Monday, September 30, 2013

Revisiting the Richard Curtis milestone, LOVE ACTUALLY, as its 10th anniversary approaches

Ask movie fans of romantic comedy what's their favorite example of the genre, and back will undoubtedly come a lot of responses for LOVE ACTUALLY. This movie was first released in 2003, when 9/11 was still on most of our minds. It made what was then -- still is, actually -- one of the more profound and truthful statements about airports and air travel and what you see while waiting at the arrivals gate. When it was first released, the film divided critics, though not so much audiences, as it gave many of us exactly what we wanted in spades and times ten -- while playing each of its several love stories for all it was worth. Which turned out to be quite a lot, making this movie so damnably memorable.

When TrustMovies noticed that the film, written and directed by Richard Curtis (at left), was suddenly appearing as "new" on Netflix streaming, it was hard to resist taking a peek at it once again, as he hadn't seen it since it was first released in November 2003. (Interestingly enough, Mr. Curtis' newest film, About Time, makes its debut this coming week at the New York Film Festival.) TM promised himself that he would only watch maybe ten minutes, just as a "fun" reminder. But then, 135 minutes later, there he was scrolling down the end credits, tears dripping onto the remote control as he kept hitting the "pause" button to check the names of some those so recognizable faces in lesser roles.

What's maybe most surprising about the movie (other than how well it holds up and how, even now, it seems incapable of being properly imitated) is how many about-to-be-better-known actors (and a few others on their way down) show up in smaller roles! Other than those eight starry names and faces that appear on the movie's poster, top, you probably will have forgotten about the other actors until you find yourself saying, omigod, that's Shannon ElizabethChiwetel Ejiofor! January JonesMartin Freeman! Elisha CuthbertRodrigo Santoro! Denise Richards! And on and on...

I was also surprised at how much I had forgotten about the specific of so many of these love stories. Only the one involving Hugh Grant (above, left) as Britain's new Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon (above, right) as the aide he falls for still filled my memory. Perhaps this story registered so strongly because we were at that time in the midst of Bush's lying and illegal war against Iraq, to which Tony Blair, despite the wishes of the British people, gave his blessing. To see Grant stand up to Billy Bob Thornton's American President -- who comes of like a reptilian combo of Bush and Cheyney -- made the movie seem like wish fulfillment on a whole other level.

The love story that most surprised me on this second viewing was that of Colin Firth (above, with Lúcia Moniz) who, early on, is cuckolded by his girl and so hightails it to southern France where he meets and fall in love with another visitor to that country whose language he can't speak, nor she his. Mr. Curtis makes the most of this tale, with subtitles to clue us in to what Firth can't understand. Is there an another actor who packs so much emotion and heft into utter passivity? If so, clue me in. Firth is so good here that he would steal the movie, if so many other's weren't doing it already.

Like Bill Nighy (center, left), as an over-the-hill rock singer trying for a comeback by changing an old hit of his into a "new" Christmas" song. Oh, yes: the movie takes place in the weeks leading up to that holiday -- which makes it both a memorable rom-com and a memorable Christmas movie. There's Alan Rickman (shown at bottom, right) and Emma Thompson (bottom, left) as a married couple about to be jolted by the specter of adultery; Laura Linney and Mr. Santoro (the latter will have gays and girls fainting when he disrobes); and Keira Knightley, Mr. Ejiofor (both below) and The Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln (two photos below) in a lovely, funny/sad, unrequited triangle.

The capper -- and perhaps Mr. Curtis' best idea -- is using Mr. Freeman and Joanna Page as body-double stand-ins on a classy-looking porno shoot who meet in perhaps the oddest, most against-the-grain charming manner in the history of movies. Both actors seize their roles with zest and delight, which the audience can only share.

Oh -- and remember the loss Liam Neeson (below, left) must deal with, along with the budding romance that his stepson (Thomas Brodie-Sangsterbelow, right) experiences? One of the reason this movie works so well is that the filmmaker offers so many kinds of love -- from lost love to first-love, love in danger to love between the classes and/or races. (The only thing missing is any trace of GLBT love. Were Curtis to make his movie in this decade, there's hardly a way he could leave that out.)

