Thursday, April 30, 2015

Shira Piven makes good on her promising debut with new Kristen Wiig-starrer WELCOME TO ME

Anyone who saw  Fully Loaded, the 2011 movie directed by Shira Piven (below), will probably be ready for Ms Piven's next narrative step (she's made a couple of documentaries in between): the not-easily-classifiable WELCOME TO ME. Starring Kristen Wiig in what may be her most memorable -- if not popular -- role, the movie boasts a number of other first-class performers doing some excellent work in a film that takes a look at our narcissistic, self-obsessed-as-never-before society from the vantage point of one of its crazier members.

Ms Wiig essays, with about as little vanity as most actresses would allow, the role of Alice Klieg, a woman suffering from a major personality disorder and all kinds of OCD behavior who, to boot, refuses to take her assigned medications. Helped along by her psychotherapist (a nice job from Tim Robbins) and best friend (Linda Cardellini), Alice is barely managing. And then one day, she comes into a lot of money.

What Alice does with this windfall constitutes the movie's plot, introduces a raft of new characters, and sets us and Alice on a journey that explores everything from television and talk shows to friendship, self-obsession and medication, while showing us what and who we can buy -- if we have enough money.

Through it all, Ms Wiig (above) keeps us and everyone around her both off-balance and on our/their toes. The question of just how far one can go in the pursuit of "me" is raised and, if not fully answered (the movie cops out a bit toward the end), at least puts us in touch with the kind of "power" that money brings and how, in the hands of folk like Alice (not to mention dictators like, say, Idi Amin), it can be used in ways crazier and crazier.

The movie -- like the recently released The Voices -- will certainly encourage viewers who are borderline, or who have friends/relatives in this sad state, to take their meds. Beyond this, what is the film trying to accomplish? Well, it takes our current state of women's "Oprah worship" -- narcissism pretending to be other-centered -- to its logical conclusion. It also seems to want to show us how, even among borderline personalities, there's a lid for every pot. (Wes Bentley, above, plays -- quite well, too -- Alice's lid.) I have to admit that the screenplay by Eliot Laurence (The Big Gay Sketch Show), while appearing to want to have things every which way, certainly does not cater to the expected.

For instance, the TV show that Alice "purchases," while becoming more popular than anyone first imagined, does not morph into some boffo hit. And that relationship between heavy-duty misfits is not allowed to come to much, after all. Only Alice's longtime pal, Cardellini (shown at bottom, left), is used for a little too obvious sentimental fodder. Welcome to Me is certainly not a comedy, though it has plenty of odd laughs along the way, but you wouldn't call it a drama, either. Nor any kind of rom-com. And it does not quite fit as satire.

What holds the film together are the fine performances -- led by Ms Wiig, who is as good as she has ever been in this role, followed by that of James Marsden (above, right) as the grasping television producer who'll do just about anything for money -- and the near-hypnotic pull of the narrative (the bizarre incidents really do keep you glued). Piven and Laurence may have bitten off more than they can properly chew but they've nonetheless given us viewers a kind of fractured feast that is worth trying to digest.

Welcome to Me (the title doubles as the TV show Alice finances) -- from Alchemy and running 105 minutes -- opens tomorrow, Friday, May 1, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and in the L.A. area at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

CHIC! Fashion, fun and a little love in Jérôme Cornuau & Jean-Paul Bathany's French charmer

I was told that CHIC!, the new movie starring that diva-to-idolize, Fanny Ardant, was a French farce. It's not. There are no slamming doors, characters running from room to room, in flagrante delicto moments, nor any of the other signs that a farce in on view. This surprisingly low-key movie refuses to push almost anything, relying instead on subtlety, sweetness and humor based more on character than situation to charm the pants off us. Which it does. My pants, at least (my spouse's, too).

