Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Early reality TV re-examined, as Robert Greene's KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE opens

What was she doing and why was she doing it are two of the questions provoked by the new quasi-documentary, quasi-narrative, quasi-intelligent examination of an actual 1974 on-air suicide by a TV talk show host that took place in Florida. Robert Greene's film KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE strikes me as an almost perfect example of what I'd call a relatively new and very narrow genre subset: the Aren't we-clever Brooklyn movie. This is probably not fair to Brooklyn or movies in general, but so be it. The film tackles the distressing subject of suicide and how to examine this from an honest POV, but then bangs you over the head with its "findings," even as it very nearly bores you to death in the process. (I am told that nobody in the film actually lives in Brooklyn, including its director. But the film reminds me of Bklyn at its most pretentious.)

Mr. Greene, pictured at left, gave us the 2014 documentary Actress, another overpraised film that TrustMovies expected to cover but had to refrain from doing so because, at the press screening I attended, the film's start was delayed so long, due to having to wait for the critic from (I believe) The New York Times. So I had to leave ten minutes before the finale in order to arrive on time for my next screening. One does not fairly review a movie one hasn't seen the whole of, but from what I did see of Actress, I found both the subject and the film made around her much less interesting than did the filmmaker.

So it is again with Kate Plays Christine, in which actress Kate Lyn Sheil (above) -- whom I've enjoyed to a point in a few other films, and in the Netflix series House of Cards -- both plays and investigates the history and personality of that TV host, Christine Chubbuck (shown below). The film's credits list Mr Greene as its writer, and that would seem to include much of the dialog placed in the mouth of Ms Sheil, who did not seem, to me at least, to always be improvising or even creating her own in-the-moment dialog. This may be because Greene is on record as saying that, as concerns documentaries, "The only way to get the the truth is layering constructed truths and leaving them unresolved." Which seems to be what he has done here. Oh, yes: It is all very self-reflectively "meta" -- but more Metamucil than anything else.

His movie is a mix of would-be investigation -- interviews with folk who knew and/or worked with Ms Chubbuck) and narrative scenes in which Greene uses actors to dramatize important scenes and moments in the life just-before-her-death of the talk show host. Except that, for all I know, Greene may have also used actors to portray some of those supposedly real-life folk who are interviewed. It's that kind of movie.

In addition, most of these scenes -- whether they are "documentary" or "narrative" -- are barely adequately (sometime not nearly that) handled. Ms Sheil, who in the main performer in the film, is not a particularly riveting actress. Whether she is speaking to us in the same dreary, droning voice in the "doc" portions, or "acting" in the narrative sections, she is, well... less than commanding. But I would tend to blame this more on Greene than on the actress. (We shall see what Rebecca Hall does with the same role in the full-out narrative drama, Christine, scheduled for release this October.)

The doc occasionally does come to life, as when Kate interviews an elderly white-haired-but-very-tanned newscaster who tells her that Christine's suicide was meaningless, useless and did not accomplish a thing. This angry, controlling and cold-as-dry-ice fellow would seem to represent the perfect Florida Republican member of the Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to corporate power and greed -- and the scene whips the movie into high gear for a short time.

We watch as Kate transforms (sort of) into Christine by doing some slightly-Stanislavski Actor Prepares business, then getting brown contacts to cover her blue eyes (above), being sprayed with a fake tan (below) and often talking about her debut to the subject of the documentary: "I want to pay respect to Christine Chubbuck and empathize with her, which of course I do."  For his part, Mr Greene is on record as saying that making this movie has illustrated the risks of pointing a camera at any subject. I would think he'd have understood that point several movies ago.

The documentary is exploratory to some extent, but the slowness of its pacing, together with the sameness of so much of the content becomes deadening. In the article in this past Sunday's New York Times Art & Leisure section, the filmmaker notes that he wants the film to actually cave in on itself, under the weight of the questions it asks. "It has to fall apart to work." Greene certainly has achieved the falling-apart part. His film does not work as documentary, as narrative, nor as anything else except perhaps as a trying, tiring exercise. The film's ending would seem to want to implicate us viewers -- but succeeds in implicating the filmmaker and his star instead.

