Monday, March 31, 2014

Chris Eska's Civil-War-cum-black-bounty-hunter drama, THE RETRIEVAL, opens at Film Forum

Some seven years have passed since writer/director/editor Chris Eska gave us his quietly wondrous August Evening. That's a long time to wait for his next full-length feature, but at last it is upon us. THE RETRIEVAL, set in 1864 during the Civil War, it is all about betrayal -- of a specifically nasty sort. The film, along with (though not as good as) 12 Years a Slave, makes another fine bookend about the history of slavery here in the USA. It also points up the difference between a genuine, small-budget, indepen-dent movie and one like 12 Years, that is estimated to have had a budget of twenty million. Eska's film probably cost not even one-tenth of that. (A blockbuster like The Avengers -- boasting a budget of $220,000,000 -- ran up finances of more than ten times what McQueen's canny movie cost.)

The film's initial scene is quietly shocking, as what appears a runaway slave of teenage years is given shelter in the barn of a nearby house by a white woman with a rifle. And then....  What happens, asks Mr. Eska (shown at right), who also wrote, edited and directed this new film, when blacks are used to entrap their own kind? This will bring to mind Holocaust tales of a century later, such as those of Benjamin Murmelstein in Claude Lanzmann's recent documentary, along with other Jews who betrayed their own kind for money, or possible safety, or simply out of necessity during the Second World War.

All three of these reasons come into play during the course of The Retrieval, as the teenager, Will (Ashton Sanders, above, right), and Marcus, the adult with whom he works (Keston John, above, left) do the bidding of some very nasty bounty hunters, led by Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr., shown below).

Unlike the earlier August Evening, an everyday-life character study almost perfectly realized, The Retrieval -- because it has to do with a life-and-death situation in which to earn money and be allowed to live, these two must find and betray another man named Nate (played by the exceptional Tishuan Scott, below) -- is filled with suspense and moral choice. "What if he was you?" asks the boy of his older compatriot. "Well, he ain't," comes back the immediate reply. So much for morality.

The question that haunts the movie, almost from its inception, is how stifled is our boy Will by the importance of money over kindness, friendship and trust. The war, while never in the center of things, is also never far away. Death, when it comes, is surprising and swift, leaving Will, in a sense, in the care of Nate. A father/son bond develops, but that nagging question -- is it fear or money that's pushing Will's button? -- crops up throughout.

This is part of the problem with Eska's film, and it is never resolved properly. Why does Will wait -- and wait and wait -- to warn Nate of what lies ahead? Perhaps Eska wanted to wring maximum suspense from the situation, but his handling of simple plot mechanics beggars belief. There are any number of opportunities along the way for a decisive chat, none of which are taken until, of course, it's too late.

This ensures the finale Eska must have wanted but it creates a pre-determined outcome that is far too heavy-handed. Certain details seem out of place, too: houses look too modern for the setting, and much is made of a footfall and a twig snapping to give away the presence of an outsider. A few moments later two horses are led away without any worries about the much louder sounds that they might make.

One must commend Eska on his willingness to struggle with the idea of the Social Contract and how it applies to this time and these people. The performances are excellent, as well -- every last one of them. But finally, the film seems too simple, given the gravity of the situation at hand.

The Retrieval, after making its theatrical debut in Atlanta two weeks ago, will open this Wednesday, April 2, in New York City at Film Forum, after which it will play Houston, Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities, and theaters.

Note: filmmaker Chris Eska with actors Tishaun Scott, 
Keston John & Christine Horn (who gives 
an excellent performance as Nate's woman) will appear on Wednesday, 
April 2, at the 7:45 show, on Friday, April 4, at the 7:45 show, 
and on Saturday, April 5, at the 3:15 show.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

First film from a new distributor, RAM Releasing: Nate Taylor's creepy/sad FORGETTING THE GIRL

If any of you out there have wondered, sometimes, at least, why a company like Film Movement -- that possesses one of the higher art/mainstream taste levels among our current lot of distributors -- doesn't occasionally get a little more down-'n-dirty and give us a kinky or grueling genre piece, you can now say hello to RAM RELEASING, which is a subsidiary or maybe just a division of Film Movement that will be releasing some of those genre films. The first (that TrustMovies has seen, anyway), directed by Nate Taylor (shown below) from a screenplay by Peter Moore Smith, comes upon us this Tuesday, April 1, on DVD and Blu-ray, and is called FORGETTING THE GIRL.