As I mentioned earlier -- despite Love Actually's high quotient of laughs, charm, love (and length, though there's hardly a wasted moment) -- not everyone likes this movie. To read one of the better negative votes for this film, via Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams, click here. Though I must say, comparing this movie, as Ms Williams does, to the work of Garry Marshall indicates that she has never sat through the likes of Valen-tine's Day nor New Year's Eve. Sure, Marshall was trying to come up with another movie as successful as Curtis', but he set the bar so low in terms of intelligence and class that comparisons are anything but apt.

You can catch the movie now via Netflix streaming, on DVD and elsewhere, too, I am sure. Universal, the studio that released the film, is offering a new Blu-ray/DVD combo -- to appear mid-October -- as a special holiday "ornament."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Update on BP's gulf oil spill: Joshua & Rebecca Harrell Tickell's investigative doc, THE BIG FIX

A kind of companion piece to Dirty Energy (a little-seen documentary we covered earlier this year), THE BIG FIX indicts oil giant BP for not simply causing the accidental 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico, but for its actions -- as well as those of our own governments, local and national -- ever since. The Big Fix is a worthwhile entry into this growing collection of investigation about BP, big oil and government collusion, though it is not nearly as well done, moving or important as Dirty Energy. See them both, because they complement each other, even to the point of using some of the same people to interview. But whatever you do, don't miss Dirty Energy.

Unfortunately The Big Fix, clearly for purposes of marketing (and perhaps for raising money to complete the movie), inflicts on us a couple "name" actors -- Peter Fonda (above) and Amy Smart -- who happen to care, genuinely I'm sure, about the environment. Fonda says a few words and appears in a couple of scenes and then has to go; Ms Smart does even less. Both are a waste of time here and any moviegoers they might bring in will only be disappointed in how little they see of the two.

The product of husband/wife team -- Joshua Tickell (shown at right) who a few years back gave us an interesting but flawed documentary called Fuel, and Rebecca Harrell Tickell (shown below), who, during the course of this film, seems to become a victim of the very thing to which the Tickells are calling our attention -- the movie starts a little shakily. But hang on. As it continues, the film expands (rather like that initial spill), allowing us to see that the problem here goes much deeper and wider than the spill itself, until it involves big oil, state government, and national government -- all exceedingly dirty. Mr. Tickell has dropped some of the cute and energetic cheerleader pose he used in Fuel. He's older now and has grown up some, it seems.

Together the pair explore a bit of Louisiana history (where Mr. Tickell was raised) and the state's connection to the oil industry; then we learn of BP and its own checkered (putting it mildly) history where safety and reliability are concerned.

We hear about the spill itself, the unhealthy dispersants used to break up that oil so that it will appear to have been cleaned up rather than accumulating beneath the water (as is apparently happening), the effect all this has on sea life and the people living on the shores of the gulf, not to mention the dying fishing industry that has been so devastated by the spill and its even-worse after-effects.

We hear again from marine biologist Riki Ott (above, right) and other scientists, along with fishing families like Kevin and Margaret Curole, though no one comes across as strongly here as he or she does in Dirty Energy -- which was anecdotal, it's true, but thoroughly engaged us both intellectually and emotionally, while presenting its information in a way that seemed genuine and truthful. We also see what the spill has done to sea life/seafood (below), how the FDA has fudged their inspections, and why it might be smart to either give up seafood entirely or make certain you know from where what you're eating originates.

What The Big Fix does have, however, is a wider net. In its second half, it connects the dots that have long seen the oil industry in bed with local and national politicians via campaign contributions, lobbying, and finally even lawmaking. Our current administration is every bit as guilty as have been those of the past. This all comes down once again to money in politics. Until we stop political "contributions" and the purchase of our politicians, we're simply stuck with the sleaze that this money continues to elect. And, yes, I mean you, President Obama.

