Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ALIEN TRESPASS: 1950 sci-fi comes not-quite alive

There's a good idea at the base of R.W. Goodwin's new ALIEN TRESPASS. Unfortunately, it is neither all that novel nor done well enough to take flight. Making fun of old sci-fi and fantasy films has been around for very nearly as long as the original genres themselves. (In fact, many of these old films, viewed today, become their own delightful self-satires.) The last pretty-good example I recall of one of these modern-day recreations was the Canadian Top of the Food Chain (1999, also known as Invasion!) with Campbell Scott. Just last week saw the opening of the mainstream, animated Monsters vs Aliens, which itself spoofs many of these movies and offers a character that bears a striking, one-eyed resemblance to the monster in Goodwin's new film.

The 50s are fertile ground for parody because so many cheap little sci-fi films were made back then, what with the threat of nuclear war on everyone's mind. Toss in the fashions, cars and colors of the period, and you would seem to have a can't-miss combination. If only. Taking a "deadpan" approach is one thing, but when this comes off with the accent on the first syllable, your movie is in trouble. Satire, even an "homage," is a trickier task than moviemakers often realize. Everyone -- writer, director, cast and production people -- have to be on (or near) the same page, yet here, there seem to be as many different pages in play as there are people involved. Styles vary from angst-y (Dan Lauria's police chief) to over-the-top (Robert Patrick's cop) to wide-eyed innocence (Sarah Smyth's ingenue). Mostly though, everything comes off as just flat. There's little wit to the screenplay (by Steve P. Fisher from a story by Fisher and James Swift), save one funny line about the Edsel, so after awhile, this viewer's goodwill began to run out.

Lead Eric McCormack (shown at right) is saddled for most of the movie with a character whose body is inhabited by one of the aliens, and so McCormack goes into a kind of "remote" mode, which allows him to express little emotion or energy. This is generally disastrous. Only one character, the coffee shop waitress Tammy, is brought fully to life by an Australian actress named Jennie Baird (shown below). Baird is terrific: a perfect icon of the 50s with pizazz, ponytail and allure to spare. She keeps her energy level high and on-target and her final scene at the spaceship is so well done, that I swear, those of you old enough will suddenly remember the late, great B-movie actress Beverly Garland -- who herself graced some of these 50s sci-fi flicks.

Ostensibly a "lost" studio masterpiece, Alien Trespass actually begins with a faux 50s newsreel that "explains" the film's provenance. While the news footage is relatively fun/funny, it doesn't work quite as well as it might because the narrator's voice doesn't come close to the style of that old announcer whom those of us who remember this period will know and love. In any case, if you've a taste for science-fiction spoofing and/or the 50s, nothing will keep you away from Alien Trespass. Just tamp down those expectations and you'll probably enjoy it more than did I.

The spaceship -- and special-effects star -- of Alien Trespass

The movie opens this Friday, April 3. For now you can see it in NYC at the AMC Empire 25 Theaters, Chelsea Clearview Cinemas, and the Angelika Film Center. In California, look for it in Berkeley at the Shattuck Cinemas 10; in Hollywood at the Mann Chinese 6; in Monterey at the Osio Plaza 6; and in Palm Springs at the Camelot Theatre 3.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Brace Yourself: Damian Harris' jolting GARDENS OF THE NIGHT comes to DVD

The missing kids whose faces appear on milk cartons finally get a movie that does them justice: Damian Harris' difficult and encompassing GARDENS OF THE NIGHT. It could be uglier, more bloody, nasty and vile; it could paint an even bleaker picture of the life of a kidnapped child. No matter. What's here is good enough to qualify as uncomfortably real and consequently give most caring parents pause.
Is the movie exploitative? No. It keeps threatening to be, but then any film with this subject matter skirts exploitation. Instead, it presents a nearly point-by-point plan on how to proceed with a child abduction (this is scary and chastening enough), but then by forcing the viewer to see things from either the kidnappers' or the young child's perspective for nearly half the film, Gardens succeeds where others in this genre fail.

By beginning in the present, teenage world of the protagonists, then going back to the abduction, then back again into the present -- and onward -- the film comes full circle in terms of character development. Thus the sudden outburst of physical self-hatred from the teenage Donnie (a fine performance by Evan Ross, shown left, with Gillian Jacobs, in the second photo from top) seems at once shocking and truthful. There is good work from all the actors here -- especially Ryan Simpkins and Ms Jacobs (also shown in poster, top) as the young and older versions of the kidnap victim, John Malkovich (below) as a counselor, Jeremy Sisto as a high-level predator and Harold Perrineau as a low-level john. The standout (again, just as he was in Don Roos' Happy Endings) is Tom Arnold (above). What a brave actor this is. Forget all that stuff about "Ooooh, isn't it brave when a straight actor plays gay?" Essaying a child predator and doing it this well -- nuanced, human, sad, ugly, real and despicable -- is something else.

