, as he dances "in quotes," and this strange but interesting question resonates for the remainder of the THE ALMOST MAN, the new and weirdly captivating Norwegian movie written and directed by Martin Lund. As this tale of a very overgrown 35-year-old child/man proceeds, we slowly begin to wonder if Henrik can do anything without irony -- without having to comment and/or act facetiously about, well, nearly everything he encounters. Henrik (clearly not named after Ibsen) is a plum role played to creepy perfection by an actor named Henrik Rafaelsen, who took the Best Actor prize at the 2012 Karlovy Vary Film Fest (the movie itself won Best Film).

Filmmaker Lund, shown at right, packs a punch (a number of them, actually) and a lot of information and characters into his 75-minute movie, which feels neither rushed nor too brief, as it details the relationship between Tone (a lovely performance from Janne Heltberg Haarseth, below) and her "almost" man. Initially, Henrik seems pretty charming and funny, yet the succeeding scenes belie both his charm and the fun, as Henrik -- whether due to abject fear at the prospect of becoming a parent when he himself is still a child or something even deeper -- appears to be disintegrating before our (and his) very eyes.

The movie opens with Henrik in the bathtub. His body, which in time we see all of, is oddly without definition. He's neither over- nor under-weight, but almost completely undefined. Rather like his character.

We see this seemingly lovey-dovey pair (above) first at their new home, and later in the supermarket and partying with friends. We view Henrik at work, with his bad-boy buddies (below), and with his overprotective mom. Scene by scene, the man appears to be losing it until he very nearly crosses a boundary he can't uncross.

Through it all, actor Rafaelsen does a yeoman job of putting us off yet holding us fast so that we hope he'll somehow manage the tightrope on which he's placed himself. This may be an extreme case of the Peter Pan syndrome, but it's a memorable one.

The writer/director has chosen his scenes and events wisely for maximum effect, for resonance and for guiding us from initial laughter into something not so funny at all.

Will our boy make it to manhood, even at this late date? Opinions may differ about the outcome here, but I think most audiences will agree that Mr. Lund has given us an unusual, provocative little film.

The Almost Man -- from Big World Pictures -- has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Friday, August 1, here in New York City at the Village East Cinema. Elsewhere? To learn of any additional screenings, click on this link, then click on Viewing (under the Donation link at the top) and scroll down ..... 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Aping humanity: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES keeps rebooted franchise firmly on track


Initially, I was disappointed to hear that Matt Reeves was replacing Rupert Wyatt as director of the second in this rebooted and infinitely finer series than any of its predecessors. Although I loved Reeves' Cloverfield (the best modern monster movie of 'em all) but found his remake Let Me In simply unnecessary, Wyatt's record as director (The Escapist and the Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is pretty extraordinary. Still, Reeves (shown below) has come through with a fine and brawny sequel that puts the apes front and center and teaches us that, when it comes to apes -- just like with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Gays, Blacks and what-the-hell, Russians, Romanians and Americans -- there are good ones and there are bad ones.

Oddly, the titles of these two new(er) Apes movies ought to have been reversed. Clearly the first one was the "Dawn" and this new one constitutes the "Rise." But Hollywood has always been pretty terrible regarding handing out movie names, so we shouldn't expect much here. (The penultimate film in this series will probably bear the title, "The End of the Planet of the Apes," while the final film will be called "Return to the Planet of the Apes.") Because Dawn takes place around a decade after the "Simian Plague," as it has come to be called (and which was seen beginning right at the end of Rise), has decimated human kind, the movie sports an apocalyptic look -- all blues and greys and smokey fractures.

The apes are now more or less in charge and can live without the kind of needs -- fuel and electricity and such -- that humans require. Yet the human base that remains in the San Francisco area must somehow get to and make active again the dam that resides in ape territory, which could provide much-needed electrical power. This "quest" pretty much provides the plot of the movie, as well.

It also provides the conflict that arises between the two leading apes -- Caesar (Andy Serkis, above) and Koba (Toby Kebbell, below, left) -- both of whom we met in the earlier film. The former was raised in a loving environment, while the latter was subject to constant abuse for much of his earlier life, and this now marks the enormous difference between the two, as they begin to vie for power.

The humans we meet (shown below, left to right, are Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Enrique Murciano) don't register as strongly as did most of the characters in the earlier "Rise." No fault of the cast, which also includes Gary Oldman (shown at bottom). It's simply that this movie is much more ape-inclined than human: It's the simians' story.

And it's a good one -- fast-moving, exciting, propulsive. If there is nothing here as occasionally joyful or moving as the earlier film (Caesar's last line of dialog, for instance, regarding "home"), this is because "Dawn" is darker in every way. The worst has happened to mankind. We shall see, in the movies that continue this so-far excellent re-boot, if and how humanity struggles to regain a place at the table.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes -- from 20th Century Fox and running two hours and ten minutes -- is (or recently was) playing at a theater near you, in both 3D and 2D (we saw the latter). If you don't catch it now, it'll look plenty fine, come its Blu-ray debut later this year.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Streaming treat: Do blondes have more fun? David Tennant & Emily Watson in Paula Milne's THE POLITICIAN'S HUSBAND

Note: The following post is written by
our sometimes correspondent, Lee Liberman.



