Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Blu-ray and DVD: Antonio Pietrangeli's must-see marvel, I KNEW HER WELL

How did a movie made in 1965 that is as wonderfully rich, deep, mysterious, poignant, funny and altogether marvelous as this one -- I will go on record right now as calling it the best film about a woman I have ever seen -- fail to obtain a theatrical release here in the USA until 2016? Let TrustMovies hazzard a guess: Because it was about a woman, that's why. And back in the 1960s, this was, well, not so important. Fellini's La Dolce Vita, made five years previous, got all the fuss. That one showed us the face of Italy via a successful male character, while I KNEW HER WELL (Io la conoscevo bene) tells the tale of a not-so-successful young woman struggling to find herself and her place in the Italy of the day.

The film's writer and director, Antonio Pietrangeli, shown at left, is practically unknown here in the U.S., and after viewing his movie you'll wonder how and why this could be. The filmmaker died, very untimely, in 1968 at the age of 49, and this was his penulti-mate full-length movie. But what a legacy it provides! (It will certanly make you want to see more of Pietrangeli's work.) Had I Knew Her Well obtained a U.S. theatrical release, I suspect the man's reputation would be much stronger here than it is. Certainly some of our critics would have seen how vital and important a movie it was. And remains.

The film also gave the stunning and very talented Italian actress Stefania Sandrelli, shown above and below, the best role of her quite illustrious career, and she rose to the occasion perfectly with the kind of intuitive, quiet-yet-spectacular performance that happens maybe once in a career.

This beautiful performer -- who made her internationally acclaimed debut in Divorce Italian Style, among the other two movies she made in 1961 -- plays a young girl from an impoverished farm family in the provinces who has come to Rome to make something of herself. She uses her beauty and what skills she has to find her way into some kind of career -- maybe films -- and we follow her from scene to scene, man to man, one career step to the next, and as she goes, we grow to know her well.

Pietrangeli's method is to show us one scene after another, some short, some lengthy, some in which Adriana is pivotal, others in which she is on the periphery, yet in every one she makes her mark. With each very well chosen scene (Pietrangeli both wrote and directed the film), we learn more about Adriana and grow increasingly fond of her, as the filmmaker and Sandrelli uncover layer after layer of her character: how she reacts to and thinks about men, her surprisingly fine and judicious sense of morality, her enormous humanity and love for those around her; and her own growth and change as she comes to understand the world of which she is a part.

To call Pietrangeli a humanist is too faint praise. His choice of scenes and how he allows Adriana to slowly bloom before us is something that only a great artist can maneuver. His camera and its framing, the splendid black-and-white cinematography, and the casting of all the roles -- small to large -- is impeccable. Yet it all flows by so easily and gracefully that you might think it were a near-improvised documentary.

We see Adriana  at work as a rather absent-minded beautician, working with a sleazy PR guy to try to break into the movies, taking care of a neighbor's infant baby, meeting a sad and beaten-down boxer (above), being taken for a ride literally and figurative by an attractive con man (a young Jean- Claude Brialy, below), and so much more.  Through it all, the young woman simply grows in stature in our eyes.

In one of the most telling scenes, her current boyfriend, a successful writer (Joachim Fuchsberger, below), realizes how much more on-the-ball she is than he -- even we -- had thought. Later, at a party for a successful actor of the day, Adriana plays a supporting role, as that actor and his current producer make nasty fun of an over-the-hill actor (Ugo Tognazzi), as Adriana is photographed for a segment on a soon-to-be-released newsreel. The result of this provides the film with one of its most unsettling moments.

The movie is full of name actors -- from a very young Franco Nero to Mario Adorf, Nino Manfredi and Karin Dor (below, left) -- all of whom essay their small roles with aplomb. But it's Ms Sandrelli who proves the heart and soul of the film. See it, and you will never forget her. (The actress appears in a relatively current interview in one of the bonus features on the DVD and Blu-ray discs, and what she has to say to us about the film, its writer/director, and why it holds up so well today is so worth hearing.)

Not surprisingly, we also get a good, dark look at the Italy of this time period via all of Adriana's exploits, and what we see is not very nice. Whether it's the film industry, a boxing match, an abortion, the attentions of a wealthy young man (below) or the owner of the beauty salon where our girl initially works, Adriana is used, and usually rather badly. No one, neither characters nor filmmaker, makes the statement, yet we come away from the film not being able to help considering the place of a woman in society.

