Friday, November 30, 2012

Liz Garbus' LOVE, MARILYN tries to create an iconic star of interest to the younger set

Let's see: How do we go about doing something different with perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has yet given us? Marilyn Monroe (shown above and further below, for you youngsters who many not immediately recognize her) has been done to death so many times now that one wonders what more could possibly be said about her life, her movies, her men, her anything and everything?  Liz Garbus, shown just below, the director of the latest in a long line of attempts to explore this icon, has turned to Marilyn's "journals, papers, and poems recently discovered among the personal effects left by Lee Strasberg, legendary Director of the Actor’s Studio and the actress’s mentor and confidant," as the press release explains it.

Surprise: these musings are quite interesting, showing a Marilyn of some complexity and thoughtfulness, while providing a different kind of entryway into her life. Unfortunatley, Garbus (or someone) has had the truly terrible idea to spread these musings amongst a rather too-large group of actresses/actors who take turns reading all this and consistently highjack our attention away from the words themselves.  Oh, look -- there's Elizabeth Banks (below, who makes a pretty good stand-in for the younger Marilyn)!

Now it's Uma Thurman (below, who does a lovely job with her readings)! Oh, my -- here's Glenn Close: Is that meant to show us what MM might have become had she lived longer? About the time you see and hear Viola Davis, you'll have realized that maybe Ms Garbus is pushing for Monroe to represent "everywoman" (or at least "everyactress"). Except that she also offers us Ben Foster (two photos below), who handles the verbiage with aplomb, and does, at one point, the best vocal impression of Monroe of anyone on view.

And so it goes, with our attention repeatedly pulled up short, leaving us wondering, "Wow-- who's next?" One narrator, maybe two -- a man and a woman -- would have sufficed. But then the movie wouldn't not have been so "starry," I suppose. Much of the film is attention-holding, because Monroe's words are genuine and smart, and the organization of the documentary is relatively firm and coherent.

If the men in Monroe's life do not come across as overly sympathetic (Joe DiMaggio is too old-fashioned, jealous of her time and her fans; Arthur Miller is depicted -- even described at one point -- as pretty much of a creep; and Kennedy (the Kennedys?) are barely there.

There is some wonderful archival footage here (above and below), and some interviews worth seeing and hearing. The difficulties of working with Monroe are skirted over, however, for the purpose here is clearly to continue the late star's run as "forever icon." By the time we get to George Cukor's complaints about her non-work on that final film (quite valid, it would seem), we're already mourning her death, having watched yet another attempt at something like sainthood.

Overall, the movie -- worth seeing for those who can't get enough Monroe, or newcomers who simply want to find out stuff -- seems an odd mixture of some genuinely good material used to produce yet another glossy Hollywood con job.

Love, Marilyn, a co-production of HBO Documentaries, Canal+ and others groups, opens theatrically today -- Friday, November 30 -- at Film Forum in New York City for a two-week run, will eventually be shown, I am sure on HBO. Filmmaker Garbus will appear in person tonight, 11/30/12, at 7:50pm.

Matthias Schweighöfer's WHAT A MAN proves the comedy-doesn't-travel theory

Variety is fond of telling us that comedy rarely travels well: ours to foreign climes, theirs to us. The best example I've seen of this theory lately is the German movie opening this week, WHAT A MAN. Written and directed by its star, Matthias Schweighöfer (whose personality--on the basis of his work here, at least--could curdle milk), the movie would seem to be arriving in theaters maybe ten to twenty years late so far as its theme -- a fellow doesn't have to be super macho to be a man -- is concerned.

Herr Schweighöfer, shown at right, hangs one cliche upon another in his quest to assure us plenty of comedy and screwed-up romance, as that feel-good finale lines up in our sites. The filmmaker/star does get points for upending the usual race to the airport to catch his true love, and, in fact, the film's finale almost (but not quite) makes up for much of its previous missteps. The writer/director also does some amusing things with the ever-popular panda (below), though much else in this tired fun-fest seems to have been milked dry eons earlier.

