Friday, September 30, 2011

Stream scene: IRONCLAD's clanking armor and severed limbs prove pretty potent fun

Better than then recent "star"-heavy Robin Hood (shorter, too: this one's only 120 minutes compared to the earlier film's 140), IRONCLAD barely opened theatrically to dismissive reviews (eeeewwwww: too gory!) but should prove worthy of a large following on cable, DVD and streaming (the latter is how TM watched it, in High-Def, via Netflix). Directed with brawn and brains and co-written (with Erick Kastel) intelligently by Jonathan English (shown below), the movie is never less than interesting and often surprisingly riveting.

Mr. English is a fellow new to me, but who, on the basis of how well-put-together this movie is -- and the fact that, of the three films he has directed so far, each has risen higher than its predecessor in the IMDB ratings: the first received only a 1.5; the second garnered 3.5; and now Ironclad is up to 6.2 -- I would say that the filmmaker is learning on the job. His latest begins with the signing of the Magna Carta and then offers its own view of what that really bad King John got up to, post-MC. (Not nice, and it should call to mind the betrayal that ended Robin Hood, in which the excellent actor Oscar Issac essayed the role of "Prince" John.)

In any case, according to Ironclad (nice, descriptive one-word title, that!), when King John begins betraying what the Magna Carta stood for, those nobles who had forced the king to sign it now must see that he stands by it instead of executing (and rather nastily) all of them, one by one. To that end, a couple of Knights Templar rise to the occasion, and one of them (the sexy, tight-lipped James Purefoy, above, left, and below, in white skirt and red cross) then raises a (very small) army to stand against the King.

This little group (above) who number around a dozen (against what look like hundreds) eventually find themselves inside Rochester castle, where they are -- and how! -- besieged something fierce. This siege is the meat of the movie, and for the most part, it's a humdinger. Handled in a surprisingly believable and incident-specific manner, it becomes one of those sweet-Jesus: how much-more-can-they-take?! tales that keep viewers alert & on their trembling toes.

The cast -- surprisingly stellar (Paul Giamatti, above, plays King John, plus Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi, Jason Flemyng, with Kate Marashown at bottom, as the somewhat unusual "love" interest) -- also proves very good, and the screenplay is full of nice, intelligent touches, such as the scene in which Purefoy recruits a soldier (Rhys Parry Jones, below) who must bid good-bye to his children. The fellow looks at his young son a moment, before saying, "Work hard," and then at his even younger daughter, to whom he advises, "Be polite."

The movie is no classic -- the screenplay is not good enough for that -- but it's suitably brawny (the battle scenes are excellent), and the performances lift it up a notch or two. When the two hours are through, you will feel as though you -- like those characters in that increasingly fragile castle -- have lived through something fierce. I'll certainly be interested to see what Mr. English does next.

Ironclad is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and via streaming.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

49-Up! THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL nears its half-century with a diverse line-up

Another fall, another NYFF -- this year's seemingly (TrustMovies has seen only one of the 22 Main Slate movies) even more interestingly diverse than usual. In addition to those 22, the festival will offer some 42 Masterworks, plus its annual Views from the Avant-Garde plus the HBO Directors Dialogues (that's Julia Loktev, above, who'll appear in person with her new film, The Loneliest Planet, below), Forums, and the ever-present Special Events.  Oh, yes, and those Galas, too -- five of them this year, each sporting a $40 or $50 dollar price tag.

Is just me or does this year's roster appear not just much broader and numerous than usual but much deeper, too? Well, why not -- since The Film Society of Lincoln Center added new theaters to its usual roster this year. Now, film buffs can bask in more movies, events and personal appearances than they can possibly keep up with. (Despite all that's going on, you can only be in one venue at a time, right?)

This year's presentations include everything from mainstream/highbrow (Alexander Payne's The Descendents (above), showing as one of the Galas) to the lesser-known (Betzy Bromberg's Voluptuous Sleep, below, part of the Avant-Garde) to a panel discussion on just how the Avant-Garde influences mainstream movies (part of the Forums).