From Grasshopper Film and running a rather lengthy hour-and-52-minutes, Kate Plays Christine opens tomorrow in New York City at the IFC Center and then on September 16 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Noho 7. Elsewhere? A few cities are on the docket. Click here then scroll all the way down to click on Where to Watch.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dan Eberle's back -- with another tight-lipped, slow-burning crime tale, SOLE PROPRIETOR

This will be the third film by writer/ director/star Dan Eberle (shown at left) that TrustMovies has covered over the past decade, beginning with The Local (made in 2008), moving on the the much more interesting Prayer to a Vengeful God (2010), and now Eberle's latest foray into tight-lipped, slow-burning machismo titled SOLE PROPRIETOR. (The filmmaker's third foray, Cut to Black, from 2013, I've not yet seen.)

Eberle (below), who writes, directs and stars in all his films, puts out the image of a beefy, sexy man of few words who plays, in each of these movies, practically the same character. Think of him as a down-market, low-budget Clint Eastwood (I prefer watching Eberle to even the younger Eastwood).

The problem that I increasingly have with Eberle's films, however (except for "Prayer" and its unusual no-dialog format), is that, while the movies may break new ground so far as their filmmaker is concerned, plot-wise they keep offering up the same kind of scenarios we've seen time and again -- from him and so many other filmmakers. There are so few surprises here that, for all the attractive performers, decent acting, good camerawork and other technical aspects on view, a feeling of been-there-done-that quickly sets in.

In Eberle's latest, we have more urban debauchery (his character, wherever the guy may be from, always comes off like a Brooklyn boy): problems involving drugs, prostitution and dirty cops. This time the filmmaker plays a guy on the lam who wants no name attached to him other than "Crowley from the Internet."  While Mr. C awaits a new identity, papers, and other help from the unnamed "consortium" or "corporation" by whom he is employed, he is told that he must do "one more job" for the powers-that-be, prior to getting the help he needs. Ah, yes: the old just-one-more-job ultimatum!

We never learn specific details of that job, but all of a sudden Crowley is involved with a prostitute who's into domination (Alexandra Hellquist, above and below). Fortunately our guy is into masochism, a new wrinkle for Eberle, but one that allows us to see him nearly unclothed -- nice package! -- and makes for a few decent sex scenes.

It also makes for the slow-fuse violence that eventually accrues, as we meet yet another pretty young whore with a sad, fraught history (Alexandra Chelaru, below),

some nasty Russians and Hondurans (including Chris Graham playing one of the former but looking more like one of the latter),

a low-key mob boss and other unsavory characters such as those particularly dirty cops (Nick Bixby, below, plays the dirtiest).

Love, or something akin, begins to bloom, and there are betrayals of all sorts, leading to a nicely effective finale, complete with a shoot-out, in which the various parties collide.

Despite the rather "used" scenario, Eberle has concocted one of his richer arrays of grotesques and urban decay, and his tendency toward less-is-more, in terms of dialog and general explanation, works pretty well in keeping his tale on course.

From Insurgent Pictures, the movie, after completing a week-long run at Hollywood's Arena Cinema, is in release now on select digital platforms. The film will be also featured in the inaugural Venice Film Week, and at the Action on Film festival this September, in advance of a national DVD/Bluray release this December.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Opie Cooper's BIG BAD is an old fashioned kids' adventure (complete with monster)

Some kind of throwback to an earlier, more charming and generous age when teens could populate a movie without being slashed to death, BIG BAD (yes, as in... wolf -- or something like that), this new 1980s-set scary movie relies more on action, surprise, thrills and good performances than it does blood and gore. For that reason alone it deserves some praise. Yet the film also provides a lot of old-fashioned, good-natured fun -- along with some genuine surprises that should bring a smile to your face -- once you get in groove with this unusual little opus.

As directed and co-written by Opie Cooper, shown above (the co-writers are Daniel Dauphin and Beth Kander), Big Bad looks quite good visually and sound good, too -- thanks to dialog that seems relatively real and slightly "period."

