Tuesday, April 30, 2013

McGehee & Siegel's WHAT MAISIE KNEW: Henry James gets a (mostly) deft updating

How different are the movies of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End, Uncertainty) when they both write and direct a film than when (Bee Season and their latest effort WHAT MAISIE KNEW) they collaborate with other screenwriters! Gone is much of the oddness and the anything-but-straight-ahead momentum that distinguishes the pair, which is not to say that Bee Season and even more so What Maisie Knew are not worth seeing. They are (with Maisie especially so) but they are surprisingly mainstream in their intention and style. Consequently, the duo's latest might very well be its biggest hit. Which would be wonderful -- if it means that we'll be seeing their work more often.

McGehee and Siegel (shown above, with the latter on the left) and the screenwriters -- Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright -- have taken the famous novel of the same name by Henry James and turned it into a surprisingly relevant and timely look at parenting (and the lack of it) today. The original novel explored how two divorced spouses use their child to hurt each other at the kid's expense, and this update does the same. The specifics -- time, place, occupations, secondary characters and all the rest -- have been given almost exactly the right spin so that they move the plot along, while making everything seem absolutely au courant. James would be pleased, I suspect, and probably not at all surprised to see how very little (except the accouterments) has changed over an entire century, and beyond.

Behavior is key here, and all four filmmakers take care to put it on rich display -- with its subtext fully articulated, as well. These characters try to behave as if they understood what responsible adults act like, but their own desires continually take precedence over everything, and so they fail consistently. Maisie's mother (a brave and nasty performance played with flash and flair by Julianne Moore, shown at right) is a drug- and alcohol-addled rock star, while her father (equally nasty and played with unusual restraint by Steve Coogan, below) is sort of of art agent who lives, we soon find, too close to the edge.

These two want desperately to be thought of as model parents, but everything they do indicates (hell, screams!) that they should never have had a child. At times this movie seems like a plea to restrict irresponsible adults from ever being allowed to conceive. Their child, the titular Maisie, is brought to fine life by relative newcomer Onata Aprile. Ms Aprile (at left, above and below) is a find, and Maisie's a role that suits her almost ideally.

The film's other two important characters -- Maisie's governess/care-giver, Margo, and mom's new boy-fuck Lincoln -- initially impress us as shallow and out for their own best interests. But the screenplay and performances by the two actors who inhabit these roles (Joanna Vanderham, below and Alexander Skarsgård, above, right) slowly win us over as these characters grow and change so beautifully and movingly as the movie progresses.

What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking film in many ways. It has been some time since I've seen a movie that gave us entry (and so well) into the child’s point of view. The directors (and, I am guessing, the screenwriters) put us so firmly in the place of this girl, who only slowly (and only as much as her young age can manage) understands what is happening and that, finally, she just might have some small command of her situation.

My one quibble -- but it's a big one: Why didn’t the writers and directors know enough to give this kid at least one moment of "brattiness"? (God knows, Maisie has plenty of reason to act out!) Having raised a daughter in New York City and now seeing my two grand-kids (around the same age as Maisie) and all their friends, I have to say that I have never seen a child who is this good all the time. The only way a child could be this good would be via some major repression -- which would certainly not lead toward any happy ending. It's surprising then, that between the directors and the screenwriters, someone didn't raise the point -- Hey, we need to make her just a little more real. As it is, Maisie has our full sympathy; she doesn’t need to be perfect. But by keeping her so cute and correct at every moment, the movie ends up by default sentimentalizing both Maisie and her circumstances.

What Maisie Knew is a very good film. But it might have been a great one. It opens this Friday, May 3, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center; and on May 17 in Los Angeles at The Landmark; and throughout the country in the weeks to follow.

Monday, April 29, 2013

SOMETHING IN THE AIR: Olivier Assayas' buoyant look at post-'68 protest in France

It bubbles, it flows, it rarely stops moving, and it's full of youthful French passion for... well, all kinds of things from sex to politics to philosophy to protest to travel. With his new movie, SOMETHING IN THE AIR, critically acclaimed (and sometimes even popular) French filmmaker Olivier Assayas captures part of, maybe the heart of, the student rebellion that first hit France in 1968 and then exploded around Europe and America.