There is so very much available this year that you really must click on all the links above and peruse them well  -- or risk missing something that you (and maybe only you) would consider a must-see. That's part of the beauty of the NYFF: how amazingly inclusive yet utterly specific it manages to be.

Though I will be seeing during upcoming press screenings Wim Wenders' first foray into dance (and 3D!) -- Pina (above) -- and the latest from Aki Kaurismäki -- Le Havre (below) -- the only film I've viewed so far is the most recent from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid With a Bike (shown at bottom), which I am thrilled to say may be my favorite Dardenne film so far. The brothers seem to have distilled all they've learned about filmmaking into a single sad and lovely story about the loss of a parent, growth and the taking of responsibility. The film is cemented by three terrific actors: the increasingly versatile Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier and, in the title role, a simply riveting performance by a newcomer named Thomas Doret.

Many of these films have already lined up U.S. distribution, but many have not (and probably will not). So take a good look at the entire program(s) and choose wisely. (Except for those of us who are prescient, how do you do that? ) Well, good luck!

The New York Film Festival opens tomorrow, Friday, September 30 and lasts through Sunday, October 16. Click here for venues and maps, and on the individual films and/or programs, once you find them, to procure tickets.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

AMERICAN TEACHER gives educators their due--& America a well-deserved raspberry

A joyous celebra-tion of good teachers and good teaching, the new documen-tary AMER-ICAN TEACHER makes a fine coun-terpoint, if not a counter-active, to last year's over-hyphed, over-sold and over-done education documentary Waiting for Superman. With all the talk of charter schools being our salvation, they only come back to the same idea as has been on the back burner for a century or more: So far as providing our kids with a good education is concerned, it's the teachers that count most.

Directed and co-produced by Vanessa Roth, shown at left (and co-directed and edited by Brian McGinn), the film introduces us to four major players in the education profession, as well as several more whom we meet only cursorily. These four, shown at the top of the poster above, are -- clockwise, from top left -- Erik Benner, Rhena Jasey (also shown with her students, below), Jonathan Dearman and Jamie Fidler, and you're going to be damned impressed with all of them.

Though it begins on a high note of immense satisfaction and joy -- these teachers really love their profession and the kids they teach -- as the film moves along, it darkens considerably. No surprise, this, to anyone who follows the state of American education, for the picture is dire, and growing more so almost daily. Beginning teachers gets the lowest salary and the hardest classes. They work very long hours and, to boot, they must pay for many of their classroom needs out of their own pocket.

The movie is not awash in statistics, but those provided are important.  We learn the attrition rate for new teachers (bad!), and history of the ever-declining "male" classroom teacher (34% in 1970, 22% in 2002, 16% in 2010) and how women were introduced to the profession, in part to help keep the salary-level down. Keeping that salary level down seems one of the more consistent goals of American education, and it no doubt accounts for why our kids are testing lower and lower on the international learning scale.

One of the very smart things this movie does is to show us the top three countries in terms of test scores for the kids -- Finland, Singapore and South Korea -- and then also shows what these countries have in common regarding how they treat their teachers.  This section is eye-opening, and it makes clear and cogent what must be done here in the USA. Will it? Fat chance. Education and America's children are about as high on the scale of what our politicians truly care about as are the environment and the genuine regulation of Wall Street and the banking industry. It's all about fancy words and nearly zero deeds.

Fortunately, there do seem to be a few alternatives such as The TEP Project to increase teacher's salaries, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to what must actually be done. As we learn more about our foursome, their stories deepen and take on a darker cast, particular that of Erik Benner, above, who must (as do so many teachers) take on a second job to keep his family going. Erik's history, where he came from and where he is now headed, seem particularly heart-breaking.

Probably the most unusual scene in the movie is the one in which Jamie Fidler, above, now a new mom but back in school after only 6 weeks, must find some private place in the school where she can breast pump -- because she is nursing her baby. Or listen to Jonathan Dearman (below) talk about his dedication to education: "From the money I made earlier in real estate, I thought I could subsidize my "teaching habit."  If only. Eventually, he leaves to return to his family's real estate business.