There's no mention of feminism in the movie, yet it speaks as strongly as any film ever made to and about women and how they were then and are now perceived. Yet the movie never preaches; it simply shows. After renting and watching the film via Netflix, I immediately went to my computer and ordered a Blu-ray copy and as soon as it arrived a few days later, I watched it again so that my spouse could see it (he was as impressed as I). This is the first time in years that I've purchased a film I've already seen, but I plan to keep it again and share it with as many people as I can. It's that special.

I Knew Her Well is available now from The Criterion Collection, on DVD and Blu-ray, for rental or purchase. Both versions provide, as usual via Criterion, exemplary transfers.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Yes, Jeremy Saulnier's GREEN ROOM is just as white-knuckle, scarily great as you've heard

Really now: can any film live up to those mostly rapturous reviews together with the enormous consumer approval that the new thriller, GREEN ROOM, has generated?  As a certain disappointing President might say, Yes, it can. This new and riveting thriller from Jeremy Saulnier takes its place as the best white-knuckle-inducing movie since the woefully underseen Not Safe For Work. In fact, Green Room is even more edge-of-your-seat friendly, and it's a lot creepier, too -- due to its backwoods, white-supremacist venue.

The film's very title is oh-so-nicely ironic. When TrustMovies first heard it bandied about, he immediately thought of the "green rooms" he'd known when he worked at Manhattan's Lincoln Center, Further, the movie's star, Patrick Stewart, (below) conjured images of the actor's recent film, Match, which takes place in Manhattan's Upper West Side, in which Stewart plays a famous choreographer and teacher. Hardly.

Instead, Mr. Saulnier (shown two photos above: such a kindly-looking fellow to create all this mayhem) uses that green room -- as scuzzy an example of the venue as we've seen -- initially for its little quartet of punk rockers to relax pre-performance, and then as a place for sudden shock, imprisonment, escape and much, much worse.

Saulnier starts very slowly -- we meet the band mid-trip and note their very hand-to-mouth existence. When their next gig goes south, the fellow who set it up provides a quickly planned new one in those aforementioned backwoods, and our group is off to the races.

Once the moment of reckoning arrives, there's no turning back, and the film simply goes from overdrive to warp speed, so fast and furiously that if there are a couple of questionable moments (and I think there may be), so completely breathless are we in the audience that there's no time to quibble while we're viewing.

Along the way there are plenty of moments of black humor and little ironies abound, never more so than a scene between a dog and his master at the conclusion. But none of these seem like the usual generic fodder that mainstream Hollywood is so fond of churning out. Everything in this movie is geared to character, location and ambience. Green Room, in fact, is the genre film raised to the level of art.

The cast is beautifully chosen and each member delivers -- from star Stewart on down. Band members are essayed by Anton Yelchin (above, right: this is his second excellent "music" movie in the last year or so, after Rudderless), Alia Shawkat (above, center), Callum Turner (star of the wonderful and still not available on home video Queen and Country) and Joe Cole (below)

On the other side, though some positions do change, are actors like Mr. Stewart (giving one of his most chilling performances), Imogen Poots (below), Mark Webber (at bottom) and Macon Blair (of Blue Ruin, Saulnier's excellent earlier movie). Each character comes through tellingly, thanks to the performer and the on-point screenplay, also by Saulnier -- who has made his villian exceedingly bright and vicious and his protagonists so frightened and crazed that they will try just about anything.

By film's end, I suspect you'll feel hugely satisfied, and not simply because you're been taken on a breathless, horrifying adventure, but also because the filmmaker appears to play so very fairly with both his tale and his audience. He rarely relies on coincidence or happenstance, and he lets the chips fall where they may. This is not what we're used to, and if it's sometimes difficult to watch, the result is a movie you'll stayed glued to and will not easily forget.

