Monday, May 23, 2016

The games men play -- with each other -- as Athina Rachel Tsangari skewers the male prerogative, Greek-style, in CHEVALIER

There is no overt mention made of Greece's ongoing and horrendous economic situation in the film, CHEVALIER, but this low-key but often quite hilarious new satire of the macho stance among Greek males does make one wonder. Was it this kind of attitude -- hubristic, resentful, lying, scheming and, unfortunately, pretty stupid, too, among the Greek government, financial players and powers-that-were -- that brought the country to its collective knees? Of course one can't draw a straight line that connects this movie to that reality, but -- boy -- as one views this enticing rondelay of really bad male behavior, one certainly cannot help but wonder.....

The product of producer, writer, director and actress, Athina Rachel Tsangari, whom you saw (but may not have realized it) in Richard Linklater's wonderful Before Midnight, Chevalier describes, among other things, a signet ring and a game devised to "test the mettle" of males to determine who is the "best at everything." What it does not describe is the actual definition of chevalier: a chivalrous man or a member of certain orders of honor or merit. Ms Tsangari, who co-wrote (with Efthymus Filippou) and directed the movie, uses her title ironically.

She allows us to meet and get acquainted with her half-dozen men who, under the "leadership" of a well-known and successful doctor, are spending a weekend deep-sea-diving off a glamorous yacht. (We also get to know a few of the crew members, who act as a kind of Greek chorus to the shenanigans taking place around them.)

The five-man fellowship the doctor has invited to join him include his son-in-law, the son-in-law's rather borderline brother (both are shown above), the doctor's hale-and-hearty assitant at work (below) and two other friends who appear to have enjoyed watching each other have sex and possibly have enjoyed each other sexually, too.

If at first it may seem difficult to tell certain characters apart (with the exception of the portly and clearly out-of-his-league brother), not to worry. Ms Tsangari and her well-chosen and talented cast soon bring these guys to life so well that there is no problem of differentiation. Character builds (or, as the case may be, disintegrates) carefully and rather quickly.

Once someone suggests the game in which each man vies for distinction in myriad ways -- they'll have to clean, they'll have to build, and yes, eventually they'll have to compare penis size (erect, yet) -- the film builds to its funniest scene involving the man who can't get it up, and when he finally and suddenly does, can't find anyone to corroborate his massive splendor (hey, it is pretty impressive).

Turns out, as we might suspect -- but the filmmaker keeps all this at bay quite nicely -- there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. What this is simply adds to the sense of nastiness and betrayal that hovers over the film.  And yet, by its troubling and thoughtful finale, surprise does await. How and why are as original/believable as all that has gone before.

Intelligent and well-paced, Chevalier is less bizarre but more pertinent than Tsangari's earlier film, Attenberg. It's a fine step onward and upward. And it's a lot of fun, too. Skewering us guys so often is.

From Strand Releasing, the movie opens this Friday in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center; in Los Angeles it will open on Friday, June 3 at the Landmark NuArt and then on June 10 at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Here in South Florida it also opens June 10 at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami and the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Elsewhere? Absolutely. Click here then scroll down and click on Screenings to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Godard's A MARRIED WOMAN hits Blu-ray & DVD -- and holds up pretty damned well

Anyone who follows this blog probably knows that TrustMovies is no fan of Jean-Luc Godard. I find the guy intellectually callow, pretentious to a fault and with a battery of films that range from so cutesy you could barf (Breathless and especially Pierrot Le Fou) to deliberately inscrutable enough to bore you to distraction (Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language). I have not seen all of his work (what kind of a masochist do you think I am?), but along the way, I've viewed a few good films, the best of which I find to be Le Petit Soldat, followed by Weekend and the movie that arrives in a spanking new high-def edition this week, A MARRIED WOMAN (an exact translation from its French title, Une femme mariée).

