Sunday, February 28, 2010

DVDebut: $9.99 -- thanks to Rosenthal & Keret -- delivers the animated goods

Up to now, TrustMovies has not been an enormous fan of the animation technique known as claymation. Of course he's loved the Wallace & Gromit stuff, but beyond that, not a whole lot has appealed. Now that he has seen $9.99, the relatively new (2008) animated film from director/co-adapter Tatia Rosenthal (below, right) and Israeli writer Etgar Keret (below, left), all that has changed. This 78-minute, Australian/Israeli co-production seems a perfect fit for the claymation process. With its rough edges and let-the-seams-show animation, the look compliments Keret's characters -- slightly weird, off-kilter, and other-worldly -- to a "t." (The characters' voices belong to some of Australia's finest actors: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, Claudia Karvan and Barry Otto.)

With its cast of connected people, all from the same apartment building, who inhabit stories that form a mosaic of life in a world that is both like and unlike our own, Rosenthal, Keret and the entire production staff have found the right mesh of tale and style, character and look to create something original, moving and funny. But sad and a little creepy, too (note the overstuffed furniture in the apartment of a supermodel).  The creepiness comes, I think intentionally, from author Keret's pushing us to look at how we live and what we want -- and what has happened to us, what we give up, by the time we acquire our desire.

A homeless fellow accosts a man leaving for his morning work with unpredictable results. So begins a roundelay of connections & events that take in several fractured "families" (interestingly, these are made up of males only; the moms/wives are gone).  There is also a young man, his fiance and a trio of tiny intruders; and (shown below) that supermodel and her new boyfriend who works as a re-possesser and is the older son of one of the aforementioned families.

Keret's subjects include human connection and the meaning of life -- no small potatoes in the theme category -- and while these have been done to death already, the writer finds some new wrinkles to explore and Ms Rosenthal's animation helps him do it with fantasy and reality, the real and the surreal coexisting side by side.  (The surreally funny Wristcutters: A Love Story had a screenplay by Keret based on one of his short stories, and he also directed the odd and affecting film Jellyfish.)

In addition to the claymation figures, Rosenthal and her crew have devised some wonderful, small scale models that serve as sets and contrast exquisitely with the figures in the foreground (the cheesecake in the photo at bottom looks good enough to eat).  The angles she shoots from (example below) cover the beautiful, amusing and dynamic, and her views of the apartment building by day or night (above) are exquisite. 

The film's title -- $9.99 -- is the price of a book that promises the meaning of life that one of our young protagonists purchases and then, as usual, receives offers of more things to buy. Sounds like your typical advertising ploy?  But wait: Sometimes what you see is what you get. You simply have to learn how to use it.

$9.99 is available now on DVD for sale or rental. I'd advise a viewing because this small, precise movie keeps opening up into something that finally compares to little else I've seen.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

DVDebut: Paul Weitz's shamefully pleasureable CIRQUE DU FREAK: The Vampire's Assistant

Misunderstood, under-seen and -- god knows -- under-appreciated, CIRQUE DU FREAK: The Vampire's Assistant turns out to be that rare, worthwhile mainstream variation on vampires for which TrustMovies has been waiting a blood moon or longer.  Witty as hell, fast-moving, funny and smart, the film has been brought to amazing life by Paul Weitz (below) as director & co-adapter (w/ Brian Helgeland) of the book series by Darren Shan.

I am flummoxed by the lack of response (critical -- 37% on Rotten Tomatoes -- and commercial: a dud at the box-office) to this delightful piece, which is being billed by RT as a "horror/suspense" movie!?  Get over it: Cirque du Freak (the movie version, at least: I haven't read the books) does not intend to offer horror and suspense.  Instead, it's a teenager's adventure tale that just happens to feature vampires and weird, freaky circus attractions.

It's first of all fun, with lots of gooey, faux-gory, silly/grizzly and quite colorful (see above) effects that are much more amusing and creative than frightening, and it rings a host of charming changes on the vampire theme.  It moves along like a house afire but is never difficult to keep up with because Weitz has the smarts to stop every now and then -- just briefly -- for a joke, a witticism, or a piece of wonderment.

