Sunday, January 31, 2016

A "don't miss" digital, DVD and Blu-ray debut: Spike & Kevin's daring and delightful CHI-RAQ

TrustMovies covered this terrific and surprising movie -- the best film Spike Lee has made in a long, long while -- when it opened in theaters for a limited run early last month. The screenplay, a treasure of smart, sassy rap poetry, is co-authored by Kevin Willmott and Mr. Lee. Now that it's out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats, I've seen it twice more, and can attest to its being even better than I formerly thought (my earlier review can be found here).

Yet it has been hugely overlooked by many critics, by the Academy, and certainly by audiences. CHI-RAQ is tremendously entertaining, serving both its source -- Aristophanes' Lysistrata -- and today's heavily multicultural audience supremely well. Given the chance, it will entertain white audiences (at least those non-Trump supporters who possess some intelligence), black audiences, young, old, and those who know the Greek comedies, as well as those who don't. Its theme could not be more timely, and the performances, from the leads to the small supporting roles, are lip-smackingly good. Miss this one at your peril. It will be talked about -- and enjoyed -- for years to come.

From Amazon Studios, it's available now via Amazon on digital streaming, DVD and Blu-ray -- for purchase or rental.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thailand's choice for BFLF Oscar: Josh Kim's HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME)

If you listen to our cultural guardians, you might think that the only films from Thailand worth knowing about would be those of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or, "Joe" to his friends), the fellow who has given us any number of impenetrable movies, including the famous Cannes prize-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Turns out there are other films worth knowing about from Thailand, too, one of which -- HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME) -- was this year's submission from that country as Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film. Though it did not make the shortlist, not to mention the finale five nominees, it's a movie very much worth finding and viewing.

The film's writer/ director, Josh Kim (shown at right) is a Korean-American born in Texas who has based his movie on two stories by the writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, another Asian-American of, I would guess, Thai ancestry. (I am assuming this because of his unusual, Thai-sounding name.) Checkers... is Kim's first full-length film, after writing and directing several short ones, and it combines two distinct genres: coming-of-age and the GLBT movie.

Both of these genres have been, over the years, pretty much done-to-death by enough movies of inferior quality that, when you hear the mention of either genre, you can't be blamed for wanting to take a pass. It is a pleasure, then, to be able to tell you that Mr. Kim's Checkers combines the two genres into something quite beautiful, heartfelt, poetic, occasionally funny and finally very moving.

This is the tale of a boy named Oat, who we see both as a youngster (above, left) and as a young man (below). We watch as Oat grows from one to the other, with the help of his adoring and adored older brother, Ek, his aunt, and various friends of the family and co-workers of Ek -- as well as Ek's lover, played by a gorgeous newcomer named Arthur Navarat (shown center, two photos below)

Filmmaker Kim weaves into his tale -- based of two of Lapcharoensap's short stories entitled Draft Day and At the Café Lovely -- much of the life in Thailand today: it's economics, politics, social classes, and work environ-ment, along with the manner in which society handles GLBT characters.

As shown here, at least, the life of the gay and transgendered may be less fraught than it is in the USA. (In one telling scene, it is only the "fat kid" who is made fun of in public. Some things never change.) The character named Kitty (played by Natarat Lahka, above left), in fact, is a gorgeous, curving chick who also sports a dick and proves to be the movie's most beautiful, interesting and sought-after character.

We also meet a young man named "Junior," and his crime boss/businessman dad, for whom Ek works. Power, we note sadly, is as corrupting here as it is anywhere else. Evidently, when young men in Thailand turn 21, they must take part of a draft/lottery (shown above) that ensures a certain number of them serve in the military, and the movie smacks us, along with several of its characters, into the middle of this "draft day" and its consequences.

All of this is shown us in relatively quiet, simple manner. But the movie's simplicity never computes as merely simple-minded, while the beauty of face, figure, landscape and color we see here is often exquisite enough to take your breath away (the cinematographer, Nikorn Sripongwarakul, has done masterful job).

