Friday, August 22, 2014

Streaming surprise: Jeremy Leven's international frolic (spoken in English), GIRL ON A BICYCLE

Some movies start out so silly, stretching an already slight premise far past the breaking point, that you doubt you'll be able to continue watching for long. Such is GIRL ON A BICYCLE, only the second film to be directed by Jeremy Levin. (Don Juan DeMarco was his first, and he also helped adapt one of my least favorite movies ever, The Notebook, from its original novel.) But then a particularly good scene helps perk things up, and you stick with it a bit longer. Then comes another good one, and another, and pretty soon you're hooked.

Mr. Leven, shown at left, has both written and directed this German/American co-production, and he has cast it so internationally that the quartet of leading players features an Italian, a German, a Britisher and a French woman. The setting is Paris (it's gorgeous, as usual), and many of the supporting players are French, as well. Interestingly, most of the dialog is spoken in English, which is truly now the international language, so audiences who hate readings subtitles will not have to worry. (The very varied accents on display, however, may give your ears a real workout, initially at least.)

Girl on a Bicycle may be the rom-com to end all rom-coms, so initially ridiculous does it seem. An Italian tour-bus driver and lecturer named Paolo (Vincenzo Amato, above), about to propose to the girl of his dreams, does so and is married. One day soon after he catches a glimpse of an attractive young girl on her bicycle, and -- whoosh! -- he's off the romantic races once again.

Initially we feel little sympathy for the guy, and Amato's over-energetic and mostly charm-free performance doesn't help a lot. Yet eventually, against all odds, the oddball goings-on keep pulling us back in.

Many of the other characters are pretty charming, especially Paolo's bride, Greta (the lovely Nora Tschirner, above, holding newspapers, in a scene with a recalcitrant passenger that may be the film's comic highlight).

Greta is an airline stewardess, for whom one of the pilots (Stéphane Debac, above, left) has an unending lech. Then there's Paolo's best friend, Derek (Paddy Considine, below), forever full of advice about women and love and such.

Finally, we have that titular girl on the bike, Cécile (played dizzily by the lovely Louise Monot, below), and her two delightfully needy children (shown in the penultimate photo), who've been waiting years, it seems, for their father to come home.

Cécile is a model, and one of the film's funnier scenes involves a bathtub shoot and a slippery bar of soap.

All these characters are finally like pieces in a Rube Goldberg contraption, which, when set off, will cause one problem after another before finally bringing the movie to a satisfying finish. Well, love is crazy, after all. Why shouldn't it mimic one of those Goldberg machines?

Fortunately, most of the actors are good enough and enjoyable enough to bring their characters to life so that we go along for the ride. And the ride does grow better and funnier as it moves ahead. By the finale, I suspect you'll have tossed all caution to the winds and whole-heartedly embraced this silliness. We certainly did. (And, yes, there's always that forever-beautiful city of Paris.)

Girl on a Bicycle can be streamed now via Netflix and elsewhere. You can also view it on DVD.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Streaming treat: Aleksander Nordaas' THALE proves near-perfect little sci-fi/fantasy scare-fest

Netflix streaming has a reputation for offering thousands of movies of which most Americans have never heard. While this is indeed true, that doesn't mean that plenty of these films aren't worth watching. They absolutely are, and one such in the small Norwegian movie that has recently appeared on the streaming facility entitled THALE.  The title character is evidently a creature of Norwegian myth: a beautiful but mute young woman who, among other things, sports a tail.

Writer/director Aleksander Nordaas, shown at left, has managed within a mere 76 minutes to offer up a sleek, mini-budget sci-fi/fantasy/thriller/horror film that does just about everything right. The filmmaker doles out his information in exactly the right amount and at exactly the right time so that we move quickly ahead, piecing together the information we have, while arriving at the right conclusion almost pre-cisely when the movie itself does. We're never far behind nor ahead, and so the suspense, along with the ever-present question of what's going on and why, is immediate and enormous.

The fact that our heroes, Elvis (Erlend Nervold, above), and Leo (John Signe Skard, below), are working as crime-scene cleaner-uppers adds immensely to the movie's quirky, off-kilter charm and ick-factor,

while the casting of the beautiful and talented Silje Reinåmo (below) as the title creature is a real coup. Ms Reinåmo is quite a find as she creates a full-bodied being that is equal parts frightening and provocative. We never quite know where she stands (or sits or crawls), and that is all for the best.

Basically -- and acting-wise -- the movie is a three-hander, though via some backstory, we get glimpses of Thale's "mentor," as well as some of the government guys who are (surprise!) up to no good. And while all this is woven into the tight screenplay quite cleverly, it never detracts from the matters at hand: Who is this girl/thing, and what should be done with and about her?

