Thursday, August 30, 2012

ORNETTE: Made in America--Shirley Clarke's experimental look at an experimental jazz musician

To watch Shirley Clarke's ORNETTE: Made in America today, some 27 years after its debut at the 1985 TIFF, is to realize just how experimental a filmmaker Clarke really was. Much of what we see on screen is what many new documentaries are now doing -- over a quarter of a century later. Using no narration as such (the press material tells us that the filmmaker used Coleman's symphony Skies of America as her underlying script, but this does not really compute: narrative can be verbal, even visual, but symphonic is a bit of a stretch), Clarke simply drops us into things and we begin to learn about this musician, his life and his music -- on the fly, as it were.

Ms Clarke, shown at left, was quite a woman, and this is now the second of her films, after The Connection, to be restored and released via Milestone Films and the ongoing Project Shirley. Its subject, the American jazz great Ornette Coleman, is still with us, even though Clarke died, a victim of Alzheimer's, in 1997. Her movie melds, among other things, present and past, dream and reality, fathers and sons, full orchestra and jazz band into a portrait that turns out to be not really one of the man or of his music but a kind of kaleidoscope vision of creativity and life as it emanates from the very odd personage of Coleman himself.

I wish we could have heard, really heard, more of Ornette's music here. Even though we're given quite a bit of it during the film, Clark's visuals, in several scenes, at least -- insistent, preening, all over the place -- prevent us from concentrating on the music in any serious way. The filmmaker was probably trying to find a visual equivalent to Coleman's work, but if anything some of these visuals obfuscate more than they render clear.

As for Coleman himself, you certainly don't come away from the movie saying, "Whoa -- now I really know this guy (or his music)!" But rather, "What a strange and interesting fellow he seems to be, what a life he probably led, and how I'd like to hear more of his music." In its way, it's kind of an appropriate, if weird, introduction to the musician because it allows you to experience how very strange he and his music are. (Other jazz musicians are said to have simply walked off the stage whenever Coleman would appear on it.) Simply listening to the fellow's little riff on castration/circumcision and man/male will probably rattle your brain bizarrely for some time to come.

Clarke concentrates on the movie's singular "event": a performance of Coleman's symphony to open the new cultural center in Fort Worth (the musician's home town), Caravan of Dreams. Clarke uses the orchestral part of the score more heavily, I think, that she does the Jazz Band's contribution, and she uses this as underscoring for the tale she tells. (The orchestra and the band, at least as shown here, though sharing the same stage seem oddly un-integrated both in terms of the music we hear and what we see: the band is black, the orchestra white.) All this makes for interesting, non-linear storytelling that, back when the film was first released, might have proven a little difficult for audiences to follow. Today, after all the changes we've seen to the documentary form, her film looks surpri-singly contemporary but perhaps now not so hard to keep up with.

Some of the famous people who enter the film and Coleman's life include William Burroughs (above, center), Buckminster Fuller, and George Russell, a composer and professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. The last has this to say a propos Coleman's work: "The West has always thought of music as entertainment. It doesn't understand how it also can contribute ideas & philosophy."

What proves most difficult about the movie are some of Clarke's would-be snazzy visuals and editing techniques (occurring particularly heavily in the Buckminster Fuller section). These are jumpy, repetitive and tiresome and do nothing for one's enjoyment or understanding. They don't even properly reflect Coleman's music, syncopated as it is. They simply call attention to themselves, so we wait until the filmmaker has gotten this out of her system. Fortunately, it doesn't take too long.

What the movie might do is send viewers out to look for and listen to this musician's work. Unlike most of the Clarke oeuvre, this documentary is also more modern in that it lasts only 78 minutes, just about a half-hour shorter than much of her full-length work. Given the style in which she has chosen to present the film, this shorter running time seems appropriate. Ornette: Made in America opens tomorrow, Friday August 31, here in New York City at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Streaming Surprise: Mike Flanagan's ABSENTIA is one truly creepy movie!

