Friday, April 30, 2010

Tribeca LOOSE CANNONS: Ferzan Ozpetek cooks up a hearty, friends 'n family stew

Who'd have imagined that a current movie about a gay man coming out to his family might have anything remotely new or interesting or even particularly entertaining to say?  Turkish-born, Italian-bred Ferzan Ozpetek (shown below): that's who -- and so he made this film.  Bless him for it -- because LOOSE CANNONS (Mine vaganti) turns out to be not only new, interesting and entertaining but deeply felt, lavishly funny and one of the most visually beautiful movies to arrive on our shores in quite some time. (It was filmed in Southern Italy, in and around the city of Lecce.)

Premiering this past February at the Berlinale, it was chosen for the just-concluding Tribeca Film Festival, where -- the evening I viewed it -- audience response seemed overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  It plays but one more time, tomorrow, Saturday, May 1 (click here, scroll and down and click again on Rush Tickets).  Because you can never be certain that a foreign-language film, even from a director as well known as this one, will secure distribution these days, I recommend you see this movie now.

Signore Ozpetek has been to the gay well a few times before -- Steam, Ignorant Fairies, Facing Windows, Saturn in Opposition -- always from a different angle and always successfully.  What he consistently manages, and what I think I love most about his work, is that he approach homosexuality as one part, sometimes hugely important, other times less so, of the world at large, in which so much else is terribly important, too.  Family, friendship, work, health (mental and physical) are prime among these, and in Loose Cannons, they come together in a combustible mix that offers everything from drama to farce, fantasy to a reality that moves from chuckles to tears.

A young man named Tomasso (Riccardo Scamarcio, shown above, left), from a wealthy family whose business is pasta-making and who is about to join forces with another prominent family, has deci-
ded to own up to his homosexual orientation -- after which, he ex-
pects his father to chuck him out of home and business, freeing him to move in with his lover and pursue a writing career. Not quite. One big surprise lies in store, followed by several lesser -- most of which cause ebullient laughter but sometimes a deep loneliness.

You may know young Scamarcio from My Brother Is an Only Child, or from Costa-Gavras' still unreleased Eden Is West. After being swaggering and studly in the former, frightened and vulnerable in the latter, he is by necessity manipulative and quietly thoughtful here -- and is proving himself a more versatile actor than the pretty face with the very sexy body that we might have initially imagined.  While this movie is primarily Tomasso's story, Ozpetek insists on seeing things from many angles, and so we slowly begin to understand -- and feel for -- several generations.

The film begins, in fact, with a reminiscence of the grand-
mother (Ilaria Occhini, at right, seated) regarding her younger days (the penulti-
mate photo, below).  We learn what happened to her only slowly. The co-writer (with Ivan Cotroneo) and director gives us enough information to begin to piece together the story of this now aged but still gloriously strong woman, but we do not know it all until the finale.  Meanwhile we meet a group of people -- family, friends, business associates -- who are as diverse as they are memorable.  Dad (the wonderful Ennio Fantastichini, shown at right, three photos above), mom, Aunt Luciana (dizzy and sweetly sad Elena Sofia Ricci, shown two photos above, center, with glasses), brother Antonio (a terrific Alessandro Preziosi, standing, above right) and especially Alba, the daughter of the prospective business partner, played by the alluring Nicole Grimaudo (below, center).  Ms Grimaudo, in particular, captures a character -- nasty, funny, distant, dark, needy -- who grows more complex with each scene until she very nearly breaks our heart.

One of the great strengths of Ozpetek is allowing us to view life and sexuality from so many points of view: Here we see how the parents looks at things, the grandmother, the younger generation, straights, gays and a couple who may be more bi-oriented than they might like to admit.  There are moments between the two outsiders, Tomasso and Alba, that bond them in ways both sexual and on a level of deep friendship.  There is also some delightfully criss-crossed humor when a group of Tomasso's friends from Rome, shown at bottom, pay a visit.

