Friday, July 31, 2009

THE COVE: destined for classic documentary status; filmmakers' Q&A

Once in a great while, a documentary comes along that does it all: informs, activates and entertains. Many docu-
mentaries manage this to some extent, but few -- if any -- have done it as skillfully, with as much full-
throttle excitement, as THE COVE. This is activism of a very high order: a film that pulls you in via its shocking subject and events, fascinating characters and super-smart

handling of both style and content. Expect to emerge from the experi-
ence shaken and angry.

Over the years many documentaries that set out to explore -- and help right -- wrongdoing have been able to manage this to a certain degree (Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line comes most quickly to mind). Usually, the filmmaker lays out a scenario that explains the problem (with talking heads, some of which may try to de-explain it by and giving us the "other side") and then goes about attempting to "get the goods" on the bad guys, often with only partial success. The Cove gets these goods in spades, and its "money shot" is as sensational as it is ghastly.

You've probably heard that the film's subject is the small, beautiful but deadly cove (shown below) in Taiji, Japan, where, over the years, tens of thousands of dolphins have been slaughtered with stunning, bloody regularity. Why? Several reasons: the capture and sale of dolphins to amusement parks world-wide, together with Japan's tendency toward over-fishing and the "competition" that dolphins give its fishing industry. The Japanese government is clearly culpable here but every Japanese official interviewed on record waves away any responsibility (and any knowledge of same is kept secret from the Japanese citizenry).

For years now, marine mammal specialist and former "Flipper" trainer Richard O'Barry has been on a mission to stop this slaughter, and the movie tells his story. It also shows how the film's director Louie Psihoyos (seen above with his striking, silver-gray hair; anyone remember Jeff Chandler?) and his crew became involved and how, together, they accomplish what no one has so far been able to manage: recording the ugly slaughter.

The film has plenty of thriller elements, provided by producer Fisher Stevens, shown right, after he came aboard the project. It was Stevens' idea to merge the film itself with the "making-of" movie that the director was shooting simultaneously, thus providing a very different film -- one that tracks events as they happen and nets a number of jolts, thrills and surprises. (You can find out more about how the movie came into being in the Q&A round-table interviews, transcribed below -- with Stevens and Psihoyos, and then with O'Barry -- held shortly before the film's opening.)

The commercial release of The Cove, it is believed, will be the beginning of the end of this slaughter. We can only hope, along with the filmmakers, whose achievement -- it's a splendid, horrifying one -- opens today, distributed by Roadside Attractions, on screens in New York and Los Angeles, with another 70 theaters across the country to be added in the coming weeks. You can find release dates, with cities and venues here.

(All photos below are courtesy of The Cove.)

TrustMovies and a half dozen other film bloggers met with three major players in The Cove's filmmaking team -- director Louie Psihoyos (pronounced to rhyme with "sequoias") and producer Fisher Stevens, and then with the man who first took the action that set the ball rolling, marine mammal specialist Richard O'Barry -- in a conference suite at New York City's classy Loew's Regency Hotel. It was Mr. Stevens who took the first question regarding how he'd become attached to this movie.... (Note: Blogger's questions appear in boldface; filmmakers' answers in normal type.)

Fisher Stevens : I got involved about a year and a half ago -- through Jim Clark, founder of Netscape who started Silicon Graphics and Web MD among other things. He was a good friend of mine and of Louie's. We’ve all been diving on Jim's boat a number of times. When I first met Louie, I asked what he was doing, and he said, 'I’m involved in a making a documentary,' so on a later trip on Jim's boat, we screened the doc I had recently made, Crazy Love. And then six months later, Jim said, 'Look, I'd really like you to come aboard and help out on this epic journey that Louie is involved in.' I looked at some of the footage Louie had shot and was blown away: There was an amazing film here.

Our idea was to make this, not just a documentary, but also an action thriller. The ramifications of what The Cove stands for was much bigger than just the cove itself. So I brought on Geof Richmond who edited Sicko and Murderball, and Mark Monroe, with whom I had made another doc, Once in a Lifetime. Then we sat with Louie in Boulder, Colorado, and came up with what you’ve now seen.

A question to Louis: Where did you get this.. what seems like almost a lifetime calling?

Louie Psihoyos: I've been working in media, as a photographer for National Geographic for 18 years and as a photographer for Fortune for about five, where I met Jim Clark. Though I was a success-
ful still photographer, I feel like I’ve been walking in the wilderness until now. Filmmaiking is such a much more powerful experience. I wish I had started this 20 to 30 years ago! Like, for instance, I had never seen a businessman cry, certainly never working for National Geographic but I have seen every audience for this film react like that now. Crying and screaming and cheering and asking 'How and where do we go to help?' When Jim gave me the money to make this film, he said, “Just make a difference.” That's his philosophy He wants to change the way we think and live and work.

