Monday, June 30, 2014

Now on VOD, soon on DVD: Italian supernatural thriller, NEVERLAKE, from Riccardo Paoletti

An odd duck in many ways, NEVERLAKE is an Italian movie filmed in English with what looks like a somewhat international cast of actors. It can best be described as a kind of supernatural thriller that is also part of the horror/slasher genre -- except that none of the slashing occurs on-screen. And yet, at its core, the movie is very dark indeed (in theme, really one of the darkest I've seen) except that its darkness is couched in quiet dread and the beauty of the Tuscan landscape and architecture.

Written by Manuela Cacciamani and Carlo Longo and directed by Riccardo Paoletti, shown at left (according to the IMDB, this is the first try for all three, though Ms Cacciamani has had over a decade's background as crew member, on production, in special effects and even as producer on various projects), the movie is clearly a fledgling effort and yet it is good enough in many ways to keep genre fans watching. By film's end, though there have been a number of slow points along the way, the tale itself is so full of the darkest kind of horror that it will stick with you, post end-credit roll.

Why? Because what Neverlake is actually about is a theme few filmmakers go near, and when they do , they're more likely to gussy it up with lots of blood and gore. What is actually going on here and who is in charge of it is the mystery of the movie, and once we learn the answer, very close to the film's end, what has happened is supremely troubling.

The story is that of a young and pretty high school girl named Jenny, from America (played by British actress Daisy Keeping, above and below), whose Brit parents first met and then conceived her in Italy. Now she returns to her birthplace to spend some time with her father (a stoic -- or maybe he's playing hard-to-read -- David Brandon, below, right) from whom, for whatever reason we never learn, she has been somehow estranged.

From the first Dad behaves in ways that do not scream "good parent," and poor Jenny is left to her own devices for entertainment and companionship. While Dad goes to town to conduct some nefarious stuff with an antiques dealer (a red herring that goes nowhere), Jenny hooks up with some odd kids from a nearby -- orphanage? hospital? whatever -- the oldest and hunkiest of whom is played by Martin Kashirokov (below, and at bottom).

None of this make much sense in any strict, by-the-book mystery sense, but the cinematography and acting is good enough, and the location pretty and exotic enough to keep you watching. There's a lake nearby said to have magical powers that date from the Etruscan age, and some missing Etruscan artifacts also come into play.

Once you try to piece this all together after the fact, nothing much sticks in any logical way, yet the movie manages to build a surprising head of steam (and dread), as Jenny gets further involved with those kids, her dad and his "assistant," Olga (a good job by Joy Tanner, above), her favorite poets (below), and finally those "spirits of the lake."

While the supernatural element eventually raises its head(s) to fair effect, it's the parent/child relationship (or lack of it) that matters most. That's what's likely to stay with you longest. Yikes -- to think of what we humans can sometimes be capable!

Neverlake -- from the relatively new distributor, Uncork'd Entertainment, and running 86 minutes -- is available now via VOD and will hit the street on DVD come Tuesday, July 29.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Blu-ray/DVDebut: THE UNKNOWN KNOWN--Errol Morris tackles smiling cretin, Donald Rumsfeld

On the basis of his work history, his thousands of memos and now this "interview" film, Donald Rumsfeld would appear to be a man given over completely to verbiage and wordplay with barely a thought to spare for any content involved. That he and the entire George W. Bush regime remain still not prosecuted as war criminals is the shame of the western world (but, hell, there's so much shame on so many subjects, what's a little extra now and then?). Folk did not flock to theaters when THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, the new documentary from one of the leading lights in the field, Errol Morris (shown below), arrived earlier this year, and that should be no surprise.

A majority of America-the-beautiful has generally refused to admit or even seem to care that its leaders lied and led us into a useless war that is even now -- check out today's headlines, people -- coming back to bite us in the ass and decimate even more of the Iraqi populace. (Crap dictator Saddam Hussein must be laughing in his grave.) If you've ever asked yourself, who were these men (and one sleazy woman) who led us into our worst misadventure to date, helping to destabilize the entire mid-eastern realm, a partial answer is now yours for the watching, as Mr. Morris lets Mr. Rumsfeld ramble on, finally showing himself up for the pompous, self-satisfied, two-faced twat that he is. Oh, the man has some intelligence, all right. But how he has put it to use! Here, he almost always seems to be bearing that shit-eating grin, shown on poster, top, and below. Golly: This man is just so pleased with himself.

