Sunday, November 30, 2014

Erik Skjoldbjærg's PIONEER proves a would-be paranoid thriller that ends up dead in the water

The unreliable narrator has a deserved place in the history of cinema. But when everything he's surrounded by -- story, script, direction, performance -- seems equally unreliable, the viewer is in trouble. So it is with PIONEER, the new film from Erik Skjoldbjærg, the Norwegian director who earlier gave us Insomnia (the original) and Prozac Nation, two other films with unreliable narrators. In Pioneer, however, the subject is the 1980s Norwegian oil boom due to the discovery of the dark and greasy substance under the North Sea, America's rather odd and little-known involvement in this, and maybe murder-made-to-look-accidental in order to sway control over the project from a small Scandinavian country to that of a rather large super-power.

Director Skjoldbjærg -- shown here, who also co-wrote the film, along with a quartet of other screenwriters -- offers up a tale rife with weirdness right off the bat, as we see a pair of deep-sea-diving brothers, assured but competitive, jockey for position in both life and work. The latter involves diving for the joint American/ Norwegian project team, led by Stephen Lang, in which a surly American diver (Wes Bentley, below, left) makes his presence felt, along with one of those brothers (André Eriksen, below, right).

Bad things happen almost immediately, and a cover-up appears to have begun. At least that is the opinion of the other brother, the actual star of the film, Aksel Hennie (below), the Norwegian actor who was so good in the lead role in Headhunters, and has pretty much made a career out of playing jumpy, bizarre, sometimes violence-prone characters (from his early Uno to the recent Hercules, in which he played, and very well, the crazy "hero" Tydeus.

Mr. Hennie begins the movie a little "off" and continues growing even farther afield until everyone and everything around him seems ready to pounce. This makes for some thrills and oddities but mostly it guarantees confusion and finally out-and-out silliness.

Really,  who among intelligent, thoughtful folk would not by now imagine American the Beautiful capable of some of the worst atrocities and hypocrisy currently going? So it is no big step to suppose us as the villains here. Mr. Lang (above) can be impressively nasty, as can Mr. Bentley, whom the screenwriters have seen fit not to give a shred of real character besides his nastiness. Why waste an actor like this in such a dismal role?

So we get chases, and break-ins, and murder, and betrayal, and near-death, and much else. To no avail. The plotting jerks from arbitrary to nonsensical and back again. If the villains here really wanted to succeed, our would-be hero wouldn't stand a prayer. Instead, they miss their opportunities (or for some dumb reason refuse to take them to their logical conclusion) time after time after time.

Eventually, you'll shrug your shoulders, crunch down in your seat to nod off or maybe visit the refreshment stand for something to keep you awake. There are rumors afoot that an American remake of this film is planned. Unless it turns out one hell of a lot better than this one, you've got to ask, why? (That's Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman, below, playing one of the several characterless women who also dot the movie.)

From Magnolia Pictures, in English and Norwegian with English subtitles, and running a long 111 minutes, Pioneer opens this coming Friday, in New York City at the Cinema Village, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and then in Florida, San Francisco and San Diego in the weeks to come. (You can view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here.) 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Talya Lavie's Israeli box-office hit ZERO MOTIVATION opens at New York's Film Forum

You don't have to be Israeli to enjoy ZERO MOTIVATION, the randy, raucous, rabble-rousing comedy about the Israeli military (women's division) that opens this coming week, but being steeped in Israeli culture probably helps one to fully appreciate this film. The half-dozen or so characters we meet and spend some "quality" time with, including one especially deceptive male, have various degrees of motivation (toward quite different goals) but their bizarre appeal and utterly quirky humor is almost never in doubt.

As written and directed by filmmaker Talya Lavie (shown at left), who I am guessing based this somewhat on her own experience and that of other women she knew (doesn't almost every Israeli man and woman spend some time in the military?), the movie commands our attention almost as much for its strangeness as for its entertainment. And, trust me, there is plenty here of both. The several young women we meet who are fast friends (except when they're not) and will seem to do just about anything to get out of doing real work, represent, I guess, a cross section of Israeli womanhood.

