Friday, May 31, 2013

Even seniors and movie snobs might buy Galletta/Vogt-Roberts' KINGS OF SUMMER

So bright and sunny and frisky and fun is THE KINGS OF SUMMER that I am tempted to call it a kind of Leave It to Beaver for this millennium (or maybe a Leave It to Biaggio). This new film, written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (shown below), is also quirky, smart and (for all its nods to the look and feel of "independent" movies) quite mainstream in its goals (parents are indeed wonderful, loving people, so there!) That it has been hit with an "R" rating is one of the idiocies of our current ratings system. (Yeah, it has some naughty language: so the fuck what?!) This one of those rare films about teens that young people ought to see, fer Chrissakes.

Telling the tale of two best friends -- one of whom decides to leave home, build a house in the nearby "forest," and live there for the summer -- who are joined by a third oddity (who is not even a friend, let alone a "best"), the movie is full of funny dialog that generally seems real, crazy situations that manage to squeak by one's disbelief threshold, all abetted by performances cool enough to pass muster with both sophisticated audiences and the peers of this movie's more-or-less teenage cast. And it's all just different enough to register as some-thing genuinely "new" in the summertime, non-blockbuster, forget-your-troubles-come-on-get-happy mode. As the guy once said, You could do worse.

As you might expect concerning teenage boys, fantasies abound, and these are well imagined, too, given that our crew has not yet experienced sex. The objects of two of the team's affection is Kelly (played nicely by Erin Moriarty, shown at bottom of post), while the parental and/or sibling roles are extremely well handled by Nick Offerman (above, right) and Allison Brie (above, left) and well-enough handled by Megan Mullalley and Marc Evan Jackson.

It is the work of the three leads, however, that makes-or-breaks the movie, and the filmmakers have cast three winners: left to right, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson. Basso has the beefy beauty and sweetness of a still virginal male, while Robinson possesses the charm and intelligence that ought eventually to make him good leading man material. But it is Mr. Arias who, more than anyone, owns the film. He is oddball joy incarnate, and while he might not be remotely believable out of this context, he certainly comes through here.

The movie is an almost coming-of-age story, in which, via puppy love and puppy rejection perceived as betrayal, real anger blooms and take its toll, and boys begin their journey to manhood. This, as all else, is handled surprisingly well and turns the tale into another chapter on the road to adulthood. We've all traveled here and so should  identify readily with feeling and understanding. I don't want to overpraise what is basically a well-done genre piece, but I think it's safe to suggest putting The Kings of Summer on your ought-to-see list now.

The movie --from CBS Films and running 95 minutes -- opens today, Friday, May 31, in New York City at the AMC Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine; in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark.  On June 7, you'll find it in opening in another 22 cities. Click here and scroll down to learn which ones.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is distilled in Darezhan Omirbaev's STUDENT

STUDENT is the first of Darezhan Omirbaev's films that TrustMovies has seen, but if it's a fair indication of this Kazakh film-maker's quality, little wonder this fellow's reputation is on the rise. An awfully lot happens in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's original novel Crime and Punishment, which forms the basis of Omirbaev's movie. The glory of the filmmaker's achievement is that, while he has shortened the story via less incidents and characters, he has man-aged to distill the novel wonderfully well without watering it down.

Part of the mystery and achievement of Dostoyevsky is his creation of Raskolnikov, whose character and motives are both plain and obscure. Not everything can be explained, nor does it need to be. Real character is always part mystery. Omirbaev (shown at right -- who doubles as actor here, playing a film director of the film within the film) understands this and so manages the same complex achievement. While there is plenty of motive to be found in our student's environment -- beginning with the film he is working on as part of the crew, during which he observes another young crew member given a beating because he spilled tea on the sleazy "star" -- he is also clearly and profoundly ill at ease with society and himself.

Kazakhstan today proves a near-perfect place to set a modern retelling of this tale, for evidently, its capital, Almaty, has become a paean to Capitalism run amok. Hearing a woman professor teach a class (below) on this subject is outright shocking, particularly given what us oldsters recall of the formerly Communist times. The prof's lecture is capped off perfectly with a statement from one of her students that brings everything immediately into perspective. There is also a scene involving a stalled car and a donkey that is simply staggering in its look at the "entitlement" of the fittest.