The exposition is made into visual fun, rather than something lengthy and boring, and the movie is cast extremely well with all sorts of interesting actors -- from Salma Hayek (above) as the bearded lady and lover/confidante of the movie's real hero (Larten Crepsley, played by the wonderful John C. Reilly: who'd have thought this actor would handle a smart, sexy leading man role so very well?), Japan's Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall; the adorable-as-ever Patrick Fugit (below, left) as the snake boy, and many more (including Willem Dafoe, Michael Cerveris (center, two photos above), Orlando Jones and even Ray Stevenson).

The teenagers are handled by Josh Hutcherson (shown below, left), Chris Massoglia (above, center, and below, right) and Jessica Carlson (above, right, who has a little surprise up her sleeve -- well, skirt, actually); each is just fine and ought to have pleased the particular audience for whom the movie has been designed.  Why did it not?  Perhaps teens must now be sated by copious blood and gore rather than the clever/creepy kind displayed here?  Has youth lost all sense of wonderment and fun?  Does it no longer require "adventure" -- which is what this movie offers above all?
If so, that's sad.

So crisply and divertingly has Mr. Weitz delivered his goods (economically, too) that the movie seems to have barely begun when -- boom! -- it has finished, paving the way for a sequel or two, for which I, for one, can barely wait.  Too bad the film's lack of success seems to have ruled this out. Perhaps better DVD sales will spawn a continuation.  We live in hope.

Cirque du Freak made its DVDebut this past week.  You can find it for sale or rent from your video source of choice.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kimberly Reed's PRODIGAL SONS looks at a heartland American family. Yikes.

When a family is going to pieces and the camera keeps on rolling, not just the family but the viewer and the filmmaker can find themselves in deep trouble -- or at least very tricky territory. (Remember Tarnation, Capturing the Friedmans and quite a few others?)  So it is with PRODIGAL SONS, the new documentary by and with Kimberly Reed (shown below), who details here her own family's history.

Full of surprises, some of which are sprung quickly while others detonate later, the film is one that, if you know little about it, keep it that way and simply watch and learn. While TrustMovies must go out of his way not to spoil things, he will say, however, that Ms. Reed's doc deals with identity in a major way, though given the enormous change of identity(ies) shown here, part of the problem is how little we learn about the characters in front of us for the nearly 90-minute running time. 

"I don't like those photos!" (One of which is shown above) "Why did you bring them out?" Kim asks her troubled brother Marc (below, center, and bottom, left) at one point and explains to him that the past is something that upsets her terribly.  And that's about as deep and specific as it gets, in terms of probing feelings and the reasons behind them.  What has happened to Kim and Marc (and continues to happen in the course of the movie) is major and more than a little interesting.  The fact that one of the reasons for this family get-together is so that Kim can attend her high school reunion provides yet another hook. 

We see the family then and now (above), along with Montana (and that reunion), where the kids grew up; a little of New York, where Kim now resides;  San Diego, the current home of brother Todd; and Marc and his family's home in, I believe, the Pacific Northwest.  We even go to Croatia, which provides some gorgeous scenery. Clearly, I am beating about the bush so that I spill no beans.  I do recommend seeing the movie, which consistently fascinates and is, in its way, one of a kind.  But it ought to have been better. 

Prodigal Sons opens today, Friday, February 26 at New York City's Cinema Village (Ms Reed and others connected to the film will appear for a Q&A at various screenings; click on the link above for specifics).  A limited national rollout will begin in March.  Check the individual cities and dates here (click and refer to the right-hand side of the screen).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's EASIER w/PRACTICE opens; Brian Geraghty shines in lead role

We see so few movies offering anything close to a different perspective on male sexuality that TrustMovies has no quibbles with the welcome release of Kyle Patrick Alvarez's interesting indie titled EASIER WITH PRACTICE. Half road trip, half back-home-again tale of two bro-
thers, one the typical player and ladies' man, the other a beyond-
shy writer whose sudden awaken-
ing to the heretofore undiscovered possibilities of sex comes via... Forget it. I'm not telling. You'll find out, in any case, within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, and from there the film only grows more interesting, as we see how differently these two men respond to women, sex and responsibility.

