Monday, February 29, 2016

Roar Uthaug's THE WAVE: a swift, smart tsunami blockbuster made for 6-1/2 million

Eat your heart out, Hollywood. For almost 17 times the budget of the excellent Norwegian special-effects thriller, THE WAVE,  Hollywood managed to give us last year's CGI-crammed blockbuster, San Andreas. Yes, those special effects were good -- if still problematic because of the far-too-high-def quality that the best CGI often provides -- but the story, writing and direction all seemed typical, obvious and, well, second rate. When set against this relatively little (though certainly big-budgeted for any Scandinavian country) film, thanks to its tight plotting, smart dialog and the kind of realistic performances that pull you in and make you care about the protagonists, the silly time-honored coincidences and last-minutes "saves" of San Andreas seem mostly ridiculous.

Director Roar Uthaug (shown at right) knows how to set up his situation for maximum potential: a family man about to leave his job as geologist and protector of a popular tourist town in the Norwegian fjords suddenly grows worried about the seismic activity in the area. Sure enough, some-thing bad is afoot, and it will take every bit of his strength and endurance to save his family, friends and coworkers (below) from a watery grave.

Not everyone does get saved, by the way, and how all this happens -- quickly, sometimes shockingly -- provides surprise, occasional humor, and a larger, more jolting dose of deep feeling than you find in most movies of this popular genre.

The leading players seem drawn from a real family, just as does our hero (Kristoffer Joner, above) and his co-workers, all of whom appear as savvy geologists. The screenplay wastes little time on anything not germane to either the family, the crisis or the post-crisis (and even more disturbing) outcome.

The special effects provide everything that is called for, and while they are used quickly and rather sparingly, when compared to what we get from our home-grown product, they work all too well, providing fright and shock aplenty. And filmmaker Uthaug knows how to ratchet the suspense to keep us on those proverbial tenterhooks. Yet nothing seems to go on too long. (The film lasts but 104 minutes, considerably shorter than most of our versions of the disaster blockbuster.)

From Magnolia Pictures, The Wave opens all across the country this Friday, March 4, and will reach even more cities and theaters in the weeks to come. (Click here to view all playdates, cities and theater scheduled so far.) The movie is everywhere, in fact, except down here in Florida. Maybe the distributor feels it would be just too much for us coastal folk. So I guess Floridians will have to wait for DVD and streaming.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

THE VANISHED ELEPHANT: Javier Fuentes-León's art film about love and identity arrives

It's being marketed as some kind of "thriller," with mentions of movies on the order of Tell No One and The Secret in Their Eyes tossed in for good measure. Comparisons, as they say, are odious, and so far as the new Spanish-language film from Peru/Columbia/ Spain, THE VANISHED ELEPHANT, is concerned, these do the movie little justice and, in fact, just might sink it once this comparative word-of-mouth gets out. Tell No One was a hugely intricate and fast-moving thriller, and one of, if not the most-successful-at-the-boxoffice foreign language film of its decade. More slow-moving, The Secret in Their Eyes, was also a kind of mystery thriller that built to a whopping and surprising conclusion (in addition to walking away with Best Foreign Language Film that year).

As written and directed by Javier Fuentes-León (shown at left, who gave us the bisexual drama about death and the closet, Undertow, some years back), The Vanished Elephant comes much closer to a genuine "art" film -- a kind of puzzle about the artistic process, identity, love and narcissism -- which poses as a mystery only in the sense that all of our identities are, finally, mysterious. This is also quite a beautiful film to view, one of the most visually compelling I have seen in the past year or so. I believe Señor Fuentes-León means this visual beauty to be part of the puzzle, as well as the film's fun. It is, in both cases.

We come back again and again to visuals that remind us of former visuals and/or begin to fill in certain blanks -- sometimes literally, at other times symbolically. As our hero, a cop-turned-mystery-writer, Edo (a commanding, encompassing performance by Salvador del Solar, above) tries to unravel the disappearance of his girlfriend (played by Vanessa Saba, below), some years previous, he comes up against quite an arsenal of oddities.