The movie begins with a bad dream that our hero remembers and that we head slowly toward as the film progresses. Yet Kim and Lapcharoensap have a surprise or two up their sleeve, so that things do not turn out entirely as we expected. How they evolve provides one of the most quietly thoughtful and thoroughly moving entrances into male adulthood you will have experienced on film in a good, long while, in the process transcending both the coming-of-age and GLBT genres.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), from Wolfe Video and running 80 minutes, makes its DVD and VOD debut this coming Tuesday, February 2, for sale and rental. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL MONOGAMIST: Mitchell & Zeidler's whiz-bang lesbian rom-com opens

Los Angeles' Arena Cinema in Hollywood heralds the theatrical debut of one of the most charming, clever, funny and generally all-round adorable lesbian rom-coms this critic has seen in a long, long time: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL MONOGA-MIST, which opens today, Friday, January 29, at this popular venue for independent film. Written and directed by John Mitchell & Christina Zeidler -- shown below, with Ms Zeidler on the left -- the movie hails from Canada, where they know how to do this kind of thing right.

"Right" meaning real, smart and subtle but also theatrical enough to entertain and amuse. This is no easy task, but thanks to the skills of Mitchell and Zeidler and the quite lovely and enterprising cast they have assembled, the movie turns out to better than you might possibly imagine. We're in rom-com territory, of course, specifically the lesbian variety, but instead of insisting on embracing every last cliche of the genre and sub-genre, Portrait instead involves a lot of just-off-center behavior and ideas, to the point that we're almost constantly chuckling along with the characters here, even as we do indeed understand the importance of where they are coming from -- and why.

The main character -- that serial monogamist, who is alerted to her "status" by one of her best friends --  is a not-quite-young lady named Elsie, played with great joie de vivre and just the right amount of trepidation by a very charming and lovely actress (shown above and below, right) named Diane Flacks.

The movie opens with her sudden split from a long-time girlfriend, done in a rather original manner, which leads to much humor and a little heartache down the road, as we follow Elsie in her adventures with a new woman, her old flame, her mom, her boss and co-workers, as she tries to figure out just who she is and what she's doing.

It's a keen and surprisingly bracing adventure of learning, feeling and doing -- with the comedic high point a funeral for a cat (shown above) that brings together many of the folk we've gotten to know. This scene is so bizarre yet real, honest yet hilarious that it will probably remain in my memory for as long as I have one.

The cast -- uniformly interesting and good, with all its members looking more "real" that you often find in films like this -- includes former SNL alumnus, Robin Duke in the choice role of Elsie's dizzy, funny mother, and an actress new to me, Carolyn Taylor, (above, left) who plays Elsie's suddenly-ex girlfriend. Ms Taylor -- alternately moving and funny, confused and angry -- offers up an almost shockingly on-target performance in this unusual role.

As Elsie's new love interest a very beautiful actress named Vanessa Dunn (above) sparks up the movie with her low-key appeal and bright, off-hand intelligence. All in all, this is an unsually fine example of the genre, one that will certainly appeal to LGBT audiences and might just cross over into the mainstream, as well.

From Wolfe Releasing, Portrait of Serial Monogamist opens today at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles and almost immediately thereafter (on Tuesday, February 9th) hits DVD and VOD via Wolfe Video.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Gimme that old-time religion -- but maybe just not on film: Shawn Justice's RECONCILER

TrustMovies makes it a point to try to view a 'Christian' movie once a year (which is a lot more often than he goes to church), and this year he is getting it out of the way early via a film entitled RECONCILER, directed and co-written (with Scott Galbraith) by Shawn Justice, shown below. The film is relatively short (just 86 minutes) and has a storyline that encompasses everything from a kidnap mystery and the supernatural (some would call this religion; I call it otherworldly) to estranged brothers, a devolving police partnership (shown at bottom), a father-son conflict, the importance of giving to religious charities, and of course faith in god.

The problem with most faith-based films I've seen is that their first intention is always to teach a lesson about the importance of faith in Jesus and god. And since I personally feel that this is the least of what human beings should be doing right now (or ever) and instead should be placing their faith in what they can see and hear and feel and understand with some rationality rather than a concept that organized religion (of all kinds) puts in place to keep power where it always remains -- with the wealthy and already powerful -- I find most of these faith-based films near-farcical and something that indeed preaches to the choir.