A poet appears, who takes our student back home with him to meet the family. The result is one of those weird acts of generosity that all of us are capable of at the odd time. After the student sees a local merchant refuse a poor old women any credit, he manages to get himself a black market gun (our kid has connections!). And yes, he uses it, as much, it seems, to allow him to understand of what he is capable, as for any sense of justice and righting wrongs.

We don't see the killings, which take place behind a closed door. The film is certainly shot on-the-cheap and is simply done, yet is it neither simple nor simplistic. Along the way television images consistently show us nature documentaries offering the survival-of-the-fittest theme. When, well into things, we visit another class in Kazakh, in which the teacher offers Lao-Tze philosophy so different from what we earlier heard, the effect lifts a load from our heart and mind.

Yes, we have the parental visit, with kid sister in tow, and the love object, whose purse our anti-hero manages to retrieve (above) at some physical cost after a robbery. All this is given us in quick strokes, with a minimum of dialog, yet the effect is deeply felt, both by the participants and us viewers. Omirbaev has an amazing penchant for making the tiny moment resonate. Don't blink. One of the most beautiful of these comes at a moment when our hero is undecided about entering or leaving a particular place and looks across to the face of his girl. Again, this is so quick, so barely there, and so profound.

We're never quite able to say exactly why our boy is adrift, depressed, cut off from social life. No theory fits exactly, and the mix of causes remains always just an educated guess. That is one of the things that makes Dostoyevsky resonate, and it works in this film, as well -- giving us, despite all that has gone before, an ending that is somehow quietly joyous.

Student, in Kazakh and Russian with English subtitles, which opens for a week's run tomorrow, Friday, May 31, at New York City's Anthology Film Archives, is co-presented by AFA and the Global Film Initiative and is part of the Global Lens 2013 film series.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bill Stone's stonemason doc, TRIUMPH OF THE WALL, subverts one's expectations

This new documentary via Canada probably also subverted the expectations of its filmmaker, Bill Stone, and certainly those of the fellow building the title subject in TRIUMPH OF THE WALL. That's a very clever title, by the way, as it plays on an earlier and maybe a tad more famous documentary of almost the same name (if you switched that "A" for an "I"). Truthfully, though, it is difficult to say what the expectations of that builder, a newly-minted stonemason named Chris Overing, actually are, as Mr. Overing, shown below -- a very cute and hirsute young man with absolutely great legs -- keeps everything personal about himself, his supposed "client" (for whom he is building said wall) and the great estate upon which he may live and clearly does work (for money, or is he family, or does he take it out in trade?). Who knows? This guy keeps it all very close to the vest.

What we do know, if we can believe it all, is that Overing plans to build a 1,000 foot-long dry-stone wall in this area of rural Quebec, and that Stone, who has met up with the guy early on, talks stone-mason into letting filmmaker record the project -- with the under-standing that we will not delve into personal matters. Of course, the personal counts for so much, but you wouldn't know it here. Except maybe where the filmmaker himself is concerned. And so Triumph may remind you a good bit of the movies of Ross McElwee.

Regarding Mr Stone, shown at left, who acts as writer/director/cinema-tographer/narrator, we do learn a few things. In the beginning he wonders if this is all about making choices, and the wrong ones, at that. No, it's instead about making something lasting that is yours and will guarantee your reputation. Somebody here is seeking permanence. Good luck. (I guess neither filmmaker, shown at left, nor stonemason has read Ozymandius.) Still, the whole project offers something to do (and to film), and from what we see of the wall (a few photos below), in close-up and in long shot as it grows in length, it is indeed a thing of beauty.

Meanwhile, we learn that Stone's companion of some years (shown above) has left him, and that his fish (shown below) is dying. Does our fellow have problems with commitment? Or simple care-taking? Or maybe it's just that, concerning artists, it is always the art that trumps all. No answers here, either, but the questions do linger.

Along the way of this too-long, 102-minute movie, we meet a number of Overing's paid assistants, some of whom we learn almost nothing about, others at least we get to hear kibbitzing about their job and their boss. In the most telling scene, two assistants complain of their low pay and how the boss is often late and-where-the-hell-is-he-this-morning? And then he shows up, carting a huge load of new rocks that he's been gathering over probably the last few hours.

