Thursday, October 31, 2013

Just in time for the vote, stream Deschamps, Farrell & Singer's ELECTORAL DYSFUNCTION

We've had the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and just about every other metaphorical war you can imagine. Now comes the War on Voting. This time, however, it's a war we really need to win, as the documentary from last year -- ELECTORAL DYSFUNCTION, which is hitting Netflix streaming just in time to gear us up for next week's election -- clearly proves. Considering the evidence at hand, the doc is surprisingly bi-partisan and should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans (at least to those in the latter camp that still have a clue about the fact that some form of just and decent government is important to this country).

Written and directed by a trio composed of David Deschamps, Leslie D. Farrell and Bennett Singer (Deschamps and Ms Farrell are shown at left; Mr. Singer is evidently photo-shy), the movie's purpose seems to me to be two-fold:  to educate citizens about the unnecessary Electoral College, which actually and officially elects our Presidents (after us citizens who bothered to vote, have done our work) or in one particular case, sits idly by as a certain guy who actually lost the just-and-fair election had to be appointed by our Supreme Court), and to highlight the increasing war on what has always been seen by most of us as our "right to vote" (even if, as the movie makes clear, this is nowhere to be found in our Constitution). The documentary features some interesting history, some charming and clever animation, and most important (for entertainment value), it stars a low-key but funny guy named Mo Rocca, shown below.

Mr. Rocca would seem to be the near-perfect choice for a documentary that hopes to win the hearts and minds of both donkeys and elephants. He's non-threatening yet intelligent and committed, and he goes out of his way to avoid the things that, in so many current documentaries, tend to anchor them to one political philosophy or the other.

This is not to say that Electoral Dysfuction waffles where it counts. No, it makes quite clear that most of the so-called but rarely-to-be-found cases of actual "voter fraud" and subsequent laws arising from this come from Republicans. Yet in Indiana, where most of the movie takes places, the Republicans we see seem like pretty decent, if rather privileged and thoughtless, folk -- whiter-than-white and unable, say, to imagine themselves living the life of someone poor  (that's Dee Dee Benkie, RNC member, at right). But they at least appear the kind you could sit down with and converse without a fist fight occurring. The big problem with "voter fraud" restrictions is that these disenfranchise huge rafts of people who should be able to vote -- and would mostly vote Democratic.

Early in the film, a clever and telling "election" in a third grade class pitting colored pencils against markers shows that class and us how things like gerrymandering and the electoral college can crown people and things winners that actually are losers. From there we get close and chummy with some Indiana Democrats. (Yes, they exist!) Unfortunately the fellow below, former Democratic Representative Mike Marshall, was sentenced earlier this year for absentee ballot voter fraud. (At the end of the film, he is charged with same, but only this year was he finally sentenced. You can read about all this here.) We also meet some Republicans, and see why the state's Voter ID law is indeed like the new Poll Tax. Wait -- say the Republicans: If you are indigent,you can get a free ID that will enable you to vote. Oh, really? Wait till you see what the poor must do (as well as pay, first for a birth certificate, and then a notary) in order to get that "free" ID!

While the filmmakers and Rocca appear to be about as fair and balanced as possible, the facts of the situation make the case for voter rights all the stronger.  The film's funniest segment shows what happens in Indiana when a voter wants to vote but does not have his ID. Rocca really shines in this section. We get some Indiana history -- its "bloody 8th District" back in 1984, when we see a very young and ever-hypocritical Newt Gingrich. Then we go to Florida for the 200 Presidential election, which one commentator calls a perfect storm of everything dysfunctional about our electoral system.

We watch the 2008 election via Indiana, and damned if it isn't exciting and suspenseful all over again, then take a look at the design of election ballots -- another horrible, stupid and crazy attempt to confuse instead of help the public. What the film does not address, sadly, is the bigger and more important problem of how to keep individual and corporate wealth from further controlling our political system, as is happening more and more with each new election. For that, you'd best watch Francis Megahy's fine documentary, The Best Government Money Can Buy.