Fashion is the theme here: how and why it is created and the effect is has on the half-dozen or so main characters on view. These would include the notorious and talented haute-couture legend responsible for the line (Ms Ardant, above); the haughty young woman, Hélène, near the top of the food chain of the corporation who "owns" the designer and her line (the delightfully sour Marina Hands, below);

her boss, a would-be Napoleon whose constant shouting can't quite conceal his ferocious fear (the very funny Laurent Stocker, at center, below), and the down-to-earth gardener (a terrific Eric Elmosnino) hired to give Hélène's home a touch of green.

You might remember M. Elmosnino (below, center) from his César-winning title role in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. His performance here shows once again how very versatile he is, fitting easily into just about any kind of character and genre.

The film's director, Jérôme Cornuau (shown below), is a newcomer to my purview, though he has made nearly 20 films (most of them for French television). So whether it is more his doing or that of his screenwriter,
Jean-Paul Bathany, I cannot say for certain (maybe a lucky combination of both), but the product of this collaboration is such a gentle, loving rom-com-cum-satire that yours truly found himself, for maybe the first time in his film-going history, being able to appreciate a movie with fashion -- the most-often appalling and ludicrous of all the supposed "arts" -- at its center.

How Monsieurs Cornuau & Bathany achieve this is by keeping their humor grounded in character rather than "event," the latter of which usually leads to a sit-com  Even their "diva" is just a human being, brought to fine life by Ardant, who has a wonderful little speech toward film's end, in which her character tackles behavior and artists and makes a most interesting, sensible and telling point.

All the characters here -- even the nasty boss, silly as he is -- behave too intelligently for farce. Scene after scene offers a small surprise (note the pitch-perfect one that takes place in the office of Hélène's shrink), and when characters do stupid or bad things, they pay for them. Yet the film is full of funny events and happenings, all handled in a lovely, low-key style. How much more unusual -- and welcome -- is this approach than that of all-out satire, farce or over-the-top humor.

Ms Hands (who also won a César for her fine performance as and in Lady Chatterley) is quite special here, balancing her anger and hauteur against a genuineness and gentleness just begging to be allowed to appear. As they gradually do, the movie morphs into something we hadn't initially expected. Think of it as a rom-com with smarts -- lots of 'em.

Chic! -- from Distrib Films US and running 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, May 1, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. If you don't live in the L.A. area, never fear: the film will be available simultaneously on Vudu, iTunes and Google Play.  (Eventually, I would hope, we'll be able to see this one via Netflix streaming. But not quite yet.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

VOD and iTunes Debut: John Stuart Wildman's horror/gorer, THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE

If I may make a suggestion to genre fans who like a good, gory horror/thriller: stick with THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE, at least past the first fifteen minutes -- which leave a lot to be desired. After the rather heavy-handed opening, complete with a dumb character reversal and some foreshadowing that even your grandmother might have understood, if not appreciated, the movie begins to gain interest, suspense and pitch black humor, while getting better and better, right up until its fine and fanciful finale.

The product of first-time/full-length filmmaker John Stuart Wildman, shown at left, who directed and co-wrote (with Justina Walford, below), the movie is being marketed as a kind of "feminist grindhouse thriller" -- a description that works pretty well, I think. While it is fun for a change to see the guys stalked and decimated by the gals, instead of the usual other-way-around, I think perhaps real feminists might blanch at some of what goes on here. But that, I suspect, is part of the irony at work. When two brothers and their friend go out to a strip joint to celebrate a birthday, and then decide to follow one of the strippers home, all hell breaks loose.

Part of that hell is completely expected, but other events do indeed surprise, and Mr. Wildman -- whom some of us reviewers/critics know and love from his work as senior publicist at The Film Society of Lincoln Center -- has managed to cast his movie with real talent, particularly regarding those titular "ladies." The male characters -- two out of the three of them, anyway -- are as expendable as are many of the females we see in most grindhouse horror films.

The guys include Rj Hanson, as Kai, the fat and mentally-challenged brother with the birthday (who also is given that nonsensical character change), while Samrat Chakrabarti (above) plays Derek, the typical sleazeball of the lot. Neither actor can rise above his by-the-numbers dialog and characterization. Only Gabriel Horn -- as Kai's semi-decent brother, Jacob -- gets a role eventually worth sinking his teeth into. (A word must be said, too, for an actor named Frank Mosley, who does a very nice job as Piglet,  one of those aforementioned surprises.)