How Nordaas brings all of this to fruition is a mini marvel: fast, sometimes funny, even quite moving at a couple of junctures. The special effects are small and sparse, but they work beautifully to capture the strangeness inherent in the movie.

Thale is everything you want a film like this to be but rarely find.
Miss it at your peril.

You can stream it now via Netflix and elsewhere, but I don't think it's available yet -- or maybe ever -- on our-region DVD.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Owen Wilson/Zach Galifianakis/ARE YOU HERE: Matthew Weiner's first film is a sneaky winner

I don't know much about Matthew Weiner, pictured below, but I do know that his Mad Men is hands-down the best American television series I have ever seen. This of course had me a little worried about his debut as a filmmaker: So much to live up to, after all. I am happy to report that his entry into movie-making, ARE YOU HERE, which he wrote and directed, is a lovely piece of work: fresh, funny, moving and real. You can think of it in a number of different ways, one of these being a modern-day screwball comedy (with pot standing in for alcohol). It is also a kind of back-and-forth road trip (for the automobile and the soul). Best of all, it a movie in which characters actually learn and grow and change. Believably.

If Mr. Weiner does pack a lot into his just-under-two-hour film, and then ties things up rather nicely, this will go counter to expectations, since Mad Men ties nothing up. Everything simply keeps expanding outward while its characters go with the flow and often seem to have learned very little (we do, however). But that is one of the wonders of what a great TV series can offer. A two-hour film is a different kettle of fish, from which audiences demand both more and less. And Weiner gives it to them. If you pay attention, you'll come out of Are You Here refreshed and feeling good. But you'll also have had to wrestle with certain notions: that being an "outsider" (the character played  by Zach Galifianakis) has as many bad as good points, that anti-depressant drugs can be useful, that the lifestyle of a successful "player" (Owen Wilson's character), along with the easy money and sex, is so much fun that you might not want to give it up, and finally that compromise can actually result in something better than what recently preceded it.

From what we see on Mad Men and now in this film, I would guess that Weiner has a wonderfully all-embracing belief system that is able to take in opposing ideas easily and thoughtfully, play with them a bit, then send them snapping back at us. He has given us a story of two old friends, Steve (Wilson, above, left) and Ben (Galifianakis, above, right), enablers both, who care for each other in their own special way. When death and an inheritance take the men back to their childhood town, a lot begins to happen.  (Weiner's take on friendship is a particularly succulent one.)

This brings Ben's uptight and angry sister (Amy Poehler, above, right) into the mix, as well as Ben's father's widow (Laura Ramsey, below), a young woman who leavens the movie with some real surprise. The script is peppered with smart and often funny one-liners -- "Honestly, I don't know why the farmer and the cowhand can't be friends," will have some of us Oklahoma! fans chuckling -- while other bits of dialog ("Just to be clear: If I'm sober, you're interested?") are sure to bring us, as well as certain characters, up short.

Are You Here offers so much about the way we live now-- from the real estate ladies' seminar to the need for natural foods as well as for major supermarkets -- that both the fun and the substance of the film are in constant array.

And that cast! Wilson has rarely been better. He brings a complicated character into full bloom (his chicken scene, above, is something else), while Galifiianakis moves from crazy delight to a deepened, richer (literally and symbolically) man who can at last appreciate the need for behavior-adjusting drugs.

Poehler is harsh, but she never allows the character's humanity to entirely depart, and Ramsey makes what could be a too-good-to-be-true woman into a steely but fragile young lady trying her best to live up to her own high standards.

I suspect that some of my compatriots will misinterpret this movie as a "failed comedy" or some sort of "feel-good rom-com." It's much more than that. Give it a shot -- and find yourself in Matthew Weiner's complicated and very interesting universe.

Are You Here -- from Millennium Entertainment and running 113 minutes -- opens theatrically this Friday, August 22. In New York City, catch it at the AMC Empire 25; in L.A. at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas or the Laemmle Noho 7. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here and then click on TICKETS at the top of the screen.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

More mileage accrues to old Star Trek franchise, as Jennifer M. Kroot's TO BE TAKEI debuts

Wow. They're still here. Most of 'em, anyway. TrustMovies is speaking of the old (and original) group of actors from Star Trek, that silly TV series in which the Starship Enterprise went zooming around the universe, teaching (and sometimes learning) important moral lessons to and from all those alien species it encountered. Couldn't you just puke?  I did -- and quit watching that show very early on. Ditto the fairly dumb initial series of movies made from it. It has only been with the last couple of new Star Trek movies that I've finally come aboard. Sure, the moral lessons are still there, but, whew, they're packed into films that move and thrill and entertain (and feature a cast that can act and does not linger over each line of dialog as though it were something by Shakespeare).

