Thursday, December 18, 2014

INSIDE THE MIND OF LEONARDO DA VINCI 3D, with Scots accent and a poster like a horror flick

"What were they thinking?" gets yet another go-round with the theatrical release of the totally unnecessary documentary, INSIDE THE MIND OF LEONARDO DA VINCI 3D. Forget that they chose a Scot, the capable Peter Capaldi, to play an Italian -- sure, Doctor Who is a popular series, but come on: There are plenty of Italian actors who speak decent English (you can see a few right now on Netflix's Marco Polo) -- and then decided to shoot it all in 3D, while giving the dumb-ass poster the look of a horror film, this remains mostly a single-talking-head movie with a nod to some of the original Renaissance Man's singular work. Yes, the 3D scenery is pretty to look at, but in general it seems, as does most else in this grade-school-level doc, to border on the pointless -- except for those folk who know next to nothing about Signore Da Vinci.

The filmmaker Julian Jones (shown at right) both directed and co-wrote (with Nick Dear) the movie, so he gets most of the (dis)credit here. Jones has made a perfectly OK paean to one of history's geniuses, skirting along on automatic pilot regarding everything from the guy's history to his inventions and his art. Capaldi, below, does his best stern-voice-and-visage act, even if he does not begin to seem in the least Italian. And some of the scenery (I presume shot in Tuscany) looks lovely. Otherwise, this is all just a documentary-by-numbers look at its subject.

The press release makes much of the fact that the movie is based on the artist's private journals, offering more than 6,000 pages of handwritten notes and drawings, and that never before has access been granted to capture these works in 3D HD format. Well, if this is all they could come up with out of 6,000 pages, I suspect you will not be impressed. Ditto the fact that access was granted to capture it all in 3D and High Def. Run-of-the-mill remains run-of-the-mill, even with an extra dimension added.

Perhaps I am being too hard on this little movie, which might give the uninitiated a glance at genius. And yet, if this does not send viewers out to learn more about that genius, then what's the point? I doubt very much that the movie -- piecemeal, "arty" and slow-paced to the point of embalmed -- will do that. In fact, I greatly preferred the interesting and very entertaining Da Vinci section found in the recent animated movie, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Inside the Mind of Leonardo Da Vinci 3D (what an elegantly simple and subtle title!) -- from Submarine Deluxe and History Films and running somewhere between 80 and 85 minutes -- opens this Friday, December 19, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Crest Theater. For other playdates, click here and scroll down.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Good Gaudí! Stefan Haupt's SAGRADA: Mystery of Creation offers up an unfinished masterpiece

As much as I love seeing the works of Spanish architect and artist Antoni Gaudí -- especially in movies such as Gaudí Afternoon and Unconscious -- I didn't know that much about the man and his life, not to mention practically anything about one of his unfinished works, The Sagrada Família in Barcelona, which has been under construc-tion since 1882 and remains today only maybe halfway completed. What a work it is -- and what an interesting docu-mentary filmmaker Stefan Haupt has made about it.

Herr Haupt (pictured at left) -- whose The Circle opened theatrically here in the USA only recently and has been submitted by Switzerland as its choice for Best Foreign Language Film -- is a Zurich-born filmmaker of talent and energy, both of which are on display in this movie about a rather amazing and enormous church that reaches to a height of nearly six hundred feet and also boasts multiple facades and multiple chapels within its apse. A late-career project for Gaudí, which the artist knew he was unlikely to complete, Sagrada Família was slowed down even further due to Gaudí's untimely death (by streetcar, of all things) and then even further by the Spanish Civil War. Even now, as this documentary explains, jockeying interests -- religious, cultural and (of course) business -- have delayed completion once again.

Still, SAGRADA: The Mystery of Creation takes the time and trouble to show and tell us the history of the architect, his country and his church, and in the process gives us a pretty good tour of the ever-growing facility. All this is brought to us by folk as different as modern day architects and sculptors, politicians, church men and even a famous musician/conductor/ composer (Jordi Savall, shown below).