The film's finale is an amazing blend of fantasy and reality, of time present and past, of what we deeply wish for but may never see.  This scene may remind you of the finale of some other films -- the little-seen-in-America Flight of the Innocent came immediately to my mind -- but Ozpetek makes it his own, and it seems as if everything he has ever learned about cinema is incorporated here.  Threatening to be too much, instead it keeps unfurling until love, sex, family and friends join in a spectacularly vibrant and moving dance of life.

About as arthouse/mainstream as it is possible to get, Loose Cannons delivers the goods.  As I go to press, the film has just won one of the two Tribeca Fest Special Mention Awards. Will some distributor -- Strand, IFC, Film Movement -- please step up to the plate and gift movie-lovers with this joyous celebration?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tom Six's THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is the crap of the year -- in so many ways. Breaking News: Update on the Sequel!

The first thing that needs to be said about Dutch filmmaker Tom Six's "controversial" horror film, as the PR push would have it, is that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE constitutes poor movie-making on almost any level you might want to address -- beginning with plot, pace, and simple logic. The performances are as good as the film allows, and the visuals get the job done. And that's about it for minor praise.  The first half hour is tiresome, repetitive and boring; the second is standard horror movie stuff; and the third is so filled with ridiculous, unbelievable, over-the-top nonsense (and I am not even referring to the nitwit "title" character) that I should think any real sci-fi/fan-
tasy/horror buff will be rolling his or her eyes in utter contempt.

The only good reviews I have seen -- such as that in this week's Village Voice, which gave the garbage an entire page (this, when movie coverage is dwindling so badly!) -- talk about the film in terms usually reserved for Godard and Antonioni.  Which would be fine, if the movie got its basics even close to correct.  But how can you discuss a film in a hi-falutin' manner when the filmmaker first bores you to near-death and then offers characters so stupid that they won't use the phone that's right in front of them to try to call for help, or later, when they've been "monster-ized" don't try to attack their torturer when the opportunities seem evident and many.  The capper, however (spoiler ahead, though there really isn't much to spoil in a movie where the "idea" of the monster is the only thing that makes it remotely special): once the worm turns and the victim attacks, he wounds rather than kills, so that, you know, Freddy, Jason, Leatherface (or in this case, Centipede's minor-league monster creator) can rise again.  And what about those dumber-than-you've-ever-seen policemen?  Don't ask.

Of course, all this is not the point in a movie with a premise that wants to out-disgust even Salo.  Yet Pasolini, at least, made sure we wallowed in the shit.  The Human Centipede is very nearly pristine.  Once we get the idea of what's going on, our fevered brains can make all the nasty connections.  In fact, the "Centipede" itself, once you get past its shared digestive tract, is a rather cute little concoction.  The big question is: Why would any mad scientist worth his salt want to come up with this?

TrustMovies never says "never" about watching another movie from even those filmmakers whose work he has loathed the most.  A few years back Mr. Six, shown at left, made a movie called Gay (known over here as Gay in Amsterdam) which, as the press material for Centipede informs us, was also controversial and starred "a lot of famous Dutch actors."  Maybe we'll rent that one -- which Netflix members have rated not quite up to the "didn't like it" level, while IMDB viewers gave it between two and three stars (out of a possible ten) before we tackle the Centipede's sequel, which is, we are told, already in production.

About the performances: that doctor (above) does his best Udo Kier imitation, the two girls (below) babble brightly and then scream loudly, the Japanese fellow (at bottom) gets in touch with the heritage of his culture of shame, and the cops are macho dumbos.  No one rises above a script empty of characterization,
wit and suspense.

So how did this third-trimester film abortion come about?  It is likely that Mr. Six simply stumbled upon an envelope-pushing idea for the torture-porn genre and then ran with it, having not a modicum of the necessary skills with which to flesh out this idea.   (For an ex-
ample of great premise and super follow-through in the thriller genre, see Wes Craven/Carl Ellsworth's Red Eye.)  I guess Six's envelope "push" left certain critics free to gush about the "ideas" on display, even if they do pretty much create these ideas out of whole cloth.