Reconciler (formerly known as The Reconciler), while doing absolutely all of the above, is at least a bit more entertaining than some of its brethren movies because it involves a kind of mystery: Who is kidnapping all these people and making them remain locked up in some way until they can solve their differences? It is also generally well-acted enough to not make one cringe. After a very nice opening (above), the movie begins bouncing back and forth between this original kidnap tale and that of a reporter who has been assigned by her editor to do some sort of investigation of the state of America and religion. Then, thanks to another "reporter" who is one of the kidnap victims, we start bouncing between various other tales involving the kidnapper's work -- who has evidently done this before to various estranged families and workplace partners.

That editor mentioned earlier is played by the late Roddy Piper (above), the wrestler-turned-actor who starred in one of the classic sci-fi/political films of all time, They Live. Here, Piper has a very small role, but he makes a perfectly professional job of it. The DVD also offers a very nice tribute to Mr. Piper from the director and his cast and crew. (That's newcomer Levi Davis, below, who plays the movie's needy son.)

Movie-wise, Mr. Justice has a lot to learn about storytelling and how to handle exposition. His film does seem to clunk along in second gear most of the way. On the plus side, he had roped in an attractive cast of actors, including a set of twins (Jeremy and Jourdan Steel) who play the kidnapped brothers, and he lets them all do their thing -- while the soundtrack provides some faith-based soft-rock music which makes a fine accompaniment to the simplistic message of "Come back to god, people!" A sweet and happy, feel-good ending offers up absolutely nothing to offend -- or to challenge.

You can find Reconciler on DVD now, available at Walmart stores across the country. Once February hits, it will spread to other venues, too. You can learn more about the film by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's time for a decent werewolf film, so take a chance on Paul Hyett's train thriller, HOWL

What is it about movies that take place on a speeding train that makes them -- initially, at least -- irresistible? Maybe that inesca-pable sense of "confined space"? Or the opportunity to meet a group of disparate characters who wouldn't otherwise be thrown together? Or the suspense provided by that other thing these movies always seem to possess: a big problem -- a killer, a bomb, a crazy person -- in the midst of all that train travel?

Two recent and very good examples of this genre are Last Passenger and Honour, the latter of which, though not officially a "locomotive" movie, offers a terrifically effective opening and closing scene aboard a moving train. The latest to enter the train genre is the new werewolf movie HOWL, and I think it is no coincidence that all three of these films, along with so many other "train" movies (remember The Lady Vanishes?) are British. The Brits seems much more connected to their trains than are we auto-obsessed Americans.

Howl is a much better and more subtle film that its too-obvious American DVD/Blu-ray box art, above, might suggest. (The British theatrical posters, at right and below, give a much better sense of the dark tone and suspenseful appeal of the film.) Oh, there's plenty of guts, gore and nasty creatures involved here, but the film takes its pleasant time building up to this, as we meet and get to know the diverse set of people aboard the last nightly train from London to the provinces during an initial storm that eventually ceases, unveiling -- uh-oh -- a full moon.

While the passengers and crew seem at first to be a sad and unpleasant lot, as we get to know them, truer colors surface, and most of these men and women prove decent enough sorts who gain our sympathy. The train is soon brought to a halt in the midst of a dense forest, and then the carnage begins. Director Paul Hyett (shown below), together with screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, may be a bit better at building suspense than they are at maintaining a riveting pace.

Still, they are good enough at both to eventually have us holding our breath in hopes that these people whom we now care about, will somehow survive. Who does and who doesn't is, of course, necessary for the fun-and-games of the survival genre -- of which this film is also a part. The dozen or so passengers and crew that make up the cast do a fine job of differentiating themselves and creating surprisingly full characters in a very short time.

In the leading roles are the sad young conductor (Ed Speleers, above) who's just been denied a promotion, and the coffee service girl (Holly Weston, below, left) whom he likes but who does not return his affection.

We also have the career woman, the hotshot businessman, the sullen teen, the working-class striver hoping to find a better job, the loving senior couple, the out-of-it fat boy, and the nerdy egghead East Indian or maybe Pakistani kid. A mixed and interesting bag, this, but very soon their numbers begin to decline.