First off, for his star, Godard (shown above, on set for the film) managed to get -- instead of Stefania Sandrelli, whom he wanted but who was pregnant at the time -- the absolutely lovely, diffident, quite entitled (before we even knew what that word meant) young actress, Macha Méril, who, beside being drop-dead gorgeous, also defines the word "pert." (You'll learn this "casting" fact and so much more from the very interesting interview with Miss Méril, done in 2010, which appears on the disc's "extras," in which she spills beans about nearly everything. This actress is as much of a Godard fan as I am not.)

The stunning black-and white cinematography that makes up the film is by the great Raoul Coutard, Godard's cinematographer of choice for many years, and it is just about as good as it gets: pristine, elegant, can't-take-your-eyes-away amazing. The compositions here are phenomenal and exactly right -- all on a budget that could hardly be believed, even back in the day when movie budgets were much smaller. (To save more money, Ms Méril tells us, Godard did some of the costuming himself.)

Plotwise, Godard, who also wrote the film, has his leading lady involved in a heavy-duty affair with a somewhat noted actor (Bernard Noël, above), while living with her husband and taking care of his young son. In the course of the movie we learn that the hubby -- the very hot but only somewhat jealous Philippe Leroy (below and two photos above), knew about her "flirtation" (he had her followed) but remains in the dark about just how far that flirtation has evolved.

Ms Méril is on screen for nearly the entire movie and in almost every frame -- or at least some part of her is. In that interview the actress explains that she never knew whether Godard was filming all of her or only a part of her (or which part). She commands this movie in an even a stronger manner than did another Godard star, Anna Karina, in her several films.

As played by the actress, Charlotte is shallow and almost completely incurious intellectually or even socially. She thinks the German use of Auschwitz has to do with Thalidomide rather than with the Holocaust (the movie takes place and was made in 1964, remember, when many of the facts about the Holocaust were still kept somewhat under wraps). Yet, as privileged and uncaring as Charlotte is, Méril makes her real and just important enough as a French woman of her time that we come to care about and appreciate her.

Sure, Godard makes certain we notice all the consumer advertising and media nonsense by which Charlotte is surrounded and to which she gives herself rather gladly. And there's the usual social critique, too: bourgeois life and its discontents. But thanks to Méril, there's greater depth of character here, while Godard's dialog is better than in many of the "master's" movies, making full use of the French penchant for philosophy but more charmingly so than usual -- without toppling over into cutesiness.

Too often this filmmaker gets bogged down in appearing to make an exercise in intellectual one-upmanship, rather than a full-fledged, intelligent and emotionally engaging movie. The guy can't resist showing us how smart he is -- which can only go so far in terms of real filmmaking. Deconstruction is fine, but construction is better. But if you, too, want to try feeling superior, by all means give Godard's oeuvre a good going over.

Meanwhile, take a gander at the excellent Blu-ray transfer that the Cohen Film Collection has given this near-classic release. Part of Cohen's Classics of French Cinema collection, A Married Woman makes its Blu-ray and DVD debit this Tuesday, May 24 -- for purchase or rental.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Civil rights & animal wrongs: Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker's doc, UNLOCKING THE CAGE

I don't think you have to be an animal rights activist or a PETA person to appreciate the new documentary, UNLOCKING THE CAGE, but I suspect you do have to care enough about animals not to want to see them abused -- particularly those species who have been proven to be "cognitively complex," as have chimps, dolphins, whales and elephants. (This last one was news to TrustMovies, who grew up believing the old saw that an elephant never forgets. Evidently they do a hell of a lot more than merely that.)

As directed by the prolific and interested-in-just-about-everything husband/wife team of Chris Hegedus (at left) and D.A.  Pennebaker (below) -- who've given us a fine bunch of documentaries from Town Bloody Hall through The War Room, Moon Over Broadway, Elaine Stritch at Liberty and more recently the delightful Kings of Pastry -- this new one is among the most moving of all of their work. As usual, though, the pair never attempts to jerk tears:
H & P are content to simply show -- and let their subjects tell. In this case those subjects include not just the "animal rights" lawyer Steven Wise (below) and his legal team, known as the Nonhuman Rights Project, but also a few of the animals (especially certain chimpanzees) for whom Wise and team are trying to obtain "limited personhood rights." Does this mean we must concede that these animals are the same as people? Not quite. Wise is quick to acknowledge the differences, while maintaining the need for greater protection via increased "rights."