If Music Box Films can spawn Doppelganger, Miramax birth Dimension, and IFC create a Midnight division, why not Film Movement? And if the previews for two upcoming RAM releases on this new DVD -- APP and Hide and Seek -- look more interesting than the movie at hand, so be it. Forgetting the Girl certainly starts well enough, with our "hero," photographer Kevin Wolfe (played by an alternately cute 'n creepy Christopher Denham, below) recording himself on camera and telling us that, if we're watching this, then things are not so good. Then we begin to learn about some of the girls that Kevin needs rather desperately to forget.

The first of these is a blond looker named Adrienne (nicely played by Anna Camp, below), who actually asks Kevin for a date, rather than what usually happens: He asks the girl and the girl says no.

Another very pretty, though rather quiet and shy young woman named Beth (Elizabeth Rice) enters Kevin's life, and soon one of the girls has disappeared. What has happened?

Suspicion falls on everyone from our nutty shutterbug to his landlord (Paul Sparks), a fellow who goes in for crude porn photos (which we hear about but do not see), and even on his erstwhile office manager, a young woman named Jamie (Lindsay Beamish, above) who clearly has a yen for her boss.

The boss, as we know from nearly the first scene, is greatly troubled by a childhood incident involving his younger sister. This is related verbally, as well as shown us in bits and pieces, over and over again. When at last -- in one shocking, sudden moment -- what's going on becomes clear, this is both a relief and a bit of cheat.

Most viewers, I think, will have cottoned on to what has happened in the past, and will not much care about the would-be hero of our film, which slowly goes from interesting and off-kilter to tiresome and obvious. There is a real sadness here, however, and a shockingly high level of wasted lives to account for. If only all this were not simply the fodder for some heavy-duty blood & gore. Well, movie-makers must bow to what their genre audience wants, I guess....

In any case, the movie will make young, would-be actress/models think twice before agreeing to get those head shots they've been putting off for who knows how long. Forgetting the Girl hits the street on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, April 1. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the next pair of releases from RAM....

Saturday, March 29, 2014

THE RETURNED: Learn why these zombies are worth more than all the others put together....

All the others, that is, except for the returned dead in Robin Campillo's ground-breaking 2004 film, Les revenants (called They Came Back in its international English title), and now returning again, under the same French name, Les Revenants, in the often stunning, if eventually flawed French TV series, THE RETURNED, which first appeared on our Sundance Channel and is now available, commercial-free, via Netflix streaming.

Though I can never thank George A. Romero enough for his earlier and equally ground-breaking zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, I must also admit that Romero's film has spawned far, far too many second-, third- and fourth-rate imitations. M. Campillo's zombie film, however, and the series inspired by it (the movie-makers thank Campillo with an upfront credit in each episode), are something else.

Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, theses zombies don't find it necessary to feast on the flesh of the living. Which -- unless you are a mostly mindless cretin -- is only exciting/fun/funny/appalling the first few times around. No, these "returned" just want to somehow fit back into life as they knew it and as it is still going on. In Campillo's original film, which is much more politically (economically, socially, historically) savvy than the new TV series, the returned dead want their jobs back for starters. Can you imagine what this might to do an already shaky economy?

Note to young zombie fans, particularly those who claim Campillo's movie was not a zombie film: the word zombie means an animated corpse or "walking dead." There is nothing in the original definition that mentions flesh-eating ghoul. Know your film history, kids, for Christ sake: There were/are famous and popular zombie movies that date prior to Romero's gift to the genre (I Walked With a Zombie, is one such). These were much quieter films, with none of the blood and gore our George bestowed on the species, and The Returned  -- despite one of its undead being a serial killer -- harks back to those quieter zombies.

As directed by Fabrice Gobert (at left, above, who wrote a number of the episodes) and Frédéric Mermoud (above, right, who earlier directed and co-wrote the excellent French film, Complices), the series builds on the set-up given us by Campillo. And it does a sterling job of making its zombies utterly human in their needs and appetites, never more so than in their longing for some of that tasty French food.

Some critics have made much of The Returned's "atmosphere," as though this accounted for its success. What I suspect they mean by atmosphere is rather the many striking details that the series builds on: from the butter-fly collection (above), in which one of those winged creatures suddenly reanimates, to the special knock that one sister uses to alert the other that she is there, to the fact that the code to enter a particular building has changed in the time since the "corpse" last used it as a living person.