But, hey, there is plenty of camp fun to be gleaned from this over-the-top series, and a lot of it can be found in the new documentary TO BE TAKEI, from filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot (shown at right), all about the life and times of the gentlemen, George Takei, who helped break the Asian actor barrier, later did some good PR for the cause of gay rights, and is now most concerned with getting out the tale, in the form of a new musical entitled Allegiance, of the Japanese-American internment camps set up during World War II. (Those camps were disgusting displays of rabid prejudice from a people that supposedly prided itself on "democracy.")

Much of that camp fun comes from Mr Takei himself. (His name, by the way, is pronounced Tack-Kay, rather than the way in which William Shatner -- who is shat upon rather often and probably deservedly in this documentary -- pronounces it: Tack-eye.) From his plastered grin (see poster above, photo below, and just about any and every shot in the documentary) to his so-happy-you-could-croak attitude and line delivery, this guy is always, and I mean always "on." You'll be looking for the off switch within minutes.

You won't find it, however, because this attitude is one I've often encountered in celebrities. And you simply must put up with it. While Mr. Takei may seem as fake as can be -- he also appears to come by this fakery in an honest, unavoidable way, if this makes any sense.

The most interesting part of the documentary features Takei's childhood history: that of his and his family's internments in those awful WWII camps. Watching and hearing about all this, you can fully understand why that new musical is so important to him now. We also get some info on the fellow's unsuccessful political campaign (above).

Beyond this, the movie is mostly George's career, with some stops and starts along the way until Star Trek (above) arrives upon the scene. From the first, we meet his partner/spouse, Brad, below, right, who appears to be quite something: funny, shy, real and strong. We learn about their work for the gay rights movement, and George admits he probably ought to have "come out" earlier than he did. Times were different back then, and careers more easily stalled via the "taint" of homosexuality. His talk about "playing straight" on Star Trek and how he tried to get its creator Gene Roddenberry to do an episode devoted to dealing with homosexuality is particularly interesting.

Brad appears to be a good businessperson and also someone who can help keep George "centered." In the large extended Takei family, there's seems to be a bit of competition, too: "I've never been into the celebrity thing," notes one of his sisters, with a bit of a sneer. George and Brad took care of Takei's mom during her final years, and in one late scene in a cemetery, I may have a detected a nod to Shoah on the part of the filmmaker.

We hear from everyone from from an enchanted fan (above) to BD Wong and John ChoDan Savage and the late Senator Daniel Inouye as to what Takei has meant to them over the years. Of all people, Howard Stern seems to have had a soft spot for Takei, who was often a guest on his show.

Occasionally the movie is too cute for its own good (as is Takei himself). Overall, though, it's a pretty winning compilation. To Be Takei opens theatrically this Friday, August 22, in 25 cities across the country. Here in New York City, it'll plays the AMC Loew's Village VII, and in the Los Angeles area, look for it at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas and Laemmle's Playhouse 7. To see all currently scheduled playdates, click here, and then click on SCREENINGS.

Note: this film will also debut on August 22 via various On Demand 
platforms, including iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

The rom-com takes off into very weird territory in Charlie McDowell's bizarre THE ONE I LOVE

TrustMovies often notes, re the movies he covers, that the less said about plot mechanics the better. If any film ever deserved this kind of respectful coverage, it's THE ONE I LOVE (talk about ironic titles!), the first full-lengther from a fellow named Charlie McDowell. In it, a relatively young, been-together-awhile couple having relationship troubles visits a therapist (the always welcome Ted Danson) who suggests that they get away for a long weekend and try to "repair." They do. What follows is the rest of the movie.

As both writer and director, Mr. McDowell, shown at left, has set himself quite a task here -- one in which subtlety and the ability to make the most minor changes barely visible count for just about all. To that end, he has cast two really excellent actors -- Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss -- both of whom manage to surprise us here. Consequently, both of their reputations should see an even greater rise, once word-of-mouth gets going on this movie, a genuine original, particularly in the field of romantic comedies, the borders of which The One I Love has now greatly expanded.

In the course of this movie, the better attention you pay to the performances of Mr. Duplass (above) and Ms Moss (below), the more surprise and enjoyment you're bound to reap. The two are so attuned to the subtleties necessary for the plot to properly work that I suspect I'll have to view the movie again (and I will) to fully appreciate what the pair, along with their writer/director, are doing.