Chief among these is a man who appears to be impersonating the leading character, Rafael Pineda (Lucho Cáceres, below, right), in the series of popular mystery novels that Edo writes. There is also a District attorney set on proving that Edo was the person responsible for his girlfriend's disappearance, a photographer who has organized a new exhibit around Edo's famous novels, and other possible red herrings.

The "elephant" of the title is found in a museum painting that doubles as a rock sculpture relic somewhat destroyed during a famous earthquake that took a huge death toll just at the time of that Edo's girlfriend went missing.

Deaths begin to pile up, and yet the movie never seems to become any kind of realistic mystery. Instead the clues lead back and back again to our Edo, and Señor del Solar's quiet charisma and persuasive acting keeps us both on point and on hold as the mystery continues to be revealed.

As is sometimes the case, it's the journey rather than the destination that makes The Vanished Elephant as intriguing as it is. When we reach the finale, it is probably del Solar's handsome, troubled face that counts for most, making this movie about identity and losing oneself in grief and fantasy so unusually compelling -- even, finally, quite moving and sad.

From Oscilloscope Laboratories and running 109 minutes, The Vanished Elephant opens here in South Florida this Friday, March 4, at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and the Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. To see further playdates, cities and theaters, click here then scroll down.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Native-American teens today fill Chloé Zhao's do-we-stay-or-leave-the-reservation movie, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME

When you are "breaking" a horse, explains our Native-American hero, Johnny, at the beginning of the new independent film, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, you should "leave some 'bad' in it. They'll need it to survive out here." Initially intimate but spacious, with breath-taking vistas of the badlands of South Dakota, and extremely low-key, this new movie from Chloé Zhao (born in China, now living in the U.S.) is her first full-length piece, one that took four years to complete, as she lived & worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Those four years evidently helped give the movie the kind of authenticity that is not easily faked, as Ms Zhao (shown at right) shows us in leisurely, slow-moving fashion, the world of the kids who are "stuck on the res." The movie shows us their lives -- with their family and friends, at school, in church, at work and play, in love and sex -- without any expository or narrative comment, and we see how they must fit into a hugely downsized and circumscribed culture.

The filmmaker never stoops to proselytizing or special pleading. She doesn't have to. The lives we see on display make their point lucidly enough. She uses non-actors who pretty much appear to be playing themselves (or a reasonable facsimile). While this makes them seem authentic, it also diminishes the drama and much of the specificity that a good actor might bring to the role. (That's John Reddy, above on horseback, who plays our hero, Johnny.) Johnny's younger sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John, below) is the other character we learn most about, along with his girlfriend, who's soon to leave the res for college.

Perhaps the most unusual character is the tattoo artist/clothing designer who befriends Jashaun and is partial to the number 7. The movie generally avoids melodrama (except for one revenge-of-a-rival-gang scene), sticking to its low-key, slow pace. Once the film, around the halfway point, begin to lose any edge at all, it seems to turn generic in both its dialog and situations. At this point, the slow pace simply sinks things. (I can't remem-ber another film during which I consulted my watch as often as here.)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a well-intentioned movie that achieves its goals well enough to be successful on the "intentions" front. Visually, too, the movie succeeds (the framing is quite good: cinematography by Joshua James Richards). Sound-wise, perhaps not. It may have been the quality of the screener disc I watched, the lack of enunciation by the actors, or the sound design itself, but I missed a certain amount of the dialog along the way and felt periodically frustrated.

Another odd thing: our lead character's narration at both the beginning and end of the film sounds far too intelligent, poetic and writerly to be coming of this young man's mind or mouth. The rest of the dialog we hear from him is on a completely different level. But that, too, I suspect, is part of the "well-intentioned-ness" of this not uninteresting but likely to be overpraised film. Songs My Brothers Taught Me, from Kino Lorber and running 94 minutes, has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, March 2, at Film Forum in New York City. Click here then scroll down to see all upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Rom-com of the year? Yes! Ben Palmer and Tess Morris' delightful surprise, MAN UP

What a treat. We should, of course, expect a lot from Lake Bell, after so many good performances and her terrific directing debut, In a World... But Simon Pegg as the perfect leading man: charming, funny (of course), self-deprecating and real? Now, that's a major surprise. Sure, Pegg is always funny but he's also always bizarre. Who knew he had this kind of performance in him?