Rumsfeld manages to contradict himself enough times during this documentary that you'd think he'd be ashamed. But no: He goes right on smiling and blathering. Our favorite moment comes when he assures us of one fact about the U.S. government: "We don't assassinate." What about Dora Farms, asks Morris? And Rummy then explains this obvious assassination attempt as though it somehow wasn't one.

What I did not expect that the documentary offers is quite a bit of interesting history regarding Rumsfeld's time in the Nixon and Ford administrations (hearing what Nixon and his men have to say about our Donald brings up the old saw about honor among thieves). And even back then, our guy had that super pro-military stance that demanded more, more more! Eisenhower would have puked.

Morris has assembled a lot of footage that spans the 1970s until post-9/11, and through it all, Rumsfeld rarely denies anything (except assassinations) but he "talks around" just about everything. At one point, he even gloats to Morris, "That's a little bit different cast I've just put on that. Chalk one up for me!" And when we watch him in action during those Iraq War press conferences, you'll wonder how the man avoided getting numerous "fat lips" from the press corp, so blatantly self-satisfied and self-serving was he at nearly every appearance.

Some of his golden moments are included here. Re the famously missing Weapons of Mass Destruction: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." And he tells us of his sending his President a letter of resignation (twice), which was not accepted. Perhaps the most truthful thing to come out of his mouth follows closely behind:  Had the resignation been accepted, "It would have been better for everyone involved." (But you just know he doesn't believe this for one minute.)

We learn, though not from Donald, how our torture techniques migrated from Guantanamo to Iraq. Initially he contradicts this finding, but then agrees with it. While most of Morris' questions are quietly on the mark, a couple of them we could have done without: "Do you control history, or does history control you?" he asks at one point.

Finally, it is only words that seem important to Mr. Rumsfeld. (Hence those many memos he kept sending.) Actions, it seems, count for little to nothing and can be made into something they are not by the proper use of verbiage  The final question -- and its answer -- will just add to your already simmering suspicions.

The Unknown Known -- distributed theatrically via Radius/TWC and on video via Anchor Bay Entertainment and running 103 minutes -- arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, July 1, for purchase or rental via the usual suspects.

Streaming tip: John Huddles' AFTER THE DARK beguilingly joins philosophy and filmmaking

The original name for John Huddles' unusual new film, AFTER THE DARK, was The Philosophers -- a much better title but one that was evidently found wanting in the marketing department, perhaps by the distributor, Phase 4 Films. Consequently, an original movie found itself  burdened with a practically say-nothing title and released in very limited fashion to little box-office or much notice. (Even so, the movie managed to garner a very healthy, 77% positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Writer/director Huddles, shown at left, has come up with something pretty rare in cinema -- using philosophy and a philosophy class at an international school in Indonesia to demon-strate how to choose the best group of people to survive a worldwide nuclear blast and, after, to replenish the earth. (Given the film's Indonesian setting, I do hope that the subjects of The Act of Killing get the opportunity to see this film -- not that they possess nearly enough self-understanding to comprehend or appreciate it.)

The philosophy teacher here, nicely played by James D'Arcy (in foreground, above, wearing the light blue shirt), clearly has his classroom favorites (an A+ student named Petra, played by Sophie Lowe, below, left, and lately of Adore) and his dislikes (James, played by Rhys Wakefield, below, right, and recently seen in +1), and these come prominently to the fore as the movie continues. The problem our teacher gives his class is just a kind of game. Even though we see it acted out by the students -- and not once but thrice -- whatever horrible things happen we already understand are not real and so we can enjoy them without having to suffer the results.

Each time, the scenario begins the same but the outcome differs, and the students learn more about life, gamesmanship and making hard decisions. We, in turn, learn more about the students, as we watch their characters grow and change.

The movie's take on philosophy calls into question some of its more lurid pronouncements, offering up a scenario that places value on socialization and communication, as much as on power and strength. Movies often give us quick shots of Nietzsche, Sartre, and (god help us) Ayn Rand (sort of a philosophy-for-dummies kind of thing), but it's rare and invigorating to find a film that embraces the discipline as strongly as this one. Even if you disagree with how things plays out or how these budding "philosophers" think and react, at least they do think (we're already one up on most teen movies). And so will you.

In the large cast of attractive and talented actors, you may notice the likes of Daryl Sabara (above, front row, center right: remember Spy Kids?) and Katie Findlay (front row, far right, of the The Killing). So good are so many of these young actors that my spouse and I could have sat through a movie twice as long (this one lasts 107 minutes) just to spend more time with them and learn more about them.

