Monday, April 20, 2015

Holocaust-lite: Roberto Faenza and Edith Bruck scamper down memory lane in ANITA B.

Its poster heralds this new film as coming from "the producers of Life Is Beautiful." That alone could send many of us running for the hills, as it brings back memories of a truly appalling movie, as well as of one of the most embarrassing acceptance speeches/performances in the history of the Oscars. I might not have bothered watching nor covering this new film, except that I am an admirer of its director, Roberto Faenza, who earlier gave us Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, and his still-unreleased-in-the-USA, The Soul Keeper.

I have interviewed Signore Faenza (shown at right) and heard him speak quite intelligently and well about various matters concerning filmmaking here and abroad, and so -- even though the man is credited as both directing and helping to write ANITA B. (along with others, including Edith Bruck, the woman upon whose supposedly autobiographical novel the film is based) -- I cannot help but think that this may have been simply a for-hire project for the talented filmmaker.

Whatever. The end result is something bizarre in the extreme: a kind of fairy-tale, post-Holocaust film in which its mis-cast leading lady, playing a young Holocaust survivor, keeps a smile on her face through thick, thin and otherwise, while insisting that everyone around her -- including a two-year-old child -- learn and/or remember what happened during those terrible times.

That actress, a young woman named Eline Powell (above, who was much better in a smaller role in last year's Private Peaceful), tries her best to get a handle on her character, but as composited by the various writers, she seems more like a girl who stumbled in from some Disney-level fairy-tale and has decided to act as a therapeutic cheerleader in getting her surviving friends and family to face up to things.

The movie is not uninteresting, so far as it offers up a rather wide range of incidents in the lives of Jewish Holocaust survivors in the immediate post-war years. Yet almost all of these incidents come across as overly sanitized and thus not very believable.

Further, the screenplay manages to over-explain and over-do just about everything we see and hear. This might be serviceable for younger viewers who have little knowledge of history and World War II, but for those of us who do, the film quickly grows tiresome.

Certain lines stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs: "What wrong with being Jewish?!" asks Holocaust-surviving Anita, when her aunt suggests not parading this fact before the new Russian conquerors. Since our girl has been warned about this previously, you begin to wonder if the character has a death wish or has maybe come out of the concentration camp with a few marbles missing.

In addition. the movie tackles everything from the Holocaust to teenage sex, pregnancy and abortion in an utterly simplistic, storybook manner. If this is really how Ms Bruck (née Steinschreiber, who now lives and works in Italy) recalls her history, there is something drastically wrong.

Perhaps the resulting film is more due to its producers' insisting on a Hollywood-ification of Bruck's story. Once you've seen the movie (if you do), click here to read a bit about what really happened -- without the feel-good, fairy-tale overlay. Unlike Life Is Beautiful, which -- for all its glossy, big-budget look -- proved a poor attempt at turning the Holocaust into a feel-good film, Anita B. seems less offensive than just plain silly.

The movie -- via DigiNext and Four-of-a-Kind Productions and running just 88 minutes -- opens this Friday, April 24, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on April 30 at the Pelham Picture House.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

DAREDEVIL addendum

Having now watched into episode six of this new Netflix series, I better understand its huge pull on audiences (it's currently rated 9.2 on the IMDB by more than 38,000 viewers).

Episode five deals in part with the problems of wretched, venal, corrupt, big-city landlords and their tactics in removing unwanted tenants. Having been involved in the activities of one such a group back in the 1970s on a particular block of West 77th Street in Manhattan, and then reading an article in New York Magazine only a bit more than year ago about how this family is still at it, I found myself grabbed all over again by the subject via this particular Daredevil episode.