Well, obviously MAN UP's director, Ben Palmer (shown at left) and writer, Tess Morris (below, right) knew. This pair, together with their two actors (and Ophelia Lovibond in a choice supporting role) take the rom-com into bright, delicious new byways we have not traveled in a good long time.

From the initial scene, as our heroine Nancy (Ms Bell), frightened of having to interact with the crowd at a party, turns to the bottle and a very funny room service waiter, to an scene on a train with Ms
Lovibond and a famous would-be self-help book, to the sudden meeting with Mr. Pegg, the movie is super-amusing, clearly character-based, and about as cleverly written, directed and acted as you could possibly wish.

Yes, Man Up is a rom-com, but how long has it been since we've seen one of this high an order, where everything clicks into place and yet still gifts us with a whole shebang of small surprises that keep unfurling beautifully, even as they propel the plot along, while building the characters of our two possible lovers? A year? Try a decade.

Bell and Pegg (above and below) meet more than cute -- it's a great set-up and it's quite believable, too.  This pair does indeed seem "meant for each other." When trouble ensues -- brought about by an old schoolmate, played with utter relish and great comedic skill by the wonderful Rory Kinnear -- that's every bit as bizarrely believable.

Probably the most surprising thing, however, is how the movie treats its "other woman," written and played so well by Ms Lovibond (shown two photos below, at left). This is simply wonderful, and it makes Man Up seem absolutely all that it could be. Compare this with the recent rom-com Tumbledown, and the thankless manner in which it treats its "other woman" and "other man," and you'll quickly understand how special the film is and why its "feel-good" makes you feel that way, guilt-free.

The ensemble supporting cast is quite wonderful, too, with choice names like Harriet Walter, Olivia Williams (above, left), Stephen Campbell Moore (above, right), Ken Stott and Sharon Horgan (of Amazon's fab Catastrophe series) doing lovely turns.

The final scenes, which are as fine as in any rom-com I've seen for ages, build beautifully to the conclusion, in which the word "babysitter" proves pivotal and just about perfect -- and, again, absolutely believable. The array of talent and how it is used here is rather amazing. To miss this delight would be a loss for anyone who appreciates the rom-com genre -- and maybe equally so for just-plain-movie-lovers, too.

This British film had a shockingly small theatrical life on this side of the pond, but its DVD, Blu-ray and eventual streaming venues should help it find the huge audience it so richly deserves. You can view it now via the usual various venues -- for purchase or rental.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Download debut: Tom Hooper/Lucinda Coxon's THE DANISH GIRL

One of this past year's juiciest piece of "Oscar" bait, THE DANISH GIRL proved a relatively successful arthouse hit with audiences, even if many critics found the film wanting. TrustMovies is only catching up with the movie now, upon its video and streaming debut, but he can readily understand both how it turned heads and left something less than a fresh taste in certain mouths. Speaking of taste, the movie is every bit as tasteful as we would expect from Tom Hooper, the director who gave us Oscar winner, The King's Speech, and the filmed version of Les Miz.

Mr. Hooper (shown at right) and his screenwriter, Lucinda Coxon (shown below, who based her writing on the book by David Ebershoff), do their best work early on in telling this very "inspired-by" tale of one of the world's first transgendered women. That would be Einar Wegener -- who became Lili Elbe -- aided by his supportive and hugely long-suffering wife, Gerda Wegener. Both spouses are artists (he of landscapes, she of portraits), and both are talented and (eventually, in her case) successful. Exactly how much of this "story" is actually true I
couldn't begin to vouch for, but it is told in the manner of so many of Hollywood's highly tasteful and lovely-to-look-at historical bio-pics. So it's an easy watch. For awhile. The movie captures our attention via the lead performance of that very fine actor Eddie Redmayne, shown below, who plays Einar/Lili and is quite adept is showing us how this young husband is initially captivated by women and their clothing, and then, once his wife has persuaded him to pose in those clothes so that she can finish a painting, is quickly drawn first into cross-dressing and eventually into the all-out desire and need to become a woman.