All this is beautifully imagined with gravity and grace, and it goes a long way toward sucking us into the story of a quiet French mountain town (built beside a damn and a lake that now covers an older village), in which the dead slowly begin to return. The series sports an impeccable sense of place: the cold, crisp air of this ever-so-slightly strange Alpine village.

The cast is first-rate, as well -- from well-known actors such as Anne Consigny, Frédéric Pierrot, Clothilde Hesme (two photos above), Pierre Perrier and Samir Guesmi to some newer faces like Jenna Thiam (above) and Yara Pilartz (of 17 Girls). The first season is made up of eight episodes lasting around seven hours total, which makes it about four times longer than Campillo's original film. (A second season has now been ordered.)

While this gives us much more time to engage in the plot, as well as the whys and hows of the returning, instead of dealing with the whole picture -- economics, psychology, history, sociology -- the series tends to stick to love stories, of the living for the dead, whether it be boyfriend, daughter, wife or whoever.

This focus on love and loss to the exception of all else lessens the series somewhat, making it finally a more standard thing. (The ending, in fact, rests upon one of the most clichéd notions of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.) It does however, and to its credit, deal with religion as a force for faith -- and control.

As ever, the set-up is much more fascinating that the somewhat meager explanation we get for what has happened and why. But there will be more set-up -- along with more explanation -- to come next season, no doubt.

Meanwhile, enjoy the quiet, the atmosphere, and above all those telling details in this gorgeously appointed series -- another gift from Music Box Films -- that you can stream now on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and perhaps elsewhere, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Streaming tip: Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich's important doc, INEQUALITY FOR ALL

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor (for the Clinton administration) Robert Reich is a man on a mission: to raise the consciousness of the American people as to the ever-widening and grossly unhealthy economic gap between the uber-rich and everyone else. Anyone who follows the news these days can hardly be unaware of all the talk about this gap. Yet what is actually consists of, how it happened and why it is so damned important seems to elude far too many of our populace, including many voters, who might -- if they understood things properly -- "throw the bums out."

With the help of filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth (shown at left), Mr. Reich, whose generally fine and important writing and ideas appear regularly as part of the Reader Supported News service, has now given us a very good documentary, INEQUALITY FOR ALL, which first appeared last year at various film festivals and also had a limited theatrical release via TWC/Radius last fall. Because the film is now available via Netflix streaming, there's no reason to miss it -- even if you think you already know everything the movie is going to say.

You may indeed know much of what you'll hear, but I think you'll find the presentation bracing enough to keep you interested, angry and eager to do something about this increasing and unhealthy inequality.

Mr Reich -- a short little man (see his photo with his director, at right) who is happy to explain what his small stature is called in medical circles -- is also a teacher and has been for years. From what we see and hear here, he's a very good one and a popular one, too.

The movie is made up of some of his in-class teaching, interviews with various Americans, charts (below), animation, statistics and archival materials (further below) -- all wrapped around the idea of what the increasing inequality is doing to the middle class and the poor.

America was not always like this, and Reich takes us back to the relatively golden, post WWII years up into the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan and the Republicans put a stop to middle class gains, unions and other things that helped make America a working democracy. Stagnant wages for the employed are every bit as important as obscene earnings, and Reich shows how all this came about, too.

The movie is important and although it's now two years old, it's unfortunately all too current, still. So, take a look, get on board and see what you can do about bringing things back to some kind of fairness, when owners made -- sure -- ten, even twenty, times what their employees earned. But not one hundred times -- or more.

Inequality for All, running 89 minutes, is available now via Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video, or on DVD.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Streaming those "Beat" boys again: In BIG SUR Michael Polish takes a different tack to Kerouac

What with Howl, On the Road, Kill Your Darlings and just recently the James Broughton doc Big Joy under our belts, some of us may have had enough of the so-called "beat generation." But it would a shame to miss BIG SUR, the under-seen and quickly disappeared movie by Michael Polish about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and a fellow new to me named Lew Welch that, in a certain fashion, proves the best of the lot. That fashion is not a popular one, however,  so watch this film with the understanding that it is basically a story of words and what writing does to and for Mr. Kerouac.The words are the important thing here -- more so than story, drama, conflict, and most anything else one usually finds in our favorite movies.