The story, such as it is, has to do with a sweet elementary school teacher, played by Schweighöfer, who is clearly out of his element and woefully mismatched with a sexy, up-and-coming actress/TV personality (played by Mavie Hörbiger, below). How these two ever got together is the film's biggest mystery.
Almost from the starting gate we're privy to the fact that his female best friend (Sibell Kekilli, shown below, of When We Leave) would make a much better match, and so any suspense or surprise is pretty much drained from the outset.

But that doesn't stop our hero/filmmaker, who mugs his way through it all rather grossly. Plus, he drags us through what seems like endless and not particularly amusing situations in which he and we join a macho men's group (below),

go partying to meet the ladies (the movie's worst scene by far) and get involved with the very macho upstairs neighbor, played by the very macho Thomas Kretschmann (below, right).

None of this matters much, unless you are relatively new to movies and to rom-coms and so find it all spanking new. But, as I say, the ending has its moments and its charm, and so that may help bring you into the fold, as it were.

What a Man (from Fox International and running 95 minutes) opens today, Friday, November 30, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, and in Queens at the Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills. It is also simultaneously opening in the Los Angeles area at the Phoenix Big Cinemas Dos Lagos 15, in Corona, CA.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Peter Askin's thoughtful ensemble drama, CERTAINTY, smartly probes that very thing

What a surprise and pleasure it is to see an American independent film that takes seriously (but not pretentiously) subjects such as marriage, love, fidelity, friendship and even The Catholic Church. The new rom-com-drama CERTAINTY, written by Mike O'Malley and directed by Peter Askin, is not a great movie, but it's a good enough one to deserve a shout-out: smart, thoughtful and caring about some things that will impact young people sooner or later, should they decide to connect in any kind of permanent way. Jumping off from (and coming back to, again and again) one of those pre-marriage counseling sessions, offered by the Catholic Church as requisite before the couple can be married in that church, the movie then flashes back and forth between events that have led to the point at which this couple now finds itself.

Refreshingly, for a change, the movie is not ironic. Though it treats its characters with humor and an often wry eye, it means what it says as it explores commitment of various kinds. The film it most reminded me of is the Italian movie Casomai by that wonderful filmmaker Alessandro D'Alatri, that also explored a quite modern Italian marriage "in" the Church. In Certainty, as in Casomai, the Church is personified via a priest  (played here by Giancarlo Esposito, above) who is trying, against some odds, to push his religion into becoming a more inclusive, less power-made and hypocritical entity.

This priest, however, is but one player in a large ensemble. The movie's two lead characters, Dom and Deb, played respectively by Tom Lipinski (above, left) and Adelaide Clemens (right), are the about-to-be-married couple -- he of little faith, she of a lot -- who, along with a number of other couples, are taking this crash course in "responsible marriage." We get to know quite a bit about Dom's family -- mom (Valerie Harper), sister (Tammy Blanchard) and deceased dad) and less about Deb's (her dad sings in a barbershop quartet), but the pair seems like quite the happy, made-for-each-other couple. Well, maybe...

Writer O'Malley, shown at right, has a knack for good dialog -- it's off-the-cuff and real, whether between family members or old friends -- and as he probes his people, we see that all is not well, just about everywhere we turn. Yet thanks to this dialog, things remain mostly believable and less than melodramatic. For awhile, at least. Eventually, the writer bites off more than his movie can chew, as he tries to unfold two other stories (sis' acting class and its threat to her marriage; Dom's best friend's angry, misogynistic attitude and his "lost" love that is suddenly found again). Better O'Malley had stuck more thoroughly with Dom and Deb and what was really eating them.

Still, his director, Peter Askin, shown at left, gets good performances from Blanchard, and from Bobby Moynihan as her husband; Will Rogers as Dom's best friend, Kevin; and Kristen Connolly (also seen this week in Ex-Girlfriends!) as Kevin's old flame. In fact, Askin (who, a few years back, gave us the fine documentary on Dalton Trumbo), gets good performances from his entire cast, top to bottom, and delivers a crisp, smart movie overall. Despite the movie's rush to tie up the least interes-ting loose ends, which does push the proceedings toward melodrama, it's still Dom and Deb we're most interested in. But I suspect that the screen-writer really wants to show us various kinds of relationships and how they work (or don't). He's just packed in a little more than his movie can properly handle.