The series' concern with the downtrodden is not only commendable but handled in such a way that we're made to learn of the despicable tactics of these landlords and what this does to their working-poor tenants, and thus we root all the more strongly for the success of the little group led by lawyer/vigilante Murdock (shown above in the latter guise; below, left, in the former). And if you wonder why some of us look to our entertainment to offer an understanding of what is going on across our country policed by too many cops who are dirty in too many ways, it's because we can find little hope in the reality around us. (For yet another devastating example, read today's report on the TruthOut site about police accountability in Chicago.)

The introduction, at the end of episode three, of Wilson Fisk, in the larger-than-life persona of Vincent D'Onofrio (shown from the rear, below), is inspired -- offering up the major villain of the piece as a lost little boy, suddenly falling in love with both a piece of modern art and the woman from whom he is purchasing that art. Soon enough we see Fisk in another kind of action, as a murderous thug dispensing with an underling in one of the more grotesque killing scenes we've witnessed (yes, this series is way too violent for children).

But for adults ready to be entertained and provoked by the subject of how the increasing combination of money, power, corporations and criminals (you might even think of them as Republicans and/or Libertarians) are taking control of our country, Daredevil is a sure bet. (Ayn Rand would have loathed a show like this.) One of the best individual reasons to subscribe to Netflix, it can be found by clicking here

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Streaming: Netflix's version of Marvel's DAREDEVIL proves noirish, nifty stuff

After the big-nothing that comprised the earlier version of twelve years ago, the new DAREDEVIL that debuted last week via the Netflix streaming service provides just about everything that the former dud lacked -- from the noirish and dank cityscape, in which bad things keep happening to good people, to the dark, monochromatic outfit our hero wears to hide his identity, to the wonderfully indeterminate time frame in which this story seems to exist.  (Is all this taking place it now, in the recent past, or maybe the near future? We can't really tell nor does it much matter. The place exists as a kind of ever-current depiction of the "big, scary, hugely corrupted city.")

TrustMovies is only now into the fourth episode of the thirteen that incorporate Daredevil's first season, each one coming in between 48 and 59 minutes. The tale -- of a boy, blinded in an accident in which he saved the life of an old man, now grown into a young man who has honed his other senses to their keenest levels so that he has become a lawyer by day (above, left, with his partner, played by Elden Henson) and vigilante by night, working out of Hell's Kitchen in the kind of uber-corrupt city that New York is always threatening to become -- seems a fine one for the episodic-yet-connected sort of series that Daredevil appears to be, at least at this point in its unfurling.

Bingers will probably do the entire first season in a day or weekend. It will most likely take me at least one week, given my episode-or-two-per-day approach. But I'm already hooked -- especially by the casting of Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, a great "everyman" hero whose open, welcoming face and more-than-fit body makes him seem surprisingly real, but just a little more handsome and sexy (and a lot more alert) than your everyday "everyman." This is a the kind of character, coupled to a performance by the actor, that audiences will root for -- big-time.

Created by Drew Goddard (shown at right), the series makes clear from the outset that we will be fed Matt's backstory, in which his father figures most prominently, in bits and pieces, as is appropriate. The action scenes, of which there are plenty, are done extremely well -- cleverly straddling the line between real and just a little more than that -- while the casting of the female leads, Deborah Ann Wohl (below, right) and Rosario Dawson (at bottom, right) in the initial episodes, provides strength, smarts and pulchritude.

Best of all, perhaps, there are almost none of the increasingly leaden and over-used "special effects" that have rendered the Iron Man and Captain America franchises, for any vaguely intelligent audience, more and more difficult to sit through. Dardevil instead counts on smart plot mechanics, great action, and a top cast of professionals to hold us fast.

The writing (those first two episodes are by Mr. Goddard) is fine for this kind of show -- sharp and intelligent but in a quiet, economical, almost underhanded manner. And the direction of the first two episodes by Phil Abraham (Mad Men and The Sopranos) provides everything we need to become immediately involved and very well entertained.

