Sunday, November 30, 2008


If you're going to over-do it, I suppose you should over-do in bold, fat strokes -- which is what the makers of the two movies under consideration here -- both recently released to DVD -- have done. So let's give them credit for that, at least. Both films are satires: a genre usually best approached with a shiv than a sledge hammer. But sledge (sometimes sludge) it is, and so we must soldier on through the muck.

TROPIC THUNDER is Ben Stiller's nod to Hollywood film people: those in front of the camera, behind it, on the set and back at the studio. None come out smelling very good, but neither does the film itself, as it repeats and repeats and repeats, rather like a bad meal, and does so very noisily (also like a bad meal, now that I think of it). There are a number of laughs along the way: Steve Coogan (below, left) is delightful, as usual, while Jay Baruchel (below, right) provides a much-needed voice of sanity (under no circumstances should you miss Baruchel in the terrific indie I'm Reed Fish). The "previews" that begin the film are very clever and funny. You may find yourself, shamefacedly, looking forward to the film being "trailered" -- ouch: Stiller has even implicated us movie-goers in his little Valentine. Still, at 107 minutes, the movie is a quarter-hour too long, which tends to be draining on a comedy. And the explosions, blood and carnage keep piling up (while this may be part of Stiller's plan, repetition does lead to boredom).

Two performances have been much-vaunted in the press: one, of course, comes from Robert Downey Jr., and indeed he is good. The funniest parts of the film involve his faux-black character in conversation with another of his co-actors, an actual black. (The Blockbuster counter clerk who took back the film asked if I had watched the commentary track, adding that Downey does the entire track "in character." I'm sorry now that, with the time I had available, I didn't just skip the movie itself and watch the commentary instead). The other supposedly Isn't-this-amazing? role comes from one of our (perhaps "ex") superstars, whose name I will not mention in case there are readers unfamiliar with this "stunt" role and its performer. The actor has been given the make-up/make-over/fat suit routine, after which he acts the nasty studio boss with fists clenched and voice raging. His performance is perfectly OK. But during any one of his scenes, simply imagine what a real actor might have done with this role, relishing its moments and bringing some interesting specifics and a little variety to the table -- and you'll immediately understand what might have been.

As yet another Lloyd Kaufman/Michael Herz shoestring production, POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD offers quite a difference from the above movie -- perhaps a $75 million-dollar budget difference. If you're familiar with this duo's work (The Toxic Avenger and its ilk), you'll know what to expect. If not, Poultrygeist (great title, guys!) is as good a place to start as any. Be prepared for oodles of gore, lewd behavior, nudity (both real and manufactured), and also some wonderfully funny, nutty and charming dialog (as well as much that is extremely foul, no pun intended). There are musical numbers, too -- with some ace lyrics, so-so music and less than so-so choreography. (But come now, you don't frequent Troma Team productions for the dancing.)

Jason Yachanin makes a adorable hero Arbie, and the movie offers one of the funniest, most simple ploys I have yet seen to keep zombies at bay. Director, actor and co-writer/producer Kaufman proves a font of versatility here, even providing a lengthy introduction to his movie (which I swore I would not watch and then got hooked on). Kaufman is bizarre and funny, and so is his film -- which like Tropic Thunder, goes on maybe 15 minutes too long. Cut and re-edited, I think this one could have been a classic of the genre, instead of just a contender. But I suspect Lloyd (pictured above, smiling, as usual) is happy to be considered even that.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Distributor Wanted: Salvatore Maira's VALZER

You might think that any narrative film able to create with simplicity, economy and flair the state of Berlusconi's Italy today (and, by extension, much of the western world) in all its shallow grandeur, shoddy culture and emphasis on appearance, power and possessions -- and then cap it off with one hell of a stunning technical feat -- would garner a small release here in the U.S.A. No? You may be a cynic, but so far, you'd also be on target.