Mr Redmayne and Alicia Vikander (below), who plays his wife, are both superb at keeping us alert, watchful and entertained, as well as making us believe that they are indeed soul-mates. The details of the couple's life together and their careers go some distance in making the first half of the film as compelling as it is.

Once Einar begins to get Lili-fied, however, either Ms Coxon did not have enough specifics to draw from or Mr Hooper could not bring these to much life because the movie soon begins to deal mostly in the obvious and the cliched.

As Lili engages in flirtation with an admirer (Ben Whishaw) and is reunited with an old friend and schoolmate (Matthias Schoenaerts, below) who soon bonds with Gerda, the filmmakers seem reduced to too much vamping -- dragging the film out to to fill the two-hour running time.

Yes, we understand how difficult it was back in that even-more-patriarchal-day for a man to relinquish his maleness, but instead of offering up some thoughtful ideas and intelligent dialog, the film instead is content with mostly standard stuff.

Still, this is quite a beautiful movie to look at; the cast is competent and often much more, and the subject is as timely as Caitlyn Jenner (and certainly more interesting than anything I've yet seen or read about her).  

From Focus Features and running 120 minutes, The Danish Girl has been available for digital download since February 16 and will make its DVD and Blu-ray (the transfer to the latter is excellent) this coming Tuesday, March 1 -- for purchase or rental.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Paul Verhoeven's bizarre TRICKED proves an enjoyable -- if misfired -- cinema oddity

Even though his resume is rather up-and-down -- The Fourth Man to Showgirls, Spetters to the original Robocop, Basic Instinct to Black Book -- anything Dutch director Paul Verhoeven hands us is worth at least a look, if not an occasional repeat viewing. So it is with his latest film (and one of his oddest) to reach our shores, the 2012 TRICKED, which is advertised to be (though I rather doubt it) "the first user-generated film." This supposedly means that a bunch of film fans had their say in writing the screenplay, along with maybe a half dozen more-or-less professional writers, all of whom "developed" the movie as the filming process went along.

Verhoeven, shown at left, has long been noted for his diversity -- he doesn't like to do the same thing twice. So tackling this "user-generated" thing probably had some appeal to the guy. Yet it is difficult to believe that a filmmaker this accomplished would not have seen some of the insurmountable problems coming a mile away. The biggest of these is the fact that using so many "screenwriters" (I think I heard the number 70 mentioned) all working independently and handing in their own "scenarios" that took off from an original four-page set-up could not help but result in a movie that has little continuity and certainly no momentum or satisfying finale. Eventually this multi-writer idea had to be scrapped, with the final film using the input from only a few of the scribes. (So much for this truly being a user-generated film.)

We learn all of the above and more from the first third of the movie, just over a half-hour, which is a kind of documentary about the creation of Tricked. Then we see the resulting film (stills from which are shown above and below). While that documentary is not uninteresting, it is clear to any intelligent viewer, almost from the beginning, that this was a terrible, a genuinely stupid idea. All of which makes that first half-hour rather a slough, even though there is an occasional bright moment seen or smart thought expressed.

When we get to the film itself, the Verhoeven we know and love takes over, and things get juicy and spicy and melodramatic and generally lots of fun. The plot is full of lust and betrayal, heavy-duty emotions, family problems and business deals. The performances -- all from pros, young and old -- are just fine, as is always the case in Verhoeven's films, and the technical aspects (editing, sound, cinematography, and all the rest) are great, as well. But the finished movie, coming in at just under one hour, seems like something that would work better on television. Its highly melodramatic plot (it must be, under this kind of time constraint) involves so much "incident" that it often seems to approach a level of "camp."

Verhoeven has always been a director who fills his films with so many happenings, including incident and coincidence, that you're zipping along at a super-fast pace. When this works well, as in Black Book, and a number of his other films, the entertainment quotient is very high. And when the film's running time also allows for some character deepening and theme development, the result can be quite fine. Here, though, it all seems rushed and TV-level (old-fashioned television, like a Twilight Zone episode but without the supernatural or fantasy elements).