That these young ladies are in the military would seem to underscore the fact that military service, no matter where in the world it is taking place, is a somehow crazy and pointless endeavor -- full of its special rules and regulations that became their own raison d'être and do not finally even matter much.

The main characters here include a girl named Daffi (who is indeed exactly that), played as resolutely pert and entitled by Nelly Tagar (above), and Zohar, a clunkier, big-boned girl with initially the least motivation of all, played most tellingly by Dana Ivgy (below, of Or and Broken Wings).

Also in the mix is a more recent emigree from Eastern Europe (shown below, applying lipstick rather too freely), who suddenly becomes the "protector" of one of our girls (before going totally bonkers).

And then there's the soldier in charge of this mess, Rama, played quite sadly and beautifully by Shani Klein,(below), a woman entirely motivated by and constantly working toward her upcoming promotion.

In fact, the only more motivated female here is the young woman we meet early on, who appears to be Daffi's replacement but, as it turns out, is something quite other. Motivation, it would seem, is the route to utter disaster. Never more so than when one of our girls decides to lose her virginity and picks someone remarkably wrong to help with this endeavor.

Ms Lavie has separated her story (rather arbitrarily, it seemed to me) into several sections: Daffi, The Virgin (and her paratrooper), the Commander, etc. At the very least, these are unnecessary, as her stories bounce off each other nicely and practically seem to tell themselves.

Funny, bizarre, and finally about friendship more than anything else, Zero Motivation is so culturally specific and original that there is no other country on earth, I think, that could have spawned this film.

From Zeitgeist Films, in Hebrew with English subtitles and running 100 minutes, the movie, after playing a number of festivals around the USA and elsewhere, opens this coming Wednesday in its U.S. theatrical debut at Film Forum in New York City, after which it will make its way around the country over the weeks and months to come. (It opens in L.A. on January 16 at Landmark's NuArt.) You can check all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A don't-miss sci-fi goes straight to DVD/Digital; Antonio Tublén's amazing LFO: THE MOVIE

How's this for irony: One of the best sci-fi movies in recent years -- LFO: The Movie, by Swedish filmmaker Antonio Tublén -- doesn't even get a theatrical release in its home country, let alone in America. Oh, it's played film festivals around the world (nearly two dozen of 'em) before finally making its DVD and digital debut here last month. I guess we can be grateful for that. But, still: One has to wonder at the obtuse nature of film distribution in these days when almost everything else hits theaters.

Film buffs will be grateful for what they're able to see -- in whatever format -- but what straight-to-DVD-and-digital means in this case is that a genuine "original" won't get the publicity necessary to put it on the map. Too bad, but consider this your alert -- LFO: The Movie is just too good to miss. Mr. Tublén, shown at right, has graced us with a sci-fi film that, if I am not mistaken, traffics in zero special effects. That's right. In this case, it's all about your mind. What you know, what you see, and what you hear -- and how you can piece all this together.

Don't get me wrong. LFO is not a difficult film to follow. It's rather simple, in fact. A nerdy, techie who specializes in sound (a wonderfully rich and expansive performance by Patrik Karlson, above and below) discovers how to control the minds of others via sound and begins to put this to use in his local neighborhood.  Now, I think this is done via sound waves. The science here may take some suspension of disbelief, but then that is true in almost all sci-fi movies, right? Once you accept the movie's premise, you're in for a shocking, funny, dirty, surprising and finally moving ride.

How our non-hero uses his new discovery/toy on his friends and neighbors is one thing; how the filmmaker delivers the guy's family -- wife and son -- is something else entirely, and this is handled, as is everything here, simply and spectacularly well.

Basically, the movie is a entertaining treatise on the uses of power -- first as our guy lords it over his attractive new neighbors, Lin and Simon (played nicely by Izabella Jo Tschig, above, right and Per Löfberg, above, left) and then any of the odd folk (police, insurance investigator, and another would-be scientist/competitor) who show up unwanted -- initially in ways rather minor but soon more and more widespread.

If at first this story seems small and housebound, wait. Eventually its reach will become huge, going places and dragging you along where you would never have expected, given the film's beginning and much of its continuation.