The Human Centipede begins its theatrical run concurrent with its On-Demand availability on Friday, April 30, in New York City at the IFC Center. For the where and how of On-Demand, click here. 

Here's the first still from the promised and forthcoming sequel  

Just kidding. This shot, under the heading Giant Caterpillar Found in University Dorm Room arrived yesterday via those folk who circulate "humor" over the web.  I must admit, it's funnier than anything in Mr Six's movie. Maybe it'll inspire him in a new direction....

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nicole Holofcener's PLEASE GIVE: yet another terrific ensemble movie -- this time with NYC at its center

Boobs galore -- and Rebecca Hall!

Both men and women moviegoers will have their own reasons for loving PLEASE GIVE. Mine begin with Ms Hall and the fact that writer/director Nicole Holofcener (shown just below) begins her swift, intelligent, funny and moving movie with the fe-
male breast, objec-
tified in a manner we have seldom seen. What fun -- and how bracing to be brought up so short!  But back to Ms Hall (shown at left, two photos down). This top-notch British actress, daughter of theater director Peter Hall, is simply so good: versatile and beautiful and able to transform herself visually from the inside, an ability I believe that few actors possess, or perhaps care to make use of.  (This gift/talent may not be the best means of becoming a "star," as audiences will not immediately recognize
you from role to role.)

Beginning with Starter for Ten (a lovely little movie you really should see, which also remains one of James McAvoy's best), this actress (shown below, at left) has kept impressing and growing, from The Prestige to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon to The Red Riding Trilogy and now this.  (Her perfect American accent's pretty amazing, too.)  Mousy, lonely and a little sad, her character, which in this film bears her own name, grounds the movie immediately; we feel for her, big-time. In fact, it is she, a radiology technician (that's how we see all those breasts) whom we first meet, and who, via her halting but insistent manner, connects us emotionally to the film and its many other characters.

These includes Rebecca's sister Mary (Amanda Peet, shown above, right), who gives facials for a living, and their angry and depressed grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert); their next-door neighbors, a mom (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener, below left) and dad (Oliver Platt, below, right) who are estate sale mavens (they buy home furnishings to resell at a handy profit) and their chubby, pimply and still adorable teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele, two photos, below).  From this odd mix, the movie-maker creates jarring, humorous, sad but always recognizable New York City life.

Also on hand are Lois Smith, as the subject of one of Rebecca's breast x-rays, and her grandson, played by Thomas Ian Nicholas.  Every one, as you might expect in a cast this well-chosen, is first-rate. Each plays well within the ensemble but manages to stand out by creating a rich, full character.  As terrific as they are all, it is likely that Ms Guilbert, as Grandma (shown at bottom) will prove most memorable -- because she's so unusually dark and sad.

How wonderful to watch a writer/director continue to grow, as Ms Holofcener keeps doing.  Please Give is her best yet, as it tackles everything from an approaching death to the need (from guilt, of course, but also from a genuine, heartfelt place) to give to others less fortunate.  Still, there are all sorts of ways to give -- and to be "less fortunate," as daughter Abby is happy to point out.  Yes, there's a taste of Woody Allen here, but the tone is warmer and the one-liners, thankfully, much less frequent.

"Doing the right thing" often surfaces in the filmmaker's work, as I think it does in the mind of many of us, and Holofcener understands the complexity of this task, finding all the grit, pain and humor in trying to get it right.  Her dialog is great: specific, real and about so many different things.  And the little dance these characters do as they move around each other is quite sophisticated (not on their part but that of the filmmaker).  The view of life shown here is as wise in its way as, say, that of Max Ophuls -- but far more off-the-cuff and less stylish.

