Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Erik Poppe's 1,000 TIMES GOOD NIGHT tackles art, death, sacrifice, family, career and more....

...and the best thing about this movie is that it does not cheat or trivialize any of the subjects it touches. That the film deals especially with what we might call terrorist bombings (while the bombers themselves would undoubtedly call it freedom fighting) makes 1,000 TIMES GOOD NIGHT an especially fraught experience. When it is good, which is often, it is superb, and even at the times in which the movie lessens, it is never less than worthwhile. It is also one of the most serious and moving films about sacrifice that I have ever seen.

The Norwegian filmmaker, Erik Poppe (shown at right), a few years back gave us the excellent Troubled Water, and his new film is a fine follow-up. It stars the nearly always terrific Juliette Binoche as Rebecca, a famous war photographer and a woman considered among the best in her field who loves and understands her work and what it means and why she does it about as well as she possibly can. That she is married and has two children, whom she sees too seldom, is the point upon which the movie turns. Her husband, played by the hot and talented Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (in the second and third photo below, and at bottom, left), has determined, after the shocking event that begins the film, that his wife must finally choose between her family and the ever-possibly-fatal career she pursues.

Mr. Poppe allows us to view Rebecca in the midst of the most dangerous parts of her work, and we see that she does it very well. She does not love it, exactly; rather, she experiences it as a necessity to help this dangerous world in which we live.

We can also understand the feelings of her family members. There are no villains here, not even -- and this is the film's most miraculous effect -- those people with bombs planted on their person, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. (I could have done without the candle-lit balloon lift off, below, but that's a minor quibble.)

In order to bring mom and elder daughter closer together, a trip to Africa (don't worry, they are told: It's a safe location) is planned. The result of this brings the film to its climax and proper close. Nothing goes quite as planned, but neither do things dissolve. Rather, the events that happen seem appropriate and important, and the decisions made are reached via genuinely felt and understood experience.

I think Mr. Poppe is one of our better directors -- interested in what is happening in our world and why, and what is to be done about it. If possible. He gets fine performances from his entire cast (Ms Binoche is, as always, sterling), and best of all, he addresses our world honestly, effectively, and without rancor or any of the feel-good cheating that is the hallmark of so many of our movies.

1,000 Times Good Night -- a Norway/Ireland/Sweden co-production released here by Film Movement -- opens theatrically this Friday, October 24, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, among other major cities now, and in the weeks to come. You can view the entire list of currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here and then scrolling down.

Note: At NYC's Quad Cinema, director Erik Poppe will be present for a Q&A following the 7:30 show on Friday 10/24. In L.A., at the Royal theater, director of photography John Christian Rosenlund will participate in a Q&A at after the 7 PM screening on Friday, October 24, while the film's director/co-screenwriter Eric Poppe will participate in a Q&A after the 7 PM screening on Wednesday, October 29.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: What's this? That rare, straight film from Gregg Araki...?

OK: Gregg Araki has made some more-or-less straight movies (remember Smiley Face?) prior to his latest work, the jokingly/descriptively titled WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. But his sensibility has always seemed to me to be both gay and transgressive -- but funny and loony enough to keep most of his movies enjoyable and light, even when their subject was ostensibly dark. Except for Mysterious Skin, perhaps his best, which was strange, dark and haunting. Bird/Blizzard, however, seems at first glance and onwards to be especially concerned with straight family life.

This family, however, turns out to be  -- surprise! -- pretty transgressive in its own odd ways, and Mr. Araki (shown at left), as director and adapter (of the novel by Laura Kasischke), is here once again to capture it all for our delectation. Basically a bizarre coming-of-age tale, in which our heroine, Kat (played by Shailene Woodley, below, right, in her first let's-be-adult-and-get-nude! role, which she handles with the expected aplomb, charm and rather plenteous sex appeal), tells us all about her very strange mother (an even more transgressive Eva Green, three photos below), a beautiful-if-bizarre woman who has recently disappeared.

How and why mom has vanished is left open to all kinds of interpretations, most of which seem to fit, as Kat investigates one possibility after another, with the help (or not) of her boyfriend (that sexy young actor, Shiloh Fernandez, below, right, and bottom, left), her dad (that sexy older actor Christopher Meloni, at right, three photos below); the police detective on the case (uber-sexy Thomas Jane, at left, above) and her school chums (the not particularly sexy but plenty bouncy Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato).

Araki's movie is neither very suspenseful nor exciting, as you might expect a film about a woman's disappearance to be, nor is it exactly believable, in the realistic manner that movies about teenagers are expected to be. And yet it is almost always engaging and interesting, thanks to Araki' ability to keep us off base, while offering up a nice range of bizarre and transgressive behavior from every character on view.