The surprises begin at square one, as the three characters we're introduced to (and who we imagine will carry us right through the movie) are actually dispensed with before we even get to the opening credits. There are frights and scares, all right, but nary any gore on view, which gives the movie a more deserved PG rating than many glossier, big-budget affairs we've seen of late.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with a high school teacher (Mr. Dauphin, above, right) with a rather odd fund-raising plan that involves getting a small group of his students together to spend a night in an old and now-closed-down jail out in the middle of nowhere (nowhere being, of course, where some very odd disappearances and bad things have been happening for awhile -- though nobody, including the town's sheriff, police and local busybodies (below), seem to care much about this.

The three kids who end up taking part in the "fundraising" include a young fellow, his ex-girl-friend and his best friend, along with that oddball teacher, and what they soon find frightens them half to death. As with most good scare movies, the monster is kept at bay and only slightly visible for quite awhile, yet he provides the necessary scares and frights.

The three leads include Ainsley Bailey (above, center) as the ex-girlfriend and the bitchiest of the three, Madeline Thelton (below, center) as the BFF, and Cameron Deane Stewart (at left, three photos above and below, right) as the buff-but-boneheaded boyfriend.

I will not make any great claims for Big Bad as a must-see movie, but as a charming little time-waster that shows a good deal of talent on a low budget, the film certainly delivers the goods. (It also tries for -- and intermittently succeeds in providing -- an end-credits sequence that is different and fun.

From Indican Pictures and running just 87 minutes, the movie hits DVD this coming Tuesday, August 23 -- for purchase and (I hope) rental. For some very amusing and interesting info on its director/co-writer Opie Cooper, click here and scroll down to peruse the information about Opie and his "Eagle Scout" history with Steven Spielberg.... 

Giallo time again--with the Blu-ray release of Duccio Tessari/THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERLY

Giallo lovers can, if not rejoice, get at least a little excited by the new Blu-ray release of a would-be giallo with the alliterative, if crass title, THE BLOOD-STAINED BUTTERFLY (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate). The movie is much more a plain old mystery thriller -- and not a particularly good one, at that -- than it is a giallo, a genre that usually revels in blood and gore and beautiful women getting killed in grisly set pieces. All this would be commendable, were the movie very good on any level. Instead, it's merely passable entertainment for the nostalgia set.

What it does have is a very young and handsome Helmut Berger (above, of various Visconti movies and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) in the kind of silly role that would presage much of his remaining career. The actor is still at it, actually, having now made some 64 film and TV appearances, the latest of which has recently completed production. (In the extras on the Blu-ray disc is a present-day interview with the actor, the viewing of which will make you marvel anew at what the ravages of time can do to even the most handsome of men.)

The filmmaker here, one Duccio Tessari (shown at right), is pretty much unknown to American audiences (including giallo aficionados), and if this film is a good indication of his output, that status would seem perfectly appropriate. This writer/director proves certainly adequate in turning out a genre movie, But despite the rather glowing comments offered up about Tessari and this film by giallo author Troy Howarth, yours truly feels less inclined to perceive this filmmaker as anything special.

By the end of this meandering film, which lacks much suspense, pacing or even plot, you may feel as did TrustMovies that your time might have been better spent. Having said that, I must admit I initially found the film engaging, due to a few unusual things this director and co-writer (with Gianfranco Clerici) does.

At the film's beginning, we're introduced to many of its character by name (and sometimes by occupation) via identifying titles (which I initially mistook for the names of further cast members -- until the words, "a lawyer" appeared on screen). We also get a soupçon of humor via a police inspector who proves very fussy about the quality of his morning coffee.

Along the way we get to view some gorgeous Italian architecture, as well (the film was shot in Bergamo, Lombardy), and the director does seem to have an occasional eye, as above, for spatial relationships and people placement.  There is also some interesting courtroom pyrotechnics to keep us occupied -- even if, finally, much of what happens seems over-manufactured and -manipulated.

The acting is problematic throughout, with Berger becoming so very dramatic and bizarre at odd times that you expect the character playing opposite him to beat a speedy exit for fear for her life. Other actors do better, and on the disc's extras you'll get to see and hear some of them (like Ida Galli/aka Evelyn Stewart, below) talk about what happened way back when.

