Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Guskin/Jennings DOWN THE SHORE offers a thick slice of Jersey miserabilism

Whoa -- can any life get much more depressing and awful than that of the New Jersey-ites profiled in this new movie? Well, yes, I suppose -- if you are born into life under a nasty dictator, pick rice all your days, and then die at age 29. Otherwise, the folk we spend 93 minutes with in DOWN THE SHORE sure do take the cake. This film, which opens in Paris at a merry-go-round run by the hunky Edoardo Costa (an Italian actor playing a Frenchman whose accent and gift for languages seem to be multinational) sets up Signore Costa to meet a sweet American woman named Susan (played by Maria Dizzia) with a keen interest in merry-go-rounds.

Enjoy these first few minutes because, once the movie moves to New Jersey, any further moment of joy or happiness seems to be off the menu. This could work OK -- there's nothing wrong with a good, dark movie now and again, which, when done well, can be salutary -- but this one, written by Sandra Jennings and directed by Harold Guskin (at right), a fellow evidently best known for being a crack acting coach, has entirely too "manufactured" a feel to be taken seriously. This is particularly sad because the acting here is quite fine. Performances -- from everyone in view: in addition to the aforementioned, we have James Gandolfini (below, left) Famke Janssen, John Magaro and Joseph Pope (below, right) -- seem organic and anything but manufactured.

The story involves a couple of families with secrets that they are keeping from each other but which of course are eventually revealed. The not-very-good screenplay allows the characters to wander in and out and around each other until it's time for the spilling of the beans. In the headline, I call this Jersey miserabilism (as opposed to the British miserabilism, we got last year from Tyrannosaur) because it seems insistently pessimistic, with the characters and their plights chosen for maximum "downer" value.

Gandolfini plays the brother of Ms Dizzia, a fellow pining for the woman (Janssen) he's always loved but who married his best friend (Pope). Janssen's character (below) is herself pining for another life, as her marriage has come apart, producing only an autistic child (Magaro, above) who is a constant handful. I'll leave you to discover the joys of her hubby, the character played by Pope -- yikes! As for Dizzia, you don't want to know. Which leaves only Costa, that hunky Italian emigre to France and then America, who is the one silver lining in this mess.

When it's time for the big "reveal" and we get one confession after another, you'll want to yell "Stop!"  But then Costa, below, who has more or less been a Deus ex machina from the beginning, really goes into action. The movie does not tie up its loose ends, but loose or tight, after all this doom-and-gloom, the somewhat pat resolution seems far too neat.

Guskin's direction, both visually and in his handling of the actors, hones somewhat to the Cassavetes model: naturalistic and real, above all else (the cinematographer is Richard Rutkowski). The music, properly depressing, is by Andrea Morricone (son of Ennio), and the rest of the technical departments come through just fine.

Down the Shore, from Anchor Bay Entertainment, opens this coming Friday here in New York City for a brief run at the Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Noho 7 -- after which, a DVD and Blu-ray will be available rather quickly, I suspect.

Blu-ray debut: ON APPROVAL -- Brit hit from the vaults returns to tickle us anew

If you're an aficionado of old movies -- good old movies, I might add: the kind that actually hold up well in this new century of ours -- you cannot miss the return (on Blu-ray, where it looks smashing) of ON APPROVAL, the lightweight cream puff of a film that starts out well and just gets better and better as it skims along. When it first appeared in 1944, critics were calling it among the funniest British light comedies ever made. Current critics still are, and the movie still is.

Seen on this digitally restored Blu-ray disc, the black-and-white cinematography looks stunning (could it have looked this good back then?) and the costumes (by Cecil Beaton!) enchant. But it's the cast and the script, sporting dialog so much fun that you wonder where humor has gone (What -- no fart jokes? Not a one!) What probably seemed daring in its day now seems not at all old hat but simply sensible and smart.