"We're trying to change the way humans view nonhuman animals," the lawyer, shown above, declares right up front. He also acknowledges the work of Peter Singer as one of his major inspirations. And now that our own Supreme Court has acknowledged corporations -- and even, as the doc points out, business partnerships -- as "people," why not chimps? Well, first off, Mr. Silly, because the rich and the corporate won't get richer and more powerful by giving personhood to chimps, as they did via the personhood-to-corporations route.

And so Wise and his team -- supported by the research of international primatologists, as well as by evidence of the living conditions of several of these chimps, shown below (along with one bonobo, above) -- take to America's court system to get the job done. Talk about a Quixotic enterprise!

And yet, damned if that enterprise doesn't begin to get somewhere, after all. The road is uphill and hugely difficult (along the way the chimps that the team plans to use as clients keep dying off), but -- as the documentary shows us, rather in the manner of a low-key-but-enthralling courtroom tale -- things do begin to change.

One of the great things that the filmmaking team allows us to see is the competing viewpoints -- both of which are presented quite intelligently -- from the side of the current establishment invested in seeing that things do not change and from that of Wise and his little group.  One of the film's best scenes shows us a mock trial in which what our "hero" has to say in called into question. Especially interesting is how the team uses the writ of habeas corpus in its plan to convince the court. (As Wise points out, after one particular setback, "We're trying to expand the writ of habeas corpus [to include animals], and the court has responded by trying to cut the writ back for humans!"

There is irony aplenty here, but there is also, as the French might say, Liberty, Equality and (hmmmm...) Fraternity, too. By the film's finale, it is pretty amazing how convincing, moving and even kind of thrilling Hegedus and Pennebaker have made the Nonhuman Rights Project's cause.

From First Run Features in association with HBO Documentary Films, Unlocking the Cage, opens this Wednesday, May 25, at New York City's Film Forum, and will then expand nationally in June. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Friday, May 20, 2016

WELCOME TO HAPPINESS: Oliver Thompson's how-(not)-to-fix-your-life movie opens

This is somewhat unusual. Two days in a row TrustMovies finds himself covering a film dedicated to providing a particular philosophy of life. With yesterday's Ma Ma, Julio Medem told us to "think, feel, experience, struggle, suffer" and all the rest -- and do it full out -- while in today's WELCOME TO HAPPINESS, first-time writer/ director Oliver Thompson (below) pleads with us not to waste time wishing to fix the past. Instead, get on with life. Though the Medem movie is much classier, bigger-budgeted and more assured, I'll go with Mr. Thompson's philosophy.

To be quite truthful, both movies are a mess, yet both have their charm and offer some enjoyment along the way. In Welcome to Happiness, the lead character, a 'blocked' children's-book writer named Woody (played by Kyle Gallner, below) rents an apartment from a landlord named Moses (Nick Offerman, shown at bottom), whom we might, had we a religious bent, view as a kind of 'god' (or at least a heavy-duty religious figure). That's because Woody's job, as per Moses, is to shepherd the folk who arrive at this apartment through some questions, a bit of rock holding and finally into a closet in which exists a door that will open to them and transport them to a place where they can undo their prior mistakes. Wow -- nice! Well, maybe.

We meet a few of these people -- primarily Nyles (Brendan Sexton III, below, right) and Ripley (Josh Brener, below, left), both of whom would dearly love to change the past. They're connected, in way that they will probably never come to know. And that's all right. Fortunately Thompson understands enough not to belabor exposition like this.

There's also a would-be girlfriend, played with her usual verve by Olivia Thirlby (below, right), Woody's frustrated agent (Paget Brewster, two photos below), and a very lovely strawberry blond (Molly C. Quinn), who acts as a kind of tour guide for Woody. Unfortunately these ladies have very little character to display or plot to develop. As too often happens with male filmmakers, it's just the guys who are worth our interest here.

