Saturday, December 31, 2011

SCN finale : the Shortmetraje program, plus a round-up & wrap-up for this year's series

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Instituto Cervantes' annual event Spanish Cinema Now came to an end over a week ago, but TrustMovies is still trying to catch up and juggle postings covering new films opening here in New York City with this tasty series that combined new movies from Spain and a retrospective of films (one of which is below, and yes, that's our own Edmund Gwenn in The Rocket from Calabuch) by the late Luis García Berlanga. At the press conference at Instituto Cervantes that opened the series this year, one of the most memorable comments from the podium was this: "Spain has no oil; culture is our oil." Indeed.

The "culture" viewers take away from this singular series each December is always varied and meaningful. And while Spanish film and Hispanic film often share a language, there are enough differences between Spanish Cinema Now and, say, LatinBeat (the FSLC's annual late-summer series of new Hispanic films) that most viewers would seldom confuse the two. For this year's SCN, between the scheduled press screenings, the few "screeners" made available to the press and the public screenings, TrustMovies managed to see all but one of the new films (due to the last-minute scheduling of Ventura Pons' Year of Grace).

It seems to TM that this year's series -- despite some wonderful, must-see new movies (Extraterrestrial, 23-F, Barcelona Before (above), Double Steps) and the Berlanga retro, of which he saw five of the ten films -- disappointed somewhat. Whether this was due to lower quality of the new films overall (and this, due perhaps to the current and continuing economic situation in Spain) or to TM's own slightly depressed mood these days (weeks, months), he cannot say for certain. There were also fewer films to be seen this time. The 2009 SCN series, for instance, hosted 18 new films, this year there were 15. (One of these -- Black Bread -- was first shown in last year's series, and another -- José & Pilar -- is actually a Portuguese movie, so this brings the count of new Spanish films down to 13.)

The Spanish Civil War and its after-effects (above, from 23-F) were on display as keenly and interestingly as ever this year, and the series managed, as usual, to include some art films (Double Steps, The Waves, along with the mainstream-tasteful (Ispansi!) and mainstream-not-so (Torrente 4). Filmmakers with their own distinct voices were on display, too: Otero's Crebinsky and Trueba's Every Song Is About Me (below). Just going over these film again brings them back with a jolt of pleasure and a smile. As usual, even with a slight dip in quality/quantity, Spanish Cinema Now is one of the special delights of the year -- one that I wouldn't and couldn't bear to miss.

And now to Shortmetraje, the yearly program of short films from Spain (which also, overall, seemed a little less exciting than usual), discussed below in the order in which they were shown:

Dying Every Day / Morir cada día
Aitor Echevarría, 2010, Spain; 11minutes
In a very short time, this filmmaker dissects a dysfunctional family over dinner, bringing to the fore all sorts of veiled unpleasantness. We've been here before (and so, I think, have a number of full-length Spanish films) but Echevarría and his very good cast capture these individuals with gravity, humor and panache.

Stereoscopy Estereoscopía
Xacio Baño, 2011, Spain; 12min
The Eye kind of thing -- done short-film style, and very nearly as good as the full-length (original version, not the dumb American remake). Strange, disconected, original visuals (left eye/right eye) accompany this tale of a fellow who gets someone else's eye and begins seeing things. The ending manages to be about as shocking but surprising as anything you could image. This one's just lovely (in a very sad way), and filmmaker Baño should be heard from again.

Gentlemen / De caballeros
Adrián Orr, 2010, Spain; 17min
Watching this film about a barber and his clients (I hadn't read anything about it prior to viewing), I thought it was a narrative, albeit with a documentary style and structure. But it's not. It is evidently pure documentary. The talk, as you might expect in a all-male barbershop, often turns to sex and the differences between the sexes, but 17 minutes with the barber and his clients proves a bit boring after awhile. Though the movie certainly has its moments, I might have wished for different clients, or maybe a different day on the job.

Alberto Vázquez & Pedro Rivero, 2010, Spain; 12min
The one animated short this year offers a simple but creepy and original style to go with its dark subject matter: industrial accidents, environmental despair, nuclear holocaust, among other things. In a world where, increasingly, everyone is becoming "the other," birds, mice and fish begin to change before our (and their own) eyes. The use of masks is telling, as are so many of the little touches here. This one's quite good, so remember the name Birdboy -- and if you ever notice it playing on cable or elsewhere, catch it. Vázquez and Rivero's little film definitely belongs in a animated anthology.

Beds / Camas
Manuela Moreno, 2010, Spain; 10min
In this quartet of bedtime/sex stories, we meet four couples and their rooms and beds. Nothing much new, or all that interesting here, But it's short. And that's Raúl Arévalo, above, and anything that features this talented and ubiquitous actor is worth watching.

