Monday, August 29, 2016

Carting that cannon again: Stanley Kramer's THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION hits Blu-ray

I had forgotten what a slough this 1957, star- and artillery-heavy movie actually is -- plot-wise and metaphorically speaking -- as Gary Grant,
Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, with the help of multitudinous Spanish extras, drag the largest cannon in the known world from one spot in Spain to another to keep the weapon out of the hands of Napoleon's army and eventually do some real damage to that army and its leadership.

It has been nearly 60 years since TrustMovies (back then a Los Angeles-based high-school student not much interested in world history) saw the film upon its initial release. He remembered it as big and long and heavy and occasionally actionful. It still is. Based on the C.S. Forester novel, The Gun -- a title that is short, smart and on the nose -- the movie was re-titled in typical Hollywood fashion to THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION and then handed to the thinking-man's hack director Stanley Kramer to make "meaningful." Or money-making. The former didn't happen, and despite the starry cast, I don't think the latter did, either.

Watching it now on the good Blu-ray transfer from Olive Films, the first thing you may notice is that all those thousands of extras are actual people, not CGI effects. My, god -- how did they do it! (Despite some gorgeous architecture and scenery, some of the backdrops we see are noticeably hand-painted.)  The film's very weak screenplay (by Edna and Edward Anhalt is given over to either logistics about the movement of that cannon or to the almost completely uninteresting would-be triangle love story in which Ms Loren's character moves from rebel leader Sinatra over to British military man Grant.

You can see from the old still above, compared to the new one below, how crispness and color have come back into the film with its new transfer. Mr. Grant, dapper as ever and assuming a nicely upper-crust Brit accent, looks as good as usual,

but Mr. Sinatra, below and bedded down, looks particularly scrawny in these loose Spanish period costumes. He also appears quite unhappy most of the time, which he was said to be during the shooting of the film.

For her part, Ms Loren simply smoulders, while trying half-heartedly to make peace between her guys. Because the only real concern here is getting that cannon to its destination, the love story seems less and less important and more and more ridiculous as the movie drags on. Characterization is at a minimum, particularly concerning Loren's role -- which has no real place in the proceedings.

The actress consistently wears cleavage-exposing blouses throughout (and why not, with a body like that!), but the fact that she is often the only woman we see along for this ride makes her role seem all the more pointless. There's a very long "dance" number about one-third of the way in that goes on and on (it may be the single longest scene in the film and it adds nothing to the plot), but it does make you wonder if shaking that beautiful body wasn't the entire reason for casting the actress. (This was only her second American movie, after Boy on a Dolphin, with her Oscar-wining performance in Two Women still three years away.)

Kramer handles some of the action scenes with enough skill to keep us interested, and the film's scenery, scope, and that enormous cannon (below) do the rest. The movie is a curiosity that might be worth a rental, but not perhaps a purchase -- unless you are overly smitten with the stars or the artillery.

From Olive Films and running two hours and twelve minutes, the new Blu-ray transfer of The Pride and the Passion, is presented in 1.78:1 and was created using the best materials available, with a slight modification of the aspect ratio to better fit the home viewing experience. The movie is available now, on both Blu-ray and DVD, for purchase or rental. (Unlike the recently-covered Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie MoonNetflix actually offers this one for rental.)

Berger-lovers, take note -- THE SEASONS IN QUINCY: Four Portraits of John Berger opens

TrustMovies' first experience with the noted polymath John Berger came back in 1976, with the release of a movie called Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, for which Berger had written the screenplay, along with the film's Swiss director, Alain Tanner. I had never seen a movie like this one that tossed together a bunch of somewhat related characters (all friends, as I recall) and, as scene after scene played out, got us in the audience thinking about all kinds of important things: culture, politics, economics, love, parenting -- even as we were surprisingly entertained, amused, moved and made to connect things. I had never experience anything quite like this in a movie theater before. And, maybe, now that I think of it, since. (I am also made suddenly aware, if I did not consider this at the time I first saw the film, that my own daughter would herself turn 26 in the year 2000.)

