Saturday, December 10, 2016

Blu-ray debut of a 1952 camp classic: Crawford and Palance in David Miller's SUDDEN FEAR

TrustMovies had heard about, though never actually seenSUDDEN FEAR, that early 1950s film with Joan Crawford in danger and loving every minute of it. Now that he has finally viewed the movie, he can understand why. Unaccountably drawing some good reviews at the time of its release (and later re-release) (and garnering four Oscar nominations!), the film mostly points up the utter gullibility of mid-20th-Century audiences and critics.

Interestingly enough, Sudden Fear pops along quite smartly and believably for its first 20-30 minutes, as we see a Broadway play in rehearsal, with the playwright (Ms Crawford), having to give a thumbs down to her leading man (Jack Palance) and finding a replacement -- over the objections of her producers and director (or maybe agent?) and the actor himself.

During this opening period (and even beyond it), the acting is excellent -- from everyone concerned (even Crawford comes off as real) -- and so is the movie's pace, storyline and direction (by David Miller). When the playwright later encounters the actor on a train bound for San Francisco (above), an apology ensues, and a relationship starts to bloom. So far so fine. Mr. Palance is especially sexy and even romantic and endearing (qualities he rarely showed on screen). But, of course, there is much more afoot here.

When the shoe finally drops (in a clever, even-if-we've-been-very-obviously-set-up manner), the idiocy begins. Logic goes the window, while Crawford gives in to every bad acting habit in which she had ever indulged -- and then doubles down on them. The movie quickly turns into unintentional camp of a particularly high order and can be enjoyed in this manner, if not for the increasingly stupid twists and turns of the plot -- which resolves itself in every bit as ludicrous and coincidental way as has all that's come before.

In the cast are luminaries like Gloria Grahame (above) and Mike Connors (when the latter was still known as "Touch"), and the cinematography apes noir, but the movie is so thoroughly heavy-handed and over-the-top that it goes well beyond noir (and all else).

The film also runs 110 minute -- too long for this kind of B-movie nonsense -- and the plot machinations are fed to us in such as obvious, did-you-get-that? Are-you-absolutely-sure? manner that they drag out what ought to be fast and furious into a snail-paced slough.

Still, Sudden Fear is fun -- if you're in a certain mood. After all, no less than François Truffaut is said to have declared the film "A masterpiece of cinema." (But, then, the French can be so perverse, can't they?)

From the Cohen Film Collection,in a new 2K restoration (that looks OK but nothing spectacular), and featuring an audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold, the Blu-ray hits the street this Tuesday, December 13 -- for purchase or rental.

Friday, December 9, 2016

FIAF's Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche series closes with his latest film, STORY OF JUDAS

Last year turns out to have been a banner one for movies about Jesus. Not only did we get Rodrigo Garcia's excellent and unusual Last Days in the Desert, with Ewan McGregor as a questioning, caring Christ, but from France came the most recent work of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, the fellow whose five-film series comes to a close this Tuesday at New York's French Institute/Alliance Française (FIAF) with THE STORY OF JUDAS.

TrustMovies covered the series last month but had not yet seen this last of Ameur-Zaïmeche's movies. As expected, it's a good one, with a view of both Jesus and Judas that is unlike much of anything we've so far seen. Perhaps it takes a Muslim moviemaker to explore Christianity's leading figure with a new eye and mind. (I suspect Ameur-Zaïmeche, shown at left, to be not particularly religious, at least so far as any fundamentalist attitude is concerned. He seems too humane & intelligent for that.)

Above all, this guy is a good movie-maker, as the other four films in this series attest. His take on Jesus and his story is both fresh and fascinating. Beginning with a buzzing fly on the soundtrack and then a glorious shot of a hut atop a hill, we then move inside that hut as one man lifts another onto his shoulders and carries him out and down. "Four days of fasting, and you're as heavy as ever!" notes the carrier to his burden, and the moment, though clearly set in ancient times, seems as intimate and modern as you could want.