Writer/director Harris (son of Richard: he dedicates his film to R.H.) still has lots to learn about moviemaking (this film is perhaps ten times better than the dreadful Mercy he adapted back in 2000). Yet he has put together -- out of sincerity, skill, research, talent and probably some good luck (good casting, too) -- a movie that should stand the test of time. More than anything else, it speaks to the fact that, after a decade of growing up as a kidnap victim, any kind of return to "normal" life is chancy indeed. Victimization recreates victimization, even after "freedom" has occurred. In fact, this film made me understand, as have few others, what life on the street might be like. And how, for children who go there and stay awhile, the street defines their sense of normality like nothing else.

Gardens of the Night has just appeared on DVD this week, after making the festival rounds and garnering a very small NYC theatrical release last fall. Reviews were mixed. It's not an easy watch (except, I suppose, for some of our snarky, "sophisticated" younger critics), but it's a worthwhile one. Brace yourself.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The FSLC's ND/NF Series: UNMADE BEDS No sophomore slump for Alexis Dos Santos

Fernando Tielve, right, with Déborah François

Comparing Alexis Dos Santos' UNMADE BEDS, which had its New York debut last night at the FSLC's yearly New Directors/New Films series, to the writer/director's first full-length film Glue is worthwhile, I think. Both are lively and loose, yet not so loose as to lose the intelligent viewer who's willing to keep up with Señor Dos Santos' swift pacing, his quick cuts from one set of characters or events to another, and most of all, his seemingly haphazard grasp of technique -- which is actually rather knowing. His visuals, often smashingly original, match the mindset of his characters.

Cute threesome: from left, Iddo Goldberg as Mike,
Fernando Tielve as Axl and Katia Winter as Hannah.

In Glue, a teenager tries to come to terms with life, and the movie captures teen sexuality in all its raw and crazy vitality. With imagination (and an original color palette), the writer/director, his crack cinematographer (Natasha Braier) and editors (Ida Bregninge, Leonardo Brzezicki and Dos Santos himself) manage to create a new look and feel that perfectly portray the age, confusion and raging hormones of its lead characters.

Unmade Beds, with its crisp, pudgy/bold title lettering in red, white and blue, immediately nods toward a more professional appearance. Indeed, this entire movie -- in its way, as loose and lively as Glue -- is also more mature and comprehensive. The characters, an international set, are slightly older, though not yet what you'd call autonomous adults, and their concerns now include earning a living, finding their "joy" and connecting -- sexually and otherwise. (Again, as in Glue, the homo/bi-sex must take place when the characters are high. When Axl comes on to Mike a second time, in a more sober state -- he's in for one of those "Sorry, kid, but that's not me" moments.) There's also a "parenting" issue here, and Dos Santos has his young character handle it with surprising reticence and tact, which results in our being moved without feeling much manipulated. (Shown above: Déborah François as Vera)

Déborah François, left and Michiel Huisman as X-Ray Man

In his trip from Glue to Unmade Beds, it's as though the writer/director is growing up along with his characters, from film to film. (This may be something like Gabriele Muccino achieved in his early films (But Forever in My Mind, The Last Kiss, Remember Me My Love) prior to becoming Will Smith's go-to guy for high-toned schmaltz.) In any case, as a director, Dos Santos is very good with his actors: all of whom give full performances, making their impression while remaining part of the ensemble. (Among the cast, all of them very good, the standout is probably Ms François, barely recognizable here from her previous work as the bereft young mother in the Dardennes' L'Enfant or the blond wreaking vengeance in The Page Turner.) Dos Santos' writing, too, is nuanced as to character, position and age. He never gives us too much information, yet there's enough so that we can engage with each character via situation and emotion.

An already quite "international" filmmaker, Dos Santos himself appeared at the screening, galumping down the aisle toward the microphone with speed and charm when first introduced. I could not stay for the Q&A, but I would love to learn more about this up-and-coming writer/director, who told us, pre-film, that being included twice in the ND/NF film series made him feel "young." Which is fine, as this should indicate more loose-'n-lively movies in the years to come. (Shown above: Michiel Huisman)

Unmade Beds screens one more time during the New Directors/New Films series: Monday night, March 30, at 9 at MoMA.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reanimating Genre Movies: a look at the current Zombie franchise

Don't you love a good genre film? Thrillers, vampires, chases, zombies, damsels-in-distress, sci-fi, heists, werewolves, mummies and more. So many to choose from but so few that add much new or interesting to the canon. TrustMovies is taking a break from new films opening theatrically to get back into what's worth watching on DVD, so I thought this subject of what's been going on with genre movies might be fun to tackle.