The German Pavilion / El Pabellón alemán
Juan Millares, 2009, Spain; 14min
In this very interesting little documentary, we learn that the great French photographer Eugène Atget thought of his own photography as showing "the scene of the crime." This makes filmmaker Millares begin to look at other photos as such, including those of the 1929 Universal Exhibition of Barcelona, at which Mies van der Rohe unveiled the famous German Pavillion. Is there some mystery hidden here? Millares says yes, then no, then maybe -- in his somewhat over-reaching and under-budgeted documentary that fascinates, all the same.

My Friend / Lagun mina
Jose Mari Goenaga, 2011, Spain; 12min
Male friendship gets an good going-over in Goenaga's narrative short, as Ekaitz and Román meet in a hostel during their holidays and vow to be friends -- but with quite a different meaning attached to the word on both their parts. Or so we learn as time goes on. This themes and these characters could easily be expanded, I think, to make an interesting and worthwhile full-length feature.

A Shitty Boyfriend / Un novio de mierda
Borja Cobeaga, 2010, Spain; 4min
The funniest of the shorts is also the shortest, as a girl gets a surprise visit from her ex, and we learn just exactly to what the title of Cobeaga's film refers -- and how some women ought to be spanked for settling so easily. This could have been one of the stories in Camas (above), and it would have made that film a little more interesting and original.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ti West's THE INNKEEPERS bows today on VOD, in advance of theatrical opening Feb 3

Filmmaker Ti West is certainly one determined throwback. Of his three full-length films TrustMovies has seen so far (he didn't catch Trigger Man or Cabin Fever 2), it's safe to say that Mr. West loves old-fashioned scare movies. In his energetic but quite tiring and silly "monster movie" The Roost (2007), he had his terrorized cast attacked by bats, while 2009's The House of the Devil (his best film by a long shot) saw a babysitter and her friend become the prey of Satanists with a very disturbing ritual on their agenda. Now, with THE INNKEEPERS, he's back again with a bunch of retro scares, this time involving an old New England inn about to go out of business and full of assorted things that go bump in the night.

West, pictured at right, certainly knows old movies -- and old-time scares. Via a combination of smart, subtle acting, clever build-up, and the just-so placement of suspense and shock throughout the film, The House of the Devil proved West could create an old-fashioned scare fest for modern-day audiences. If only the same were true of The Innkeepers, but, alas, "old-fashioned" is everywhere on display but the scares have mostly disappeared. The few that remain are so over-used, and haggard that they end up DOA. After awhile one's response to things like doors that slam out of nowhere, piano keys that play when no one's there, and even bloody, disgusting ghosts that sneak up (when we're, unfortunately, most expecting them) is one, long, giant yawn and the question, Is that all? My friends: It is.

And it's too bad. Because West has corralled a nice cast to do his tiresome bidding, beginning with the delightfully energetic and youthful lead actress Sara Paxton (above, right), who invests each moment with enough pizazz to keep us alert. Her co-star is the very laid-back Pat Healy (above left), who proves a fine foil for Paxton's energy and verve.

Also on the scene is a woefully under-used Kelly McGillis (above: see her in Stake Land for a real performance and an infinitely better "scare" movie) as an old-time actress who's now doing "crystals" and ESP stuff. There are a few more characters, but none of them add up to much. They're all just vamping, even the silly ghosts -- until, suddenly, they're not. But by then, unfortunately, we don't give a shit.
The real trouble here is the screenplay. There very nearly isn't one. It sounds -- and seems -- dashed off overnight. Tiresome from the outset, it circles around and leads nowhere except into the usual clichés of this genre. Everything is second-hand and second-rate, including the reason for its two half-assed ghost-hunters to be doing their thing. The ghosts themselves are also of the most paltry sort (now they're here, now they're not) with a less-than-intriguing back story, to say the least.

Some of the camerawork (above) is good, in a been-there kind of way. Almost all the scares, however -- don't go into that basement! -- are minimal, as well, including the final, lengthy, build-up-the-suspense shot after which -- oh, please -- a door slams. Well, perhaps Mr. West means the joke to be on us. It is, it is.

The Innkeepers, from Magnet Releasing (and way too long at 100 minutes) is available via VOD beginning today, December 30, and will play up until the film's theatrical debut on February 3, 2012. You can click here to locate playdates, cities and theaters for that February bow. Meanwhile, check your local TV reception provider for VOD information. And click here to view other recent and upcoming Magnet/Magnolia movies you can view On-Demand. One of them, perhaps all, will be better than this dim fiasco.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meryl does Maggie in THE IRON LADY, Phyllida Lloyd's personal and political bio-pic

Is this year's Best Actress "Oscar" coming down to a race between celebrities playing celebrities? Michelle as Marilyn vs. Meryl as Maggie? Could be. Having not yet seen My Week With Marilyn, TM can only comment on THE IRON LADY, and the expected fine work coming from Meryl Streep. This amazing actress not only captures the look and sound of Margaret Thatcher, but lets us into the lady's mind and soul, about as well as could be expected for a woman who, in terms of the former seemed to be locked into a mindset of her early days a grocer's daughter, and regarding the latter, if she was not totally souless, had a terribly pinched version of one.