We follow along, literally year after year after year, beginning in 2001. (Did 9/11 have anything to do with this project? We don't know. Though we do get, from those two assistants, some jokey repertoire about that dismal day, along with some chatter about Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music.) Will the wall ever be finished? Good question, and one that the filmmaker clearly has been pondering.

So, toward the end of the film, he hightails it off to Scotland to see some older dry-stone walls and chat with the men who've built them -- one of whom is shown just below.

So what the fuck is this movie about? Another good question. After viewing it, I went to the press materials and discovered that the filmmaker imagines that Triumph just might be "the manifesto of the X and Y generations: the right -- or plight -- of having the broadest freedom to choose one's life direction. No generation in history has ever been so free to uniquely define themselves and follow their 'passions.' Yet many find themselves in paralysis, having to come to terms with what can seem like an overwhelming obligation to fulfill self-created goals."

The above is very interesting, but it seems to me you could apply it, for starters, to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac and their friends from those On the Road days. And Overing, above and below, certainly possesses some of the same charisma of Cassady. (Instead of "On the Road" you might call this one, "On the Build.") And every generation, after all, has its seekers; there may simply be more of them around these days, what with so little paying work available. (At one point, with the film's nod to the importance of plain old "work," Uncle Vanya came immediately to my mind.)

There is something besides wall-building going on here, that's for sure, but I'm afraid that Stone has not been able to near fully do it justice. Still, his documentary is worth seeing, and thinking about. Once you do, feel free to weigh in here and post a comment.

Triumph of the Wall, from Bunbury Films and distributed by First Run Features, opens this Friday, May 31, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and the following week, June 3, at the Knickerbocker Cinema in Holland, Michigan. Those are the only playdates currently scheduled, but surely a DVD release is eventually planned.

Personal Appearances! For those who want to know more, 
and you surely will, once you've seen this film,
director Bill Stone, producer Fred Bohbot and the 
"Wall Guy" Chris Overing will be present at the Quad Cinema 
for Q&A's on Friday, 5/31; Saturday, 6/1; 
and Sunday, 6/2, following the 7:00 pm shows.

Keeping it in the family: James Marsh's silly SHADOW DANCER is one very bizzare bomb

TrustMovies means "bomb" (see headline above) in the American vernacular, rather than the British (in which the term is slang for a huge hit). SHADOW DANCER is so alternately paint-by-numbers and ridiculous that you quickly begin asking that famous question: What were they thinking? This is especially unsettling, given the bona fides of the director (James Marsh, shown below, who has brought us two sterling documentaries and the best of the three films in the Red Riding trilogy) and his two leading actors (the always-worth-seeing Clive Owen and the up-and-coming and very talented Andrea Riseborough).

A British/Irish endeavor with a screenplay by Tom Bradby, based on his own novel, Shadow Dancer begins with a scene that could hardly be more explicit. Taking place in 1973, it shows us an Irish family of mom, dad, daughter and son, in which dad asks daughter to do something, and she fobs it off on her little brother. And then something happens. Cut to 1993, when that daughter, Collette, has grown into the lovely Ms Riseborough (below), whom we see taking a ride on the British underground and acting, oh, so mysterious in a scene that is anything but explicit.

So far, so good. Though we might quibble with how quickly the coppers are on to Collette, as this all takes place 20 years ago, well before surveillance became the easy sport it is today. But we let that pass because we do want to enjoy the movie at hand, and for awhile, we do -- as British intelligence officer Mac (played by Mr. Owen, below) questions our girl and gets her involved in spying for the Brits against the IRA (yes, this is one of those stories), with which her own family members and friends are deeply involved and presumably always have been (which may have been the reason the film's initial killing occurs).

What happens from here on in, however, ranges from questionable to obtuse to downright silly. In an environment where betrayal is rife, how can the IRA not suspect this young woman, particularly after she's been arrested and everyone knows it? The movie's ridiculous handling of this proves bad enough, but there's so much more. Like the fact that no one ever gets followed (except in the couple of times that they need to be in order to get caught). This kind of coincidence is barely grammar-school level.

Then there's the question of costuming. When you're working undercover and would prefer not to be seen, of course you'll wear this bright red raincoat, right? Well, hey -- it makes a great match for that phone booth! (Really, there are times when the movie -- technically, often abysmal -- seems more like a satire on the thriller genre rather than a part of it.

