Friday, January 31, 2014

Ursula Meier's SISTER: This updated 400 Blows is set, end of season, at a Swiss ski resort

With Home, and now her latest movie, SISTER, French filmmaker Ursula Meier has given us two very different but equally worthwhile films that deal with fractured families -- the first an odd but involving saga of location, the second a more standard yet affecting tale of class and need. In it a young-approaching-teenage brother and his adult sister fend for themselves, the latter doing odd jobs and usually getting fired, the former stealing possessions of wealthier families that frequent the nearby ski resort.

Ms Meier, shown at right, is a fine story-teller, wrapping us in the details of the lives of her charac-ters so well that we follow along gladly, even though the details are much stranger than usual (in Home) and sadder, as in Sister. That title itself takes on additional mean-ing as the movie progresses and we learn more about our siblings. The film-maker also has the ability to show us characters whose faults are many and great, yet so fully does she understand and elucidate these people that we come to feel for them all -- right down to the subsidiary folk in her films.

Though that superior young French actress Léa Seydoux (above right) plays the sister (and very well), the film belongs to the young boy, Simon, essayed by Kacey Mottet Klein (above, left and below, right) of Home and Gainsbourg), who is so consistently real and needy, while alternately strong and vulnerable, that he becomes as memorable, I believe, as was Antoine Doinel of Truffaut's landmark film.

How Simon interacts with his everyone -- from his sister to his "marks," from the kids and the adults to whom he sells his purloined goods, and especially his relationship with a kindly mother (Gillian Anderson, above, left) who takes a liking to the boy -- creates a marvelously multi-faceted character who, by film's end, does not easily let go of heart nor mind.

Meier draws fine performances from all her actors,  those mentioned above and Martin Compston (above, right) who plays a restaurant worker who tries to befriend our boy. Ms Meier understands wells how our motives are always mixed between our own needs and those of others, and she continually makes this clear throughout the film -- which leaves us, as well as her characters, duly chastened and somehow appreciative by film's end.

You can see this excellent movie, running 97 minutes, now on Netflix streaming, via Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Teller's & Penn's & TIM'S VERMEER offer an eye-opening view of the technique of a beloved artist

What a small-scale joy is TIM'S VERMEER, the new documentary that was shortlisted for Best Documentary award but did not make the final cut. No matter. (Except maybe for its box-office take.) The film itself will thrill, surprise and entertain art-loving audiences across the globe, especially those who treasure the "inspired-by-light" paintings of the 17-Century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Inspired by light, indeed! More than we knew, evidently, as entrepreneur/inventor Tim Jension pretty much proves that, to create his amazing paintings, the artist used a kind of very early photographic technique.

Mr. Jenison (the face on the poster above) happens to be a pal of the famous Penn & Teller duo who, evidently, when the pair got wind of Jenison's interest in Vermeer and what he was doing about it -- setting out to somehow prove that the artist used a kind of photographic technique to create his famous photo-realist paintings that were done some 150 years prior to the invention of actual photography -- decided to film the fellow's "experiment. They succeeded quite well -- Teller, (shown below) directs, while Penn (shown at left) produces and also appears in and helps narrate the film. Jenison
succeeds very well, too, so far as I am concerned. He pretty much proves his point, without in the least discrediting the amazing work of this rightfully revered artist. Certain critics have lambasted the movie because, to them, it seems to revile instead of revere the famous artist. I am sorry, but this is nonsense. Mr Jenison, as well as Penn & Teller, seem to hold the artist in great esteem. The intent here is not to discredit or degrade Vermeer's work but rather to de-mystify it. For centuries, all one could do was marvel and wonder, How did Vermeer do it? Well, we can still wonder at the art and love it hugely, while finally understanding the "how" of the equation.

This relatively short documentary first fills us in on the character and life of our Tim Jenison (above and below), follows him as he explains his theory, then watches as he puts it into practice. He must procure and use only the kind of instruments that were available in Vermeer's day (the artist lived from 1632-1675). To create his own "Vermeer," Tim feels he must also create a replica of the actual room which Vemreer painted.