Salvatore Maira's amazing work VALZER (The Waltz) is such a quietly spectacular achievement that I am flummoxed as to why a film this smart and timely has not seen, at least briefly, a commercial run. The movie manages to thrillingly combine ideas about society today (sports, cosmetic surgery, Muslims and marketing -- among other concerns) and an unusual visual notion that's been done previously only in spurts and in one full-length documentary, Russian Ark.

If you're familiar with that interesting piece from Aleksandr Sokurov, you will have guessed that The Waltz is another movie composed of one single, continuous full-length camera shot that goes on and on until it comprises the entire film. The camera moves from person to person, room to room, inside to outside with nary an edit. So what? When Russian Ark did this (in 2002), it was a first, and we were inside the Hermitage, seeing all that spectacular art, meeting historical characters, and being led around by a charming, slightly naughty tour guide. In The Waltz, the technical achievement--and it remains quite an achievement--is matched by a grand conception and dialog that had me hanging on every word -- listening hard and marveling at the intelligence, irony, cynicism, caring and daring on display.

Writer/director Maira (he also gave us the unusual, beautiful Amor nello specchio or Love in the Mirror) serves up today's world (in a lickety-split 75-or-so minutes) via the venue of one posh Italian hotel, with guests representing the "haves" and workers the "have-nots." The moving camera gives the film a continuous fluidity and immediacy different from what editing -- no matter how accomplished -- could achieve. Plus, it blends and binds all the characters and plot strands into a seamless, horrible whole/hole. The most daring and amazing part of the film, for me, is the manner in which Maira manages to take us into, not just the present moment, but the past, too--with his camera still moving. He has performed the cinema equivalent of a stunning coup de théâtre.

The story comes directly and urgently from the characters on view: specifically, a father just released from a South American prison and the young woman, one of the hotel staff, with whom he has an unusual connection. There is a missing girl, a conference devoted to the idea of first controlling soccer and then an entire populace, the immigrant as work force, and even a moment of memorably sudden, shocking violence. Through it all, Maira opens us up to ideas about the meaning of family, blood, and the insider/outsider. Most importantly, we learn how the ideas we hear spouted by a "marketing/psychology" guru have taken their toll on one young woman who becomes the tragic personification of everything this guru is teaching. Amidst the rich and pointed dialog, there may be a moment or two you'll feel are too much, but these will seem minor quibbles when set against Maira's achievement.

Among a fine cast, the standout is Valeria Solarino (shown in photo at top and below, with Maurizio Micheli) -- an actress popular in Italy but still unknown to American audiences. I have now seen four of her films, all shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's yearly Italian Film Festival Open Roads: La Felicità non costa niente (Happiness is Free), Viaggio segreto (Secret Journey), Signorina Effe (Ms F) and Valzer. If there is another actress capable of so exquisitely communicating a quiet exterior masking inner turmoil, I am unaware of her. Ms Solarino is extremely beautiful, and it may be that these initial roles all possess a similar roiling quietude, so, at this point in her career, I can't vouch that her abilities include any enormous range. But I will certainly take advantage of any opportunity I have to see her work again.

I first encountered Valzer last June during the FSLC Open Roads fest. I reviewed it at the time (much of the above is from that review, written for and posted on GreenCine) and expected that -- soon or eventually -- it would find its way into theatres, or at very least onto DVD. While it may be impolitic for someone like me to so obviously go to bat for a movie that lacks distribution, so be it. If a critic cannot get fully behind a film that deserves to be seen, what's the point? Director Maira and his producer Gian Mario Feletti have graciously allowed me to act as go-between, and I will be happy to send a DVD (English-subtitled and playable on American machines) to any bona fide distributor who would like to view the film -- and put him/her in touch with the filmmakers. For anyone interested in cinema that experiments and expands our understanding while remaining accessible & intelligent, thought-provoking & moving, I can recommend no more bracing current example than this Waltz.

