Thursday, September 30, 2010

SPEED-DATING opens, making one grieve for the Black experience -- on film, at least

To go from posting about The Social Network to the likes of SPEED-DATING is to topple from the sublime to the sub-ridiculous, such a stupid and offensive film this is. Telling the story of three bozos -- Leonard Robinson (below, left), Chico Benymon (below, center) and Wesley Jonathan (below, right) -- who set up a "speed-dating" service (three minutes per getting-to-know-you coupling before the pair moves separately on), the film is almost unbelievably crass and unfunny. It goes for the most obvious situations, performances, writing and direction, while its uneven tone veers from all-out, slapstick farce (none of the cast is remotely up to the task of rendering this: good farce takes talent and planning) to sappy adoptee-searching-for-his-birth-mom nonsense that insults its subject mightily.

But then Speed-Dating insults just about everything it touches, particularly the subject of homosexuality. When will the black community -- its families and its churches -- start accepting its own? Writer/director Joseph A. Elmore Jr. (sorry: couldn't find a photo of him anywhere) tries to have it both ways, handing us a character (played by Mr. Robinson, below) that everyone in the film just knows is gay, sets him up with a possible significant other, has him turn nelly as hell, and then when the mouth-on-mouth time comes around, insists that he seize up and cry, Oooooooh, no -- I told you I was straight! Further insult is provided when a character has the audacity to mutter, "It's OK: You guys can get married and all..." Oh, really?

So homos are out. What about religion?  As a card-carrying atheist (who's also gay), even TrustMovies was appalled at the handling of an utterly stupid scene set in church.  It's unfunny, over-the-top, pointless and poorly done from every aspect.  As for love and romance, these characters all seem to turn on a dime -- from hate to love, back again, sideways, whatever the script's new moment asks for. You want more? A demented auntie in a rest home, discovering that sought-after birth mother, a building inspector named Red Green who has a blue skin condition (god, that's just hilarious, isn't it?), a love interest who's a painter but for some reason is unable to display her work, and ex-girlfriend (white, of course) who's a bitch on wheels: Writing, pacing, even the handling of flashbacks -- they're all embarrassingly done.

All this could be perhaps acceptable if it were handled with some style and savvy.  But the execution is beyond lame. (By comparison, the Wayan Brothers look like Steven Spielberg.) Worse, after a bunch of failed comedy, the movie has the audacity to turn saccharine. Well, of course. Or maybe I just have no appreciation of current black culture. I hope that's not true. If so, we're in a worse state than even I imagined. The single thing the film has going for it is its "look."  From a technical standpoint, it appears to be a higher budget endeavor than you'd expect -- with camerawork, lighting, sound and the rest all very well done.  The cast, too, is attractive and easy on the eye and even, most probably, has talent -- though it is not much on display here.

Speed-Dating opens Friday, Otober 1, in select cities from New York (at the AMC MJ Harlem 9) to Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston and Milwaukee -- with Dallas set to follow on October 8.  Click  here and then click on THEATER INFO mid-screen to find specific theaters in those cities.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fincher/Sorkin's THE SOCIAL NETWORK: everything you expected -- and more

How "current" is THE SOCIAL NETWORK? You won't under-stand until you sit there in the theater, hanging on for dear life, struggling to keep up with dialog that's both cracker-jack and fire-cracker, coming as it does from some mostly very smart people who know a lot more than you and are happy to make you aware of this fact. I can't remember any movie as dialog-prone as this one -- written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and directed by David Fincher (Zodiac) -- that barrels along at 90 miles-a-minute for two full hours, after which you'd be exhausted,
if your weren't so exhilarated.

As director, Mr. Fincher (above left) has wisely given over to that dialog of Mr. Sorkin (above right), letting his movie run, race, rise, crest then smash down on your ears with shock and delight, sometimes easing smoothly into those orifices, the better to allow that tiny, nasty jolt to come later. "You would do that for me?" asks Rooney Mara (below, as the about-to-be-ex girlfriend of our anti-hero, the as-usual-fabulous Jesse Eisenberg), with such delicate, stiletto-sharp shadings, that we cringe in delight. Humor consistently bubbles up through the nastiness and strivings of  the youth on display, and this helps keep our enjoyment level extremely high.

When in fact (and I believe, for the first time in the film), the dialog suddenly stops (this is at the introduction of the Sean Parker character, played very well indeed by Justin Timberlake, below), it's a shock -- and a reprieve.  We can take a short visual break, as we watch the morning-after routine of Parker and his one-night-stand, played with just the right combination of naïveté and smarts by Dakota Johnson. Once both parties are sufficiently awake, we're off and running with some more great dialog. Sorkin's writing gift is not so much to create the differing manner and speech patterns through which many different types of people talk (there's really little variation from character to character), but rather to take a subject, just about any subject, and let his characters run with it believably and generously so that not just conversations, but whole worlds open in front of us, which we can be a part of -- if only we can keep up.