Mr. Jane's detective is particularly off-kilter; Meloni's character -- initially appearing a sweetheart of a dad -- grows darker and odder; the gorgeous Ms Green's mom, a nutcase from first scene, simply continues along that path; while Fernandez, after initially seeming such hot and prime boyfriend material, full of energy, then grows weirder and quieter with each subsequent appearance.

It's up to Ms Woodley, then to hold the film together. Which she does -- whether she's exploring new sexual avenues or having that "white" dream that gives the film its title (below). Bird/Blizzard is both a coming-of-age movie and one in which the lead character discovers that life is actually chock-a-block with unexpected weirdness. Ms Woodley handles the first like the pro she already is, but adds her own oddly distant and somewhat withholding personality for the second -- to excellent effect.

The whole movie eventually begins to seem something of a dream (if not a nightmare), and at the finale -- in which revelations pile up in large number and at quite a speed -- Mr. Araki saves his very best for the last. This is one darkly witty "family" movie indeed.

White Bird in a Blizzard, from Magnolia Pictures and running 91 minutes, opens this Friday, October 24, in seven cities throughout the USA and Canada. In New York City, it plays the Landmark Sunshine, and in L.A. at the Landmark NuArt. The following week, on October 31, it will open in another fifteen cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.

Monday, October 20, 2014

See Edward Snowden blow that whistle in Laura Poitras' odd and alarming doc, CITIZENFOUR

A documentary that pretty much tells itself -- with some questions, of course, about what was chosen for inclusion and what was not -- CITIZENFOUR shows and tells the tale of how and why whistle-blower Edward Snowden first approached journalist/filmmaker Laura Poitras (shown below) and journalist Glen Greenwald in order to go public concerning the illegal surveillance being carried out on the American populace (and elsewhere throughout the world) by the NSA in collusion with our government.

However you define Mr. Snowden on the chart/scale from terrorist to crimi-nal to whistle-blower to hero, the movie should be of great interest simply in allowing you to see and hear him in action and repose. Well, as much repose as someone in his singular state at this time could manage. (We do see him groom-ing himself and trying to get a certain hair style down pat. Ah, vanity! On the other hand, he's human, so why the hell not?)

Poitras has inter-cut various interviews and archival footage having to do with the way we are governed now -- spied upon illegally, as our President assures us that nothing of the sort is taking place. (Just as George W. Bush was an in-office liar, so now is Barack Obama.) This information sets the scene, against which we can place what has happened because of Snowden's actions into some kind of perspective.

When he tells us and Poitras (and Greenwald, with whom he is shown, above) what he is doing and why, and especially how he feels it needs to be handled so that his actions can be perceived less in any personal way that would turn the spotlight on him rather than where it needs to be -- on what the NSA is doing illegally -- I find the young man, as I think you will, too, to be believable and not a little heroic. He also explains why he does not himself feel able to determine which of the information he is sending is actually a matter of National Security, and so must leave that to journalists who are more informed on this subject.

Along with visuals of some of the written communications between our protagonists (the above is one of the less interesting of these), we hear from other whistle-blowers like William Binney, who was an NSA employee, and watch, too, as another liar, Keith Alexander, purgers himself in his testimony. It is against all this that Mr. Snowden's revelations take on their impact. And when toward the end of this engaging and alarming documentary, Jacob Appelbaum explains to us that our current concerns over privacy are really just an extension of the liberty and freedom we have been seeking since, well, the American Revolution, the movie should ring a very loud alarm bell.

Too often asleep at the wheel of our own presumed liberty, we need to be roused into some kind of action -- which is what these whistle-blowers keep trying to do. Eventually, our own government, if its swing to the moneyed and powerful continues, will become the facility that enslaves us completely. Meanwhile we can thank Snowden and his ilk for having the courage to do their part, and journalists and filmmakers like Greenwald and Poitras for bringing the work of these whistle-blowers to our attention.

One final jolt is provided by Greenwald, who lets us know that he has a new whistle-blower waiting in the wings. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Citizenfour (from Radius/TWC and running 114 minutes), which doubles as the name of the film and the moniker taken by Snowden, begins its theatrical run this Friday, October 24, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Elsewhere? No doubt. And eventually onto DVD and digital. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DVDebut looks at gays in Poland: Tomasz Woszczynski's FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS

The last time we visited gay Poland -- Małgośka Szumowska's In the Name Of -- we were struck by how backward seemed this country in terms of public acceptance of everything from homosexuals to Jews. Another Polish movie from the same year (2013) drives home this point once again, in even fiercer terms. FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS, written and directed by Tomasz Woszczynski, initially seems more like the recent German film about the lawful but societally-frowned-upon love that grows between two young policemen, Free Fall. It is soon apparent, however, that Floating Skyscrapers is less grounded in strong story, physical and emotional detail and characterization than was its German counterpart.