The movie will certainly do well, I should think, in urban locations (and L.A., of course), but I'd love it if it also drew some audiences in the hinterlands.  It would be nice for them to see us New Yorkers in our -- neurotic, yes, but also -- "everyday and accessible" mode.

Please Give, from Sony Pictures Classics, begins its nationwide limited-release rollout on Friday, April 30.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scott Caan/Patrick Hoelck's MERCY brings fine ensemble acting and a lesson on love

What a pleasure it is to watch scene after scene of an acting ensemble that nails moment after moment -- with smart, au courant dialog to match. This is what writer/producer Scott Caan gives us in MERCY, directed by Patrick Hoelck with an eye for the way so many of life's important things happen on the sidelines rather than coming straight at you. This is true even when one's main character is a full-of-himself, successful writer who appears to barrel through life getting everything he wants. Ah, but is he happy?

Happiness, and its handmaiden love, are what Caan (shown below) and Hoelck (shown at right) are out to explore in their film, and to a fair degree they manage it. Early on, Caan's writer character (Johnny) makes a play for a waitress (very nice work from Whitney Able) on the catering staff of a party thrown for him.  We see this "play" from many angles: his, hers, that of his friends, and then much later, when the pair meets again. Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen for the gorgeous title character (as in "angel of") and much of the story -- told in an odd kind of flashback/flashforward style that circles toward completion --
tells of this relationship.

Because the moment-to-moment acting on the part of every cast member, from the leads to the barley-there, is so good, it is easy for us viewers to plow ahead. That cast includes Wendy Glenn (below) in the title role (who appears to be every bit as intelligent as she is gorgeous), Troy Garity as Johnny's best friend (underused, perhaps, but as usual, spot-on), Erika Christensen as a young woman who comes into Johnny's life later on, Dylan McDermott as Johnny's agent and even James Caan, (shown, bottom, left, who gives us, along with Scott, a nice père et fils scene, which can't help but have you wondering how close to real life this might be). Further, the film has a European sensibility to it, from its fine cinematography to the utterly natural behavior on view to its literate script with such a smart sense of indirection that it takes awhile to even know what the movie is actually about.  It's here, however, once we've realized the point of Mr Caan's screenplay, that some of us may want something more.

Chekhov has long been quoted to the effect that if you show a gun in act one, you'd better use it in act two.  The same might be said for the ubiquitous piece of self-help medical equipment on view here.  While the set-up is displayed noticeably, it is at least not rammed down our throats; then Caan and Hoelck, as expected, make further use of it.  What happens in Mercy may set younger hearts aflutter with surprise, tears and the sadness of "if only!"  Older viewers who've been around that block a few times may nod in recognition, while thinking, "Hmmph!  This pair sure got off easily: Their perfect-if-short-lived relationship took nearly no work at all."

Mercy, another smart pick-up from IFC Films, the company that is making sure we see so many movies from around the world that we otherwise might not, opens Friday, April 30 in theatrical release in New York City at the IFC Center, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5 on May 7, and On-Demand tomorrow, April 28.  Click on the link ahead to determine if and how you can see it via IFC On-Demand.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Iceland's Dagur Kári offers up THE GOOD HEART; Cox and Dano shine; TM does a Q&A from memory

The land of that volcano does boast some positive attributes.  Chief among these, for moviegoers at least, is writer/director Dagur Kári, shown below, whose first full-length film, the bizarrely funny and extremely energetic Noi, the Albino (Nói albínói) back in 2003 caused some critical heads to turn his way. Kári's following film, Dark Horse (Voksne mennesker), despite a couple of small festival showings, was hardly seen on these shores, but that should not be the case with his new one (and first in English), THE GOOD HEART.

At a very low-key and pleasant roundtable Q&A with Mr. Kári and one of his stars, Paul Dano (the other, Brian Cox, was to have appeared but was stuck in Europe, due to volcanic ash), we conversed with that the writer/director, whose English is pretty good, and learned that this project took several years to come to fruition. (For the first time in his interviewing history, TrustMovies managed to set up his digital recorder, then forgot to hit "record," so the Q&A interspersed here is coming from his ever-dimmer memory bank.) 