Photos from Valzer, above, are courtesy of Salvatore Maira.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

QUICK TAKES: Ustinov's Nero & Mortimer's femme-not-quite-fatale

In TrustMovies' memory MGM's grandiose QUO VADIS (1951) came to us in wide-screen. Wrong. 20th's The Robe, from '53, was the first Cinemascope movie. QV does provide a lot of spectacle, however, much of it stagy and obvious. Even an actress as fine as Deborah Kerr seems to have some trouble connecting, but since that connection is to the usually wooden Robert Taylor, the viewer can at least forgive. It's Peter Ustinov's Nero that fascinates most. Nominated for an Oscar, he didn't win, though he copped a Golden Globe. (Nor did the movie; with eight nominations, it still went away empty handed.) Ustinov (above, left) is funny, creepy, sad, scary and certainly the best Nero I've seen or am likely to in time to come. I confess here to having watched only Disc One. (At its three-hour running time, the entire film could easily have been given us on a single disc.) I am toying with the idea of renting Disc 2, but with so much else to see and so little time to view it, I haven't yet made up my mind.... Oh, yes: Note the red circle (and its enclosed copy) at the bottom of the poster, above. "Not Suitable for Children"? I saw the movie as a child when it first appeared, and I don't recall any warnings for kids. Hmmm.... Did church groups perhaps imagine that children seeing Christians thrown to the lions might not be in the best of taste? Still, compared to what kids can -- and do -- see today (that PG-13 rating gets sleazier and nuttier by the month), Quo Vadis seems piddling indeed.

Brad Anderson seems incapable of making an uninteresting movie: Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, Session 9, The Machinist and now TRANSIBERIAN. I occasionally have problems with his work (particulary with Happy Accidents) but I am always pleased to have seen one of his films. He's at home in various genres -- romance, fantasy, adventure, horror, (and in fact, likes to elide these) but it's more his grasp of character that counts. As good as is every one of Transiberian's five leads (Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kinsgley, Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega), it's Mortimer (above, right) whose character matters most. This is probably her best role -- complex, pivotal, elusive, indelible -- and she brings the movie home. That the film also offers lots of twisty, genre-jumping fun should be another inducement to view. About a pair of do-gooder Americans abroad who encounter other folk of the not so do-good variety, director/co-writer Anderson's film explores, especially via Miss Mortimer, those shifting, grey areas between who we would like to be and who we are.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Thanks once again to Criterion, another French classic comes to DVD and should prove worth discovering -- for older movie buffs, especially. FANFAN LA TULIPE was a huge international success in its day (1952), firmly placing French matinee idol (and fine actor) Gérard Philipe (below, left) at the top of his game, while giving the buxom and beauteous Gina Lollobrigida (below, right) her breakout international role. (Just one year later, she made Huston's Beat the Devil.)

It's difficult to oversell the delights of Fan Fan, particularly during the film' first hour or so. The smart, swift opening, with its narrator's droll, ironic "take" on France and war, is terrific and is soon followed by a wonderful action scene in which, if I am not mistaken, the camera speed is slightly increased -- to subtly humorous effect. (By film's end some of the sword-fights, probably more enjoyable back in the day, seem to go on a tad too long.) And there is a wonderful I've-had-enough-of-the-military moment that you'll wish could have found its way into countless other "military discipline" movies. The dialog, too, is surprisingly witty and bright, while the morality on view is decidedly French and intellectually sophisticated; ideas about love and duty, marriage and fidelity bounce and smack like cue balls on an active pool table.

