Saturday, April 30, 2011

DVDebut: Dan Ireland's JOLENE is an odd mix of near-soap-opera & something more

If you, like TrustMovies, have long been a fan of the films of Dan Ireland -- The Whole Wide World, The Velocity of Gary, Passionada and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont -- you won't want to miss his newest addition (though most everyone else seems to have). Mr. Ireland is interested in odd relationships: the characters played by Zellweger and D'Onofrio in "World," D'Onofrio's with that of Thomas Jane in "Gary," Jason Isaacs' with a younger and older female in Passionada, and a young Rupert Friend's with an old Joan Plowright in "Mrs. Palfrey."  In his latest endeavor, the focus is on his title character and her several relationships with different men -- and one woman.

Based on an E.L. Doctorow story (unread by me), JOLENE seems an unusual movie by the usual standards of this director (shown at left). Rather like a road movie, with the road being the main character's life as it unfurls in front of us, it's chock full of interesting incidents. (It's also a road movie in that, every so often, Jolene hits that road toward a new location and love.) As played by newcomer Jessica Chastain, our heroine begins as a glowing, 15-year-old bride in South Carolina (below, right, with her bow-tied groom, the sweet, sad Zeb Newman, at left, and his home-wrecking uncle, an excellent Dermot Mulroney, center).

For the first (but not the last) time, money and power conspire to trap our girl, who, as an underage ward of the state, is plopped into a reformatory where one of the guards (a very good Frances Fisher, below) takes a shine to her.

From there, it's off to Arizona where, as a car hop, Jolene meets a tattoo impresario and would-be musician (played by Rupert Friend, below).

When men prove once again unreliable, she's off to Vegas where, working as a pole dancer (Ms Chastain does one of the rare, sexy and actually interesting dances of this sort that film has yet given us), she meets hotshot Chazz Palminteri, below, whose mob ties make for high living. For awhile.

Then it's back to the south and and a job in Oklahoma, where she catches the eye of the heir (Michael Vartan, below) of one of the wealthiest families in town, and money and power conspire once again.

In each episode our girl is in the relatively passive position, preyed upon (sort of) by the more powerful male. And it is clear that she enjoys the attention and gives into it willingly. Yet, instead of making her seem stupid or coarse, thanks to Ireland's clear-eyed direction and to Ms Chastain's very impressive performance, it is obvious that Jolene is simply part of the dance of life that is constantly going on. She's a decent young woman making the best of her situation. The actress is not given any scenes of great depth that call for "amazing acting." Rather it's her believability, her always-grounded quality, along with a quiet charisma and porcelain-skinned beauty that hold us in thrall. Chastain is a keeper, and I can't wait to see more of her.

While the movie definitely has a soap-opera plot -- and some wonderfully rich, glossy locations, all of which make it a non-stop-enjoyable experience (my companion said it reminded him of some of the later Lana Turner movies) -- it is grounded by a seriousness of purpose that allows it to rise above the suds, seaminess, and surface delights. The film's final scene, a kind of epilogue to all that has gone before, brings this home in spades. It's intelligent, thoughtful and little bit mysterious -- just like its memorable heroine. By the end of it you'll know very well why you're in love with Jolene, and the movie about her.

Out this week on DVD, and available for sale or rental, Jolene can be found at the usual retailers.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Lynn Shelton's early WE GO WAY BACK gets a late theatrical release in Brooklyn

Or is it a re-release? I'm not sure. Either way, this was TrustMovies' first time to see WE GO WAY BACK, the early (2006) film from Lynn Shelton, the woman who brought us Humpday in 2009 and My Effortless Brilliance in 2008. To TM's taste, this older film is twice the movie Humpday was: funnier, faster, finer in every way. Delicate with out being wispy, and with quite an original idea at its core, the film grabs you, places you into various moods from light to dark, and will not let go until the final frame -- at which point you are left to wonder what will happen to our heroine: a young woman who, up until that point, has shown herself to be quite the lovely and much-used doormat.

