Friday, February 23, 2018

Martial arts/Bruce Lee fans: Don't let George Nolfi's BIRTH OF THE DRAGON get by you


While TrustMovies' daughter and grandkids were visiting, daughter -- who is a big martial arts enthusiast and practitioner (as is our son-in-law and their children) -- insisted we watch a movie entitled BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, which all of them had already seen but did not mind viewing again. We did -- and were more than just pleasantly surprised. This is one of those films that got a terrible critical response but that audiences enjoyed more than three times that of the critics. More important, it offers a view of that martial arts idol/icon, Bruce Lee, that knocks him down a peg or two while making clear what a wonder he was, even if, concerning his martial arts philosophy/spirit, this guy had some major learning still to do.

Set in San Francisco back in the 1960s, the movie -- directed by George Nolfi (shown, left) and based on an article, Bruce Lee's Toughest Fight, written by Michael Dorgan, which was then adapted by screenwriters Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson -- proves a model of this kind of film-making: smart, fast-moving and able to beautifully juggle its several themes and plot-lines so that we easily follow them while coming to also care about its several protagonists.

I suspect that some, perhaps many, of Bruce Lee's fans were angry at the depiction of their hero shown here, for Mr. Lee in his younger days, while clearly a martial arts force to contend with, might also have been just too cocky and smart-assed for his own good. Certainly as played (and very well, too) by the fast, skilled and sexy Philip Ng (below), the character seems more than capable of being the champion he so clearly was, while needing a lot of help in the humility/attitude department.

Playing opposite Mr. Ng with equal skill and charisma is the wonderful actor Yu Xia, below, who takes the role of kung-fu master Wong Jack Man -- the fellow Mr Lee must cajole into fighting him -- and fills it so completely with his remarkable combination of strength and modesty that you're likely to become a convert before the movie ends.

Lee imagines that Wong Jack Man has come all the way across the ocean to learn what Lee is up to and perhaps dissuade him from teaching the ancient Asian art to westerners. But things are much more complicated (or, depending upon how you view it, much simpler) that that, and this grand master proves to be just about everything that Lee is not and yet somehow aspires to be.

The fight, up to which everything is leading and which provides the film with its terrific climax and even better denouement, is brought about by two other characters who prove crucial to the plot, as well as to the great charm and sweetness of the film. Lee has a student (Billy Magnussen, above) who falls in love with a newcomer from China (Qu Jingjing, below, left) and wants desperately to help the girl pay off her "debt" to the sleazebags who brought her to the USA and by whom she is now employed.

This love story, in other hands, might come off as standard and obvious, but thanks to the work of the writers and director and especially to Magnussen, who unveils things we've not seen previously in this actor, the character seems remarkably sweet, naive and caring, alternately pig-headed and kind. It's a lovely performance, and so we root for this young couple much more that we do, say, for other more obvious lovers (the pair in the recent and utterly manipulative movie, The Mountain Between Us, for instance).

The fight and its aftermath are also handled with style, grace and intelligence. Connoisseurs will appreciate the "moves" on view, but the heart of the matter is devoted to the how and why of things. Exactly who wins the fight is especially succulent. What we get here is so much better than what we're consistently fed via our mainstream/blockbuster/fantasy-world nonsense.


The Birth of the Dragon is full of kung-fu, all right, but it is also rich with competing philosophies and ideas -- about everything from martial arts to the ways in which we might choose to live our lives. It's a lovely piece of work, and it should have been a lot more popular than it was. But, no: We live in a time of mostly super-hero fantasy trash, it seems. In any case, you can (and should) check this movie out yourself. It's available on home video now -- via DVD or streaming.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ben Parker's THE CHAMBER: Confined-space melodrama opens in theaters and digitally


The first alert that something may be amiss about THE CHAMBER -- a somewhat new (made in 2016) confined-space movie from writer/director Ben Parker -- is the fact that the "scientists," or maybe "military" folk who come aboard the mini-submarine (that rather thoroughly confines everyone's space) refuse to tell the sub's captain, who appears to be the movie's hero, why they are there or what they are searching for. This is suspect to and for the captain but also to and for the very believability of the movie's plot.

You will either accept this "fact" or not, but to keep watching, you'll need to pretty completely suspend what they used to call your "disbelief." (Though, in the age of Trump, could there possibly be much disbelief left to suspend?) Mr. Parker, shown at right, does an adequate job in the directorial department but a quite below-average one as a writer. On the plus side is his ability to keep us guessing as to who is good and who isn't and why. But by the time we find out, his plot, motivations and all else seems so jumbled as to make his would-be confined-space thriller/melodrama not so much about "who will survive?" as it is about "who cares?".

