Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sci-fi/romance/meditation: The brilliant PERFECT SENSE is a best-yet for Mackenzie

The most thrilling thing about this job (other than it pays no money) involves sitting down one evening in front of your widescreen monitor and placing a screener of a new film, which you know almost nothing about, into your Blu-ray player, pressing "play" and... omigod, finding yourself fucking blown away. Excuse the French, fans, but that was my experience this past Sunday evening as we watched PERFECT SENSE, the latest from Brit filmmaker David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Asylum, Mister Foe and, yes, Spread). Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson -- the Danish screenwriter whose best-known films over here are probably last year's A Somewhat Gentle Man and Soap (from 2006) -- the movie works brilliantly as science fiction, love story, and meditation/
philosophy on how resilient we human beings can be in the face of one devastating loss after another.

This movie surprised me, scared me, moved me, entertained me and made me think, feel and (very occasionally) smile. How much better does it get? (There is not a lot of humor here; look elsewhere if you must have that.) I don't want to say too much about the film's plot, as part of the joy of this experience is discovery. Ewan McGregor (above, right) plays a chef who can fuck -- quite well, it would seem -- any number of ladies but must always sleep solo, while Eva Green (above, left) is an epidemiologist with problems of her own. When an outbreak of heavy-duty sorrow, followed by the loss of the ability to smell, infects people around the globe, these two meet and slowly bond, as the world (as they've known it) begins to change rather hugely.

We see this change mirrored in the lives of our twosome, as well as in clips from various spots around the globe, and perhaps the smartest move of the filmmakers was to shoot short segments on various continents -- Asia, Africa and the like -- and then to place these carefully, cleverly into their film. Using old (or even new) newsreel footage would not have worked nearly as well, because that non-specific footage of course would not include what is happening to the world under this particular scenario -- which is nothing like anything that has happened before.

MacKenzie -- pictured above, looking out the window of what, I believe, is the apart-ment of our hero in the film -- has managed some truly adroit genre-jumping in this movie. He, together with Mr. Aakeson, makes the mystery of what is happening both exciting and suspenseful -- better yet, believable, in a way that many bigger-budget films do not manage -- building ever more quickly and sadly toward the inevitable. Yet because he has cast the film so well, using some of his regulars like McGregor and Ewen Bremner (at right, in the photo above)the characters easily pull us into their lives, so that the romance of the movie demands as much caring and attention from us as does the sci-fi plot. This is a balancing act your rarely see accomplished this well.

Casting McGregor and Ms Green was particularly fortuitous because these two are such beautiful people, with gorgeous bodies and warm, open faces, as comfortable unclothed as clothed (McGregor's package is on display again, though not nearly as fully as in Young Adam or The Pillow Book). As the troubled lovers who center the film, these two are also good enough in the acting department to make us care about their relationship -- which finally stands for whatever love is left alive in this dying world.

I'm not going to say more about the film -- except see it, and deal with it. It may remind you, on one hand, of a movie such as the delicate and lovely The Five Senses or maybe that still-the-best-end-of-the-world work, Last Night (both via Canada) and on the other something like Blindness but raised to the nth power. I hesitate to compare it to Never Let Me Go, since so many people I know loathed that movie for its darkness and despair (I loved it for its overpowering humanity). Perfect Sense is not as political as Never Let Me Go, in which the "haves" demand everything, including the final sacrifice, from the "have-nots." But because Perfect Sense exists to make us think about and care for civilization, it is also a most humane and wonderful film.

From IFC Films, Perfect Sense opens this Friday, February 3, in New York City at IFC Center, and elsewhere I hope. It can also currently be seen on IFC's In Theaters & On-Demand program. Click here to learn how to view the movie via VOD.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Green Sleaze: Laura Israel's WINDFALL tracks wind energy in upstate New York

How disappointing is the experience of viewing WINDFALL, the award-winning documentary by longtime editor and now filmmaker Laura Israel about the coming of wind energy to a small farming town in upstate New York? Hugely. And I don't mean the movie itself -- which seems the very model of a smart, thoughtful documentary about a timely and important subject. No, I am speaking of the reaction that many of us who thought we were "green" -- welcoming all forms of safe and effective alternative energy -- are likely to have after experiencing this 83-minute movie. It will turn many of our preconceptions upside down.