The movie moves fast and rarely lets up. When it does, you can count on something good: a beautifully observed "hanging" or a Candide/Cunegonde-like scene between Philipe and Lollobrigida in a local tavern. Director Christian-Jaque made some 76 films and TV pieces, yet few if any of these ring the bell regarding quality or notability. Watching Fan Fan, this fact seems odd, because in so many ways this is a wonderfully conceived and executed film. Scene after scene work beautifully, and occasionally the visuals are staggeringly good. The DVD transfer is fine, though not up to Criterion's highest level. On the Extras, watch the scene from a later "colorized" version of the film. (It's not bad: the movie would have seemed a perfect candidate for color, but probably the budget wasn't there). There is also a fine feature on M. Philipe, in which you'll discover what an interesting family history the fellow had.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Another very good (and this year, all too rare) sequel that outshines its original by a bright sun or two, Guillermo del Toro's HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY manages to be involving, funny, moving, and visually stunning -- as one expects from the guy who gave us The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Finally, here's a movie in which the special effects are truly special. Doug Jones' Abe-the-Fish character (shown on the poster above) gets his chance to sing (literally and metaphorically), and he manages to touch our heartstrings without a false move. Selma Blair and Ron Pearlman are delightful, too, but it's del Toro (shown at top) who provides the most pleasure. After you've seen the film itself, watch his charming guided tour of the Troll Market from the Special Features section and be amazed at all the work that goes into -- and often barely gets seen -- a movie such as this. Yes, you'll begin forgetting the film almost as soon as it is finished. But its pleasure-while-viewing factor is high indeed.

Anand Tucker's quietly affecting WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? surprised me. After its first few minutes, I thought, "Ah: one of those looking-back-at-your-family movies that will be OK but little more." By the end, however, I was greatly moved. Tucker (directing David Nicholls's adaptation of Blake Morrison's autobiographical book) gives us a lot of short scenes that offer information and feelings, gradually building into a strong and powerful whole. His film lasts only 90 minutes, but that's enough to provide the sense of loss and aloneness that arrives with the death of one's parent, even a parent for whom one has experienced little love. We also get a taste of how selfish grown children can become when faced with this loss, as well as how the adolescent view -- necessarily rigid and self-involved -- when carried through into adulthood can cramp and diminish a life. The title, a rather obvious question, becomes a unique and necessary one by the movie's close. Jim Broadbent (above, left) and Juliet Stevenson (above, right) play the older generation, while Colin Firth and Gina McKee (shown center, about to canoodle) essay the younger. All four, as well as the fine supporting cast, are splendid.

Friday, November 21, 2008

DVDebuts: LE DOULOS ("classic" disappointment) and GARDEN PARTY (disposable charmer)

Has anyone ever looked better in a trench coat than Jean-Paul Belmondo? For evidence, I offer up Jean-Pierre Melville's LE DOULOS. All the correct accoutrements are on view here: said trench coat, glowing b/w cinematography (by Nicolas Hayer) complete with noir shadows and gleaming darkness, criminals, attitude, a heist, loot and betrayal. Yet, with the recent release of this film and Le Deuxième souffle, M. Melville, as director/adapter (from Pierre Lesou's novel), is looking less and less interesting, except as a primer on how NOT to make a thriller. Initially, the story involves us, as characters change from who and what you first imagine into something quite different. But entire scenes are given over to ludicrous, lengthy exposition, while chance -- rather unbelievable chance, at that -- plays far too much of a part in the events, which, once you learn who's what, become more and more predictable until they climax/collapse into an ending so manipulative and obvious that it approaches camp.

Perhaps, back in 1962 when the film was first released, it seemed less obvious. But today it comes off as a kind of compendium of French noir tropes, without ever coalescing into real emotion or narrative truth. Serge Reggiani provides stellar support to Belmondo, who looks fabulous. I can understand Criterion's releasing (via Rialto) this second-rate Melville for completists' sake. The transfer, as usual with Criterion, is everything you could want. And the Extras on Le Doulos are splendid: interviews with both Bertrand Tavernier, who handled PR for the film!) and Volker Schlöndorff, who acted as Melville's first assistant director.

