Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Carol Morley's DREAMS OF A LIFE: that body, three years dead in its London flat, gets the hybrid documentary treatment

Possibly the most misconceived movie of the year so far, DREAMS OF A LIFE tries to tell the tale of one, Joyce Carol Vincent, the woman whose body was finally found in her London flat -- three years after her death, surrounded by Christmas presents (hers to other people, I'm assuming) and with the television still on. How could this be, the world wanted to know? And so film-maker Carol Morley (shown below) has tried to answer the question by cobbling together elements of a documentary with other elements of a narrative film, coming up with a movie that is neither fish nor fowl, and, for all its talking heads and cheap-jack psychologizing, ends up with a Joyce Vincent who seems more of a cipher as we exit the theater than she did when we entered it.  Boo, say I.

TrustMovies has tried (and generally succeeded, he thinks) to embrace all kinds of hybrid documentaries -- from Alma Ha'rel's Bombay Beach to the recent Imposter of Bart Layton. These movies work because, for all their odd couplings of disparate elements, they finally succeed in shedding some real light on their subjects. Ms Morley manages to obscure hers by turning it into a half-narrative, half talking-head doc, in which one side routs the other. If ever a tale cried out for an honest, imaginative, narrative re-telling of a woman and an event (think of Miranda Richardson in Mike Newell's and Shelagh Delaney's Dance With a Stranger), it's this one. Instead, it receives a tentative, pussy-footing account that contradicts itself and leaves an intelligent viewer very nearly frothing at the mouth.

Two years ago Ms Morley wrote and directed a full-length narrative film (that was not much seen, evidently), so she has some experience in this field. Instead she chooses to use a quite beautiful young actress, Zawe Ashton (at left, and more beautiful by far than the actual Ms Vincent) yet gives her little to do but pose and look pensive. The talking heads go on and on about Vincent and what she did and didn't do and maybe did and did not feel until we want to scream, "For god's sake show us!" And then we get more pensive posing.

Elsewhere, too, I suspect that things were staged to resemble what was found in the Vincent flat, once authorities had entered it -- the dirty dishes in the sink, above, and the cobwebby radio, below. These are fine, for we're now used to this kind of re-creation. But it is where the human being is concerned that we demand some meat on the bones.

Not only do we not learn know much about Joyce, who remains amorphous throughout, even the event that put her in the news, post demise, gets short shrift. Some investigative reporting as to how this was allowed to happen -- something more than a repetition of a few of the known facts -- would have been appreciated. Instead we get more of those talking heads, as Joyce's friends and/or maybe lovers, speak up about what she meant to them.

The most interesting and in some ways the saddest of these is her would-be boyfriend, below, who repeatedly tells us how shockingly lucky he was to have won someone like Joyce. Maybe; maybe not. The filmmaker seems so intent on exploring her subject as a stand-in for "the lonely life" that we leave the theater imagining that she barely had one. Which fits right into the movie's title and the film-maker's take on the whole thing.  Yet Ms Vincent had a life, such as it was, but it's something we don't come within a mile of reaching.

Maybe someone is preparing a screenplay right now for the likes of Thandie Newton, Megan Echikunwoke, Ms Ashton -- or any of the fine young black or mixed-race actresses who, with a decent script in front of them, might bring to life this sad, strange woman. Dreams of A Life, from Strand Releasing and 95 minutes long, opens this Friday in New York City at the IFC Center. I'll try to find where else is might be playing.  Check back later....

Monday, July 30, 2012

Jay Chandrasekhar's BABYMAKERS offers a bit of the Broken Lizard Comedy Team....

...but not to terribly good effect. Broken Lizard's movies have always been hit-and-miss affairs, with a good one following a bad one following a so-so one following an OK one. And so on. After 2009's slick, fast and very funny The Slammin' Salmon -- set in a Miami restaurant and by far the best of the Broken Lizard lot -- comes their new one THE BABYMAKERS, which, to get it over with fast, is simply not-so-hot.

The premise itself -- a young-ish couple (Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn above) has trouble conceiving -- is not exactly novel: You may recall a supposedly ground-breaking film from 1970 entitled The Babymaker, starring a very young Barbara Hershey that dealt with a similar problem and used an at-the-time somewhat surprising solution. Since then we've seen countless films around this same scenario, each with its own bit (or lack) of originality.