Certainty (nice title!) opens this Friday, November 30, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and will most likely hit DVD and/or VOD sometime soon.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jonathan Caouette's WALK AWAY RENÉE opens in NY--& via SundanceNow doc club

Some of us were not so pleased, back in 2004, with Jonathan Caouette's debut feature Tarnation because -- with its constant style-trumps-content and its consistent sense of me-me-me! oh-look-I'm-a-star! -- we felt it played not at all fair with his mother Renée Leblanc. We may have to eat crow now that his latest work, WALK AWAY RENÉE, is about to make its theatrical debut this week, after its North American premiere at the BAMcinemaFest this past June. (This post is a slightly revised edition of the one I posted at that time.) Fortunately, TrustMovies has a flock of crows who often fly right outside his Jackson Heights window -- they've even scared away the red-tailed hawk that had taken up residence -- and he'll be happy to get out his BB gun and share some lunch with fellow critics.)

Caouette's new film -- while it still offers mom (stylized, above, and simply vulnerable, below) as someone who can barely be lived with -- allows Renée to come across fully as as a human being worth our compassion, and even worth the caring she gets from her son Jonathan, his companion David, and Jonathan's son Joshua.

In this new film, we get the family history in a more solid, less fragmented manner than we did with Tarnation, and while the filmmaker still enjoys diddling with style, he's kept it more at the service of the story he wants to tell. When it's there, as it definitely is during a long, phantasmagorical light show around two-third of the way through the film, it arrives as almost a pleasurable respite from the turmoil that Caouette -- and the audience -- stews in throughout most of the rest of the movie.

Probably the most shocking visual element we see here (other than Renée's sad state) is how much and how badly Caouette appears to have aged in the years between films. This fellow, so full of energy, spirit and beauty in his younger days (at right), now looks so drained, tired and overweight (below) that it seems like some 28 years, rather than merely eight, have passed. But given what we see during the film's time line -- which takes us, zipping backward and forward, from Renée's early years, pre-Jonathan, to practically present-day -- this last decade in particular has been no picnic for anyone involved. In the first film, the movie-maker was happy to gaze at the camera 24/7; now he can barely bring himself to look directly at it.

If Tarnation often seemed like self-love taken beyond even mastur-batory level, Walk Away Renée is more than mere penance. It puts us in the seat next to a person with bi-polar disorder (and then some). If you've ever spent time around this sort, as I have, that weird double response of helping another person coupled to your own self-protection will quickly kick in. (Personal note: I live with my companion of 20-odd years and his 98-year-old mother, who has lived with us for the past ten years. While I would not call this living arrangement easy, by comparison with what Caouette and his companion contend -- and now, it seems Caouette's own son lives with them, too -- I consider our immediate family to be lucky.)

Back and forth in time we go, as son tries to take mom by car from Texas to New York, in the process losing her meds (one wonders if she herself did not toss them out) and try desperately to cadge a refill, while filling viewers in on family history over four generations. By the 50-minute mark, we've come full circle. And then we move ahead toward... what?

I'd have liked to have learned more about the filmmaker's companion David, whom I'm sure viewers will imagine is some kind of saint. (People have referred to me in that way, too, because I've taken in the mother of my companion. They don't realize, of course, that it is easier to distance yourself when it is not your mother because you have none of that 30-, 40-, or -- for us -- 60-year baggage that must come along with any mother-child relationship.)

I hope Caouette will continue his story -- of Renée, of his life with David, of the progress of his son Joshua (above, left). This tale would seem to beg for a third chapter, if only to see mom put to rest, and the remaining lives put to other, less stressful, perhaps more normal -- if these people have a clue as to what that word might mean -- activities.

