Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Philippe Diaz's NOW & LATER: hot stuff that wears heart/social conscience on its sleeve

Making its Blu-ray debut just yesterday, NOW & LATER -- a little 2009 movie from filmmaker Philippe Diaz (shown below), who earlier gave us the documentary The End of Poverty -- is quite a different kettle of fish. Full of hardcore sex scenes (five of 'em, plus one more -- maybe the hardest -- as part of the DVD Extras), the movie also tells an interesting story of a predatory Los Angeles-based banker named Bill, now disgraced and on-the-run after jumping bail, who finds an "outlet," not to mention a liberal/socialist education in the arms (and an orifice or three) of a very unusual young woman.

Played by Shari Solanis (below, bare-breasted), Angela is one ministering angel, all right. She takes in our poor hero -- who has nowhere to go, having been kicked out by wife and family -- and proceeds to "nurture" him like nobody's business, teaching him a quickie version of The People's History of the United States (and for that matter, the world), putting him in touch with his feelings (and her body) and in general turning the guy into a liberal, left-wing prince. Now, I have nothing against liberal, left-wing princes. In fact, I wish there were many more of them. But I'd like to be able to believe that what I'm seeing is real. And it's here that Mr Diaz's movie fumbles badly.

As good a little actress as Ms Solanis proves herself, and as hunky and hard as her co-star James Worthham (above, pointing) proves himself (both are making their screen debut), and as believable as their "Honey, let me educate you" dialog sometimes is, there is just too much of it, finally, to be at all credible. For all its hot, hardcore sex, the movie is patently an exercise in consciousness-raising.

But it's an exercise that stretches its vaginal and penile muscles as often as its gray matter, and this actually makes the experience pretty damned enjoyable. It is indeed liberating to see love scenes in which the guy is full frontal, as well as the gal, and in which he's erect, to boot. In addition to the missionary positions, we get some voyeurism, masturbation, and finally a threesome (below) with another guy, a former-and-still-burning flame of Angela. It seems that our big-dicked banker is getting quite an education from his little angel.

The movie's title takes on more meaning than you might initially imagine, with the characters co-opting "Now" and "Later" as monikers, though the screenplay finally beats this notion to near-death. And even though events would seem to necessitate it (after all, Bill must get out of the country fast), too much change is packed into too little time for any of it -- except the sex -- to register as entirely credible.

Still, it is an encouraging thing to see a filmmaker attempt to combine a strong political statement with decent story/dialog and some good-to-acceptable acting (Mr. Wortham is more believable as the newly-changed "leftie" than as a bad-boy banker) with sex scenes that are portrayed realistically and yet, for all their hardcore status, do not seem pornographic. I hope we'll see more of this sort of thing, as well as seeing these two leading actors again. (I notice on the IMDB that neither of them seems to have anything pending.) It would be a shame if their appearance here were to in any way stunt their careers.

Now & Later, 99 minutes, is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Cinema Libre Studio -- for sale or rental. The Blu-ray transfer, by the way, is quite nicely done -- with the two "extra" scenes adding some oomph to the proceedings. One of them is extremely hot, as noted earlier; the other is all dialog, and both would have made, for my money, fine additions to the film. But they also would have pushed the running time to nearly two hours, which may have been thought to be too lengthy for this sort of movie.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

FORCE OF NATURE, Sturla Gunnarson's doc on David Suzuki, is a must-see, must-share

David Suzuki? That I knew nothing about this guy (and you may not, either) speaks volumes, I think, about the USA's ridiculous lack of interest in our neighbors to the north. Yes, Canada. What? Was that a yawn I just heard? Well, get over yourself and meet a man who, once you see/hear him speak and learn his story-- as you will when you watch the new documentary FORCE OF NATURE: The David Suzuki Movie --you will never forget.

In Canada, the fellow is pretty much a household name for his hosting of the long-running CBC TV show The Nature of Things and for his pioneering, passionate and really unarguable environmentalism. If you follow this blog, you'll know that TrustMovies sees a lot of environmental-themed films. So when he tells you that Suzuki is the most eloquent and compelling voice -- funny, real and inspiring, too -- for environmental sanity in the world today, I hope you'll react by giving the guy a shot.