I'll start with the zombies, a genre dearly in need of resuscitation. Have you found yourself wishing, as have I of late, that George A. Romero had never allowed his cast members in Diary of the Dead to pick up a video camera and start filming? I believe that this was the first zombie film to use the ploy, and though it happened only two years ago, already there have been more than enough knock-offs of this semi-interesting notion. Of the several I've seen, only American Zombie goes a ways toward reanimating the genre via its documentary-cum-video approach to a typical few weeks in the life of the undead, who are by now, according to this witty film, a sub-group of the Los Angeles scene that must campaign for its rights, just as blacks and gays have done previously. Director/co-writer Grace Lee's film is often funny and acerbic, and her game cast does her proud.

Another documentary-style British film The Zombie Diaries begins very well with a "plague" overtaking Britain that we hear about in brief snatches of TV and radio -- and then see, via the cameraman of the news crew that, by accident, ends up covering all this. Initially creepy and suspenseful, once the carnage begins (and never ends) the film's 80-odd minutes grow grizzlier and tiresome until the writers/directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates decide to conflate the zombie movie with the slasher movie. Now, there's a recipe for ultimate blood and gore. The result is just about what you'd expect but, in my book, does not qualify as a decent reanimation.

Mr. Romero will always be at or near the top rank of the great genre reanimators for his Night of the Living Dead (above, from 1968), which I believe gave us our official introduction to the flesh-eating zombie -- a creature that, so far as the undead are concerned, has yet to be improved upon. Except, of course, via higher budgets and better special effects. But even these don't seem to pack the punch managed by Romero's grainy, over- and under-lit black-and-white cinematography (by the director himself, who also did some of the editing). And really: It's difficult to find an image scarier or more transgressive than that of a sweet young child beginning to nibble on her mom.

Which is no doubt why other directors kept stealing this moment (or maybe "homaging" it) -- most recently in the Spanish zombie film REC by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza and its slightly better (surprise!) American remake, John Erick Dowdle's Quarantine, both of which find a consistently clever way to use a video camera to record some pretty awful events. Still, by the end of these less-than-90-minute movies, both have overstayed their welcome. Why? What is it about zombies that too often results in their finally becoming a bore? Well, they're dead. And they stay dead. In particular, they seem brain-dead, so they're no fun at parties (as vampires so often are). They generally groan, moan or grunt, which does not make for sparking dialog (compare anything a zombie has to say to nearly any line of dialog spoken by Dracula and his ilk). And unlike vampires and werewolves, zombies don't change form. They're just there, usually walking (slowly) or feeding. And having them appear suddenly from a closet, chest or dark room to provide a fright goes only so far in the annals of classic film moments.

Lately some directors, led I believe by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later...) and then by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) have realized that giving their zombies the capability of speed will increase the thrills. They're right, but even this goes only so far. Other directors have smartly mined the innate comedic potential of the zombie (Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, and the under-rated Fido (by Andrew Currie, starring a glorious Billy Connolly), that also manages to nicely taunt the 1950s via sets, cars, clothing and make-up). Both these films count as decent enough re-animations. Other more-or-less humorous zombie movies of late have included Netherbeast Incorporated (my review is from GreenCine's Guru site), in which the crew appears to be a kind of vampire/zombie combo; Otto: or, Up With Dead People (a so-so Bruce la Bruce conflation of gays, videos and zombies; Dance of the Dead (a pretty good attempt at resuscitation via high school humor, in which one character warns the others, "Oh, no -- now every zombie in town is going to turn up at the prom!"); and of course the Troma Team's try at reanimation: Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead -- which, if you can stomach it, includes a lot of perverse fun along with its gore.

Although he has not offered a zombie movie in quite some time, Stuart Gordon also reanimated -- and sexed-up -- the genre with his classic Re-Animator (1985), which will be celebrating its silver anniversary next year. Gordon's film was not quite a zombie movie in the traditional sense, but then nothing this writer/director does comes off as exactingly traditional. In this past decade alone, he's given us an old-fashioned and beautifully strange monster movie (Dagon); a scary, violent genre-mashing movie that goes places you won't expect (King of the Ants); an interesting though not completely successful movie version of David Mamet's Edmond; and a film based on "fact," to which Gordon added his own quirky personality to come up with a weird winner (Stuck). This under-rated director is not for every taste but he surfaces now and again with something that breaks new ground. (And, according to the IMDB, he's working on House of Re-Animator for 2010. We'll wait in hope.)

Over the past decade, only one film I recall has done something startlingly different with our zombies. And of course almost nobody in America bothered to see it. It was French, after all, and thus subtitled, smart, with a philosophical bent. And it contained nary a single flesh eater. Robin Campillo's marvelous They Came Back (Les Revenants) offers zombies who rise from their graves (as usual, in unexplained fashion) in a small French town and simply go back to their lives as before.