Seems to me that Ms Shelton, shown at left, is working with much more of a script here than she was in Humpday. At least We Go Way Back has little of that annoying, half-assed dialog that so many mumblecore movies wear like some verbal badge of honor. The dialog here, in all cases, seems not only real and just-discovered but also intelligent and on-the-mark, creating character, even as it rolls onwards -- to my mind the real badge of honor where filmed conversation is concer-ned. The filmmaker's lead character, Kate, is a 23-year-old actress with an experimental theater company in Seattle whom Shelton and the lovely young actress who plays Kate (Amber Hubert, below, right, and at bottom) bring to wonderful, alternately annoying/funny/sad life.
The filmmaker's "take" on the theater company, its actors and particularly its director results in some of the funniest, low-key satire of an "experimental" theater doing "the classics" that I have ever seen. Simply for what Shelton lets us see and hear of the company's re-creation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler, her film deserves its own "classic" status. This is prime stuff, hilarious and all too true. (It should make us New Yorkers even more thankful for our own Pearl Theater Company, which, for nearly thirty years, has given us those classics in their real, rightful form -- unadorned by idiotic experimenters. And it's not that I'm against experimental theater. But create it on your own for christ's sake -- don't bowdlerize your betters.

But back to the film: That original and core idea that Shelton has come up with is to have her heroine discover and re-read letters that she, as a teen-ager ten years earlier, wrote to her older, not-yet-even-there self. These are sad, charming and dear -- and though I've never heard of any teen actually doing this, why not? It would take a rather mature girl to even think of it, but that's part of the point here: The writings of this younger, hopeful girl becomes the very thing that sets her older counterpart to wondering about her current life. And perhaps assisting her in doing something about it. It's a lovely conceit, and Shelton makes good use of it without turning it into some heavy-handed lecture (which I may be doing here). Think of it as a kind of non-scary ghost story, with your own youth as the specter.

The younger self is played by a terrific little look-alike in youthful form, Maggie Brown (above and further above), and the various men in Kate's life are given small but telling moments.  Her theater director is played by Robert Hamilton Wright, and he is low-key, pretentious perfection. Without giving away too much, I hope, I will say that because the director sees the character of Hedda's hubby as a man-child, he decides to replace the adult actor with his own teen-age nephew (below, left). If we were to see the finished production of this Hedda, it might just prove the funniest theater piece of all time. (On the other hand, it might bore us to sleep before our laughter could take wing.)

Some film-goers may carp about being left in limbo at film's end. (Or not returning again to the theater to experience some deserved come-uppances.) Not I. We've seen quite enough to understand what could happen from here on in, and that, coupled with some lovely closing visuals, should be enough to quietly please us.
We Go Way Back opens today for a week's run in Brooklyn at the re-Run Gastropub theater. I saw the film on a wonderfully bright, crisp Blu-ray screener, which put the first-rate cinematography (by Benjamin Kasulke) up front. I hope that the film will be eventually be available to the public -- on DVD, and if possible on Blu-ray.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Best after-school special ever? Pavone's genuine and unusual THAT'S WHAT I AM

Comparing a movie to an after-school special generally means something derogatory. Not in this case. Not at all. For writer/-director Michael Pavone has given us a coming-of-age, junior-high-school story that's rare in lots of ways. It's the first really good film, one for which no excuses need be made, from the WWE; it has a cast -- Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Molly Parker plus a group of remarkably gifted unknowns and even a WWE superstar (Randy Orton) who proves quite a good actor -- of which any movie would be proud to boast; and best of all, it handles coming-of-age and all the complexities of the adult and teenage worlds with remarkable depth, understanding, generosity and tact. In short, it's an important film that will undoubtedly -- due to its provenance (particularly, I fear, that WWE connection) -- get lost in the hustle and bustle of the mainstream mix.

In THAT'S WHAT I AM (one might wish for a better title, actually), Mr. Pavone, shown at right, explores a number of major subjects -- bullying, parenting, homosexuality, first love, the outsider, dignity, tolerance, creativity -- but in interesting, off-kilter ways that allows to see all of them with surprising freshness and grace. Consistently interesting and entertaining, the movie is fun, yet it's always about something. And something important.