Meanwhile, Electoral Dysfunction is available to stream now via Netflix or Amazon, and also can be purchased on DVD.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Kerry Candaele's doc FOLLOWING THE NINTH: In the Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony

Who doesn't like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly that final movement, with its evergreen "Ode to Joy." Hell, even Adolf Hitler loved it, using it to inspire his Nazi hordes. You won't learn about Hitler's love for this musical classic via FOLLOWING THE NINTH: In the Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony, however. No: For that bit of information, you'll have to see a much stronger, provocative and chal-lenging documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Coincidentally enough, both movies open in New York City this Friday. For those who simply want to revel in the beauty of the Beethoven, while being fed reams of feel-good information and first-person testaments about how the symphony -- as Kerry Candaele (shown below), writer/producer/director of Following the Ninth, explains upfront -- "200 years after its writing, continues to inspire struggles for freedom, survival and healing during dark times," here's the film for you!

Yes, Beethoven's Ninth is a great piece of music. And the Pinochet regime of torture, murders and disappearance in Chile was a horror; China's student protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre, was a one-off jolt backward in that country's extra-long march toward some kind of freedom; while the post-WWII division of Germany into East and West, together with the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall was yet another, major slice of repression from Communism's Soviet leaders. But the documentary that results from the awkward conjoining of all these (plus a trip to Japan where, unless I missed something, there is no struggle for freedom but instead merely a festival honoring Beethoven's Ninth that occurs each December) is simply silly and wrong-headed.

The fact that in Chile and China protestors (shown above and below) were inspired by the symphony is worth an anecdote (just as Slavoj Zizek uses the Hitler/Ninth Symphony connection in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology) rather than a whole movie. Mr. Candaele forces the issue then comes to a kind of feel-good conclusion that I found almost insulting to Chile's followers of Allende who became victims of the Pinochet regime, as well as to the Chinese students.

The individual stories we hear from Chilean progressives and some of the Chinese students today are interesting and moving  -- there's a particularly surprising bit of information about one of our narrators who shares a history with the President of the Chilean Republic -- and the young woman who tell her story about growing up in East Berlin and what happened to her family is also worth hearing. Any one of these country's/people's stories might well fill up a film. But the connections of all this to Beethoven's Ninth are tenuous indeed.

In addition, neither the constant cutting back and forth between countries and tales nor the unnecessary inclusion of some moments of would-be "dance" (above) serves the movie well. The documentary's division into four chapters to ape the movements of the music is another needless stretch. I am guessing that the filmmaker's great love for the symphony inspired him to make the movie. This is commendable, but the result is certainly not.

FOLLOWING THE NINTH: In the Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony opens this Friday, November 1, at the Quad Cinema here in New York.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

HAMMER OF THE GODS: Matthew Read/Farren Blackburn's naughty Norsemen saga surprises

Warning: TrustMovies was ready to hit the STOP button on this film after the first scene -- in which a young boy on a cliff above the sea notices a Norse ship arriving, runs to warn his Saxon people, after which the occupants of that ship decimate the menfolk of the village and then one of them cavalierly says, "They were just fucking farmers" or something of that ilk. Ah, the entitlement of the Vikings! Still, we haven't had a decent Viking saga in a long while, so if you are in the mood for some-thing a bit Beowulfy (but without any Grendel, not to mention his dam), HAMMER OF THE GODS, now available via Netflix streaming, just might do the trick.

Did I say no Viking sagas? Well, there was Valhalla Rising, in which, as he most often does, Nicolas Winding Refn sacrifices his movie on the altar of style and violence. Hammer of the Gods certainly has plenty of the latter, but fortunately it doesn't shove the former so fully in our faces. (Scenery-wise, it's quite nice to look at, though.) The movie also has a pretty good plot, which unveils itself quickly and proceeds along at a sprightly pace, as directed by Farren Blackburn (above), from a screenplay by Matthew Read.