One reason I decided to give this movie a spin is its star: Johannes Kuhnke (above), who was so fine as the lead in that near-avalanche/family film Force Majeure. He is certainly OK here, but the role is limited to mostly silly plot machinations involving nuclear naughtiness and, yes, North Korea and the U.S., with Charlotte Salt (below), playing the head of the antagonist group. (Given its 2016 provenance, the film is timely, at least.)

As The Chamber takes place under the sea, you needn't place any bets on whether or not the water will soon rise around its protagonists/antagonists. But as the characters keep doing dumb things and are allowed to continue this for far too long, your patience may run out before the movie does.

Granted the situation here is grim, but did Mr. Parker need to make his characters so alternately dumb and crazy? The craziest is played (and well enough, certainly) by James McArdle, below, and the sweetest by Elliot Levey, above. But the nonsense piles up in the last half-hour to the point that it grows so silly that it very nearly becomes fun. Almost. Dumb and tiresome finally win out.

Really, now: You increase your passenger list by two people, yet you don't bother to include two more survival suits? The ending is such that I asked myself why in hell I bothered to sit through all this. Oh, right: It was Mr. Kuhnke's fault.

From Cinedigm and running too long, even at only 90 minutes, The Chamber opens tomorrow, Friday, February 23, in a few theaters and on digital streaming. Your move....

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

BLACK PANTHER: The latest stupid-hero movie is upon us -- and breaking records, of course


The difference this time is that the schlock is in black-face, which does make a nice change from the usual schlock in white-face (or, as per Wonder Woman, schlock in pseudo-feminist-face). Still, schlock is schlock. And, as a good friend of mine who, after hearing all the plaudits from amazed critics and so rushed off to see the film on opening day, pointed out to me: "It's a children's movie, for god's sake." Which does makes one wonder about the destabilization of our increasingly idiotic critical establishment.

Oh, the movie scores it points about racial inequality-and-so-on. But since it is all about having and using super-powers, so what? This does not make the film anything approaching "serious." There are some nice moments along the way, including a lovely comedic performance from Letitia Wright (as our hero's sister), and the finale did move me more than I expected. For that I credit the movie's courage in allowing a major character (Michael B. Jordan, above, the best thing in the film) to represent unalloyed black anger turned crazy and near-suicidal in the face of centuries of injustice.

Overall though, the film is too long, too obvious and too repetitive. Chadwick Boseman, above, is better seen in just about anything else (don't miss him as James Brown in Get on Up). The rest of the starry cast come through as expected but are unable to rise above the second-rate and second-hand material. Well, what do you want? It's Marvel, for fuck's sake. (And, no, DC ain't any better). This will be the last stupid-hero movie that TrustMovies bothers to view or review.

BLACK PANTHER, running two-and-one-quarter hours, is playing all over. Click here, if you must, to find a theater near you. For an antidote to this nonsense, I recommend you try Strong Island, streaming now on Netflix and nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A heads-up: TrustMovies is taking a short vacation....



...due to few-days visit from his daughter and grandchildren.

He'll be back in action mid-week. 

Till then, see a movie and enjoy yourself!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Two new series come to Netflix streaming: ALTERED CARBON and BABYLON BERLIN


The future (a little-too Blade Runner-ish in style: see below) and the past (Germany shortly before its pre-WWII fascist takeover) are the subjects of two new continuing series via Netflix streaming. ALTERED CARBON imagines our world (along with some off-worlds) a very long time time from now, when the very wealthy -- gheesh, them again! -- can live forever, while the rest of us are mostly slave labor who work, work, work and then die. The big difference here is that everyone's "life force" is now embedded in a small item called a "stack,"  which gets implanted somewhere behind one's neck. So, no matter what happens to your body, if your stack remains OK, you simply change into a new "sleeve" -- the term for whatever body is currently available (at a price, of course) for use by someone whose old one is damaged beyond repair.

This odd new kind of body-hopping makes for some very amusing fun at times -- the best of all being a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of an Hispanic family whose grandmother has recently departed. But the family -- most of them, anyway -- want their abuela back for the holiday and so her stack is implanted into the only available sleeve, that of a recently departed criminal who is bald, portly and mustachioed. The ensuing conversation is one of the most amusing things I've seen all year, and when the subject turns to religion, faith, and this whole idea of "eternal life," the series suddenly also becomes quite intelligent and insightful.

The main plot has to do with a murder mystery involving one of those very rich (James Purefoy, above -- and, yes, he's full-frontal again and as big and beautiful as you'll have remembered from Rome) -- which needs to be solved by the series' hero (a very sexy and buffed Joel Kinnaman, below).

Unfortunately this main plot keeps getting derailed far too often and quite unnecessarily via violent action scenes that become tiresome almost immediately.  These, of course, are why most of our younger and increasingly stupid crowd tunes into a shows like this, but eventually the action/violence has more of a numbing effect than anything else because it keeps detracting from rather than adding to the interest of the plot.