Even as I recall the plot and assemble the various stills from the films, funny moments are coming back to me, so it seems the movie did have a certain amount of clever situa-tions and/or events along the way. But it so often manages to be both frenetic and flaccid -- no mean feat, when you think about it -- that it rarely offers the kind of comedy that is at all engaging. I attribute this mostly to its director and co-star Jay Chandrasekhar (shown at left), who as both actor and filmmaker seems to be losing much of the easy charm he had as a younger man and is now replacing it with louder volume and heavier-handed methods. Jay, honey: Relax a little, and come back to us!

On the other hand, Broken Lizard veteran Kevin Heffernan, above and hanging on for dear life (he directed -- and very well -- The Slammin Salmon, but in this one he's only performing), plays things down to smart effect and easily gets his laughs.

Ms Munn, shown below, left, with her posse, is fine as the straight girl (reduced to reactions only, I don't think she gets a laugh in the entire movie), but Mr. Schneider (above, in bank-job apparel), who is generally a very fine actor (from All the Real Girls through Lars and the Real Girl, Bright Star and the upcoming French film Beloved, in which he is superb), seems here to be a bit at sea. Schneider's particular qualities as an performer do not mesh all that well with this kind of low-level, frenetic comedy. (The screenplay is from Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow.)

There are a couple of pretty funny scenes. One involves the actual robbing of a sperm bank; the other has to do with the couple who plans to use the last of the Schneider character's donated sperm to create its own baby. Broken Lizard loves being tasteless and hopes to render this in ground-breaking ways. It comes closest in the scenes involving a pair of gay partners and how they figure into the mix. Some gay/bi's may take offense, but they'll probably also be laughing. I was, anyway.

TrustMovies was hoping to enjoy this one a lot more. While fans of Broken Lizard will certainly want to check it out, TM remains doubtful that it will bring in that many new recruits. The Babymakers, from Millennium Entertainment and running a too-long 98 minutes, opens this Friday, August 3, in ten cities across the USA, including New York (AMC Loew's Village 7) and Los Angeles (AMC Loews Broadway 4). Click here and then click on TICKETS to find the other cities. Also note: Simultaneous to its theatrical release, the movie will be available via VOD and iTunes.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

From Korea and straight-to-DVD: a great NO MERCY and a pretty good HINDSIGHT

This coming Tuesday, July 31 should prove a banner day for Korean film buffs, as two movies not previously seen theatrically in the USA come to DVD via CJ Entertainment, currently pretty much the go-to source for Korean film. If you are looking for exceptionally dark entertainment that pulls no punches, stick NO MERCY (Yongseoneun Eupda) onto your Netflix queue now (it's stream-able), for this is one of the most profoundly dour and difficult vengeance movies I have ever seen. It is extraordinary.

Written and directed by Kim Hyoung-Jun (according to the IMDB, this is his first foray into film), No Mercy tells the tale of a forensic pathologist (above, left) who is also a popular college professor. The film begins with a pair of birdwatchers, one of whom stumbles almost literally upon a dismembered corpse. The police, and of course our prof, are called in on the case, which appears at first to provide clues enough to capture and convict the murderer (above, right) -- who, within the first 30 minutes, has, in fact, confessed.

This is only the beginning of a tale so dark and convoluted, so filled with the errors of the past now impinging on the present, that only slowly and horrifyingly do we and these characters come to understand what is going on -- and why. The movie is filled with all sorts of people: everyone from our upwardly-mobile, middle-class forensics guy to a young and pretty police assistant who used to be a student in one of his classes. There are call girls, environmentalists, avengers, cops and killers -- and you are not always certain that one group in not turning into another. Rape and all kinds of sex (for all kinds of reason) occur, and there is even DNA evidence-planting of a type unseen by me until now.

By the end of the film, you and our hero will have traveled a journey that no one should have to make -- wondering at how the past, along with our deeds, good or bad, are always with us. Filled with visual moments, particularly at the finale, that are both brilliant and startling, this may be one of the darkest films ever made.
No Mercy indeed.


HINDSIGHT (Poo-reun so-geum) is a Korean movie of quite another kind and color. There is plenty of crime afoot, even some killings, but everything is of a much lighter complexion. The movie rather charmingly combines criminal gangs and a cooking school, in which our hero, that truly fabulous Korean actor Song Kang-ho (of everything from Secret Sunshine and The Host to Thirst and the recently covered Secret Reunion), is trying to learn to cook so that he can retire from the "business" and open a seashore restaurant.

His cooking "partner," who is actually following him for gang-related reasons, is that adorable and quite nifty little Korean actress Shin Se-kyung (above), and she is so young, cute, sexy and perky that, while our hero (below) is equally old, schlubby and rather slow (except when he's fighting!) that you know almost instantly they are made for each other.