How he does this and the problems he encounters along the way make up the meat of the movie, all of which fascinates. I won't go into the details; that's part of the great fun of the film. But listen and watch carefully, for -- as I see it, at least -- the real proof is found more in a subtle, nearly un-noticeable mistake made by the artist that Jenison comes across while working on his re-creation.

Help along the way is provided by various art historians and artists -- such as David Hockney (above, left) -- and in the end, Tim does indeed create his own Vermeer, even if it is probably but a pale imitation of the real thing. I wish the filmmakers had given us a better look at Tim's work, and compared it more closely with a reproduction photo of the actual painting -- now owned by the current Queen Elizabeth of England. The difference, of course, is that our Tim is no artist, as he readily admits. Vermeer was a great one.

The point here is that now we know the answer to the question that has baffled humanity for centuries: What technique did this artist use to do things that have not been seen before or since? Thanks to Tim's Vermeer, now we know.

From Sony Pictures Classics and running a sleek 80 minutes, the movie opens this tomorrow, Friday, January 31, in New York City, at the Angeli-ka Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood. In the coming weeks, it will open in cities all across the country. To view all currently scheduled playdates, simply click here.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guess what? He HASN'T faded into obscurity: MITT, the documentary, hits the streaming circuit

Watching the new documentary, MITT -- all about how a certain former governor of Massachusetts who campaigned for Presi-dent, first in the 2008 Republican primary, where he lost, and then again in 2012, where he won, but then lost the election -- will probably not change a single mind regarding whether the outcome of that election was deserved and appreciated. What it does--pretty well, too--is humanize a man, who, from all we could tell at the time, appeared to be a lying (oh, sorry: make that "flip-flopping"), conniving and uber-entitled fellow.

Filmmaker Greg Whiteley, shown at right, is a Mormon, just like Mitt Romney and his family, and so, one suspects, was able to become a much more trusted source and guide to enable the Romney clan to relax and just be them-selves so that he could bring to the screen the correct semblance of jus' plain folk that a movie like this requires. Mr. Whiteley, also the director of New York Doll and the debate documentary, Resolved, does it. In his hands, the family seems like a really nice bunch of people. Convincingly, too. They appear to be a close-knit group who care about and rely on each other for everything from encouragement and honesty to a shoulder (a number of them actually) to lean or cry on.

The family goes through the hell of campaigning during that first round in 2008, and then says "never again" to any further seeking of the Presidency. But, what do you know? Here they all are back again for more in 2012. But given the idiocy of the current Republican base, Romney must flip-flop so incredibly much during this campaign that he finally could not be taken seriously except among lame-brained Republican Party diehards -- who, in the words of someone-or-other, "would vote for a monkey for President, if the party nominated one."

One of the more telling moments in the movie comes as one of Romney's sons talks honestly about how difficult it is play the game that must be played in campaigning in which you say what people want to hear, or tell you to say, rather than what you believe. We also hear much more from the Romney men than we do from the women. Whether this is due to the latent misogynism of the Latter Day Saints, or to the fact the Mitt has only sons and so the daughters are all in-laws, I can't say for sure. But I would wager that the answer is: both.

Because 2012 is near enough for all but infant-aged children to be able to recall, there is no suspense in the movie. In fact, it begins with Mitt asking, "What do you say in a concession speech?" and then tracks back to 2006 and works its way up to that sad question once again.

The Romney political philosophy is kept to a minimum and shared with us via the most obvious and benign information. Even then, any remotely progressive person will want to shout back at the screen a few times, as blather about the evil of "taxing the small businessman" is offered, with nary a remark about the wealthy or of those huge corporations that manage to avoid paying their fare share -- or sometimes any taxes at all.

Although Romney's now infamous taped remarks about the country's needy 47 per cent is mentioned, the chance to ask the candidate more about this is of course passed up.

One of the things that makes the movie so pleasurable is watching how this large family reacts to whatever comes along. It is rare in any political movie, especially those that deal with campaigns, not to have the screen filmed with pundits, point men, the usual political suspects and other hangers-on. Here instead it's the family who doubles as advisers, strate-gists and all the rest. This makes for a more enjoyable experience, movie-wise: charming, fun and probably beneficial to the campaign, as well.