Alvarez, shown at left, still has stuff to learn about pacing and variation.  But, given his young age of 25 (when he made the movie), he's done a remarkable job with much of the direction and screenplay (from a supposedly true story by Davy Rothbart, and especially in his casting of the film.

The shy writer Davey is played by Brian Geraghty (shown above and on poster, top) lately of The Hurt Locker, We Are Marshall, Bobby and Jarhead. This is by far his best role and he fills every crack and crevice of it with believable, specific detail. It's due as much to this young actor as anything else that the film succeeds; to a large extent he is the movie.  It's his story, and though he remains a mystery right up to and through the finale, he is a puzzle worth solving that we have at least begun to unravel by the time the credits role.

Kel O'Neill (above) has the role of Davey's young brother Sean, bringing a cocky superficiality to the proceedings that contrasts well with Geraghty's seriousness.  One of the film's best scenes finds the brothers and their girls playing a truth game that goes places we've been and then to one or two that we've not.  The girls are nicely drawn by Marguerite Moreau (shown at bottom, right) as Davey's dish who's willing to give him a second chance and Jeanette Brox (below) as Sean's put-upon girlfriend who's rightly worried about his odd, sad brother.  The ladies lend an extra dose of kindness to the tale that our American men can't quite muster.

The movie, mostly chaste in terms of its visuals, get to the quick of things verbally and, as it moves toward its more-or-less preordained climax, surprises us with events that, while calling into question much that we've seen, do not play false with the story or its characters.  As much as we might like to mutter, 'No way!" to what we're seeing and hearing, we can't quite manage it.  Workable relationships are too few and far between, and human beings too odd and surprising, to discount any possibilities.

Easier With Practice opens Friday,  February 26, at New York  City's Quad Cinemas and at Los Angeles' Laemmle's Sunset 5.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Audiard's Academy Award-Nominated A PROPHET opens -- to haunt us, every one

Having now seen all five of the full-length films directed by Frenchman Jacques Audiard, TrustMovies is fairly certain that he will never want to miss any of this fellow's work.

While Audiard is not among my favorite film-
makers (perhaps because his quirks and my own don't mesh), still, his films never fail to surprise and move me, even if I am often put into a singularly bad mood by the time of their finale. The man's latest and also his best -- the Academy-nominated and Cannes/BAFTA/European Film Award-winning A PROPHET (Un Prophète) -- is another example of his odd mix. While I cannot in good conscience say I "enjoyed" the movie, it has not left my mind for long over the two months since I first viewed it. There are ideas, moments, contradictions -- even entire scenes -- that simply will not go away.

Audiard (shown, left) seems drawn again and again to the criminal element, and where he sometimes finds it can be surprising (the secretary played by Emmanuelle Devos in Read My Lips). Since the setting for his newest work is a prison, we have nothing but the criminal element in which to bathe. The director/co-writer (with Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit) offers us up a "hero" who is as close to a tabula rasa as you might find: an illiterate, half Arab/half French, blank slate (his parents have long ago left him) who having already been in prison several times, must now serve six years there.  This character, Malik, is played by Tahar Rahim (shown below, who earlier essayed the role of one of the unfortunate policemen in Inside) in what should be a career-making performance.  Slight and with petite features that, in prison at least, would mark him the "femme," Malik draws the attention of another Arab, Reyeb (a wise and sexy Hichem Yacoubi), who propositions him in the showers but is immediately rebuffed. 

The Corsican Mafia who controls the prison from the inside, needs to have Reyeb rubbed out, and because the marked man has the hots for our hero, Malik is chosen to do the job. Given a choice between murder and his own death, Malik must agree and is taught how to do the job efficiently and fast.  The scene of the murder is grueling, especially because Reyeb turns out to be a smart and relatively decent guy. Once Malik has proven his worth, the head of the Corsicans (Niels Arestrup, shown below, in a performance as rich and full as it is ugly) makes him the group's lap dog & gopher.