Expectations do the darndest things. A supposed "classic" can leave you cold, while a little trifle like GARDEN PARTY, which ought not to rate too high on any scale, manages to surprise and entertain while providing a sometimes silly but very pleasant 90 minutes. Writer/director Jason Freeland's film observes some almost "haves" and some barely registering "have-nots" on the radar of the L.A./Hollywood scene. There's little new here, and yet Freeland's observations seem generally real and quirky enough to engage. If the movie's title reminds you of a very popular Ricky Nelson song, that's intentional, and the song itself is played more than once. Were the entire musical score and various songs selected for the soundtrack not so damn good, this might seem like crass misuse of an oldie-but-goodie. But no: the music here is generally wonderful and well-chosen.
The cast -- mostly new to me, even one of the older members, Christopher Allport, since deceased -- gives lively and interesting performances all. Vinessa Shaw (bottom row, right) lets us see the cracks in her hard-edged real estate agent (and, boy, does she offer plenteous evidence of the wonders of the uplift bra); Richard Gunn (top row, center) makes his mopey, porn-obsessed male more interesting and varied than most of this ilk; Alexander Cendese (top row, right) allows his hunkiness to play second fiddle to his gay character's loneliness and insecurity; Patrick Fischler (top row, left, and these days best-known as the nasty commedien Jimmy Barrett on AMC's Mad Men) probes for extra reality and pizzaz in his role of porn photographer; best of all is Erik Scott Smith (bottom row, left: he played the Colin Farrell character as an adolescent in A Home at the End of the World) as a mysterious young musician who charms the pants off everyone he encounters on his way to the land of dreams-come-true. Smith does his own singing here, and he's good. As is -- in its lightweight, take-it-or-leave-it manner, the entire movie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

THE BETRAYAL: Worth a trip to the theatre

The betrayal occurs with enough frequency and force in the film of that same name –- by one country toward another, one family member toward others, sometimes implied, more often obvious -- that viewers will soon begin to wonder which betrayal matters most. The one that starts the ball rolling is the U.S.A.’s invasion of Laos, in the process seducing some of its populace into actively working toward an American conquest of Vietnam. When that fiasco

ended in our failure, we simply abandoned the two countries to new leadership that, in both cases, severely punished those of its people who had worked with and for the Americans.

One such group was the Phrasavath family, the father of which – a military man – had to then abandon his family and run for his life. The entire family (well, almost: that’s another betrayal) eventually leaves Laos to settle in America – where it discovers yet another kind of abandonment, ongoing and every bit as betraying. Still, the major personal treachery, surprising and powerful enough to knock the wind of family and viewer alike, lies ahead.

Director Ellen Kuras and co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath (the eldest son of the family in the film, shown above, left, many years ago, and right, as he now appears) worked together on THE BETRAYAL for 23 years. Ms Kuras filmed whenever possible between her gigs as a well-known cinematographer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, Swoon, I Shot Andy Warhol) while teaching Thavi the tricks of the trade. At one point during this near-quarter-century, she had to stop work on the film for almost four years. Yet the result, for any viewer with an appreciation of history, poetry or family, is quietly astounding. One of the strongest features of the film is that, for all the betrayals along the way, large and small, the viewer never loses sight of the bigger picture: the many events at work that shape what happens to the family. Consequently blame is apportioned more justly and forgiveness is perhaps possible, if haltingly.

I make this last statement about the personal betrayals on view. The original and major betrayal of the country and people of Laos by the U.S.A. is another matter – one that most Americans will not care about or bother to acknowledge. (Or, if they do, will find some phony “reason” for justification: The “Communist Menace” demanded our involvement in Southeast Asia; we didn’t really “lose” the war in Vietnam; the Domino Theory was true; and so on.) Kuras and Phrasavath do not say this, but one might suggest that the first treachery was that of the American government toward its own people, since we had no business even being in SE Asia. But here I find it more difficult to claim that blame can be apportioned and forgiveness possible. Individuals sometimes learn from learn from their mistakes and move on. A country such as the U.S.A. – powerful and populated mostly by sheep-like followers – has not so far been able to manage this.