The story here, if case you have been in a media-free cave for the past six months, details the creation of the internet social phenomenon, Facebook, by Mark Zuckerberg and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, shown at bottom) plus a few hangers-on (played by Arnie Hammerbelow, right, and in the penultimate photo, and Max Minghella, below, left) who, from what we see, probably provided a good portion of the idea behind the idea for the site. Women are definitely secondary, mostly sexual, objects in the movie, which is no doubt how it was and is in the technological realm, big business-style -- unless, of course, it's the woman who has the idea and/or the business. The major females of The Social Network include Ms Mara, as the early and never-quite-forgotten "love" object (or whatever passes for love in the Zucker-berg brain) and Brenda Song (two photos below) as a blow-job-in-a-bathroom sex object who lingers a lot longer. Working with a truly enormous cast of speaking roles, Fincher makes sure that every one of them registers strongly in his or her moment(s), and this ability adds immeasurably to the movie's "reality" credentials.

One of the special glories of the film is how Sorkin and Fincher dole out things like responsibility and truth. Nobody is blameless or heroic here, though Garfield's Saverin becomes pretty much the movie's beating heart, just as Zuckerberg is definitely its narcissistic, ego-bloated brain. Our Facebook fellow begins the movie as an asshole, and ends up as one, too. And yet, if he is never likable (Eisenberg does a wonderful job of keeping him just this side of impossible), his abilities and motives are always comprehensible. We might wish him otherwise, but we must finally accept him, warts and warts and all.

As for Facebook itself -- though the movie ends much prior to the internet behemoth's invasions of privacy or courting/caving into corporate wishes regarding which sites can be seen and which not -- it is no great leap from the characters we see on display here to the realization that we may think we're using Facebook, while Facebook is using us.  (For a possible alternative to the site, check out the article in this weeks New York magazine about a new "fab four" and their Diaspora*.)

There has been talk -- more than that, admissions -- of fully made-up scenes in this film. Well, it isn't a documentary, after all. And since Mr. Zuckerberg is now a multi-millionaire, or billionaire, or who-gives-a-sh-aire, we can't feel too sorry for the little guy.  He'll get by. And so will we. TrustMovies, with his advanced years and ever more cynical view of our world, prefers Never Let Me Go, as this year's more important and profound look at life in our world. But for intelligent mainstream audiences (do these still exist? The Social Contract's box-office grosses will tell the tale) willing to be challenged, this film will likely win the awards, as well as the coin of the realm.  It is certainly a don't-miss movie and an enormous achievement in terms of American movie-making.

Someday, I suspect -- long after we're gone and if repertory cinema still exists -- Film Forum will offer a double bill of The Social Network and Catfish, at which viewers will marvel that such old-fashioned technology ever existed -- and wonder how human beings could have actually believed in, and given such power to, a concept as paltry as this one.  "Friends" indeed.

The Social Network, from Columbia Pictures/Sony, which made its debut at the opening night of the NY Film Festival last week, opens theatrically Friday, October 1, nationwide (in the bigger cities, at least). Go to this link, scroll down a bit, type in your zip code to find a theater near you -- then hope for the best.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NYFF Masterworks: Fernando de Fuentes' Mexico and its (continuing) revolution

One gets the decided sense, while watching the films of Mexican movie-maker Fernando de Fuentes, that the would-be, society-and-country-changing event known as the "Mexican Revolution" -- even at the time his films were made (the mid 1930s), not to mention the most prominent time of that hoped-for revolution (1910-20) -- remains ongoing. And perhaps going nowhere. We may learn more about this upon the showing of the new Mexican ten-part movie Revolución (below), which will screen on Saturday, October 9, and about which I'll have more to say next week.

Meanwhile, the fine program of Mexico's revolutionary history made up of the three de Funetes films in the tiny retrospective that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting during its 48th edition of the New York Film Festival would seem to demonstrate this view. TrustMovies managed to see two of the three, and his time was very well spent.