After that experience, I kept a lookout for whatever else I might come across from Mr. Berger (shown above and below), and over the decades, I have enjoyed and learned from much of his work. Now, we have an unusual documentary opening this Wednesday at New York City's Film Forum -- THE SEASONS IN QUINCY: FOUR PORTRAITS OF JOHN BERGER -- that ought to be catnip for us Berger fans and might even appeal to folk who know little (or simply want to know more) about one of the most special jack-of-many-trades to grace western culture in this century and the one just past.

These four portraits (titled Ways of Listening, Spring, A Song for Politics and Harvest) last around 22 minutes each and are said to have been directed  by four filmmakers -- Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz and the actress and long-time friend of Berger, Tilda Swinton (above, right) -- though it seemed to me that perhaps all the directors had something to do with all the segments.

Certainly, scenes, people and ideas seem to bounce back and forth here -- which would be appropriate for Berger and his oeuvre, with the man himself -- gentle and quiet and alert -- holding it all together. In its own style, the movie manages to capture much of Berger's, too.

Ms Swinton herself appears in a couple of the portraits, the first and the last, as do, I am guessing, her children (or maybe younger siblings?). Berger's son, too, plays in a good part of the final segment, making this a kind of lovely tale of two families, set in scenery that will make you want to move to this French mountainside and its verdant valley forthwith.

Along the way we are made to think about everything from the lives of farm animals to where our world is going in terms of economic/political policy. Berger calls himself a storyteller, albeit one "who can identify stories good for the reader's health," while Swinton prefers the moniker "radical humanist." After viewing and listening to all that's here, you'll undoubtedly come up with your own word for the guy.

"Hope has nothing to do with optimism," "It's in hell, not heaven, where solidarity is important," and "History cannot have its tongue cut out," are just a few of the ideas we come up against here, and the images we see -- from peas in a pod, to chickens on the loose and the beauty of hogs, cows and the French countryside -- are simply a delight.

This is a uniquely personal little movie, and while a few of the filmic tricks, particularly those in A Song for Politics, may not add much to the mix -- more of that discussion shown in black-and-white by a most interesting quintet (above) would have been preferable by me -- what is here seems so redolent of Berger himself that we don't much mind.

By movie's end we've come to a new generation. Glancing, allusive, beautiful, oddly moving, the documentary often soars, while the finale even finds a perfect use for those raspberries we've seen earlier. And look! Berger and his son have set a place at the table for their late wife/mother.

From Icarus Films and running but 90 minutes, these documentary portraits opens this Wednesday, August 31 at Film Forum in New York City before hitting another ten venues where intellectual pursuits appear to be happening (and yes, folk: Los Angeles is again missing in action). You can take a look at all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here and then scrolling down to the appropriate movie (they're in alphabetical order by title).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Olive Films' new Blu-ray of Preminger/Kellogg TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON

Otto Preminger's reputation as a mini-tyrant may have somewhat over-shadowed that of his reputation as a major filmmaker, and while his work, overall, was hit and miss, certain of his movies -- from Laura through Anatomy of a Murder -- have stood the test of time very well. One of his later efforts, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON, from 1970, seemed (and still does) such an odd choice for this often ground-breaking-in-terms-of-subject-matter movie-maker that even film buffs like me tend to forget that Preminger (shown below) was at the helm. Also, the movie flopped critically and at the box-office and so was promptly relegated to the forget-about-it bin.

Based on the 1968 best-seller of the same title by Marjorie Kellogg, who also penned the screenplay, the story tells of three social misfits who meet in a rehab hospital, bond, and decide to make their way in the outside world together. Admission time: TrustMovies knew and became a good friend and neighbor of Ms Kellogg and her long-time companion Sylvia Short in Manhattan in the early 1980s. He'd read the original novel on which the film was based but didn't see the movie during its theatrical release and by the time he'd met Marjorie, the film had disappeared from view.

The "Junie Moon" movie has also never appeared in disc format on either DVD or Blu-ray. All of the above makes its current release by Olive Films something rather special. And while the movie is no great shakes as filmmaking, it does offer a good deal of positives to recommend, starting with the very fine performance by Liza Minnelli (above, left, and below) in the title role, as a young woman whose face has been permanently scarred by a crazy would-be boyfriend (Ben Piazza, above, right) who feels "spurned." (Among the movie's many ironies is the fact that the guy was not being spurned; Junie was simply behaving honestly, if a bit heavy-handedly).