Ric O' Barry was supposed to be a keynote speaker at a conference I attended, then all of a sudden they pulled him off the ticket. The sponsor did this; it was Sea World. So I called up Ric and he told me about the dolphin slaughter in Taiji. I couldn’t believe it. So I took a three-day crash course on film-making, hiring a producer who showed me how to use the camera, and so on. Like everybody else, I watch films and see how they are structured. But I needed to learn the basics.

How many hours did you shoot?

About six hundred. With a feature picture, it's usually 50 or 60 to one hour that you end up using, but with cinema verité you shoot 200 to one.

How did this whole kind of sleuth undercover dimension to the film enter into it?

We were shooting two movies at the same time: the movie and the “making of” -- both at once. Fisher came along and had the idea of putting both movies together into one.

Fisher Stevens: I had never seen anything like this before. When I saw it, I thought, These guys are amazing. And because Louie was already a photographer, the look of the film was incredible. But I had to convince him to be in the movie. He didn’t want to. Originally none of the team were in the movie: Not Louis or Mandy or Kirk. Then we brought Mark Munroe in to kind of help plot things out. We were screwing around about getting a narrator, maybe like Bill Murray -- you know: do a kind of Steve Zissou - -but then we thought, why not make Louie the narrator. It’s perfect. It made such sense.

Louie Psihoyos: I didn’t want to be like a Michael Moore and call attention to myself. I come from a journalistic background. I wanted to keep myself out of it -- not being an actor.

Fisher Stevens: It's the "mercury" element of the story that was kind of key. And Louie said, "No matter what, we have to tell the mercury story. But there was like an hour’s worth of mercury -- big chunks of it -- and mercury is not the most dramatic thing. So we had to find how to incorporate it -- which was difficult but it became one of the most powerful parts. When it is revealed that they are considering feeding this fish full of mercury to schoolkids, and then when they manage to stop this.... It took a lot of finessing to get all that in.

Mercury?! Did Jeremy Piven ask for a private screening?

Fisher: He did. He actually did.

Louie: And I took over Jermey Piven’s apartment here in NYC, too! Weird coincidence.

Fisher: Piv is an old friend of mine, and when I went to see the show Speed the Plow, he said to me, "Oh, man, I‘ve got mercury poisoning. And I feel like crap."

I told him, 'I am doing this movie The Cove' (we were just cutting it then). He said, 'I’ve got to see it!' I did advise him not to leave the play, by the way. But he was really sick. I've had mercury poisoning myself, and so has Louie. I do know for a fact that Jeremy has very high counts of mercury.

How do you get this mercury poisoning – just from eating fish?

Louie: Eating fish that are high on the food chain. Mercury in the most toxic, non-radioactive element in the world. You do not want this in your system. It is very difficult to get rid of it. Eat lower-on-the-food-chain fish; these have as much Omega 3 but not nearly as much mercury.

Fisher: I was eating tons of sushi and tuna and was not feeling well at all. I had quit eating meat and was eating almost only fish. I went to a nutritionist and took these standard tests -- hair and blood -- and two weeks later out of the blue the NY Board of Health called me and told me that I had extremely high counts of mercury, and to not have a child for at least six months. So I immediately cut out all high-on-the-food-chain fish. They asked if I was eating sushi. Yes: three time day, and tons of canned tuna, too.

Louie: I went to Minamata, Japan, where the first big outbreak of mercury poison was in 1956. All the doctors there are very versed in all this. So I went there to interview them and met with them and took them all out to dinner. I had ordered, in advance of the dinner, sushi. Of course: what else? And none of the doctors would eat it. I asked, What’s with this. Japanese eat more fish than anybody: 66 kilos per person ever year, they eat their weight in fish. So the head doctor there told me, We did this experiment, where we ate tuna everyday, 200 grams, which is less than half a can, and the cheapest cut we could find. By the end of two weeks, our mercury levels had doubled. Once doctor dropped out of the study immediately. The other five pushed on, but they said, 'Let's get sushi-grade fish from now on.' So they did, and their levels went up eight times! The doctor then asked me, Do you eat a lot of fish? Sure, I said. That’s all I eat now. You better get tested, he told me. So I did, and my doctor told me I had 24 parts per million -- the highest level of mercury of anybody he had ever seen in Colorado.

Has it diminished now?

It has a half life in your body of 70-90 days. Through the chelation process I got it down. You can also get your blood filtered. But the easiest way is to lay off the large fish. In three months, my mercury went down to 12 parts per million, then three months later it was down to six, and now it's down to 3.

What about Salmon?

Louis: Salmon is about 1/20th.

Is this because salmon is in cleaner rivers than the ocean?

In every state there are Mercury advisories now. For a lot of different reasons. There is a lot of big turnover in lakes, and also now from all the heat. It is hotter now, so there is more microbiotic action. When the mercury comes down from the atmosphere, it goes into microbes, and it is thought that, because it is hotter now, the anaerobic bacteria eats it and digests it.

Even the doctor we interviewed -- Dr. Akino, to whom we showed the levels of mercury in the dolphin meat -- would not allow us to film him. He told us that the dolphins have higher levels of mercury than even did the fish in Minimata -- that started this whole thing. He said it’s a clear danger! But he gets his money from the government. It is very difficult to describe how much pressure there is from their government on doctors and on the Japanese media.