LFO also allows that a character can indeed change and grow, something one does not always get from sci-fi films these days. And if it is, to boot, a comedy, as is noted in the press materials, it's a very dark one. That, as much as anything else, is what probably scared off a theatrical release.

You can view LFO: The Movie -- from Dark Sky Films, in Swedish with English subtitles and running 94 minutes -- now on DVD digital and streaming. It is more than worth a watch.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

APACHES and TO KILL A MAN: Two from Film Movement to make their DVDebut next week

Usually TrustMovies uses Thanksgiving Day to highlight one of the year's top turkeys. But since he's already posted on Interstellar (and, really, it's not that bad), and the "promised-to-cover-them" films are piling up faster than he can manage, he'll spend today's post on a couple of interesting movies about to make their DVDebut from Film Movement: one worth seeing and the other a tad iffy. APACHES occupies the latter category, being one of those movies about really dumb teenagers at work and (mostly) play, as well as being about the island of Corsica, which would of course include everything from Colonialism to class, race, religion, gender, tourism and most of the rest of the usual check-list.

There is evidently a large influx of Muslim immigrants to Corsica, as throughout much of the rest of Europe, and while this movie covers them, it does them no favors. Though, in truth, everyone we see in this film seems pretty close to worthless: kids, adults, French, Corsicans, Italians, immigrants -- you name 'em, and you (and the world) could easily do without 'em. Apaches is one of those more and more oft-seen movies that would seem to predict the coming apocalypse via the behavior of their dumb-as-they-come characters. You watch awhile, and before long you're murmuring, "No wonder the world is coming to its end...."

The story simply follows a two-man immigrant cleaning crew at a very expensive house on the island, one of whom returns later with friends to make use of the house for fun. Some of the friends also use it for sex, drinking, vomiting and burglary -- and it's the last of those that makes for the most difficulties.

Before long we're knee-deep in fear, betrayal, murder, and perhaps the silliest bleach job in the history of motion picture hair (I told you these kids were dumb). The performances are certainly as real as you could want, the direction (by Thierry de Peretti) and writing (by de Peretti and actor Benjamin Baroche) are adequate (I do wonder why the use of the old-fashioned ratio of 1.33 : 1?). So. Is this movie believable? Absolutely. Is it worth watching or caring about? Barely.

The second film under consideration, TO KILL A MAN, is no less unsettling but a lot more interesting. It is being billed as revenge story. But it actually is not. Instead it shows us what happens when the father of the family (living apart but still clearly concerned with the well-being of his ex and his kids) comes up against a genuinely nasty, sociopath, criminal type who will not stop harassing the family. Add to this mix a police department and judicial system that, for whatever reason, refuses to provide any real help or protection. You can't watch this film without finally wondering, "What would I do under these circumstances?"

The movie, from Chile and written and directed by Alejandro Fernández Almendras,  is anything but a revenge thriller. It's not even a thriller, exactly, because it seems far too real for that. (It's based on a true story, which we don't learn until the film's conclusion, but which is quite easy to believe.) We follow our "hero," Jorge (very well played by Daniel Candia, above and below), in both thought and deed as tension builds to the breaking point and beyond.

We see enough of both the man's family and the villain and his crowd to be able to easily take sides, and I suspect that very few viewers will be able to insist on any simple-minded Thou Shalt Not Kill platitude where this story is concerned. If Jorge were a large and powerful guy, the movie could easily begin to take on some Hollywood gloss. But, no: Instead he's on the short side and running to flab. And he doesn't want to become this avenger; he's pushed into it by circumstance-- via  the actions of the sociopath and the wretched security of the state.