One subsidiary character that proves his worth is the Edgar Allen Poe-like artificial intelligence creation (played by Chris Conner, shown below) who is both the hotelier and the hotel (called The Raven) which he manages. (AI, it seems, has come a very long way over the ensuing eons). Mr. Connor proves lots of witty fun, and the series perks a bit whenever he appears.

Altered Carbon is the creation of a writer/producer named Laeta Kalogridis, and she has hit a number of ever-current hot buttons with her new series -- mostly those that push the sex and violence envelopes. I've reached the middle of episode seven at this point (there are ten nearly hour-long ones in the first season), but I don't think I'll continue. Another two and a half hours is more than I want to spend in a supposedly brand new world that turns out to be too much of the same-old same-old, even as it keeps losing rather than gaining interest because of those endless action sequences, as well as from simply tossing too many characters at us, both from the past and the present (even if they turn out to be incarnations of the same people). Tighter would be better, Ms Kaolgridis. But then, of course, we might not have enough episodes to fill up an entire series.

**************************

BABYLON BERLIN proves that the past can be every bit as fascinating as some imagined future -- if you rely on interesting characters and depth of characterization rather than a bunch of tiresome action scenes. Created by a trio of smart German filmmakers -- Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries and Tom Tykwer (that last name best-known over here for Run Lola Run, Perfume, Cloud Atlas, 3 as well as the late and somewhat lamented Netflix series Sense8) -- this German cable presentation was co-directed by all three men and co-adapted (from the novel by Volker Kutscher) by them, too.

Set in the late 1920s in Germany's new Weimar Republic, which was already in major trouble, what with severe inflation and unemployment adding to the post-WWI problems of the state. With the right wing already railing against the rise of Communism, and various divisions of it -- Stalinists, Trotskyites and Leninsts -- jockeying for power, the term "hot bed" doesn't begin to describe the Berlin of this time.

Into all this comes our maybe hero Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch, above), a police commissioner from Cologne, ostensibly to help with a local investigation but with an agenda of his own, of which we will eventually learn. Our heroine Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries, below) is doing all she can to keep her family out of complete poverty, which includes a new day job helping the police department and night work as a prostitute.

There's a high-jacked freight train, a printing press run by the Trotsky faction, a massacre by the Stalinists, an underground pornography ring, and a femme fatale blond who dons a number of disguises along the way. How these plots and characters broaden, deepen and coalesce provide Babylon Berlin's engine, which runs surprisingly smoothly and quickly towards its who-knows-what destination.

Performances are first-rate, from leads down to the very small roles, and the look of the series is simply terrific. Every scene proves an absolute pleasure to view and it all looks real, too -- alternately ritzy and outhouse-dirty. I've never been to Germany, let alone the Germany of the 1920s, but all this sure strikes me as real, enticing and revolting

Part noir, part would-be history, part adventure, love story, and lots more, the series is a surprise in so many ways. Tykwer and his cohorts should be very, very proud. As of now TrustMovies is only into part seven of the 13 episodes in season one. But unlike Altered Carbon, this is one series I plan to finish. Both are available now in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere, too) via Netflix streaming.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Catching up with Steven Spielberg's THE POST -- yet another of last year's "bests"

Why did it take TrustMovies so long to finally go see THE POST -- the Steven Spielberg-directed and Liz Hannah/Josh Singer-written movie about the release of the Pentagon Papers and the ensuing freedom-of-press fight between the then-current Nixon administration and The New York Times and The Washington Post? I'm not sure, but when I finally got around to it yesterday at a local Boca Raton theater, I was riveted from first scene to last. This is mainstream movie-making at its very best. 

Some study (if not any actual memory) of history will be a big help to younger audiences viewing the film, but what is most impressive -- outside of Mr,. Spielberg's crack direction which, thankfully, goes over the top only once (the unnecessary soaring of John Williams' music at the film's climax) -- is its incredibly adept screenplay by Ms Hannah (above, left) and Mr. Singer (above, right) that compresses events so well that we follow the entire story easily and delightedly, but also with unexpected trepidation -- due to what is going on in our country today.

Even if many of us will remember the outcome of what happened here, we certainly did not know the details -- nor could we imagine how well and how fully the screenwriters, director and magnificent cast bring these all to fine life.

Not only do Singer and Hannah get the big details right, they manage to insert some lovely small ones, too (that lemonade stand!), that bring the movie additional heft, while providing just the right touch of humor and savvy. Leaving this pair out of the Oscar nominees seems especially stupid. Ditto the absence of Mr. Spielberg in the Best Director category.