The Good Heart brings together two men of disparate age, circumstance and attitude.  Brian Cox (above) co-stars as a surly, crotchety old bar owner in yet another role that will have critics crying, "His best ever!" (Mr. Cox, who is but 64 and has managed nearly 160 film and TV appearances, makes a habit of being so good so often -- from Red Eye to Red, The Escapist to Trick 'r Treat -- that this sort of praise, true as it is, must grow tiresome for him to hear.)  Paul Dano (show below, with a feathered friend who proves quite important to the film), who has also managed to be expert in literally every film he's made, no matter if the film itself might come up a little short, plays a homeless young man who is taken under the wing of the Cox character.

How all this comes about is actually quite fun, and no less unbelievable than what happens in most romantic comedies to which mainstream audiences are these days subjected.  The characters' "cute meet" (and what follows it) works due in part to how charming and dear it all is, with Cox's salty language and demeanor a perfect foil for Dano's innate and never-pushed sweetness. This young actor does vulnerability about as well as anyone since the pre-Psycho Tony Perkins.  When TM asked Dano about this during the Q&A, the actor seems at first surprised but then agreed that, yes, the type of roles he is offered (and then selects from among) tend to go in this direction.  "How do you keep your stability" another blogger wanted to know, and Dano explained that he is fortunate indeed to have a girlfriend of 2-1/2 years who will spank him (not literally, he assured us) whenever he gets out of line. (One of my compatriots later informed TM, who tends not to keep up with who's dating whom, that the girlfriend is none other than Zoe Kazan. So, good for this talented young couple -- who probably keeps each other in line, in the way that smart "significant others" tend to do.)

But back to The Good Heart.  So juicily does Mr. Cox latch onto his character with his sleazy conversation, and so sweetly does Mr. Dano try to negotiate all this and more, that the two engage in a constant and lovely pas de deux which is broken around midway by the introduction of a new character, a young, beautifully exotic and evidently down-on-her-luck woman whom Dano's character takes in, just as Cox has done with Dano.  Complications, unsurprisingly, ensue, but they are nothing compared to the gaping hole that the movie then becomes. 

This young woman is played by the terrific French actress Isild LeBesco (of À tout de suite, Backstage and Wild Camp: click the title of the latter for a review by my Greencine compatriot Craig Phillips).  Le Besco is extraordinarily good at expressing youthful rebellion and outrage at conventionality, among other things. But she does need a trace of character to do this, and she gets practically none from this writer/director.  Instead, we have "generic woman" intruding on a pair of happy guys and making their life, particularly that of Cox's character, miserable.  April, as she's called, has no back-story except that she's a flight attendant suddenly out of work. And that's it.  We know Dano's Lucas, at least from from his homeless routine, hospital stay and relationship with Cox's Jacques, who has enough sentimental back-story to choke a horse.  Of April, we learn nothing, except that Kári intends her to wreak havoc on our poor guys and their male bastion of sanctity.

While this hole does not sink the movie, it de-balls it somewhat.  My first question to the filmmaker was about the role that the woman plays in the proceedings, and he explained that, as we can clearly see, she interferes with and helps destroys this male bastion. Well, OK.  As I recall from Kári's earlier Noi, the female get short- shrifted, as well, but I will reserve judgment until I see another or two of this interesting filmmaker's work.  I hope he'll tackle a strong female character and bring her to life. 

The movie is still a lot of fun: sweet and moving and funny.  The three leads are a treat to watch, as is every individual bar patron, brought to fine form by a well-chosen cast.  (Kári told us during the Q&A that only a small portion of the film was shot in New York but most of it was filmed in Iceland; yet the mix of Icelandic, UK, American and French actors on display never jars.)