One of the more interesting of these interviews and personalities is that of sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, below, who charms us initially as he explains why and how he is hitting the stone he is sculpting so very delicately: "I am asking the stone if I can hit it -- or not." Makes a certain sense, actually, as does the man's explanation of why he felt he must leave Buddhism for Catholicism, in order to place himself more in the shoes -- and spirit -- of Gaudí.

Not everyone is thrilled to see work continuing on the church, and certain questions arise: Should it be less religious? Should it look more -- or less --  like the building that Gaudí envisioned?  Ought it to be more "cultural" and less god-like? And through it all a waif-like dancer named Anna Huber appears to act as a kind of stand-in for the spirit of Gaudí himself, watching from various places and angles, as the building grows.

Government adds its two cents, as it tunnels under the very structure itself in order to build the upcoming hi-speed train that will run between Barcelo-na and Paris. But really now, did its route have to run exactly under this cathedral? Lots of questions occur during the course of the film but not so many answers. No matter. What's here should provide interest aplenty.

Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, from First Run Features, opens this Friday, December 19 in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center -- after playing most of the rest of the country already. You can take a look at all playdates, past and future, by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An original new movie musical arrives: Paul Chau's LIFE OF AN ACTRESS: THE MUSICAL

There are so few new and original musicals these days -- it's all of the jukebox variety, with at least half of them schlock -- that the idea of one popping up on your local movie theater screen is, at the very least, enticing. Imagine: a new musical with original songs, characters, story and plot. Be still, my heart. Further, this one has a cast of professionals who can sing and dance and act, and who've already made their mark on Broadway and elsewhere.

LIFE OF AN ACTRESS: THE MUSICAL has a cast in which there is not a lemon in the bunch. The story -- of three actresses/waitresses (above: age 25, 30 and 40) continually trying to crack into the big time, middle time, even the small time, by landing a role -- is a perfectly acceptable one, if certainly tried and true. And the performances are so good -- real, energized and, as the parlance goes, always in the moment -- that watching them work is a pleasure.

But what about the music and lyrics, which of course supply the measure by which a musical lives or dies? You had to ask. The writer and director of the film, as well as the man responsible for the music and lyrics, is Paul Chau (above, second from right, with some of his cast members), whose only other film, according to the IMDB, was the 2009 thriller called Scalp, which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released. Mr Chau's work here is not acutely embarrassing, in the manner of last week's Isn't It Delicious. It's simply... well... not very good.

Mr. Chau has bitten off quite a bit more than he can chew. It pains me to have to say this, too, because the movie does have its moments, some scenes that are rather nice, and a few songs that work pretty well. And the actors are good enough to merit better, which is, in its way, the most difficult part of watching Life of an Actress. You keep praying, hoping that it will take off for the sake of these performers who are clearly giving it all they've got.

And it does take off, sort of, in the final, title song, in which all that we've been watching comes together. But by then it's too little, too late. The major problem here is that Chau's music sounds far too much alike from song to song (featuring style and tempo that are too similar), while his lyrics are the sort that rhyme "bad" with "sad" and use not-quite-rhymes too often along the way. (Chau does flirt with a tango tempo in one song, but it comes to little.)

Everything is unnecessarily repetitive, as well. How often must we hear that Carlos and Jen (above) should be together, or wonder whether Sandy will give in to that slimy, would-be producer or if maybe Charlie's coughing is going to lead to something worse? Too often, as it turns out.

The movie does try to show us bits and pieces of its titular "actress' life" -- the ridiculousness of auditions (three photos above), the difference between SAG and non-SAG performers (in one of the better songs from the movie, above), the frustrations of the "callback." And its tackling of the specific fears of the aging actress, brought to wonderful life by Orfeh (shown below) in the film's best performance, is brave and moving. She takes, as do the other performers, Chau's straw and spins it into something approaching, well, at least gold leaf.