But the average person on the street in Japan does not know this is happening. But Sea World sure does!

We tried to get Sea World to talk to us. But they wouldn’t.

Does the Japanese government have any idea the effect this film will have on them? They will look like the worst country is the civilized world.

Well, let me give you this example: Fisher and I did a pubic service announcement in Japanese that we then put on DVD. Last year I was taking a plane ride down to this important conference in Santiago, Chile. To get the members to take a look at it. We knew the movie was coming out but that might not be for another year, so meanwhile, we wanted to alert them that tens of thousands of dolphins are dying needlessly and people are getting hurt due to these toxic levels of mercury. So I brought this DVD down to Santiago on the plane. I had a whole bunch of copies. I got on the plane for this a ten-hour ride from Dallas to Santiago. I was late and there were only a couple of seats left, so I sit down in one of the only empty seats and a minute later another guy sits down next to me. He turns out to be the boss, the actual boss, of the two Japanese guys we interviewed in our film. And here he is! He's a funny guy, with a good sense of humor, and I talk to him about this whole thing, explain about the film. I show him the promo of the movie. I told him the whole thing. He listened, he saw it all. I told him there’s this movie coming out that will make you and your employees and your entire country look horrible. And now he’s had a year, a year and a half, to do something about this. To do the right thing. And he did nothing. Nothing at all.

Fisher: It’s about these very few fisherman that are doing it, and the government knows it and is turning a blind eye.

Has anything new and positive happened since you made the film? I mean, from the point in the end credits where we are brought up-to-date? Has anything good happened since then?

Louie: No . Only that this movie is finally coming out. And there seems to be this tsumani of overwhelming positive pressure: People from Lithuania, Russian, from all over the world are signing petitions, writing in, trying to do something about this.

Fisher: We have sold the film in about 20 countries: France, Germany, all of them with good distributors. And a very nice and wealthy individual named Bobby Sager is paying for a Japanese dubbed version -- and we are going to find a way to get this out in Japan, if it's the last thing we do. Getting it out across the world will put pressure on Japan's government to stop this. We feel confident that something will change.

We open in 70 screens over the next few weeks . Four screens on July 31, then 25-30 more the next week , and then the following week 25-30 more. Hopefully more. So, if you guys keep writing about it and keep pumping it, that’s the key for us.

Have you gotten any word, reaction, backlash, from the Japanese yet?

The director of the Tokyo film fest saw it two weeks ago. He said -- given the theme of this year’s festival: the environments -- that it would be hypocritical of them not to show this film. But that we had to understand that it is the Japanese government who pays for the festival….

Given the subject of the film and that it is Japanese-negative, I would think that both China and Korea would be certain to show the film.

I think we’ve sold it in Korea, but in China, where everything is pirated…..

Are you going to eventually do what was done with Earth – put it on line for free for a period of time.

Fisher: We would like to make a little bit of money with this first.

Louie: Personally, I think when you give something away, that is what its perceived worth becomes.

Fisher: We want this to be sold as a film, as a thriller, rather than a preachy movie. You’ll be entertained, excited and enlightened. We want it in a theater, so that people will know they are going to see a movie!

This may be no joy to you at the moment, but I think The Cove will wind up being a classic film that people will watch, regarding the documentary form.

From your lips to god’s ear. But my whole goal in making movie is to entertain. entertain. We must have watched about 200 docs, but we still want to entertain.

Louie: My whole goal in making the movie is to change the world.

That’s the true nature of subversion: have people come to a conclusion with out knowing they were pushed. And then they behave differently as a result of this.

Fisher: Anyway-- all of you: thank you for everything!

After the Stevens/Psihoyos Q&A,
Richard O'Barry arrives and the questions begin anew....

You had been dealing with the problem of the cove in Taiji for a long time before the movie was made, right? Louie and Fisher just explained how they came into the picture....

Richard O'Barry: Yes, and when Louie showed up, I thought, 'Well, this will be helpful.' At first I thought, 'Maybe this will show up on TV at 3 am in the morning and a few people will see it.' And that’s where Fisher Stevens comes in. He said, 'Make this entertaining.' And he's the reason it is entertaining. When Louie called and said, 'Can I follow you around with my camera?' I said, 'Sure.' But at some point Jim Clark brought in Fisher, and there wasn't a real movie there until Fisher came aboard .

Who did all the cameras-in-the-rocks thing and the fake rocks being made?

Louis had all that done. But the bottom line is to make the film entertaining. Unlike a TV show, people have to stand in line, park their car, pay money. That means entertainment. Louis surrounded himself with very talented people.

Will any of you ever be allowed back in to this town again? Into Japan?

It is not the entire town of Taiji that is doing this. It's just a few individuals. I like the town, country -- Japan and the Japanese people. That is why I am opposed to a boycott of Japan. That is a form of racism and an indictment of the whole Japanese. Even the people of Taiji are not guilty. There are only 13 boats and only two men in each boat. Just 26 guys.