Mitt, from the Netflix organization, made its streaming debut this past Friday, January 24, and can be seen now, exclusively via that service.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In Lotfy Nathan's 12 O'CLOCK BOYS, Baltimore dirt bikers hit the city's asphalt, as Pug looks on

One of the more interesting features of documentaries these days is the manner in which the filmmaker decides to let the audience "in" on things: how he or she brings us to the subject at hand. The old-fashioned way (this can still work beautifully) is via simple narration, introducing us to who or what is up for grabs. Newer filmmakers seem to prefer the more challenging route (for them and for us), often leaving out narration entirely and just tossing us into the mix by letting us observe and piece things together as best we can. Bombay Beach is one good example of the latter form, and now comes another, perhaps not quite so successful, but certainly worth viewing: 12 O'CLOCK BOYS from first-time filmmaker Lotfy Nathan (shown below).

Fortunately, our largest and most appealing point-of-entry here is via a boy nick-named Pug, whom we come to know best of all the characters on hand. A twelve-year-old when filming commenced, Pug ages a year or so before the film concludes, and it is through his eyes that we are introduced to the 12 O'Clock Boys of the title: dirt-bikers who enjoy speeding around on their bikes (meant for the outback) on the somewhat busy city streets of Baltimore, Maryland. Pug, shown below, is in love with these guys and their speed and ability to lean back on the bikes as they race along until their bodies, as well as their machines, are practically perpendicular to the street (hence, I guess, the film's title -- as they are nearly in the 12 o'clock position.

Pug has tried to join the group a number of times, but clearly, he's too young and too small at this point to be able to ride with them. But, boy, does he try. We also meet his mom, Coco, along with some of the bikers -- Wheelie Wayne and Superman, among them -- and get a little history of these sort-of heroes. Evidently sometime back, a DIY video of them and their riding went viral, turning them into "stars" -- at least locally.

The movie opens, however, with the angry and unpleasant voice of what sounds like somebody calling into a radio show, complaining about the 12 O'Clock Boys and how dangerous they and their bikes really are. The local police may have it in for the boys, too, but from what we hear, those police are not allowed to pursue them for fear of causing further accidents. Evidently the boys have caused a few of their own, though whether this is truth, hearsay or police propaganda, we can't be sure. And Mr. Nathan does little in the way of investigation to clarify this, or much else, in his very homemade movie.

I may have missed an earlier reference to a fellow named Tibba -- whom we meet at his own funeral and later learn was Pug's brother. At that funeral, two women get into a cat-fight. Why?  Who knows? We also never learn just how and why Tibba himself died (an accident, somebody notes). Lest we find ourselves rooting too thoroughly for Pug and his mom, we see Coco out for a possible date night at a bar, coming on to a fellow (or is he coming on to her?), and then we view a scene in which Pug mistreats his dog. I am guessing that this is so we'll have been given a warts-and-all look at the family. But the filmmaker resolutely does not want to get near anything resembling an "interview, " in which questions about desires, intentions, lifestyles or interests might be raised -- and character thus brought a bit more to the fore.

We meet a policeman named Lemon, whom the Boys feel is out to get them. Says one: "Fuck all dirty cops, and I'm gonna say that till I die." Lemon is then given a sentence-or-two opportunity to defend himself. From what we're shown here, the Boys may be a bit of a nuisance, but they're hardly the frightened white man's version of a black Hell's Angels troupe. On the other hand, if the Boys are doing dangerous stuff, they should can it, or at least find spaces more conducive to their biking feats. Might they? Would they? Who knows? While Nathan -- who shot, produced and directed the film -- does not takes sides, neither does he give us enough information to draw much of a conclusion.

What he does do (aside from letting us glance into this relatively new kind of pastime and group), intentionally or not, is allow us to see yet another example of a society in which the power appears to be, still and ever, inherently racist, holding blacks back from anything that might give them pleasure or allow them to show some skill. At the same time, he shows these blacks to be interested in nothing more edifying than riding a bike into that 12 o'clock position. What -- there are no basketball courts around the city? Or -- hello -- a library? Well, maybe not: budget cuts and the new economy, ya know...