Into what a pickle, I suspect, the film's director, Phyllida Lloyd, must have found herself after taking on this project. How, after all, does an artist manage a movie about a woman as hated by so many, particularly those in the arts community, as was Maggie Thatcher? Mrs. Thatcher certainly had (and continues to have) her supporters, so should the filmmaker pitch her movie toward them? It's a real quandary, and while, certainly, you'll never please both sides, more likely you'll please neither.

While the filmmaker could, we suppose, have offered up a broadside that would enrage either the left- or right-wing, it would appear that Ms. Lloyd decided to take the middle road, a smart -- perhaps the only -- route she could travel in order to provide her producers with anything approaching a movie that would make a little money. The first scene, in which an elderly Maggie goes off to fetch a container of milk from the local convenience shop, is comprised of a knockout few minutes, in which you can hardly believe that you are watching Meryl Streep. We travel back and forth in time from the early days to the present, but always moving slowly forward as the young Maggie -- pert, smart and seemingly supple and reasonable -- ages into the carefully coiffed and made-up harpy/harridan who can and will brook no dissent from those closest to her.

And so the first half of her film gives us the younger and more "personal" Thatcher, a bit of family life in that grocery store, and her budding interest in politics coupled to the manner in which she meets the "love" of her life (played by Harry Lloyd -- above, right, and no relation to the director -- as a young man, and by Jim Broadbent (below, left) as the older version.

The younger Maggie is given terrific form and feeling by a newcomer from Brit TV, Alexandra Roach, below -- who manages to make us care enough for this young woman that we can carry that caring into the film's second half, which is much more political and involves the less easy-to-bear older woman that Streep portrays.

Once we leave "first love" and the initial foray into politics behind, and Maggie takes over as Prime Minister (the first woman to hold that job in Britain's history), it soon becomes clear how over-her-head and unequipped for either politics or leadership Ms Thatcher actually was. Of all the "events" of her reign, it's the Falkland Islands' war that the film's covers most heavily, with brief nods to unemployment and privatization along the way.

History buffs are likely to be disappointed in The Iron Lady, given the paltry job it does with politics and events, but both conservative and left-wing audiences should find some (but not much) succor in the film's depiction of Maggie. By the finale, she's left with her memories of her late husband, whom she off-and-on imagines to still be around. (How Streep handles this tricky, just-how-nutty-is-she? scenario is remarkable: She offers just the right amount of paranoia balanced with that iron will.)

A word must be said for the fine actress Olivia Colman (above, right of Tyrannosaur), who plays Thatcher's daughter Carol. The movie make clear what a disaster the PM has been in terms of her children. Carol -- clearly abused emotionally and verbally, if not physically -- is a wreck, while Thatcher's only son has beat a retreat to South Africa, where he remains.

On balance, if the movie is no great shakes, neither is it ever uninteresting. There are a raft of small but sharp performances from some of Britains' best actors -- from Roger Allum (above, right) and Nicholas Farrell (above, left) to Richard E. Grant and Iain Glen. You'll remember Streep, of course, and will probably find yourself surprised to be looking so fondly on Thatcher's younger days, yet with renewed horror at her despicable term as Prime Minister (and mother). So you see, everybody wins. And loses.

The Iron Lady begins its limited run Friday, December 30, in New York City at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Regal Union Square Stadium 14, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. A limited, national rollout will be coming, along with the New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Asghar Farhadi's A SEPARATION: a shoo-in for the Best Foreign-Language Film shortlist

A SEPARATION, Iran's entry into this year's Best Foreign-Language Film sweepstakes, is, TrustMovies believes, almost certain to make the shortlist, as well as being among the final five films nominated, and -- he suspects, from what he's seen so far of the other entries -- very probably the winning film itself. It is that riveting a multi-generation family drama, utterly accessible to western sensibilities, and a film that will keep you on your toes right up until the last suspenseful moment. It is so good, in fact, that TM dearly wishes it were better. We'll get to why at the end of this post, where we will try our best to avoid spoilers.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (shown at right, this is his fifth full-length movie as writer/director), the film appears at first to be about the dissolution of a marriage and family -- the separation of the title -- but soon evolves into much more. The mother, played well by Leila Hatami, shown below, wants the family (she, her husband and her daughter -- all clearly bright and well-educated) to move to the U.S.A. where she believes they will have a better life. (Perhaps she's unaware of our increasingly poor 99%, or maybe the family is richer than they seem.)