The story here is simple but effective: Old King (James Cosmo, above, right) is having trouble keeping his subjects, not to mention his conquered, in tow, so he sends son #2, called Steinar (played by Charlie Bewley, above, left, and below, right), to find his previously banished son #1 (Hakan, played by Elliot Cowan, below, left), taking along son #2's little band of stalwarts, along with the frightened and somewhat groveling bastard-son of the king (Theo Barklem-Biggs).

Along the way, adventures occur, usually of the clanking-swords and spurting-blood variety. A young woman (Alexandra Dowling, below) is added into the mix -- surprise! -- then later an older, sexier one (blond oomph-babe, Glynnis Barber) arrives on the scene.

The most fun, however, is provided by an actor named Francis Magee (below), playing a fellow named Ulric, whom our little band needs to direct it toward son #1. On the IMDB description of Hammer..., there's a mention of a gay slur used in the film. Well, all right, but since Ulric himself appears to be gay and proud of it -- he arm-wrestles son #2, whom he calls "Princess," telling him that, should he win, he'll bed down "Princess" for the night and show him a real good time -- I  think we can forgive that slur. As Ulric puts it, or something to this effect, "Doesn't matter how great a fighter you are, you play around with a couple of boys, and your reputation goes south!"  Mr. Magee has a grand time in this role, and so do we, watching him.

In terms of plot surprises, Hammer saves its best for the last -- always wise -- and its best is pretty damned good. The finale is creepy in a whole new manner, and I'll say no more so you'll just have to view the movie to feel those "creeps" coming on.

Hammer of the Gods is available now via Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video, and perhaps elsewhere -- as well as on DVD & Blu-ray.

All photos are from the film itself, save that of Mr. Blackburn, 
which comes courtesy of Robert Viglasky

Monday, October 28, 2013

Slavoj Zizek & Sophie Fiennes' THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY is the most fun your brain, memory and synapses will have at the movies

He's back. That philosopher/film critic/political theorist/culture maven/
theologist/psychoanalyst (have I left something out?) Slavoj Zizek, of The Pervert's Guide to Cinema has returned, along with his director, Sophie Fiennes, to bring us THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY. If you enjoyed the former, you're gonna love the latter -- which is every bit as film-oriented even as it tackles the thorny question of ideologies and which to choose: Communism, Capitalism, Religion and everything in between. No surprise, Mr. Zizek advises none of the above and makes is very clear exactly why, as he uses film (or fee-lum, as his Slovenian accent so charmingly pronounces it) to explain what the powers-that-be are feeding us, and how best to prevent digestion. (The glory moment here is the guy's take-down of Titanic: Who needs an iceberg when the Ziz is here!)

Zizek writes and delivers his, well, pretty-much-a-monologue, while Ms Fiennes (shown at right) directs the film (with terrific help from her usual editor Ethel Shepherd), which offers dozens of movies and Zizek's theories about how these impact on our history, culture and thinking. The result is the most eye-to-the-screen/ear-to-the-soundtrack piece of cinema you will have seen since this threesomes's last collaboration. As much as I urge you to rush to theaters to experience this amazingly intelligent, fun and funny piece of work, I admit that I was more than happy to be watching it via screener, so that I could backtrack and listen to what Zizek says one more time to make sure I understood it properly.
Because this guy, shown below and further below, is first of all a philoso-pher, this sort of sets him in a special class. Yet, though I wouldn't exactly call him "mainstream," neither is he highfalutin. He's accessible. His ideas are often surprising, but he offers them up with precision and a lot of back-up, especially of course via movies -- once again seeming to appear on or in the sets of many of the film he discusses, from the bed Robert DeNiro used in Taxi Driver to the pristine lavatory that gets so bloodied up in Full Metal Jacket (below), from Jaws to Triumph of the Will.