If you can stream Netflix, then you'll already know that the amount of choices you have simply boggles your mind -- and your decision-making processes. Let me help you out here. If you enjoy the occasional scary movie, do not let last year's ABSENTIA -- about a missing husband of seven years, the wife who is still putting up missing-person signage to locate him, her problematic sister, and the cop who's in love with the wife -- get by you. There's a reason it has won all those fright-festival awards (see poster above): This extraordinarily creepy movie is a real find.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan (shown at left) understands how to put together a movie on a very low budget, with the scares coming slowly and rather quietly at first. Set in one of those nondes-cript Los Angeles neigh-borhoods -- not exactly low-end, but not quite what you'd call "nice," either -- that has a fairly long tunnel connecting two outside areas (these pedestrian tunnels used to be fairly common in parts of L.A.), the movie boasts a cast of decent actors who all look very much like real people. Katie Parker (shown on the poster, above) has a lovely face; the rest -- including Courtney Bell, below, who plays the wife, simply look like quite ordinary folk. Certain players, in fact, who appear not-quite-normal (for instance, Morgan Peter Brown, who is shown at bottom), look a little more bizarre than would your everyday Hollywood actor -- for reasons that slowly become clear as  the movie proceeds.

Until we saw Absentia, just the other evening, I would have called The Pact the creepiest movie in a long while. Not anymore, for this one outdoes even Nicholas McCarthy's scary movie. Mr. Flanagan understand how to creep us out in a number of simple but effective ways -- from how to shoot that tunnel (below), together with its occasional occupant, to making a simple shower curtain scare the bejesus out of us by having something simultaneously going on at either of its two ends.

The theme here is "missing persons" -- and how, where and why they disappear. A few decades ago, the only-middling scare movie Wolfen gave us the New York City version of this. Absentia offers the L.A. explanation, and it's the winner, hands-down. The film is handled with less gore than subtlety, and while the special effects are kept to a bare minimum, the scares are definitely not.

To say any more would simply help spoil things, so those of you who can stream Netflix, click here. The rest of you, try to find this movie elsewhere. Available now on DVD and from iTunesAbsentia, distributed by Phase 4 Films, has a running time of 87 minutes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is everything African for sale? Brügger's THE AMBASSADOR makes you wonder....

The popular, mid-20th-Century term "darkest Africa" takes on added meaning as you watch the new and pretty ugly (in all ways from subject matter to execution) documentary, THE AMBASSADOR from Danish provocateur Mads Brügger. With enough shaky hand-held camerawork to drive you up the wall and no particular visual acumen in terms of what or how to shoot, the movie looks drab, even when it's observing some nice scenery. This, however, is as nothing compared to the film's story and subject: the "purchasing" of ambassadorships, together with the food-chain low-lifes who make this happen -- both inside and outside of the Central African Republic (CAR) and its environs, where much of the movie takes place.

The "Ambassador" of the title is Mr. Brügger himself, above in close-up, posing as a certain Mr. Cortzen (our guy refers to this as "performance journalism"), a fellow who literally purchases his Ambassadorship. But not from a mere one man. No, there's a whole line of fellows (and a gal or two) along the way who facilitate this "buy," starting with the man who makes the initial connection so that Cortzen can meet two sets of bigwigs: those in the country whose Ambassador he is going to be (usually, but not always, an African one) and those in the CAR, where he will be stationed.

Why would anyone want a job like this? Well, diamonds (above), for a start, which these Ambassadors tend to trade in, taking them out of the country relatively risk-free because of their diplomatic immu-nity. Brügger/Cortzen first tries to buy an introduction from one fellow whose price is too steep, and then goes to another who's cheaper. (Turns out, you get what you pay for.) Finally he is connected to a man who owns or runs a diamond mine but who proves about as unreliable as everyone else in this documentary.

Once our man has ingratiated himself with the bigwigs and the locals, it helps to have some sort of "plan" which will help the coun-try in which he's stationed. Our guy comes up with the idea of star-ting a match factory (not a bad idea, actually), and perhaps using the local pygmy population (above and below) to man the factory.

Along the way, there is a nagging question of the Ambassadorship being stalled because the President of Liberia (one Ellen Johnson) is "away," then "can't sign," then "won't sign," then silence. There are all sorts of other questions, too, some coming from those involved in this process, some from "our" guy as "Ambassador," and some from our guy as film director. One early question is where is the money coming from for all these bribes Brügger/Cortzen must put out? The press material tells that Lars von Trier's Zentropa production company financed all this, but I don't recall being told that in the movie (I might have missed that moment, however).