But that's another day, and another movie -- or 20 of 'em. For now, you can stream The Big Fix via Netflix, but you can only save Dirty Energy to your queue. Let's hope that NF sees the light and either orders DVDs or purchases the streaming rights....

Saturday, September 28, 2013

SPIRAL's fourth season is here at last -- and every bit as strong as one, two and three....

If you're like so many of us Netflix streamers who've been following the dark, ever-justice-seeking, French TV series SPIRAL (Engrenages) over seasons one through three, you'll be glad to know that season four is now available -- and even happier to hear it's as good as the first three. Maybe even stronger is some ways. (Or maybe, as a friend of mine points out, we're just better understanding and appreciating these characters.)

And why not? The half-dozen leading characters, as well as many of the supporting ones, are spectacularly imagined and hugely troubled, yet we love them as much for as in spite of their enormous faults. That they must work together -- judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and police -- in pursuit of a justice that seems ever out of reach, almost deliberately so, only adds to the series' great pull. (Yes, ever-present class, wealth and power collude here, just as they do in every western, read Capitalist, country -- including China. That alternating visionary/monster Mao must be revolving in his grave.)

In Season 4, a car -- in which a profusely bleeding man, a young woman and another man (the driver) -- speeds along. Instead of taking the wounded to the hospital, as the woman suggests, the driver defers, and they simply deposit the bleeder in a uninhabited wooded area off the side of the road. So begins this 12-part season of generally 50-minute episodes (the final two last one hour or more) which takes in everything from violent, anti-authority revolutionaries as a means to end the class struggle to the plight of illegal immigrants and the love life of our favorite police captain, Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust, above).

On the judicial front, that so-honest-it nearly-kills-him Judge Roban (the wonderful Philippe Duclos, above) is still trying to crack the facade of the sleaze who have risen to the top ("Shit floats," as someone remarks along the way) while seemingly digging himself deeper into failure. Midway along this season, his career looks to have ended for good.

Kurdistan gun-running takes up some of our characters' time, with that fine young actor Johan Libéreau appearing as the spoiled son of a very ugly family of "patriots." Some plot strands eventually connect, while others do not, but that search for justice remains front and center. The writing and direction, as usual, are generally first-rate, with the pacing particularly fine here, alternating nicely between suspenseful chases and more intimate goings-on.

Everyone's favorite red-hot red-head, Joséphine Karlsson (the luscious Audrey Fleurot) is up to her usual tricks, though this season we learn more about her than ever before, and now the motives for many of her odd, seemingly contradictory actions become clearer. And that prosecutor-turned-defense-lawyer Pierre Clément (played by the series' dreamboat, Grégory Fitoussi) is on tap, too -- now acting as a lawyer for a truly ruthless, nasty crime lord.

The only character that has not yet registered all that strongly is the policeman Fromentin (called "Tintin" and played by Fred Bianconi, above), who this season sort of comes into his own -- and still fails to register much. Tintin's a good guy, a bit plodding and by-the-book, married with kids (and yet a new one on the way). What happens to him and its aftermath this season should have put him on par, in terms of interest, with the rest of the cast. But even now, he doesn't quite make it. Perhaps he's just too "regular" to compete with the rest of this wildly human crew. On the other hand, Tintin does help ground the series, giving us a benchmark of normality against which to measure.

This season (created by Alexandra Clert) also brings back a character we haven't seen since Season 2, which causes a little commotion at the precinct and in bed (or at least in the back of a car). Spiral is is adult show, by the way; though made for French television, it features the occasional full-frontal male package and plenty of female nudity, too. The most violent and dastardly of these revolutionaries (nice job by Jérôme Huguet), is in fact quite the cocksman (shades of Carlos!), leading to what happens at the series' finale. This involves a young woman revolutionary (a very fine performance from Judith Chemla, below) who comes complete with some rather severe emotional problems of her own, which allow us to see, yet again, what bastions of male chauvinism revolutionary groups tend to be -- and how they often attract (as do police departments) exactly the wrong kind of applicants.