One of the first things you notice about de Fuentes' work is how current, in some of their tricks and tropes, his movies seem. In the first of the three films, PRISONER 13, in order to show the passage of time, the camera glides in on a mother's hands adjusting the collar of her little boy's shirt and tie. When the camera moves outward again, he's a young man. Likewise, in the second of the films, EL COMPADRE MENDOZA, a landowner/arms merchant, Mexican style, who of course plays both sides of the street, appears to support the Mexican Army under Huerta (whose portrait appears prominently in the merchant's home).  When the Zapatistas come to call, however, it's Emiliano whose portrait gets quickly get hung in replacement. We've seen this done countless time since, but Señor de Fuentes may have been the first to offer it, and in any case handles it with good humor and great style.

El Compadre Mendoza, by the way, is a must-see for several reasons.  The story of this fence-straddling, please-'em-all "businessman" -- whose lovely and quite wonderful wife was herself a kind of "business deal" -- is told with amazing charm and tact. Even today, we'd be lucky to get a movie that says so much about so many subjects done with this kind of subtlety and skill. Marriage, politics, family love, longing, passion, adultery, parenting, sacrifice, even some buried homo-erotic feelings -- they're all blended seamlessly into one rich, funny and moving film.

Prisoner 13 (a still from which is shown above), is a melodrama about a top military man who a decade ago rejected wife and child but now longs to know the whereabouts of his son. It stars the same two actors from "El Compadre" (a still from which is shown below) -- Alfredo del Diestro (shown center, above, and at right, below), who plays Compadre's rich landowner and Prisoner's military sleaze-bag, and Antonio R. Frausto as Prisoner's revolutionary leader and as the handsome, hunky general of Zapata's army (below, left).  Both men give fine performances in roles quite different, and both were among the lights of Mexican cinema during the first half of the last century -- with Frausto giving nearly 100 performances over that time and del Diesto almost 50.

I wasn't able to see the last of this Mexican trilogy, LET'S GO WITH PANCHO VILLA, said to be one of the best of de Fuentes' films. But the first two have peaked my interest to the point that I'll make sure see it somehow. On the basis of what these film show, the revolution was always an "iffy" proposition greeted with the kind of popularity shown by those more democratic/socialist regimes of Chile's Allende or Spain's anti-Franco Republican forces, in which the countries themselves remained (and still remain) divided on the subject of which road -- right or left -- is best. And, as usual, in so many supposedly "democratic" countries, wealth and power consistently collude to make certain that the have-nots
continue not to have.

All three films are getting a rare and deserved theatrical screening at the Walter Reade Theater tomorrow, Wednesday, September 29. Seats are available, and times and ticket information can be found by clicking here or on the individual films (above).

(All of these films are also available via Netflix and even more by de Fuentes can be found at Blockbuster.)

Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López and Yvan Attal power Catherine Corsini's LEAVING

A performance as stops-out, emotional and driven as any that Kristin Scott Thomas has ever given guides home LEAVING, the new film from French co-writer (with Gaëlle Macé) and director Catherine Corsini. We are most often used to seeing Ms Scott Thomas, shown at right and below, in buttoned-down roles, which she can handle with the best of them (and will do again next week, when the John-Lennon-as-a-teenager movie Nowhere Boy opens). It is something of a surprise, which then becomes a kind of joy, to watch this fine actress let go and give her all in the pursuit or a love that is clearly the most passionate her character has ever felt.

Those of us who've experienced this kind of all-out passion will perhaps nod and reflect (or maybe relive it a bit). Others who have not yet experienced this can only wonder at the level of emotion (which leads to some shocking actions) and either wish for something like this to befall them or be supremely grateful that it has not. Either way, thanks to a fine script that begins near the finale and circles back, the filmmaker crafts a movie of amazing immediacy that should leave you both jolted and thoughtful at its finale. Corsini chooses carefully the right steps to show how the affair takes off, together with the correct amount of detail to pull us in, build up a good deal of suspense but never sate us, and then tops off the script with alert direction that captures precise moments from this woman's work life, family life and lovemaking,

Ms Corsini (shown at left) has given us over the years a number of successful films -- La nouvelle ÈveLa répétitionLes ambitieux, and now this one -- that remain interesting and exploratory, particularly where the role of woman is concerned (and by extension, man: With most filmmakers, especially men, it's the other way around). Corsini never excludes the guys. She gives them their due, as she does the attitudes and feelings of the teenage children involved. Yet it's the woman (or women) at the center of her stories that interests her most. And in all cases that TrustMovies has seen, she (together with the actresses involved) makes these women comes fully, sometimes alarmingly, alive.

Ms Scott Thomas has always been an actress to breathe great life into each of her roles. Last year, in I've Loved You So Long, even as a broken woman suddenly free after a long prison stint, she managed to radiate enough inner intensity to keep us enrapt. Here, as a relatively happy if somewhat bored housewife with a slightly too self-satisfied and controlling husband (the sex scenes between wife and husband and wife and lover bring this point home in spades), once she allows passion to have the upper hand, there's no turning back.