12 O'Clock Boys ends with a bit of what-if, wish-fulfillment "verite," that's quite dear, and which makes me wonder if Mr. Nathan has not seen and enjoyed Bombay Beach, too.  His movie, from Oscilloscope, opens this Friday, January 31, in 21 cities -- from Miami to New York, Baltimore to L.A. You can check out the entire list of playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Berger/Daniels/Michelson's CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO: Inside the cockpit, pre-crash -- in 3D!

I should think that pilots, co-pilots, navigators, flight attendants and others connected to the airline industry will rush out to see CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO (or maybe not, given the mostly unhappy endings to these six drama-tized black-box-transcripts that show-and-tell us of what transpired just before the landing/crash. For the rest of us, the movie is one very odd experiment. Filmed in the kind of 3D that makes Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder look like a Michael Bay special-effects extravaganza, this film has perhaps the least reason for being shot in three dimensions than anything seen so far. It's a confined-space movie, for god's sake, in which we're trapped, over and over throughout six different scenarios, in a tiny cockpit, where traffic is restricted so nobody much moves, and the set, such as it is, changes little.

The sense of "space" the movie provides us is very nearly the sense of "no space." Gravity, this ain't. (Although, once Ms Bullock is inside a space capsule, the two films begin, unfortunately, to resemble each other.) Further, the film is taken from a theater piece first staged here in NYC nearly fifteen years ago that has since traveled the country. The film's theatrical roots are never out of sight, right down to the casting -- for budget reasons, no doubt -- of the same six actors to play the 15 to 20 different roles required to fill the six episodes. You'll figure this out soon enough, and of course go with it, but the doubling and tripling of the cast members means that the film never begins to lose its on-the-cheap, off-off-Broadway quality.

As directed by the threesome of Robert Berger (above, left), Patrick Daniels (center) and Karlyn Michelson (at right), the acting, too, seemed to me to be a little off. You may notice, as did I, that no one, until I think the actual crash seems about to occur -- neither pilot, co-pilot nor anyone else -- ever bothers to look ahead directly out the window in front of him/her. Perhaps every incident taking place here happened at night, in pitch dark? As good as are these actors -- particularly Debbie Troche (who is not shown in any of the stills here) as a co-pilot with amazing ability and control -- we seldom get the sense that we're outside the theater in something approaching real life.

Along the way there are some suspenseful, grueling moments and even a little unintentional humor (watching, in a dire emergency, the co-pilot grab, open and begin to look through what appears to be a How to Fly This Plane manual, will not leave audiences feeling very assured about their next flight). And as everything here is taken verbatim from transcripts (except in a few cases when the black box-obtained dialog is condensed or changed for clarity's sake), we must conclude that this is "the way it was."

The press material for the film tells us that the movie "puts you in the cockpit." It does not. Rather, it puts us in the theater audience, first row center, as we watch these goings-on, which move from relatively "normal" to more intense to... a blackout, as each crash occurs. This is followed by an explanation of what happened and why (shown via title cards), the causes ranging from bird strikes to lousy -- no, make that deadly -- plane maintenance.  (The film's title, by the way, is evidently an acronym for "cockpit voice recorder.")

At 80 minutes, the movie still feels like a long haul. But it is something different -- that's for sure -- and something different is one of the hallmarks of NYC's Film Forum, where Charlie Victor Romeo (we might as well call this a documentary of sorts: maybe an "acted documentary") gets its U.S. theatrical premiere for a two-week run beginning this Wednesday, January 29. It will then play at the Downtown Independent theater in Los Angeles from January 31 through February 6.