What was ground-breaking about this film (leave it to Mr. Preminger, of course) was that, so far as I can recall, this was the first film to show a movie heroine's scarred countenance so up-front and in-your-face. Preminger, Minnelli and Kellogg conspired to make us keep looking at until we could finally understand something from which audiences and the general populace would prefer to look away. And of course, in the end, we get used to it, accept it, maybe even almost "appreciate" it. We can, at least, as do the other characters here, look beyond it.

At the time of its release, the film's director was accused to not being able to find the right "tone." I don't think so. Rather, most critics and certainly audiences of this time were not ready to deal with a tone that wasn't full-out sentimental when dealing with "problemed" people like these. The other two "misfits," played by Ken Howard (below) and Robert Moore (above), are, respectively, an epileptic mis-diagnosed as mentally deficient and an acerbic young homosexual who has evidently never heard of the closet (or is simply unable to keep himself in it).

The three do indeed form that bond -- they are joined by James Coco as the town's helpful fish monger -- and it is strong enough to carry the movie home, despite some missteps along the way. Minnelli, Moore and Coco are terrific. Only Mr. Howard, in both the character as written and the performance he gives, is too bland, lacking much specificity. Kay Thompson, too, is crackerjack, as the wealthy and bizarre owner of the little house they rent who tries to get the Moore character walking again via pure will-power or faith (maybe she's a Christian Scientist?)

Preminger guides the film along, keeping sentimentality mostly at bay. Only the finale, with what seems rather like an unearned demise, smacks of  too-much. And for a film in which so many of the characters are oddball, the movie stays on track and doesn't continually swat us with cutesiness and moral tips, as does the recent Israeli clunker, Is That You?  Preminger does fall for the need to strut his stuff by giving us, in the flashback scenes of the orphanage into which the Howard character is thrust as a child, weird camera perspectives and color-draining that come off more "arty" than necessary.

Granted, when I sat down to watch, I wasn't expecting much. But when I got up, post-viewing, I felt surprisingly fulfilled -- especially at seeing Ms Minnelli working at full steam and creating one of her fuller and most believable on-screen dramatic characters (in a non-musical, at least: Cabaret is still her triumph).

Running 113 minutes, the movie has been given a so-so Blu-ray transfer by Olive Films. (I am not sure from what kind of materials the transfer was made, but the quality looks somewhere between a good videotape and a DVD.) It hit the street earlier this month and is available now for purchase  (you can order here or elsewhere) and I would hope for rental, too. Netflix, which should offer it, does not -- as yet.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Peruvian-style Capitalism meets major opposition in Heidi Brandenburg & Mathew Orzel's WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE

We've heard, over the years, a lot about Brazil's deforestation of its Amazon region but not so much about what neighboring Peru has done. We're brought up to date with with a jolt and much vigor by the new documentary, WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE that takes us back a few years and then forward as two major political leaders in Peru -- the country's then-President, Alan Garcia, and Alberto Pizango, President of AIDESEP, the country's major organization devoted to indigenous rights -- square off against each other and the policies that each represents.

As very well directed and photographed (sometimes in the midst of violent unrest) by Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel (shown above, respectively right and left), and edited by Carla Gutierrez to maximize our understanding of what is going on from various angles and viewpoints, the documentary brings us up-close-and-personal to power wielded South American style by two men absolutely intent on seeing that their ends come to fruition.

While Progressives and environmentalists will of course side with Señor Pizango (above, center) and American Republicans and other promoters of Capitalism will favor Garcia (below), the filmmakers do an excellent job of offering up both men's viewpoints honestly (Garcia refused to cooperate or give interviews to the the documentarians), but it is clear from what we see that the Peruvian government, under Garcia and his minions, enacted laws that were actually illegal. Under International Convention C169, to which Peru was a signatory, it is mandatory that before the government passes a law that affects the rights of it native people, those people must first be consulted. This was never done, and since these laws have given huge corporations the power to despoil the Amazon and impact badly the heath of the natives, Pizango goes full-out against Garcia to stop this.