There is simply so much of what they now call "content" available to view these days, that having the opportunity to see yet another series from yet another provider may not seem like anything special. If Daredevil adheres to the interest, pace and style of these first few episodes, I'd call it a keeper, for sure.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Streaming tip: The French bourgeoisie again in Eric Lavaine's smart and gorgeous BARBECUE

What a pleasure it is to view -- in high definition, too -- the eye-poppingly gorgeous location that plays a large part in BARBECUE, another welcome addition to that ever-growing genre of modern ensemble comedies about the travails of the always-ripe-for-a-little-satire French bourgeoisie. Now available to stream via Netflix, this 2014 film tracks four couples (one of them recently split) and their single, shy-unto-near-silence friend who always tags along, as they bond, argue, spill out secrets and help each other over some tumultuous times. Not too tumul-tuous, however; this sub-genre is a spin-off of the rom-com, after all.

As co-written (with Héctor Cabello Reyes) and directed by Eric Lavaine (pictured at right), the movie sprints delightfully along as it tells the tale of one fellow in the group -- that gorgeous and talented hunk, Lambert Wilson, shown below and at bottom, who seems to grows even more so with age -- who suffers a sudden heart attack while jogging, and in the aftermath decides to change his life.

M. Wilson leads a very capable cast through its paces, which involves the stress and strain of marriage, (in)fidelity, health, economics, employment and dating -- among other travails.

The delight to be found in films such as this generally comes from the characterizations and the acting on view, as well as via the often beautiful setting in which these members of the haute bourgeoisie find themselves. Barbecue is no exception to the rule, and in fact proves one of the better recent examples of this sub-genre (certainly better than the overblown and over-long Little White Lies of a couple of years previous).

The film's look at infidelity among both men and women is done more evenhandedly than usual here, with plenty of blame and understanding to go around, and not so much of the typical patriarchal influence we often see in cinema.

The ensemble cast is excellent, with each member contributing humor and feeling in pretty much equal doses. But the film's ace-in-the-hole has got to be its amazing locations, whether it's that vacation spot high in the hills at which our troupe assembles, where the light and colors -- viewed in hi-def -- are simply exquisite, or the fine and fancy restaurant in which their final celebration takes place.

Almost no middle-class person I know can any longer afford to live like this, but the movies -- bless 'em! -- still enable us to enjoy this kind of beauty and pleasure, at least from afar. Give Barbecue a shot and bask, if only temporarily,  in its atmosphere and charm.

You'll find the film -- in French with English subtitles and running a pleasant 98 minutes -- on Netflix, and maybe elsewhere, too (though Amazon does not seem to have procured it).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On DVD and elsewhere: Matt Jackson/Michael Skvarla's LOVE IN THE TIME OF MONSTERS

By this time in movie history, comic horror is now a genre staple, nearly as oft-seen as the horror genre itself. A new addition to the oeuvre arrives in the form of LOVE IN THE TIME OF MONSTERS, and if that title put you in mind of the late Gabriel García Márquez and his Love in the Time of Cholera, I'm quite sure that's inten-tional on the part of the moviemakers, Matt Jackson (the director, shown below) and Michael Skvarla (the screen-writer).

As so-so a film as was the adaptation of "Cholera," "Monsters" proves equally so in the comic horror area, though its provenance is nowhere near as classy as that of Señor Marquez's now-classic novel.

Not that there aren't a number of funny moments here. There are indeed, and some of these are quite dryly delicious. My favorite: a cop car pulls up to driveway of a vacation resort (which has a reputation for trouble) and sees one of the resort's fabled "Bigfoot" impersona-tors feasting on the flesh of a recently deceased victim. "Well," the policeman mutters, "this is new."

There's more where that came from, too, from screenwriter Skvarla (pictured above), and perhaps the first thing that may grab you about the movie is how well-acted (for its low-budget genre) this film is. It begins with a family vacation a decade previous that goes very wrong.