Ms Israel, shown at right, starts slowly, introducing us to the townfolk of Meredith, New York, one by one or two by two. They all seem like such nice people, and indeed they were until a certain company dedicated to installing windmills in upstate New York came calling. The manner of this calling is on the individual person or family, and when any interest is shown, the company requires a confidentiality agreement to be signed. Why? We soon discover that the reason is damned sleazy. When word gets out, as of course word does in a small town, neighbor is soon pitted against neighbor, as some of the less trusting townspeople want to know many more facts and explanations than are being provided.

The one young man who represents the company (and has since parted ways with it), does seems like a decent sort (perhaps this is why ways were parted), and as we learn more of the facts about the windmills to be installed (they are 400 feet high and are to be built awfully close to the surrounding buildings), we also learn about some other communities in New York State and abroad in which windmills have become the bane of residents' existence: health problems, noise pollution, sleep deprivation and so on. ("Imagine, one fellow tells us, "your vacuum cleaner running right beside your bed all night!")

How can all this be? Wind energy is green, after all! Yes, and so is the money that (oh god, here they are again) corporations and shadow banks are making (as well as enjoying heavy-duty and repeated tax breaks) from the construction and operation of the windmills. And yet it seems that the town of Meredith is deeply divided over allowing wind energy into its midst. We hear from various people on this subject, and get to be flies on the wall at town council and planning board meetings. Finally it becomes a question of, if possible, kicking the bums out and voting in a entirely new slate of town leaders in order to stop this incursion. And yet, not all of the pro-wind townsfolk are bums. Many have been good, solid citizens for years, though Ms Israel manages to let us see the conflicts-of-interest that appear to have attached themselves to some elected members of the council who are also -- surprise! -- among the most prosperous of the town's population.

In a sense, little Meredith is a microcosm of big America, where money walks, talks and rules. We're there for all of it, thanks to Ms Israel and her crew, and we come away from the ordeal, I think, a lot wiser than we went in. We can be for "green energy" (god knows, the Meredith residents still are) but done on a scale that matches the community. I was sorry that Ms Israel did not stop the soundtrack's music or commentary long enough to let us simply listen to what one of these windmills sounds like from inside a nearby home. Otherwise, however, she's given us plenty to chew on and mull over. Perhaps it's time for a new rendition of the ever popular British folk song Greensleeves. This time out, it's Green Sleaze, with lyrics to match: Alas, my love, ye do me wrong, to build yer windmill so close to town...

Windfall, with theatrical distribution via First Run Features, opens this Friday, February 3, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in eight more cities over the next couple of months. Click here for all currently scheduled playdates.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Getting a jones for Preston Miller's JONES, an earlier film from the God's Land director; it's on FANDOR now -- for free!

Since God's Land was (and still is) my favorite film from last year -- this doesn't necessarily make it the "best" film, by the way, just my personal favorite because it went places and did things for me that no other movie accom-plished (my earlier review is here) -- I wanted to take a look at something else from its filmmaker, Preston Miller. Mr. Miller was kind enough to send me a DVD of his earlier movie JONES, which I finally got around to watching the morning. It's different enough in some ways, similar in others, to make Miller seem an even more interesting director and one worth keeping an eye on.

What the two films have most in common, I think, is Miller's interest in filming in real time (the filmmaker is shown at left). He edits a good deal less than do many other filmmakers, and while this made God's Land pretty lengthy (nearly three hours), Jones is surprisingly short -- just 76 minutes. The title refers to the title character (played oddly but indelibly by a Brooklynite from Texas named Trey Albright), and also -- perhaps not by intention but by the way art is created sub-consciously -- to both the Jones Mr. Jones has for many things Asian, and the Jones some of us viewers may get from watching Albright (below) in the altogether, full-frontal and (in one scene, at least, semi-erect.

The actor has a good body: muscular (but not "toned"), pale and freckled, and he uses it naturally and easily, whether clothed in a business suit (below: Jones is up in New York City on business, shooting a video for a legal deposition) or in nothing at all. Most odd is his non-business attire, as he strolls around Manhattan in what is clearly chilly weather, clad only in a jeans and a t-shirt, while everyone around him wears sweaters and/or jackets.

This creates an odd tension, setting Jones apart in yet one more manner, as he wanders the Big Apple,

drifting into a bar and engaging in conversation with a fellow (Bob Cabrini, above, right) who just might be a "made" man,

taking a subway to the end of its line,

and hiring a call girl (Amy Chiang, above, but below Jones).