Assayas' film is set in the very early 1970s, when he himself was a teenager. Perhaps this is why (and about as well as I have seen it done) the filmmaker, shown at left, is able to capture the kind of shimmering spirit of that time in this film full of characters that appear, act, speak and connect, then disappear, only to (sometimes) appear again and reconnect. Or not. Something in the Air is full of near constant movement and incident but (as a compatriot of mine pointed out immedi-ately after the screening) almost zero "interiority." This lack was not a criticism of the film, either, as the kids we see and whose activities we follow are full of youthful zest and plenty of ideas -- most of them unformed. But they certainly feel things. And so they act, but for god's sake, don't ask them why. They'll figure that out later, maybe in a decade or two.
If they live that long.

Most of these kids, it appears, are scions of the French bourgeoisie, so protest, along with their next meal, comes pretty easily. This is not to say they are not committed. It's just that their commitment might change or move around a bit. Is it to the ideas of Lenin? Or Trotsky? Or simply to art? Or to each other? And how much, finally, does this even matter?

We don't necessarily learn the answers. Nor do the kids. But we're there, with them, as these questions crop up. Assayas begins his film in the middle of things, and he ends there, too. This will annoy viewers who insist on comfortable beginnings and some nice closure at the finale. Yet there is so much going on in this film, that events themselves render boredom impossible. Stylistically, the film is almost consistently pleasurable. And if you have even a lick of interest in or experience with protest, I think the movie will grab you where it hurts (where it thrills, too).

Many of the characters we see flit by too fast and remain surface-only to care much about, and this is perfectly all right somehow. The quintet who count most register strongly, and that's enough. These would include our hero, Gilles (played by Clément Métayer, above, right); his friend, Alain (Félix Armand) and his girl (India Salvor Menuez, below, with red hair); and our two heroines, Christine (played by Lola Créton, above, sleeping, and recently seen in Goodbye First Love and earlier in Bluebeard) and Laure (gorgeous newcomer Carole Combesshown at bottom).

Music is near-constant here and a lot of fun to hear, for the musical choices are indeed choice. Along the way, our little group is faced with its own choices: will it be art or commerce, painting or politics, commitment or forget it? Gee, maybe one can manage both. We bourgeoisie usually prefer it that way.

Something in the Air, from Sundance Selects and running 122 minutes, opens this Friday, May 3, in New York (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal Theater). The film will also be available come May 9 nationwide via Sundance Selects’ video-on-demand platform, available to over 50 million homes in all major markets.

From the vault and worth seeing: Gessner & Hurwitz's LAST SUMMER WON'T HAPPEN

A remarkable testament to a time and a movement delivered in a manner which I have not seen anywhere else, LAST SUMMER WON'T HAPPEN, the hour-long, 1968 DIY documentary by Peter Gessner (shown below) and Tom Hurwitz shows us some of the leading players in the protest movement of that era -- from Abbie Hoffman to Paul Krassner to Phil Ochs and others -- in an almost offhand, fly-on-the-wall way that brings them to life quite differently from how we usually have seen and experienced them.

The war in Vietnam was raging at the time and so were the protests. The movie will make you wonder at how involved so many young people seemed to be back then, and how little so they seem to be now.  Inter-cut between what looks like black-and-white newsreel and TV footage, these color sections bring to life the place, the people and the situations in a way that places you smack in the center of things.

In addition, this odd and very homemade piece of filmmaking offers up interviews with denizens of Manhattan's East Village in that time period -- a runaway young girl (below), a drug-dealing young boy (further below) -- that capture the bruised spirit of the day in a style that is simultaneously spectacularly immediate and intimate, yet very off-the-cuff.

We so often saw (and still see), whenever this subject is addressed, people like Hoffman and Krassner "speechifying" and/or clowning around (particularly Abbie), rather than questing and questioning the way they do here. In this film they seem so much more like real people rather than performers, and the ideas that they and others offer up and then toss around and disagree with show the protest movement's very real conflicts that were not so easily settled.