Yes, it's Jesus and Judas, together again, but in a very different re-telling. Here are the teachings, the little children, the crowds, even music, song, and a new cloak. And weeping, too, after some of his pronouncements. Pieces of this filmmaker's loveliest writing can be found in Judas' description of Jesus' words: what they achieve and how they do this.

Ameur-Zaïmeche is less interested in those popular and surely imagined "miracles" than in Jesus' humanity and search for social justice. Look for no Lazarus here, but you will see the money-changers tossed from the temple and the woman taken in adultery (below). Even in the latter, we get the admonition to "Go" but not a mention of "Sin no more." Often the movie may put you in mind of the Pasolini version in its simplicity and honor, but without the overlay of Marxism. Not that the movie is not political, but Story of Judas doesn't wear its politics quite so blatantly.

And though M. Ameur-Zaïmeche plays Judas (he seems to appear prominently in all his films), this is really more of an ensemble piece. Particularly arresting scenes include that of our man washing his disciples feet ("Why?" indeed!) and most especially the scribe, who wants to write down everything "The Master" is saying, and what happens to him. This may be the most unusual and surprising part of the movie, and I think the key might be found in Jesus' (and the filmmaker's) need to place "the thing itself" above all else. (As well as a nod, maybe, to the disastrous results of "transcribing" the scriptures.)

The filmmaker's version is highly telescoped, of course, with the last and major portions given over to the arrest, trial (the most interesting philosophically of any version I've yet seen) and death. Not to worry: Ameur-Zaïmeche does not pull a Mel Gibson here and decide that torture, pain and bloodshed must trump everything. Instead, his imagining of the tale gives us a kind of grand tragedy played out in the most humble of means, with the humanity of all involved at the forefront.

Remember that the "gospels," as we like to refer to them, were all written well after the fact. So why not go with Ameur-Zaïmeche's version. I certainly would. It's beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent and real.

Story of Judas -- in French with English subtitles and running 99 minutes -- will play at FIAF's Florence Gould Hall this coming Tuesday, December 13, at 4pm and 7:30pm. Click here for further information and/or tickets.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A quietly encompassing, surprising original: Pietro Marcello's LOST AND BEAUTIFUL

TrustMovies apologizes in advance for this review not being able to live up to the level of the film under consideration: LOST AND BEAUTIFUL (Bella e perduta) by a young filmmaker, Pietro Marcello (shown below), whose work -- based on the two films of his I've so far seen -- is as unusual and hybrid as that of any documentary filmmaker I've yet encountered. It is also quietly commanding, strangely appealing and hugely generous to both its subjects and us viewers.

To be able to somehow capture with our words the strength and art of the movies we are reviewing is, I would think, the goal of many of us critics. This is difficult to do with good films, let alone great ones. But when a film comes along that weaves together documentary and narrative using resources that consistently surprise and confuse yet somehow builds and coalesces until you realize that, yes, you do understand (and yet you don't understand quite how you've been able to make this leap), well... good luck in finding the right words to describe your experience.

I first saw Signore Marcello's film The Mouth of the Wolf at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Open Roads series of new Italian films in 2010. I was blown away by that film and am once again by Lost and Beautiful, which I find even more difficult and yet even more rewarding.

It will help if you already possess a love for (and some knowledge of) Italy and its culture and history. Otherwise, the film might simply seem too "foreign." Even then, the manner in which Marcello has envisioned and organized his movie -- using a bizarre blend of Commedia dell'arte figures, narration that comes via a Campanian (Campagnian? Anyway, he is from Campagna) buffalo (yes!), whom we see grow from calf to adulthood, and a very loose history of the recent years of the once-famous Carditello Palace (above) and the man named Tommaso (also above) who took it upon himself to revivify that palace -- despite complete lack of interest by the government and threats from the local Camorra (the Mafia in Southern Italy) -- and who died trying.

Yes, this is a lot to put on the plate of any moviegoer. And while Marcello's film is unspooling, it does seem all over the place, flashing back and forth, using archival footage (below) and maybe even some made-to-seem archival material, taking us from those old Italian theatrical characters (above) to Tommaso, with that buffalo ever front and center, telling his story with a flair for philosophy and irony, humor and sadness. (That fine Italian actor Elio Germano provides the voice of the buffalo.)