As a filmmaker, Chau has much to learn. His movie literally cries out for split-screen work and added energy from its opening number onwards. Whether his budget was simply too minimal to allow this, I don't know. He finally gives us a touch of split-screen in a much later number, as well as some choreography and chorus work, but the filming is mostly pedestrian.

In the role of the youngest actress, Jen, Taylor Louderman (above, left) is nimble and cute, while Allison Case (below), as the intelligent, on-the-cusp Sandy, brings occasional fierceness a bit of fire to the proceedings.

In the male roles, Bart Shatto (below, left) as the diner owner, Charlie, and Xavier Cano as Jen's boy, Carlos (shown two photos up, at right), are both fine, with Mr. Shatto particularly compelling. His final scene, which ought to be silly, he and Orfeh manage to make moving instead. And, as the villain of the piece, Richard H. Blake (below, right) proves mean, smarmy -- and sings well, too.

I can't honestly recommend Life of an Actress: The Musical to anyone except die-hard musical fans, who might want to catch it for its occasional moments.  They're there, all right, along with all the rest. The movie opens this Thursday, December 18, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's NoHo 7, and here in New York City on Friday, December 19, at the Quad Cinema.

Personal Appearances at New York's Quad Cinema: 
Q&A with director and cast moderated by Michelle Park (TV Host & Lifestyle Expert) after the 6:30 PM show on Saturday, December 20. Q&A with cast moderated by Paul Chau (Producer and Director) after the 6:30 PM show on Sunday, December 21. Q&A with director and cast moderated by Paul Wonterek (Creative Director & Editor-in-Chief of after the 6:30 PM show on Monday, December 22. Q&A with DP Ben Wolf and Editor Dan Loewenthal moderated by Paul Chau (Producer and Director) after the 6:30 PM show 
on Tuesday, December 23.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Full-bodied characters, brilliant/beautiful cinema from Turkey: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's WINTER SLEEP

I usually don't read reviews of films I'm about to cover, but in the case of WINTER SLEEP -- the new Palme d'Or-winning film from Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan -- once I finished reading Stuart Klawans' review in The Nation of The Imitation Game (a film I had already covered), I found myself continuing to read his thoughts on Ceylan's film. Why didn't I stop and put it aside to finish later? Well, Klawans is a very good writer, and once I'd begun, I didn't want to stop. So rapturous was his notice (you can read it here: click and keep scrolling down) that I immediately gave it to my spouse and asked if the film interested him. It did, despite its rather unusual length (three hours and 16 minutes: and spouse is not a fan of lengthy movies).

Although Mr. Klawans recommends seeing Winter Sleep in a theater, we were sent a DVD screener to watch. As shown on our large, widescreen TV, the quality was, in a word, sensational. Visually, this is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. While Ceylan's work (the filmmaker is shown at left) is often quite lovely to view, his latest outdoes any of his earlier films. From the incredible vistas that open the movie -- huge rocks sprouting from the mountain soil and homes that seem to emerge literally from the hills -- to the many interior shots, with lighting and color unlike anything I've seen, the movie is visual splendor. Still, visuals can only go so far. Incredibly, Mr. Ceylan also offers us a situation and characters as precise and special as those visuals, and then tops it all with some of the finest dialog -- also precise (in a manner that is able to gracefully unfurl character) and deep, sometimes profound -- that you're likely to hear in any film this year.

The movie is a wonder, a marvel. And while those three-plus hours don't exactly speed by, the material here -- characters and situation -- grabs us so strongly that we're not for a moment disengaged from this film. The situation blooms out of character, chiefly that of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, below), our "hero," a wealthy man who owns the hotel that lies at the center of the film.

Around this cold sun circle the rest of the characters, including his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen, shown below), and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag, above, right). There is a scene midway in the movie between sister and brother that is one of the strongest (and longest) sections of dialog I think I've ever heard in a movie, unveiling character, philosophy, desire and fear, batting back and forth like a great tennis match of intellect and hubris that will have you on tenterhooks, trying to take it all in.