In any case, The Betrayal is more a personal document (from Kuras, about filmmaking; from Phrasavath, about his family) than it is any kind of standard documentary. The film combines poetry (visual, verbal) history, ideas and narrative (more than anything else, it is the story of this family) in a manner that I have never seen. Kuras has chosen her visuals with such care and understanding that their beauty quickly pulls you in, while the narrative holds you fast. And because all this takes place – and was filmed – over a span of time, its events unfold with a veracity rare in the documentary field. Things like physical aging, character development and maturation are experienced in a very different manner here. The only slightly comparable encounter might come from looking through an enormous family album while discussing all the family members on view, as -- snapshot-wise -- the years move on. Trust me, few American families will have had a story this riveting, exotic, difficult and finally profound.

The Betrayal opens for a limited run this Friday, 11/21, in New York City at the IFC Center. A Cinema Guild release, it will, one hopes, appear soon on DVD.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pre-Movie Moment: My Experience with WICKED

I know, I know: They haven’t even made the movie yet. But I recently read in Variety that a film version is in the planning stage for Broadway’s (and San Francisco’s – although they didn’t appreciate it when they had the show in its pre-Broadway tryout) musical hit WICKED. Universal owns it and, in fact, had originally planned it as a movie when someone suggested it might work better on the musical stage. Someone was right – so far, at least. But let’s hope to god it also makes, as it most definitely should, a wonderful film.

My partner and I listened to the score again last night, after not hearing it for maybe two years. It holds up beautifully. Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, certainly one of the most under-rated living legit theatre legends (Godspell, Pippin, The Baker’s Wife, Working and Wicked) has given us one of those amazing scores full of lovely melodies and lyrics as sharp and clever as any in the past decade or two. (I suspect the score was not given its due because of the special effects with which I am told the show is filled. Lyrics can easily get lost amidst all that, and perhaps listening carefully to the CD, or reading along with the libretto -- as we did upon our first “listen” -- is the best way to appreciate all the wit, charm and humor present.)

Opening in 2003 (and clearly written after the 2000 Presidential election), the show makes much-needed fun and nasty, pointed satire of the Bush administration’s lying, double-speak, terror alerts, the cult of popularity-uber-alles (a nod to “W” himself) and much more. The musical’s book is by Winnie Holzman from a novel by Gregory Maguire. Sure, the show has immense appeal to teen-age girls, but anyone silly enough to imagine that “this is all there is” should retire his or her critical credentials immediately.

I have to confess at this point that TrustMovies has never seen the show itself; I have only listened to the score more times than I can legitimately remember. I certainly did not miss seeing the actual show for lack of trying. During the first year of its run, I appeared in person at the box-office of the Gershwin Theatre in NYC at least a half dozen (maybe a full dozen) times, trying to purchase a ticket. I had only three “musts”: its two leading ladies, Kristen Chenoweth (above, left) and Idina Menzel (above, right) must be appearing on the evening I attend, and (given my 6’ 8” frame) I needed a seat with leg room. After several attempts over many months, I finally obtained a seat in a row with ample leg room on an evening in which I was assured that both Chenowith and Menzel would appear.

On the appointed night, I arrived at the theatre, took my seat, stretched my legs, opened the program and found a notice alerting me that Ms Menzel would not be appearing. (I believe, if memory serves, this was soon after her winning the Tony Award, and she had high-tailed it off to South Africa to appear in a movie with Colin Farrell, Ask the Dust.) I let out a small, quiet curse, stood up, marched to the box-office, had my credit card reimbursed and left. I had a similar bad experience trying to get a ticket to Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love some years back and so this was the final nail in my theatrical coffin. Consequently, I have not set foot in any legitimate theatre since them, and do not plan to soon again.

I must admit that giving up legitimate theatre is also a matter of finances. For what I would pay for one single theatre ticket, even at cut-rate TDF prices, I can enjoy an entire month of Netflix or GreenCine movies. Paying full price for a Broadway ticket would give me over three full months of daily movies on DVD. Financially, for those of us with limited means, legitimate theatre no longer computes.