But, ah, the women! The actresses here do themselves proud in creating individual characters of very odd note. All these gals seem to work at the stripclub, which enables them to afford the nice little three-story house (yes, there's a basement) in which most of the tale takes place. There is more than enough gore and blood to sate most slasher-film aficionados, and even a genuine surprise or two (in which, if I am not mistaken, Mr Wildman pays homage to one of the classics of this genre, The Woman from Lucky McKee.

The quartet of ladies include Michelle "Belladona" Sinclair (two photos above), who gets the ball rolling and knows her way around a line reading as well as a lap dance; Farah White (above, right) as the "mother" of the group, who knows her way around a knife;

most specially Melodie Sisk (above, right) as what you might call the "dad" of the group, an actress who can take charge of any scene in a multitude of ways; and the youngest and most love-lorn of the bunch, Brina Palencia (below, and at left, two photos above). All these ladies are quite good, each in her own manner, and they work together, too, creating an ensemble of... well, tease and terror.

The Ladies of the House might seem like heavy-going at first, but as I say, stick with it, and if you a genre fan, rewards will accrue. The movie -- from Gravitas Ventures and running 93 minutes -- hits VOD and iTunes this Friday, May 1.

Monday, April 27, 2015

MARIE'S STORY: Jean-Pierre Améris' wondrous film about handling handicaps in France, 1900

What a glorious tale is MARIE'S STORY, and what a privilege it is to be able to so completely enter a new and alien world like the one shown us in this French film by Jean-Pierre Améris. The movie will surely bring to mind, for older folk, The Miracle Worker and the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. Talking place in the verdant French countryside, in roughly the same decade that the Keller story occurred here in the USA, this tale of a blind and deaf French girl, Marie Heurtin (Keller and Huertin were born but five years apart), will enchant and move you in ways both expected and surprising. And the fact that you will know, almost from the first scene, where the film must go will not in any way make the journey less wondrous or gripping.

M. Améris (shown at right), who has earlier given us several fine films, including Romantics Anonymous and Bad Company (French version), is evidently not a filmmaker content to stay in the same genre. Other than via the quality of his films, I am not sure you would know that this is the fellow who had made them all. As chirpy, chipper, bubbly and odd as was Romantics Anonymous, Marie's Story proves equally quiet, clear and deeply felt. Both are as different as can be and yet work about as well within their genres as they possibly can. In his new film, Améris seems to know exactly where to place the camera -- and when, and for how long -- so that special moments become just that, without ever trying our patience or resorting to mere cliché.

Marie's story is that of a blind and deaf girl whose father refuses to commit her to an asylum and instead takes her to a convent where the nuns teach and train deaf girls. But blind and deaf? That's another matter. Thanks only to Sister Marguerite (played by the versatile and always commendable Isabelle Carré, at left, above), who insists that they give Marie (a knockout performance from Ariana Rivoire, above, right) her chance, we are able to experience the pain and emptiness, and then the growth and change that occur.

The supporting cast is small but well-used, with the fine Brigitte Catillon (above, center) as Mother Superior and Noémie Churlet (above, left) as Marguerite's best friend and accomplice in Marie's training.

What seals the movie's success is how well the filmmaker, who both directed and co-wrote (with Philippe Blasband), has managed to bring us into the world of Marie, in all its sadness, hunger and finally joy. Perhaps the deepest moments arrive as Marie must come to terms with Marguerite's increasingly fragile health.

The natural world and its beauty is shown us in the way Marie finally understands it. We are there, at one with the girl, as she progresses from wild child to alert, thoughtful, caring young woman. What a journey!

One of the gifts and grace of motion pictures comes in affording us the opportunity to go places we would never otherwise venture. Marie's Story manages this -- in spades.

The movie -- another don't miss from Film Movement and running just 95 minutes -- opens this Friday, May 1, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. It will hit L.A. at Laemmle's Royal on Friday, May 29, and in between and after at a number of cities across the USA.

Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, past and present, with cities and theatres listed.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Now at NYC's Maysles Cinema: Des Doyle's SHOWRUNNERS: The Art of Running a TV Show

We've heard the word bandied about a lot lately, where network and cable TV series are concerned, but what exactly is a Show-runner? According to SHOWRUNNERS: THE ART OF RUNNING A TV SHOW (written and directed by Des Doyle, shown below), which defines the term upfront before the movie begins, the word -- which is a relatively newly-coined one -- offers "an industry term describing the person and/or persons responsible for overseeing all areas of writing and production on a television series and ensuring that each episode is delivered on time and on budget for both the studio that produces the show and the network that airs it." OK: Fair enough.

What this has come to mean for the industry, however, seems to be that, for TV series, this showrunner (often doubling as the major writer) has taken the power place at the head of the table. (We almost never think of the director of these TV series because that director is likely to change, maybe several times, within the course of a series, even within a single season of a series. What a director has historically been seen to represent for a movie, the showrunner now represent for the TV series. Further, as TV series grow ever more talked-about and popular with both mainstream audiences and our cultural gatekeepers, the showrunner is very likely to eventually eclipse everyone else regarding the power place, both critically and economically, in Hollywood's and the media's hierarchy.

Sure, this day may be aways away, but it does appear to be coming. Which makes the debut of Mr Doyle's quite interesting film worth noting and the film itself worth seeing and thinking about. In it has been collected quite a number of "showrunners." How these were chosen is not addressed. Only two of them, Janet Tomaro, and Jane Espenson, are women, and I dearly wish the film had included Theresa Rebeck, showrunner (for a time) on the ill-fated series, Smash. I think Ms Rebeck might have had some smart and telling stuff to add. What's here, however, provides plenty of fodder to give the faithful a pretty good idea of what goes into being a showrunner. As one of this chosen group explains, "You know that you’re doing something right if just about everyone connected with the show is annoyed with you."

Among the chosen, Matthew Carnahan (above, of House of Lies and Dirt) gets a lot of screen time, and he proves worth it, as he is smart and funny and seeming pretty honest. He turns out to have been a protégée of  Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. "They didn’t want any of their protégées moving to Hollywood and working out of TV. But of course nearly all of us did." Also along for the ride is actor Anthony LaPaglia, who has some funny things to say about actors reacting to these writers/producers (and vice versa).

While many of the shows mentioned or described -- such as Bones -- sound like soap operas, you'll realize once again why, for all their "pushing the envelope," it's often the tried and true that brings home the bacon. Popular showrunner Joss Whedon explains why he will protect “moments’ at all costs but give up a good “move” in a heartbeat: “A move is ‘Oh my god, it was his evil twin!’ which gives you nothing. A moment is that something relatable that all of us have gone through and that you can mine in regard to the evil twin: that’s your moment.”

And if the film is mostly talking heads, at least they’re saying some interesting stuff. Early on, Ronald D. Moore (above, and a staple from the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation up through the current Outlander) realized that he had killed off his lifelong hero (from Star Trek), while Ms Tamaro talks about how she went from a job with ABC News to being a scriptwriter.

Along the way we get some funny gems:  “More serial killers have been caught in a single season of TV that ever actually roamed the streets.” As to helpful hints, there are a number of these offered: "Choose your battles carefully: Is this the hill you want to die on?" is one of the smartest. "The single thing that makes TV show take so long to get done is … meetings!" And here's Mr. Carnahan on Dirt: "The pilot and first season were great." The second season? "I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to.” We even get a Les Moonves story, but come on now, he can't really be that dumb...?!

There's an interesting discussion of Cable vs Network and where you want to work and why. Is there actually more freedom on cable? "Well, you've really got to take this on a case by case basis," notes one fellow. Managing is so important to showrunning that some showrunners split the duties into two jobs. "Writing and managing take such different skills," explains one fellow. "Sometimes it doesn't pay to try to do both yourself." Concerning contemporary shows vs period stories: "With period tales, you have to realize things like 'Every actor and every extra will need a special haircut.' There are all kinds of stuff you don’t usually think about."