The movie calls itself a "partisan look at these times," and indeed it is. But it not uncritical or simple-minded. It's a kind of time capsule that gives us everything from fashion and art to advertising and conversation of the day, and little of the music, too: Procol Harem and Country Joe and the Fish. (In one interview you'll notice a poster for the Broadway musical, Illya Darling, then playing at the old Mark Hellinger theater.)

There is no narration per se but plenty of people either speak (in public or in private) or are interviewed. It's interesting to see certain sacred cows of the left being mocked ("I have the feeling that Che Guevara used to kid around a lot, too," notes our favorite Yippie.) Listening to Hoffman (above and below) tell an assembled audience of mostly middle-aged and older folk how America's kids are going to keep coming to places like NYC East Village and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, looking for "a different America, a free America, and a revolution that's a threat to middle class American society," you can't help wonder what the guy, had he lived longer than his 53 years, would have thought of youth today. He's also funny and satirical about the Madison Avenue idea of revolution.

"This can't go on much longer," he notes, referring to society as it was then. Well, that was 45 years ago (when pollution and global warming were but whispers of what they have now become), and many of us are still saying the same thing, with no hope in sight.

The final discussions between, I believe, Paul Krassner and a couple of others, is something quite special. They talk of the thrill of beating up cops (who themselves had been doing plenty of beating up on protesters), of flying over America and realizing that the vast majority are not us, of this summer of protest set against last year's summer of love, and of whether Abbie will have burned himself out in two years -- all this is so fraught with bruised idealism, tamped-down hope and sadness that it is worth the entire movie.

Last Summer Won't Happen, from Icarus Films and running just 60 minutes, is available now on DVD, with some very good "extras": the excellent Time of the Locust, a 13-minute, award-winning, early documentary by Mr. Gessner that shows us the Vietnam War in a manner that had not yet been seen in America; and interviews with the two filmmakers from 2012 (which TrustMovies has yet to watch. He will as soon as a few more deadlines disappear). Finally -- be absolutely certain to scroll through the Photo Gallery in the EXTRAS section. This will let you know the identities of all those folk you've just seen, and in some cases what happened to them over the years. For more information on this little video treasure, click here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

On DVD & Blu-ray: THE DETAILS -- Don't pass up Jacob Aaron Estes' smart comedy

A life-lessons-cum-racoon comedy, THE DETAILS came and went from theaters with something approaching the speed of light. And why not? When more than a dozen movies open in any given week (last week's total here in NYC: 21), how can audiences with limited time and money possibly keep up? Consequently, some of the most creative and original stuff gets lost in the shuffle.

One such movie is Jacob Aaron Estes' very funny, dark, sad and unusual comedy about how life happens, with the responsibility for what happens only partially our own. That partial bit, however, is still major, and owning up to things (or not) is a big part of the problem. Almost a decade ago, Mr. Estes (shown at left) gave us his first full-lengther, the excellent (and also dark) coming-of-age movie Mean Creek. Since then he's done only a bit of writing and no directing till now, so it is very good to have him back in business. This guy is still surprising us, giving us a movie that, once seen, will take a permanent, if minor, place in our collective memory.

What happens, from the very outset is ridiculous but oddly believable, given the characters on view. These include our hero (a good job from the slowly maturing Tobey Maguire, above, center), as a young doctor, semi-happily married (with one child) to Elizabeth Banks (above, left).

The rest of the ensemble includes his also married best friends, Ray Liotta (above, doing some very nice and quite different work here) and Kerry Washington, and a needy, nerdy next-door neighbor (the incomparable Laura Linney, below, with Maguire, and doing, as always, yeoman work),

and a more-than-down-on-his-luck fellow whom our hero plays basketball with (an excellent and near-unrecognizable Dennis Haysbert, below). How Mr. Estes has mixed and matched these characters so delightfully and crazily without quite ever losing our understanding or good will is something of a marvel.