One of the Audiard's most audacious and unsettling moves is to have the dead Reyeb (below, right) return again and again throughout Malik's prison term -- as a ghost, a vision, a vendetta, a confidante.  These appearances take on an almost religious sheen, and why not?  Islam and its men -- riddled as they are with that weird combination of homosexuality, hypocrisy and the fervor of martyrdom -- would of course turn this event into something momentous, life-changing.  It almost seems as if, in the manner of those pantheistic worshipers who thank their animal victims for giving up their lives for the cause (food, shelter, clothing), that Malik is doing something similar with his memory/vision of Reyeb.

This murder and its aftermath set the tone for events to come, as Malik learns, grows and changes into something fierce, feral and very clever, while keeping his own counsel, with the help of the imagined Reyeb. How he achieves what he does is striking, near-
phenomenal. Yet Audiard makes it believable, if sometimes frust-
ratingly dense.  A Prophet runs a full two-and-one-half hours and is packed with plot and incident.  The changing face of France (and by extension the west) is seen in the prison yard, cells & power struc-
ture; Audiard makes this clear without unnecessary underscoring. 

By movie's end, we and Malik have come a long, long way, and the result is an enormous accomplishment that is also frightening and depressing. The tabula rasa that was Malik has been filled -- but by what?  It's not all bad, certainly, but Audiard's social critique is still devastating.  To quote the Bard: "What a piece of work is man." And what a shameful waste of resources he has here become.

From Sony Pictures Classics, A Prophet open this Friday in New York City and the Los Angeles area, with a very wide national rollout in the weeks and months to come. You can find all the dates/cities/theaters here.

Udayan Prasad's YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF boasts a terrific acting ensemble

A feel-good film that does its job quietly, rather sneakily, THE YELLOW HANDKER-
CHIEF also boasts a quartet of fine actors each working up to snuff (above it, actu-
ally). Directed by Udayan Prasad (My Son, the Fanatic) and adapted from a story by Pete Hamill by screenwriter Erin Dignam, this small, 96-minute movie combines past/
present and older/
younger generations into a nearly seam-
less fabric that left this reviewer in a puddle of happy tears (to steal the title of a film that opened just last week).

One reason Yellow Hankie works so well is the smart interweaving of flashback with present that Ms Dignam and Mr Prasad (shown at left) have contrived. We're constantly thrust back and forth in time but gracefully enough that we don't mind these near-
immediate transitions auguring the sense that something terrible has happened.  The film begins with the release from prison of a lonely, uncertain character, played with his usual skill but zero grandstanding by William Hurt (shown below, right, with Maria Bello).  Yet, that queasiness we feel about Hurt's character is almost immediately offset by some positives: another inmate grasps his hand warmly upon saying goodbye, telling him with restrained feeling, "We don't wanna see you back here."  One after another, these small good things pile up, and soon we're in Mr Hurt's corner and rooting for him.

The film is about, among other subjects, how strangers come together, and it's a lot more believable in its initial meetings and getting-to-know-you than are many films of this type (the road trip that's also a bit of a mystery/character study).  Even the small-town southern police force we see in this post-Katrina world, if not exactly "kind," at least does not exhibit the sort of over-the-top nasty behavior that we more often view.

The Yellow Handker-
chief is also about the subject of caring. "I wanted to make someone care about me," says Martine (the lovely Kristen Stewart, shown at right) by way of explaining why she seems to have hooked up with the Hurt character. What does it take to get others to care about us? The film asks this question implicitly, thank goodness.  One of the pleasures of the movie is how softly it treads.  People behave and interact; through this we learn all we need to know, as bit by bit the past becomes clear. And when, finally, an explanation is called for, we -- and the characters -- are ready for it.

In addition to Ms Stewart, who grows lovelier and whose acting strengthens with each film, and Ms Bello, who, though she occupies mostly the past, is such a strong actress that she makes that past quite present, the fourth wheel here is Eddie Redmayne (Elizabeth:The Golden Age,  The Good Shepherd, Savage Grace and Powder Blue), who brings his unique combination of sweetness, charm and quirk to the mix.  So tight is this little acting ensemble (there are no other characters of any note in the entire movie) and so beautifully do they play off each other, that, by the finale, they've fully earned the tears you'll shed.  For anyone who has wondered what it takes to make someone care about you, here's the chance to see how that works.

