Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Art, life, aging, nostalgia: Fernando Trueba's THE ARTIST & THE MODEL

Coming as it does rather closely on the heels of this year's Renoir, and having, besides, so many similarities to Gilles Bourdos' luminous French film, THE ARTIST AND THE MODEL from award-winning Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba almost demands comparison, odious as that can be. As good as Senor Trueba's movie sometimes is, it does pale a bit against the very fine former film.

Let's start with the subject. The eponymous title of Trueba's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) could as easily have been used on Bourdos'. Both deal with the artist and his model, though in the case of the French film, that artist is Renoir. Here, the artist, though based I am sure on one or more actual sculptors, is a fictional figure. Both men, however, get their models via their very supportive, loving wives -- who, having modeled for their man earlier in life, know just the sort of body he is looking for.

Further, both film are set in France against a backdrop of war: Renoir has WWI going on at a discreet distance; The Artist and the Model uses WWII for some suspense and philosophy, particularly in a scene in which a German officer and friend of the sculptor pays an unexpected visit just as a partisan (newcomer Martin Gamet, above) is in hiding on the premises.

One big difference -- and a good one -- between the movies is that Trueba chose to film his in black-and-white. The look of the film is marvelous; it takes us immediately back, not so much to the place itself -- France in the early 1940s or late 30s -- but to all the other movies we've seen about this location and time.

This also works well due to the kind of art each of our men produces: Renoir was involved in color and light, while our guy, called Marc Cros (and played with enormous subtlety and discretion by the great Jean Rochefort, above), sculpts in clay which is eventually cast into white marble. We don't miss the color in his work; instead the lovely b/w cinematography (from first-time credited cinematographer Daniel Vilar) creates a hugely nostalgic time and place.

Similar, too, in these films is the manner in which the first-time model learns her trade and the relationship that grows between artist and model.  Trueba's film, in fact, takes this into slightly more intimate territory than did Bourdos'. The model here is played by Aida Folch, (shown above and below) a young Catalonian actress not yet 30 who has already made 30 film and TV appearances. She's a terrific choice -- able to bring a quiet ferocity and strength to her role, even as she learns and grows. Plus -- she's got a dynamite body. What artist wouldn't want to use her?

As the wife and model-procurer, Claudia Cardinale (below, left, whom I must admit I did not recognize in this  role, so much has she changed from her earlier glamour days) is properly loving and helpful, with the great Spanish character actress Chuz Lampreave (below, right), doing a nice turn as the family's acerbic-but-kind housekeeper.

Though this film was nominated last year for 13 Goya awards, it won none, and I can rather guess why. Trueba, a good enough filmmaker, never comes close to greatness. His work varies from OK (Belle Epoque) to very good Chico & Rita to much-less-than (The Dancer and the Thief), and he does like to underline things.

Sometimes this works to surprisingly wonderful effect, as in the scene in which Rochefort tutors Folch on the delights of a Rembrandt sketch. This becomes a sublime 5 to 10-minute art class in which we and the model learn so much and, thanks to the actors and the writing, is beautifully conceived and performed.

Yet another scene that comes out of nowhere fares not nearly so well. Taking place between a group of schoolkids and a local priest, it is meant, I guess, to underline the paltry place of religion in society, and show us the difficulties of dealing with the human body unclothed -- with both of which I fully agree. But the scene is so ham-fisted and unnecessary that the viewer may wonder why it has to be there at all.

On balance, I would still have to recommend The Artist and the Model -- for its subject, visual beauty, performances and a particularly graceful flow. (It is slow-moving, however, so get ready to let your eyes range across the lovely panorama.) The movie, from Cohen Media Group and running 105 minutes, opens this Friday, August 2, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. Futher playdates nationwide will follow, as soon as Cohen gets them posted on its site....

Note: I was not able to do my planned Q&A with this filmmaker, 
but there is a very good one you can read by 
Anne-Katrin Titze at Eye For Film. 
Just click here.