His purpose, I think, is to make us look at life from a different angle. He succeeds, while also revealing the depths of denial of which we humans are capable and offering up a group of racoons that ought to win Best Movie Animal Life Award, should the Academy ever deign to offer such a prize.

Also included on this DVD/Blu-ray is a feature we don't see so often anymore but, here, it's one that demands your watching, once you've seen the finished film: both an alternate beginning to the movie and an alternate ending. While not changing the point of his film, Estes' alternates offer even more fun. I'm not sure, in fact, that I wouldn't prefer the alternates to the actual beginning and end. Either way, the movie works its magic and demands a viewing.

From Anchor Bay Entertainment and Radius-TWC and running 101 minutes (the alternate stuff adds just a few more), The Details hits the street this Tuesday, April 30, on DVD & Blu-ray, for sale/rental.

Party time in TURTLE HILL, BROOKLYN: Slice-of-life dramedy from Ryan Gielen

The last time TrustMovies covered a film by Ryan Gielen -- The Graduates -- the marketing process proved more interesting than the movie itself. I'm happy to report that Gielen's latest effort to get a theatrical release, TURTLE HILL, BROOKLYN, is very much worth seeing for the film at the center of things. Gielen both wrote and directed the earlier movie; here, I suspect, he is acting more as a journeyman filmmaker, working for the film's writers/
producers/stars, Brian W. Seibert and Ricardo Valdez.

Mr. Gielen's skill (the filmmaker is shown at left) still comes through aplenty, as he continuously shoots the characters close to the vest and captures moment after moment that seem to be real, odd, funny and sometimes a little embarrassing. (The very good editing is by Morgan Neville, with near-documen-tary-like cinematography by Andrew Rivara.)

Gielen is in a very different milieu here from what he was in his earlier film (and from the sound of things, also from his recently completed movie, Drinking Games), but he immerses himself and us smack in the middle of it: no apologies necessary, so better keep up with it all or die trying. The result is a distinctive slice-of-life comedy/drama that takes us from the morning of a very special 30th birthday party through that party, with the introduction of family and friends, right on into the following morning -- during which issues are raised (but not necessarily settled) that plague so many budding and even long-term relationships.

Mr. Seibert (shown above, who also played a role in The Graduates) and Señor Valdez (below) play a couple whose relationship initially seems pretty wonderful until, little by little, the cracks in the facade appear, mostly due to the fact that both men have been not quite truthful enough with each other.

The screenplay these two have concocted is written with naturalness and reality in mind, but it is also pretty rich in important themes (from the place of Hispanic immigrants in New York City's boroughs to the importance of fidelity in relationships) and interesting details (how do all those Hispanic workers we see in restaurants around the city feel about their job and their bosses).

The ensemble (pictured above and below) gathered together for the film is an interesting bunch, as well -- nicely varied in age, sex and sexual preference, with each actor given the chance to create a believable character. It's unusual, in this large a cast, to allow everyone to register so strongly as individuals, but the combination of script, actors and director has made it possible.

Whether via plan or simply a limited budget, the movie manages to circumvent melodrama pretty well. (The one bit of action/violence is not even shown but only spoken of, post-event.)  While we enjoy the large cast of characters, it's our two "hosts" whose plight involves us most.

The movie thankfully does not tie up all the loose ends, particularly that of where this relationship is headed. But as early morning arrives and bedtime beckons, my companion offered his own take on our couple of the moment: "I think they're gonna make it." It's not in the bag, of course. But we can hope.

Turtle Bay, Brooklyn, from Believe Limited and Will Pork Productions and running just 80 minutes, opens this coming Friday, May 3, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Elsewhere? I'm not sure, but a DVD and VOD are probably in the cards soon.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Vampires go artsy again in Xan Cassavetes' chic undead-fest, KISS OF THE DAMNED

Wow -- within a week we've viewed two examples of a brand of movie-making not seen all that often: the art/horror film. This sub-genre goes back, I suppose, to Nosferatu, a movie that was trying for horror (and succeeding) but was, by the by, also art. Most of the films in this sub-genre try for art and end up horrors (not always in the way the filmmaker had intended). The problem, most usually, is pretension, in which last week's eerie doppelganger movie, Mortem, took a bath. This week's example, KISS OF THE DAMNED, flirts with pretension but most often manages to hold back from going irretrievably over the brink.