Despite its shiny surface, the movie offers a lot of thought, if not much hope. The fish stinks from the head, and despite these wonderful teachers -- and many more like them -- they are but underlings with little power to change anything. As that super-wealthy one-per-cent, together with our vast conglomerates and paid-for politicians, conspire and succeed in turning us into wage slaves, the education level will keep descending. Only faster. Well, why not? Still, America once held out such promise, didn't it?

American Teacher, from First Run Features, opens in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 this Friday, September 30, for a week's run, with a DVD release not far behind.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Côté & Henriquez's grim YOU DON'T LIKE THE TRUTH: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo

So what kind of folk hang out as prisoners in Guantánamo? For all the secrecy that surrounds the abuse, if not out-and-out torture, of these inmates -- which we've caught snippets of it documentaries such as Laura Poitras' very interesting THE OATH and the Whitecross/ Winterbottom hybrid The Road to Guantánamo -- the world at large has not been given much of a view inside the place. Now comes the U.S. theatrical premiere of a documentary by Canadian filmmakers Luc Côté (shown just below) and Patricio Henriquez (further below) that takes us there via a 99-minute movie culled from seven hours of surveillance during the questioning by Canadian intelligence, over a four-day period, of a Canadian teenager accused by the USA of being a war criminal.

YOU DON'T LIKE THE TRUTH: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo is the result, and TrustMovies would be lying if he did not tell you that this is difficult movie to sit through. But I'm afraid, it is also de rigueur for film buffs, documentary-lovers and any Americans -- hell, citizens of any country -- who want to know what we (and this came as a surprise to me) the Canadians are doing to the detainees. While we see no physical torture here, the metaphysical kind, the nasty mind-game-playing, is horrible enough.

The film is mainly composed of the surveillance video taken during the period in which Canadian intel-ligence tries to get our boy, Omar Khadr, to confess to things that -- over time and with some further investigation and documentation by various reporters -- we learn are simply untrue. The videos them-selves (below and at bottom), blurry and uninteresting (except, of course, for what is going on) are visually boring but shockingly on- target, audio-wise. One lengthy scene in which Omar (below), deliberately left alone, sobs and cries for his mother, is enough to reduce strong men to tears.

This is a grueling documentary for a number of reasons, chiefly that the filmmakers have no real access to their subject -- only to the surveillance visuals. Consequently they must rely on interviews with some of Omar's former cellmates, lawyers, newspaper reporters, psychiatrists and even Canada's former foreign minister Bill Graham.

By far the most interesting interview is with a fellow named Damien Corsetti, who worked as an interrogator in both Afghanistan and Iraq. "I did very bad things," he tells us.  "I became that monster that was written about me." And yet Corsetti finally blames the Canadian people (and by extension their government) for not protecting this boy upon his arrest. "I -- a cold, calculating son-of-a-bitch -- had more compassion for this boy than his own people." (Omar is shown above, at the age at which he was imprisoned, and below, as he appears now.)

The person you will probably most remember from this grim film, however, is Omar's Canadian interrogator: peppy, smart-assed and beyond reprehensible. Doling out lies on top of lies, he leaves his charge in a state of depression that grows worse from day to day. Though it was America who arrested the boy and charged him, it turns out that his own country, Canada, never tried to help him gain his freedom and instead became part of the nasty charade of fake justice/fake victory/fake-just-about-everything (except death) that has been the hallmark of our two current wars.

Yes, the movie raises more questions that it can answer completely. Omar was indeed with the Taliban when the attack occurred, but this does not mean that he was any part of its operation. His dad had left him in its care, and in the attack he was nearly killed and hardly capable of the murder of the American soldier for which he stood accused. (Investigative reporter Michelle Shephard pretty thoroughly debunks the government case in her section of the film). Finally, the movie stands as yet another example of American post-9/11 folly -- in terms of justice, human life and simple economics -- this time unfortunately abetted by our neighbor to the north.