Still, a movie version of WICKED will certainly appear sometime in the near or far future. Variety recently reported that the show is now Universal’s single biggest money-earner in its entire history. (Yes: it outpaces even Jurassic Park's theatrical box-office take.) Clearly, this is not a property to be trifled with. I have no real advice to offer the upcoming moviemakers re casting, direction, or anything thing else. But by the time the film finally gets made both Chenoweth and Menzel will be middle aged. So can Elizabeth Banks (above, left) sing? Zooey Deschanel (above, right) does, and well, I am told. Whatever. I just want to say: Decision-makers at Universal – please – don’t screw this one up.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

DVDebut: Rossellini's ERA NOTTE A ROMA

What a pleasure it is to see ERA NOTTE A ROMA, one of Roberto Rossellini’s lesser-known works (at least here in America) out on DVD. Made in 1960, the year after his popular General della Rovere but six years prior to his landmark, documentary-like The Rise of Louis XIV, this long and sometimes melodramatic but still quite wonderful movie is a fine addition to the history of WWII Italy.

The film begins with an exchange of money for supplies between some farmers and a group of nuns. If one of the sisters puts you in mind of the Joan Collins/Seawife brand of devotion-cum-eyeliner, do not despair: There's good reason for this. From the country we're whisked to Rome, along with a band of allied soldiers on the lam from the Germans. Hiding, escaping, hiding again -- in attics, churches, even the home of Italian aristocracy -- the soldiers and their Italian partisans show us the Italy of that day, where, as the American Army approaches and the Germans begin to withdraw, there are suddenly no more Italian fascists in view.

To his credit, Rossellini makes clear the behavior of the Italians during the war, though this was certainly little different from that of Spaniards, French -- or any conquered people. Populaces tend to go with their conquerors; it's safer, in the short run, at least. The central Italian character, the black market nun, is played by Giovanna Ralli, an actress who had a big career in Italy (approaching 74, she's still working) but a lesser international one. She is as good as I have seen her in this film, and its DVD release should call some merited attention to her work. Also in the international cast is Britisher Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuk (the noted Russian actor/writer/director) and German actor Hannes Messemer -- with Italian stalwarts Paola Stoppa, Enrico Maria Salerno and Sergio Fantoni in choice roles. Renato Salvatori appears here, too, as Ralli's espoused, in the same year that he made Visconti's classic Rocco and His Brothers.

What Rosselini (and his three co-writers Amidei, Fabbri and Rondi) have achieved is not a major wartime epic but rather a small-scale but lengthy look at the ways in which a society survives war, using everything at its disposal, learning to trust some while discarding others and making the transition from living under one long-term occupier to the next (short-term). Bringing his special blend of realism/humanism to the mix, Rossellini surprises us with characters who keep growing and events, both good and bad, that help them on their way. NOTE: My review of Rossellini's other new DVD release, Dov'è la libertà , appears on the GreenCine GURU Reviews site.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A CHRISTMAS TALE: Desplechin's Move to Mainstream (French arthouse mainstream, more like)

The closest-to-conventional of any of writer/director Arnaud Desplechin's films I’ve so far seen, A CHRISTMAS TALE (Un conte de Noël) should easily please fans of this perverse-in-the-French-manner filmmaker (philosophical, quizzical, piling on family dysfunction to the point at which it becomes a kind of functionality), while bringing some new converts into the fold. His film opens in limited release (New York City and Los Angeles, today) via IFC.

My telling you upfront that this is a 2-1/2-hour-long movie will sound like a warning. It's not, for there wasn’t a second of screen-time during which my interest or attention flagged. Yes, this is another nutty family film (seen Rachel Getting Married?), but Desplechin has made certain his delicious cast understands its individual roles to perfection. Consequently, even though information is parsed carefully and fleetingly, we follow along and our understanding of most of these characters grows and finally blooms. (This is not true of the fascinating young boy, Paul, beautifully played by Emile Berling (son of Charles?). He remains a mystery — which is just fine, as this character, being so young, has plenty of time and room to grow.)