The movie's ending takes a leaf from our professor's playbook, as we learn a bit more about him -- and it proves to be quite wonderful and appropriate in its own right.

After the Dark can be streamed now via Netflix and elsewhere, and can also be seen on DVD and Blu-ray (the cinematography of Indonesia is quite beautiful).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Netflix streaming tip: Frank van Mechelen's slam-bang political thriller via Belgium, SALAMANDER

I can't imagine that I'm the first to draw a parallel here, but if any of you recall the Belgian political crisis of 2010 through 2011 -- during which that little European country found itself with no actual governing body in place at all -- then I should think you'll be doubly interested in watching the succulent and tension-filled television series, SALAMANDER, from Belgium, which first aired in 2012. No, this series does not mirror the country's travails prior to finally forming a government that functioned again. What it does do, coming so close on the heels of a period that must have left many Belgians wondering just how -- and if -- their government really worked or even mattered, is to posit a theory of a small western nation in thrall and in hock to a coterie of wealthy and powerful men and women who effectively control the entire country -- and who will, of course, do whatever it takes to retain that control.

As directed by Frank van Mechelen (shown at right, who helmed all 12 episodes) and written by Bavo Dhooge and Ward Hulselmans, the series begins with a very well executed (and filmed) bank robbery in which the thieves open only certain safe deposit boxes and then take only -- and oddly -- jewelry and other "fence"-able items, along with all the personal papers stored within, but not any of the more valuable items so obviously available to them. How this robbery leads to an increasing and possibly near-complete breakdown in governmental function is the story that Salamander tells in a riveting and often surprising manner.

The ripples (well, more like waves) from this robbery begin expanding outwards almost immediately, as a police informant spills the beans of what he knows about the robbery to the inspector who becomes the hero of the series, a fellow named Paul Gerardi, an overworked family man with a rather old-fashioned sense of justice and morality. The actor who plays Gerardi, Filip Peeters (above), is a striking fellow with a full head of white hair and beard and a handsome, craggy face that, while mostly stoic, still manages to express volumes.

The series involves Gerardi almost immediately, while seeing to it that he is cut off time and again by everyone from the big bad boys (and girls) to his own police department and so must finally go rogue to learn what's going on, why, and by whom. To this end we grow closer to him and his family (that's his wife, Sarah, below, played by An Miller), as well as to his immediate boss, his ex-partner, some denizens of the local monastery, not to mention the creeps at the top of the heap (that's the head of the bank, shown above, played by Mike Verdrengh).

What makes the series so propulsive and watchable (it's the closest I've yet come to a complete binge) is the way the writers and director have woven this all together and how carefully and wisely they've dispensed just enough information to keep us and their hero stretching toward the truth of things.

The other ace-in-the-hole are the very fine characterizations of almost everybody we meet. Most are neither black nor white but fall firmly into that very human realm of folk trying to maintain their decency, and often losing it, in the face of power, money and the threat to their or their loved one's life. These would include the wife of one of the politicians marked for blackmail (Ann Ceurvels, above) and a fellow named Vic (played by Koen van Impe, below), one of the government's high-level underlings who seemingly goes from bad to good, while simply doing his job (though perhaps with a bit too much relish).

Whom we root for -- other than Gerardi, of course -- keeps changing, due to the level of bad behavior on view, and this is yet another key to the great success of Salamander. Some people do the right thing for the wrong reason, others the wrong for right, and so our understanding of human nature, while sometimes confounded, keeps growing. (That's Koen De Bouw, below, as the bank robber-in-chief.)

The series could occasionally move a bit faster, but because of the plot and its propulsive hold on us, this won't matter much in the end. There are evidently more seasons to come of the show, but this first one does indeed give us some closure. You won't go away feeling at all empty-handed.

Salamander -- in twelve 45-minute episodes (plan to spend nine hours total) and in Flemish with English subtitles -- can be screened via Netflix streaming, and probably elsewhere, too. It is, in the vernacular, a humdinger.

Friday, June 27, 2014

New from MHz Networks: the original Danish/ Swedish television collaboration, THE BRIDGE

Don't worry if a television program titled THE BRIDGE (Bron/Broen) sounds somehow familiar, but if its countries of origin -- Sweden and Denmark -- don't immediately come to mind, you're probably thinking of the remade American version that aired last year starring Diane Kruger and Demian Bechir, another season of which is about to begin. TrustMovies didn't watch the American go-round (wanting to wait for the chance to see it commercial-free), though his spouse did and highly recommended it. Then the opportunity came to watch the original Scandinavian series on DVD via the four disc package recently presented by the popular purveyor of quality foreign television, MHz Networks.