And, while we're on the subject: Tom Hanks' omission as Best Actor, too. His performance here as Ben Bradlee (above, right) is as good as he has ever given us, letting us see sides of this actor that have so far been kept under wraps. Meryl Streep's performance as Katherine Graham (above, left) is as on-the-mark as this actress always manages, and she once again garners another nomination to add to her many.

What may surprise you most among the crack cast assembled here, is how good (and how extraordinarily different from what they so often are asked to do) are actors like Bruce Greenwood (above, right, playing Robert McNamara) and Bob Odenkirk (as Ben Bagdikian).

Aside from the skill with which the movie has been made, what makes it so important just now is the chance to see and understand what freedom of the press means to America and why we are in danger of losing it to our present Republican-led executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. What The Pentagon Papers proved was how several administrations -- Democratic and Republican -- had consistently lied to the American people about the war that was currently being waged. Now we are seeing and hearing these kinds of lies again, along with those concerning almost everything else. The change that has now occurred is that too many Americans can no longer differentiate a fact from a fib. Suddenly, just about anything can be labeled "fake news."

Put The Post on your must-see list, either now or once it hits home video. From 20th Century Fox and running just under two hours, the movie, which appears to have pretty remarkable "legs," is undoubtedly still playing in a theater near you. Click here to find those closest to your particular neighborhood.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

1945: Ferenc Török's elegant, bleak view of post-WWII Hungary opens in South Florida


We've seen a lot of Holocaust horror, along with post-Holocaust family films and secrets-and-lies investigations about coming to terms with it all. What we've explored least of, perhaps, is tales of Jewish homes and property taken over by non-Jews after the various round-ups and deportations that took place in Nazi-conquered countries throughout Europe. (We got just a taste of this in Sarah's Key and certain other films.) This loss of property, though certainly not as important as the lives lost, is at the heart of the new Hungarian film 1945.

As co-written (with Gábor T. Szántó) and directed by Ferenc Török, shown at right, 1945 takes place in that particular year, after World War II had ended and, for the first time since the deportation,  Jews -- just two of them, actually: an old man and a young one (shown below) -- arrive by train to this sleepy little Hungarian town. Why have they come, and what do they want?

From the outset, it is clear that, however quietly and subtly the townspeople take this all in, they are, to a man and woman, hugely disturbed by the Jews' appearance. Yet it is also clear that they've been aware that, someday down  the road, this would most likely happen.

As the movie progresses, and the two Jews make their way slowly toward the town, the townspeople -- from the powerful town clerk (Péter Rudolf, below, left) down to the town drunk and some lowly housewives -- fret and finger-point, give in to guilt, hide their ill-gotten valuables and/or try to decide their best course of action.

Russia is already controlling Hungary, though the iron hand of its insane Communist dictator has not yet made its power fully felt, yet it is clear that the citizens are already taking sides. And today happens also to mark the wedding of the town clerk's son (Bence Tasnádi, above, right) to a pretty local girl (Dóra Sztarenki, below, right), of whom the groom's mom (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, below, left) heartily disapproves -- for reasons that will soon (and then later, too) become clear.

The journey toward town of the Jews, together with all the tsuris this causes the townspeople and even their priest, brings out the rather shocking inhumanity of man toward his fellow men, while setting the stage for a showdown of sorts.

And yet, throughout, 1945 is resolutely un-melodramatic. as it unfolds slowly and gracefully, if consistently fraught with fear and anguish. The elegant cinematography (by Elemér Ragályi) is often stunningly beautiful, with its final image as Holocaust-redolent as you could wish. I admit that the film moves slowly at times, and it sometimes scores its points a bit too obviously, as well.

Overall, though, 1945 proves a strong enough indictment of Hungary (and also of nearly all the Nazi-conquered countries) in its treatment of the Jews to warrant a viewing and the accompanying discussion that will surely arise.

From Menemsha Films and running 91 minutes, the movie opens here in South Florida on February 16 -- in Miami at the AMC Aventura 24, in Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway Theatre, in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters and the Regal Shadowood, and at the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth.

Personal appearance!  
Moviegoers can meet the director of 1945, Ferenc Török, on
Friday, Feb. 16, at Movies of Delray at 12:30pm, 3:00pm, 5:20pm; 
and at The Classic Gateway Theater, 7:20pm and 9:30pm. 
On Saturday, February 17, he will appear at the Movies of Delray 
at 12:30pm, 3:00pm, and 5:20pm, at the Regal Shadowood at 4:50pm 
and at Tamarac's The Last Picture Show at  7:10pm. 
On Sunday, February 18, look for him at the AMC Aventura 24 at 1:45pm 
and at the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton at 4:30pm and 6:50pm. 
For more information readers can visit www.menemshafilms.com/1945