A subplot involving tenants of our wealthy fellow, a family quite down on its luck, further unveils the character of Aydin, as well as of the tenant family members themselves. A scene involving money changing hands toward the finale is one of the most quietly explosive and frustrating ever committed to film.

Ceylan's movie probes everything from class and religion to feminism, the male prerogative (in a culture such as Turkey's), and much more. There's even a reference to Hitler and the Jewish Holocaust that might tilt Turkish heads in the direction of their country's own Holocaust against Armenians, the responsibility for which -- unlike the Germans for their own, dreadful piece of history -- Turks have yet to accept. (I would like to think that Ceylan intends this "thought process," though being any more direct about it could probably end his career, at least in his home country.)

If I have given you any sense at all of how rich this movie is -- in so many ways -- then I'll consider this post a success. Winter Sleep has been selected by Turkey as its submission for Best Foreign Language Film. As crowded with quality as this year's selections surely are -- Force Majeure, The Circle, Ida, Rocks in My Pockets and Two Days, One Night (I'll cover that last one next week and haven't yet seen Beloved Sisters, Leviathan or Human Capital) to name but a few -- it strikes me at this point that Ceylan's film outshines all of what I have viewed.

Winter Sleep -- from Adopt Films and running 196 minutes -- opens this Friday, December 19, in New York City exclusively at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles on January 23 at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. To see all currently scheduled playdates, click here, and then scroll down and click on View Theaters and Showtimes.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

In Brad Anderson's STONEHEARST ASYLUM, old-fashioned class, content & character trump CGI

Good stories still matter. Genre-jumping film direc-tor (and sometime writer) Brad Anderson appears to understand this quite well, as all of the eight movies of his I've seen ad-here to this, what-ever may be their particular genre. His most recent, STONEHEARST ASYLUM, with a screenplay by Joe Gangemi, is based upon a story by one of the masters of the form, Edgar Allen Poe, from whose work literally hundreds of movies have been made.

Mr. Anderson, shown at right, is a clever, intelligent director (The Machinist, Transsiberian, Vanishing on 7th Street) who knows how to keep us interested and, if necessary, on the edge of our seat. Stonehearst Asylum is his attempt to reinvigorate the Gothic thriller, and I'll be damned if he hasn't done a nifty job of it -- from the "A" list cast he's acquired to the extremely classy production design (by Alain Bainée), cinematography (Tom Yatsko), and art direction (Carlos Bodelón and Alexei Karagyaur). I can't tell you how good this movie looks; you'll just have to view it for yourself. Its budget surely wasn't enormous by today's standards, yet it looks like a billion-dollar production.

The story? It's all about an unusual mental asylum of a century or more past, into which arrives a new young doctor (Jim Sturgess, above, left) bent on, of course, doing good things. The early scene in which the head doctor (Ben Kingsley, below) makes the rounds with his new assistant is charming, funny and not a little odd -- which soon makes very good sense.

Anderson and Gangemi allow us viewers to stay maybe one step ahead of plot development, but no more than that. And because the movie is full of visual treats and exciting scenes, we're happy to revel in the good, old-fashioned fun of it all.

The excellent cast includes a lovely Kate Beckinsale (above, and evidently on loan from her crappy Underworld series) as the "lady in question" and the indispensable Michael Caine (below), whose particular role we can't go into without giving away spoilers.

David Thewlis (shown at right, below, with Jason Flemyng), who has not been so menacing since his star-making role in Naked, makes a marvelous villain, and key supporting roles are beautifully handled by the likes of Sinéad Cusack and Brendan Gleeson.

There are fights and flights, humor and sadness, expectations and surprise -- all of this embedded within a beautifully realized creation of a time and place that are long gone. Identity is key, as it is in many situations. But here, it is used both smartly and playfully.

Especially keen is the movie's fine sense of humor, found throughout and particularly noticeable in the delightful yet appropriate costuming (by Thomas Oláh). The movie is set during Christmas and the arriving New Year, and these holidays have seldom been graced with such ironic wit and humor as here. Champagne, anyone?