Operating on the assumption that an original might be better than a remake (we won't even go into comparisons of American television vis a vis European, as in Borgen vs The West Wing), I took a chance on The Bridge, and I am awfully glad that I did. This is a superior police procedural/mystery/family drama that grabs you from its first hour-long episode and holds you through to the finale (there are ten episodes in all). And it is an actual finale, by the way: none of this pretend-to-end business, as in the American remake of The Killing.

My partner, in fact, sat down to watch some of the first episode with me, and then checked in periodically for a few minutes during several others. "The American version seems to have followed this one almost completely," he noted, but admitted after a time that the original was better done than its follow-up. That may be due to location. The story begins with the body of a murdered woman, above, found exactly in the middle of a bridge separating Sweden and Denmark. One half of her body lies in Sweden, the other in Denmark. In the American version, the locale is the U.S. and Mexico -- two countries hugely different from each other, while Scandinavia is fairly similar culturally from country to country.

Although directed and written by a number of different people, the series stays steadfast and true to itself for the entire season. So carefully conceived and acted are all the characters that it is difficult to determine much variation in style throughout. Finding the murderer of the woman on the bridge -- and other murders to come -- is paramount here, but within that search a number of sub-plots surface, some directly connected to our main one, others seemingly not so much. All are fascinating and executed very well.

The two lead characters -- one cop from Sweden (Sofia Helen, above, left), the other from Denmark (Kim Bodnia, above, right) -- are beautifully played and keep the series rolling forward. She has something akin to Asperger syndrome, though the medical name is never stated. How he comes to understand and appreciate her (she's terrifically good at her job) is part of the joy of the series. The two leads are not nearly so conventionally attractive as are Kruger and Bichir in the American version, and this helps keep things more believable. Their acting is very strong, however (particularly Ms Helen), as is that of every last character on view.

By the time this first series wraps up, we've been thrust into lives that have been turned upside down, sometimes for good. This is a very dark show, but with numerous flecks of humor scattered throughout. (How our leading lady goes about trolling for sex is one of the highlights -- as believable as it is initially surprising.)

As in life, we cannot count on much of anything, and while coincidence does play a part here, it is never foremost in the scheme of things (a la Downton Abbey). Instead, character and past performance create the present experience, and it is not, for the most part, a pretty one.

The Bridge can be purchased now via MHz Networks and elsewhere. Click here to order.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In NYC this July, FIAF celebrates that fine French actor, Vincent Lindon, with a mini-retrospective

He's the French "everyman," or one of 'em, anyway. Over the years I've used this phrase to describe a few different actors, but it fits, I think, Vincent Lindon best of all. Middle-aged and usually playing middle-class or working-class, this talented fellow with a mug you don't forget has often been compared to the likes of Jean Gabin (my choice for comparison) or Lino Ventura of a generation past. When I interviewed M. Lindon back in May of 2010, I found him to be the most interesting, talkative and genuine actor with whom I've ever spoken. He was a delight to spend time with. That interview can be found here and here -- separated to coincide with the opening of two of his films that year: Welcome and Mademoiselle Chabon, both of which are part of FIAF's CinéSalon mini-retrospective on the actor, A Salute to Vincent Lindon, which begins this coming Tuesday, July 1.

The actor has now worked with a bevy of directors including Claude Chabrol, Benoît Jacquot, Diane Kurys and Claire Denis, yet some of his finest performances (I have yet to see him give anything but a very good one) has come via directors less known over here, such as Stéphane Brizé, two of whose films are included in this month's series. Another thing: though I've seen almost 30 of Lindon's 66 film appearances, I've haven't found an out-and-out lemon in the bunch. Some are better than others, of course, but I think this fellow has a knack for knowing in which projects he should appear and with which directors he wants to work. I suspect that he also possesses that brand of intelligence that understands how to read and choose a script.

Audiences here in NYC will have the opportunity to see what I mean, as seven of Lindon's movies come to FIAF's Florence Gould Hall this July:

Augustine, directed by Alice Winocour, Tuesday, July 1, at 4 & 7:30pm.

TrustMovies covered this unusual tale -- of a famous French patient and the doctor who "serves" her -- when the film opened theatrically; you can find my review here. For FIAF's info on the film, click on the title, above.