I am not sure that Marcello set out to make an animal rights movie, but along with everything else he accomplishes, he manages this as well as any film I've seen. Along the way we view Pulcinella (the famous Commedia dell'arte character), with his mask and without, ministering unto that buffalo, and maybe falling in love with a local woman. We meet shepherds and see the Italian locals take to the streets with placards reading "The Camorra is honest!  The State steals money!" Welcome to the world of Donald Trump. (Well, consider that Italians elected and then even re-elected Silvio Berlusconi, a Trump-twat to the max.)

And yet what consistently builds here is a love for the land, for the livestock, and for the people who work for the betterment of the world, despite the huge obstacles constantly in their path. Marcello's musical choices are exactly right, too -- from the classical to those composed for the movie. Lost and Beautiful may remind you of Bresson's Au Hasard Bathhazar, though it is less rigorously Bressonian and more whimsical, romantic and full of the beauty and sadness of life.

The finale offers as much meaning and emotion as any film you could want. It's a ten-hanky movie that sneaks up on you: One minute you are still questioning its meaning(s) and the next you're in tears and you understand. Well, fuck it. I am making a mash of all this. But I did warn you. I don't know that I can even recommend this strange hybrid documentary for fear that I am expecting too much of you and yet have not given you enough in this review.  (But, gosh, just for the scenes of those puppies cavorting with that buffalo calf....)

From Grasshopper Film, in Italian with English subtitles and running a mere 88 minutes, Lost and Beautiful opens tomorrow, Friday, December 9, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and then at another five locations across the country. To view all currently scheduled playdates and cities, click here and then scroll down and click on Where to View.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Matthew Ross' FRANK & LOLA: all about love and betrayal and noir and not much else

Matthew Ross (not to be confused with Matt Ross, who recently gave us the wonderful Captain Fantastic) certainly garnered a game cast to star in his new feature, FRANK & LOLA. What film fan would not be interested in seeing a movie with Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Michael Nyquist, Emmanuelle Devos and Justin Long? All of these performers (and several others) do their best with what has been set before them. But by the end of this too-long (even at 87 minutes) pastiche of been-there-done-that, you are likely to be tapping your fingers on whatever solid surface is nearby, while muttering, "This was a big nothing."

Mr. Ross, pictured at left, may think he is telling us something important (or even interesting) about love and its discontents, including jealousy, revenge, and the like. But there is nothing here we have not seen elsewhere and handled much better.

Content-wise, and for all its nice sets and locations (Las Vegas and Paris), the movie offers so little new or novel in the plotting that you may feel that there simply must be some big reveal to be expected by film's end. Don't.

Shannon and Poots (shown above and below, left and right, respectively) play hot-n-heavy lovers who barely know each other but fall at-first-sight, then spend the remainder of the movie lying and/or acting like filmdom's biggest fall guy. The effect is nicely acted but distinctly under-whelming. Most ten-year-olds will have a keener idea of the perils of love and lust than is to be found in this film. Ms Devos and Misters Long and Nyqvist add some class and charm to the proceedings, to little avail. This is one of those movies that will have you scratching your head as to why it ever got made -- let alone saw a release on digital HD and VOD.

But here it is. So, if you've a mind, you can find this release, via Paladin and Universal Studios, on VOD at your local cable channel or perhaps streaming somewhere. Good luck.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Afghanistan meets Northern California in Ian Olds' oddball tale, BURN COUNTRY

A fish-way-out-of-water story, BURN COUNTRY -- the first full-length narrative film from Ian Olds -- proves better at enticing us in than it does fulfilling its promise once we become involved in the tale. And yet that may be part (maybe the whole point) of the tale: How very strange it is to try to enter and then correctly appraise the world of people you barely know, who may, in fact, not want you in their world, after all. That is the situation of our protagonist, a young Afghan fellow named Osman (played very well by Dominic Rains, shown below).