How all this is done -- via speeches, actions, and the use of the media to (mostly) bolster the government's case -- escalates into the kind of implacable force that leads finally to violence and death. The film, evolving rather like a thriller, proves intelligent and engulfing, showing us concisely and irrefutably how actions have consequences, many of them unintended -- perhaps on both sides, though the use of what appears to have been unnecessary gunfire by the government forces places a stronger burden of guilt upon Garcia.

The documentary show us once again, but dramatically and with startling immediacy, how the one percent of America -- in the South just as in the North -- exercises its control with an iron hand, consequences be damned. It also shows how, in fighting this control, the limits of behavior can be stretched past the breaking point.

Many scenes resonate, but one in particular, in which a cold and entitled TV talk show host "interviews" Pizango and tells hims that she should not have to be without electricity and lights because of his protests. "What about our rights?" he counters, and she cuts him off, ending the interview.

We hear several times from a scurrilous Minister of the Interior, as well as from various indigenous people, and the most personal and saddest part of the film deals with a father whose son was one of the policeman who were killed during the violence with protesters, when several of the protesters were also killed. The man's son has never been found, and the father spends his days and months searching for any information. What he finds at last is deeply moving and unsettling in ways expected and not.

The two worlds here -- wealthy and poor, the government and the people, the urban and the indigenous -- do indeed collide, and this will happen more often now that, thanks to activists, whistle-blowers and the use of social media, we can more quickly see and understand what is going on in our world and why. Once you've viewed this strong and riveting movie, I suspect that it will come to mind first from now on, whenever you hear of or think about Peru.

From First Run Features and running 103 minutes, When Two Worlds Collide opened in New York last week at Film Forum, where it is continuing its run through this coming Tuesday. It will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on Friday, September 16, as well as in another ten cities and theaters. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Friday, August 26, 2016

So adorable you could puke: Dani Menkin's Israeli/American road movie, IS THAT YOU?

Having been a big fan of Israeli documentary filmmaker Dani Menkin's Dolphin Boy (released here in 2012), TrustMovies was primed to see his first foray into narrative filmmaking, IS THAT YOU? (which has been subtitled The Road Not Taken). Post-viewing, I can now say that it has been a long, long time since I've sat through a movie that so set my teeth on edge. By the time it was over, I was surprised not to have ground those little white chiclets down to gum level, even as the milk in my refrigerator curdled. I guess I was simply unprepared for all the cutesy-pie, oddball characters and wring-your-tear-ducts sentimentality that this movie accrues.

Now, I admit that there will be many folk out there in audience-land who will love this kind of film. And I am somewhat surprised that it rubbed me so fiercely the wrong way. But it did, and here's why. From the outset, Mr. Menkin, shown at right, would seem to be attempting some kind of would-be Cassavetes number, as our hero, played by the oft-seen and usually good Israeli actor, Alon Aboutboul, below, arrives in the USA to visit his estranged brother. From the outset it is clear that these two are oil and water, with Mr. Aboutboul, who was recently seen as the villain in London Has Fallen, playing one of those super-sensitive/ super-sexy older men, while his bro is one of those uber-crass Israelis by way of the USA.

Yes, any subtlety goes almost immediately MIA here. The plot has to do with our hero tracking down an early love-of-his-life, which sets him off on a road trip in which he meets character after character who are just so oddball and cute that you cannot believe for a minute that any of them could ever exist. I suppose that maybe one of them might, but sticking the entire lot into a single movie proves a big mistake.

The first of these (if you don't count those two brothers) is a man who now lives in the house where the former girlfriend once lived. So of course this guy immediately invites our hero in to show him a series of photos on his stairs that offers up a message/moral. (So many messages/morals are offered up in the course of this film that you'll be ready to suggest, as one famous movie mogul once advised, that the filmmaker ought use Western Union -- or, these days, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or whatever else is the latest in social media.)