Despite the bleak picture we know of where our world appears to be headed, Suzuki -- 75 years old, but possessing more energy that some people half his age -- still manages to fill you with joy and hope, crazy as that may sound. And this documentary, about and with him, from filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson (shown at left, who gave us the under-seen and really quite good Beowulf & Grendel back in 2005) is so enriching and on-the-mark that, when it's over, you immediately want to share it with everyone you know. Suzuki's kindness, decency, intelligence and sheer force come across so strongly that you can't help but feel that watching this film might make everyone care as much about our world as does he.

The impetus for the movie is Suzuki's return to the University of British Columbia to deliver his "legacy lecture" (shown above and four photos down) to a sold-out house. Mr. Gunnarsson smartly uses this lecture as his basis, weaving into it whole segments of Suzuki's (and his family's) history -- and quite a history it is.

Suzuki's mom (above) and dad, though full-blooded Japanese, were born in Canada (they had never even set foot on Japanese soil), as was he (that's David with his brother, below). Nonetheless, post-Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Canadians, like Japanese-Americans, were tossed into the North American version of concentration camps (yes, these were called "relocation" camps). And Canada, post-war, may have actually been less honorable than was the U.S. British Columbia, it turns out, did not want the Suzukis back, so the family had to move elsewhere in Canada.

We move with Suzuki from past to present, from a Bluefin Tuna auction ("criminal," he calls it) to his old university in America's south where he did his research studies and then to a lunch with the Black woman (below) who acted as his old research group's lab assistant back in the 60s. He tells us that seeing how she was treated back then changed him. "Every time I saw a 'whites only' sign, I'd get physically ill and have to throw up. I was becoming a racist against whites."

We also learn learn a little of his early marriage; his understanding and acceptance of why it failed and how he was responsible seems exemplary. We meet his second wife Dr. Tara Cullis, and see some of his popular TV programs -- about which his father insisted early on that his son make himself more understandable.

Among the most interesting sections is that having to do with Suzuki's connections to the Haida, the aboriginal people of British Columbia -- how he and his family worked for the betterment of the Haida and in fact, intermarried with them (below). Suzuki now has a half-Haida grandson.

Regarding his senior years, the man has some clear and important things to say about this final section of our lives. Listening to him speak with such enthusiasm and poetry, I realized how much I'd have loved to have had him as a teacher. He is certainly our teacher here, and if you take this 92-minute course that filmmaker Gunnarsson has served up, you -- and our world -- will profit from it.

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie opens this Friday, December 2, in New York City at the Cinema Village. Press reviews and word-of-mouth should be strong enough to see that the film is snapped up soon by other theaters around the country.

Monday, November 28, 2011

KHODORKOVSKY: Cyril Tuschi's look at the Russian oligarch & country's ex-richest man

I happened to read Steve Dollar's review of KHODORKOVSKY for Greencine earlier this week and was surprised to learn that Mr. Dollar was a complete newcomer to this Russian ex-oligarch/ex-richest man in the country. As Dollar himself explains it in his review, "In my blinkered perception of international affairs, I'd never even heard of Khodorkovsky. But that actually makes the documentary more fun to watch." I think he's absolutely right. TrustMovies has followed the Khodorkovsky story over the past several years -- and gosh darned if this movie about him didn't simply go over much of what I already knew. I kept waiting for some really juicy (or just interesting) additional information, but not a lot was forthcoming. And yet...

The documentary's writer/director, German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi (shown at right), probably made the correct decision in aiming for the audience who knows little to nothing about this unusual man -- and maybe little to nothing abut the state of Russia today: an iron-fist-inside-an-ever-more-threadbare-velvet-glove dictatorship. Is absolutely everyone easily "bought" in today's version of old Russia? Or maybe they're simply frightened into submission? With the few crusading journalists assassinated (or in danger of same), truth seems to be having as difficult a time rearing its little head as it did it those halcyon days of Pravda.