YOU DON'T LIKE THE TRUTH: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo opens tomorrow, Wednesday, September 28, in New York City at Film Forum for a one-week run. Click here for screening times in New York, and here for past and upcoming screenings, worldwide.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun time-waster to stream or rent: the Cox & Steinberg MISS NOBODY with Leslie Bibb

Are you cowed by simply dealing at all with Netflix streaming? Really: The amount of titles available are enough to cross your eyes. You start searching through the various categories and there are so many movies that sound at least at little enticing that, before you know it, your "Instant Play" queue is up to a couple of hundred titles. You quickly realize that you're not going to live long enough to watch all of them. So, instead of making your decision to watch one of them right there on the spot, you keep browsing and add a few more "interesting" looking films to your queue. Gheesh.

All of which brings us to today's "cover" -- MISS NOBODY, a 2010 Canadian film about climbing the corporate ladder in an unexpected manner, written by Doug Steinberg and directed by Tim Cox. We watched this one simply because we were growing crazed by all the options, and so decided to make an immediate decision. It wasn't a bad one. As fun, time-wasters go, the film is bright, well-cast and funny and charming enough to make up for its rather tired and a little old-fashioned plot, in which a pretty young woman named Sarah Jane (Leslie Bibb, above, and below, left) is passed over and over for any job promotion, until...

This lovely lass, who ordinarily would not hurt a fly, discovers she has a talent for aiding and abetting accidental deaths, and one by one various impediments to success find themselves... gone. Probably the most important bit of information that makes all of this quite acceptable in a rom-com killing tale is that Sarah Jane works for -- wait for it -- a sleazy pharmaceutical company whose other employees are, trust me, no loss to the planet when they leave it.

These include her "hottie" boss Brandon Routh, the snidely efficient Vivica A. Fox (above), a supremely officious and funny Patrick Fischler (below) and various other oddly assorted victims. The relatively inventive ways in which these folk meet their maker are fun (if not particularly original), and the romance that develops between Sarah Jane and a local cop (Adam Goldberg, center, two photos above) who rents a room in the home of her and her mom (Kathy Baker, asleep, at right, two photos above) is handled with some fun and flair, as is the relationship with her sort-of BFF Charmaine, played by Missy Pyle (shown at bottom).

No great shakes (but certainly good shakes), the movie rolls along nicely with its technical credits -- from the widescreen photography to sound, sets and lighting -- proficient and professional. In all, a painless way to spend 90 minutes.  And Miss Bibb, as the semi-clueless killer, is quite adorable.

Miss Nobody debuts via DVD this Tuesday, Sept. 27, from Inception Media Group, and will be available for sale, rental or, as I mentioned earlier, you can try streaming it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Jeff Phillips' @urFRENZ takes a timely look at internet use by children -- and parents

Beginning with the shot of an anorexic-looking young woman (she cuts herself, too) taking pills, getting dressed and then being quizzed by her BFF about the possibility of having sex with a new squeeze, @urFRENZ, the new beware-the-internet movie from writer/director Jeff Phillips, might set you to thinking you were (already) watching a dour remake of the delightful and smart Easy A. Sure enough, Phillips' movie is taking a page from the playbook of other internet films -- from Chatroom to Trust to the grand-daddy of spurious-web-identity tales, Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul.

The good news is that Mr. Phillips (shown at right) has staked out his own claim to the area, by showing us what can happen when parents (even with what might pass for good intentions) start using the web with an assumed identity. At the end of the film, we are told that it was based on real events, and if you've been combing the newspaper over the past year or so, you'll perhaps have read about just such things. (The New York Times did a very long and fascinating article about this some weeks, maybe even months, back.)

Despite its initially seeming pretty teenage-typical, @urFRENZ, due to quite decent writing, directing and acting, pulls you into its tale of unhappy high school girls (they look like post-college grads, but this is fairly standard casting for R-rated teen films) and the parents who ostensibly love them -- but have some very odd ways of showing that love.

The saddest of the girls is outsider Catharine (Lilly Holleman, above) who used to be friend with the more popular Madison (Najarra Townsend, below), and a certain young man named Brandon who "friends" them both, eventually, on the movie's titular internet site. Who Brandon is fairly quickly becomes apparent, and provides the movie with its moral quandary, as well as its warning about the dangers of fighting fire with fire.