But, no: The filmmaker just keeps piling the messages on, mostly via a pretty young woman filmmaker whom our hero meets early on and sticks with for nearly the rest of the movie. As played by Naruna Kaplan de Macedo (at left, above and below), the performance is believable only to the extent that the actress can circumvent the ridiculous character the filmmaker has conceived.

So on we go through one new cutesy introduction after another -- commitment-phobic single guys, kindly married lesbians, opera-singing policemen (certainly the dumbest thing in the film), and so forth. Note to story-tellers: It's fine to have your searched-for party move to a different location, once or even twice. But three or four times within the same film? No thank you.

But I'm off-message. As we learn from yet another fellow we meet: "If you love somebody and they love you, don't let 'em get away."  Duh. If you want to feel manipulated within an inch of your life, this is the movie for you. It almost (but not quite) makes me want to re-think Dolphin Boy. Running a thankfully brief 81 minutes, Is That You? opens today, Friday, August 26, in New York City at the Cinema Village, and is expected to open in the Los Angeles area sometime in September. I would also imagine it to be a shoo-in for a few theaters down here in Southern Florida, especially in Boca Raton.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Gaming -- of all sorts -- distinguishes the new sort-of-thriller, Adam Randall's LEVEL UP

One of those ever-more-plentiful what's-going-on-here-and-why? movies, the new would-be thriller/suspense film, LEVEL UP, takes a typically irresponsible male, who would rather spend his time drinking, drugging and gaming than working for a living, and puts him through one hell of a day or so in the service of... what, exactly? Our entertainment, one would guess. But that means you would need to be pretty heavily into gaming yourself before finding worthwhile this over-reaching combo of an early David Fincher film, The Game, and its more recent online cousin, Nerve.

As directed and co-written (with Gary Young) by Adam Randall, shown at left, the movie and its WTF plot seems initially pretty silly before turning serious and then even life-threatening. Our non-hero, Matt (played by Josh Bowman, below, left) gets off on his usual morning of doing damned little but slouching around and maybe playing video games. Then, just after his girlfriend leaves for work, he has his day interrupted by three hooded fellows who do some very naughty things.

And yet, no matter how horrible life becomes for poor Matt, this viewer could not shake the sense that everything going on here was one big, complicated and maybe pointless game. Along the way various scenarios present themselves, coming either via the film itself or perhaps from the several other movies we've seen that have played similar games:

Because his girlfriend has suddenly been kidnapped, Matt must then go all over the place and do all kind of weird things to save her life. Is all this merely the adventures of a poor shnook or schmuck being used for nefarious purposes? Maybe. But, really now, if you want someone killed, would you have to go to this much complicated trouble to do the job?

Or maybe this is some kind of treatise on the evils/perils of too much gaming (as Nerve tried so hard to be)? Or a cautionary tale about how the Internet is taking over our lives? Or could it really be about... surveillance? Or this: After a time of being around a bunch of numbskull males, one begins to wonder if the whole idea and plot has been concocted by a group of women who have grown thoroughly fed up with their dim-bulb men.

Matt's adventures takes him from one oddball place and person to another, and Mr. Bowman, who is in just about every scene in the film, certainly proves to be game. Some of the other males and females have their moments, too. Little by little, that plot begins to offer a few revelations, though nothing that quite pinpoints exactly what is going on. At least not for a very long time.

This is probably for the better, since mysteries are almost always more fun than their resolutions. The movie looks snappy, too; it's well filmed and edited, and the performances are as good as the concept and characters call for. Over all, I could have done without it -- though perhaps I've already seen too many films a little too much like this one. You younger folk may have more patience -- due to having less of a catalog/backlog of movie memories to weigh the film down.

In any case, Level Up -- from filmbuff and running 84 minutes -- will open tomorrow, Friday, August 26, for a week-long run in a dozen theaters in a dozen cities across the country, including  New York (at the Cinema Village), Los Angeles (at the Downtown Independent), and Austin (Alamo Drafthouse, Slaughter Lane). Look for it in Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Milwaukee, San Francisco/San Jose, Seattle/Tacoma, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Detroit, too. On September 26, the film will make its nationwide VOD debut.