The movie is, in its way, super-romantic with some thrills, spills, car chases and murders along the way. Somebody wants our hero dead (as well as a number of other crime bosses, some of whom who are already dead). But who? And why? If this is never explained to my satisfaction, and if the ending seems too easily achieved, there is still a lot of fun, along with local color, to be had here.  Overall, Hindsight (and I have no idea why they chose this title for the movie) is pretty good fun.

Though not stream-able (yet), Hindsight, along with No Mercy are available on DVD this Tuesday, July 31, from CJ Entertainment America -- a company that desperately needs a decent web-site upgrade.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Zack Parker's SCALENE presents an interesting triangle -- and yet another chance for Margo Martindale to shine

SCALENE, the title of the film from Zack Parker, is not the name of its main character, played with great ferocity and her usual finesse by the wonderful Margo Martindale. Instead, it refers to a couple of things: the type of triangle  that the brain-damaged son of the character played by Ms Martindale is asked to put together during his visit to a doctor, as well as a kind of stand-in for the three main characters in the film, who form a three-sided and quite unequal triangle, and from whose viewpoints we witness their story as it unfurls -- beginning at nearly the finale and then backtracking so that we see and understand the tale more fully.

Reality, for filmmaker Parker (shown at right), proves multifaceted and graspable only by seeing all sides of the situation. What makes Scalene particularly redolent and sophisticated in terms of its storytelling technique is that Parker doesn't hit us over the head with with any obvious she says/he says/she says rendition or by separating the film into three sections or by repeating entire segments from another person's viewpoint. No: Instead he begins at the climax and then circles back, filling in the blanks via story and characterization alone. In this way we slowly come to understand the situation and how and why it evolved into the shocking mess it has now become.

The story is simple enough. Janice Trimble (Ms Martindale, above), rather than hospitalizing her grown son, Jakob (Adam Scarimbolo, below) -- who has suffered since middle school with brain damage due to inhaling some unhelpful airplane glue -- intends to care for him on her own.

To this end she hires a young college girl, Paige (Hanna Hall, at left), to act as her part-time home-health-care aid. Over time, however, Paige grows fond of Jakob and begins to feel that perhaps Janice is physically abusing her son. What to do? The choices made at this point, which lead to choices made later by others, could be called into question as not the smartest way to handle things. Yet, in no case are these choices beyond the bounds of reality, so we -- and the characters -- must deal with them as they are.

All three actors are good, and Ms Martindale is exceptional. I ques-tion, however, the casting of Ms Hall as a college-age student. Physically speaking, she simply looks way too old; in some scenes with the actress who plays her mother, you'll imagine the two are sisters. This also makes the character's naivete a bit hard to accept.

Still, it is bracing to see an independent film that bites off a chunk of situation this interesting and challenging, and then lets its audience chew on it until digestion takes place. More often filmmakers bite, chew and ingest all on their own, before spitting it up into something like pre-digested pablum for their audience.

And then there is Margo Martindale, a great character actress and leading lady who is finally coming into her own in terms of having a large audience at last discover her. (She won an Emmy last year for her work on Justified and was honored a few years back with a Chlotrudis Award for her great work as that Colorado postmistress in the Alexander Payne segment of Paris je t'aime. Ms Martindale alone is reason enough to see most any film she's in, and this one is no exception. Scalene makes its appearance on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, July 31, from Breaking Glass Pictures -- for sale or rental.

LGBT NewFest 2012 opens, partnering with Outfest & the Film Society of Lincoln Center

In the annals of It's about time! and Congratulations, finally!, NewFest's arrival -- after 24 years -- as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center program, is something to celebrate. At last, New York's LGBT film festival has a venue that's, well, ultra-classy by any standards: The Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. This year NewFest is presented as part of a recent partnership with the long-running Los Angeles-based LGBT media arts organization Outfest, which programmed and will help run this year's event.

After years of floating around the city in various venues, many of which were perfectly OK but never exactly felt like home or some-thing particularly stable, this year's NewFest takes on quite a different glow. And sensibility. And lineup of films. 2012 includes fourteen narrative features, four documentaries and a number of short films. This is noticeably down in quantity from recent years. But perhaps up in quality. While this may exclude some filmmakers whose work might benefit from being shown, it may also give audiences a chance to see a more professional batch of movies. We'll find out after the fest is finished and the smoke has cleared.