The problems ensue not because these dead want to chomp on the living. No: they want their jobs back, along with their husband or wife. They'd like to have, well, sex -- and all those other good things in life of which the French insist upon partaking. In fact, they want Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. But what will this do to the local economy? The city fathers are not amused. Would you give all this to a zombie -- even one that looks damn good? (Once they've dusted themselves off, they're quite well-preserved, if a bit cold to the touch.) Campillo's movie (a shot from which appears below) is not horror, it's social critique, and though it, too, runs out of steam toward the end, it remains by far the most interesting spin on the walking undead to come along in a decade.
I'm out of time here. Let's tackle vampires in a future go-round....

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

THE COUNTRY TEACHER -- and an interview with Bohdan Sláma

A frustrating but overall worthwhile experience, Bohdan Sláma's THE COUNTRY TEACHER offers a look at homosexuality in The Czech Republic today via the situation of one young man, a teacher who, after breaking up with his boyfriend, relocates from a major city to a teaching job in a small town. I'm already giving away too much; better to arrive fresh at this story and make all the discoveries yourself.

But it's hardly possible to discuss this particular film without bringing up at least some of its content.

Pavel Liška, right with his student Ladislav Sedivý

From the film's initial scene, we learn how wonderful a teacher is the lead character, known simply known as "teacher" and very well-played by the Czech go-to actor of the moment, Pavel Liška. His initial engagement with his small-town kids is believable, specific and smart (he wins over the students, just as he does us). The scenes that follow -- his introduction to the town's various citizens, a trip back in the big city to visit his parents, a reunion with an old love, and finally the likely make-or-break moment, which sets the tone for the remainder of the film -- are all splendidly handled. The latter of these involves a scene that should strike terror in the hearts of teachers -- gay or straight -- worldwide because it goes to the core of the teacher/student relationship and shows so directly and honestly, how a breach of trust can shatter this bond. It also captures, as well as anything I recall, how enormous longing and desire for a forbidden love looks and feels. The tension and resulting explosion are as inevitable as they are shocking and moving.

Liška, right, with Zuzana Bydžovská

This scene itself is likely to sever audiences down the gay/straight divide. I would ask viewers of whatever persuasion to simply force themselves to imagine their response, were these moments taking place between a male and female. What follows this scene is even more likely to divide viewers: The writer/director clearly wants to achieve some sort of benign closure, but the succeeding events happen in such large chunks that the emotional changes that should take time seem rushed. I think Mr. Sláma might have found a way to elide or smooth out these changes more fluidly. Of course, this would probably add another half-hour to the already 113-minute movie. In any case, the film is definitely worth seeing and thinking about -- for the above reasons, as well as for the look it provides at city and country life and attitudes in today's Czech Republic.

Sedivý, right, with his girlfriend, played by Tereza Vorísková

The Country Teacher will open at both New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinemas on Friday, March 27th, followed by a limited national theatrical release.

Some months ago, shortly after viewing the film, I had the opportunity to speak at length with its writer/director, Bohdan Sláma (shown below in a photo by Andrea Koch). What follows is a pretty fair transcript of our talk. I don't think it contains any major spoilers, but, as always, it might be better to see the film first and then come back to the interview....

TrustMovies: We're talking now with the writer/director of the film….

Bohdan Sláma (as he clears his throat): Bohdan Sláma

That's easy: It sounds just like it spells. Before we get into The Country Teacher, I have two questions about your earlier work: Does your first full-length movie The Wild Bees exist over here on DVD.

In the United States, I am sure not. It is only available on European type of video cassette tape.

Your next film, the very fine Stestí, which was released here via Film Movement, had its title translated into English as Something Like Happiness. Since, in Czech, the title is only one word, what does that word mean?

In Czech, it does means happiness. But we decided to give the English title Something Like Happiness because, sure, the word exists as happiness. But our word stestí has two meanings: it also means "luck." So if you are translating only the one word happiness, it will not give the full meaning of the film's title.

The country teacher and his favorite student go boating

That makes sense. So, tell me: How did The Country Teacher's story come about? Was it based upon something you had heard of, or did you just think it up?

I have a whole lot of friends that I must say are homosexual and who, I also must say, were not very lucky in finding a partner. So this is not really one story but it is a combination of stories that is very normal. You love somebody and there is no interest from the other side. This is a situation which I knew very well from my friends. I came once to the situation -- this triangle shown in the movie -- because I also knows lot of people from whom this love, this homosexuality is not accepted

This story touches me, you know, because this love, which is not reciprocated, is a painful human theme -- however it takes it shape. It is a very important point of life. This non-reciprocated love idea came for me to be a very important one -- the way in which women have this love, at times, for a man who is homosexual. When I found this triangle, then I said to myself, this is a story. That was the point at which I started to think, this could be my film.