Sebastián Cordero's EUROPA REPORT-- yet another found-footage space movie

First the good stuff: EUROPA REPORT, the new film from Sebastián Cordero (Rage and Chronicles), boasts a classy cast, a compact running time, and looks very good -- with a technical sheen and prowess that made this particular civilian sit up and take notice. Once notice was taken, however, a kind of boredom soon set in and TrustMovies had to pinch himself occasionally in order to stay awake. This is yet another in the found-footage, space-travel, would-be-documentary genre -- of which Apollo 18 may have been the most recent (and, in fact, a bit better) example.

Those of you old enough to recall George Pal's Destination Moon, another technically astute (for its time) sci-fi movie, may understand what I'm getting at here. We don't have to have monsters in our mission-to-Mars, Jupiter or the moon movies, but golly, they do help ward off the sleepies that sometimes arise from an emphasis on the technical. And -- spoiler ahead -- Europa Report even includes its own "creature," though Señor Cordero (shown at right, in black) and his screenwriter Philip Gelatt make us wait until the final few minutes to even get a glimpse of it.

Europa Report is certainly classier overall that any other "found footage" movie in any genre that I have seen, and its emphasis on sacrifice and the love for their chosen field that at least some of the crew (above, with Daniel Wu shown center), as well as those in charge back home on earth (Embeth Davidtz, below) exhibit goes a certain distance in making the movie a bit more moving than others in this genre. (Though it doesn't come close to the emotion that Brian De Palma managed to wring from the ending of his under-rated Mission to Mars.)

We do get this deeper sense of purpose from characters such as Dr. Petrovna (played by Karolina Wydra, below).

We might also get something deeper, if we knew more about him, from the slightly distur-bed Andrei Blok, played by Michael Nyqvist, shown at left, the very good Swedish actor best known as the journalist from the original Dragon Tattoo series, who is now cropping up in American films of the good variety (Disconnect), the so-so (Abduction) and the way over-blown (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol).

Then there are the other crew members like the two guys (Christian Camargo, above, and Sharlto Copley, below), whose distinguishing features are "family" and "jokiness." When the crew begins, one by one, to leave us, we'd like to be able to feel something more than the usual, Who's next? This is difficult when we know so little about them.

The crew member we most identify with is probably the pilot (that fine Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, below, of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Storm) who sticks to her guns and by virtue of sheer specificity and strength (we know no more about her than we do anyone else) impresses us. Granted, it is difficult in only 90 minutes to render anything approaching depth-of-character in a space/sci-fi movie, but this task would seem not to have been important on the agenda of the filmmakers.

Consequently, the film ends up a relatively smart mix of talking heads, would-be found-footage and sci-fi mockumentary -- without a lick of humor. It could have been a lot worse, but with real artists in command, it also might have been thrilling, meaningful, moving.

Oh, yes -- something should be said about the heavy-duty, ramped-up musical score. Found-footage now comes with its own musical score? Hmmm. Well, some audiences will fall for just about anything.

Europa Report, from Magnet Releasing, opens this Friday, August 2, in New York (Cinema Village), Washington DC (E Street Cinema) ad Hollywood (Sundance Sunset Cinemas). You can see all of the currently scheduled 15-cities opening by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Borscht Belt beginnings--Ron Frank/Mevlut Akkaya: WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL

Here's a statistic TrustMovies didn't know: In a 1970's survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians. Wow. (I suspect that if that survey were taken today, the percentage of Jewish comedians would be less -- while still remaining far out of proportion to their number in the general population.) The how and why of this statistic can be found in the relatively low-key but quite entertaining, even endearing new documentary, WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL, directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, the latter of whom is shown below.

Many of us non-Jews may have known something about the Catskill Mountains (a.k.a. the Borscht Belt) -- former home to the many resorts at which these budding comics honed their skills. Even so, this new doc provides a wealth of history, humor and nostalgia as it looks into everything from the coming of Jews to America, the Catskills and the rise of their resorts, the comedians themselves, their humor, and how all of this has changed down the decades.