TrustMovies has seen only one of the films to be shown (already shown, in fact: last evening) -- the opening-night attraction, FOUR, based on the decade-old but much heralded play by Christopher Shinn, adapted and directed by Joshua Sanchez (his first full-length feature) and acted by a talented and game quartet. I would imagine this film will have a theatrical release of some sort down the line and so will cover it at length at a later time.

For now, I'll just say that some terrific dialog and juicy situations come to the fore as two couples spend the evening in their respective twosomes: an older man and a high-school boy (Wendell Pierce, above, right, and Emory Cohen, left) and a high-school girl and the young man who's enamored of her (E.J. Bonilla, two photos up and below, right, and Aja Naomi King, below, left). One member of each couple is connected to the other by blood. Sexual preferences, race and class come to the fore, as do the ways in which we lie to ourselves, even as we make use of others. Shin and Sanchez are particularly adept at handling teen-age conversation and the fact that, so often, teens either do not know what they want or are simply incapable of owning up to it.

As usual, Newfest will host a number of personal appearances by filmmakers and actors. Closing the event will be Marialy Rivas' acclaimed Chilean film YOUNG & WILD (below). Based on the life of co-screenwriter Camila Gutiérrez, the film -- said to be a sexually-charged, stunning and energetic look at family and youth culture in contemporary Chile -- was the recipient of the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Tickets are on sale now (most of the films will be shown only once), and you can view the entire NewFest program here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The dark & sterile night of current Europe: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's hypnotic ABENDLAND

First released theatrically in March of 2011 (in its home country of Austria) but filmed across Europe between October 2008 and November 2010, ABENDLAND, the latest documentary from Nikolaus Geyrhalter, holds a camera up to the then present-day Europe, filmed only at night and in beautifully compo-sed shots, to reveal a continent trying to hold on to its humanity, some-times in very odd ways.  Since then, things have only grown worse.

Herr Geyrhalter, shown at left, who earlier gave us Our Daily Bread, is back again in a similar style: all visual, no narration, with occa-sional unrehearsed conversations recor-ded but barely heard. This makes us pay far greater attention than we would need to, were everything doled out to us on a platter and made easily digestible. Instead we piece together what's going on and why, and how this all fits into Geyrhalter's vision (the filmmaker both directed and handled the cinematography), which in time becomes our own vision. Not that Nikolaus forces his viewpoint upon us, but as the movie proceeds we cannot help but see and understand things as does this unusually gifted and thoughtful cinematician.

The film also credits one, Wolfgang Widerhofer for the film's editing and "dramatic structure." Widerhofer also edited Our Daily Bread and the recent pedophile picture Michael; he clearly knows his way around editing and structure.  One of the first see things we see here are security cameras, lurking and looking, then we're off to a gypsy encampment in Italy (the exact country we  are in is never stated; we have to listen to the occasional speech -- not always available -- to pick up the language of the place), which is about to be destroyed and its people moved elsewhere. We see the camp pre- and post-destruction.

Now we're in a pristine hospital, watching a woman and her newborn -- perhaps premature, for we we next see a nurse tending to a tiny incubated infant. And then we're at a meeting of a sub-commission of the European Parliament (below), listening (or reading subtitles) as the chairman explains that Bosnia and Herzegovina are still not satisfied with their situation. (Well, who of us is, but still...) In this scene a number of languages come together. We're then whisked off to a chicken cooking facility (shades of Our Daily Bread) and an enormous sort of Beer Garden (above) where huge crowds have gathered to eat, drink and party. This sort of thing resembles hell on earth to me, but the party-goers appear to be having fun.

Then it's back to security cameras, this time outside a Barclay's Bank in London (the name of which should resonate now, as the current LIBOR scandal unravels, much more than when the film was shot: Those cameras tell us the date was July 28, 2009). After which, we're with a group of men working the late shift in an aircraft factory. Here, the colors and composition are gorgeous (the composition often is throughout the film, but the colors are unusually bright). And who is that? Looks like some high-level religious figure -- ooops, it's the Pope! -- who is being celebrated and asked by the crowd an important question. His "answer" is bullshit, because it does not actually answer the question; the Lord's Prayer is intoned; and then, as all is clearly A-OK, security takes His Holiness away.

We next get a newscast from Britain: The usual: from terrible deaths in Pakistan to the Burberry raincoat company, trying to make a couture comeback. Both stories are given equal weight, of course. This is the news.  We watch, as postal workers sort mail using the spoken word to differentiate -- this is fun and odd -- and then we follow a fellow at work at his home computer. We're made privy to a suicide hotline (or maybe it's simply some very good telephone therapy); the police come to find a man's brother, who is evidently "wanted"; we visit a porno site with a man and woman first fucking, then chatting and showering (Are they a couple? Perhaps, and if so, this is an interesting, calorie-burning way to earn one's living.)