Filmmaker Almendras doesn't let his hero (or us) off the hook, either, as a Hollywood movie would have done. This makes his film all that much more frustrating -- and fulfilling. You can see both these movies, beginning this coming Tuesday, December 2, on DVD and streaming via their distributor Film Movement  -- for sale or rental. If history is any guide, they'll be available via Netflix and Amazon soon, as well.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Turning Turing into a more-or-less mainstream hero: Morten Tyldum's THE IMITATION GAME

Alan Turing is a name known to many of us, particularly gay men, because he was a hero of World War II, perhaps the most important of them all, due to his breaking of the famous Enigma code which was used by the Nazis and changed daily to prevent its being deciphered. Some years back there was a fine British play that eventually came to Broadway -- Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore -- that starred a wonderful Derek Jacobi as Turing and told the tale of how the man managed to do this, at the same time as he struggled to hide, while still living as a homosexual in Britain (homosexuality was a criminal offense at the time).

Now we have a close-to-equally fine film on this same subject: THE IMITATION GAME, directed by Morten Tyldum (shown at right), with a screenplay by Graham Moore from the book by Andrew Hodges, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (shown above, and below) as Turning. Mr. Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing odd roles -- Sherlock, Julian Assange, Khan in the most recent Star Trek (he even played Stephen Hawking in a TV movie a decade ago). Here, he beautifully nails Turing's strangeness (the man may have had some milder form of Autism such as Asperger Syndrome, which was never diagnosed back in that day), as well as his whip-smart intellect.

The Imitation Game is quite beautifully put together, weaving past and present into an exceedingly pleasurable experience to view and hear. It moves quickly but never jarringly, and it makes very clear the horrible injustice of having one's sexual preference criminalized. The screenplay is by turns witty and charming, smart and angry, and among its best touches are the numerous scenes of Turing as a schoolboy (well played by Alex Lawther) and its strong focus on the character of Joan Clarke, the woman who came to work with and for Turing as part of the the small group at Bletchley Park who were trying to crack the German code.

As played by the ever delightful and lovely Keira Knightley (above), Ms Clarke takes on major importance in a number of ways -- as a woman pushing to be able to work at what she does best (we're in the 1940s and 50s, remember) and as a kind of significant other for Turing. Ms Knightley comes through as she always does, with grace and grit. She and Cumberbatch work off each other quite beautifully.

The supporting cast, every last one of them, could hardly be improved upon. Especially fine are Charles Dance (above, right) as Turing's boss and bête noire; Matthew Goode (below, left) as the co-worker who initially loathes but finally admires this strange fellow; Mark Strong, (in bottom photo, center) impressive as his name, as an early MI5 member; and Allen Leech (below, right) and Matthew Beard (below, center) as other co-workers; and especially Rory Kinnear as the cop who suspects Turing of treason yet comes to regret his actions against the man.

The filmmakers and their cast have turned this tale into an oddly mainstream entertainment, and one that works almost perfectly as such. They've elided certain events and maybe people, too, for purposes of telescoping and storytelling.

While some of the language is curt and profane, there is no real sex of any kind on view, especially that regarding Turing and his same-sex preference. This will no doubt make it much easier for mainstream audiences to embrace the movie. Homosexuality is talked about but never seen nor experienced, so there is absolutely nothing here to shock or jerk a nose out of joint.

I admired the movie greatly and enjoyed it, too -- finding myself especially moved by the "what happened afterward" title crawl at the end of the film, which turns something that by all rights should make us feel bad into the feel-good instead. The track taken here may knock The Imitation Game down a notch or ten from anything approaching greatness, but it will certainly give the film that chance at copping the Oscar, a la The King's Speech. (If The Theory of Everything, which I have not as yet seen, doesn't grab that gold statuette instead.)

The movie -- from The Weinstein Company and running 114 minutes -- opens this Friday in both New York City  (at City Cinemas Paris Theater and the Angelika Film Center) and Los Angeles (at The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Horror and parenting combine in Jennifer Kent's classy, psychologically riveting THE BABADOOK

If you're a fan of talented Australian actress Essie Davis, particularly of her hit TV series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, stick her new film, in which she is unrecognizable (so far as "Miss Fisher" is concerned) -- the first full-length endeavor from writer/director Jennifer Kent -- on your must-see list. Davis is simply amazing in this role of a hugely put-upon mother, trying to keep her body and soul (as well as her son's) together in the wake of an otherworldly intruder known as THE BABADOOK.