But they’re all millionaires.

No, just upper middle-class. They make a very good living.

One thing that’s troubled me: You mentioned that the underpinning of this slaughter is the selling of dolphins for profit. Why do they have to slaughter all the rest if they already have caught the dolphins to sell? The rest can’t all be for mercury-tainted food to give to Japanese school-children?

One day my wife and I were in Taiji, and the police took us in to the city fathers for a meeting: the first time they had ever sat down with westerners. We offered to subsidize them. I had a video camera but they said I could not use. I wish now I had just turned on the sound because I would have had this recorded: When we offered to subsidize them, we told them this: If you stop the killing for one year, we will pay whatever those 13 boats earn. They told us it’s not about money its about pest control. In other words, over-fishing is the real problem. So the government is telling them to do this.

I have asked those fishermen, and they say they don't want to do this. In fact most of the younger guys have already quit. The older guys now take over. I asked them, what would happen if you did not get the permit to kill the dolphins each year? They told me that, in those same months, September through March, then they would simply fish for lobster or crab. So not killing the dolphins would not be putting them out of business. The dolphins are being targeted. Because the fisherman want to kill their competition! Dolphins eat too much fish -- between 30 and 50 pounds of fish per day. Times 23,000 dolphins. So, kill this competition. But they don’t advertise this, they don't tell you this. Instead they come up with, 'Oh, you're a cultural imperialist. This is our culture, our tradition.' Which is not true, by the way. Overfishing is the real problem.

Did I miss this explanation in the movie?

It’s there, but it’s pretty subtle. They probably should have made it more important. But they had a real struggle – to get this whole story from 300 hours down to 90 minutes.

Were you aware of yourself as a character in the film? (Ed: That's Ric -- in disguise -- below, which is the way he has to look in order to get in and out of Taiji these days. He is also shown, out of disguise, third from right, in the third photo up from here....)

No. Not until I saw a cut of the movie here in NYC two years ago. I thought for example the other people -- Mandy or Kirk --for instance are much more interesting. I mean, this woman can free-dive 300 feet on one breath of air!

Is the next step then, to sensitize people to imagine what the dolphins' lives are like, that they want peace and quiet instead of being made to perform in these noisy Sea World kind of places? It’s no wonder then that they would rather kill themselves.

I think this film will do that. That’s why it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. I think people will now think twice before they buy a ticket to watch dolphins perform. I mean, this is a billion dollar industry. Two billion dollars alone in the USA -- profit. It’s based on supply and demand, just like any other product. If consumers can be educated, they will stop buying tickets. I’ve been saying this for 30 years. But there’s no way for them to get that education. Because Sea World – Anheuser-Busch – is the largest advertiser in the world. When you turn on the TV and are watching the SuperBowl or the World Series or even a small volleyball game in Miami Beach, you’re seeing that Budweiser flag above the American flag – it’s everywhere. And so you can’t get this info out to the public. Just a few days ago.... Well, I live in the Miami Beach area, and the film was playing just two blocks from my house. So I called the community newspapers, all of them, to get this info out to the public. They’re all owned by the same publisher with the same editor. They wont touch this story because they don't want to offend their client, the Miami Sea Aquarium. That's the proboem. It has always been the problem. But now it’s different. This film is going to be mainstream. People are going to see it. And then they will think twice before they buy a ticket.

How did you establish yourself as a dolphin trainer?

It goes back a ways to 1955, on Christmas Day. That was the day the Miami Sea Aquarium first opened. I went there, and I looked into the tank through the window..... An amazing sight! These dolphins, sawfish, giant groupers, sea turtles, all flying around. This kid was walking around, like underwater in slow motion, handing fish to all these creatures. It was so surreal. I said, 'When I get out of the navy, I want this guy's job.' And five years later, when I got out, I did have that job. But my job was not in that tank but on the capture boat, and I was capturing dolphins. That's how it started for me.

When you are capturing, and then working with dolphins, did you get the idea that they are smart?


So when did you begin to question your right to manipulate them?

Well, first off, I was in the military for years, and when you’re in the military you are trained not question but instead to do what you're told. Just do your job. So that was my mind set. You don’t question authority. It took awhile after I was living with them before I realized that there was something wrong with this. Even then, I didn't do anything about it. After all, I was buying a new Porsche every year. I was the highest paid dolphin trainer in the world. It’s real easy to put your blinders on. That was what we call it in that industry: Putting your blinders on.

Didn't anybody ever raise the questions to you: 'Do you think this is right?'

Yes, but not the people you’re working with. And the reason is that it's an optical illusion. People don't have the right information to understand. When you go to these parks, it’s a beautiful day, the family is with you, the music is playing, the sun is out, and the dolphins even seem to be smiling back at you. Unless we were hitting these dolphins with baseball bats, the onlookers wouldn't be able to understand the abuse!