Walk Away Renée, from Sundance Selects, opens this Friday, November 30, in New York City at the IFC Center. As for the film itself, in addition to any theatrical showings, it can also be seen on the new SundanceNow doc club, where the cost of a month of content is only $4 (or $20 for a full year!). Click the link above to find out more....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The "big" stars are barely there in John Hyams' latest UNIVERSAL SOLDIER chapter

Have there really been six -- count 'em, six! -- movies in the oddly enduring, if not endearing, Universal Soldier franchise? US was the movie that paired martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme with Dolph Lundgren (see photo at bottom for a walk down memory lane), and after it spawned its first, and barely so-so follow-up, this movie-goer opted out. He hadn't realized that four more films had followed until he was invited to a screening of the latest -- UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING -- which is actually receiving a limited theatrical release. (Several in the series, I believe, went straight to video.)

From the looks of the latest addition to US, the franchise has increasingly devolved into a merely martial arts action free-for-all. Maybe it always was thus, but I dimly remember a little more plot on view.  US: DOR offers a stab at plot: the US-ers want to take charge of their own lives -- how sweet! -- but the damned government always stands in their way. Yet this plot, such as it is, is delivered in muddy shorthand. Well, maybe you had to have seen all six in the series to fully appreciate its subtlety. As directed by John Hyams (son of Peter), shown above, the movie does indeed have some very good action scenes. And that's pretty much all it has.

After a certain number or these scenes -- unless you are a die-hard action fan, of course -- the mind cries out for more, but is left, as something Biblical has told us, crying in the wilderness. So you might as well just get used to all the rough and tumble and go with it. And this is very rough and tumble.

It is also, shall we say, a tad misogynistic. Not only do a bunch of women get shot up in grizzly fashion early on, there is literally only one woman of any note as a character in the movie -- and she simply trails along to scream and flee and occasionally bop a bad guy on the bean. (Worse, she cannot be found in a single photograph on any of the sites I've explored.) No, this is a guy's guy movie in which females are simply "beards" to cover up the implicit homosexuality certainly found in an all-male, maximum-testosterone situation like this one. The unusual thing about the one major young woman on view (not the young lady above, but the attractive Mariah Bonner, a photo of whom, among the nearly 60 stills, I cannot find!) is that -- shock of shocks -- her breasts look real and relatively small. Good for you, Mariah: Stick to your guns!

As to the above-the-title "stars" of this film -- Van Damme (above) and Lundgren (at right, two photos up) -- the former has but one long fight scene (the least interesting in the movie) at the finale, while the latter has several very short scenes that are nearly dispensable. In one of these, he babbles a bunch of exposition and rouses his men to rant a bit; in the others, he all but disappears. If you've come to see these guys, save your money.

The real star of the show is a fellow named Scott Adkins, shown at left and evidently known to martial arts enthusiasts but not to me. He is young, cute and hunky (a huge improvement over the two "stars" who definitely should not be doing this sort of movie much longer), and he knows his way around martial arts moves. He is given a set-up "backstory" that we see taking place at the film's beginning and then over and over again throughout the movie until we're ready to send an emergency email to the filmmakers explaining that, yes, we get it, so enough already.

But they don't care. Nor does their core audience for all this blood and guts and heavy-duty, man-on-man combat. That audience will sit there, drinking it all in, waiting for the next big fight. Which is due any second now....  WHOMP! SPLATTER!

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning -- from Magnet Films and running 114 minutes, which is way too long -- has been available via VOD for some time now and opens this Friday, November 30 in Hollywood, New York and Austin, and on December 14 in Tucson. Click here to see specific theaters.

And now, as promised above: Remember these guys? Ah, time. It changes, and then obliterates us all, eventually....

Monday, November 26, 2012

EX-GIRLFRIENDS: Alexander Poe's fresh, funny rom-com gets a NY theatrical debut; plus a short Q&A with the filmmaker

What a low-key charmer is Alexander Poe. Whether behind the camera (as director), in front of it (as co-star), or in-person (there will be a short Q&A with the filmmaker as an addendum to this post -- if the fellow who promised me the transcript ever gets it to me), he's quiet, intelligent, self-effacing and attractive. And his new film, EX-GIRLFRIENDS -- his first full-length piece after four shorts over five years -- seems remarkably like its maker. A rom-com that takes in the twenty-something set, Mr. Poe's film is about those kids just out of college (or maybe still in grad school) trying desperately but surreptitiously to "connect" romantically, and failing that, as they seem awfully good at doing (Poe's character, in particular), to figure out what's going on and what they really want. It ain't easy. But, then, when has it ever been?