The Good Heart (approx 95 minutes, from Magnolia Pictures) opens this Friday, April 30, at four theaters in the Southern California area, and one in New York City.  All its current and forthcoming playdates, theaters and cities can be found here.

ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL, from Dover Kosashvili, opens at Film Forum

Back in the spring of 2002, a film from USSR-born Israeli writer/director Dover Kosashvili opened in New York City. Late Marriage (Hatuna Meuheret) -- an enormously sexual, smart and angry broadside against Israeli fundamen-
talism, knocked the socks off a lot of us -- though it may have appeared that its strong and sexy leading man Lior Askenazi (Walk on Water) was the linchpin many of us remembered most. For his part, Mr. Kosashvili went on to make Matana MiShamayim (English title: Gift from Above) in 2003, which, though nominated for eleven Israeli Film Academy awards, was not much seen outside its home country.

Now comes this director's ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL (with a screenplay by the film's co-producer Mary Bing), an English-language adaptation of the Russian master's novella.  Cast with some lesser-known but top-flight U.K.talent, the movie takes place in the Caucuses (for which Croatia proves a sumptuous stand-in) and details the plight of a young aristocrat (Laevsky, whose behavior and attitude define the term ne're-do-well), his lively and attractive mistress (Nadya, toward whom he is feeling less and less kindly disposed), a highly intelligent and somewhat condescending scientist (Von Koren, who has taken an intense dislike to Laevsky) plus other other assorted friends and neighbors.

Once you get past their accents, this cast struck me as doing the best job I have yet seen of Irish, Brits and Scots playing Chekhov's Russians.  Each actor manages to capture, via languid gesture and subtle intonation, that peculiar combination of bored entitlement and barely perceptible unease that likely attends a time in which enormous political/social/economic change is developing.   I would guess, as well, that Mr. Kosashvili is more than a little proficient in the English language because his cast nails every moment, large and small, so expertly that he had to have been able to coach them -- as talented as they may be -- regarding what he wanted from at least some of those moments.  

Andrew Scott (shown at right in the two photos above), as the little twat Laevsky, will have you wanting to throttle him in no time. This actor's spectacular talent at finding innumerable ways to be insufferably annoying (until -- and this is Chekhov's great gift for rich, humane characterization -- you actually begin to love him for it) is something to see -- as is his bizarre nervous breakdown over a chess board.  Tobias Menzies (shown below) as Von Koren, brings both sturdiness and stud-liness to his role, his jealousy for Laevsky's station and what the man gets away with kept barely, but quite handsomely, in check.  Fiona Glasgott (shown at left in the two photos above, and also at bottom) turns Nadya into a whirlwind of contradiction: loving, needy, highly sexual, and finally more vulnerable than either we or she suspects.  In the supporting cast, Niall Buggy makes a sensible, kindly doctor, while Michelle Fairley captures both the imperiousness and fear of an important lady of the town, who, in one of the movie's strongest scenes, gives Nadya a sudden and nasty ultimatum.

As is often the case in Chekhov, characters talk at, rather than to, one another -- with the expected consequences.  Indirection is the order of the day, and when something goes wrong, well... blame the servants.  If sexuality is closer to the surface here than in Anton's turn-of-the-century time, what we see is still light years away from the usual panting and glossy nudity we're used to observing on film.  The many details we catch along the way -- from the serving of soup to some flirting and bargaining in a millinery shop -- are captured succinctly, and the location cinematography should have travel agents booking Croatia (see below) like crazy.

The friend who accompanied me to the screening, having just read the novella upon which the film is based, felt that screenplay did not work very well. Not having read the novella myself, I can only say that the film held me rapt from scene one.  By its melancholy finale, I also felt that real change, as well as some growth, had occurred for our onscreen friends.  And Mr. Kosashvili, I think, is slowly amassing quite a resume.

Anton Chekhov's The Duel opens for a two-week run this Wednesday, April 28, at Film Forum in New York City.