And it is. Your earlier film Something Like Happiness takes in such an interesting and large group of characters, yet The Country Teacher is much more focused on just a few people: the triangle, the girl friend and the ex boyfriend. How was it different for you as writer-director to make the focus smaller, as opposed to the larger-canvas Something Like Happiness or The Wild Bees?

The Wild Bees has so many characters that it is a kind of a mosaic. This kind of thing is connected to my experience. When I left film school, I had no experience in terms of writing, and so I made the experience of making first Wild Bees, and then I said, I need to make a film with fewer characters, so then I made Stetsi. And then even fewer characters, as with The Country Teacher. That was the way for me, like an education. When you are more focused on fewer characters, you then have the chance to go in more deeply. So this is how I tried to work, to discover the drama and go deeper into their feelings.

We'll come back to this, if you don't mind. Let's talk about Pavel Liška, who plays the lead character in The Country Teacher. Is he perhaps the most famous Czech actor currently working? It seems he appears in almost every Czech film I see, at least (granted I don't see that many Czech films…)


Maybe. Luncacy, Something Like Happiness, Up and Down. The Country Teacher....

Liška, right, with Bydžovská atop a haystack

In his age and generation, I would say he is one of the most popular actors in our country. I would say it is very sudden, however, because he was actually more of a comic actor. Mostly, in the Czech films, he gets a little character but with a big comic point to it. I know Pavel from my first full-length film Wild Bees (2001), when we started to work together, and after that, I said to myself, Wow--he is so good that I would like to go on with him, to go to more dramatic roles. And now with The Country Teacher, it is drama, and for him, this is also a new experience. Most comics, I find, are really very good in drama.

And sometime they don't get the opportunity to play it, so it's good that you’ve given this to him. You know how it is with comedians: they all want to play Hamlet.

(laughs) I don't know. He did play Romeo, but Hamlet? I think he is over that wish.

Now he’ll play anything you ask him to play?

Well, no. He said to me, "I don't want to star in your next film because it will be too much!" We became very close, you know, and he said, "In next film you must find some other activity for me." So we will see.

How is the"state" of homosexuality in the country of Czechoslovakia -- whoops, the Czech Republic -- today? I would guess it's easier if you live in the cities, rather than in the country, as happens with your "teacher."

I think it is going really better and better because people are growing more and more tolerant. But still you can find sometimes reactions like from 100 years ago. The problems faced by homosexuals still exist, sure, and I am sure even when you ask people a question like, Are you open to a homosexual teaching your kids in the school, they will -- a lot of people -- start to think if they will want this or not. I wanted also to open this question, and to make people see: Look how great a teacher he really is! In my childhood, I met a lot of teachers who were really great and I know that they were homosexual. So, though it's still a problem, it is one that is getting better.

In Poland, only one year ago, they began discussion on the subject that homosexuals could not be teachers! So compared with Poland, we are a super liberal society.

For me, the most interesting visual moment in your film occurs on the balcony while the teacher is there visiting his parents. You really get the sense that, though he and his father are there, together, they are facing in opposite directions. And then the mother joins them. Yet the viewer still gets the sense of the utter separation between them. Was this something you aimed for, or is this simply my perception of the scene?

The country teacher (Liška, right) doing what he does best.

I think it is a very small touch. But I really had problems with that scene. I had five versions of this, and the last one was the one in which we found the right details with the actors -- the ones who played the mother and father. It was so important to express these things: that they loved each other but also they had problems with each other, what is like normal life. These are such good actors, they have such a big heart and are such good people. I think we found in this little moment, the whole history of their relationship.

Yes, and you didn't even need any dialog in that short scene. But it does capture both the sense of closeness and the separation they feel. Oh, yes, and how did you arrange for the two calf birthings?

(Laughs) Look: first, when the little one dies in the movie, it was actually just a normal birth and was OK. But we procured a calf who had died and was frozen, prepared just in the same day. But it was not OK, because we had asked for a black one, like the mother, but we got a brown one.

And this does not happened in cows? That always give birth to similar colors?

Yes, but we were lucky, in a way, because on that same day in a nearby farm a newborn calf died, and so they brought it to us, still warm, and we were able to use it. And the cow did lick the little one, as shown in the film. The woman who worked with the cows told me what to do. We collect the liquid that is coming from the cow with the birth, and they put it on the body of the newborn. In this scene, we did not expect the cow to do what she did, and we all found it so touching that we were all crying on the set. These are things that sometimes happen and you have to be thankful for them.

Happy accidents, we call them.