Osman worked, expertly it seems, as a translator for a U.S. journalist whose beat is in the middle east, and because of this has been given asylum in the United States. He is now located in the backwoods of Northern California, visiting/living with the mother of that journalist (the fine Melissa Leo, shown below) and expecting to find a job at the local newspaper.

That job works out, sort of, but not in the manner Osman was expecting, and little by little he meets the townsfolk and becomes involved in some very bizarre doings: arson, beatings, a disappearance and a possible murder. Exactly what happens, along with how and why, we piece together haltingly, just as Osman himself must do, and the biggest strength of Mr. Olds' movie (the filmmaker is shown at bottom) is that we see and know only what Osman himself learns about this whole mess.

Along the way, Osman sees his first sight of the ocean and a beach, gets involved with a pretty young woman (Rachel Brosnahan, in the penultimate photo, below) and her rather bizarre acting instructor, and meets, gets beaten up and then befriended by a guy named Lindsay (James Franco, below and further below, doing another good job in full-out weirdo mode).

More and more bizarre and unsettling do things appear until we and Osman are ready to think the very worst of America's small towns (and why not, as these people apparently elected the asshole of all time to become the next American President?).

Things do sort themselves out. Sort of. Which leaves us even more unsettled -- with only some understanding of what has just transpired. One of the townsfolk lets us and Osman know that, in this a particular area of the country, everything is eventually forgiven. Well, OK.

Meanwhile, Osman has been in touch via phone with his journalist mentor along the way, and the final scene -- a quiet beauty of a few moments -- should make viewers appreciate Afghanistan in a manner we would never have expected.

While I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Burn Country, except to an audience who especially appreciates the intentionally unclear/ambivalent, there is certainly enough here to mull over, chew and maybe even digest. In the cast are stalwarts like Thomas Jay Ryan, too, so that's a plus, while Mr. Rains, who won a Tribeca Festival Best Actor Award delivers in fine form.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and Orion Pictures, the movie, running 102 minutes, opens this Friday, December 9, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Elsewhere? No idea. But as it will simultaneously play VOD in most major markets, if you want to view it, I am sure you'll be able to find it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT: Jaco Van Dormael's best film since Toto the hero

Jaco Van Dormael, that visual master of prestidigitation and whimsy, is back -- with a "religious" movie that is not merely irreverent but downright nasty (deservedly so: we're talking god here), smart, angry, romantic, charming, funny, feminist, and philosophical, too. It is also a major delight from start to finish.

M. Van Dormael (perhaps I should not being using the abbreviation for Monsieur, but the movie is spoken partially in French), shown at left, the Belgian filmmaker who has given us at least two marvelous movies -- Toto The Hero and Mr. Nobody -- has now provided a kind of trilogy of world-class amazements with his latest work, THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT, via which we learn that god is alive and unwell mentally and living in Brussels, with his beleaguered wife and angry, adolescent daughter.

God is also a power-hungry, nasty fanatic who likes to screw things up and set rules (a number of which we learn) designed to gum up everything from mankind's fondest hopes to its smallest endeavors. And, yes, he works via computer. That he is played by the consummate actor, Benoît Poelvoorde (above), just adds to the fun.

When that daughter (the pert and pugnacious Pili Groyne, above, right, and below (the fabulous actress Yolande Moreau plays mom, above, center) decides to do something about her dad's decadent reign, the plot takes off and doesn't stop until the guy is put in his place and the world can maybe begin again. Under new management.

How we get there proves all the fun, and this also allows Van Dormael to let loose with his full arsenal of too-much-ness. If ever a movie called for this kind of over-the-top whimsical style, it's The Brand New Testament, and the writer/director goes at it full-throttle. What he comes up with is too good to give away. You'll have to see the movie to experience the full fun.

Suffice it to say that we'll meet not only the daughter's more-famous brother -- a certain Jesus fellow -- but also a new round of "disciples" (above) that include -- as did the earlier ones, I suspect -- just your average, problemed guys with, this time around, some gals added to the ever-bubbling mix.