Here scriptwriter Paula Milne (with the help of director, Simon Cellan Jones, shown at left) offers an updated version of her 1996 revenge-plot mini-series, The Politician's Wife, in which the wife undoes her husband's career to punish him for his long affair with an escort. In the new series, THE POLITICAN'S HUSBAND, Milne modernizes spouse, Freya, (Emily Watson), who has not only emancipated herself from the loyal rear guard but is actually better than her husband's professional equal.


Milne's mini-series duo reflects the author's intrigue with betrayal and revenge. The series launches with the Latin phrase: Corruptio optimi pessima -- 'corruption of the best is the worst of all'. The entire drama is devoted to intrigue that shocks and corrupts, leading to revenge, while allowing for a mere shard of hope that true love can survive betrayal.

The focus is on Aiden (David Tennant) -- a power-wound cabinet minister who aims to lead the Labour Party (he's also a righteous democrat lobbying for liberal immigration reform) about to be betrayed by his oldest and dearest friend, fellow cabinet minister, Bruce, (the handsome Ed Stoppard, above, right, son of playwright Tom). Bruce covets the prime minister post and willingly ruins his closest friend whose picture-perfect life he envies. Bruce then organizes the promotion of Freya (above, left) from back bench to cabinet minister and attempts to win her away from Aiden.

The politicking is set against the busy complex family life of the married MP's, Freya and Aiden, dubbed the golden couple of the liberal political establishment. They have two young children including one with Aspergers syndrome whose difficulties pain Aiden particularly. Also there's grandfather (Jack Shepherd), a retired academic who pitches in with the kids and serves as Aiden's compass about what really matters. We see Freya and Aiden communicate, problem-solve, jointly share household duties, and seek comfort in each other sexually. They are a more cohesive team than any I can think of off-hand on film and the depth of their relationship makes you root for it. However, once Aiden and Freya have traded places between back bench and cabinet, things begin to shift (in and out of bed).

While Freya has always supported his climb and assumed the larger burden of family, their new roles challenge Aiden's obsessive need to be in control. (He punctures her diaphragm, wishing for a pregnancy to put things back the way they were.) And Freya, who had vicariously enjoyed Aiden's successes as though they were her own, comes to wield her own political power as though born to it, and she repels her husband's self-interested meddling. Aiden reaches a boil when he thinks Freya has cheated on him with Bruce; he stages a devastating coup of his own. When Freya realizes how willingly he had put her career in jeopardy, she and we begin to doubt the marriage can survive. The way they do move forward together provides a chill, our wondering exactly how hollowed out their relationship has become. The situation is not totally devoid of hope given Freya's emotional intelligence, deftly, quietly conveyed by Ms Watson.

As Aiden, Tennant is coiffed a carefully clipped blond, adding a look of serpentine stealth and menace to his parliamentary stagecraft and to the turn-around of his dead- ended career (at Bruce's expense). Both Fraya and Aiden are unusually compelling characters for their mix of sympathetic and predatory traits -- are we all bad when driven to it? Tennant, described in media as a British golden boy, recently starred in Masterpiece Mystery's The Escape Artist and has a long roster of film and TV credits (as well as having lit the torch at the British Olympics).

Watch this one streaming on Netflix for an amped-up ride through high stakes politics and intimate family drama -- and note who is on top.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Streaming: HEMLOCK GROVE is back -- with, yes, more vamping but a new & interesting character


Last year TrustMovies managed to get through all of HEMLOCK GROVE, the less-publicized-because-much-less-good Netflix series featuring vampires and werewolves. But it took him practically a full six months because the show is such a time-waster. After a couple of episodes, he'd give up on it and only go back when he really needed a dumb horror fix.

This year the series is back, with at least one new and interesting character in the person of Madeline Brewer, shown above, who plays a young woman who get into a very suspicious auto accident and therefore must remain in Hemlock Grove for a time. Nicole Boivin (below), who plays the large, disfigured daughter, Shelley, also appears to be coming into her own this season, which is all to the good.

Still the show continues its love of vamping (marking time -- lots of time -- while holding back any real plot thrust) so that it will again take us all season to learn what a well-written, intelligent series (no matter what the subject) would hand us within a hour or two. The cast -- especially Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott and Bill Skarsgård, along with the new Ms Brewer is probably what keeps me watching. But I've already, after just four episodes, lost enough interest not to go back for awhile. Until I need that fix again.  Talk about a real guilty pleasure: This one has got to be among the guiltiest.