And yet, such an old pro is the filmmaker that by the end of Tricked, I found myself hurling right along with all this nonsense, which involved a rake of a husband and his mistresses, current and past; a corporate takeover; and a birthday party with a bulging surprise at its center. I suppose it was decided that releasing a mere 55-minute movie would not be a smart marketing move, so the documentary footage was added to make something full-length. How much better it might have been, TrustMovies suggests, to have made a full-length Verhoeven film instead: one in which all that juicy melodrama was given the kind of backup development it ought to have had. Post-viewing, you're likely to start imagining what all this could have been, and you'll be disappointed not to have seen it, instead.

From Kino Lorber and running a total of 89 minutes, Tricked opens in New York City this Friday, February 26. at the Cinema Village theater and simultaneously via digital streaming on Fandor.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Girdler/Sheldon's early Pam Grier movie, SHEBA, BABY makes its Blu-ray debut

Ah, the irony! For those of us who've been longtime fans of black actress Pam Grier -- from her early days making blaxsploitation films through her more recent work -- the announcement that one of those early films, SHEBA, BABY, would become available in Blu-ray format seemed cause for rejoicing. That the transfer provided by distributor, Arrow Video, looks at least as good as the movie did when it hit theaters back in 1975, simply adds to the delight.

The only problem? The movie mostly stinks. Though this critic had seen all of the early Grier films at the time of their original release, the several decades in between now and then has allowed memory to grow dim. Though I believe that Coffy still holds up as the best of the bunch, followed by Foxy Brown, Sheba-Baby is an alternately silly and shoddy misfire. The reason can be summed up in two words: Jack Hill.

Mr. Hill, who was not involved in this film, was the writer/director of Grier's best early films, including the two mentioned above, along with The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, and he understood how to make fast-moving, funny, exciting and -- yes, enjoyably campy -- exploitation movies. This was not the case with William Girdler (shown at left), the fellow entrusted to make Sheba, Baby, a movie that, more than anything else, simply dawdles its way along. We waste oodles of time merely getting places: walking, waiting on the elevated subway, riding in cars. What should take two or three seconds to establish goes on for 20 or 30. From the opening credits onwards, this kind of low-wattage vamping builds up until we're bored stiff. (Granted movies move faster these days than they did back then, but Girdler gives us nothing interesting to look at during all of his vamping.)

Not to speak ill of the dead (Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash in 1978, after finishing his final film), but in whatever genre you'd want to place him, this filmmaker was a third-rate hack. His action scenes are execrable, his sense of pacing mediocre, and the performances he draws from his casts are uneven to say the least. The most enjoyable job here comes from Christopher Joy (above, right) as one of the several fellows Sheba must question to get to Mr. Big (played with proper smarmy self-satisfaction by Dick Merrifield, below, right).

Plot-wise, the movie has to do with white overlords using their black henchmen to do dirty deeds to good, law-abiding blacks -- destroying their businesses in order to claim the insurance (at least, I think that was what was going on). Basically this is just an excuse for some so-so violence and bloodletting that gives Ms Grier the chance to strut her stuff --- which she does less well here than under the direction of Mr. Hill.

She does however, get to wear some nifty outfits, one after another, and she and her beautiful, sexy body and face, look sensational at all times. If this is enough for you, by all means, rent or purchase the new disc. Otherwise it's for Grier completists only.

On the disc's EXTRAS, there are a couple of good or at least funny interviews: one with movie historian Chris Poggiali regarding Ms Grier's years at American International Pictures; the other a hoot-and-a-half with the film's main screenwriter and producer David Sheldon, in which he compares -- seriously and favorably -- Mr. Girdler's work to that of Steven Spielberg. Mr. Sheldon also boasts that the script of Sheba, Baby was written literally overnight. (Are we surprised?) Trust me: This is not something you want to brag about.

Sheba, Baby -- from Arrow Video and running a way-too-long 89 minutes -- is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, for rental or purchase.