Green Room -- from A24 and running a sleek 95 minutes -- after opening in New York and Los Angeles two weeks back, opens nationwide today. Here in South Florida, it plays Boca Raton at the Cinemark Palace 20, in Sunrise at the Regal Sawgrass Stadium 23, in Aventura at the AMC Aventura 24, in Miami Beach at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18, in Hollywood at the Regal Oakwood Stadium 18, in Fort Lauderdale at the Regal Cypress Creek Stadium 16, in Davie at the Cinemark Paradise 24 and in South Miami at the AMC Sunset Place 24. If you're elsewhere, to learn the theater nearest you, simply click here and enter your zip code or city/state.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Another "mothering" lesson in Peter A. Dowling's Irish horror thriller, SACRIFICE

Just yesterday we got an oddball lesson in mothering via Bulgaria, and here again today, we have another one from Ireland in the new horror thriller, SACRIFICE. Yesterday's tutorial came by and for women, but today's arrives via the guys, god bless 'em, and a more nasty, crazy, blood-thirsty and uber-patriarchal bunch of sleazebags, you're unlikely to find. This is thanks to director and adapter (of the novel by S.J. Bolton) Peter A. Dowling, shown below, who has done a pretty credible job of bringing this especially grizzly tale to the screen.

Most of the violence is kept off-screen, actually, but via a discovered corpse or two (and more to come) we fairly quickly learn the specifics of what happened (they're pretty ugly), if not quite why. Uncovering the latter is up to the film's star, Australia's always-willing-and-able Radha Mitchell, who plays a doctor who desperately wants to have a baby with hubby (Rupert Graves). But this is not to be, it seems; instead the pair travels to Ireland and a little island where hubby's wealthy family has quite a nice set-up going.

Ms Mitchell (above and below) is front and center throughout the film, and she handles her duties with her usual skill. From the film's particularly impressive opening scene in the hospital where she works as a gynecologist and has a very unusual session with a pregnant patient, the star proceeds to the island on which she very quickly determines that something is terribly wrong and begins investigating.

As usual in films like this, the townspeople, including the authorities, are not helpful, and so our heroine (Tora is her name) must tackle everything from the detective work to operating heavy machinery (below).  Just who -- if anyone -- is among the good guys is up for grabs here, which adds to the suspense and danger, all of which gets sorted out within the appropriate 90-minute running time.

A few red herrings turn up, the ensemble cast does everything required, and the movie overall plays out as swift, scary and (somewhat ghastly) fun. TrustMovies is making no claims to greatness here, but as horror thrillers go, Sacrifice is perfectly presentable, though it's something one might be inclined to view at home rather than making a pricier, more time-consuming trek to the cinema.

Which is all to the good, since the movie, from IFC Midnight, opens simultaneously on VOD and all digital platforms, as well as in a theater or two. In New York City, you can find it at the IFC Center (at a single late-night screening only) beginning tomorrow, April 29. The following Friday, May 6, it opens in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.  

Mothering, Bulgarian-style, in Maya Vitkova's gorgeous personal/political oddity, VIKTORIA

What a knockout (for a good while, at least) is VIKTORIA, the near-new (made in 2014) film from Maya Vitkova, shown below, which is said to be based somewhat on the filmmaker's own life -- with a little magic realism/ absurdity tossed in for good measure. We've long heard that popular phrase advising us that "the political is personal" -- or is it the other way around? -- but seldom do we see something that brings this idea to such specific life, if in awfully free-ranging fashion.

Viktoria, the character, is the spawn of Boryana and her live-in boyfriend who occupy a one-room apartment with Boryana's mom.The movie begins with their morning lovemaking, with mom unhappily listening. Well, this is Bulgaria under Communism, so there's little chance for even a separate bedroom. Though mom is still a true believer, who, according to Boryana, sacrificed her daughter's betterment for that of the Communist Party's, Boryana herself seems like a person drained of all hope. When her BF asks what they will name the baby he expects to have just helped conceive, she asks blankly, "What baby?"

And, yes, there is a baby -- an absolute delight of a cutie, above, who is born without a belly button (we won't get into how this is medically possible; that's part of the magic realism/symbolism on display) and so becomes a "hero" of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, and a clear sign to the powers- that-be that Bulgarian babies no longer need umbilical cords. What a country!

Ms Vitkova's rendition of the country's Communist leaders, along with her hilarious portrayal of Viktoria's education and elementary school years, where she is played by the very game Daria Vitkova (above, and the filmmaker's niece) -- how the power structure facilitates her every wish and need -- shows us a country that seems to have grown stupider with each ensuing decade. No wonder our Boryana is depressed.

She is also, as portrayed by actress Irmena Chichikova, shown above and below, one hell of a beauty, with a face the camera just loves. And this is where Vitkova begins to go a bit off-kilter. She sticks that camera on Chichikova's lovely, dark, deep face far too often and too long. For awhile we're so besotted with this weird tale and the pyrotechnics of the Communist nit-witticisms that we march along happily, both marvelling at and appalled by what we see and hear.