Mostly the movie is given to introducing its murder suspects -- three or four of them -- and then letting the mystery unravel... very slowly. That titular bloodstained butterfly finally appears close to the movie's end and seems about as germane to the proceedings as would, say, a shit-stained salamander.

There is also a scene with kids in yellow (giallo, get it?) raincoats running around, which leads to the discovery of the first victim, and later to another victim, who proves a bit more closely related to those children. The finale, however, while somewhat surprising, remains more ludicrous than anything else. And the over-the-top manner in which Tessari filmed it simply adds to the ridiculousness on hand.

The movie does take in its special time -- 1971 (a year in which, according to Mr. Howarth, some 25 giallo movies were released in Italy!) -- with a nod to the fashions, as well as to politics and philosophy (during the film one character mentions that there's no longer any art for art's sake, and a protester carries a banner reading Art Beyond Status).

From Arrow Video, distributed here by MVD Entertainment Group, and running 99 minutes, the movie -- a "must," I would guess, for giallo completists -- makes its Blu-ray and DVD debuts this coming Tuesday, August 23 -- for sale and/or rental. As is usual with most of these Arrow titles, the Blu-ray transfer is a very good one. And the "extras" are every bit as informative, entertaining and interesting (more so, actually) than the movie itself.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Boy, oh, Baye! Nathalie is terrific in Ali & Bonilauri's French thriller, THE ASSISTANT

If you haven't yet met Nathalie Baye, here's your chance, in a new French thriller just making its VODebut entitled THE ASSISTANT (La Volante). This four-time César-winning actress is always good and usually a lot more than that. In her current movie -- directed by Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri, and co-written by the two, along with Philippe Blasband and Jacques Sotty -- she plays Marie-France, the mother of an adult son on whom befalls an accident that changes her life and, it turns out, the lives of a number of others some years after.

The movie begins with both death and birth via a sudden shocking situation that no one would ever want to endure. We catch our first sight of Ms Baye in the scene just after, and the manner in which her character handles her grief is so awful and intense that this enables us to accept and believe what follows. And what follows is, as they say, something else.

The filmmakers Ali and Bonilauri (shown above, with Ali on the left) intend their film to be first and foremost a thriller, and they succeed in this regard quite well. Ms Baye, being the fine actress she is, intends to give us character above all else, and this combo of character and thrills make the movie a cut or two above the usual for this genre. This is the duo's third full-length film, though TrustMovies has only previously caught their second one -- a bizarre little character study/thriller released to DVD stateside as Wild Camp starring two indelible French actors Isild Le Besco (A tout de suite) and Denis Lavant (Beau Travail).

In The Assistant, the filmmakers begin with a whoppingly intense few minutes, after which they quickly cut to a few years later. It is here than the "revenge" would seem to start (though the plans for it have clearly been laid for some time previous). Or is this wholly about revenge? Perhaps, we wonder, it might be something more. The directors and their fine cast keep us ever alert and guessing, with Ms Baye in particularly good form as an obsessed woman whose many talents -- if used toward other ends -- could probably have made her President of France.

Baye's Marie-France is a force to be reckoned with, all right, and if the filmmakers use a good deal of shorthand in piecing together their fraught tale, they give us enough info to follow along without keeping too far ahead of the game. There are a couple of moments when we might not quite buy what is happening (how come the young boy is so suddenly disenchanted with his teacher/grandma/mother surrogate?), yet so fast is the pacing and propulsive the motion (the film lasts but 87 minutes), that we can't easily get off this roller coaster. Nor would we want to.

Also prominent in the fine cast are Malike Zidi (three photos above) and Sabrina Seyvecou as the hapless couple who starts the ball rolling, Johan Leysen as Zidi's all-too-trusting dad, and Jean-Stan Du Pac (above, left, and center right, two photos above) as the innocent object of revenge.

From Distrib Films US, The Assistant is heading straight for VOD, where it will make its debut on iTunes this coming Tuesday, August 23 -- for some end-of-summer fun and games -- and then hit theaters for a very limited release in late September.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Blu-ray/digital debut of a Philippe de Broca duo: THE FIVE DAY LOVER and ON GUARD

If Philippe de Broca is less well-known to American arthouse audiences than some other French filmmakers who came to international popularity in the 1960s, this may have more to do with the fact that his oeuvre is all over the place -- from comedy adventures (That Man From Rio) to swashbucklers (Cartouche) to that very famous (but rather cloying) arthouse hit, King of Hearts.