Pavone is especially adept at weaving all his themes together so that one does not seem any more important than another -- and all connect to the what is basically a terrific coming-of-age tale. The filmmaker and his casting crew -- Denise Chamian, Elizabeth Coulon and Ania Kamieniecki-O'Hare -- have managed to fill every role with splendid performers.  Harris, Madigan and Parker are expectedly great, but so are all the young people in the mix.  Chase Ellison (above, right) and Mia Rose Frampton (above, left) are lovely as, respectively, our designated "hero" and his first love (Ms Frampton brings a particularly saucy, knowing generosity to the proceedings).

Even the prime bully at school, played by Jordan Reynolds (above, standing over Mr Ellison), is given more  character than is usual.

But it is the "outsider," the boy who, no matter what, simply cannot fit in, that seals the deal.  He is played by first-timer Alexander Walters, who gives one of the most indelible performers ever seen in a kids-growing-up movie.  And he does this with nary a cliché in sight (there couldn't be: The character and the actor are simply too unusual). Who The Big G (as he is known) actually is, and why he does what he does, is a kind of mystery that Pavone smartly allows to be only partially solved (sort of like the human character in all its variety and fascination). And Mr. Walters, whom I dearly hope we shall see again soon, is a marvel in the role. He personifies the dignity that is so much a part of this wonderful film.

The filmmaker thankfully resists every opportunity to smooth things over and show us that all's right with the world. Neither does he make the place unduly dark. Instead, it's one of change and -- we hope -- growth.  Interestingly, the WWE star Orton (shown above, left, with Ms Madigan) takes on the darkest role in the movie and does a fine job of bringing it to life. Even here, Pavone lets us see that the attitudes expressed are not at all far afield from reality then (the film takes place in the 1960s) and probably only a small step or two from it now.

Mr Harris (above) is simply wonderful as the teacher everyone loves but no one can help (you'd hardly recognize him here from his great work in The Way Back, which is out on DVD this month), and Ms Parker, as the Ellison's character's mom, is warm and real, gracious and graceful. The movie ends with one of my favorite songs of all time on the soundtrack -- one that is as timely now as when it was written decades ago: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Teach Your Children. What a pleasure to hear the song again, and in this particular movie -- which should be shown in every classroom in the country.

For now, That's What I Am is opening across the country in a very limited run that begin this Friday, April 29. In New York City you can see it at the Quad Cinema. Click here to get the listing of other cities and theaters.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Werner Herzog's 3-D CAVE OF FORGOT-TEN DREAMS: visuals, yes; narration, no

What a privilege it is to be able to go into Chauvet Cave -- the latest, though probably not the last, in the ongoing discoveries of blocked-off caves containing pre-historic remains and early human art. We owe film director Werner Herzog (shown below) a great deal of gratitude for going there, getting permission to film the place and bringing us with him and his crew -- in 3-D yet -- to take a look. There: I've paid my "grateful" debt; now I can raise a bunch of objections to a film, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, that had me alternately enraptured and annoyed.

It really is a pleasure to be able to see these newly discovered cave paintings, which seem remarkably fresh and, yes, sophisticated in some ways.  Even if we went to Chavet in person, we couldn't get in: The cave is not open to the public in order to truly preserve the art. (Opening the Lascaux cave to the public has proven semi-disastrous.) And the use of a 3-D camera was at least a semi-smart choice. As usual, with this new 3-D, the image remains a little too dark and a little too... blurry isn't quite the right word: maybe fuzzy. But the 3-D allows us to imagine that we are seeing "around" the images, even if we are not, and because they are painted onto walls that curve and dip and rise, the added dimension makes all this seem more "real."

And yet Herzog really doesn't use the 3-D for all it's worth.  He's too "good," too "classy" to allow images to seem to come toward us out of the screen; something like that might offer a little too much fun. In one scene/interview, his subject picks up a spear and tosses it -- away from the audience. This whole scene, in fact, seems like visual vamping on the director's part.

His "interviews" with various scientists and archeologists are another matter -- particulary one with a young archeologist (below) who tells the filmmaker that he used to be a circus performer (talk about an unusual change of career!). When, later, he tries to explain how and why he sometimes must stay away from the cave, the film for a moment takes on some the mystery and allusiveness (allusivity?) that the filmmaker so loves.