Other questions come into play throughout -- such as what will happen to the match factory and the pygmies, once this whole hoax is unmasked? At one point Brügger tells us (and whoever he is speaking to) that he feels badly about all this -- because, of course, no factory and no employment is going to happen. Well, isn't that nice. Still, whatever it takes to make your documentary, right? For a time the movie seems to be treading ground traveled by A l'origine (click and scroll down). But, no. That real-life character/con-man turned out to be more interested in the welfare of his townspeople than is our Mr. Brügger/Cortzen.

The Ambassador does raise some unpleasant questions about diplomacy, culture, colonialism, ethics, and the like. The French, bless 'em, come in for quite a bit of condemnation; after viewing the film, you're likely to wonder if they're not among Europe's sleaziest. Brügger himself has got to be viewed as pretty brave for sticking his neck out in the manner. One of the men (the head of security for CAR, I believe) whom he interviews and uses in his film -- most of which seems to have been shot surreptitiously -- was assassinated midway through the making of the movie, for reasons that are never explained or perhaps even known. (This surreptitious filming certainly excuses some of the lack of quality in the film-making.)

While the whole idea of this movie is shocking and disgusting, the movie itself is only cursorily engaging, due to the fact that Brügger is much more of a provocateur than a filmmaker. You admire his chutzpah, and agree that, yes, this is a terrible thing that is going on. But as a movie-maker he isn't able to build up much suspense or excitement, and any laughs there might be mostly catch in your throat. And almost everything is left up in the air at the finale. (You'll have tons of questions at this point in the game.) It's all dark, and considering everything we see (or don't see), it's pretty pointless, too.

From Drafthouse Films, The Ambassador, with a running time of 93 minutes, arrives Wednesday, August 29, in New York City at the IFC Center. In the weeks to follow it will play in several other cities around the country. Click here to see all currently-scheduled playdates.

Monday, August 27, 2012

David Koepp's PREMIUM RUSH: NYC bike messengers' near-death experiences

What -- Quicksilver wasn't enough? Granted that was a quarter-century ago, but didn't the Kevin Bacon bike-messenger movie cure us of the need to see these guys (and gals) racing through our city streets, breaking every rule of traffic law possible while endangering the lives of all on-hand pedestrians? Guess not. So now we have co-writer (with John Kamps) and director David Koepp's new addition to this deservedly meager genre, PREMIUM RUSH, staring one of TrustMovies' favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I mention my liking of Mr. Gordon-Levitt upfront, so that when I tell you that, from almost the first few moments of the film, I wished his character immediate death, you'll understand that this is nothing personal.

Some moviegoers tell me that they cannot abide films in which the hero is a Wall Street or banking bad boy. This is perfectly understandable in this day and age. While I detest and would happily see all these Wall Streeters/Bankers beheaded immediately and generally do not enjoy watching them portrayed on film (Cosmopolis is but the latest example), I was quite taken with Richard Gere's portrayal of exactly this sort of guy in the upcoming Arbitrage, which opens next week (more on this one later). No, my particular bête noire is the bicycle messenger, over, around and about which I myself have had numerous close calls avoiding disaster. So watching these creeps endanger NYC pedestrians and motorists as they gleefully zoom around town in Mr. Koepp's movie (the filmmaker is shown above) is particularly provoking.

I am trying to be fair here, and I think that, were this movie better conceived, written and directed, I could have enjoyed it and given it a pass. But there are so many coincidences along the way that credibility is soon sacrificed at the altars of speed and convenience. Adding to the sense of the ridiculous is the filmmaker's insistence on stopping along the way -- whenever our hero (Mr. Gordon-Levitt) is faced with a difficult driving decision -- to show us the various choices he faces. This take a lot of time to observe, yet the the driver must make his decision immediately. These two time frames do not compute, and so in each instance that this happens, more credibility is lost -- not to mention the audience's annoyance at yet another example of nit-wittery on display.