Beyond the question of believability, there's another of pacing. Shadow Dancer is often so slow and tiresome that you'll need to pinch yourself to stay awake. The old adage, follow the money, comes to the fore again, as Owen's Mac must call in some chits in order to learn the answers to his new-found questions. Those answers put the movie's title into play, in a manner that is so obvious and clichéd that you'll again wonder if you're watching a bad satire.

There are a couple of genuine surprises toward the film's close, but because all the characters we see are puddle-shallow and single-note, these jolts are likely to make you more angry than jazzed. A little inscrutability can be fun, but when a movie offers nothing but, you'll be ready to toss in the towel well before the surprises hit.

Ms Riseborough leads the pack in one-note inscrutability, followed by Gillian Anderson (above) as Mac's "supervisor." (I love this actress but I would call her performance maybe half-note; most likely, the best part of  it ended up on the cutting room floor -- or whatever passes for that in these digital days.) Owens' single note is loyalty, Collette's family are all dour, while the IRA is pictured as nasty and stupid -- which I guess counts for two notes! (That's Aiden Gillen, below, center.)

If this were a little independent, made by and starring unknowns, I probably would not be so hard on it. But given the talent involved, I finally do have to ask: What were they thinking?

Shadow Dancer, from Magnolia Pictures, opens this Friday, May 31, in New York (Landmark's Sunshine Cinema) and L.A. (Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex), In the weeks to come, it will open in another 20 cities around the country. Click here to see all scheduled playdates.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Open Roads 2013: HANDMADE CINEMA--Guido Torlonia's feast of movie memorabilia

For those of you who appreciated last year's look at the work of famed Italian production designer Dante Ferretti (above, left), I suspect you'll find this year's documentary nod to Italian cinema history even more of a treat. In it we see not just Ferretti and his oft-times collaborator Francesca Lo Schiavo (above, right), but so many of the amazing artisans (or let's just call them "artists," as Signore Ferretti politely points out) who do the wonderful carpentry, sculpture, costumes, furniture, millinery work and so much more that have gone into great Italian cinema down the decades -- and is still going on, or maybe barely hanging on. But it's there. And now, with this terrific little film, we're made aware.

Here we meet everyone from the hat- and wig-makers (above) to the jewelers and each is as fascinating, fun and charming as you could want. We watch them work and see some of their hits from ages (and films) past. For those of us of a certain age, this is spectacular and highly nostalgic. If names like Piero Tosi, Maurizio Millenotti and Gabriella Pescucci don't immediately ring a bell, they will once you've viewed this film.

We learn about Sophia Loren's famous wigs, watch a father and son (above) grow annoyed with each other (but keep it all under wraps), and learn that the folk who build the sets are indeed actual furniture makers, carpenters and construction people who know what they are doing -- and do it right.

The costumes from The Leopard?  They're here, all right. The hats worn by Silvana Mangano in  Death in Venice?  Ah, yes! And we're told about and see the paintings of the recreated Sistine Chapel from the half-century-old Agony and the Ecstasy.

The documentary is a wonderful paean to the hand-crafters who have made Italian cinema the wonder that it is. As someone notes, during the course of the film, "If you want to invest in Italy, invest in the crafts!" With a fine narration by Chiara Mastroianni, who tells us lovingly about visiting the sets on which her famous father labored, the film works its magic doubly. And the ending, with Chiara as a little girl, is simply exquisite, enchanting.

Handmade Cinema, directed by Guido Torlonia (shown at right) and written by Torlonia and Laura Delli Colli, runs just 52 minutes and plays twice at Open Roads in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center: on Friday, June 7, at 3:45 and again Sunday, June 9, also at 3:45. On the program with this documentary is another doc -- The Rescue, by Giovanna Taviani (click and scroll down)-- which I have not seen but will during its public screenings at Open Roads, so I will report on it at that time.  To view the entire Open Roads program, click here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Thinking and writing about evil, guilt and the Holocaust: Margarethe von Trotta's off-and-on stunning HANNAH ARENDT

Watching HANNAH ARENDT, the new film from Margarethe von Trotta, took me immediately back 50 years to when I was a naive and hugely untutored 22-year-old young man from Los Angeles, fresh out of drama school here in New York City, and working at what was then called Philharmonic Hall in the newly created culture zone known as Lincoln Center. Co-workers were talking about the publication in The New Yorker of a series of articles by a woman named Hannah Arendt about the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, the Holocaust, evil and responsibility -- among a number of other things. I read the articles but didn't really understand them or what Ms Arendt was getting at, for at that time I had little sense of history and read things in such a cursory manner that, while I got the gist, I didn't delve. Regarding Eichmann and the Holocaust, I knew what had happened but I not lived or experienced enough or thought deeply about any of this to have processed it to the point of understanding its enormous importance.