Not that these guys are not important nor have not been given any less than their due via the excellent actors. Thompson does better, woman-wise, by the wonderful Frances Conroy, who plays one of the pair who lies behind that fabled doorway.  So life lessons are learned by all, the most important being: Move on. The past cannot be changed, and in any case, the repercussions from this might be worse than what we already have.

The movie is a good fifteen minutes too long, as well. Thompson doesn't know how to quit while he's ahead. Yet he's given us an mostly engaging, oddball effort that combines fantasy, philosophy and (some) fun. I'll be interested to see what he offers up next.

Meanwhile, WELCOME TO HAPPINESS, from FilmBuff, opens today, Friday, May 20, in New York City at the Cinema Village, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's NoHo 7. Elsewhere? Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates. And, if you're not near the selected theatrical cities, don't worry: the movie is simultaneously available via VOD.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Magic realism, Julio Medem-style: Penélope Cruz, Luis Tosar & Asier Etxeandia in MA MA

Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem has had a promising career, probably capped a little too soon by the success of his earlier work, Sex & Lucia, which helped make Paz Vega an international sex symbol. (Pushing the sexual envelope seldom seems to hurt a career.) While Medem has made some other interesting films, the ones that TrustMovies has seen, at least, offer cross-currents of sex and fantasy, love and death, art and life all jostling for position. The guy is at it again with his latest work, MA MA, which gives Penélope Cruz (shown above and further below) the opportunity to display more of her great beauty and some of her acting chops, playing a young mother suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer.

As usual Señor Medem, shown at left, puts all this together in a manner that portends darkness and depth but actually ends up giving us some very pretty images and a lot of feel-good philosophy. Ma Ma may be his silliest movie yet, and almost because of this, it may strike you, as it did me, as particularly endearing. By its finale, it had me in tears, even though I knew damned well that those tears had been hugely manipulated, or as we sometime say, "jerked." My spouse, who gave up on the movie midway, had a different term. He called Ma Ma "a kind of pornography."

And, no, Spousie meant nothing "sexual" by this word. (The film's single sex scene is cleverly visualized via a close-up of a heart, beating ever faster as entry and orgasm are achieved.) Rather, the film is another example of what my spouse feels movies and television give us when they pretend to be showing "real life" but instead offer up a sugar-coated, high-gloss look at stuff that in reality -- where anything approaching economic "normalcy" is concerned -- is no such thing. Movies and television, he says, do this so often and so thoroughly that audiences expect life should be like this, somewhat in the manner that young men. now often raised on a diet of pornography, expect that actual sex ought to resemble what they see on film.

In this film, après diagnosis, the Cruz character, Magda, meets Arturo (the magnetic Spanish actor, Luis Tosar,above), who happens to be a soccer scout with eyes on Magda's young son, Dani (Teo Planell) shown at right, two photos below and at bottom) who loves the game and wants to be a soccer star. Magda's husband is a randy, absentee father, and Arturo has just lost wife and child in a tragic accident. Made for each other, right?

Meanwhile, Magda's physician -- Asier Etxeandia (above, left) -- is a gorgeous hunk who doubles as quite the singer. Locations includes swank apartments, seaside resorts and lovely white hospital rooms, Oh, yes, and there's a subplot regarding an about-to-be-adopted Russian orphan, plus a surprise entry of new "life" into this tale of disease and death,

All of this corresponds to what I am guessing is Medem's message to us viewers, found in the lyrics of one of the songs our gorgeous physician sings: "see, touch, hear, feel, love, suffer," (well, you get the point). And so do our characters, who reprise that song at the film's conclusion.  Still, as I say, the movie got to me, ridiculous as it often seemed.

Tosar and Cruz have such good chemistry that I'm surprised not to have seen them playing opposite each other previously. Still, I will go no farther than admitting, despite all its grasping at the straws of magic realism and themes as would-be weighty as life and death, infidelity and impotence, parenting and adoption, Ma Ma is really high-toned soap opera for the arthouse set. Well, there are some of us who enjoy that kind of thing....