As usual, there is the occasional huh? moment. My favorite comes around midway, when Gilot (played by the gruffly sexy Thierry Godard) discovers some shell casings and thus understands that gunfire recently occurred. But we've just heard the sound of that gunfire, which Gilot, too would have heard -- unless instead of going around the corner to bring back binoculars from the unmarked police car, he ended up in Italy. Oh, well. Most police procedurals have these What-were-they-thinking? moments, and Spiral is no different. Just better.

Although this particular season seems overall to be less violent and bloody than some in the past (much of the violence this time round is self-inflicted), the threat of violence is always there and must be dealt with. Hence the suspense that slowly accrues.

Spiral, season 4 (along with the other three) can be streamed via Netflix. So far as I know, this remains the best and only way to see this famous French series here in the U.S.A. And yes, number 4 is one hot season....

Friday, September 27, 2013

In Joe Berlinger's HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, Mr. Paulson tells his side of the meltdown

With so very much to view out there in Netflix streaming-land, TrustMovies is not sure he'd have watched HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK -- the story of how Hank Paulson helped this country and the world avoid a complete financial meltdown -- were it not that its filmmaker is Joe Berlinger, the guy who gave us the Paradise Lost trilogy, Crude, and other worthwhile documentaries. TM is glad he did because -- even after all the many documentaries and docu-dramas that have tackled one or another aspect of this hugely harmful fiasco, from the Cockburns' American Casino to Chasing Madoff -- this one remains of interest, worth seeing and hearing (yes, it's mostly talking heads again) as much for the fact that it seems to sink its own protagonist and torpedo his scenario as anything else.

Mr. Berlinger, shown at left, appears to be investigating here only his subject's side of the story, allowing the much (depending on which camp you occupy) reviled or loved Mr. Paulson to explain, with occasional questions from the filmmaker, what happened and why. Paulson's wife Wendy is also on hand to explain and second some of this banker/administrator's ideas and actions, as well as his "character." Wendy, shown below, is impressive as a no-nonsense woman who has stood by her man for decades now.

We learn more about Paulson here than we have elsewhere, though there is no mention of his religion -- Christian Science, again! -- and how it might have affected his ideas and actions (and believe me, as an ex-Christian Scientist, this odd religion surely does). We get some history -- how he and Wendy met and did not, initially, hit it off; his first "bailout," of Lockheed, back in the 70s; his work in and with the Nixon administration; and his tenure at Goldman Sachs, which led eventualy to his job as CEO; and his appointment by George W. Bush (who asked several times before Paulson agreed: evidently his family members were not that keen on the activities of the Bush administration) as Secretary of the Treasury.

Of course, it's the story of the meltdown -- how it happened and who did what (or often didn't) -- that is most "grabbing" here, and though we've heard it before, notably well in the cable TV movie Too Big to Fail, Paulson's story still rivets. I wish Berlinger had been more forceful in finding out why Bear Stearns was "rescued" while Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse. (Could Richard Fuld really be that big an asshole, or was Lehman Brothers simply small enough to fail?)

While Paulson pays lip-service to the need for better regulation of the banks and Wall Street, somehow this is all it ever sounds like: more tiresome blather, too-little-too-late. This co-joined industry, as we have learned and still learn daily from information that continues to leak out of this soiled sieve, is rotten to the core -- just as are the would be regulators who "service" it instead of regulating it, and the agencies that "rate" its trash as triple A.

The section on those famous loan carriers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and whether they are indeed part of the government or not, is fascinating and necessary to consider, while Paulson's talk of how the Domino Theory of failing banks (and shadow banks) should instead be thought of as a Popcorn Theory makes little sense and in any case is not explained well at all. And why include such a lengthy discussion of a cashmere coat Paulson once bought at Bergdorf's (and then returned, upon some nagging from Wendy) unless one is dead set on proving what a thrifty and non-material-possessions-loving family this is?