How the attacks come and what happens is all part of what we expect from the werewolf genre, but there are enough little surprises along the way to keep us feeling creepy and on our toes.

How it plays out -- from claw marks on the equipment (above) to some unusual behavior from all concerned -- is alternately expected and not,

with the long-awaited transformations finally coming fast and furiously.

Certainly no masterpiece of the genre, Howl nonetheless fills a gap by being one of the better werewolf movies since the much-appreciated but woefully underseen Dog Soldiers back in 2002.

Interestingly enough, one of the stars of that Neil Marshall movie, Sean Pertwee (above), also makes an appearance in this one, as the unlucky train driver.

Well, most of the characters here turn out to be unlucky, but they're rather plucky, too, which adds immeasurably to the movie's interest and charm. Howl, from Alchemy and running a crisp 92 minutes, is available now for rental or purchase on DVD, Blu-ray, early EST (Electronic-Sell-Through) and digital streaming (via Amazon & perhaps elsewhere, too).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The shoo-in for Oscar's BFLF? László Nemes' Hungarian Holocaust rhapsody, SON OF SAUL

The sure-fire equation for the Best Foreign Language Film award: Quality + Holocaust = BFLF. Add some originality and you've got an even more likely bet. László Nemes' new film, SON OF SAUL, certainly touches all three of those bases. As much as I expected to find the film wanting in major regards, I, like so many of our critics (audiences, too, I suspect), found myself quickly under its spell. It was only last year that another of these Holocaust honeys -- Ida -- walked away with the award, and now, here's another that everyone seems to be counting on to win.

Why is Son of Saul so special? Because of the perspective -- quite literally, the visual point-of-view -- taken by the filmmaker (Mr. Nemes is shown at left). From the beginning and for almost all of this 107-minute movie, the camera stays close to the face and figure of its protagonist, Saul -- a member of the Sonderkommando at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, that group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in their machinery of large-scale extermination during World War II.  What makes this perspective so strange yet pointed is that for maybe the first time on film, we see a concentration camp and its workings only marginally, off to the side and not, as it were, the main attraction. Of course, it is, and this is what gives Nemes' film such a strong combination of gravity, irony, and originality.

We see what's going on, all right, and we know exactly what it all means, and it is as horrible as ever, yet perhaps somewhat easier to view when taken, as does our "hero," Saul (an indelible performance from almost-newcomer Géza Röhrig, shown above and below), along with all of us who are watching, as something foregone and impossible to change. We don't focus on the atrocities, but we know very well that they are a constant life-ending, death-embracing presence.

Saul simply does his job without comment or feeling. Until one day everything changes. What happens and why is part of the plot and best left to your own discovery. At the same time that Saul is suddenly busy with his new "project" -- which, by the way, can be taken realistically or symbolically: It works well on both levels -- the Sonderkommando members are plotting something of their own. They know that their lives, though marginally better than the other Jews in the camp, will soon end in death, after which they will be replaced by more of the same.

These two plot strands weave in an out of each other as the movie reaches its climax, which, as does much of the rest of the film, works both realistically and symbolically, offering in its strange way, hope from despair. Or not. It is also possible to dismiss all this, as a few critics have done, as sentimental and utterly unearned.  I disagree:  The hope here is always in sync with the reality of the situation, making for a kind of balance that remains fraught and fierce, in which the best that can be hoped for is terrible indeed.

Caveats? Maybe. The unusual perspective provided by the filmmaker works in a kind of "smartly confusing" manner. Because we're privy to so little and only know parts of the two puzzles at hand, we can't really know specifically how all this might or could work out. This means that we have to accept what we know and go with the flow. We do, yet a few too many coincidences begin to rankle. Certain things seem too easily accomplished and not so believable. Yet because of our limited perspective, we can't be sure, and so we accept it. This is, in its highly circumscribed way, very smart, corner-cutting movie-making.

For all its barely-glimpsed horror and the despicable history we now know all too well, Son of Saul left this viewer in a quiet, thoughtful state: won-dering at and appreciating -- against insurmountable odds -- life and hope. In the end, the movie is about something bigger than our own tiny lives.