A comedy of manners in which the two woman characters come with tidy fortunes in hand, while the two men -- one a duke, the other his good friend -- are resoundingly poor. The gals are played by Beatrice Lillie (yes, that funny British eccentric, shown center on poster, top, and above, left) and Googie Withers. (The latter, shown below, left, and only recently departed, gives a simply lovely 2011 interview as part of the disc's Special Features, telling us all about what it was like to make this movie, back in the day.)

The males are played by Roland Culver (below, left, with mustache) and Clive Brook (above, right), who doubles as director, although the movie did not start out with him at the helm (this is one of the big surprises we learn in Ms Withers interview). All four stars are to this sort of manor born, and they have a terrific old time with the great script and story by Frederick Lonsdale, based on his play of the same name.

At a breezy length of only 80 minutes, the movie wastes not a word nor scene, bouncing along and culminating in a some terrific surprises leading to one of the great last visual and verbal moments in cinema story-telling history. Ho!

On Approval, a wonderful gift from Inception Media Group, Inc., is available now on Blu-ray disc, for sale and, I would hope, rental. But as you can no longer trust Netflix to purchase a new and better restoration of an inferior disc they already have, and Blockbuster, playing its usual game, appears to have the Blu-ray (until you stick it into your queue and discover that, no, they don't actually carry it), maybe eventually, there'll be VOD or streaming. For now, get some like-minded old-movie fans/friends together and chip in on the $35 suggested retail price. It's expensive, but with several of you sharing, not so much.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Viktor Gjika's THE SECOND NOVEMBER: Albanian Cinema Project debuts first-ever showing outside Albania of landmark film

This past Wednesday, March 27, proved a red-letter day for Albanian film, as the Albanian Cinema Project (ACP), Colorlab Corporation, and New York University presented the first digital restoration and English language subtitled adaptation of renowned Albanian filmmaker Viktor Gjika’s 1982 feature, The Second November (Nëntori i dytë). The film tells the story of events leading up to Albania’s independence from Ottoman rule on November 28, 1912. Last year celebrated the 100th anniversary of that independence.

Until this past Wednesday evening, TrustMovies -- like most Americans (film lovers or not) -- had never seen (nor even heard of) an Albanian film, so the opportunity to view one, particularly one said to be as important as this, had to be accepted. (TM did see last year The Forgiveness of Blood, set and made in Albania, but by an American director.)

Directed by Gjika (shown at left) and written by Kiço Blushi, The Second November was made in 1982 and premiered that November, yet has never screened outside of Albania. On November 3, 2012, the restored version opened the "13th Festival of Albanian Film in the 100th Independence Year” at the Millennium Cinema in Tirana, Albania, to much acclaim.

This marked the world’s first restoration of an Albanian film and an international co-operation between filmmakers, film labs, archives, academics and activists to help preserve the Albanian film heritage. Nëntori i dytë is the first of five films that ACP will preserve over five years. Albania’s film archives, though they hold unique insights into one of Europe’s most complex countries, are also said to be in some danger these days, due to lack of funding.

The film itself, I am happy to say, proved a relatively enjoyable experience. My own meager understanding of Albania and its film history may have been a help to that enjoyment, for when one knows almost nothing about a subject, this "blank canvas" situation can make for quite a learning experience. First of all, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Albania as a nation only came into being after 1900. I'd imagined that it existed -- like Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European nations (despite a lot of border disputes & geographical changes) -- for hundreds of years. Hardly.

So this tale, which takes place over a rather short period of time, explains in only 93 minutes a kind of shorthand version of how nationalism and the spirit of a people, led by only a few brave leaders and their followers, managed to cling to their ideals over a cross-country trip by, what looked to my small understanding, their main leader, Ismail Quemali (shown above), enduring lots of threats and entreaties to quit (but no actual battles or violence), finally ending in the city of Vlora, where the Albanian flag is raised amidst much celebration and excitement.