The story has to do with a "ticket" that takes the place of money (this in itself makes little sense, even though the filmmaker leads us through the concept step by step) owed to the Chinese "smugglers" who are going to deliver something precious. And if this ticket is practically as important as life itself to the young Chinese woman who possesses it, why in hell would she not take it to the destination herself, in person, rather than giving it over to a bike messenger (even one whom we're told is the best in NYC). This is more dumb nonsense, served up poorly.

Along the way we get to know a few other messengers, barely, and they can all die along with Gordon-Levitt's character, as all of them are equally dangerous to the city. And these are the good guys. The bad guys are NYC cops, one in particular, played by that excellent actor Michael Shannon (below, center, left) who is the worst of the bunch -- a dirty cop who is also not terribly bright.

Neither is the bicycle-pedaling policeman who chases after our "hero," in the process endangering the lives of the citizens he's supposed to protect. Everyone in this movie is pretty much a dumb asshole, and after a time, this sort of thing does rankle. I would think that any viewers who live in big cities where bike messengers play, will give this movie not a thumbs-up but a thumb-in-the-nose.

Something else rankled, too. I saw Premium Rush at the AMC Empire 25 theater in Manhattan at the 10:30 am Saturday screening. The movie was shown in something called ETX (Enhanced Theater Experience) which cost an extra $4. The sound was fine, the picture fine and the screen maybe seemed a bit bigger than usual (but nothing like IMAX). So what was worth the extra money? Nothing, really. Just another rip-off from the folk who keep ripping you off.

To learn where the movie is playing near you, simply click here, but then DON'T click on ENTER THE SITE. Instead, scroll down to Get Tickets & Showtimes, enter your zip code and click on Search. You'll soon see you own city's theaters appearing.....

Sunday, August 26, 2012

DVDebut: SUNNY, a Korean dram-com hit for the girls, kicks some mean tushie....

Think of it as maybe Beaches times 3-1/2. Instead of two best female best friends, we've got seven of 'em. And yes, we follow them from adulthood back to childhood, alternately bouncing back and forth until we pretty much get the whole story, have giggled ourselves silly, shed quite a few tears and heard some great old pop tunes from the 80s -- including, of course, that title tune and the wonderful Cyndi Lauper song Time After Time. SUNNY, the hit dram-com from Korea (it's most definitely not a rom-com: romance doesn't figure in here, as the men are mostly idle, absent or very peripheral), proves to be a surprisingly enjoyable ride. Even with all its cliches intact and its many "steals" (a Big Chill for the gals, anyone?), it's a lot more fun than the longer and much more pompous French version, Little White Lies, that opened a couple of days ago.

First time filmmaker Kang Hyoung-chul, working from a screenplay by slightly more veteran Kang Hyeong-Cheol (any relation, I wonder?) and another first-timer Lee Byung-heon, this Kang/Lee combo has come up with quite the winning ticket. Despite its just-over-two-hour length, Sunny moves quickly and in sprightly fashion toward its rather foregone conclusion. Along the way, there are enough charming or moving scenes -- both with the high-schoolers and the adult women -- to make the trip worthwhile.

An added bonus -- depending on how you look at it, at least -- is the Korean setting, which makes everything from school (above) to employment to the male of the species (below, left) to the political demonstration with which the schoolgirls get involved (in the film's funniest scene) charmingly exotic to us westerners.

When these girls were growing up, South Korea was under the thumb of a quasi-military dictatorship (I suspect many Koreans would not call this "quasi") so, while this fight-the-police scene is lots of fun and games, I shoud imagine that it must have struck a chord with Koreans not experienced by we westerners (who simply find it charming, giddy enjoyment).

One of our girls (Sim Eun-kyeong, above), a budding artist in school, seems to have given up any career aspirations by becoming a wife and mother to a noticeably unappreciative husband and child. We see her artwork at moments throughout the movie. At the film's close, do keep the DVD playing throughout the end credits to view some beautifully drawn examples of this artwork that culminate in one drawing that takes our story, in quite lovely fashion, to its ultimate conclusion.