The dolphins have no power when they’re in captivity. They are controlled by hunger, and so are controlled by their food. Depending on their size, they must eat between 15- 30 pounds of food each day. So unless they do things -- their stunts -- correctly, their food is withheld from them. The trainers call this "operative conditioning" or "positive reward." But from the dolphin's perspective, it's food deprivation, because if they don't cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, they don't get their food. Oh, they'll get food at the end of the day. But still, you're manipulating and controlling them.

The rest of the animals in the zoo don't perform. But dolphins do. They are the only animals who must do this. So captivity for them is more stressful than for any of the other animals. Their brain is one third larger than the human brain. A coldblooded snake in a zoo with a smaller brain is given more of a normal environment than are the dolphins.

The dolphins' environment is just water, the tank, and nothing else. Just a barren wall. If you did that to snakes, people would complain. How come people aren't complaining about the dolphins' environment? Because people are conditioned to think that they belong there!!

Do dolphins show anger?

Yes, they do. They will do what we call jaw-popping: They pop their jaw. That is one reason the Flipper show ended. Because the dolphins were getting angry at the people, at their getting in the water with them, and they were beginning to hurt them. There have been a lot of people hurt: concussions, broken ribs. Both trainers and tourists. These lawsuits are covered up, settled out of court. Dolphins will hit you with their tails, they’ll ram you and bite you.

Are dolphins smarter than human beings? Then why are human beings predominant?

Well, some people would tell you that they are, and others that they are not. I’ve come to believe that they are not more intelligent or less intelligent but they are just different. Human beings can't do any of the things a butterfly can do, or a caterpillar. So from their perspective, we are not very intelligent at all. I’ve struggled with this concept for years now, and have decided that "intelligence" is a man-made concept that doesn’t relate. We can’t do any of the things that dolphins can do. Our species has only been here for a very short time now. If you look at time as though it were the distance of a football field, the dolphins have been here the whole length of that field but we have not.

I notice on the IMDB that you have another movie in the works.

My son is developing Behind the Dolphins’ Smile.

Is this narrative film?

No, it’s autobiographical. My story has been optioned several times, but nothing has ever come of it. At Sundance, I must have been approached by a dozen or more filmmakers who wanted to do my story. But I leave my son in charge of that. I would rather stay focused on this: what I am doing right now.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On-Demand debuts: KREUTZER SONATA, LIFE IN FLIGHT; encore for Chaos, Answer

Keeping up with On-Demand debuts is a tricky task: Which films to try? Which to pass by? It's a crap shoot, even for someone like me, who watches a lot of movies. Thanks to IFC's various On-
Demand programs, including its Festi-
val Direct (small films of differing merit that made a splash at a fest or two but wouldn't otherwise find re-
lease), the pickings are getting better.

Two very different "love" stories have recently appeared On-Demand: THE KREUTZER SONATA and LIFE IN FLIGHT. The first, directed and co-written (with Lisa Enos -- from a Tolstoi novel) by Bernard Rose, tracks the journey of a jealous husband; the latter, the first film from newcomer/former designer Tracey Hecht, follows a young husband/father as his life takes a new direction. Neither sets the film world aflame but both have a number of good things to recommend.

The Kreutzer Sonata
leaves all credit information, save its title, to the end of the movie, a fact I was grateful for when I finished. Had I know that Mr. Rose directed it, I probably would have passed on the opportunity to view. Yet it is my favorite of his films I've seen so far -- which I suppose, is not saying all that much: Paperhouse, Candyman, Immortal Beloved and Anna Karenina. This one, shot on what seems a very tight budget, uses a hand-held camera and snappy editing to capture two good performances from its stars Danny Huston (shown above) and Elisabeth Röhm (shown below).

Huston is always good; his kind of creepy charisma has held together some pretty "iffy" movies, and this one is no exception. Approaching 50, the actor is in great physical shape and can handle a nude sex scene with the best of them. He is also as good as it gets in terms of offering that special kind of menace that tries so hard not to be menacing. The guy can't help it. Ms Röhm, on the other hand, is a fine foil: light, lithe, open, and - whew! -- gorgeous! Unless you're somewhat prudish, you should enjoy their many nude romps. But as the movie moves along, because its subject is jealousy, it simply goes where this theme leads without any surprises, and with, alas, Mr. Rose's penchant for the florid. This guy can't help it, either. And for me, at least, his excess ends up lessening all of his films.

Life in Flight, on the other hand, is anything but florid. It moves along quietly and rather lovingly, telling its story of a successful New York architect and family man, played with a fine intelligence and concern by the consis-
tently savvy Patrick Wilson (right) -- the current go-to guy for roles that call for a smart and decent "hunk." Wilson's character is married to a pushy "striver" (played well by Amy Smart), and along the way he comes into professional contact with a young woman (Lynn Collins), who opens his eyes and heart. That's it. And, as movie plots go, it is not one that offers anything new or particularly noteworthy.