Note: Meet the directors in person at Film Forum, 
as Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels & Karlyn Michelson 
 appear on Wednesday, January 29, at the 8pm show, and 
Berger & Michelson only appear on Friday, January 31 & 
 Saturday, February 1, also at the 8pm screenings.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lee Liberman on last year's BFLF Oscar nominee: Nicolaj Arcel's fascinating A ROYAL AFFAIR

First, A ROYAL AFFAIR (2012) is a story of doomed love that works with a glass of wine and a tissue box. Second, it's a true tale from Denmark that oddly creates context for our own American Revolution. A.O Scott, The New York Times movie critic, rightly called it an "advanced placement bodice-ripper" for its entertaining and useful blend of romance, scandal, and history. Evidently based on both the 1999 book, "The Royal Physician's Visit," by Per Olov Enquist, and "Prinsesse af blodet," an erotic novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth, the film was directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel (shown below), nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won a Golden Globe in 2013. It streams on Netflix.

The story unfolds in the Eighteenth-Century Age of Enlightenment when intellectual ferment began to embrace the individual, science, and reason, displacing Catholic dogma as life's filter.

Denmark in the early 1700's is run by Catholic dogmatists out of step with political change -- their Denmark, they believe, is the last decent outpost in a depraved Europe. The conser-vative privy council is in league with Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, pious stepmother of the infantile, mentally ill young King Christian VII, whom Juliane hopes to replace with her own son. The council runs the country coaxing Christian to sign its decrees. An arrange-ment is made with King George III of England to marry off his 15-year-old sister to Christian. (Yes -- the same King George who taxed our colonies into revolution).

Played by lovely young Swedish actress shown above, Alicia Vikander (Kitty in Anna Karenina ), British Princess Caroline Mathilde sets foot on her new homeland as a hopeful bride to discover that her spouse is infantile and very unpleasant husband material. They have a son, Frederik, and soon the council hires a doctor to treat Christian who wallows in brothels and makes a spectacle of himself in public.(Two modern theories of his condition are schizophrenia and Porphyria. In this telling, it looked to me more like bi-polar illness combined with mental retardation.) 

Christian's new German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, shown above, right, and below, left), brought with him from Europe the Enlightenment era writings of Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. To describe Struensee in our own terms, he believed in the 99% rather than the top 1%. He could have been John Adams who famously said "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." (Adams and the German doctor were born two years apart.) Before his Danish assignment, 'free-thinker' Struensee wrote papers on issues of freedom and individual human rights.

Young Queen Caroline, enamored of both Age of Reason thinking and its messenger, collaborated with Struensee to excite and influence Christian in a more humane policy direction. They had gained some leverage, as Struensee was able to manage Christian's infantile behavior and gain his confidence and friendship. They began by coaching Christian to propose that the city sewers and associated stench and health hazards be cleaned up -- "a war on shit". More suggestions follow --smallpox inoculation, a home for unwanted children and unwed mothers. Conservative privy council Minister Guldberg's disgusted assessment is that Christian's new ideas practically reward women for lechery (where have we heard that lately).

As new laws are suggested, the council blames the young Queen (now pregnant with Struensee's child) and the Doctor ("the foreigner") for Christian's interference in state business. They attempt to have Struensee arrested, but Christian by now differentiates bad government from good. He dismisses the entire council and installs the doctor as his chief and only minister. Struensee's tenure was under two years, but it jump-started backward Denmark by abolishing corporal punishment and torture of prisoners, ending capital punishment for theft, permitting freedom of the press, reducing revenues to nobility, banning slave trade, et al. Minister Guldberg says to Struensee, "You are destroying my country," to which the doctor replies, "Who is destroying the country: the King, or someone who believes the earth was created in six days?"

The affair is discovered and a palace coup leads to the doctor's demise and the banishment of Queen Caroline. Denmark regresses again until years later, Christian and Caroline's son, 16-year-old Prince Frederik, supported by his father, expels the old guard and reinstates the enlightened rule of Christian and Dr. Struensee. Frederik VI ruled for 55 years and is said to have expanded on his father's reforms by abolishing serfdom and liberating the peasants.

Struensee died in 1772 shortly before the upcoming American and French Revolutions. The commoner doctor's writings and actions were part of the firmament that led our founders and French citizenry to press for individual freedoms. (Our founders were not gods but products of European Age of Reason thinking.)