While full of fun, humor, cliche and charm, the movie also manages to honor the verities of family, friends, life and even death. Good job, all around! Sunny, from CJ Entertainment, and a hugely popular movie in its home country, made an American DVD debut this past Tuesday, and is available for sale or rental from the usual suspects.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Catching up with one of last year's best: Kenneth Lonergan's surprising MARGARET

Given this movie's own back-story -- years in the making, law suits, a new score, and finally even a new cut that's half an hour longer than what was theatrically released (and that was already two-and-one-half-hours long) -- it would be easy to joke that the tale of the making and release of MARGARET is more interesting than the movie itself. Yet Kenneth Lonergan's film is so unusual, so riveting from scene-one onwards, full of some of the finest performances of the year, and about so much that is important to us in our post-second-millennium world, that it is a must-see for all these reasons -- and more.

Anchored by the star performance of Anna Paquin (shown at right, with Mr Lonergan) as Lisa Cohen, a smart, angry, envelope-pushing high school student coming of age in the midst of some traumatizing events, the movie, which was begun not that long after 9/11, asks questions that most narrative films don't get near -- What is our responsibility to ourselves, and to others? What is our place in the world? When (and when not) ought we take a stand against authority? -- and while it doesn't provide easy answers, it makes us at least consider these questions. To answer an immediate question: Yes, Ms Paquin looks older than most high school students, but as the movie was being made over a five year period, how could she not? (In any case, we should by now be used to films with too-old-looking high-school kids -- a staple since my first experiences viewing cinema back in the 1940s.)

This film is so very much better, and so much more important to the history of cinema, than Lonergan's first (and far too favorably received movie You Can Count on Me) that its minimal release in theaters strikes me as a terrible waste. Fortunately, enough critical acclaim at the time of release and continuing after has led to renewed interest in the film and will, I suspect, keep it percolating in the minds and hearts of film buffs for a long while.

The movie is full of terrific scenes, one after another, beginning with one of the film's strongest, an unforgettable accident (above: that's Allison Janney as the victim) brought about in part by Lisa and a bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, below.

From there we move in and out of the home and classroom, where scenes of family life, education and sexual initiation are shown us from angles we've not seen before.

Two fine actors, Matt Damon (below, left) and Matthew Broderick (above, right) play teachers in classes taken by Lisa, and both get very telling scenes to play --- one that pits the pomposity of the educator against the student's lesser knowledge but greater understanding, the other exploring responsibility when a student intentionally gets too physically close.

Best of all is the chance to see again that wonderful actress Jeannie Berlin, below, left, who has done almost no work in movies or TV over the past 35 years. Maybe the best thing in Margaret (and there is a lot of competition), Ms Berlin is indelible as the accident victim's good friend, an angry New Yorker who must "tell it like it is," everything else be damned. It occurs to TrustMovies just now, as I write this, that perhaps it is into just such a woman that our Lisa might grow up. Berlin's final speech to Paquin is about as memorable as anything I can recall from this past movie year.

On the home front, we have Lisa's hugely self-involved actress mom, played by J. Smith-Cameron (below, left), who brings to her role enough selfishness to annoy us and enough confusion to make us root for her (well, now and then). Lisa's dad, divorced and living in a nice beach-front house in what might be Malibu, is played by the writer/director, and Mr. Lonergan proves aces in this small but telling role. In the other more-or-less major role is French star Jean Reno, as an South American businessman smitten with Ms Smith-Cameron's actress, whose character demonstrates once again that, where love is concerned (to paraphrase Pascal), the heart has its own unreasonable reasons.

One of the joys of this movie is how rounded, real and pretty much equally right and wrong are all its characters. Lonergan allows us to understand the place that each of them is coming from,  whether or not we approve of their actions. This adds to the veracity of what's on display, at the same time as it reminds us again of how difficult it is to get at truth and justice -- let alone The American Way.

Margaret is available now on DVD and Blu-ray -- and in both the theatrical cut (which runs 150 minutes) and the extended-cut version, which I believe lasts 180 minutes. So you've got a decision to make before you view. Yours truly opted for a Blu-ray rental (the transfer's a good one), but on Blu-ray you get only the theatrical version. If you purchase the Blu-ray, it comes with a bonus DVD featuring the extended-cut version. I don't know if and how you can rent the extended cut, but I would certainly like to see it. Sitting through another half-hour of this movie would have been no problem. Hell, I could have sat through another three.