Cut to some hospital maintenance, washing a patent, changing his or her sleeping position, and tending to the general needs. Now it's police vs demonstrators against... what? Toxic waste, perhaps. Immigration raises its head in a meeting between a needy illegal and a kindly but distant volunteer. The airport is shown during midnight maintenance, as scrubbing continues on everything from mirrors to toilets. Oh-oh: it's a crematorium, super-clean and spacious (shown in photo at bottom), as one body after another is reduced to ash and bone.  Immigration again, as authorities check the sea wall (below) for any breech. Finally, a rock concert and a sea of bodies (mostly young) and lights.

The above description may sound awfully dry, and yet this movie is anything but. It's dark twice over: the entire film takes place in nighttime after all, but it also leaves you with a feeling of a Europe problemed in ways that do not make for easy solutions. What is the filmmaker saying?  Nothing terribly simple nor obvious, I suspect. Repeated screenings might give up more meaning, but on a first viewing, the film is nearly hypnotic. It's hard to pull yourself away from it. Geyrhalter and Widerhofer are artists first, propagandists second (if at all). And they are very humane. Even at the rather large distance they keep you -- by virtue of no narration, little verbiage from any of the people you see, and no sense of taking sides with or against anyone -- you'll still come away from this movie with both a sense of sadness and of hope for humanity.

Abenland, which translates officially as Occident or western world, opens today, July 27, in New York City at Anthology Film Archives for a one-week run. Screening are Saturday and Sunday at 5, 7, and 9pm; Monday through Friday at 7 and 9pm. I hope some company will see to it that a DVD is released eventually, maybe even a Blu-ray, as this is a film you may want to see more than once. Click here for directions to AFA.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mikkel Nørgaard's & Casper Christensen's rude comedy KLOWN gets some big laughs

Of all the movie genres, comedy, it seems to TrustMovies, is the diciest. There was a woman sitting behind us at the press screening of KLOWN -- the new and naughty, men-behaving-badly comedy from Mikkel Nørgaard (director and co-writer) and Casper Christensen (co-writer and co-star) -- who laughed at just about every-thing in the movie. We three guys sitting in front of her laughed now and again, sometime quite heartily, but agreed, post-movie, that we wished it were funnier. And that it didn't have that typically crappy, feel-good and sentimental ending. For a film that appears to want to break new "taste" boundaries, this one ends up arriving at the tried-and-true.

Still there are those laughs, and when they come with as much of a jolt and a shock as happens now and again, you'll understand why the film proved a record-breaker on its home turf of Denmark. Director Nørgaard, shown at right, knows how to set up a situation and carry it through so that it finally pays off in spades. Or, in this case, pearls. Of a sort. The other problem that often crops up in a movie like this involves the stupidity/
insensitivity level of it hero. In this regard, the Klown character is simply off the charts. While this may indeed be the point, this character, Frank, played by Frank Hvam (shown below, right), may be the stupidest, most insensitive ever to appear in a comedy. That's saying something. The Three Stooges look like doctoral candidates by comparison.

After awhile, you wonder why his intelligent, reasonable wife would ever put up with him; how he could possibly hold down a job; and many other questions better left unexplored. His best buddy -- played by Mr. Christensen -- below, rowing -- though less stupid, is much more conniving. The two of them plan to having a sleazy, sexy vacation unbeknownst to their wives but at the last minute end up taking with them Frank's sad and backward 12-year-old nephew. Think of it as an X-rated Adventures in Babysitting.

How this takes place is no more believable than much else in this lazy movie, which is about as sloppily constructed as seemingly possible, making our two Hangover comedies look like Feydeau farces. The film gets its laughs, all right, but sometimes you need to let go of any and all sense of reality in order to feel that funny bone being tickled.

Perhaps a nodding acquaintance with the culture and institutions of Denmark would help matters. What in the world is that "book club" for old men (above) all about? And when our guys finally get to that fabled brothel, all that is provoked is a big, fat Huh? The lessons in man-flirting, however, probably do cross some international borders. While the pussy-whipped male is always fun to see in action, Klown, despite its occasional big laughs, is finally just so-so.

From Drafthouse Films, and running 90 minutes, Klown opens this Friday, July 27, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in Los Angeles at The CineFamily.  Click here to see all currently scheduled playdate with cities and theaters, around the country. Simultaneously with theatrical play, the movie will be available via VOD and iTunes.