Written and directed by Xan Cassavetes (shown at right and, yes, she's the daughter of John and Gena), the movie is her first try at full-length narrative. Almost a decade ago, Ms Cassavetes made the excellent and very entertaining documentary about the Southern California-based grand-daddy of pay-cable movie stations, The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obssession, and now she's back with this odd but interesting riff on vampire habits concerning eating, drinking, dating, sleeping, sexing, love, death and family. And after a little too arty a start, Cassavetes and her well-chosen cast settle down and pretty much deliver the goods.

Kiss of the Damned posits vampires living neck-in-neck, so to speak, with their human counterparts and behaving themselves well enough to get along and not arouse undue attention. (What do they deast on? Oh, deer!) When real love leaves its mark -- even vampires, it seems, can feel this force of nature -- our human hero (above and on top: the hunky and only a little clunky Milo Ventimiglia) and vamp heroine (above, bottom, and clearly chosen for something other than her looks, acting-talent or pronunciation of English, Joséphine de La Baume), must figure out how to handle the situation.

Unlike the tortured twats of the Twilight series, these characters are determined to fuck. So love finds a way, in a scene that is one of the movie's best and offers something a little different in the annals of chains and locks. This proves quite a fraught moment. "Uh-oh," you think: "Now what's gonna happen...?"

At a vampire soirée later on, we meet the more-or-less mother of this rather large group, a famous stage actress played by the always-terrific Anna Mouglalis (above, left), a performer skillful enough -- she played Coco Chanel opposite Mads Mikkelsen's Igor Stravinksy, after all! -- to convince us that she could be worshiped internationally while still adhering to the vampire lifestyle. That's right: She doesn't do matinees.

Into this rather ideal situation (for bloodsuckers, at least) comes the de la Baume character's little sister, a born troublemaker whose occasionally over-size teeth start causing a commotion. Played by Roxane Mesquida, above, who is always fun to watch and who does not disappoint here, Sis has a favorite activity: reminding these mostly tamped-down vampires about what they really crave. The little blond virgin (Riley Keough, below), for instance, is her surprise gift to our famous actress.

Also on tap -- in more ways than one -- is the usually fun Michael Rapaport as the Ventimiglia's character's agent (did I tell you Milo plays a famous writer?) who stops in to the old homestead for a chat with his client.
If Ms Cassavetes had only stuck more to her story and less to her "style," Kiss of the Damned would have been a better movie. In fact, she seems to do just this as the film moves along. Initially, though, it's pretty tough going. Talk about a roving camera: This one is all over the place! The film begins with a shot of a bird flying. Suddenly the camera backs up. To what? Nothing. We also get a clichéd sex-thru-the-fish-tank shot which the movie could easily live without. The filmmaker also seems to love very loud, twangy music, so occasionally you might want to cover your ears. Finally, the movie proves repetitious and "arty" enough to have lost maybe ten minutes of wasted space.

That first sex scene, however, is so good and so changes the lay of the land, that this alone may hook you. Ventimiglia is great to look at and so is Ms Mesquida, while Mouglalis impresses with her every moment. There is some occasional ironic humor, as well: After reading his writer's latest and very good work, Rapaport tells his newly minted vampire client, "Congratulations -- you finally joined the human race!"

Overall, I'd give this Kiss a passing grade; it's certainly more fun than not. From the Magnet Releasing arm of Magnolia Pictures and running 97 minutes, the movie opens this coming Friday, May 3, in New York City at the Sunshine Cinema and in West L.A. at the NuArt. You can find all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here. As with many of the Magnolia/Magnet movies, this one, too, is currently playing via VOD -- in case you'd like to sample from the comfort of your couch.