One of our hosts for the evening, the lovely and well-spoken Regina M. Longo, director of the Albanian Cinema Project, explained pre-screening that the movie was full of history, drama and -- yes -- some melodrama. She was right. Even as full of cliche as is the film, when that cliche is dished out of an exotic location, it can be quite charming. The acting was capable, and the screenplay interesting from an historical angle, chock full of exposition as it was.

Probably most impressive was the splendid work accomplished by Colorlab Corp. to make this film look so spanking new and pristine. This digital restoration is a joy to view. There is plenty of history here, along with politics, religion (that's a Quizzling kind of religious leader, shown above, right), tradition vs. modernization -- with Turkey, Serbia and Greece all laid out against little Albania.

Told via fairly broad strokes and obvious storytelling, the movie still manages to build up a nice head of steam as time runs out and miles are still ahead to travel. The scenes with the telegraph operator and the young messenger (above) are charming, as are those involving the flag-making women (below) doing their version of the Albanian Betsy Ross.

There are songs, too, and lots of nationalistic feeling on view. Having also just seen the new documentary on Smyrna in this same week (about which I'll have more to say next week), which details the horrifying end of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities just two decades after the birth of Albania, I must say that the documentary makes a good case against nationalism, and for cosmopolitanism.

Still, The Second November should arouse some nationalistic ardor from even the most placid cosmopolites. And since the oppressor here is Turkey -- that genocidal country that even now refuses to admit to its Armenian massacres, let alone the destruction of the city of Smyrna -- one can only hope and murmur, in the words of another "Holocausted" people, "Never again!"

We'll await the upcoming, restored Albanian films -- we're promi-sed one per year -- with great interest. The Second November, being Albanian to its core, was a good movie to start with, so it will be interesting to learn what other kinds of films this little country has made. Mean-while, for more information on the Albanian Cinema Project and Albanian film, click here.

MENTAL reunites P.J. Hogan & Toni Collette in another tale of a family--and the outsider who saves it; plus a Q&A with Mr. Hogan

What is MENTAL? Yes, it's the Australian manner of describing someone who needs psychological help. But in this new movie of the same name by P.J. Hogan, it is also the idea that one man's (or woman's) "mental" is another's bit of normalcy. And vice-versa, of course. Mr. Hogan is another of TrustMovies' favorite filmmakers. For this fellow's output alone -- not numerous but extremely lovable and kind-hearted without being saccharine -- Hogan is special. Beginning with Muriel's Wedding and moving on through Unconditional Love, Peter Pan and now Mental, he has given us some of the loveliest tales of "outsiders" even seen.  He wrote and directed those four films, but he has also directed two others: My Best Friend's Wedding (a classic of its kind) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (not great, but more fun than you may have heard).

Among the things that Hogan (shown at right) loves, it seems, are music and song, which he manages to incorporate into his films (which are not musicals) in the sweetest, often funniest ways. He gets quite good performan-ces from his casts (and he casts with an excellent eye for very good actors). Since first working with Toni Collette, who played Muriel in the film that brought her, Hogan and Rachel Griffiths to international attention, he has worked with some of the finest actors in the business, giving them a chance to shine in roles they would normally not play. I think my favorite of his films is Unconditional Love, which is also probably his least known and seen. Seek it out, if you have not seen it, and you'll discover something highly unusual, twice as special and maybe five times as much fun as you're expecting.

Now with Mental, he's back in Australia again with a fractured family that needs a lot of help. Dad (Anthony LaPaglia, below) is the lecherous, never-at-home mayor of a small town whose wife (Rebecca Gibney, above) is suffering from psychological problems that take the shape of her desperately wanting her family to be something like the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. So she sings -- at the most inappropriate times -- and is soon sent away on "vacation" (read "nut-house").

Mom's and Dad's kids -- five girls -- are not much better off. Each imagines herself to be the craziest child of all, though only one of them actually inhabits a rather dire mental state. Into this house-hold comes Ms Collette as Shaz (below), a very odd woman that Dad has literally picked up off the street and deposited at home to care for those kids. She does. In her own, inimitable manner.