"Flight" is slight -- you needn't look to it for originality or surprise -- but there are three good perfor-
mances here, and director/writer Hecht has made an OK debut, learning her way around a camera, editing, dialog and the lot. For me, the only surprise, was, as usual, Ms. Collins (shown, left)-- whom I never seem to recog-
nize until the movie is over. It's not that this actress looks so entirely different from role to role, but she manages to imbue her characters with such differing feelings, attitudes and, well, "character" that, even visually, each stands quite apart from the next. I find her one of the more versatile actresses currently working, but in the sort of subtle manner that perhaps doesn't get the recognition it should. (It doesn't take playing a serial killer or a saint to bring out Collins' talent; she turns ordinary characters into something special.) If you don't know this actress' work, start with The Merchant of Venice, then move on to Bug, The Lake House, The Dog Problem (an underseen gem), The Number 23 and Towelhead -- and you'll understand. Some of these films are not that edifying, but Ms. Collins' performances certainly are.


Another good thing about On-Demand is that, if you happen to have seen a film in a theater but want to view it again, quickly, rather than months later, when it finally appears on DVD, On-Demand gives you the chance (at less than half the cost and time of a theatrical outing -- plus you can track back for that line or two of dialog you didn't get). I recently had the opportunity to see again two films that I quite liked but wanted to share with my companion: Quiet Chaos and The Answer Man. While he enjoyed both (well, sort of), he was not as impressed as I, who found them, particularly the former, every bit as good upon that second look. And so I commend them to your attention once again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

WWII Denmark: Ole Christian Madsen's FLAME & CITRON opens via IFC

World War II seems never to go out of fashion, but of late we've had a spate of WWII films: Valkyrie was our would-be Christmas pres-
ent, followed not that long after by WWII zombies courtesy of Dead Snow. Only last week we learned about the end-of-
war plight of German women vs. Russian soldiers in A Woman in Berlin, and two weeks

hence we'll be graced with the first-ever comedy from Germany about Herr Hitler and his Third Reich -- My Führer -- about which I'll have more to say later. Right now, let's discover what Denmark was all about during this same period.

In the new film FLAME & CITRON by Ole Christian Madsen (shown at right), we're invited to become part of the Danish resistance, about which I previously knew very little. (I had earlier stated that this movie was about the Norwegian resistance. How I arrived at this mistaken conclusion, I don't know, but I do apologize for the error.) Among the Scandinavian countries during WWII, while Sweden kept its "neutrality" intact and Finland was busy fighting Russia (which was trying to expand its border into its that of its smaller neighbor), little Denmark and much larger Norway were quickly occupied by the Nazis. Regarding the Holocaust, Denmark managed to keep almost all of its Jewish population safe from slaughter but Norway's Jews were not so lucky. While most Danes capitulated (as do denizens of all "occupied" countries) to the Nazis, some fled the country to Britain (there seems to have been a rather strong connection -- commerce, espionage -- between Denmark and England, to which Madsen's movies makes reference). Some few, remaining in place, ended up joining the resistance.

Two such were the real-life characters known as Flame (for his bright red hair), played by Thure Lindhardt, and Citron (I am guessing that this moniker came from a rather sour disposition) essayed by Mads Mikkelsen, who has so far managed quite a nice international career for himself: the Pusher series, Torremolinos 73, King Arthur, Adam's Apples, After the Wedding, Casino Royale and the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake). Co-writer (with Lars Andersen) and director Madsen tosses us into the midst of things, as our "heroes" embark on one of their many assassinations of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Danish viewers will no doubt make quicker and more complete connections with what is going on than will us foreigners, but the filmmakers do an adequate job of making events easy enough to follow, as Citron and particularly Flame grow more impatient and anxious to "off" the local Gestapo chief, played by Christian Berkel (shown below, left).

Each of our men has his love story, Citron with his wife, Flame with an attractive older woman (Stine Stengade, below, left) whose loyalties seem more than a bit up-in-the-air. The movie is said to have been partially inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, though its real-life characters certainly were not. I assume that this is due to both films having somewhat similar "takes" on the resistance experience in a occupied country: the need to follow orders, justice and truth be damned; the consequences of having to, occasionally at least, assassinate the innocent; and the remarkable ability of some "freedom fighters" to very adeptly feather their own nest.

All this makes for a nice complexity, though sometimes the movie seems too morally murky for its own good. Try as the filmmakers might to leave their audience cheering these heroes, as the closing credits explain what happened to F&C, you're likely to leave the theater (or your couch: the movie is already playing On-Demand) pretty depressed at what you've witnessed. As usual, and despite whichever power finally wins the war, an occupied country loses it -- one way or another. Performances are excellent, leads down to supporting cast, and the sets, costumes, cars, and cinematography are spot-on and period-specific, rendering the look of the film sleek and beautiful. I'm glad to have experienced Flame & Citron, for its dark and glossy entertainment, and even more for its ability to push me into further study of Scandinavia during WWII.