There's a raft of famous funnymen shown here (with Joan Rivers, representing the gals), both now, in their senior years, and earlier, in their prime: Sid Caesar (at right) and Jerry Lewis (two photos below) to Jerry Stiller and the late Danny Kaye (shown below, right, even prior to his spec-tacular heyday. Robert Klein (in the penultimate photo) does a fine job of narration, and we see a lot of one of my favorite comedians, Mort Sahl (shown at bottom), who clearly still possesses his dry and rapier-like wit.

There's a plethora of fine archival photos and footage, as well, taking us back to the early part of the 20th Century and those middle post-war years, when Jews would never have considered taking a vacation to the Europe from which they recently escaped. Instead they went only to the Catskills.

In a documentary about comedy and humor, we'd expect plenty of just that, and while some of it is as old as the hills, most of it still proves pretty funny. Some jokes -- "take my wife" -- really are evergreen. And misogynistic.

So why did those famous Catskill resorts mostly disappear? Times changed, as the movie demonstrates, and so did audien-ces. During the 1960s, protest was hot, and comedians like Dick Gregory, at left, reached out to a different clientele. (We get just one joke from this guy, but it's terrific.) In one of the most telling moments, we learn that, during this time, breakfast at Grossinger's changed from seven kinds of herring -- to... granola!

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is handed us by Larry King, not officially a stand-up comedian, who tells of his assignations with a married woman while he was a bus boy/waiter at a Catskills resort, and the time he spilled hot soup on her husband as he was serving them dinner.

Musically, the movie brings back some fun melodies, among them of course, "Make 'em Laugh!" and, in an unusual usage, "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's rueful love song, here heard as a kind of mournful dirge for comedians everywhere.

When Comedy Went to School -- from International Film Circuit, running just 76 minutes, and a shoo-in for Jews, seniors, comedy lovers and nostalgia buffs -- opens tomorrow, July 31, in New York City at the IFC Center and the JCC, and in the Los Angeles area on August 16 at Laemmle's Town Center 5 and Music Hall 3.  To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

THE SPECTACULAR NOW: James Ponsoldt's even-better follow-up to his "Smashed"

I sure do think -- as will, I suspect, anyone who has seen all three of James Ponsoldt's full-length films: Off the BlackSmashed and THE SPECTACULAR NOW -- that this young movie-maker has a problem with alcohol. Or at least with those people who abuse it. Yet his films are so spectacularly in-the-moment-real that your concentration will remain on the wonderful characters at hand (and the fine actors who play them) rather than on any finger-wagging due to their overindulgence in "demon drink." You'll notice the booze, all right, but you will also care so much about the character who's indulging that the person will consistently trump the issue. Or, as a certain nut-job religion advises us: "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Oh, boy -- will you ever.

If indeed Mr. Ponsoldt, shown at left, is warning his audiences about the evils of alcohol, he could hardly be doing it any better, considering how very much we come to care about and want the best for most of the people "under the influence" whom we meet in his movies. Yet this filmmaker is smart enough to show them to us in their entirety; no sugar-coating here. He is also smart enough to show us how enticing that good-time feeling can be when we're under the influence; how free we feel, and how compelling is to repeat that feeling. Because the filmmaker does all this so well, especially in his latest sojourn, he keeps us pretty consistently off-balance as to, not only what might happen, but what is happening in that "spectacular" right now.

Our hero is one, Sutter Keeley (played spectacularly well by Miles Teller, above, left, of Rabbit Hole, Footloose and Project X), who likes to think he is living in the now, but who is more often in some alcohol-induced mini-haze -- from which his most recent girlfriend seems to want out. Though she is played, and very well, by Brie Larson (below, right), you'll have to wait for the upcoming Short Term 12 to see Ms Larson really get the chance to shine.

At the end of one of Miles' more spectacular hazes, he ends up on the front lawn of a school classmate, Aimee, and a bona fide, if bizarre, relationship begins. Aimee is played by Shailene Woodley (shown below and further below) who took the role of George Clooney's elder daughter in The Descendants, and the talent we noticed there was no fluke. Woodley makes Aimee such an odd, appealing, sad, struggling young woman that, as much as we care about Miles, it is she who carries the movie home.