Shaz was once married to a shark hunter named Trevor (Liev Schreiber, below), who has a shark display at the local aquarium/theme park where the eldest of the family's daughters also works. All this -- plus some nosy, not-very-nice neighbors and Mom's older and also not-very-nice sister -- bring the movie's plot/pot to the brim/boil.

Collette is as amazing as ever -- a force of nature who literally runs away with the movie. When she's on-screen, however crazy things get, she makes them work. The males, despite Schreiber's and LaPaglia's acting skills, register as much less interesting, though the women folk (Gibney, the young girls, Caroline Goodall as the mean sis, Kerry Fox as an OCD neighbor and Deborah Mailman, below, as an Aborigine pal of Shaz) are all aces.

Newcomer Lily Sullivan (below) plays, and very well, that eldest daughter, who begins a sweet, somewhat fraught relationship with a boy (a dear doofus brought to charming life by Sam Clark) who also works at the theme park. The plot is mostly Shaz teaching life lessons to the kids, mom and dad, but with these actors in place, along with Hogan's keeping the film energized and well-paced, it's an enjoyable ride, with Shaz/Collette such a consistent cyclone that resistance would be futile. There is also, along the way, an extremely moving scene between Chaz and that eldest daughter as truths are suddenly revealed.

TM would have preferred the film to have ended just one scene before it actually does. The actual ending stuck me as too feel-good and silly. However, after speaking with Mr Hogan for a few minutes during press day this past week, and discovering that Mental is based on real life and his own family (something the filmmaker decided not to push on his audience, as most do these days), I must take it back. Given what I know now, it seems the perfect ending. And if you read the short Q&A below, you'll learn why. But maybe see the film first, since the Q&A does contains some spoilers.

Meanwhile, Mental -- via Dada Films and Required Viewing and running 116 minutes -- opened yesterday, March 29, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and Clearview Chelsea and in ten other cities around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.


What a guy is P.J. Hogan (below): Easy to talk to, funny, serious, smart and totally swept up in film and life and creation. My first question is "What do those initials stand for?"

"Paul John," he explains, "so you see, with that first name, why I could not use it." Ah, yes. That Crocodile Dundee fellow....  In the short Q&A that follows, TM appears in boldface and P.J. in standard type....

I'm excited to meet you because I've loved your films from way back. My favorite, I think, is that one with Kathy Bates and Jonathan Pryce, Unconditional Love.

Ah, really! I'm so glad to hear that. You know, we had a terrible time with that film. The studio wouldn't release it.  So it went straight to Home Video
Yes, I think it was shown on a cable channel here: Maybe Showtime...?

Yes and then straight to DVD.  I don't know quite what happened because I went off and did another movie. You have to move on: There are only so many battles you can wage.

That movie seems to me to encapsulate so much that I think you believe in.

It is a special movie to me, and I loved working with Kathy and Rupert (Everett). And Julie Andrews -- as herself!

Music in that one, as in several of your films, seems to mean so much to you.  The healing power of it, the joy of it....

Well, it does mean so much to me. From my first film Muriel's Wedding, music is one of the things that is so important to that film. That was the story of my sister--

Really? I didn't know that.

Yes. Just as with Mental, the events in Muriel's Wedding actually happened. (P.J. notices my surprise). Yes. Our dad was a... well, a bully, and he was not keen on us. We were all a disappointment to him.  I remember feeling most comfortable alone in my room, listening to Abba. That was my favorite band, but back then, in the 70s, they were considered very uncool. Now, of course, they are rightly considered great musicians and composers. Back then they had only one hit here in the USA: Dancing Queen.  In Australia, they has something like 14!

So Mental is also based on fact?

Yes, Mental is almost entirely based on actual events.

Even the ending?  I mean, I thought Shaz was going to stay dead.