In any case, and in brief, Mr. Khodorkovsly (above) -- a few years back the richest man in Russia (and among the richest in the world) due to his ownership in the petroleum company Yukos -- ran afoul of current "dictator" (let's call a spade a garden tool) Vladimir Putin. Charges against him seemed (and still seem) bogus by any fair and just standard of which I'm aware, but he was tried, convicted and recently re-convicted of even more ridiculous charges (we'll leave the movie to fill you in with details).

All of this has been mulled over by our own media at some length, so filmmaker Tuschi tries to further interest us by combining some nice animation with his story (see poster, top), classing up his documentary with beautifully framed opening and closing shots and also -- the most interesting portion for me -- delving into the archives for some shots of Mr. Big as a boy, or at least as a very young man (above and below).

We hear from his mother and first wife and later from his eldest son (studying here in the USA), though nothing much that anyone says seems groundbreaking.  In fact, the biggest surprise in the movie is the "pet" that is evidently owned by one of the interviewees and is being fed during his interview (no spoilers here, either). And we see some interesting memorabilia (yup -- that's war criminal George and wife Laura, shown center, below).

Like a good documentarian, Mr. Tuschi tries his best to snag an interview with Putin (the famous caption from The New Yorker cartoon, "How about never. Is never good for you?", should come to mind here), but he does manage to speak with Ilya Yashim, an opposition politician. who tells us that Khodorkovsky has a bright future ahead. "He still says exactly what he said five years ago, and for that he deserves respect." (Particularly when, in our own country, politicians can't recall what they said five days ago -- or, if it's during a Republican debate, five minutes ago.)

The money shot, as it were, comes with the in-person interview that Tuschi finally obtains with his subject (that's K is in a glass booth, above). This, together with a couple of other pieces of interviews toward the finale -- one of which answers the question of why the man did not flee his country to safety elsewhere when he was given the opportunity -- gives us the picture of Khodorkovsky that I believe the filmmaker wants us to keep and cherish. And which I am certainly ready to do. This man is the rare, real thing: a genuine Russian patriot.

Khodorkovsky, from Kino Lorber Films (111 minutes), opens this Wednesday, November 30, for a two-week run at Film Forum in New York City. For screening times at FF,click here. To see a listing of all upcoming playdates, click here and then scroll down to the bottom of the screen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Ecuador and Rafael Correa the new models for a progressive South America? Jacques Sarasin's new doc says yes.

Not what you would call a "balanced" documentary (but a most interesting one nonetheless), Jacques Sarasin's ECUADOR: RAINFOREST VS. GLOBALIZATION takes us to the country that has perhaps garnered the least news (considering what it is attempting) in our mainstream media of any in South America. Is this because of its "socialist" leanings? (And because these leanings might just work?) Maybe. But as its President Rafael Correa (elected in 2006, serving since 2007) reminds us several times during this 72-minute movie, this is a "new" socialism -- one in which the state does not own all the means of production but must own or control some strategic assets -- such as the country's natural resources.

Paris-based director Sarasin, shown at right, gives us a lot of Correa in his new documentary, and god knows the guy is photogenic -- maybe the best-looking President of any in the current world. He seems bright, too. An economist by trade and, it appears, an activist by nature, when Correa first came to power, he immediately declared that Ecuador's national dept was illegitimate and pledged to fight creditors in international courts. He (and others) in this pro-active and intelligent doc take the time to explain the reasons for the above, as well as why they feel this new socialism will work.

Among those rooting for the new Ecuador are Alberto Acosta (below), political economist and former Minister of Energy and Mines; Fernando Vega, a priest who went into politics for a time but is now back to "priesting," with an emphasis on emigration problems and Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador's current Minister for Policy Coordination and former Minister of Finance.

On the negative side, we hear (but barely) from Cesar Robalino Gonzago, President of the Association of Private Bankers in Ecuador, who not surprisingly believes Correa's program won't work. Because the President's policies appear to be both humane and sensible, maybe even workable, toward the kind of participa-tory democracy the country has never experienced, many progres-sives around the world are rooting for this Prez and his people.

Past documentaries, such as Joe Berlinger's Crude, have tackled the lawsuit against Chevron Oil, but Sarasin's, with Correa's blessing, one assumes, seems content not to finger-point but rather to address the positive possibilities.