The single really odd thing in the film is how we finally cannot hear all of Jones' dialog. We hear what the other person is saying, but sometimes (unless this was a glitch in the DVD*) we can't hear what actor Albright is saying, particularly in that bar scene. Whether this means that what he is saying is relatively unimportant, or maybe boring (the dialog is not what you would call slick) I don't know. I think this cutting-it-out, however, is somewhat misjudged, but as a stylistic "tic," it's no deal-breaker.

The sex scenes are quite realistic, so if this sort of thing disturbs you, be warned. They are not, however, unpleasant. They're just there, and every bit as natural as is Jones himself. Since the character, we have already learned, is happily married to a woman expecting his child, the question of why he is doing what he is doing does crop up.

Mid-sex, he suddenly seems to either lose his erection or have his attention wander. We learn why, in interesting fashion, at a later point in the film. But for now, as we know he craves Asian culture, I would say he is simply acting like men often act when on a business trip -- getting what they cannot get at home, adultery and Moses' commandment be damned. (Jones also engages with a young woman in the street -- photo at bottom -- who's having a problem with her new infant, and we see him react a bit haltingly to the prospect of being a father.)

Needing more of this special Asian hospitality, Jones craves a second night of pleasure but maybe wants to save money by going to the establishment itself (it's $200 a pop for the girl to come to him, but only $150 if he goes to her). This leads to the film's quiet climax, in which our hero gets a bit more (and less) than he bargained for.

Jones seems to me a nice precursor to Miller's later film: thoughtful, never less than interesting and very well-acted and directed. Made in 2005, it shows a filmmaker exploring and taking chances, both of which pay off here -- but even more beautifully and spectacularly in God's Land. You can savor Jones on Fandor now. In fact, the film site is offering a free 7-day pass, and if you log in with Facebook, you can watch the whole movie free. Might be a good way to get acquainted with Jones and with Fandor.
Or, you can purchase a Jones DVD here.

* It apparently was a DVD glitch. Preston Miller has informed me that the Jones character is indeed meant to be heard throughout the bar scenes, and that the DVD I obtained had somehow mis-fired. For those of you watching the film via Fandor, don't worry: Miller quickly went on Fandor to make sure that its copy was OK. It is.

Friday, January 27, 2012

GREEN FISH: Lee Chang-dong's first great film is worth a rent from Netflix

For those of us who have wondered from where the likes of Poetry, Secret Sunshine and particularly Oasis may have sprung, I advise a look at GREEN FISH (Chorok mulkogi), the first great film to be directed (and the second one to be written) by the successful South Korean novelist Lee Chang-dong. It's all here -- everything we now love about this filmmaker's work -- how he corrals before us a whole society, but one in which there are no villains nor heroes, only men and women composed of varying levels of good and bad, trying to negotiate life in today's South Korea. Which, by the way, Lee (more than any other Korean filmmaker I can name) makes a perfect stand-in for the modern, "civilized" world as we know it, whether east or west.

Mr. Lee, shown at right, has the good novelist's knack for creating rich characters rooted in psychological realism, as well as in their culture, who behave with a simultaneous consistency and surprise that, while it keeps us guessing, never strains credibility. Whatever his people choose to do at a given moment usually works -- and on a number of levels. This is particularly true of the movie's "hero," a young man named Makdong (played beautifully by Han Suk-kyu, below, right) who is just out of the military and on a train speeding toward his family and maybe, if he's lucky, decent employment.

On that train, as Makdong stands leaning into the breezy open doorway at the end of his car, he sees a young woman (played by the lovely Shim Hye-jin, above, left) doing the same thing at the other end of the car. In a sudden, perfectly accomplished moment, her purple scarf blows off of her and down the outside of the speeding train-car into the young man's face, literally covering his entire head. When he pulls off the scarf, she has disappeared inside the train.

The young man goes to look for her, and so begins a series of meetings and partings, feints and parries, connections made and missed that take Makdong into much stranger and dicier territory that includes his own fractured, down-on-its luck family (one of his brothers, like the girl in Oasis, is a cerebral palsy victim); the dream-girl (who turns out to be the girlfriend of a mob boss); that mob; the boss (a smart, sad performance by, I believe, Mun Seong-kun, above, right) a competing gang; the police; and more.