As writer/director, Ms Kent (shown at left) is onto something important and rather fierce: the idea that what we repress can take a physical form that might be our undoing. Now, you can approach this from platforms supernatural or psychological. Kent makes both work quite well, vying, as the film unspools, for our attention and decision. How we are pulled one way, then another, by the shocks and scares -- visual and audial (the exceptional sound design is by Frank Lipson) keep us off balance and forever questioning what is really going on here.

Visually the film is quite elegant, beautifully designed and a pleasure to observe. Ms Kent's command of character and her ability to keep us off-balance in this, too, is pretty remarkable. In the leading roles of mother and her son, Samuel, Ms Davis and a young actor named Noah Wiseman (in his film debut) are exceptional. Initially, we see Samuel as an adorable little boy who's also a handful -- but then we're soon ready to throttle the kid, given his manners and what he gets up to.

As the film rolls on, however, it's Momma who begins to worry us more. Yet as we also slowly learn the facts of the history of this sad family, nothing at all seems simple or easily judged. And Ms Davis is so good at keeping us in that fraught state between fear and hope that we eventually become about as shaken up as do the characters she and young Master Wiseman (above and below) bring to such moving, frightening life.

What, finally, is the titular Babadook? Primal fears, the nastier side of us, repressed anger we've never handled, or a full-fledged, never-to-be-destroyed monster man? You decide -- between your bouts of fright, fun and, yes, sadness. Because some things go beyond any possible repair.

The Babadook -- from IFC Midnight and running 94 minutes -- opens this Friday, November 28, in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the IFC Center. In the Los Angeles area, look for it at The Cinefamily at Silent Movie Theatre, beginning tomorrow, November 26, at midnight, and then continuing from Friday, Nov. 28 through Tuesday., Dec 2. Simultaneously, the film will open via VOD, so consult your local cable carrier for specifics.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Streaming sleeper: the Johnston/Mason/Boyes ultra-timely thriller, NOT SAFE FOR WORK

How rare is it to discover a suddenly streamable genre movie that's first-rate yet never even received a theatrical release? Very. Which makes NOT SAFE FOR WORK (TrustMovies has finally learned what the Internet acronym NSFW actually means!) pretty much a must-see, especially for fans of sharp, tight, cat-and-mouse thrillers, of which we see damned few good ones anymore.

As directed by the capable-in-many-genres Joe Johnston, (shown at right) from a smart screenplay by Adam Mason and Simon Boyes, this little movie lasts only 74 minutes, yet for most of its running time is one of those eyes-on-a-screen-from-which-you-cannot-look-away endeavors. It's that tight and exciting.

Best of all, this is a film that relies not upon near-constant special effects but is instead concerned with clever plot mechanics, a very good script and smart dialog to whisk it along, abetted by the kind of direction that knows where to put the camera when and how to cut for maximum speed and intelligibility (the editing's by Rick Shaine).

Add to this a situation that puts you in the midst of Big Pharma, a major corporation, the Mafia and a large law firm -- yes, all of our favorite kinds of people, even though one of these turns out to be a red herring -- and you have a recipe for fast-moving, top-notch entertainment. All the more so for the movie's being near-completely unknown to most movie-goers.

Another smart move: making its hero nothing like a superman (he actually does some dumb things along the way) yet proves someone who, when severely tested, can rise to the occasion. As played by the excellent Max Minghella (above, who it is nice to see in a lead role), this guy is fun to be around, never more so than when he's playing for very high stakes.

The heroine is a pretty and bright secretary (Eloise Mumford, above), and the villain a very smooth-talking fellow (played by JJ Feild, below), who gives his character a most interesting spin.

The major supporting roles are played by Christian Clemenson (below), as the boss of the law firm;

Tom Gallop, as Minghella's co-worker (gasping, below) and Alejandro Patino (shown at bottom) as the building's kindly janitor.

Every cast member nails it. As does this juicy little out-of-nowhere movie. The film's ending has evidently proven problematic for some audiences. Too bad. Considering all we know these days, what happens here could hardly be more on the mark.

In retrospect you may have a few logic questions, but while it's moving along, Not Safe for Work is mostly riveting. It's available now via Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video, and on DVD.