From Oscilloscope and running a bit too lengthy at 111 minutes, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, May 20, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and the following week, Friday, Mary 27, down here in South Florida at a number of theaters: in Miami at the Tower Theater; in Aventura at the AMC Aventura; in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters; and in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso. Elsewhere? Absolutely. Click here then scroll down to view currently scheduled  playdates, cities and theaters.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Grief explored with a beauty that resonates in Piero Messina's studied L'ATTESA (The Wait)

Grief, along with one's reactions to it, is hardly a new subject for the cinema, but I'll wager you won't have seen a film about grief any more beautiful than L'ATTESA, which translates as The Wait (the Italian word is so much lovelier, no?), the new film from first-time/full-length writer-director, Piero Messina. In fact, this film opens (and continues along for some time) with one drop-dead gorgeous image after another, each beautifully composed and shot, that spread out before our eyes in, well, a kind of wonderment.

Signore Messina, shown at right, begins with a canny mix of religious iconography and sexual imagery (yes, it's Jesus-on-the-cross doing his thing, once again). Is this a funeral? Yes, and eventually we see the coffin, followed soon by the mirrors being covered in a simply stunning Sicilian villa. Readers who appreciate artful and superb cinematography have probably already stopped reading this review and are headed out to the nearest theater to catch L'Attesa, and I certainly can't blame them. The year is not quite half over, but this movie will certainly be remembered as one of its most beautiful.

It also stars an actress who has become a big draw, if not an outright hallmark of quality for American arthouse audiences: Juliette Binoche (above), here seen at in one of her quieter and more inward modes. She plays the mother of the young man who occupies that aforementioned coffin. Or does he? This is -- and sort of is not -- completely clear, for awhile, at least. Is the son indeed dead? When his girlfriend (played by Lou de Laâge, shown below, and who was so impressive in last year's Breathe), shows up for a visit, mom can't quite bring herself to spill the beans to the girl, and thereby hangs the tale of this quietly fraught, maybe-not-quite-believable, but still pretty interesting (and omigod gorgeous) movie.

Messina is not a huge fan of sparkling dialog (the Italian Noel Coward, he ain't). Words are used sparingly, especially at the film's beginning but also often throughout. Were not the filmmaker so adept visually, he might not hold us as well as he does. Once the girlfriend arrives and mom (very) slowly warms to her, and she to mom, the movie also warms up.

So to what, exactly, does "the wait" refer? For the body (if it is indeed missing) to show up? For the right time to spill the beans? For mom to come to grips with her loss? Or is this "wait" actually an opportunity for bonding? Betrayal of sorts is found in the past, and soon in the present. (As we see, refusing to tell the truth is a kind of betrayal all its own.)  A pair of young men -- one gay, one straight -- suddenly appears, and they are invited to dinner at the villa, which allows for even more minor dialog but further commanding visuals.

The son's cell phone is used in a major way, providing access to various characters' thoughts and motives, as a strong feminist bond begin to grow between the two women. But, as the third major character insists -- mom's handyman and jack-of-all-trades (Il Divo's Giorgio Colangeli, shown above) -- the girlfriend should be told the truth.

How this all pans out manages to be both semi-surprising and semi-expected, and if my good opinion of L'Attesa rests mainly on its visuals, this is because the film finally lacks much emotional resonance -- despite very good performances from its cast.

Plotwise, at this point in his movie-making career, Signore Messina seems a little too manipulative for his film's own good, and perhaps even too studied in his exquisite use of composition and cinematography (the camerawork here is by Francesco Di Giacomo). But I would call L'Attesa is a very good start to the further filmmaking that surely lies ahead.

From Oscilloscope and running 100 minutes, the movie opened end-of-April in New York and L.A., followed by a rollout across the country in limited release. Here in South Florida, it opens this Friday, May 20, for a one-week run at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami. To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down aways....