Well, here's the thing about that. The real Shaz was totally mad. I mean, I am in the trenches regarding mental illness. My sister is schizophrenic, my brother is bipolar, and I'm the father of two autistic kids. So this is a subject that's really important to me. That's why I made it a comedy.  If you ask any caregiver to the mentally ill, they'll tell you that if you can't find a laugh in your day, you yourself will go totally mad.

My mom, when I was twelve, had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. And my dad, who was the mayor of our town and was running for reelection, he told all of us: "Nobody votes for a guy whose wife is crazy, so the official story is, She's gone on holiday."

So Shaz really was your caretaker?

Yes. Shaz was somebody my dad picked up on the side on the road. She was hitch-hiking. And he was completely at sea when it came to taking care of kids -- he always preferred not to be at home. Of course, he couldn't hire anybody through the official channels, so....   From Dad's point of view, he was doing a good deed for Shaz and for us kids....

And for himself. 

Yes, for himself. That goes without saying. So he was doing a good deed for her, rescuing her from hitch-hiking. And he trusted her because she had a dog.  So he was giving us a nanny. Of course, she was crazy. Yet, to this day, the original Shaz remains one of the most brilliant, inspiring and totally mad people I've ever known.

Whew. I didn't know all this was true when I watched the movie.  This does sort of change things somewhat.

Well, I was considering -- and I talked to my editor a lot about this -- putting at the beginning of the movie that notice that "this film is based on actual events."  But we decided not to.

Good. Because almost every other movie you see these days does that.

Exactly. And I think it's fine to say that, if it's Argo.

Yes but even in Argo, the whole last third was concocted!

But when it's a such a personal story like this one, what would the audience care? They either enjoy the story. Or they don't.  But because it is so personal and such a part of my life, I am more than willing to discuss it.

Do you live in Australia permanently?

Yes. That's why I am so jet-lagged just now.

Really? You look OK to me. Of course, I've never seen you before.

Yes, yes, so I could just tell you I always look like this: Smokey-eyed!

Do you choose your film projects. Or do they come to you, and then you decide?

Ah... Well, I am lucky in one way.  My first film Muriel's Wedding was a low-budget film that was hugely successful all around the world. I had all the "points" because nobody wanted to make it because nobody thought it would make any money. So, in a way, that film set me up.  And it's a great thing for anybody in this industry -- director, actor, anybody -- if you are able to say 'no.' If you have to work to pay the bills, well, then, you have to. But if you can pick and choose, how much better this is!  When I look back on things, I could say, Well, I wish I had made more movies. On the other hand, the movies I made, I really wanted to make.

(The PR person lets us know that we have time for one more question.)

OK: My Best Friend's Wedding is one of my favorite romantic comedies, even though it sort of skews to the anti-romantic comedy end.

Yes, but that's what makes people laugh.

Yes, and  that's also what distinguishes the film. 

It' s what I loved about Ron Bass' screenplay. The first time I read through a screenplay, I just enjoy it. This is as close, I believe, as I will get to the audience's response to the finished film. I remember thinking, about halfway through, I don't want Julia to get the guy. She's being just terrible!


And I thought for sure that the screenplay was have the usual happy ending. But his original screenplay did not have a happy ending. It ended like the movie now ends. But the studio was very frightened about a Julia Roberts movie not having a happy ending, so they made us shoot an alternate -- and happy ending where she gets the guy.  So we thought, well, OK: Maybe they have a point. And anyway, it's their money. So we'll do it, and do the best we can.. But that new and happy ending was summarily rejected by the preview audiences. They didn't want her to get the guy, either. But they also didn't want her to be alone. So then we got the idea to bring back Rupert Everett. And we did a reshoot. I always thought of Julia's character as Pinocchio and Rupert's character as Jiminy Cricket, her conscience.

Hmmm... Interesting.

And speaking of blogs, which I know you have and write for, it seems that the real Shaz, who is still out there --

She is still alive?

Oh, yes: still alive, and in her 60s now, I should think. And she has now taken up blogging or tweeting as they call it and has set up her own Twitter site.

Which is?