The movie shows us this, as it travels from talking heads, lead by Correa, to the beauty of the rainforest (above) to the sheen of an urban metropolis and back again. Ecuador -- the country and the movie -- are both quite beautiful, offering us the brightly colored native clothing, fertile hills with their llamas, and an administration bent on transforming the country.

To this end, Correa's Yasuni Initiative looks promising: a proposal to refrain from exploiting the oil reserves of the ITT oil field -- in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves in order to preserve the biodiversity of the region, avoid CO2 emissions and protect the rainforest's indigenous peoples. Time will tell whether or not this comes to pass and how well it works. Meanwhile, we have Sarasin's new doc to keep us apprised of what is (or at least was until recently) going on.

Making its DVD debut this Tuesday, November 29, via Cinema Libre Studio, Ecuador: Rainforest vs. Globalization will be available for sale or for rental via various digital platforms (once I learn which platforms, I'll post them here).

Apologies: Only the photo of Alberto Acosta 
(around the middle of the post) is from the film itself. 
The rest are taken, catch-as-catch-can, 
from the internet. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

AGE OF THE DRAGONS, popular Syfy channel film, makes its digital debut

TrustMovies has rarely-to-never watched the newly-named Syfy (formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel). Now that he has viewed AGE OF THE DRAGONS, he better understands why. According to GoDigital Media Group -- which, along with KOAN, is distributing this film -- the little movie has received the third highest rating of any Syfy film this year. 'Nuff said. If this is the level of entertain-ment Syfy viewers want, count me out. Though based on/inspired by/stolen from -- use whichever you prefer -- Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick (talk about provenance!), the movie drops enough "Moby" references to probably entice aficionados. Once you're actually watching the film, however, you can only be disappointed at the little use made of most of them.

Directed by a fellow named Ryan Little, shown at left (from a screenplay by McKay Daines, who had some "story" help from Gil Aglaure and Anne K. Black), the pacing is ponderous, with interior photography generally dark and confusing (exteriors are sometimes a bit brighter) and a screenplay that is not just simple but simple-minded. The movie is not that long -- a mere 92 minutes -- but it feels like forever, as it plods along with a noticeable lack of incident and little real story.

What story there is is set off by young Ahab losing his little sister to The Great White Dragon (above) and then, as an adult played by Danny Glover (shown below, who is clearly wasting his time and talent with stuff like this) tracking the nasty beast over hill, dale and decade, as he seeks revenge.

Instead of taking off Ahab's leg, as in the original, this movie's Moby, being a fire-breathing dragon, has simply "flamed," and therefore scarred, the guy something fierce. Hence the revenge. Or is that really what Ahab is doing? (Granted, the motivations of Melville's Ahab has been called into question plenty of times, but this movie's big revelation about the hunter is paltry by any standard.)

As for that dragon, we really don't see all that much of him. I have heard that Sufy doesn't like to spend a lot on big special effects, so that may be one reason why this Great Off-White Dragon sometimes looks gray (or darker). His best scene, shown above, comes as he camouflages himself rather cleverly, I think, in order to trap one of the bad guys.

Among the good guys are Corey Sevier (shirtless, above right: You can call him Ishmael) and John Kepa Kruse (center left) as his pal Queequeg. As the love interest -- love interest? In Moby Dick. Of course, and you knew it was coming, too: this is Syfy, right? -- Sofia Pernas (shown above, center right and at bottom of post) provides good looks and a little action as Ahab's sort-of adopted daughter, who can fight her way out of most any situation -- except a poorly handled, would-be rape that adds little to the movie's second half.

The wonderful Vinnie Jones (above, right) brings a nice air of professionalism to the proceedings but is still wasted as the short-lived Stubb (almost all the movie's characters are given names directly from Melville), who here appears to be Ahab's second-in-command.

The most interesting portion of the film has to do with the use of the dragons' vitriol (that glowing fluid in the photo at left: think of it as equivalent to whales' ambergris), which is extracted from the beasts and then marketed for coin. There's a grizzly-but-fun scene of the removal of one dragon's vitriol ball. Otherwise the movie pretty much plods along. When I was a kid we had Classics Illustrated -- comic-book versions of the great novels -- which of course our English teachers all disparaged. Were those teachers alive today, I'll bet they'd prefer them to the likes of TV-level movies such as this.