For my money, the one true classic this journeyman filmmaker (and I do not mean that appellation in any disrespectful way) directed and co-adapted (with Daniel Boulanger, from the novel by Françoise Parturier) is THE FIVE DAY LOVER (L'amant de cinq jours) from 1961. It stars the lovely and quite special Jean Seberg (below, right, whom the French knew how to use so much more skillfully than did we Americans, including the fabled Mr. Preminger, though he did better with his second try than with his first), and a French actor whom De Broca helped bring to prominence, Jean-Pierre Cassel (below, left, whose son Vincent has managed to carve an even more impressive career for himself).

I had not seen this film since its original New York City opening some 55 years ago, and I have to say that it holds up amazingly well. The French have long been noted for their sophisticated views on love and relationships, but even so, this film remains a kind of revelation. In it, a happily married young woman (Seberg) with husband and two children, falls into an affair with the lover (Cassel) of her fashion-designer friend, Madeleine (the lusciously elegant Micheline Presle, below).

Yet she clearly cares for and about her rather silly and history-obsessed hubby (a lovely sad-but-smart acting job by the great François Périer, below). The affair, as is much of the movie, proves so buoyant you can almost imagine that the film as a musical. Yet it goes places that most movies don't get near in terms of addressing the needs of us humans -- men, sure, but women, too -- and it ends on a note of pure wonder and amazement at the human condition.

Ms Seberg rarely seemed as radiant as she does here, while Cassel proves a funny, sexy farceur, with Presle and Perier the grounding adults of the foursome. The music by Georges Delerue is up to his usual fine standard, and the camerawork (Jean Penzer) has us glued from beginning to end. For me, the movie compares to little else: It's an original that deserves classic status, taking the French penchant for romance, sex, love and philosophy, and juggling it all into very high mode indeed.

The new Blu-ray 2K restoration from the original negative is as crisp and beautiful a black-and-white transfer as you're likely to see, with its look at Paris of the early 60s a particular delight. In French with English subtitles and running just 87 minutes, the movie is a joy to view in so many ways.


ON GUARD (Le bossu or The Hunchback) from 1997, on the other hand, offers up de Broca in his swashbuckler mode. It is one of the films of his final decade (the filmmaker died in 2004), and in its way, it provides a kind of master class on how to make a movie in this genre. Starring Daniel Auteuil (on poster, left) in the kind of dashing, heroic role we're not so used to seeing this actor play, the film proves a testament to Auteuil's versatility (and stamina). Based upon the Paul Féval novel, first published piecemeal in 1850, the film takes in two hunchbacks, one a fake (played later in the film by Auteuil), the other a fellow who meets an untimely (though not particularly undeserved) end in the service of the movie's villain, played with his usual alternately subtle and lip-smacking style by the great Fabrice Luchini.

The film takes in an enormous range of characters and several time frames as it spans a couple of generations involved in family betrayal, murder (an entire wedding party!), and the raising to adulthood of an infant into young womanhood. One of the chief action sequences takes place as our hero sword-fights while holding that infant in his arms. (This was, and is, I think, a first.)

The child grows into actress Marie Gillain (at left, above), fathered by that lean and lany hunk, Vincent Perez (at left, two photos above). That's M. Auteuil, playing his hunchback character, above, which he does to a fare-thee-well. It is such a pleasure to watch this actor work! There is beaucoup swordplay, family squabbles, romance, danger and death -- but by the end of it all, we're primed mostly for charm and pleasure. M. de Broca surely did know how to make a pleasing costume adventure, which is said to be more-or-less based on history.

The 4K Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous to behold -- glowing, colorful and as precise (with the exception of a single short scene) as you could wish, Coming to us via the Cohen Film Collection's Classic of French Cinema, this two-disc set, complete with plenty of "extras," hit the street earlier this month and is now available for purchase or rental.