We sense an anger in Paulson (below) regarding the hypocrisy of these CEOs, none of whom at the time of the crisis and their acceptance of a government bail-out like TARP wanted to admit that their firm was in trouble. But when Paulson make a statement like "People generally believe that Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner (shown above) and I tell the truth," one is a bit taken aback. By not telling the whole truth but only using selective portions, Paulson and that whole gang were more part of the problem than any solution. Yet he needs to see himself as some kind of savior. (He also completely ignores what Goldman Sachs was doing in derivatives when he was in charge of it and how much money he walked away with during those years.)

The man certainly has some fine qualities, and he finally comes across as a relatively decent guy in the service of much worse men. What should make you particularly angry at this movie is how Paulson manages to side-step so well. "We will always have financial crises, no matter what the regulatory system is," he insists. Oh, Please. Let's put some real regulations back first, and then talk about it. He tells us that he left a blueprint for regulation of the industry. Lovely -- but what is it, exactly, and is anyone acting on it?

Available now via Netflix streaming, Hank: 5 Years from the Brink is a good movie to get your blood pressure back up while taking yet another walk down an all-too-recent and ugly memory lane. I suspect Berlinger has somehow acted here as a stealth agent, allowing Paulson and crew to "explain" themselves and then compiling and editing it all their "innocence" into something a little less than benign.

None of the photos above are from the film itself. 
I couldn't find any (the movie is not being given 
much of a marketing push), and so I
just grabbed a few off the internet....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The year's (the decade's?) most embarrassing, unnecessary film: Baz Luhrmann's crap GATSBY

I know people who actually enjoyed this movie, which we finally caught up with last evening. And even though Moulin Rouge was a ridiculous mess and Australia a ridiculous bore, I still held out some hope. No longer. THE GREAT GATSBY sure looks pretty, in a constantly overdone manner (that's the point, right?) -- but Baz Luhrmann (shown below) has managed to take everything melodramatic and silly in Fitzgerald's famous novel and place it front-and-center. And the guy still hasn't learned that you either show or tell, but for fuck's sake, not both--at the same time!

After the first half-hour, I was sure I would be departing midway. Yet I stayed through the end credits, mostly hypnotized by the badness on display yet wondering just how much worse things could get. Very, it turns out. From the crap contemporary music Luhrman (or his eye-on-the-youth-market producers) have chosen, to the accents from half the cast that run from the American south to British and Australian (sometimes within the same character!) to the silly show-and-tell moments to the piss-poor acting from people who are always better than this -- the movie is like a crude shock dressed up in its Sunday best with no place to go. And whenever (often, actually) the director is at a loss for where to place that camera, his fairy godmother appears to have whispered in his ear: "Shoot from above, honey!"

TrustMovies must admit to being one of those crotchety old fogeys who didn't much like the book the first time he read it (nor the second; there will be no third). Fitzgerald's stripping away of so much of the frou-frou found in other novels of its time may have been a good thing in theory, but it left, in my estimation, a distinct lack of character to just about all the characters. Gatsby is supposed to be mysterious, but F. Scott does pile it on. And Luhrman takes that pile and turns it into a slag heap.

Leonardo DiCaprio (above, doing that long-distance-gazing trick) was either a much better actor as a very young man or his later choice of projects and directors has failed him badly. Here, he resonates almost nothing of any consequence. (Still, he's a better actor than Robert Redford is and was, so this Gatsby is at least several shades less boring.) Carey Mulligan (above, emoting) has proven herself an accomplished actress time and again, but compare her work here with that in Never Let Me Go (or just about anything else she's done) -- and be amazed. Every acting choice is the most obvious one. This must be the fault of Luhrmann.

Supporting performances are on the same level. Tobey Maguire (above, center left) ought to have been a fine choice for Nick Carraway, but set this role against what he does in, say, The Details, and you see an actor ensconced in utterly mediocre dialog, under the hand of a director who can do no more than produce the occasional, colorful flash.