Ms von Trotta's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) is devoted almost entirely to the time just preceding the trial, the trial itself, and the ramifications that followed the publication of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (The several short scenes that take place in the past and deal with Hannah's time as a student and her involvement with the famous Nazi-leaning philosopher Martin Heidegger, in fact, are the least worthwhile in the film and could easily have been excised. They tell us little that we don't already know or have not heard from other characters, and they arrive in rather flat-footed fashion.) According to the Hannah we see here, brought to wonderfully rich life by the German actress Barbara Sukowa (below), this was a woman who spoke (and wrote) her mind, parsing her words carefully but refusing to change them to please the powers that be (in this case, the Zionist Jewish lobby).

What Arnendt (who was herself Jewish) says will not, I think, be so shocking now as it seemed to many back in the 1960s, when Jews-as-victims was the only game in town. In the half-century since her articles and book appeared (the movie is a kind of celebration of the work and its publication), there has been much discussion of all of this, leading to a realization of the various levels of guilt and responsibility of the Nazi leaders, the underlings who were "just following orders," the German populace at large, and all the countries throughout Europe and the world where Nazi influence and power took hold.

Along the way, Arendt notes that the complicity of Jewish leaders with the Nazis (obviously done to achieve extra time and perhaps even possible help down the line) actually led to more deaths. Were the Jews not so well organized and in thrall to their leaders, more might have survived. These were fighting words, and perhaps still are to some, but they make pretty good sense to me and are simply realistic rather than anti-Jewish. (At the time some of Arendt compatriots called her a self-hating Jew -- a term still thrown at anyone who dares to stray from the party line: These days it's Norman Finkelstein who is often given this appellation.)

Ms von Trotta, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Katz, interestingly combines her narrative (in color) with black-and-white documentary footage of Eichmann and his trial. This works quite well. The filmmaker captures the period look extremely well, and from the outset she also tosses us into the middle of things (above), with little to no identification of the friends and colleagues in Arendt's life, so we simply must listen and hope to learn as we go along. The wondrous Janet McTeer (below, and further below, right) plays Hannah's good friend who is there from the beginning, complaining of man trouble and later standing up to Arendt's worst hecklers. It was only post-viewing, when I read the film's press materials that I realized McTeer was playing (and quite well) Mary McCarthy.

There is also good work from Julia Jentsch as Hannah's assistant; Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher, her second husband; and Nicolas Woodeson especially on-the-mark as William Shawn, among several other good supporting performances. What the movie captures best is the life and times, mind and thoughts of this fascinating woman. And if Ms Sukowa is far too beautiful to portray Hannah, she gets most else quite right, never more so than in the brilliant speech to her students at the height of the brouhaha, when the most powerful Jews want her to resign, recant, and, for god's sake, stop teaching (we don't want to infect our students with actual questioning and thinking, after all).

This speech provides the finale to the film and it alone is worth the price of admission. You'll want to applaud and shout your own approval, so pointed and beautifully written and acted is this scene -- combining philosophy with ethics, history, morality and passion. It brings to a near-close a most worthwhile film, one that I hope will send viewers right back to have a look at (or perhaps like me, another go-round with) her ground-breaking book.

Hannah Arendt, from Zeitgeist Films and running 113 minutes, has its U.S. theatrical premier this Wednesday, May 29, in New York City at Film Forum and will then start working its way around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled  playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

IN PERSON!  Filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta will appear with star Barbara Sukowa, co-star Janet McTeer and co-screenwriter Pamela Katz, on May 29, at the 6:30 & 7:45 shows on Friday, May 31, and the 7:45 show only on Saturday, June 1, at 7:45 von Trotta alone will appear.