But the movie goes on for over two and one-half hours, and once the fall of Communism occurrs and Capitalism has reared its almost equally ugly head, much of the fun goes out of the film, and we're left with a little too much artsy-fartsy. feminist-to-a-fault filmmaking that drains the energy from Viktoria, both the character, who by now is a very sad young adult (played by Kalina Vitkova, another of the filmmaker's nieces, shown below), and the film itself.

This is too bad, because there is so much to recommend about the movie, from its use of symbolism -- cutting the other umbilical cord to the red-button phone (below) that links Viktoria to her country's leader, and showing us the great need for (and multitudinous ways to dispense) milk -- to its rich cinematography (by Krum Rodriguez) to the director's often buoyant and funny visual and verbal sense (Ms Vitkova also wrote the ambitious screenplay).

The film has its own rhythm, as well, and it's quite slow, and sometimes repetitious. But as the three generations of women we meet break further apart and then try to feebly bond again, the movie also begins to turn a bit too sentimental -- even if Vitkova does not, thankfully, go all out in this direction. We hope for better days for at least two of the three generations, for Viktoria especially. But given what we see and learn about Bulgaria through these eyes, the future is not particularly bright. There's an enormous and very real longing here for "elsewhere."  Venice, anyone?

Viktoria -- a Bulgaria/Romania co-production released in the USA by Big World Pictures and running 156 minutes -- opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Friday, April 29, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and IFC Center, and on May 13 in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque, and then in Los Angeles on June 10 at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Maybe, if some positive word-of-mouth builds. Goodness knows, this movie does not easily compare with much else you'll have seen. And for real film buffs, that may be enough to entice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

With SING STREET, John Carney goes three for three. Yes, a song can indeed save your life.

First Once. Then Begin Again. Now SING STREET. Filmmaker John Carney seems bent on proving to the world how important music is in all our lives. It certainly was in his own, as this latest and heavily biographical movie so buoyantly demonstrates. His first film used complete "unknowns" as its stars; his second tapped the talents of some very "known quantities" -- Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and others -- and succeeded as well.

With Sing Street, Carney (shown at left) is back to using more "unknowns" again, and the film is every bit as wonderful as his other two. It'll leave you walking on air, feeling delight in both living and listening -- to a score that pays homage to some of the great groups of the 80s while creating original songs that are bouncy and beautiful, graceful and gorgeous -- all on their own. As an added perk, the filmmaker may have jump-started the careers of two young performers we're bound to be seeing much more of in time to come.

Critics, while almost unanimously embracing the film, have mentioned that its story is anything but unique. Starting a band from scratch is not the newest idea to hit music, films or life itself, for that matter. Yet so utterly specific is Mr. Carney as writer and director, and so interesting, funny, moving and real are all the characters he and his actors have created that it is not in the least difficult to imagine you're seeing all this for the first time. And loving every damned minute.

Carney cleverly places us first in the family situation, as we see our hero, Cosmo, a marvelous debut by young actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (who might possibly want to consider adapting a "stage" name?). He is shown above, right, with Jack Reynor, who plays his older brother and mentor, Brendan, with such richness, subtlety, range and skill that Reynor comes very close to stealing the movie.

Yes, there have been many movies about starting a band. But the reason for starting this one is certainly a bit different: to impress and then get to know a slightly older girl named Raphina.  As played by Lucy Boynton (above), a veteran of some dozen roles already, it will be this role, I suspect, that puts Ms Boynton firmly on the map. She's beautiful and charismatic, all right, but she also possesses that particular quality of seeming even more so when she seems to trying the least.

Together, Cosmo and Raphina make quite a pair, and the girl's history of troubled parentage and having already another boyfriend just adds to the pair's chemistry and the movie's suspense. Ditto the troubled relationship of Cosmo's own parents (played by Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) whose economics and intimacy are both spiraling downwards.

Each band member, even those given the least screen time, registers as special and real (that's Mark McKenna, above, right, as the band's smartest and most versatile member) -- and the school bully, too, has something interesting in store from the filmmaker. The songs, as I say, are just lovely. Best of all is the scene in the school gym/auditorium, with the band performing and Cosmo suddenly having a rather special and charmingly low-key-but-spectacular fantasy about everything he wants suddenly coming to fruition.