The freshness that Ponsoldt -- together with his excellent screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (from the novel by Tim Tharp) -- provides also gives us characters, scenes and situations we're not used to seeing in "teen" movies. These work so well in deepening the movie that, by the time you're going out of the theater, you'll realize you've seen a film about teenagers in which you identify with and care for these kids more than you could possibly have imagined going in.

The supporting cast, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is crème de la crème, as are the technical assets on view. But it's the unusual look at kids-on-the-cusp we're able to observe that makes the movie so special. The Spectacular Now is one of the most quietly spectacular movies of the year.

The film, from A24 and running just 95 minutes, opens this Friday, August 2, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and AMC Lincoln Square and in the Los Angeles area at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark. Over the remaining month, the movie will open across the entire country. Click here to see all currently scheduled cities, theaters and playdates.

WAR ON WHISTLEBLOWERS: Robert Greenwald's doc hits hard--and hits home

What a shame that our first black (more properly, mixed-race) President would turn out to be a closet fascist, albeit it one who pushes health care (so long as it keeps the insurance companies in clover). But them's the breaks. Is anyone really surprised? Really? In these days when money courts power and the two of them march down the aisle with literally every American elected public official eventually following hard and fast behind?

Among the most disastrous and disappointing aspects of the Obama regime is how thoroughly and disgustingly this man -- who claimed he would provide a transparent government -- and his chief underling, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (below), have gone after -- of all things -- whistleblowers who are trying to call to the attention of the American people (and the rest of the world) wrongs that need to be righted and suppressed information that should see the light of day. And this, on top of nearly zero prosecution of the bankers and Wall Street criminals, whose sleaze has left so much of the U.S.population in dire financial and employment straits, all the while spying illegally on the America public (and anyone else they could manage), pushing us all the closer to the ultimate "Big Brother" state. No, children, I am not referring to that "TV show."

In his newest film dedicated to unveiling the veiled, WAR ON WHISTLEBLOWERS: FREE PRESS AND THE NATIOMNAL; SECURITY STATE, filmmaker Robert Greenwald (shown below) offers for our delectation all this in sharp detail, especially concerning the work of four important whistleblowers: what they did and why they did it, and why their "blowing" is so important to our freedom.

Greenwald also links this war against whistleblowers with other current activity designed to remove more and more of our supposed freedoms. (I say supposed because I am not at all sure they remain with us.) Greenwald has long been a muckraker, with muck imminently worthy of raking. The bigger question is whether the Ameri-can people care to listen and understand, and then to act on what they know. It appears that the answer is no, and so, as usual, we deserve the politicians we elect to serve -- not us, but the powerful and monied who actually funded them.

We hear the stories of the quartet of current men who've blown the whistle in four very different areas (plus an ex-whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg of The Pentagon Papers), and these tales are all shocking, moving and more-than-a-little anger-making. That's Thomas Tamm, above, who outed the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, and Franz Gayle, below, who first blew the whistle on the U.S. military during the Iraq War for its crappy Humvees that were defenseless against roadside IEDs.

Some stories have relatively happy endings for the problems, but few do for the whistleblower himself (Gayle, who got his security clearance and his job back, is a rare exception). Michael DeKort, below, who blew the whistle on the U.S. Coast Guard's Deepwater Program, now works nowhere near the capacity or salary he had.

The story of Thomas Drake, below, is perhaps the oddest because, though a whistleblower, he did nothing that was illegal, and yet the government seemed to want to use him as a case study to scare any and all future whistleblowers. And this, from people whose illegal wiretapping and torture still goes on.

The men themselves can only be seen as heroes who cared enough to actually do something. The movie was made too soon to say much about Bradley Manning, and well before Edward Snowden, shown below, made his fateful decision. But you'll better understand at least some of their motivating factors after seeing this fine film.

War on Whistleblowers, via The Disinformation Company and running 67 minutes, after a limited theatrical release earlier this year, makes its DVD debut tomorrow, Tuesday, July 30, and will be available for sale or rental, from your usual sources (though Netflix, I see, does not offer it. Bad!). To watch a trailer for the film, click.