In fact, the movie often seems to be drowning in CGI effects -- above (nice juxtaposition of glamour and dirt) and below (look: it's Disney's magic kingdom!), some of which are indeed beautiful, but all of which simply add to the artificiality on display. Where's the heart here? The humanity? Luhrmann managed to leave some of this in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, before he had completely given over to special effects and flash-n-splash. His best movie remains his first: Strictly Ballroom. From there, he's come down a notch or ten with each new endeavor -- and Gatsby's the nadir. Might there be a silver lining? Of course: From here, the guy can only climb back up.

The Great Gatsby -- from Warner Bros. and running an unconscionable 2 hours and 23 minutes -- has been out on DVD and VOD for a month now; Netflix was just allowed to send members its copies this week: Talk about "restraint of trade." (And yes, I am breaking my rule of only covering what's on Netflix streaming because this movie, seen in all its fake glory on Blu-ray, made me so damned angry.)

All photos are from the film itself, 
with the exception of Mr. Luhrmann's, 
which is by Frederick M. Brown
courtesy of Getty Images.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Robbie Pickering's NATURAL SELECTION blends fundamentalism, sex, procreation and liberation

In his first full-length film, Texas-born/NYU Film-School-graduated writer/director Robbie Pickering hits the proverbial nail on the head with a small-but-smashing little independent movie that juggles a bunch of balls cleverly and amusingly without dropping a single one. This is quite a feat -- all the more so since Pickering has peopled his film with a group of oddball characters who could at any moment derail the whole shebang. But, no: This one stays right on track, while offering a nice surprise here and there to keep us on our toes.

In his film NATURAL SELECTION, Mr. Pickering (shown at left and who himself looks barely beyond school age) tells a tale of a sexually frustrated wife who is so cowed by her hypocritically religious hubby that she can't even make good use of his early morning hard-on. When he collapses and goes comatose during an activity that makes sense only because his religious fanaticism allows his own needs no outlet, his little wife is in for quite a few surprises, beginning with her discovery of a son this guy has fathered way back when. From there, the movie turns into a kind of road trip, first with the wife alone and later traveling with that lately discovered "son."

In outline, this story doesn't sound all that different from your usual fish-out-of-water and/or road-trips-makes-good-friends movie. Yet it is. This is thanks to the writer/director's smart dialog that seems on-the-mark no matter how crazy things get (and they do) and to his casting his film with excellent actors and bringing them to just the right level of performance to first disarm us, and then entertain us, move us and make us laugh.

In the role of Linda, the wife, Rachael Harris, with more than 100 credits dotting her acting resume, finally lands the starring role that ought to have made her a star -- if little independent films could ever be seen in the way dumb-ass blockbusters always are. Harris is alternately dear, delightful, sad, pushy, confused and determined. It's one hell of a role and her performance matches it in every respect.

Her equal in acting chops, Matt O'Leary (above and below, left), recently so good in both Eden and Fat Kid Rules the World, would seem to be the current go-to guy when you've got a really oddball character you need to bring to life and keep the audience somehow rooting for. He achieves this in film after film, yet you would not mistake one of his characters for another. All he needs, it seems, is a decent script (which he did not get in American Bully) in order to create an indelible portrait of craziness, benign or otherwise.

The film's supporting cast includes the likes of John Diehl, Gayland Williams and the always good Jon Gries (below, right) as, respectively, Linda's husband, sister and brother-in-law. Every actor, down to those cast in the smallest role, shines, and so does each little scene along the way. Mr. Pickering has a knack for figuring out exactly what to show us, and when, and not letting anything go on a moment too long.

Natural Selection is a lot of fun, and though it often seems like you'll know exactly where it's heading, don't bet on it. There are surprises in store, and like everything else in this lovely little movie, they seem genuine and real. You can catch the film -- distributed by The Cinema Guild and running 89 minutes -- on Netflix streaming, on DVD and Blu-ray, and elsewhere, I expect.