As a fellow in his 70s (who has probably seen, enjoyed or been annoyed by as many rom-coms over the decades as anyone else), TrustMovies finds this genre one of the trickier to keep alive and kicking. That Mr. Poe (shown at left, on above poster and below) manages it so well, and with such a light touch that seldom strains or pushes, is a special joy to see and listen to. Yes, his way with dialog (he's writer and director) is quite delightful. It's "writerly," all right, but as his character, Graham, is a struggling writer (he's a struggling everything), this is quite appropriate. The first big surprise of the movie, in fact, has to do with writing, as we suddenly go from one form of storytelling to another, and is carried off with a good deal on non-showy panache.

Poe's subject, as his title indicates is "exes," and for such a young fellow, this guy seems to have already had his share. Well, why not? He's certainly attractive (those Betty Boop lips, seen two photos above, are eminently kissable, no?), and his very hang-back, indecisive attitude would seem nicely non-threatening to some girls. On the other hand, as we soon learn, these very qualities can also drive certain young ladies nuts: the blond (Liz Holtan) at the cafe table, above, who is in the process of breaking up with our hero, and the brunette below (Jennifer Carpenter), a best-friend who clearly would like a little more of him.

One of the earmarks of a mature male writer (and how few of our more famous, older set -- from the late Mailer to the still living Roth -- seem to exhibit much of this) is how he treats his female charac-ters. Misogyny is never far afield in the work of many men, so what a pleasure it is to report that Mr. Poe treats men and women as equals--equally silly, foolish, mixed-up, likable, and lovable actually.

Even the two-timing fellow (Noah Bean, above) who turns out to be dating two of Graham's exes -- and simultaneously, without either of them knowing it -- when seen up close and personal for a moment or two doesn't come off as all that awful. You kind of like him, damn it. As you do every major and most of the minor characters here. If they register at all, they do so with a confused and lifelike mixture of desire and uncertainty.

The movie has a "narrator," and while this technique is sometimes seen as a kind of "crutch," Poe uses it well and to an interesting purpose. His look at a creative writing class, in fact, is done with a lovely combo of style, charm and just enough satire to make it fun. (The teacher, above, is played by Matt McGrath.)

In the role of the ex with whom our hero most wants to reconnect, Kristin Connolly (above, left) is impressively allusive: beautiful, ethereal, and just out-of-reach. The more we learn about her, however, the more surprisingly human she becomes.

Writing, romance, relationships, love, friendship, bonding and commitment -- they all get a workout here. But as this is done under Mr. Poe's light, bright touch, that workout seems like anything but work.

And filled with locations from bars and lofts to the pier and the High Line (above and below) that will stand out to us New Yorkers, the movie is also lots of fun to view. For a first-time filmmaker to take on writing, directing and starring in his own film might sound like a vanity production. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Mr. Poe's movie is that it smacks of full-fledged talent rather than vanity.

Ex-Girlfriends (from Cinetic Rights Management and FilmBuff), looking very good considering its minimal budget and running a swift, sleek 72 minutes, opens this Wednesday, November 28, in New York City at the Cinema Village and becomes available on VOD and iTunes, beginning Tuesday, November 27.


TrustMovies met Alexander Poe (below) in a little bar-restaurant called The Brooklyneer, across from Film Forum on Houston Street, on a rainy afternoon in mid-November. The filmmaker proved as low-keyed, genuine and charming as the character he plays in his film. We had only a few minutes, so the highlights of those appear below, with TM in boldface and Alexander in standard type....

First off: I loved your movie. You’ve got a such a light touch, which moves the story along easily and cleverly. You were very involved in this movie as writer, director, and star, And when one hears something like that about a new filmmaker, one usually thinks, "Uh-oh: vanity project." But your film is go good that I didn't think that. More impressive, yours is a romantic comedy--which is difficult to do in a new way, don't you think? 