Casting Yvan Attal (above) as husband and Sergi López (below) as lover would seem to go against the natural grain of so many of their past performacnes.  Still, Attal was splendid as the controlling businessman/hubby in this past year's Rapt, and López, in his many villain roles from Sólo mía to last year's Ricky, always manages to add passion, strength and sometimes several dollops of caring to his creeps. In any case, the casting works beautifully, and both men register strongly and believably.

The film's ending should and will cause talk.  The movie ends, all right, but you certainly could't call it "wrapped up."  Or could you?  I'd love to talk to Ms Corsini about this....  In any case, Leaving is risky, thought-provoking movie-making.

Leaving, distributed via IFC Films, opens this Friday, October 1, at the IFC Center in NYC and will also be available from IFC On-Demand beginning October 27.  Click here to determine if you can get it in your area.

Monday, September 27, 2010

NUREMBERG -- the original -- is seen thea-trically at last via the NYFF and Film Forum

How is it, asks the press materials for NUREMBERG -- the honest-to-god, you-are-there documentary film originally made by Stuart Shulberg, of some of the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, from November 20, 1945, through October 1, 1946 -- that the Allies' own film of what is arguably the greatest courtroom event of all time never played in U.S. theaters?  Good question. If you'll permit, TrustMovies would suggest an answer.

Just after World War II, the U.S. government actually suppressed this film, for reasons and motives that have been argued about since then. Were the American people too pristine, too innocent to be shown material such as this -- "this" being not so much the war itself but the Nazis genocide against the Jews, as was bandied about at the time. (If we were too innocent, or too dumb, to be shown it then, are we, as a nation, any more "adult" now?) I suspect that perhaps some American Jews in high places, not the least of these, the Hollywood moguls, went along with this charade because it was thought that too much attention called toward this event might result in some sort of backlash. This is understandable, as most societies throughout history have been guilty of anti-Semitism. So let it be. The war was over and the bad guys brought to justice -- some of them, anyway. We know now that this was hardly true of all high-level Nazis, as the US government cherry-picked a number of former Nazis it thought might prove useful -- such as Klaus Barbie, shown above (see My Enemy's Enemy) -- and immediately helped them out of post-WWII-Germany and on their way to a more "productive life."

The Holocaust, however, was not the sort of thing that could be kept under wraps. Soon after WWII, and continuing through today, one after another of stories, letters, photographs, books (novels and non-fiction), films (documentary and narrative) began appearing, from country after country, until much of this history had been told. All of it will never be. (And if Holocaust deniers have their way, the world will eventually forget about the whole thing.)  By this point in time, so much has been seen on this subject (such as the Jewish children used in Nazi medical experiments, shown above, but not from the film Nuremberg) that I would guess that this actual and original Nuremberg documentary, which shows us a minimal amount of film on the trial in any case (only 25 hours of footage was shot over nearly one year's time), would have seemed rather "tame" to any distributor considering it for theatrical showing over the past couple of decades. Just so would it have seemed to most paying audiences, who have now been drenched in horror, both real and imagined, by the documentary and narrative films of this same time period. Yet this trial, which was the first to prosecute "crimes against humanity," would become the touchstone for all further genocide prosecutions.

Timing is often all-important, and the time to have gotten Nuremberg out to the public was immedi-ately post WWII, or as soon after this as possible. Indeed, the movie -- as filmed originally by Stuart Schulberg (that's he, at far left, with his brother, the more famous American writer Budd Schulberg) -- is indeed quite "tame." It shows us the prosecution displaying surprising tact and civility in the handling of the Nazi war criminals, as well as the defendants and their ridiculous references to "certain excesses" that might have gone on, or the fact that they had no knowledge of what was happening to the Jews. This by now will seem standard stuff to those of us who've viewed countless Holocaust dramas and documentaries. Does this mean that audiences should not bother to see the film? Hardly. This is history, and a welcome addition to the already chock-full oeuvre it is.

The restoration of the original film has been done by the filmmaker's daughter Sandra Schulberg, together with Josh Waletzsky, and Ms Schulberg (shown at right) appeared at the press screening to explain certain parts of the movie to us, especially why it features no voice-synchronized sound to go with the visuals.  Instead, actor Liev Schreiber narrates the film in his excellent tenor voice, which sounds quite true to the time period of the late 1940s.