The movie asks -- over and over, as it turns out -- the questions of Who we are, and more specifically, Who are we to each other: a prime reason that romantic comedy even exists. The answers we get are unlike any others we may have discovered along the rom-com route, which helps make this movie as delightfully different as it is. Duplass keeps exceeding himself in movie after movie. He's such a perfect "everyman," and yet he's one who keeps unveiling even more: Wow--I never realized how sexy he could be! Hmmm... he really is a comedian. God, he can even be creepy at times.

Moss, on the other hand, is a past master (see Mad Men) at holding back, saying one thing while feeling another. She has the subtler of the two roles, and to claim that she comes through with flying colors is to make a little too much noise about what she so quietly manages.

So, there. I've told you practically nothing about this unusual film. You're just going to have to see it. And on the big screen, if possible. Sorry -- an iPhone or even a tablet simply will not put you in touch with these two spectacular performances in the way you need to see them.

The One I Love -- from RADiUS/TWC and running 91 minutes -- opens this Friday, August 22, in New York at the Angelika Film Center, and in the Los Angeles area, as well. I cannot find the specific theater for L.A. this Friday, but I am told that the film will play at two Laemmle theaters beginning August 29, and then at two more beginning September 5. (Note: There wil be a personal appearance by the film's director at New York City's Angelika on Friday and Saturday, August 22 and 23, at the 7:15pm screening.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ira Sachs scores again--with the help of Lithgow and Molina--in his best yet, LOVE IS STRANGE

It's funny but appropriate, I think, that Ira Sachs, the slow-burning wunderkind of gay cinema, should have made two so fine and startlingly different recent films -- in terms of style and content -- as his earlier Keep the Lights On (which told the story of two young, gay men unable to commit) and his new one, LOVE IS STRANGE, which opens theatrically this Friday and tells of two gay seniors for whom commitment was and is a piece of cake (it's life in New York City that's so fucking difficult).

Ms Sachs, whose work grows richer, deeper, broader and more inclusive with each new film, is still working in "pieces." This is evidently a hallmark of his style: selecting those particular fraught moments that become entire scenes in order to show us how life and people work. These are not the "expected" nor typical moments and scenes, either. But under Sachs' guidance, they become hallmarks. From The Delta through 40 Shades of Blue and Married Life, he has continued to do this. But of late, he is doing it in a way that I believe is reaching many more viewers than his first two full-length films. This is because he is finding of late those moments that will ring both true and meaningful for a wider audience, no matter who his characters be -- gay, straight, old, young -- that are experiencing these moments.

Love is Strange finds a couple in its senior years -- John Lithgow (playing Ben, below) and Alfred Molina (in the role of George, above), each man achieving a best-yet performance -- finally able to legally marry after living together for literally decades. The irony here is that one of the two earns his living as a teacher in a Catholic school, at which his homosexuality has gone "unmentioned" for years. Now that he has "outted" himself by marrying, the Church says he must be fired.

Seniors (anyone, actually) living close-to-the-vest financially will understand the sudden predicament in which the couple finds itself. The two cannot afford any longer to live in their apartment -- the legal ins-and-outs of all this is pretty well handled by Sachs without making more of it than the movie's 94-minute running time will accommodate -- and so they find themselves separated and living with relatives/friends for a time.

It is one thing to attend the wedding and propose a warm and meaningful toast to the pair. But it's quite another to have one of the two men living with you, as Ben's nearest family -- husband (Darren E. Burrows, above, center, in white), wife (Marisa Tomei, below) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan, at bottom, with Molina) soon discover.

George is taken in by good friends who are also much younger (and of course, wilder), so the living situation is pretty crummy there, too. Yet Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, are even-handed in their portrayals. There are no villains here, only people trying to manage their lives while trying to do what is "right" for all concerned.

Ben has lived much of his life as a painter, a good one, but perhaps not the great one he would have liked to have been. Still his work is rather lovely, and he continues to strive, while George now offers piano lessons to children whose parents can afford the fee.

We see all this in fairly quick takes, yet as the movie unfurls, these two men become major figures. We're with them totally, on a day-to-day, as well as a deeply emotional level because Sachs and Zacharias have chosen so wisely what to show us, in a manner that dodges cliche.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the film's closing scenes, so quietly and beautifully rendered that they may stick with you forever. Rather than going after the typical, tear-jerking moments, the filmmakers instead step back. Not a mile, mind you, just a few feet. But enough to show us what has happened from an unexpected viewpoint that allows us to feel and identify with someone else, while keeping in mind our two heroes. The effect is extraordinary, one of the most moving of the movie year.

Love Is Strange opens this coming Friday, August 22, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Chelsea Cinema 9; in Los Angeles look for it at The Landmark and the Hollywood Arclight 15. In the weeks and months to come, the film will open across the country. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down.