Zizek opens the fee-lum with one of my favorite movies (and I hope yours, too; seek it out if you haven't seen it), They Live, during which he challenges us to say why a particular fight scene goes on for so long and is so violent (It's hard giving up the view of the world we've been taught to see), and then moves on the The Sound of Music, in which he tackles the idea of enjoyment versus pleasure. For his musing on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony alone, the movie is must. (Funny how, this very week, another film called Following the Ninth opens here and shows us exactly what Zizek means about how this fabulous work can be made to mean all sorts of thing -- and used for evil, as well as good. (I'll have more to say about that film soon).

He covers popular culture and the the Neo-Nazi phemonenon, explaining in passing why he doesn't consider the rock group Rammstein to be Nazi propaganda. It's all here: Ideology as a kind of bribe, a very fluffy cat, and why capitalism is all the time in crisis. "This is precisely why Capitalism appears almost indestructible," he tells us. (I guess because it seems to somehow weather all those crises?) And then he goes on to show us the invisible side of Capitalism, which is... ah, yes: waste.

Religion takes its licks, too: His lengthy look at Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (a movie I didn't much care for) makes me want to see it again. His explanation of how, in its way, Christianity as a religion is actually much more atheistic than your typical atheist, is something to hear and then ponder. Seconds, Zabrieskie Point, and a number of other films get the Zizek approach, as well, and come out the better for it.

Perhaps his most splendid moment comes when he asks, "Why it is easier for us to imagine a huge change -- like an asteroid hitting earth -- than even a modest change in our economic order?" Why indeed. See The Pervert's Guide to Ideology and you'll be asking that question, too. Maybe even answering it. And then rushing out to see a few movies you thought you understood and appreciated (or not)--now with a whole new viewpoint.

The movie -- from the indispensable Zeitgeist Films, and running 2 hours and 16 minutes (not one of which I'd have wanted to miss) opens this Friday, November 1, in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Con artists on parade: Eric Besnard's CA$H proves gorgeous, glossy, star-studded fun

Five years old already but holding up rather well, CA$H, a French mainstream bauble from 2008 ostensibly about a flock of con artists trying to outwit each other, went straight to DVD the following year here in the USA. This is undoubtedly because its star, the Oscar-winning Jean Dujardin, had not yet been seen in any film here in the States other than OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (which garnered neither much press nor box-office). That satirical series actually gifted TrustMovies with one of his main desires over the past few years: to see M. Dujardin play what one might call just an "ordinary" leading man, after seeing him do very good work in more-or-less "stunt" roles such as the OSS guy or that near-silent movie performer in The Artist.

TM actually interviewed Dujardin (above) in 2010, upon the release here of his second OSS movie (OSS 117: Lost in Rio). Even then I was champing at the bit to see how the actor might handle a more "normal" role. He's actually made a number of these kinds of films, but we've yet to see them over here (His tiny role in Little White Lies, though pivotal, was close to non-existent -- one of the big problems with this movie.) Now, with CA$H, available via Netflix streaming, we can do just this: see Dujardin play an almost stereotypical con artist/hero. Are we surprised that he comes through with flying colors?  I shouldn't think so.

Instead of being required to play an affectation up the wazoo, as in the OSS films, or giving a performance that constantly comments on itself, as in The Artist (doing these as well as does Dujardin is no mean feat, by the way), the actor is asked only by his writer/director, Eric Besnard (shown at left), to be glamorous, easy-going and sexy -- all of which seem to come as naturally to Dujardin as they do, say, to a certain Mr. Clooney on our side of the pond. In fact, his light-heartedness and light-footedness in this role are one of the reason the movie works as well as it so often does.

To even begin to talk about the plot -- which offers surprise after surprise along the way, some of which you might guess, leading up to the final one (which I suspect you will not) -- is useless and wrong-headed, as this can only result in coming too close to a spoiler or two. Let's just say that the movie begins with a smart "con," using that marvelous actor Clovis Cornillac (above), and then simply keeps the "conning" coming.

I mentioned the word glossy in my headline. This movie practically defines the term. The locations should have travelers salivating; the sets, costumes and decor are all aces, right down the line; and the pacing is slow enough (some might say a tad too slow) to give you time to drink it all in. This last might be considered a criticism, but I so enjoyed these visuals, coupled to a cast that is just about as mainstream glossy as France and Europe can currently provide, that the whole thing adds up to a very big "What's not to like?"