Here is everything from one of the great screen kisses (above) to a funny, family "pee" (below). Through it all, Makdong learns and grows, even as he remains the truest, most reasonable and probably the kindest and most genuinely courageous of all the people on view. (This makes the movie's climax something especially difficult but also salutary.) Yet no one here is a total loser; each is given moments of understanding and intelligence, even if he or she uses these to little avail. And the ending, as in all of Lee's films, is simply amazing -- going past that unusual "climax" into a denouement that allows us to see this sad, beautiful, troubling world more fully than we could have imagined.

This film, like all of Mr. Lee's, is a gift. Accept it, please. (The DVD, by the way is in one of those old-fashioned, full-screen formats, and the quality is not first rate. No matter: Within minutes, you'll be hooked, though the only placed I think the movie is still available for rent is via Netflix. Or you can purchase it on Amazon and Ebay.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lionel Rogosin's problematic COME BACK, AFRICA, re-released after half a century

Hot (well, warm) on the heels of its autumn 2010 re-release of Lionel's Rogosin's 1957 classic On the Bowery comes Milestone Films' re-release of Rogosin's follow-up  COME BACK, AFRICA (made surreptitious-ly in darkest South Africa in 1959): a movie as odd and memorable in its way as was On the Bowery (a film that kept winning documentary awards -- although it was and is no documentary at all).

Come Back, Africa is even less like a doc than its predecessor, yet there, on the IMDB, in black and white, it is categorized as -- yup! -- a documentary. Instead it is a narrative movie about a relatively young black man living in South Africa during that country's dreadful near-half-century of apartheid. In it, Rogosin, shown at right, tracks the activities of this man (his name is Zacharia, and he is played somewhat haltingly but exceedingly believably, and with great humanity and warmth by Zacharia Mugabe -- shown below) in his first and only role as a performer.

Rogosin made his film on the sly, so to speak, fooling the South African powers-that-were into thinking that he was making, first, a travelogue for an airline company, then a movie about South African native music, and finally (to the delight of those in power) a film about the Boer War. But he did it. Despite incredible obstacles, the fellow got his film.

Before I go further, however, I need to make clear that, despite its being an amazing endeavor and coup, I don't think Come Back Africa is a terribly good film. Yet it is an important one as a social/political document and a project that shows what an engaged filmmaker can accomplish against great odds. No one else had attempted anything as bizarre and dangerous as this -- to show the world what life for Blacks under Apartheid was like -- but Rogosin had the courage and strength to try it, and succeed, even if the finished product is wanting.

What's wrong with Come Back, Africa? A lot. The story grows more melodramatic as it goes along, ending up in a frenzy that, as sad as it is, and as good a job as the leading actor manages, is still too heavy-handed by half. (Not that the events themselves are unbelievable, but as Rogosin shows them, they're just too much -- shown too quickly.)

The white (liberal, anti-apartheid) folk recruited to play nasty white South Africans are also not very good. But they're not actors, and so they overplay it. Again, not that real people weren't as obvious and unpleasant as we see here. But they were undoubtedly a lot more real, for the acting on-view tends to be one-note. The screenplay strains to encompass a wide swatch of Black life, but is almost always most effective when it simply shows rather than speaks. The street scenes of young musicians performing before a white audience (above) are clearly documentary and much more real than most of the "acted" situations.

There is one particularly interesting scene in which a group of Black men discuss everything from socialization to religion to the behavior of one of their own criminals. This scene has the sound of improvisation -- from men who know what they're talking about, and so it grabs you. The guys are joined eventually by Miriam Makeba who sings a terrific number that suddenly takes the movie into ultra-professional territory. As was the case with the documentary The Perfect Team, made by the filmmaker's son Michael Rogosin, and which told of the filming of On the Bowery, I believe you should not see the original Come Back Africa without also seeing the documentary (again made by the younger Rogosin), An American in Sophiatown (where much of the film was shot, and which the whites-in-power tore down soon after Rogosin's visit), which tells of the making of this difficult-to-film movie.

The excellent, 52-minute documentary fills in a lot of gaps and also allows us to understand why some of the film doesn't work all that well. As its fine Swiss co-cameraman, Emil Knebel explains, "Some sequences are weaker, but the spirit of the film is very strong." They are, and it is. But it is Ms Makeba, the single most professional person to appear before us -- whom we learn eventually rejected Rogosin's help and went off with Harry Belafonte; hell, even Marlon Brando got into this act) -- who puts the nail in the coffin of Rogosin's "art." She is said, according to a newspaper article of the time, to have called the filmmaker an "amateur." Once you've seen Come Back, Africa, you'll understand what she meant. Rogosin's work was necessary and important, and it is also amateur in many ways.