Mike Kelley of Revenge says some smart things (some of it funny and knowingly hypocritical) about ratings and how and if one should even pay attention to them. Interestingly, this job, while too good to quit, is also too hard to do. "Almost all showrunners stop in their 50s," we're told. "It’s just too much." On that subject, Josh Whedon (below) talks about having to run three shows simultaneously. Actor Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, The Good Wife) explains his theory about the actor being the guardian of the character, and one of the showrunners gives a smart timeline for how, eventually, the actor finally controls the character.

Race and color comes to the fore with Ali Le Roi (Are We There Yet?), who admits, "Sure the white suits think I’m going to bring in the colored audience. But really, I would just like a shot at bringing in 'the audience'." here comes the importance of ComicCon (for some shows), how smart content is now appearing on The Web, and -- oh, yes --  failures, too, as J.J. Abrams and others confront their own. "Even showrunners on the successful shows," one points out, "sometimes leave -- or are asked to....
Paging Ms Rebeck!

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show -- an Ireland/USA co-production running 90 minutes -- after a successful run and return engagement at L.A.'s Arena Cinema has now opened in New York City this past Thursday and will continue through this coming Wednesday, April 29, at the Maysles Cinema. Click the link above for further information and then click on the particular date you want to procure tickets. (Note: If you can't get to the Maysles, the movie is now available via Netflix streaming.)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

INTO THE WOODS: An only so-so theater piece becomes a great American musical via Marshall, Lapine, a terrific cast and those Sondheim songs

When I first saw Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in its Broadway debut, it seemed more a mere exercise for this great American composer than anything else -- with music that often reminded me of those Czerny books I studied from during my early piano lessons. Viewing other incarnations of the show over the years produced a similar result -- until, this past Christmas holiday season, when I saw the movie version in a local theater and was so blown away by its success that I have just finished viewing it again on Blu-ray -- this time with the English subtitles turned on so that I needn't miss a single savvy and savory rhyme from our modern master of the musical form.

Produced by the Disney behemoth -- early word of which, I suspect, made many of us imagine the worst: How wrong we were! -- the movie manages to bring to the fore everything best about the show, while tamping down what was worst. It's not perfect -- one of the latter scenes has poor Simon Russell Beale spouting a sledge-hammer line practically lit up in neon as, Listen folks: Here comes the moral. Its theater productions have been full of these, and yet as directed by Rob Marshall (at left), with its book rewritten over and over until he finally
got (most of) it right by James Lapine (shown at right), the finished product is something rapturous: beautiful, moving, funny, appealing, and performed to the hilt. I should think (hope, anyway) that Mr. Sondheim is beside himself with delight. The manner in which the various fairy tales used here (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, among others) no longer clunks as it did on stage; instead the tales blend and bounce off each other with glee and meaning. Further, the use of close-ups makes so many of the moments come to life in ways that the stage could not, while the actors on view could hardly have been better chosen -- for talent, looks and musical ability.

From smart stunt casting like Johnny Depp (above) as the Wolf to the magical Meryl Streep (below), as the Witch,

from wonderful surprises like the pairing of James Corden and Emily Blunt (below) as the Baker and his wife,

to the priceless Anna Kendrick (who simply gets better with each new role), as Cinderella, plus a fine pair of princes,

played by Chris Pine (below) and Billy Magnussen, this first-rate cast does the source material proud in every way. As do the production design, art direction and costumes. Visually, the movie is a complete knock-out.

Best of all, the lovely weaving together of plots, performances and themes -- parenting, loving, autonomy, and morality, and how none of these are at all easy to achieve -- allows this filmed version to soar. It'll move you, make you laugh and give children perhaps their first opportunity to understand how, while fairy tales do indeed mirror our deepest desires and needs, ferreting out their meaning can be a lot more complicated and interesting than they might think.

Into the Woods -- running 125 minutes -- is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital formats.