There are many high points in this wonderful film, but this scene, I think, reaches highest of all. It lets us know from where Mr. Carney is coming, and that, yes, for sure: a song can save your life. (I believe that last phrase was to be the title of Carney's second hit -- until someone had the lesser idea to change it to Begin Again.)

Sing Street, released via The Weinstein Company and running a just-about-perfect 106 minutes, opened to fairly rapturous reviews in NYC and L.A. a couple of weeks back. It opens across country this Friday, April 29. Here in South Florida, you can find it at the Gateway 4 in Ft. Lauderdale, the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton, and the Carmike Parisian @ City Place in West Palm Beach. Elsewhere? Just click here and enter your zipcode to learn the theater nearest you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

HIGH-RISE: Ben Wheatley/Amy Jump's version of the J.G. Ballard novel hits screens

Ben Wheatley -- he of those very violent movies Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers and then of the more modulated, explorative and interesting (though somewhat violent) A Field in England -- is back, this time bringing to the screen a novel about the collapse-of-civilization-in-microcosm by J.G. Ballard that he has directed, the screenplay for which has been adapted by Wheatley's partner Amy Jump. The movie is HIGH-RISE, and I have to say that it is a colossal failure by almost any standard against which you'd care to measure.

Visually arresting (for a time, at least) and sporting an ensemble cast of relatively big names, the movie boasts certainly the largest budget with which Wheatley, shown at right, has yet been allowed to play. Leading the ensemble is Tom Hiddleston, below (in a shot that should give you some idea of the classy design scheme the movie offers), as a successful doctor who has recently moved into a semi-spectacular high-rise building, in and on which the penthouse and roof offer things nearly unseen anywhere else. (You may note, however, that as the building deteriorates, it does not seem to be the same structure that we saw earlier, at least not where that penthouse and roof are concerned.)

Wheatley is known for his semi-original crushing of dark comedy and ultra-violence (Down Terrace and Sightseers, particularly). Almost any comic factor has leeched out of High-Rise so we are left with Wheatley and Jump's usual cast of of characters that we care little for or about. While this is all to the good, considering what happens to most of them in all of Wheatley's movies, it doesn't do much for our overall enjoyment of his films. Without characters to care about, there is far too little at stake.

Other occupants of the high-rise include Sienna Miller (above) as a slutty single mom and Elizabeth Moss (below, with Hiddleston) who plays a constantly pregnant woman dragging around a huge brood of kids. Add this role to the one Moss is most famous for (remember that first season of Mad Men?), and you have an actress taking her pregnant characters to new heights (or depths).

Every apartment building ought to have its macho man, and here that role is played by a heavily mustached Luke Evans (below), who pulls out all the stops in the manliness and stupidity departments (though, in truth, most everyone else here proves pretty stupid, too). The film's plot, if it has any, simply shows us the destruction of the entitled upper class and working class aspirants, yet adds nothing to what we've already seen, from Pinter/Losey's The Servant onwards.

Jeremy Irons (below) plays the guy in charge of it all, a surprisingly fit senior citizen, but his character, too, proves a big nothing, about whom the most important thing may be that he likes the color white. His nutty wife is essayed by the always interesting Keeley Hawes (shown at right two photos below with Sienna Guillory), who is interesting here, too, and is given a good deal of screen time to little avail.

High-Rise may be the biggest waste of my time so far this year. Wheatley's stock-in-trade would seem to be pushing the envelope violence-wise, and this grows increasingly tiresome. Yes, there are some classy visuals here, too, and that evidently is enough for some critics to view and then imagine that they're watching a good movie. I hope Mr. Wheatley goes back to something more edifying like his best work, A Field in England.

Mr. Hiddleston, below, acquits himself as well as possible under these tiresome circumstances. What a sexy, classy and talented actor he is. Compare his work as Loki (in the Thor films) with his performances in The Deep Blue Sea and Only Lovers Left Alive, and you'll wish for better roles for him soon. (I hear he is very good in the current cable series The Night Manager.)

Meanwhile, High-Rise -- from Magnolia Pictures and running a way-too-long two hours -- opens on VOD, Amazon Video and iTunes this Thursday, April 28, and then theatrically around the U.S. on Friday, May 13. Click here to view currently scheduled playdates, with all cities and theaters listed.