This lack does not destroy the movie, but with a 99-minute running time, it leaves at least some of us in the audience expecting and wishing for more. The filmmaker, whom I believe is pictured at left, offers up some nice visual compositions, as well as some good-looking guys and probably about as hot an example of man-on-man sex as Poland will allows these days. But, as usual, the sense of overall society and its mores seems at least a decade or two behind the times, when compared with western Europe or parts of the USA.

The story? This has to do with a very good swimmer, Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk, above), currently being groomed as a champion, and his foray into same-sex wonder. He is not, the movie makes clear from pretty early on, a novice in this endeavor. As shown in the scene on the poster at top, he is easily commandeered from the showers into the men's room of the gym, by a fellow athlete who invites him into a stall and services the willing Kuba with a quick blow job. The recipient does not, however -- and he makes this very clear -- like to kiss or fondle.

Not until he meets Michal, at least. This brunette pretty boy, played by Bartosz Gelner (above, left), is as drawn to Kuba as Kuba is to him, though it seems to take an eternity for something physical/sexual to occur. Various women hang around these guys. Kuba, who lives with his complaining mother (whom he is shown bathing, below), also has a long-time girlfriend, while our first view of Michal positions him with a female companion, as well. But it's really the male-to-male attraction that counts.

As shown here, Polish life in all its forms -- family, sports, friendship, even love -- seems dreary, circumspect and hugely limiting. Not much is desired because so little is available. Our two protagonists, in fact, have literally nowhere to go to give vent to their physical needs, as both live with family and can't afford their own apartment. Glumness abounds.

Still, despite the societal stigma and probably because of the lack of privacy, their first major sexual encounter takes place in a public parking garage. What follows this is downbeat, nasty and depressing, though probably not, unfortunately, unrealistic.

The film's odd name comes from a conversation between Michal and his father, as the son recalls a strange and allusive childhood memory. It's poetic but rather pointless to the overall movie -- except its ability to provide a strange title.

While I clearly was not crazy for this film, it has stuck with me -- mostly as a warning about its home country, as well as an appreciation of the beauty of face and figure that resides there. Floating Skyscrapers -- initially from Canteen Outlaws but now available by TLA Releasing, can be viewed either via sale or streaming rental.   

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Generic done surprisingly well: Diane Kurys' FOR A WOMAN spans WWII to the 1980s

As beautiful, specific and gloriously acted as is FOR A WOMAN -- Diane Kurys' latest love story told from a woman's perspective but which does not slight the male characters in any way (Kurys has always done this sort of thing quite well) -- there is, it must be said, something a bit generic about it all. Perhaps because, by now, TrustMovies has seen these French family sagas encompassing World War II and the Holocaust (Claude Miller's A Secret is one of the best) so many times that their plots, including their odd diversions, seem somewhat second-hand. Yet even second-hand stuff, when done well enough, can make for an almost completely engrossing film. And that is exactly the case with this mysterious little charmer.

As writer and director, Kurys (shown at right) continues to grow; For a Woman proves one of her best. In the relatively dense plotting, the smart pacing, and the superb performan-ces, you couldn't ask for much more. The story told is of two sisters, now middle-aged adults, discov-ering information and relationships their parents had decades earlier during World War II. So, yes, there is a kind of mystery afoot, though about what and why we're not sure until nearly the finale.

The movie is also a love story about how love can abide and remain important even years after the events that first set it off, when at least one of the principals involved has long gone. It's primarily a tale of a man (Benoit Magimel), his wife (Mélanie Thierry, above, right), and his younger brother (Nicolas Duvauchelle, above, left) and what the war/Holocaust has made of them.

All three performers are excellent, with Magimel (above) -- lately one of France's most impressive and versatile young actors now growing into a very interesting middle age -- giving the best performance in the least likable role. He is superb, and all the more moving because his role encompasses such a difficult character.

In some plumb supporting roles are Clothilde Hesme (below, left, with Thierry), Clément Sibony (above, center) and Denis Podalydès, along with Sylvie Testud and Julie Ferrier as the adult children of Magimel and Thierry who do the sleuthing. If the photo above looks like a typically happy family scene, the irony here will be much appreciated once you've watched the movie.