Which brings us to his narration of the movie, which -- were the movie's subject not so damned interesting -- would be the deal-breaker here. Herzog loves his own narrations (he write 'em and speaks 'em), and perhaps the sound of his own voice, which, when they work -- Grizzly Man, The White Diamond -- can do wonders. When they do not -- The Wild Blue Yonder and now this "Cave" -- his films come closer to ridiculous than sublime. There is so much pompous babbling here (did someone feel the need to expand the film to a full 90 minutes?) that you can only wonder that no one close to the filmmaker had the balls to say, "Werner, shut the fuck up!" Well, allow me.

From the film's romanticized, semi-pompous/cliched title (Whose dreams? Who forgot 'em? Who cares?) to his meanderings on "What exactly took place here? Only the paintings could tell us." Well, no they couldn't because painting can't talk. We're going to have to interpret and extrapolate and maybe simply guess, Werner, just like always, when we make "history" out of "art."  Does this man have a need to to create something faintly religious from all of this? Perhaps. Calling this art the "beginning of the modern human soul " seems weird enough, but by the time (film's finish) when the guy begins imagining (at least I think this is imagination) a nearby hot springs complete with albino alligators (as art critics, yet!), the jig is most definitely up.

The audience I sat with during the screening were respectfully silent throughout (some may have been sleeping), but when you see the movie (if you're a cave-art/history buff, you certainly will), you have my permission to giggle now and then.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an IFC Films release (90 minutes and in 3-D, at some theaters) will open Friday, April 29, in New York City at the IFC Center (in 3-D) and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (in 2-D). It will certainly be playing elsewhere around the country, but unlike most films from IFC, this one will not be available via VOD (for the time being, at least).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Comedy culture clash with the Russians in Philip Rosenthal's EXPORTING RAYMOND

Having given up on television decades ago, I've only recently come to the TV sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond (via TV Land reruns that my partner watches now and again). I admit it's a pretty funny show. Consequently I was primed to see the new documentary EXPORTING RAYMOND, in which the show's creator (and sometimes producer, director, writer and actor) Philip Rosenthal has the chance to oversee a recreation of his long-running hit sit-com in Russia. What an opportunity for, well, just about anything and everything you might imagine -- beginning with culture clash and ending with narcissistic ego-fondling. Or maybe that order should be reversed.

This opportunity is also the chance for Sony, who evidently owns the show, to make a ton of money off licensing rights, or so everyone hopes. Since a similar thing happened with a U.S.-to-Russia translation of The Nanny, why not with Raymond? So off to Russia Mr. Rosenthal (shown at left and below, left) goes, followed at all times by his filming crew -- a situation that is immediately suspect so far as I am concerned because it means that everyone, always, is somehow playing to the camera and that, whatever else might happen, they are determined to get a movie out of this.

They do. But it isn't much of one. A quote on the film's poster explains that one particular critic "cannot remember an audience laughing so loudly or so often." I can only say that at the screening I attended, I heard only a couple of mild guffaws throughout the entire film, and I myself laughed aloud once. The funniest moments come early on, as Rosenthal is asked about obtaining hostage and kidnapping insurance prior to leaving for Russia.  His response is real and wry.

Most of the rest of the film seems somehow "manufactured" to prove that, yes, Everybody Loves Raymond (or The Voronins, as the Russian audience will come to know it), is simply the greatest show ever, and that Mr. Rosenthal is right about literally every single thing he says. Yet, from what we see in front of us, nothing much is working at all: casting, costuming, rehearsals, shooting. Yet, magically (well, isn't this the way that theater, film and television work?), it all comes together in the end.

Detours are taken now and again for family scenes in Russia and America, a meeting with an impressario/Russian acting "great" (to try to get him to allow another actor to perform on the TV show) and a sub-plot involving the health of Rosenthal's Russian limo driver (this may or may not be a ruse). But it's all quite surface-level and finally a little annoying. No real effort is made toward anything except showing us how god-damned wonderful the Raymond property really is. Surprise!  As for those missing guffaws, well, maybe the movie needs a laugh track.