Released via IFC Entertainment, the movie opens this Friday, July 31, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Over the coming weeks, it will be released across the country -- and it is also available via IFC On-Demand to over 50 million homes in the US. (Check your local TV reception-provider for On-Demand information.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Dardennes' LORNA'S SILENCE: Eschewing sentimentality is not enough

As TrustMovies looks back on the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who, every three years, give us another quietly devastating film -- The Child (2002), The Son (2002), Rosetta (1999) and The Promise (1996) -- a sense is felt of slightly diminishing returns. The proceeds are particularly thin in their newest, LORNA'S SILENCE, made in 2008 but only now receiving a release in the U.S. and so still part of the brothers' consistent three-year cycle. (This writer/director pair has made a number of other films, long and short, prior to those listed here, and has concurrently acted as producer on other projects during its career. But it was The Promise, released thirteen years ago, that placed the duo on the art film radar, where it has remained in high regard ever since.)

Over the decade-plus that I've been watching their movies, I've found a lot to like and less (but still an appreciable amount) with which to take issue. The Dardennes (above, Luc at left and Jean-Pierre on the right) seem to me to be rigorously unsentimental, which is a good thing, as they usually deal with lower class and/or immigrant characters. (Not that sentimentality is OK for the wealthy or the bourgeoisie, but it does seem much easier to slip into where the underclass is concerned). The brothers also prefer to show rather than tell and are particularly happy to begin and end their films in the middle of things (as does every chapter of everyone's life except the very beginning and ultimate end). They also seem to prefer dialog that is unusually spare (due, most likely, to their main characters' being people of few and relatively simple words). There is a reality about their films that is difficult to deny -- or shake off.

There is also, on the other hand, a seemingly deliberate withholding of information, the offering of which might make their movies more engaging and understandable (and thus enjoyable), not to mention giving us a tad more closure. This is most apparent in The Son but is present, I believe, in all their films. While it is true that more closure and additional information might also lead to more sentiment and feeling being generated, it would also leave some of us much less frustrated.

In Lorna's Silence, the frustration level is enormous. Lorna, very well-played by Arta Dobroshi, is an Albanian woman living in Belgium who is part of a gang dealing in marriage-for-citizenship scams. She's currently living with a drug addict, played by Jérémie Renier (who also starred in the pair's The Promise and The Child), whom Lorna married to obtain her own citizenship, and now she must leave him to marry a Russian who wants to get into the country. Since her real boyfriend is also part of the "gang," she has almost nowhere to turn when she is forced to acquiesce in a plan that is really quite horrible.

As the movie wends its way, a number of events -- murder, blackmail, "pregnancy" -- pile up without enough accompanying detail, so the "silence" of the title becomes more and more bizarre. (Is this girl going mental? Would "Lorna's Stupidity" have been a better name?) Toward its finale, the film has become a thriller of sorts but without much believability It's as though the filmmakers went out on the same limb on which Lorna finds herself and didn't even try to come back in. I can accept that the film is making a statement about the plight of immigrants, particularly women, in a foreign land. And while I would never expect the Dardennes to devise the sort of melodrama on this subject that Coline Serreau gave us with her riveting 2001 film Chaos, still, I don't think I'm out of line in demanding a bit more veracity and less "woodland cabin" coincidence than the ridiculous ending provides.

The performances throughout are fine, as we've come to expect from this film-making team. The gang members -- leader, lieutenant, and Lorna's alleged boyfriend -- are relatively interchangeable. But Dobroshi (shown above), an actress from Kosovo who has made only two Albanian films previously and is on-screen here for most of the running time, is a "find" (as was Émilie Dequenne in an even more difficult lead role in her first film, the Dardennes' Rosetta).

Surprisingly enough, it is M. Renier (shown at left) who provides the heart of this movie. Always a good, if rather cold, actor (it may be that he has been handed consistently cold roles), here, as the drug addict Claudy, who is desperately trying to reform even as he falls in love with Lorna, Renier is so warm and needy that he creates the movie's one character we finally root for unconditionally. When he departs, so does much of the film's raison d'etre, and we're left with only Lorna, one huge hunk of erratic and defective behavior, to guide us. The journey, while seldom uninteresting, is finally disappointing.

Lorna's Silence
, released via Sony Pictures Classics, opens this Friday, July 31,
in New York Cityat the
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
and the Cinema Village

and in Los Angeles area
at the Laemmle Royal in West L.A.,
Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Laemmle Town Center Five, Encino
and Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine.

(All photos above, except for that of the Dardenne brothers,
are from the film Lorna's Silence.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Get your fill of Servillo, as the FSLC serves up four of his films in one three-day fest

Anyone particularly taken with a per-
formance by the multi-award-wining Italian actor Toni Servillo may want to see as much of the work of this unusual performer as possible. To this end the Film Society of Lincoln Center, together with the Lincoln Center Festival, is presenting a heavy dose of Signore Servillo over the next few days.

To begin with, the actor is starring in Carlo Goldoni’s Trilogia della villeggiatura (which Servillo also adapted and directed, and from which the photos of the actor, above and below, appear) at the Lincoln Center Festival's Rose Theater, Broadway @ 60th Street in the Time Warner Center. Remaining performances are Saturday (7/25) at 8pm and Sunday (7/26) at 3pm. I believe last night's performance was sold out but tickets remain for Saturday and Sunday. For more information click here.