Come Back Africa -- black-and-white, 85 minutes -- returns to theaters after a 50-year absence (in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress) in a beautiful new restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna, with the assistance of the Rogosin Heritage, with a one-week run at New York City's Film Forum, starting tomorrow, Friday, January 27 (you can order tickets for Film Forum here).  If there will be other theatrical playdates prior to a DVD release (which I suspect and hope will include Michael Rogosin's documentary). The first of these will be in San Francisco, at the Roxie Theater, beginning February 3. More to come...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ALBERT NOBBS is back: This feminist fable from Garcia & Close enchants and saddens

The one-week "Oscar" qualifying run proved more than worth it for ALBERT NOBBS, as this delicate new jewel of a movie from the director of some of the most delicate work in film history, Rodrigo Garcia -- nabbed three nominations this week: Best Actress (Glenn Close) Best Supporting Actress (Janet McTeer) and Best Achievement in Make-up. Set in Ireland a century or more ago, the movie has its "look" down pat, and although it is what you'd call a small movie (small major cast and done at a surprisingly low budget, considering the need for historical veracity), it seems "right" in all respects.

Colombian-born filmmaker Garcia, shown at right, has worked with Ms Close several times now, and their rapport is a good one for this tale of a woman (the, yes, title character) who has been posing and working as a man for several decades. The subject is never brought up, and the word is never spoken aloud, but Albert Nobbs is a feminist film down to its toes because it shows (without "telling") the plight of women, probably more so in Ireland than in most western countries, in terms of their choices and what little means of making a living was available to them at the time.

A man had infinitely wider choices, even a "man" who was not quite a man, as Albert discovered at a young age, when s/he dressed up in drag and began working a job that would have been unthinkable had s/he looked like her own sex. Pretending tends to be easier if a person can go relatively unnoticed, and this appears to have been Albert's modus operandi.

Just as our "man" disappears into his job, so does Ms Close disappear into Albert (she had a hand in the screenplay, as well, which was based upon a short story by George Moore). The actress keeps things quiet and simple. This is definitely not a "showy" performance and yet it is certainly one of the most subtle displays of acting I've seen -- all the more so because it occurs in a role that would seem to call for some bravura stuff. (Well, "bravura," I guess, is what you make it, and Close has made of it something new and different.)

However, all this subtlety and quiet has a downside -- threatening to grow boring -- but just when it does, a new character is introduced, one Hubert Page, above, played by Ms McTeer (yes, we have another cross-dresser in the film). However, McTeer is what we used to call a "big girl" -- and in every way. Standing more than six feet tall, full of energy and courage, this actress grabs the Hubert character and runs with him, turning her "man" into everything that Albert is not: proud, strong, unafraid and as "male" as can be.

The two actresses balance each other -- and the movie -- nearly perfectly. Were they both to win their "Oscar," that would be lovely, though I expect the Academy members will be more impressed with McTeer's strength than with Close's subtlety. We shall see. Meanwhile, content yourself with the other ace performances that Garcia draws from his superbly chosen cast.

There's Pauline Collins as the main-chance innkeeper into whose employ both Albert and Hubert have come; Brendan Gleeson, as the helpful and caring doctor on premises; and Mia Wasikowska (above, left) and Aaron Johnson (below, and lately John Lennon) as two employees at the hotel/restaurant. Ms Wasikowska especially impresses here. This young actress has turned in such differing performances -- Jane Eyre, Alice in Tim Burton's verison of Wonderland, Restless, The Kids Are All Right and That Evening Sun -- as to be nearly unrecognizable from role to role.

In Mr. Johnson's character of Joe, we have a young man who might very well be the movie's hero -- if times were not so bad, and Joe had a bit more feeling for others. His and Ms Wasikowska's story is the other engine that keeps the movie rolling, and through it, we see the pain of class distinction among several injustices. We also see how an epidemic of sickness cuts through society, and how the bourgeoisie fawns over "royalty" (in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, below, doing a couple of walk-ons here).

Albert Nobbs, from Liddell Entertainment and Roadside Attractions, opens nationwide for its return theatrical engagement this Friday, January 27, in what is really an enormous release for a small, independent movie like this. More power to ya, Albert! Click here to see all cities and theaters.