Mademoiselle Chambon, directed by Stéphane Brizé,
Tuesday, July 8 at 4pm.

This is one of my favorite of Lindon's performances, and also one of the finest adult love stories/character studies I can recall. My original take on the film, along with an interview with M. Lindon, can be found here; for FIAF's description, click on the title, above.

Pater, directed by Alain Cavalier, Tuesday, July 8 at 7:30pm

When I saw this clever, comical/satirical take on French politics and filmmaking (among, I think, other subjects, too: ego, fashion sense and food), I missed the first few minutes and so I am going to try to view this one again. My original take is here; for FIAF's, click on the title, above.

New York Premiere!
Anything for Her, directed by Fred Cavayé, Tuesday, July 15 at 4 & 7:30pm.

It is little wonder that we never got to see the original version of this film at the time of its release. It took Britain by storm, but probably because of the overwrought and bloated American remake, The Next Three Days, that Paul Haggis adapted and directed, and which did not succeed theatrically, Cavayé's version was never shown here. Now we know why. So much leaner and more propulsive (96 minutes against Haggis' attenuated 133), Anything for Her (Pour elle), tells us only what we need to know and grabs us for keeps from the first frame onwards. Lindon (who is much better and far less showy than was Russell Crowe in the remake) is the perfect "every-husband" who must find resources inside himself that he had no hint of before events force him into this, while Diane Kruger does a fine job as his unjustly accused and imprisoned wife who lapses into depression. Cavayé's original is so good, in fact, that it practically wipes away any memory of that other dog, so even if you have already seen The Next Three Days, give this one a shot. FIAF's two showings may be the only chance you'll get.

Welcome, directed by Philippe Lioret, Tuesday, July 22 at 4pm.

This beautifully composed and comprised film about immigration and the possibility of change features fine performances and the kind of reality that often slides out of movies that tackle the immigrant experience vis-a-vis those who already live in this "foreign" land. You can read my review of the film (along with an interview with M. Lindon) here; FIAF's description can be found by clicking the title link, above.

Friday Night, directed by Claire Denis, Tuesday, July 22 at 7:30pm.

It's been at least a decade since I've seen Denis' movie (prior to my blogging), and I still think of it as one of her most mainstream and accessible (for the other end of her work, try The Intruder). This tale of a woman, about to make a fateful life decision, who literally and metaphorically opens the door to something new, was also something new for Denis. Lindon is formidable, as ever, and the movie is fun, hot, thoughtful, surprising and, in many ways, so un-Denis that if you haven't seen it, you probably should. For the FIAF description, click on the title link, above.

New York Premiere!
A Few Hours of Spring, directed by Stéphane Brizé, Tuesday, July 29 at 4 & 7:30pm. 

In my interview with M. Lindon, the actor told me that he preferred roles in which he didn't have to talk too much. Well, he's found another one in this second film in FIAF's series directed by Stéphane Brizé.  In it, Lindon plays a man just released from prison, who returns to the home of his mother (Hélène Vincent, on poster, right, and at bottom). Neither have had much to say to each other over the years (she didn't visit him prison), and when they talk now, it's likely to lead to an argument. The same goes for the woman he meets in the local bowling alley (Emmanuelle Seigner, below), and even to some extent with his old friend and neighbor (Olivier Perrier): little talk with the latter, but at least there's no argument.

The theme of the film is the end of life for the terminally ill, and what happens when you choose to end your life, rather than simply allowing it to end you. While the lack of much dialog is believable enough, this does not make for an easy entry into character. The actors are all first-rate, but Brizé keeps us at more of a distance than he needs to, I think -- which was not at all the case with his Mlle. Chambon (see above). How the tale plays out is undeniably moving and also important for us to observe and consider, seeing as how so many of us will be faced with exactly this time to come.

It's a shame that A Few Hours of Spring was never given U.S. distribution. ("Too downbeat!" someone must have said/) So FIAF's screenings are doubly appreciated. Try to catch it while you have the opportunity. Perhaps Netflix could make arrangements to stream it in the near future.


About CinéSalon: In the spirit of French ciné-clubs and literary salons, FIAF’s new CinéSalon pairs an engaging film with a post-screening wine reception. Films are shown Tuesdays at 4 and 7:30pm, and every screening is followed by a get-together with a complimentary glass of wine. Each 7:30 screening will be thoughtfully introduced by a high-profile personality in the arts.

All films will be shown at FIAF's Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan. For tickets and other information, click here and start browsing...