TrustMovies' real interest, of course, is in Servillo's motion picture work, and the FSLC's three-day, four-film festival provides ample opportunity to revel in what this actor provides, particularly in the two on view by upcoming director Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love and Il Divo). In these artistic triumphs, in which Servillo has the leading roles (and almost constant screen-time in which to demonstrate his quiet charisma), his performances, with the help of Sorrentino's visual sense and generally expert direction, become can't-take-your-eyes-off-him experiences.

The third film in the fest, Gomorrah, is certainly the most famous on these shores, though Servillo (shown center in the photo above) is only one of a number of major players in its ensemble. Interesting-
ly, though all four films have been won multiple awards at home & abroad, it's the fourth -- and definitely the least -- of them, The Girl by the Lake, that took home the most prizes at the yearly David di Donataello awards (Italy's version of our"Oscars"): ten wins out of fifteen nominations to Il Divo's seven out of sixteen, Gomorrah's seven out of eleven, and Consequence/Love's five out of ten.

Below are brief descriptions, together with a bit of critical comment on each of the four films. Because my first experience seeing Mr. Servillo was in The Girl By the Lake, I must admit to not initially understanding what all the fuss was about. Having now seen all four of these films, I certainly do. This short and easily accessible festival provides a terrific opportunity to catch up with a world-class actor at what might be the peak of his powers.

The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell’amore)
Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2004; 100m
Tuesday, July 28, at 4 and Wednesday, July 29, at 6:10
As a mafia accountant who has been condemned to isolation for a past "mistake" and now launders the mob’s money, Servillo creates a rich character of few words but an unforgettable"look." Early on, as he gazes from his hotel window, we see a funny and charming example of the film's title. By the end, however, we've come face-to-face with our worst fears, and it's here that Mr. Servillo manages to shock and move us in equal parts. What, exactly, is this "love" of the title? Perhaps just simple connection. You'll have your own explanation, but I doubt you will forget this film that also stars Anna Magnani's granddaughter, Olivia, and a number of other fascinating actors.

Il Divo
Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2008; 110m
Screening Monday July 27, at 6pm -- with Signore Servillo
appearing in person (limited ticket availability)
and Tuesday, July 28, at 9pm
Here Paolo Sorrentino probes postwar Italian politics, and if he doesn't -- for American audiences, at least -- bring the subject to heel, he does manage to entertain and pop our eyes via some utterly brilliant visuals, and a performance by Mr. Servillo in the title role as Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti that is simply one for the record books. Servillo captures the man visually, emotionally, and every which way -- and still leaves him a mystery. I've seen the film twice (my earlier review appears here), and I could probably see it ten more times -- it's that rich. Nominated for 16 David di Donatello awards, the movie walked away with seven, including Best Actor for Servillo -- who has now taken this award three times, two of them in succession.

The Girl by the Lake (La ragazza del lago)
Andrea Molaioli, Italy, 2007; 95m
Screening Monday, July 27, at 9 pm and
Wednesday, Jul 29, at 4:15 pm
Servillo earned a Pasinetti Award in 2007 at Venice,
as well as a David di Donatello for Best Actor.
A gorgeous corpse appears one morning on the lake shore of a lovely mountain town. Servillo plays a high-level investigator called in because, perhaps, the local boys aren't up to the job. A movie of many suspects, a lot of plot and simply tons of coincidence and manufactured moments, it is seldom uninteresting, the scenery is gorgeous, and a starry cast (Valeria Golino and Fabrizio Gifuni among them) helps pass the time. My review for GreenCine, during last year's FSLC Open Roads festival, appears here.

Gomorrah (Gomorra)
Matteo Garrone, Italy, 2008; 137m
Screening Tuesday, July 28, at 6:15
and Wednesday Jul 29, at 8:20

Exactly how wide and deep does the reach of the Camorra -- the Naples-and-environs-based Italian organized crime empire -- extend? The answers come thick and fast is this award-winning dose of cinema-journalism, adapted by Matteo Garrone from journalist Roberto Saviano's best-seller. And yet these answers simply open up into new questions, so crooked, venal and often sociopathic are just about everyone we encounter in this movie. Servillo plays a middle man who organizes the illegal dumping of toxic waste, and even though he is probably doing the most harm to his country and its people of anyone we see in the movie, his section of the film is physically much less violent brutal than the others. In this ensemble piece, his role is no larger than that of another half-dozen characters, but he brings his usual quiet strength to the proceedings. My original review and thoughts on the film -- and how it reflects on the social contract in Italy today-- appear here. Gomorrah has proven the most successful Italian film to come to America in some years, with Il Divo close behind. See them both (and the other two, as well) during this short fest and come away with a renewed respect for what one actor can bring to film. For ticket information on the entire series, click here.

Thanks to Griselda Guerrasio of Cinecitta/Filmitalia
for helping to make this series possible.
All stills are courtesy of the respective films.