Exporting Raymond, from Samuel Goldwyn Films, opens this Friday, April 29, in New York, Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, Scottsdale, Irvine, Rancho Mirage, and the greater Los Angeles area. Click here for specific theaters.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A mature Josh Hopkins adds ballast to Ben Hickernell's quiet, thoughtful LEBANON, PA

Only to distinguish it, I imagine, from last year's "tank movie," the title of Ben Hickernell's new film is LEBANON, PA -- which is one abbreviation too many for full impact. While we wouldn't want to confuse the content of this city-mouse-meets-country-mice, culture-war tale with Beirut or terrorism, the word Lebanon arrives so freighted with everything from religious to historic to present-day significance, it seems almost a shame not to let it stand on its own. Or find another, less-recently used title. Since Mr. Hickernell (shown below) has chosen to go the PA route, we'll follow him because his film proves worth seeing for a number of reasons.

These include its take on religion, city life vs country life, "Christian" living, teenage pregnancy, forced marriage, adultery and abortion -- to name a few of the things that weave their way through the narrative of what is, considering all of the above, a surprisingly quiet and thoughtful movie. Mr. Hickernell -- who looks awfully young to be have already written, directed and edited his second movie (the first one, Cellar, arrived six years ago) -- finds plenty of positives and negatives in all of the people and situations he tracks here, and his ability to allow us to see these fully and to understand why and how they impact on each other is what makes his movie more than merely worthwhile.

This wider angle and deeper context is particularly true of the movie's view of religion. We see its kindly face in the daughter CJ (a lovely performance by newcomer Rachel Kitson, above), as she says grace with her newly-discovered cousin Will, played by Josh Hopkins (below). Later, in the what is probably the scariest scene in the movie, as CJ and her boyfriend are forced to meet with their priest and both sets of parents, they are told that when they marry -- no "if" here -- the group will ensure that they have everything they need including "good jobs." Suddenly religious faith turns into a kind of prison in which everything from the social network to gainful employment is frighteningly "assured" for those who follow the faith and its rules.

All of the situations found in the film are viewed from both the angles of the religious right and from the liberal left, and while I believe the filmmakers sympathies finally lie with the latter, he does not make the "citified lefties" always right. In fact, they -- Hopkin's Will, his mom (played by Mary Beth Hurt, below), and the ad agency where he works -- all come off as not a little tainted. And the quieter life of Lebanon appears initially placid and appealing enough to attract a fellow who has just experiences a romantic break-up and the loss of his father.

Back and forth we go with our characters -- eventually including a pretty teacher (Samantha Mathis, below), married but frustrated with hubby and career, who gets entangled with Will -- as they move forward, backward and sideways, trying to handle all the change that must come.

The loveliest -- and key -- scene arrives as CJ's boyfriend (well-played by Josh Hunt) apologizes and explains to the confused girl why and how he now feels. Thanks to the filmmaker's skill at conception and execution, along with the fine performances from his cast, these few moments, beautifully written, are both moving and on the mark.

I make no claims to greatness for this little movie. The filmmaker is still learning his craft, but he, along with Mike Lemon, who did the casting, have chosen their actors very well. Hopkins, known mostly for his work on TV, is getting older now, with a face that is nicely showing its age (but a body that's still in terrific shape). He brings real gravity to the situation, even though he is called upon mostly to react to things. The writer/director understands well that it's the outsider, acting as an unbeknownst-even-to-himself catalyst, who enables the oncoming change, and Hopkins'  face mirrors beautifully much of what is going on here.

Ms Mathis and Ms Hurt are both, as usual, in fine form, and though neither is called upon to do a whole lot of "acting," what they give us is truthful and smart. Ian Merrill Peakes, above, as dad to CJ and her brother Chase, has the strongest role as the man torn between his religion (which includes his favored place in society) and what might be best for his kids. You feel his pain, as well as his inability to withstand the shock of the new.

The younger set is well-drawn, too (the mean girls in this film are spurred on both by jealousy and religion), with Kitson, Hunt and Hunter Gallagher (above) as CJ's brother Chase, all doing splendid jobs. I don't know whether or not the movie will draw many tourists to its titular town, but it's certainly put the place on my memory map, and I suspect it might do the same for yours.

Lebanon, PA opens this Friday in New York City and Philadelphia, and next Friday, May 6, in Lebanon, Pittsburgh and Harrisburgh, PA. Click here to discover all the cities and theaters at which the film will be appearing.  There will also be a number of Q&As with the film's stars, with the filmmaker and even the composer (Matt Pond PA). Click here for the most current update on the personal appearances.