Hemlock Grove, which this season offers a cult of particularly nasty masked serial killers of women and children (one of those killers is shown above) is available only via Netflix streaming. Proceed at your own risk.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Streaming choice for Hong Kong action: Clarence Fok's silly-but-entertaining toss-up, SPECIAL ID


Although the Koreans have given Hong Kong action movies some competition of late (most recently via the superlative Snowpiercer), Hong Kong is what many of us still think of first when it comes to exciting man-on-man (sometimes on-woman, and occasionally in-car) action. A recent example of this would be SPECIAL ID, by a director new to me, Clarence Fok, who together with his prize star, Donnie Yen, has staged a hefty handful of terrific action scenes, each one seemingly better than the last.

Mr. Fok, shown at right at a press conference for the film, has also made a movie that often seems silly -- yet because the silliness also seems intentional, this allows us to relax and just go with the flow. That flow takes in the three characters shown on the poster, top. Mr. Yen, who really is a terrific performer, fighter and actor, here plays Dragon, a police-man who, due to a problem in the past, is remanded to working undercover to get the goods on a certain criminal gang. All poor Dragon wants, how-ever, is to rejoin the police force as a cop.

The new leader of that criminal gang is an old friend of Yen's named Sunny (Andy On, above, left), a very nasty type who believes in nothing but power and brute strength. The third wheel is a very pretty, by-the-book woman cop (Tian Jing, below, right), who is rather extraordinarily gifted in gunplay and fighting.

The plot also involves Dragon's delightful mother, who has clearly raised her son well, plus various assorted criminal types and other cops. But really, we just move from one great action set piece to an even better action set piece -- all which display Mr. Yen's skills to amazing effect.

One of Yen's biggest assets is his charm, along with the all-out enjoyment he seems to be having throughout much of the film. He can be serious as needed, of course, but often he seems to be showing us what a lark this all is -- so just lean back, relax and enjoy.

Special ID can be viewed on Netfix streaming now, as well as on DVD. To bad it's not also on Blu-ray, but Netflix's high-definition will cover that base almost as well.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Manuel Martín Cuenca's Goya-laden CANNIBAL proves the Spanish answer to non-stop boredom


Possibly the slowest-moving movie ever made (other than the oeuvre of Andy Warhol), CANNIBAL, the latest from Spanish filmmaker Manuel Martín Cuenca, left us utterly unmoved and finally uninterested. "Well," noted my spouse post-viewing, "it was kind of interesting to keep waiting and waiting to see if something would happen." Unfortunately, nothing ever does. Though I enjoyed Señor Cuenca's earlier Malas Temporadas, this one -- for all its Goya awards and nominations, is a major dud. Even one of my favorite actors, the usually amazing Antonio de la Torre, is one-note and boring here. Considering how versatile and energetic this excellent actor always is, this is not an easy thing to achieve.

One of the dead (and deadening) give-aways here is how Señor Cuenca (shown at left) chooses to end his every scene: with a too-long pause before the screen fades to black. Over time this becomes expected, obvious and very tiresome. The filmmaker is clearly going for "art" here and is absolutely not about to give us -- even in movie in which our hero murders and then eats beautiful women -- any thrills, chills or gore. The single scene of blood-letting is so chaste and arty (and also quite derivative) that we can only sigh, Ah, lovely!

Why is our boy Carlos (played by de la Torre, above), the best tailor in Granada, doing these naughty deeds? The film gives us a hint now and then. Maybe it's religion. We get the "Take, eat, for this is my body" scene in church. But then why isn't Carlos killing and eating handsome young men in Jesus-type loin-cloths rather than preying on Virgin Mary stand-ins? Well, he's straight, of course. Psychology? Late in the movie we get an explanation laughably similar to the one given about the character played by Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill.

Really, it doesn't matter why. We're simply stuck with Carlos and his predilection, and because the movie moves like molasses in January (and lasts nearly two hours), it often seems we'll be glued to this guy forever.

There is a very nice turn from the leading lady -- Olimpia Melinte -- playing two roles: the very different sisters, Alexandra (above) and Nina (below), who come into Carlos' life and begin turning it upside down. But even that description might indicate that Cuenca allows a little action into things. Carlos and his life barely move at all. Even when this fellow is in the act of committing murder --with a car, at the beach-- the movie plods.

As much as I've loved the works of de la Torre on many previous occasions (The Last Circus, Gordos, As Luck Would Have It, I'm So Excited to name but a few), here -- in this chic and arty, minimalist movie, he is forced to be so consistently closed-down that he can register little facially or in terms of body language.

Finally the film does not work on any level -- not as art, mystery, thriller, or even a decent exploration into our darker psycho-sexual leanings. The cinematography, however (by Pau Esteve Birba), is often very attractive, but the screenplay, co-credited to Cuenca and Alejandro Hernández, dawdles and feints when it ought to be pro-active and parry.

Still, the Spaniards seemed to go for it. Perhaps you have to be Spanish and Catholic to fully appreciate these goings-on. Cannibal -- released theatrically via Film Movement and its genre division, Ram Releasing -- opens this week in around 20 cities across the country, including Los Angeles (at the CineFamily) and New York (the Village East Cinema). Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.