Bydžovská, left, comforts Liška

We were also very lucky that all this happened at the very last night of the shoot. The sun was going down and we had no more time nor budget, and so we were so happy this happened right then, in our last ten minutes of daylight. We shot the scene only once. We did not want to repeat anything because, for the cow, it was a very stressful time. I am not a religious person, but I could not help but think that something was going on....

From the god of movie-making, perhaps. What was the budget for The Country Teacher as compared to that of Something Like Happiness?

OK: Happiness was like a little bit -- maybe $2,000,000. Country Teacher was like $2,500,000.

Was it due to inflation happening in the years between?

Not only. You must understand that we also had to make a decoration set. Those two buildings -- of Maria and the farm, and of the little house of the old woman who died -- These were both sets. Otherwise we have no chance to make the long shots. It was expensive, sure, but because this was a co-production between Czech Republic, Germany and France, consequently, we had to spend money in Germany, and so our equipment was from Germany, too. If the German government gives us money to support our film, we must spend part of that money in Germany. Everything is also much more expensive in Germany, than in the Czech Republic. While we could make the movie cheaper at home, we would not even be able to finance it there, without the German money.

Does this pretty much guarantee that the film will have a release in Germany, maybe in France.

It is not guaranteed, but probably it will. The most important thing is, if you have a German producer and French producer, they will make it happen. But it is never 100 percent.

What's next for you? You mentioned that the actor Pavel Liška said no more heavy drama. Do you have another film idea yet?

Yes, I have an idea, a dream, of a historical film about the death of St. Vojětch (or St. Adalbert, as he is also known). So I am studying to make this now. Not to make a big movie spectacle, but one based in nature, and about the religion problems. About the character of Adelbert, who was on a mission to convert the pagans to Christianity and so came to Europe to bring Christianity. He tried but they killed him. From my view, it is about part of history and our culture. So I want to make something like this.

When might the St. Adalbert film be finished?

(He considers) Maybe in three years, maybe four.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emmanuel Mouret's SHALL WE KISS? TrustMovies says yes -- absolutely!

SHALL WE KISS? (Un baiser s'il vous plaît), the star-bright French comedy from writer/director Emmanuel Mouret, made its American debut over a year ago at the FSLC's 2008 Rendezvous with French Cinema. I raved about it then in a review for GreenCine; seeing it again a year later, I find it not only holds up, it seems even richer, though a bit darker and more melancholy than I recall, while remaining exactly the kind of sparkling, funny, romantic comedy that only the French seem able to conjur. Go figure. Rather, go see.

Julie Gayet, left, with Michaël Cohen

Since viewing Shall We Kiss? a second time, I've been wracking my brain to recall another film that accomplishes something quite like that of M. Mouret's: offering up a morality tale that promises so much in the way of sex, sin, pleasure and infidelity but leaves us feeling as upright and moral as a New England puritan -- yet utterly satisfied in a manner we could never have predicted. There's Eric Rohmer, of course, whom this movie will bring to mind. But Mouret has managed something different, I think, by serving up his concerns in a mainstream/everyday manner, less cerebral and more hands-on (as the poster art, shown top, so vividly demonstrates).

Virginie Ledoyen, left, Emmanuel Mouret, center, and Frédérique Bel

In the film, a chance meeting leads to a possible kiss, and from there to a Scheherezade-type tale involving a quartet of characters plus the two who have just met. A simple kiss? That's the big concern? Yes, but you have no idea of the ramifications here. By film's end, Mouret will have you on emotional tenterhooks, not even certain which way you will want the situation to resolve. For an audience of relatively sophisticated viewers, I can't imagine a more satisfying romantic comedy than this. It forces you -- gently, sweetly, with humor and charm -- to consider possibilities that we humans often prefer to ignore.

Bel, left, with Mouret

The cast is made up of a group of attractive and gifted performers who handle the ins-and-outs of Mouret's writing and direction with style and grace: Virginie Ledoyen, Stefano Accorsi, Julie Gayet (I'm in love all over again: what an elegant and assured actress is Mme. Gayet. And her neck!) Frédérique Bel, Michaël Cohen and Mouret himself. They're all terrific -- and so specific in the details of their characters and intentions.

Writer/director Emmanuel Mouret, center

Two years ago at the FSLC's French Rendez-vous, a movie called Tell No One made its NYC debut. A relatively new (but quite smart) distribution company, Music Box Films, snapped it up for the American market -- and the rest is history. Music Box has done it again this year with Mouret's movie. I'll be very surprised should history not repeat itself.