After a very limited theatrical release, For a Woman -- from Film Movement and running 110 minutes -- hits DVD this coming Tuesday, October 21. And if history be any guide, you can expect it to appear on Netflix streaming very soon after.

Nice try: Justin Simien's slow-paced look at race and class at college, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

The characters in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, every last one of them -- or nearly (a few seem not to have the smarts to consider such things) -- are almost desperate to discover their "place" in the world. While their current world consists of university life, they clearly have their eye set as well on the life to follow. Some of these folk are black, some are white, and some may be mixed race, but all are trying to figure out where they belong in terms of not just race but class. This is a terrific set-up for a modern-day, age-of-Obama movie, and I dearly wish that the writer/director Justin Simien had been able to do more with it.

The filmmaker, shown at left, has certainly provided an interesting array of characters -- mostly students, but a couple of administrators, too -- and given each their character "quest" and/or problem. The trouble comes when he tries mixing it all up. He doesn't seem to understand how to make a movie come to life. Instead he sees to it that all his characters, just about all the time, talk about race and class and what to do with or about them. Yet the dialog does not, shall we say, bubble. Instead it just sits there, sort of like Whit Stillman on a rare bad day. Or Spike Lee in his School Daze days, but without the pizazz. Nor do these characters seem to exist much beyond their "race" and "class" blather. That's what they're here for, and that's what they give us.

The timing and pacing are way off-kilter: slow and tired. After the screening I attended, a young woman who rode down in the elevator with me blamed this on the editing -- by Phillip J. Bartell, of the Eating Out series. Whatever you might think of those films, they certainly had no pacing problems, so perhaps the responsibility remains in Simien's hands. In any case, maybe ten minutes could profitably have been cut from this too-long movie, had someone possessed the balls to just tighten it up.

Among the cast there are a number of first-rate performers -- or at least some actors who look like they could be: Tessa Thompson (above) and Tyler James Williams (below, center) to name but two -- under better circumstances.

We see so few intelligent movies about race and class that I don't want to put this little movie down too harshly. It's worth viewing and arguing over, and I'll be interested to see what Simien does next.

Meanwhile Dear White People -- from Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions and running 100 minutes -- opened yesterday, October 17, in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC. Click here to see theaters and further playdates. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Oh, boy-- a 1980s musical delight! Festival favorite Ian Thorpe's ETERNITY: THE MOVIE

Who knew mediocrity could be so much fun? Well, Ian Thorpe (shown below, who is the director and co-writer, along with Joey Abi-Loutfi and Eric Staley) sure did. Together with a very nimble cast, they have found a way to make this mediocrity so sweet and silly and special that I swear, they've accomplished something that almost no one else has: finding exactly the right kind of dead-pan humor to make what should be a bad movie quite wonderful. ETERNITY: THE MOVIE works just about perfectly, in fact -- once you tune into its wave length, that is.

Maybe you have to be gay (and out) to go with this particular vibe. I noticed just a few moments ago as I was reading the The NY Times review that its critic clearly did not tune in. You may be luckier. Do try, because the rewards are great. This story of a meet-cute twosome (who resemble something awfully close to the Hall & Oates that some of us loved so well) decide to become a hit duo, and by gum, they sure do -- oh! Deadpan is often portrayed as affectless; here it's anything but. There is so much enthusiasm on display that you can't decide if it's infectious or just plain loony. Either way, though, it's a lot of fun.

The two leads could not be better, both at resembling Hall & Oates and at revving up for a real 1980s bash of music, fashion, very large mobile phones, bad moods and love. Part of the delight and charm here is that every other character in this movie is convinced that our adorable duo is gay. But this possibility seems never to have occurred to the boys themselves.

As played by Myko Olivier (above, right) and Barrett Crake (above, left), the twosome proves adorable and talented enough to have a few hits, as well as involve themselves in an eventualy three-way, would-be love affair with their neighbor, Gina-Marie (a smart and funny Nikki Leonti, shown at bottom, right).

Also on hand for support are old-timers Eric Roberts (below) and Jon Gries (above, left). But it's our ever-hopeful, starry-eyed duo who rule. How everyone here found the right degree of "almost reality," sweetness and skill to turn what, by all rights, ought to have been a big nothing into a quite something may remain one of those marvelous movie mysteries that occur but rarely.

So just be grateful and go bask in the cleverly conceived 1980s, where, if you can manage to grab on to that unusual wave-length, a very good time awaits.

Eternity: The Movie , running 91 minutes, opens today in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, next Friday, October 24 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and thereafter at another half-dozen cities around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.