Filmed entirely in Utah (these are Mormon dragons?) Age of the Dragons can be viewed now on iTunes, YouTube Movies, and CinemaNow. Look for the addition soon (these may have been added already) of further venues such as VUDU, Amazon, Playstation and Cable VOD.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bertrand Bonello's HOUSE OF PLEASURES takes us to a Parisian brothel circa 1900

So far as bordello movies go, set- and costume-wise, at least, HOUSE OF PLEASURES  (L'Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close), the new one by Bertrand Bonello is up there with the best (i.e. Louis Malle's Pretty Baby or Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side). What a non-stop joy for the eyes is this extravagantly beautiful, visually stunning but exceedingly depressing look at day-to-day life in a turn-of-the-century brothel.

M. Bonello, shown at left, has certainly outdone himself in terms of sets, costumes and hair styles (the last are credited to Ferouz Zaafour and Milou Sanner). I can't imagine a more stunning combina-tion of production values that seem to be quite in keeping with the time (right down to the women checking each other's hair for lice). The details of the daily grind of the demi-monde shown here seem real and really appalling, once you get past the surface beauty -- of which there is plenty. The act-resses on view, reflecting perhaps both a nod to present-day inclusion and the taste of men a-century-plus-a-decade past, are well chosen for beauty and variety (and acting ability, too). Though I suppose that all prostitutes need to be very good actresses. Or actors.

Centering on half a dozen of the girls and their sensible, hard-nosed madam (a fine Noémie Lvovsky, at right) who has children to support, the movie takes us through the preparations, the evening's work, the following morning, a visit from the doctor to check on the health of the girls, and even the few moments of quiet conversation between them, during which, at times, hopes and wishes are expressed.

Bonello and his cinematographer (Josée Deshaies) capture some painterly composiitons, as above, and their roving camera catches these girls and women -- the eldest is now 28 -- in moments of occasional delight as well as repose.

Early on, there occurs a ferocious act of violence by a member of the clientele against one of these women (a fine debut by Alice Barnole, shown above, center), rendering her useless for this line of work -- except when something kinky or bizarre is requested. This is the movie's signal "event," made more so by the fact that the filmmaker comes back at least once too often to show us how it happened (Trust us, Bertrand: We're going to remember this slashing without your repetition.)

While Bonello also enjoys an occasional split screen, into quarters or thirds (which makes us feel we are everywhere at once but does not break the mood), unfortunately, he is also given to the sudden inclusion of loud, jarring contemporary music -- which drags the movie kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This was terribly ill-advised; it works correctly only once, at the finale, when the director whisks us into present day. Now, the music is more than appropriate, yet his earlier forays have already destroyed any freshness that might suddenly be found in this technique. Which is too bad, for the film's finish might have been even more thought-provoking and moving.

Politics and economics are ever-present, as the girls plan for the day when they will have paid off their "debt" to the madam (though it is intimated that this day will never quite arrive, for the girls appear to be little more than indentured servants). And when one of them -- the lovely Jasmine Trinca of The Best of Youth, Piano Solo (click and scroll down), and Crime Novel -- contracts a deadly (at the time) STD, our depression hits its nadir.

And just when you're ready to cry, "Ah, Capitalism at work once again!" the madam must beg one of her "sponsors" for help in even keeping her house open. All these women -- including the oldest, beautifully played by Céline Sallette, below -- live at the behest of men, and the film is feminist without ever coming close to pushing things.

For all its "downer" qualities and the filmmaker's few missteps, I am pleased to have seen this film. From now on, when someone says "bordello movie," it's very likely to be House of Pleasures that first flashes to mind. From IFC, it opens today, Friday, November 25, in New York City at the IFC Center.  Concurrently it's available On-Demand from your local TV reception provider, and can also be seen via Sundance Now.

Photos are from the film itself or from its production, 
except that of M. Bonello, which is by Jerod Harris