The filmmaker has done a particularly good job with his various family scenes; they have the ring of truth (and the boredom of inter-generational mealtime down pat). I wish he had not opted for two too many coincidences -- one of which places a character in exactly the right place at the right time to overhear a certain conversation. This is convenient, all right, but it also deadens the reality. Other than that, the movie, despite its having a couple of heavy-duty dramatic scenes, generally manages to avoid melodrama and keep us believably on course.

While all the performacnes are good, the movie belongs to the actress who play's Madison' mom: Gayla Goehl (above, left, with Michael Robert Kelly, who plays her intern and internet guide).  Ms Goehl is feisty, funny, caring, and finally frighteningly stupid as the fake web identity from hell. Truth and trust, gossip and reputation are all given a going-over by the film. And while nothing we learn should surprise us, the movie makes it looks all too easy to render terribly destructive results via simple texting. Or photo sharing. (Interestingly, Madison's Mom -- the movie's most dishonest character -- has a day job as real estate broker.)

@urFRENZ, from Brookwell MacNamara Entertainment, began its theatrical one-week run yesterday in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt.  A DVD and maybe streaming cannot be far behind, so if you can't get to L.A. to view it in a theater, stick this one on your see-it-later list.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ted Woods' WHITE WASH explores the connection between Blacks and water

Sure, it could be a better movie, but that's pretty much beside the point. WHITE WASH, the new documentary from first-time filmmaker Ted Woods is such a fascinating look at a little-explored topic that it simply demands to be seen -- and then discussed. Its subject is ostensibly Black surfers (yes, they do exist), but the movie goes much deeper, exploring the very connection (or seeming lack of one) between American Blacks and one of the four primal elements: water.

Early on in the film, the director and his narrator, Ben Harper tell us, "America's history of racial exclusion, both consciously and uncon-sciously, has made Blacks in the world of surfing all but nonexis-tent."  In addition to Black history, Woods (shown above, left, with Michael Green, founder of Brooklyn Surfing), gives us some surfing history, too -- as James Cook, in 1778, arrives in the Hawaiian Islands and catches sight of the natives enjoying the sport.

From there it's but a skip and a jump to Blacks and swimming, slavery and the use of rivers for escape. This is history as we've been told it previously, but here, with the place of water raised to the ultimate, it results in a story of how racism, finance and water culture combine in ways that I trust you will not have heard before. And while its was clearly in the (seemingly) best interests of Whites to discourage Blacks from approaching the water, what is even more strange and troubling is how and why Blacks have accepted this scenario to the point where they themselves discourage Black surfing. "It's a white sport!"

Yes, well -- it certainly wasn't originally. One of the most revelatory segments in the movie shows us a scene from Bruce Brown's famous ode to surfing The Endless Summer that takes place in African and would seem to indicate that the natives there had never before seen surfers until the white boys showed up to amaze them. According to this film, that scene was simply not true.

We also learn about The Inkwell (above, and not the one on Martha's Vineyard, but a section of Southern California beach near Santa Monica that was frequented by Blacks back in the 1950s and 60s -- until it was suddenly off limits to them -- and one of the early Black American surfers Nick Gabaldon. Among the several Black surfers the moviemaker highlights (in truth, there just aren't that many of them) is Sal Masekela, who tells us a lot of interesting stuff, most piquantly in his statement that he has never understood the phrase about how you "catch a wave," On the contrary, he explains, it is always "the wave that catches you."

The movie makes use of some terrific archival footage, well-integrated into the whole. While I might have wanted a little less music -- or little less volume (at times, it tends to drown everything out), this is a small carp, considering how eye-opening on several levels the film proves to be. In the final scenes, the documentary becomes an out-and-out paean to surfing -- but from the least likely folk you might imagine. Until, that is, you've seen this film.

White Wash, via Trespass Productions, opens today, Friday, September 23, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. And elsewhere, I would hope. This movie has far too much to say to both blacks and whites (all of us in between) for it not to be distributed more widely.