The title “A Christmas Tale” might lead you to expect some joyeux noël. Forget it. Or at least learn to live with the French intellectual version of Christmas cheer. By the film’s end, I was moved, charmed, surprised and emotionally heated up – but only to about the same level that those in the very odd family had managed to bring themselves. This is a seasonal story filled with cancer, adultery, family rivalries, economic woes and more dark, bizarre events. And yet: The people here are so wonderfully human (if often not so humane) that I wager there will not be an emotion displayed by any of them that defies your credence. Plus, Desplechin peppers his tale with enough humor (usually of the dark variety) to keep you smiling – or at least grimacing.

For art-house audiences, it’s likely to be the starry cast that entices, and the actors certainly do not disappoint. Catherine Deneuve (above, right) takes the matriarch role, runs with it and scores that touchdown while remaining as icy and she is real. As her husband of long standing, Jean-Paul Roussillon (above, left) is as warm as his mate is cold. His reading aloud from an old book provides one of the richest scenes in the film and gives a small but wonderful clue, I think, in solving the mystery of – not just this family, but the human condition.

Does any actor work more often -- or more interestingly -- these days than Mathieu Amalric (above, with Ms. Deneuve)? This year alone, he’s made five films, including the latest "Bond," in which he essays the villain role. Here, he’s in another of his darkly humorous modes and he creates a character as odd as he is indelible. As his current girlfriend, another Desplechin regular Emmanuelle Devos brings her goofy grace and innate intelligence to the “outsider” role. Chiara Mastroianni continues to grow in my estimation (I admit it’s taken me awhile to warm up to her) as the daughter-in-law who discovers a past family event that appears to change everything (or perhaps will just enrich it).

An actress new to me, Anne Consigny, brings a sad gravity and some sense of “normalcy” to the proceedings, while Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot and a very striking-yet-self-effacing Laurent Capelutto (above, with Ms Mastroianni) complete the roster of major cast members. I admit that some of the other senior audience members who sat near me at a recent screening were clearly not as enthralled as I with this “Christmas Tale.” Their loss: If you are a fan of French film in general, not to mention of Desplechin and his formidable cast, you will under no circumstance want to miss this one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

DVDebut: Craig's Foolish "Flashbacks"

For film fans looking for more of Daniel Craig, unclothed especially, the opening scene of FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL (dreadfully pretentious title!) should keep you happy, as the menage-a-trois shown is full of fire-lighted flesh and frisky lovemaking. But then it’s the morning after and the angst sets in. Released to American DVD this past week, writer/director Baillie Walsh's film is mostly one large flashback that covers the character played by Craig in late adolescence, as he discovers sex, love and dancing -- all of which leads him to become the has-been star we see at the film’s beginning. How his stardom happened, what it entailed and who this character is – these go completely unremarked upon, which makes the movie seem like a novel that’s been hacked to half-length and then given a TV-level treatment.
Interestingly enough, the flashback section proves twice as worthwhile as the opening/closing framework that features Mr. Craig. In it, the characters are more vivid and the story becomes involving. Harry Eden essays the Craig character as a young man, and he is fine -- though it's almost impossible to imagine that -- facially -- that kid ever grew into that man. Viewers will also welcome the prescence of actresses on the level of Olivia Williams, Jodhi May and Helen McCrory. Craig acquits himself as well as his very limited role permits, but anyone coming late to the career of this splendid actor, should partake of some of his earlier triumphs. Even in smaller roles (Infamous), in films not so hot (Enduring Love) or gripping but unpleasant (Love Is the Devil), as well as the lead in the grossly under-rated Layer Cake or a near-perfect movie like The Mother, in which Craig does some of his best work, this actor remains wonderfully versatile, always riveting. Let’s hope the Bond franchise does not prove reductive to what ought to be a burgeoning, long-lasting career for an actor who has already made over 50 film and TV appearances. If playing Bond forces Craig to accept roles like this one in order to remind audiences of his versatility, then he – and we – are in trouble.