Stonehearst Asylum, from Millennium Entertainment and running 112 minutes, after a too-brief theatrical release, hits DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, December 16.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

THE JOE SHOW: Randy Murray's doc about sheriff Joe Arpaio will leave you seething

You won't seethe initially, however. No. Because, as this new documentary begins -- it has been, so they tell us, eight years in the making -- it appears to be a humorous look at probably the best-known sheriff in our country: a fellow named Joe Arpaio (pronounced are-pie-oh, with the accent on the pie). TrustMovies first read about Sheriff Arpaio in an article from Harper's Magazine back in April, 2001. At the time, I figured that someone this crazy and nasty couldn't last long in office here in America. Then 9/11 happened, and all bets were off. Arpaio not only lasted, as the years passed, he's simply grown stronger, stupider and nastier.

This winning combination, in a time when money rules all in America (and more easily than ever, thanks now to our country's highest Court), has seen to it that a topsy-turvy and utterly ghastly version of "justice" reigns supreme in Maricopa Country, Arizona -- of which our Joe is in charge. Filmmaker Randy Murray, shown at left, clearly has the help of Sheriff Joe and his staff, and for awhile, as his movie unfurls, the worst you can say about its subject is that Joe is quite the narcissistic media whore. Hey, at this point that could apply to at least two-thirds of the population of the USA, and it's no crime, right? Just wait. By the time Mr. Murray's damning documentary is finished, we've seen how this pig of a sheriff has turned what should be a force for justice into the nation's largest miscarriage of same.

Filmmaker Murray wisely concentrates heavily on a woman named Lisa Allen, above, supposed Communication (sic) Director who appears to be in charge of PR and media attention for her boss. Initially, Joe and Lisa use the oh-so-willing media to hawk their publicity stunts -- like having jail inmates, when a new jail is opened, walk there in front of the cameras dressed only in their pink underwear, or even in earlier times, have his staff take to the streets and nearby plains to find the lost ostrich of one of his constituents. (The latter event made national news: Well, of course -- its so important!)

Joe himself bluntly states that he intends his jails to be places of punishment, and it seems that it does not matter that inmates who have had no trial are considered guilty and therefore worthy of that punishment. Further, the egregious amounts of money spent on Joe's ongoing campaigns to grab media attention appear to have depleted most of the funds used for normal policing. Consequently, hundreds of important cases go uninvestigated.

Then there is the little matter of all those people, guilty or not, who have been horribly injured or full-on died while in custody by Joe and his staff. This is the movie's turning point, after which, you'll have little patience for anything Joe, or anyone else in his corner or in his employ, has to say.

These would include the likes of actor Steven Seagal (above), Ted Nugent and one aged white supporter who goes out of her way to explain why she is not racist -- while indicting herself perfectly in the process. More interesting and to the point are folk like Professor Dan Ariely, below, who tries to explain the Arpaio phenomena, along with Noam Chomsky and Paul Penzone, the fellow whom we see running against Arpaio in the 2012 election, which Murray covers in some detail.

That election proves suspenseful, even if its outcome is not so surprising. Arpaio's use of the question of the legitimacy of President Obama's birth certificate is just nutty enough to gain him millions of dollars of support from Arizona's and wealthy and nitwit Republicans.

Juggling talking heads -- such as Arpaio's former friend and co-worker who must finally and sadly denounce the man, as well as media figures initially fascinated and/or happy to give the guy all kinds of play (including Larry King, below) who are suddenly faced with some of his more problematic actions -- with headlines and newspaper stories, archival footage and more, Mr. Murray has come up with a documentary that will stand for a long while as a testament to our current age of narcissism, money and power and what this deadly trifecta can produce.

The Joe Show -- from ID Films and Randy Murray Productions, and running a consistently interesting 100 minutes -- makes its debut on digital streaming -- via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, GooglePlay, Xbox, Playstation, and Vudu -- this coming Tuesday, December 16. If you have even a remote interest in the idea of justice and policing in America,
don't miss it.