Ten years (or so) later, the two sisters from that vacation finally agree to take one of their own, choosing a cheesy little tourist trap dedicated to the legend of Bigfoot and owned and operated by an even cheesier Croatian immigrant (the very good Michael McShane, shown at right, three photos below) who fancies himself a "patriotic American." His TV commercial for the park is one of the funnier things in the film: ridiculously all-American yet clearly made and spoken by a non-American.

One of the sisters' fiance has a job in the park as a Bigfoot impersonator, and early on in the film he and his crew manage to take a dip in a nearby lake -- loaded with toxic waste from corporate dumping -- and immediately turn into ravenous monsters (That they are wearing their Bigfoot suits at the time makes them both bizarre and humorous.)

Mr Skvarla has provided dialog that is often smart and funny, and the actors -- some well-known, particularly Kane Hodder and Doug Jones (below, left, and excellent, as always, in the role of the single "scientist" in the bunch), others less known but quite good -- do a fine job of bringing that dialog to life.

There are also a few suspenseful scenes, coupled, of course, to the requisite blood and gore that the genre demands, of which some of us viewers are growing a little tired by now. The envelope for the squishy/icky factor has been pushed so far that it is practically coming out the other side, resulting in "special effects" that no longer look very special. Though they are sometimes coupled to queasy humor, they still grow tired fast. (They could have used some of  that same dry wit provided by Mr. Skvarla's dialog.)

At 97 minutes, the movie could also have lost ten -- particularly the ones devoted to would-be "drama," as our slowly thinning-out cast tries to come to terms with the meaning of true love, caring and sacrifice for those we love. These moments seem more like vamping than anything else, and since the movie relies mostly on humor and splatter effects, their place in it all is questionable.

In the midst of this, we get a bizarre musical duet, and then some disco dancing and even a light show -- with a nod (intentional or not) to everything from Moose Murders to Piranha. The final 20 minutes include the real gore fest, nudity, and a gross-out finale complete with requisite last shot that, under better circumstances, would indicate a sequel or two. I rather doubt that possibility, but -- hey -- you never know!.

Made more for the hard-and-fast cult aficionado rather than a mainstream horror/comic-horror audience, Love in the Time of Monsters is available now on DVD and in other formats. Click here to start the ball rolling. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Daniel Monzón's EL NIÑO tackles drug trafficking in Gibraltar -- major & minor from various angles

Writer/director Daniel Monzón (shown below) is the man who, back in 2009 gave us one of the best prison movies ever made, Cell 211, a film alert to every-thing from prison life (and death) to Spanish politics, economics and sociology. If his newest endeavor, EL NIÑO, does not come up to that level, it should be no surprise. The film is plenty good in its own right and should please genre aficionados who appreciate complex thrillers offering an extra dose of humanity and depth of characterization.

That depth is particularly evident in the title character, called El Niño (the child) due to his childlike glee behind the wheel of both car and boat. Though he drives like a kid at an amusement park, he does it with speed and assurance. As played by Jesús Castro, making his movie debut, Niño is shown from the first to be carefree -- why not?!-- but also a tad more thoughtful than some of his peers. This thoughtfulness grows into a kind of maturity as the movie plays out, making Niño a character we come to care and root for, if only slowly. And Señor Castro (shown below) appears to possess the kind of talent, sex appeal and charisma that just might make him a star.

Since his debut here, in fact, the actor has made another film and had a continuing role in a TV series. (Something similar happened to the star of Cell 211, Alberto Ammann, after his performance under the direction of Señor Monzón.)

Another plus for Monzón's movie is its exotic location: the island of Gibraltar, complete with scenic beauty and even its own special wild monkeys. A British Overseas Territory located between Spain and Morocco at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar, with its economy fueled by gambling, tourism and the shipping industry, would seems a fine place for all kinds of drug smuggling. And so, according to this movie, it is.

Said to be based on real events, El Niño begins as the police (above) trail a dockyard worker, a fellow they're quite sure is part of a smuggling ring. Then we switch to the young folk, Niño and his pal, Compi (Jesús Carroza, below, left) who are looking for some way out of the crap Spanish economy and into a little wealth for a change.