What struck me as most interesting about the film was the way in which Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief U.S. Prosecutor at the trial (shown above, center, speaking), lays out as succinctly and understandably as I have ever heard or read how Hitler's war on the world came directly from his own book Mein Kampf, and then how the man, his generals and his army invaded country upon country, after giving each one assurances of peace and no interest in taking over its territory. Hitler's crimes against humanity are horrible enough, but this clear explanation of the manner in which he laid waste to eastern and western Europe is striking enough to turn history into something lean, immediate and ferocious.

Other scenes also stand out -- an aerial view of a (for-a-brief-time) conquered Russian army, made to live outdoors in the winter with no shelter. As the film proceeds, if the trial begins to sound a bit pompous, I guess the speech-ifying Allies were entitled to their moment in the sun. The sentences for the various men convicted seem rather arbitrary, but better history buffs than I will understand why this one got life imprisonment, that one was hanged and the next was made only to serve a few years.

Nuremberg, after playing the New York Film Festival on Tuesday, September 28 at 6:15pm (sold out) then opens the following day at Film Forum for a one-week run. You can check Film Forum dates, times and ticket availability here. For further screenings throughout the country, click here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mitch McCabe's MAKE ME YOUNG explores our growing penchant for plastic surgery

Is it remotely possible to have a "balanced" look at the anti-aging industry (plastic surgery, injectables, laser treatments, wrinkle creams, hair transplants -- and the people who push them)? On the basis of MAKE ME YOUNG, the recent documentary, just out on DVD via Cinema Libre Studio (it made its debut via HBO), the answer is, "Sure" -- but you'll have think for yourself, disagree with many of the participants, and maybe even surprise yourself by going somewhat against your own better judgment as you watch this alternately fascinating, flabbergasting and exasperating little film. Does it reflect America today and our preoccupation with youth-at-any-cost?  Absolutely.

In it, director/producer/editor/co-writer Mitch McCabe, shown at left, herself a daughter of a plastic surgeon (albeit one who came to that professions by first helping victims of war, accident and sickness), opens up about her own obsession with aging and where this might have come from ("My obsession was my dad's profession"). She then travels the country -- meeting, interviewing and making friends with various doctors and their patients, and talking with "experts" on this subject.  These include the professionals, of course, but also editors of fashion magazines, a "Creative Director" of a upscale clothing store, a self-styled consumer advocate and various hawkers of skin creams. You will have take their words with the proverbial grain-of-salt, but together they paint a picture of a society willing to forgo this month's rent in order to have the necessary Botox injections.

There are many ways to try to fool mother nature, and this movie covers a lot of them -- such as the boob job we see on one of the saddest of our interviewees, Texas-based Sherry (above), who has lots of work done in lots of area and claims to be happy as a clam. For all of her southern gush, however, she seems, as seen here, obsessed only with her desire for a better appearance. Another "victim" who's into fooling, in the bloodiest section of the movie, is Gary (below), getting a hair transplant.

Mitch then meets yet another daughter of a plastic surgeon, who is currently posing for skin magazines (Daddy didn't know during the filming, but he probably knows by now. Does he care?). We discover all sorts of anti-aging devices, like this little job (below) that looks like an electric shaver but, instead of hair, gets rid of wrinkles. Or so its propronents claim.

The movie is supremely anecdotal; we meet a few too many characters to get to know most very well. Yet this also gives us an a wider overview and lets us take home the movie's message, which is finally picked up and run with by the movie-maker herself: If all this makes you feel good, just give in and do it.  And so she surely does.  

The craziest, saddest moment in the film comes when a lovely blond woman (not Mitch's BFF, above, left) looks at her reflection in the mirror and declares, "It's just disgusting!"  At this point, the viewer may want to scream, "But you're beautiful! How crazy can you be?" The character who grounds the movie, however, is Dee, an early patient of Ms McCabe's dad, who was given new breasts after a double mastectomy. We see old footage of her at the time and then nearly 20 years later. Then and now, she seems the ideal plastic-surgery candidate: She actually needs it. Yet she remains imminently sane, funny, smart and real -- rather than someone clutching desperately to a fading youth. (That's a photo of the late Dr. McCabe, below, showing off a "boob" pillow sculpture that one of his patients had made for him.)

Offering up a sad statistic, McCabe alerts us to the fact that more and more of our new, young doctors are opting for this industry rather than becoming primary-care physicians.  The money is much better, of course, so why not? And since more and more of us seem to prefer the kind of medicine that caters to the needs of our exterior rather than our interior -- well, sure, come on in:
The doctor will see you now.

Make Me Young, which debuted on DVD last week, is available for sale now and -- eventually, we hope -- for rental.