Among the latter is that French icon Catherine Deneuve (in background, above, and second from right, two photos above), as game as ever and here to be found in bed with a gorilla -- and, no, I do not mean Gérard Depardieu in his macho nutcase mode -- but the real thing. Each of the new disciples, you see, is afflicted with a rather desperate human need, which our good daughter and her brand new testament can heal.

In the midst of all the invention here is a dream sequence featuring a disembodied hand doing a lovely dance that helps another of those disciples (Laura Verlinden, above) with her own physical limitation. Van Dormael's past use of whimsy has, I think, alienated certain critics. Here, however, they may find themselves in the fold, due to the director's ability to make that whimsy unusually pointed, meaningful and rich -- and, in the case of Ms Verlinden's character, exquisitely moving.

Simply on the basis of another small but choice character named Kevin -- who, each time he turns up, makes us guffaw anew -- The Brand New Testament is a must. Do stay and view the entire end credits to enjoy Kevin's final visit. (That's yet another fine and famous Belgian actor, François Damiens, above, playing a disciple with a killer instinct.)

The movie -- one more gem (along with The Innocents, Francofonia and Monster With a Thousand Heads) to be released this year by Music Box Films -- in French and German with English subtitles, runs 114 minutes. In terms of length, this comes in about halfway between Toto and Nobody. Where whimsy is concerned, shorter, I think, is generally better. The film opens this Friday, December 9, in New York City (at The Landmark Sunshine Cinema), Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and South Florida: in Miami at the MDC Tower Theater, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters, and in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway Theater. Over the weeks to come the film will open in another 36 cities. To view them all, simply click here and then click on THEATERS in the task bar midway down the screen.

Nicolas Pesce's THE EYES OF MY MOTHER: horror often viewed at a discreet distance

Beginning with a scene on a country road in which the driver of a truck sees something untoward just ahead of him, and then taking us into the lives of one of the strangest families to be found on film, this new pristine, black-and-white movie makes Norman Bates look like a piker and shows up the Austrian oddity, Goodnight Mommy, as the artsy piece of schlock it is. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER will not be to everyone's taste (not even to all horror aficionados) but it ought to quickly take its place in the annals of quietly creepy, one-of-a-kind movies.

Its writer/director, Nicolas Pesce (shown at left), spares us much of the gore quotient possible here but none of the ghastly realizations of exactly what has been, is now, or soon will be going on. Believe me, these are lulus. And because they are often seen at a discreet distance, with music that quietly foments rather than knocks our eardrums silly, the result is often as breathtaking as it is horrifying. This is a film, no matter how "good" it may be, that you will not want to recommend to those who have trouble with the transgressive.

Eyes, surgery, cattle, obsession and a whole lot more make themselves felt in ways major and minor throughout the film, along with the bizarre behavior of not just the three principals in the family -- dad, mom and little girl -- but in the smiling interloper who sets into play the awful plot and then pays for it, bigtime, in a manner that may put you in mind of The Secret in Their Eyes.

You do not need plot details for a movie like this. Best, I think, if you're a horror fan, to simply approach it as tabula rasa as possible. The little girl (above) grows up into a young woman (below) who proves both one of the great horror villains and a characters who, given her fraught history, remains somehow vulnerable and (almost) sympathetic.

The cinematography (Zach Kuperstein) is stunning throughout, and the performances of every cast member on the nose. The logic of the film may leave something to be desired, but because The Eyes of My Mother has the strong, dark feel of a waking nightmare, you will probably forgive this (or not even notice) -- so simple yet propulsive is this relatively short (only 76 minutes) tale.

The behavior of our "leading lady -- the unusual but very fine Kika Magalhaes --  is so keyed to need, parenting (that's dad, being bathed, above), and socialization (the latter achieved, it would seem, via old movies, mostly noir, seen on TV) that whatever happens here seems somehow less over-the-top than the manner in which our "heroine" has most likely been raised.

From Magnolia's Magnet division, in mostly English and a little Portuguese with English subtitles, the movie opened this past weekend, December 2, in five cities and will hit another 14 this coming Friday, December 9, and even more over the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. Simultaneously, The Eyes of My Mother is available via VOD, Amazon Video and iTunes.