Shall We Kiss?
opens Friday, March 27, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the Angelika Film Center and Beekman Cinema; and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills. On April 4 its Southern California run will expand to the Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica; the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena; and the Town Center in Encino; in the NYC area on April 10, it will expand to one of the most delightful theatre venues anywhere around New York City -- the Kew Gardens Cinemas, in Kew Gardens, Queens. Other cities nationwide will follow. Get ready for the word-of-mouth to start spreading.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Kaufman and Hart's AMERICAN SWING -- and an interview with the filmmakers

A funny, naughty, sleazy, sad time-capsule of a movie, AMERICAN SWING whisks us back to more than 30 years to an era when some American citizens were experimenting with what was euphemistically referred to as "alternative life styles" -- or, as the most prominent of these came to be known: swinging. I worked for a college level textbook publisher at the time and can vouch for the fact that we published a reader titled Intimate Life Styles which was used in sociology courses across the country and covered, among other things, just the sort of goings-on pictured in this film. Goodness: studying "swinging" in college courses? Little wonder, around the time this "exploratory" decade ended, the pendulum swung (no double-entendre intended) rightward again toward the fundamentalism of one man and one woman procreating in the missionary position.

Filmmakers Kaufman & Hart (that's Mathew and Jon, rather than playwrights George S. and Moss), center their documentary around a single venue that, more than any other, came to represent the swinging 70s -- Plato's Retreat -- and the man who would be "king of swing," Larry Levenson. What differentiated Plato's from what had come before (and after) was its very public nature. It made the cover of New York Magazine in its day and was a topic of conversation for nearly a decade. American Swing lets us see Larry (below left) prior to Plato's and what happened to him and his "queen" Mary (below, right; his earlier wife was soon a thing of the past) during and after the club's primetime, as the public-swinging wave crested and then crashed.

That sex remains a hot topic on which to hang a documentary will shock no one. The surprise here is how well the filmmakers integrate it into their story (which is mostly made up of interviews and archival footage), while offering a wonderfully rounded view of the time, place and people involved. Because Kaufman and Hart worked tirelessly to find actual participants from Plato's heyday and then managed to get them to open up with charm, spirit and -- yes -- dignity, for all the celebrity interviews involved (Helen Gurley Brown to Al Goldstein, Buck Henry to Ed Koch, Melvin Van Peebles to Annie Sprinkle), it's the just-plain-folk who steal the show. They reminisce about everything from the sex to the food served at Plato's buffet, and their reviews range from really tasty to dreadful (for the food, that is; the sex, with a couple of odd exceptions, seems to have been pretty pleasurable).

One very interesting looking woman (I believe her name is Nina: only first names are used for the non-celebs) whom we see in her younger years at the club and now, as she approaches senior citizen status, talks about Plato's with genuine fondness: How it welcomed, for a time, all who arrived, no matter how they looked, so long as they were willing to abide by the rules. The club gave Nina something special: friends and a sense of her own worth and beauty (to be fair, it also gave some members crabs and VD). The sadness at the core of this fine film comes from the sense it conveys of yet another failed attempt at reaching Utopia, this time via sex. The club itself fails, too, along with Larry and Mary and a number of their employees. Why and how I'll leave you to discover via the fascinating details provided in American Swing, which opens Friday, March 27, in New York City at the Quad Cinemas, and the following Friday, April 3, in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. We'll have news of its DVD release when that occurs. (It has, my friends; click on the link in the sentence just previous to find it at Netflix, or check with your local video store.)

Filmmakers Jon Hart, left, and Mathew Kaufman

Last week five of us journalists -- Brad Balfour, HuffingtonPost.com; Nobu Hosoki, Hosokinema.com; Robert Levin, amNew York; Diva Velez, MonkeyPeaches.com; and yours truly -- spent a late morning with filmmakers Kaufman and Hart in the NYC conference room of Magnolia Pictures, American Swing's distributor and one of our most energetic and seemingly everywhere-at-once channels for independent film.

Below are excerpts from the give-and-take. Check out the other attendees' web site and/or media for a further, and perhaps more precise, view....

Trust Movies: Your movie begins with a lot of humor, which then morphs into naughtiness, which changes to sleaze and finally into a kind of deep sadness accompanied by the sense that yet another search for utopia -- this time a sexual utopia -- has gone wrong. My questions to you guys: Did you plan for this? Did you even realize all this was there? Or do you even see the movie in the same way that I am describing it?

Mathew Kaufman: Definitely. We knew the humor was there. People went to Plato's Retreat to laugh and dance and have fun, and the fun was there. They were also vulnerable -- because, well, they were naked. So there's humor there that is very apparent. There were sexual relations going on there, too, so that had to be portrayed. That era is now over -- but it was there.

Jon Hart: That interview where Larry Levenson says, "I was the king. I thought I was the king. But it was just me." That era is over, but it had to be reported, and yes, it's sad. The laughter was there, and it's intentionally in our movie, but so is the sadness, and that has to be there as well.

TM: How old are you guys?