The players in the film are gaining presence in the US, especially Mr. Mikkelsen -- Danish actor and celebrity who starred in The Hunt, Flame and Citron, and After the Wedding, all worth watching on Netflix. (He's also had parts in a number of big budget American films.) Ms Vikander's profile here is about to expand with coming releases of The Seventh Son and The Man From UNCLE (where she has the female lead opposite Henry Cavill). Both Mikkelson and Vikander began their careers in dance, evident in a fleeting, magnetic moment of heated restraint as they dance together on the evening their affair is consummated.

The liveliest material goes to Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (shown above and below) as young King Christian VII, for which he won a best actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012. Følsgaard creates a believable portrait of a mentally ill child-man unable to function as an adult while having innate sense. He is sympathetic as he vacillates between infantile and courageous acts, blossoming under the intelligent caring of his wife and doctor.

It was quite a three-way until stepmother Queen Juliane and Minister Guldburg used the discovery of the affair to carry out a palace coup and turn the clock back on their country.

You can stream A Royal Affair now via Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, or watch it on DVD or Blu-ray, for either rental or purchase.

This post was written by Lee Liberman, 
who will be joining us now and again 
--maybe weekly--to cover the occasional film.
Her ability to weave both history and criticism 
into her writing is much appreciated by TrustMovies. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Re-viewing THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and mourning Anthony Minghella's untimely demise

Watching THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY again, almost fifteen years after its initial release, turns out to be a major pleasure, for reasons both expected and not so. Having just recently seen once again, Purple Noon, the original film adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, and then coming upon the version written and directed by the late Anthony Minghella, suddenly available via Netflix streaming, a chance to view this film again proved irresistible. And worth every one of its 139 minutes.

It's a gorgeous piece of work in so many ways, from its depiction of Italy circa the late 1950s to the scenery, sets, costumes and all the rest -- jazz clubs, seaside towns, yachts, an apartment in which adding a refrigerator was a big deal, and mid-century Rome -- the movie is almost consistently, eye-poppingly beautiful.

Then there's that cast: Matt Damon (two photos up), in his best role yet, as the sociopath Tom Ripley -- so bright, so intuitive, and so incredibly dangerous; Jude Law (above) as his "idol," golden-boy Phillip Greenleaf, who has everything Tom wants, including his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow, below) in one of her best roles, too.

Then there's Cate Blanchett (below) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (two photos below) for major support, plus a roster of terrific actors, American and Italian, in the more minor roles. As good and as groundbreaking as was Purple Noon in its day (1960), this later version of the novel was able to do much more with the Highsmith property, thanks to the change in mores and movie "morals" over the 40-year span between the two. Minghella also allows much more psychology and character(s) into the mix, broadening and deepening the story.

Mostly though, this movie may remind you of the filmmaker and his fine career, and sadden you all over again that these were cut so short. Minghella (shown at bottom) died suddenly and quite untimely at the age of 54 in 2008. Known perhaps more as a screenwriter (20 credits) than a director (only nine), those nine films include classics like this one, as well as one of the finest love stories/ghost stories/rom-coms ever made, Truly Madly Deeply, and the award-winning The English Patient, which garnered the filmmaker his Oscar (along with eight others).

Minghella had such a wide range of interests, along with the ability, it seems, to bring them to wonderful life. The man had some misses (Nine, anyone? Didn't think so. Anyway, he wasn't responsible for the ham-fisted direction but only co-wrote the screenplay for that second-rate musical) and he did a few films that were good but not great. Yet imagine what he might have given us had he lived another couple of decades.

Meanwhile, see (or re-see) The Talented Mr. Ripley and bask in its beauty, surprise, and the terror of being this close to someone who possesses no conscience. None at all. But hey, he's moved by opera and its uber-theatricality. (Remember that scene -- used in the movie's trailer to throw us off-base -- of the spectacular, operatic blood flow? Whew!)

Talent simply abounds in this version of Ripley, and the movie is streamable now via Netflix and is also available elsewhere and on DVD and Blu-ray. (And that's Mr. Minghella, at work, below.)