With a Or whatever the Twitter address is.

Exactly. The great thing about it is that her whole philosophy is there, in 140 characters or less, and she says what she thinks. In fact, she does not like the film at all.

She doesn't?

No. She dislikes it immensely. She says things like, "It's all lies -- except for that one bit where I pull out the knife and sort out those two bitches. I did do that!"

(And that's it. P.J. must now talk to the next journalist in line. But we've certainly enjoyed our visit. And his several films. If you've never seen Unconditional Love or his wonderful version of Peter Pan, rent them! And catch Mental, too: either now, or later on DVD....)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gilles Bourdos' RENOIR gives us the painter his offspring and -- best of all -- his subject

If Gilles Bourdos, shown below, the director and co-writer of the astoundingly beautiful new French film RENOIR (about, yes, that prodigiously talented family of artists) had decided to name his movie Heuschling, after one of, perhaps the final model (Andrée Heuschling) used by the paterfamilias Pierre-Auguste Renoir as the subject of his popular paintings, the film might not have immediately appealed to the arthouse crowd. But given how important Heuschling is, not only to the Renoir family but to this very good film -- one of the best we've had about artists and the artistic process -- naming it for this woman would not at all have seemed out of line.

It is Andrée, the first thing we see in the film, who brings us into it. We're at her side as she rides her bicycle up and down hills and through the verdant countryside until comes she comes upon a kind of estate. We enter the gate and come to know, slowly, all about the Renoir family and its servants through the eyes and finally the heart and mind of this young woman, who is brought to exceptional life by the talented actress, Christa Theret (below and on poster at top). Ms Theret is not only strikingly beautiful -- with a body that seems to cry, Paint me! -- but she possesses the ability to seem at once of Renoir's time (a century ago) and the very model of a modern major feminist. As a character, she's thoughtful, inquisi-tive, alternately pliant and demanding; as an actress, she's quite a find, so I hope we'll be seeing much more of her in the years ahead.

As for those Renoirs, in addition to dad, we also see a lot of sons Jean (Vincent Rottiers, below, one of the best young actors currently working in France: I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive and In the Beginning) and Claude, nicknamed Coco, played well by Thomas Doret (barely recognizable here as The Kid With the Bike). We see nothing of the the eldest son, Pierre, who went on to become rather a famous actor, but the two we view are enough to make this family come to very interesting life.

As dad and the first of the famous Renoirs, the 87-year-old Michel Bouquet (How I Killed My Father, Toto Le Hero) makes a fine and precise painter, as well as a sad old man, losing by increments to crippling arthritis everything that has made his life worthwhile. What M. Bourdos shows us of a great artist in the sunset of his life -- how he thinks, feels, paints and aches -- is so well realized that I think this will be the standard for some time to come.

What probably will make the movie a keeper in one's memory, however, is the great beauty that has gone into scene after scene after scene. And this is never a "too-showy" thing but rather seems to come naturally from the time and place. The cinematographer is the great Lee Ping Bin (of In the Mood for Love and Norwegian Wood), who shows us how the light plays off everything (see poster, top) and the colors this creates, the manner in which all this beauty feeds the characters and their need to produce, and how it seeps into everything from the house to the grounds to the skin of our (and Renoir's) favorite model.

All the details seem so right, as well, with nothing pushed. The movie is full of quiet critique: of class and behavior, of art, of social mores, of war. It shows us love, too -- differing kinds of this (see below and below) -- and finally it lets us see the place of women at this time. And it is this, as much as anything (except, of course, that great beauty) that is likely to stay with us.

Renoir is memorable indeed -- a wonderful collaboration between writers, director, actors and technicians creating art about art and in the process giving us a splendid slice of humanity in France during (but fortunately far enough away from) World War I.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and running 111 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 29, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in California (in Los Angeles, Encino, Pasadena, Irvine and Santa Barbara). Click here to see all the theaters showing the film this week and also for the many upcoming playdates around the country.