Back and forth we go between police and youth until the stories of the two are completely entwined, and we're somehow rooting for both parties. This is one of Monzón's strengths -- showing us the whole picture that enables us to understand and care about opposing sides. "Can't they be rich without being crooks?" one character asks another, who answers, "I don't know. But I don't think so." Yeah, right. This movie is as much about the lives and needs of the underlings, as it is about the smuggling operation.

We also get to see and meet the upper echelons of crime and law enforcement, as portrayed by Moussa Maaskri and Ian McShane (representing the former) and Sergi López (three photos up, at left, representing the latter). The guy and gal who do the police grunt work are played by the always terrific Luis Tosar (he of the mammoth eyebrows, above) and Bárbara Lennie (below).

The only other important woman in the cast is Niño's girlfriend, played by the beautiful Mariam Bachir., who plays the sister of boy's third partner, Halil (newcomer Saed Chatiby, below, center). This is definitely a movie about the boys, but as such it is mostly very well done. Also in the cast in that fine Spanish actor Eduard Fernández as another member of the police force on the case.

As confined and confining as was Cell 211El Niño is spacious and expanding. This presents a bit of a problem, however, as the film comes in at 136 minutes -- a little long, perhaps, and yet those minutes are never boring. Expect car and boat chases (below, pursued at sea by helicopter!), suspense, betrayals (on both sides of the fence) and more. As in Cell 211, the accumulation of detail that comprises events and characters makes for a nourishing movie meal that offers a resounding, if believably depressing, dessert.

El Niño -- from Distrib Films US -- opens this Friday, April 17, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and then has its digital platform debut on Tuesday, May 5, via iTunes, Vudu  and Google Play.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Another BFLF nominee better than the winner: Estonia's spare but rewarding TANGERINES

In the exalted tradition of fine anti-war films, TANGERINES, from filmmaker Zaza Urushadze, proves a major winner. Short (only 87 minutes), crisp, economical yet enormously affecting, the movie details what takes place in and around a tangerine grove in the Apkhazeti region of Georgia, back in 1990, as hostilities break out. Soldiers and the few remaining townspeople come and go, while the movie concentrates on a quartet of characters: the grandfather who owns a small factory in which the titular tangerines are crated, his friend who owns the grove in which they grow, and two soldiers -- from opposing sides.

How these four men come together and dance around each other in an increasingly fraught situation turns into a beautifully acted film of distinction and honor -- both directed and written by Mr. Urushadze, shown at left. It is by turns funny, thoughtful, surprising and extremely moving.

Of the two soldiers, one is a mercenary, which would normally change things from the usual my side/your side conflict -- except that in this case the mercenary has a personal stake in things, as his comrade-in-arms has just been killed by the "other side."

Via a series of plot machinations that seem easily believable given the circumstances, the four men end up together in grandpa's house, where a promise of non-violence is wrested from the mercenary by his host.

The dialog is aces, as are the performances of the four actors involved, the character of each emerging via incidents as much as from words. The musical score is simple and lovely, the direction fluid and smart, and the cinematography good enough to make you want to visit this place (in peacetime, at least).

Amidst the bucolic scenery of the area in which the film was shot, we see the stupid waste of war -- to both the landscape and its occupants. Nothing is baldly stated; it is simply shown. How these men bond, and how, even then, war insists on having its destruction is shown us with immeasurable force and sadness.

With all our best intentions, life -- and chance -- keep intruding, and Urushadze brings this home with poignancy, strength and affection for all. Burying the dead has rarely arrived with such an encompassing sense of waste. Tangerines, like Timbuktu, was one of the five nominees for this past year's Best Foreign Language Film, and both are better than the beautifully photographed but baldly predetermined movie, Ida, that actually won the prize.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films, Tangerines opens this Friday, April 17, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and on the Friday, April 24 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.