Her husband Nader (a terrific acting job, the movie's best, from Peyman Maadi, shown below, left) can't/won't leave his Alzheimers-ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, below, right, in his film debut), behind in Iran.

The couple's daughter -- a nice job of presenting teenage angst, in a quiet, eastern style over-layed with a religion biased against women, by Sarina Farhadi (below, and the director's own daughter) -- is angry, at first toward mom, and then later, for reasons that slowly become apparent due to the twists taken by the plot, toward her dad.

The catalyst for much of what happens is another mother/father/
daughter family that mirrors the first in interesting ways: They seem super-religious, as opposed to our three who are more secular, not particularly intelligent nor well-spoken -- and not nearly so well off.

The mother (Sareh Bayat, above, left, giving the strongest woman's performance in the film), her daughter in tow, takes a caretaker job with the first family, screwing things up in just about every way possible. When her mentally unbalanced, religious-nut husband (funny how these two qualities work together so well in this society) -- a riveting performance from Shahab Hosseini, below -- enters the picture, all hell threatens to break loose.

Questions of who knew what and when did they know it (doesn't that put you in mind of Watergate?) loom large as the film progresses, and it is when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together that my quibbles surface.

Our discovering the be-all-end-all event so late in the game is not a little annoying, particularly since we were literally right there, moments before that event happened. That the filmmaker chose to deprive us of this knowledge by cutting away at the singular moment smacks of manipulation rather than of organic storytelling. (This happens again right at the end of the film, when knowledge we might know and profit from is deliberately withheld from us.)

Yes, these characters -- all of them -- are flawed, and it is good that the filmmaker makes certain we understand this. But the loose ends here are awfully long and untidy (Is there a law in Iran that a doctor cannot testify as to the state of her patient at a certain day and time?  Was that missing money stolen, misplaced or what? And by whom?) Truth and justice may be murky, all right, but here it is simply made more murky by the filmmaker's choices.

All this does not sink A Separation, which is among the most western movies made by an easterner that I have seen (only Certified Copy beats it in terms of western sensibility). The performances are splendid, the dialog on target, the sense of place and space (below) captured beautifully. And the many moral questions the movie raises are well worth exploring. I recommend the film wholeheartedly -- despite these, yes, minor flaws -- because it is so full of intelligence, humanity and spirit. Word-of-mouth, I believe, is going to be major on this film, so don't be surprised if you can't get in to see it on your initial attempt or two.

A Separation (from Sony Pictures Classics, 123 minutes) opens this Friday, December 30, in New York (at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in West Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. A nationwiderollout begins the following week and will continue over the coming weeks and months. Click here to see the playdates, cities and theaters so far scheduled.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

SCN: DON'T TOUCH THE DEAD, KID explores families and funerals in the 50s

Reminiscent of two other relatively recent Hispanic movies about families and funerals, DON'T TOUCH THE DEAD, KID (Los muertos no se tocan, nene), from the 70-year-old Spanish director José Luis García Sánchez (shown below), may remind you of both My Mexican Shiva and Nora's Will -- except that the time frame is 1950s Spain rather than present-day Mexico, the religion is Catholic rather than Jewish, and the cinematography is nicely old-fashioned black-and-white.

References to James Dean and other 50s icons pop up periodically, as the film tracks the day that the great-grandpa of a barely-bourgeois family kicks the bucket, and a reunion of sorts occurs for the outcast, black-sheep daughter with her dad and sister. This daughter brings along her déclassé hubby (below, right) and their street-smart son, and the two sets of families, featuring four generations, mix it up. Also involved are a maid or two, and several workmen who appear during the day, most especially one that is installing the family's very first television set.

Though the movie is rife with anger, suspicion, neglect and confu-sion, there's a gentleness to Señor García Sánchez's treatment that helps the material come into its comic resonance. At times it seems almost sweetly nostalgic; at other moments it's ready to lacerate the hypocrisy of Spain's Catholic Church under Franco.

Along the way we learn about everything from bullfighting to how to place dentures into a dead man (below). If, by the end of its 90 minutes, the movie seems like it ought to have been slightly funnier, nastier, sadder and richer, well, maybe so. It's certainly not bad, as is, and the talented and game cast, including Carlos Iglesias (above, left), from this year's Ispansi!) does a bang-up job -- especially Mariola Fuentes (above, right) as the family's very savvy maid.

The film played twice at this year's Spanish Cinema Now, but so far as I know, it has not yet been picked up for U.S. distribution.