Mathew Kaufman: We’re both 39

Hart: We lived all this through as kids via Public Access television -- like Midnight Blue -- when our parents were asleep.

Kaufman: There's a lot of titillation in our movie, but it also had to be there. Because it's so much a part of that whole story, of the time and place and people. At the beginning there all this innocence and that fun, club-like atmosphere. And then, after it ended, after the "up"….

Hart: I knew Larry for a number of years, and I was always trying to understand him. And believe him. When he first told me the story, it was hard to believe him, and I wanted corroboration. But I genuinely liked Larry, and this made me ever more curious, wanting to put the pieces together. Larry lived in the moment. He did want people to be his friends. At some point, yes, it was innocent at the beginning, it was a great, alternative lifestyle and it was fun, but then you get corrupted by commerce--

TM: Or the Mafia.

Hart: Exactly. The wise guys come in. Years go by. The club was open at the Ansonia for eight years. It becomes a grind. Time passes. When Mary and Larry break up, that's the end of the innocence.

TM: Is Larry's first wife still living?

Hart: Yes. She's in the movie

T.M: Right, but you sort of lose her along the way

Kaufman: She lives in Florida now, and she talked to Larry right until the end.

Hart: When Plato's moved from the Ansonia to 34th St, they had an idea that this was the beginning of something great. It becomes almost humorous. They thought this same kind of club could take off in every city around the country. So it becomes too much about commerce and less about having fun. On 34th St, it becomes. basically, a tourist trap. I’m not sure what the analogy would be: Maybe -- you have this small but popular restaurant that suddenly wants to becomes a chain…

A question is raised about the interviews with the different characters
in the film --
how they happened and how they took shape.

Kaufman: Jon had some original contacts, of course, and when those ran out, we put ads in the paper all up and down the east coast and in California, where we thought that transplanted New Yorkers of a certain age might reside. And we really did get a lot of response - - people calling from all over. We followed it all up -- "You call this guy, I'll call that guy" -- trying to weed it out and find the people who were real. It was frustrating, because you sometimes would follow these people for a good long time, and then suddenly, "Oh, my husband will not let me a part of this." Or, "Oh-- I couldn't let you put me on film." And that, after we'd spent hours and hours on this with this person! Ultimately, we did get a lot of people. And we wanted to make this an honest film where people really appeared in it, rather than having their faces obscured.

Regarding the archival interviews,
the filmmakers had to do a lot of research....

Kaufman: We were really lucky that Bill Lustig owned the whole Midnight Blue collection. We had to go through boxes and boxes and boxes of all the old tapes from this collection, in every imaginable configuration. It took weeks and weeks to go through everything -- any scrap we could get, from anywhere. All the tapes had to be pulled and cleaned and transferred and --- it was a technological nightmare because there were so many formats: ¾, ½ - inch, even some were on the old Beta format.

T.M: How long in total have you worked on this film?

Kaufman: Since late 2003.

Hart: I met Larry in 1994. When I first wanted to do this project, I met with much resistance from his family. Then Larry told me about Howard Smith, who had written about him in The Village Voice. So I basically hung around Howard, who had carried the baton before me…. I think time helped a lot. Larry and some of the family members still had some open wounds, and it took time for these to heal. Now, the family definitely appreciates Larry much more. What I've heard from them is that they feel very protective of Larry. When they see him on the screen they want to reach out and protect him.

Kaufman: Rather than portraying him as some sort of sexual deviant, you can see that in someway he was just a regular guy. When you see the film, you can make your own choice about the man. Some people walk away from the film liking Larry, and some don't.

T.M: I think you can like him -- and still feel that he was full of shit.

Kaufman: Of course!

Hart: Hard as this might be to believe, I think that Larry genuinely believed in what he was saying.

A question is raised about what the people who frequented
Plato's Retreat might have had in common.

Hart: Basically, I think it was about connection -- wanting to make a connection.

Another question comes up about the questionable "non-profit" status
of Plato's Retreat. The filmmakers posit that the government
might have wanted to make an example -- tax-wise -- of this venue.

Hart: When I first heard that it was supposedly non-profit, it boggled my mind.

T.M. Ours, too!

Hart: In some ways, Larry really was an innocent. I think he actually believed in the club's non-profit status because that's what he had been told.

T.M. Well, denial is a very powerful human characteristic.

Kaufman: He must have known!

Hart: Re the whole IRS thing, Larry was willing to be the martyr. He knew, but he did not know. At the trial, he was the only one who... He was really just living in the moment!

Final question: If you'd been around during the heyday
of Plato's Retreat,
would you have gone there yourselves?

Kaufman: I definitely would have gone there. I don't know what exactly I might have done there, but I would have wanted to go take a look at it.

Hart: I am not really a club person at heart. I'm more of a dive-bar kind of guy. Or maybe something G-rated.