That cast? Ah, yes: In addition to Dujardin, we have the gorgeous (in very different ways) Alice Taglioni (above, wearing the cap) and Italy's Valeria Golino (below, with Dujardin and stuffed animals). Both actresses are just right and add immeasurably to the fun going on.

Add to the mix the super-professional Jean Reno (below) doing what he does best -- and expertly, as usual...

...while, for class, there's the terrific François Berléand, not seen often enough here in the U.S. in recent times (save for a short, smart role in The Stroller Strategy earlier this year). He's shown in the photo, right, with Caroline Proust, a young lady who had already made her mark in the soon-to-be-hugely-popular-internationally French TV Series, Spiral (Engrenages) -- here essaying one of the gang members, while showing Berléand how good she is at playing pool. Ms. Proust is fine in her somewhat truncated role, but what a difference it is seeing her as a leading lady in Spiral!

The rest of the cast -- which includes the likes of Samir Guesmi, Eriq Ebouaney, the late Jocelyn Quivrin and Ciarán Hinds -- adds talent and luster, but I think it's probably the overall cleverness of the twisty plot that will keep alert viewers most happy. CA$H is simply such good fun.

The movie -- running 100 minutes and sporting the IFC logo in its opening frame (though the film can nowhere be found on that distribution company's web site) -- is available now via Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video and on DVD.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

For Halloween, Richard Schenkman's MISCHIEF NIGHT hits theaters one-night-only, October 30

You'd think, what with Halloween being one of the most popular faux holidays of the year, that some movie studio, major or minor, would make sure it opened a scary movie that week. Not usually. (Sometimes they'll synchronize a particular fright film to open on a Friday, the 13.) This year, however, there is a little slasher number sneaking into town (some 41 of 'em, actually, and all across the country) entitled MISCHIEF NIGHT which takes place on Halloween eve (which is evidently known by that "Mischief Night" name in certain circles -- not mine, but maybe yours).
Directed and with a screenplay by Richard Schenkman (shown at right in what I suspect is a rather old photo, and who years ago gave us a fine little "guy-'n-gal" comedy called The Pompatus of Love), from a story by Jesse Baget and Eric D. Wilkinson, this is a movie that might best be described in the words of my spouse, as we finished watching it: "I've seen worse." So have I. Quite a bit worse, actually. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, I suppose it is. The movie, after all, deals in practically nothing but the clichés of the genre. Yet Mr. Schenkman seems to know his way around a cliché, so that he can wring more suspense and surprise out of it than you'd expect. From what's in the microwave oven to the broken glass on the floor (will the blind girl step in it?!), we're kept pretty constantly on our toes.

Consider the opening scene in which an unfaithful wife is about to do the dirty with her lover when they hear something like an intruder downstairs. This is pure been-there-done-that stuff served up again, but with enough skilled touches in the script and direction that we follow along queasily.

Once this scene is out of the way, the movie shifts ahead to the same house with a new family now installed: Dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly, above) and his psychosomatically blind daughter (Noell Coet, below), who suffers from guilt over the car-accident death of her mom a few years back. Perfect victims, right? Subjected to a kind of home-invasion-cum-Wait-Until-Dark. So we're prepared to watch the killer go to town. Which he does, with relish, of course, but occasional restraint, as well. (This is but one part of the how-to-work-around-a-cliché lesson that the film provides.)

Performances are as good as those in the genre usually get, but I do wish that the writers here could have burnished the story and script a bit. One of the more noticeable problems: Why doesn't the daughter tell her father that her boyfriend has gone missing in the house? This might have saved a life. Oh, well. Saving lives is probably not the reason certain audiences flock to this kind of film.

Mischief Night -- via Specticast, and running 87 minutes -- will make its one-night-only, one-performance-only theatrical debut on Wednesday, October 30, Halloween eve, in cities all around the nation. Click here and scroll down to find a venue near you.