With this film Mr. Polish continues his 15-year career of making little-seen but occasionally commented-on small, independent films -- Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, Northfork, The Astronaut Farmer, among others -- that go their own (and his own) way, audiences be damned or entertained, as the case may be. Here, it seems that Polish wanted to place the words first and foremost and have all else -- especially visuals and performances -- follow from those words. The effect is alternately bracing and a little crazy-making because what's missing here is drama and conflict, though all else is in place.

Actually, the conflict is here, too, but it is all internalized within the character of Kerouac (very well played, by the way, by German-born international star Jean-Marc Barr, who has worked mostly in France, where he has acted, written, directed, produced, photographed and even edited films). While this internalization pretty much saps Big Sur of conventional "drama," it lets Kerouac's words take pride of place as few other movies have allowed.

Kerouac becomes a kind of narrator here, telling us his own story, and it turns out he's scared to death -- of death. His words become a kind of wall of blather against this fear. (And what words can't manage, liquor does the rest.)  It's all most impressive, moving and ridiculous, rather, I suspect, like the man himself.

Kerouac was sexy and sexual, impressive, intelligent, kind, caring and crazy, and so the other characters act as satellites circling him. Even, Cassady (as played by the always fine Josh Lucas, above, right), usually seen as Kerouac's sun, here takes a back seat to our boy. But by now, Neal's bloom may be beginning to fade a bit. Anthony Edwards is aces as Ferlinghetti, and as Welch, the more versatile than you'd imagine Patrick Fischler surprises -- and then some.

Balthazar Getty, Henry Thomas and John Robinson makes up the rest of the gang, with the women's roles entrusted to Kate Bosworth (above), Radha Mitchell (two photos above, with Lucas) and Stana Katic. Everyone is on their mark, but it M. Barr who nails the movie.

The look of the film is quite fine, too: cars, clothes, hairstyles -- everything brings back the 1950s, whether you liked 'em or not, and the location cinematography is utterly beautiful in high definition. Given the gorgeous Big Sur scenery, this should be a shoo-in, of course.

The movie is also homo-erotic aplenty, without being homosexual. Both Jack and Neal want each other's women, and in the case of Billie (Ms Bosworth), this is arranged.  I would not have missed this film, and I suspect others my age will find themselves held in rapt attention. So we owe Mr. Polish a debt of gratitude for concentrating on Kerouac's words.

Big Sur is available now via Netflix streaming, and on DVD. It is also for sale (though not, it seems, for rental) via Amazon Instant Video.

Dennis Iliadis' +1: a wild and crazy sci-fi/doppelganger/teen-party mash-up

Sometimes a movie's premise can be good enough to lift and carry the film over hurdles that would trip most filmmakers flat. So it is with +1, an odd little flick in which something extraterrestrial comes to earth and begins replicating, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, everyone in sight. There's a difference here, however: Those replicants don't seem to even realize they're not the originals: They act and think and feel just like 'us. Still, they aren't us. So what' a poor "original" to do?

With direction and story by Dennis Iliadis (shown at left) and a screenplay from Bill Gullo, the movie combines the likes of Project X, Can't Hardly Wait, and any number of Invasion/Body Snatcher rip-offs, yet the overall effect is one of surprising charm and odd delight, as +1 goes from rom-com to sci-fi to something creepy and creepier -- then back again.

This genre-jumping keeps us off-kilter yet on-our-toes and is a very smart move on the filmmaker's part. There is always so much going on -- from party hi-jinks to doppel-ganger take-over to rom-com heartache -- that by the time we've stopped to catch a breath, the movie's moved on and we're panting to keep up.

TrustMovies has seen a few of these cast member previously, most noticeably Aussie actor Rhys Wakefield (above) from The Black Balloon and The Purge, but most of them do a fine job of pulling us in and keeping us glued. Often in these sci-fi romps, the set-up is a lot more fun than the pay-off, but here both set-up and pay-off work well enough to pass muster, even if the latter, as usual, is not quite up to the level of the former.

But what with all the partying and silliness and suspense (there's a time lag between the actions of the originals and the replicants that seems to be growing closer; once simultaneity occurs, what happens next?), the movie keep us riveted and alternately laughing and shocked.

I don't mean to over-praise this little toss-away, but in a very crowded field, originality is not something to be sneezed at or taken lightly. After his better-than-expected (but still unnecessary) re-do of The Last House on the Left, Mr. Iliadis has moved on to something a lot more unusual and enjoyable. Let's see what he gets up to next....

Meanwhile, you can stream +1 -- from IFC Films and running maybe a tad overlong at 97 minutes -- on Netflix, or watch it on DVD.