Distributed by Sanuel Goldwyn Films, The Yellow Handkerchief begins its national rollout this week with openings at multiple theaters in New York City and Los Angeles -- before expanding across the country.  You can find cities, theaters and dates here.

Don Argott's THE ART OF THE STEAL raises Barnes Foundation questions aplenty

Though THE ART OF THE STEAL gives lip-service to the city of Philadelphia and to the art mavens and corporate culture that -- according to the film -- have stolen the entire Barnes Collection away from its rightful owners and placed it in the hands of sleazebag "connoisseurs," its heart and mind are firmly with the original Barnes Foundation and Albert C. Barnes who began it.  This is the man, after all, who managed to amass a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art that is now valued at more than 25 billion dollars.

Director & cinematographer Don Argott (shown at right) went to school in Philadel-
phia and so would seem to know the byways (and alleyways) of big business, fund raisers and local cultural figures and politicians. He puts all of this to good use in his documentary, one of the most anger-producing films TrustMovies has seen in some time.  All right: it's not dolphin slaughter we're viewing, but if you care anything about art, law, the concept of ownership and the right to bequeath one's estate, then the movie should make you sit up, take notice and wrestle with the ideas regarding justice, right and wrong that are front and center in this estimable documentary.

The real question remaining at the end of the film's 101 fast-paced minutes is this: Whatever Albert Barnes (shown above) may have wanted done with his fabulous collection (a tiny part of which is shown below and further below) which he tried to make crystal clear and beyond refuting in his will, if a larger portion of the general public will have the opportunity to see this art via its upcoming move to the city of Philadelphia (something Barnes was dead set against), does this mean that it is all right to "steal" the collection from under the very foundation that supposedly owns it?

There are plenty of people who say yes to this -- most of them connected, I believe, to the museum circuit and who are already involved with major fund-raising, exhibits, and the like -- who feel that, where art is concerned, numbers are all.  Barnes, as the film makes clear, did not agree.  While he was happy to see that a local plumber who requested a visit to the collection got one, he would as quickly reject the request of the art critic for The New York Times. This did not endear him to the powers-that-be, most especially Philadelphia's famous Annenberg family, that was among his most vituperative enemies.

Argot's film shows us the history of Barnes and his collection and how the founder wanted it to be used first to further the education of the art students at his school.  Over the decades, however, it became more accessible to the general public -- and rightly so, I believe.  What we learn from the movie is how a combination of politicians, fund-raisers and society folk conspired to wrest control of the art -- and succeeded in this. We learn a number of do's and do not's: how to increase and then stack your "Board" and how to bury, before the fact, a large amount of money in the city budget that might ,were its existence known, have scotched the deal.

We meet a lot of interesting people on both sides of the contest (such as Nick Tinari, shown protesting above: almost none of the pro-Philadelphia group would agree to be interviewed) and witness the betrayals -- big and small, accidental and not so -- that result in this miscarriage. Argot lays out his thesis carefully and clearly, and while you never doubt where his sympathies lie, it is difficult to come away from this film without feeling that a grave injustice has been done to both Barnes and his collection.  I come from a time when I recall going to museums -- any museum -- and being able to sit quietly and commune with the painting or sculpture rather than with the noisy crowd that is blocking the view.  Is this an elitist stance? So be it.  The media-hyped circuses that pass for museum shows today certainly do bring in the crowds.  But something has been lost, and I think Albert Barnes would understand this quite well, had he lived to see it.  He was a smart enough man, misanthrope though he may have been (yet can anyone be called a misanthrope who dedicates his life to art and supports a school dedicated to this?) to have never allowed to happen what is now in the works.

See this masterful film and you'll come away with a keener understanding of exactly how power and money collude to control art, just as they do to control most else. The Art of the Steal, distributed by IFC Films, opens this Friday, February 26, in New York City at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema -- with a limited national rollout to follow. It will simultaneously be available nationwide On-Demand via Sundance Selects, accessible in over 50 million homes covering all major markets.