From Sony Pictures Classics, Son of Saul opens here in South Florida this Friday, January 29, at the Tower Theater, Miami; Cinema Paradiso, Ft. Lauderdale; Living Room Theaters, and Regal Shadowood 16, Boca Raton; Carmike Muvico Parisian, West Palm Beach; Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth. You can click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, nationwide.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Israeli history, writ large: Amos Gitai's mostly recreated narrative doc--RABIN, THE LAST DAY

Probably the best thing TrustMovies can say about RABIN, THE LAST DAY -- the new and, as usual, oddball film from Israeli writer/director Amos Gitai (shown below) -- is that, despite its being over two-and-one-half hours long, it is quietly riveting and thought-provoking from first to last. In fact, its slow, steady pace results in a cumulative power that should easily carry along anyone who cares about Israel as a country and its place in the world situation today. And that, I would imagine, includes just about all of us sentient adults, whatever our feeling may be about the current Israel and Palestine situation.

That current situation is, in fact, alluded to almost immediately as the film begins, with Shimon Peres being interviewed by what appears to be a journalist. I say "appears" because most of the film is made up of recreations of what happened before, during and after the assassination, intercut with actual documentary footage. But so cleverly executed are Gitai's re-enactments that I suggest you not waste time during the film trying to decide which is which, or you will not be able to keep up with what is happening on-screen. During that interview Peres is asked if the state of Israel would be a different place today had the assassination (shown below) of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not taken place 20 years ago -- just at the moment that what looked like a legitimate peace accord between Israel and Palestine had finally been hammered out. Peres answers yes, and the rest of the movie proceeds to support his assertion.

The recreated deposition scenes (these show one after another of the people who were present and/or involved in the assassination) were made using direct transcripts from the Shamgar Commission that investigated the Prime Minister's death. So these, one might assume, are pretty accurate recreations.

But from where, I wonder, comes one of the most bizarre and entertaining moments in the entire movie? This would be the extended scene (shown below) in which a woman who calls herself a clinical psychologist testifies before a groups of fundamentalist Jews bent on somehow destroying the Prime Minister and informs them that she has diagnosed Rabin as schizophrenic.

I am guessing this scene was created via some testimony given anecdotally, as perhaps were all the scenes featuring a look into the workings of these fundamentalist and right-wing Israeli nut-jobs who allow, as do all fundamentalists -- Christians, Muslims or what-have-you -- their faith in "god" to supersede law, reason and all else. But that's OK, right? Because this is god's law, and we and our religion -- as opposed to everybody else and theirs -- have "his" ear.

Nowhere in the film does Mr. Gitai shout "conspiracy." But he does not need to. From all we see, it is clear that right-wing fundamentalism pervaded every part of society at this time, from the police to elected officials to the crowds of protesters who felt Rabin was giving away their state to "the other." The deposition of the top law enforcement official (along with that of several more "security" people) and his shocking answers to the questions put to him, indicates an attitude that goes beyond mere laxness/sloppy procedure into something much more frightening.

Rabin, the Last Day, along with last year's fine "divorce" film, Gett, offers up an Israel more deeply committed to "god's law" than to man's (and certainly not to women's). If this were not disturbing enough for those of us hoping for humanism and rationality, there is also the lingering question of "What happened to the gun the assassin used?" Oh -- it must have gotten lost in the shuffle is the answer we get from the authorities. The gun question is brought up once and then quickly discarded, but anyone paying attention can only wince in disbelief.

Likewise, the shot of the assassin, alone and praying prior to his deed, will remind us of those perpetrators of our own 9/11 and how "religious" and "in touch with god" they all were. As I say, this movie should keep alert audiences on their toes for its entire 153 minutes. On a negative, but very slight, note: the end credits are shamefully difficult to decipher. Clearly "designed" to be artful and clever rather than readable, they are an embarrassment to the designer and an impediment to the viewer who might care anything about who did what on this movie.

This very hybrid documentary, from Kino Lorber, opens Friday, January 29, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Scottsdale, AZ, at the Harkins Shea 14 on February 4. Other playdates? The distributor is probably awaiting results from these initial venues, followed, we hope, by more and very deserved bookings. We shall see.