Yeah, it’s like a tight rope on either end.

The rom-com is also one of the most "done" genres, after horror films. But you really put time and work into the writing. Often, you come away from modern rom-coms with a misogynistic feeling. But not your movie.

And that's not a nice or accurate feeling.

What bubbles up in your film is pretty fair, I think.... 

Good. I wanted to approach relationships in a real way that didn’t simply reduce people to one thing or the other. I think that, even with the guy, Tom, who’s ultimately the two timing boyfriend, even the main character likes him a little bit.


I wanted to give people two sides. Graham starts off the story with a notion of what the story is and then places himself as the lead in his own story and narrates it in a sort of way.

That was a wonderful touch when you realize, 15 minutes in, that you’re in a classroom. 

I love movies that have great voice overs. The one I was thinking about for this was Shoot the Piano Player, the great Truffaut movie with second person narration. Also Jules and Jim. I like voice over when it’s not telling you information, but it’s adding on a layer of character. And I think this character is always very much narrating.

You never get away from him, but he’s enjoyable. How much did this movie cost? 

Oh man, this cost so little, but it was hard to scrape it together. We shot basically this SAG ultra-low budget agreement, which is basically anything under $200,000, we were way, way, way, below that.

Which is what? 

Very little.

Like $150, 000?
(Poe's hand moves downward)
 (Poe's hand move farther down.)
(As I recall, this is about where the hand stopped moving....)

What we tried to do is we did a combination of crowd-funding on Indiegogo and getting favors, small, small donations to help us through. It was a small team effort that was the spirit of the whole movie. In a way, having no money is a hindrance, but in a way it’s liberating because you’re not accountable to a studio or investors. You define your terms and you’re such a small production that you can shoot fast. We shot here in this bar, we had a few lights.

I didn't even recognize this bar -- you really made it seem so much bigger than it is! 

We definitely maximized location for sure. It’s nice for my first movie out the gate to focus on the story-telling and the characters rather than having a big production value and stuff like that. The script was a fun one to do as my first film.

There’s a balance between character and plot and it’s only 75 minutes long. And it works! 

I think keeping small allows you to have a lot of time with your actors and focus on performance. I’ve worked on a bunch of giant movies when I was assisting directors and learning the ropes. I assisted a director named Donald Petrie on a movie called Just My Luck, a Lindsay Lohan movie that shot here a few years ago. It was a gigantic production and I learned how a director operates in that context, which was invaluable. Then I worked on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds for this guy Vic Armstrong, who was like the stunt coordinator of all time: He was Harrison Ford’s stunt double for Indiana Jones. So then, to see that type of film process, it was a totally different learning experience. Now, making short films along the same lines and budget levels as this, this is an extension of the student films I’ve done.

Your characters are a bit of a mystery. 

Kristen Connolly’s, in particular, is a bit of mystery.

That’s the way people are. We’re a mystery to ourselves until we’re very old. Maybe forever.

Certainly. Her character starts out as an angelic figure for him, the object of desire he’s pursuing the whole time and by the end he realizes she has more aspects to her than he anticipated.

Yes: And while he thought he broke up with her, she thought she did it with him. Last question, and I always ask this: Is there something no journalist ever asks you but that you've always wanted to talk about.  Here's your chance....

To expound on weighty matters?

Or whatever. Without being bored to death. 

Well, all of this is still such a new and exciting process. You sit with your little laptop editing away through the night with your three compatriots, to be able to see on the big screen. The producer Jennifer Gerber was producer, the AD, the editor, she even edited the trailer. It was that kind of movie where everybody had ten roles. The co-producer did the website and the script design and production design. That’s what was fun about it, there was a communal family feel to it. I want to keep working with those people. But hopefully on the next movie, there will be a little more money.

What do you have up next? 

I have another screenplay that I actually wrote before this. I wanted to choose the script I could shoot for very little money and then take this finished product and try to move on. The other movie is a little more involved. It’s called Right Side.

We'll look forward to seeing it. Thanks so much for your time, Alexander, and for your movie!