Wednesday, November 30, 2016

SiREN: the nifty new horror/thriller from Gregg Biship and David Bruckner

Stealing (or maybe homaging) from all sorts of earlier efforts in the horror genre -- most noticeably in the lead creature's special effects via Vincenzo Natali's Splice -- the new monster/horror/ Satanist/boys-behaving-badly movie, SiREN (and, yes, that lower case "i" is intentional) turns out to be a very nice example of what can be done in the fantasy genre when you couple a low budget to some free-wheeling and creative minds. We may have seen all these various pieces previously, but the manner in which screenwriter David Bruckner and director Gregg Bishop have assembled them works like gangbusters.

Misters Bishop, shown at left, and Bruckner hand us two very different situations/ scenarios -- the Satanic calling-up of some sort of evil creature (first seen as a frightening little girl, and then as a sexy, scary adult) and the bachelor party of a nice young man (Chase Williamson, below) about to be married to a nice young woman -- and then jam the two together into a fast-paced, frightening 83 minutes in which the now grown SiREN of the title sets her sights on that hunky young man, making his and his mates' lives more than a little miserable in the process.

If that were all, it would be plenty, but the movie offers some other nice treats (well, treats for fans of horror films, at least): subsidiary characters imagined with more than the usual, run-of-the-mill motives and visuals. First there is a fellow named Mr. Nyx, played by Justin Welborn, below, who seems to best understand what is going on here and also to be able to control it. Then there is Nyx's assistant, Ash, played with sly relish by Brittany S. Hall, a looker in a blue wig. (What we get when that wig is removed proves one of the more creative special effects.)

The bachelor party bros are also well cast and characterized, with each registering swiftly and strongly in his role. (That's Michael Aaron Milligan, below, as our hero's extremely stupid-but-caring brother.)

SiREN's special effects, in fact, are surprisingly good, given the film's relatively low budget. These are not offered non-stop -- as in so many of our current Marvel (and other) blockbuster schlock  -- but are dished out quite selectively. They are also well-chosen, often surprising, and done with imagination and skill.

In the title role is an actress -- Hannah Fierman (above and below) -- whom I first saw in the segment of the horror anthology, V/H/S, from which the current film has been expanded. That short segment was impressive, all right, and the full-length movie that has resulted from it is, too. (This is not a case, as often happens, of an expansion outstaying its welcome.) Ms Fierman is as impressive here as she was in short form: weird and weirdly beautiful, she'll sweep you off your feet, just as she does, quite literally, our hero.

For a film that takes you places you've already been, SiREN manages this with unusual flair and even some surprise. Its fast pace seldom lessens, right up to the climax that, while it paves the way for a sequel, offers a perfectly fine and fixating finale all its own.

From Chiller Films, the movie opens in New York (at the Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (and the Arena Cinelounge) this Friday, December 2. For anyone not located in these two cultural capitals, SiREN will hit VOD, DVD and Digital HD this coming Tuesday, December 6th. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

China laid bare (once again) in Johnny Ma's stinging do-the-right-thing movie, OLD STONE

Making the correct choice -- as best you can determine, at least -- is given quite the workout in a new Chinese-Canadian movie that starts off like a heavy-duty social-justice melodrama before turning into a very weird kind of revenge (against society) quasi-thriller. That OLD STONE, written and directed by first-timer Johnny Ma (shown below), works as well as it does is due in large part to the quietly riveting performance from its lead actor, Chen Gang (shown on poster, left, and further below), who brings such self-effacing honesty and troubling kindness to his role of protagonist, that he will keep you hooked through some very odd twists and turns, a little sentimentality and a full-out character descent into... well, you'll see.

Mr. Ma, born in China but raised from age ten in Canada, offers up past, present, and even a little future in his film, which tells its story of enormous social injustice via his leading character: a not especially smart but essentially decent and honorable taxi driver involved in a traffic accident that sends a young motorcyclist to the hospital and our protagonist into the hell-on-earth that is apparently Chinese society today. Those, like myself, unfamiliar with the ins and out of China's health care, policing and insurance systems, will have to take what Ma dishes out as gospel. Given what we, along with our hero, experience here, this is not difficult to do.

Initially, you may imagine that the movie is something akin to the recent Mexican melodrama that indicted that country's horrid health-care/insurance system, A Monster With A Thousand Heads. But, no: it lacks that film's momentum, swift pacing and single-mindedness. Instead Ma goes a bit too heavily for "art," opening with and returning time and again to a view of a forest and its rolling trees.

We learn of the accident (above), along with what led up to this, in small doses, spending time with our taxi driver, his family, his boss, the police, and the hospital, not to mention the comatose victim and his family (the latter via cell phone), and the drunk skunk who actually caused the accident. All of this is woven pretty well into the unfurling scenario, with most of the puzzle pieces fitting together by the time we reach the finale.

Most effective as an indictment of a society that seems every bit as venal, uncaring and incompetent as our hero is caring and kind, the movie actually misses its mark as strong drama mostly by trying a little too hard for the artsy and/or noirish.

But Old Stone is worth seeing as a first step in what might be a productive career for the filmmaker, and especially for the award-calibre performance from the terrific Mr. Chen.

From Zeitgeist Films, in Mandarin with English subtitles, and running a short 81 minutes, the movie opens in New York (at the IFC Center) tomorrow, Wednesday, November 30; in Seattle (at the Grand Illusion Cinema) on December 2; and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts) on December 9. For a look at all the dozen currently-scheduled playdates -- with theaters and cities included -- simply click  here  and then scroll down.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Kenneth Lonergan's latest amazement -- MANCHESTER BY THE SEA -- hits Florida

With his three films so far, playwright and filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan has managed to score a double (You Can Count on Me), a home run, (Margaret) and now a triple/near homer with his latest feat, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. It is so rare in American filmmaking for an artist to take the tragic view of life and serve it up in a manner that is as real as it is non-melodramatic. But that is what Mr. Lonergan, pictured below, has accomplished here.

By "tragic view of life," TrustMovies does not mean that the filmmaker has given us anything like the old-fashioned tragic hero out of classical literature: the-great-man-brought-down-by-hubris etc. Still, there is no getting around the fact that Lonergan's view of  the lives of us humans is seen through the tragic lens -- from the inevitable end that awaits us all to the particulars of the lives lived beforehand.

Our protagonist, played with a strange and riveting combination of anger, strength and humility by a never-better Casey Affleck (shown below), as well as the characters who surround him, are all living with the pain and stigma of a muddled-yet-still-striving life. And for all the darkness here, what makes the film so fulfilling and wonderful is how much life and joy, humor and depth the filmmaker is able to bring to the proceedings. As an all-over experience, Manchester by the Sea is as rich and it is riveting.

Lonergan tosses us into the middle of things, flashing back and forth in time often. But thanks to the specificity of all the performances, large or small, we never lose our track, and as the film moves along, we become ever more attuned to its characters and their dilemmas.

Mr. Affleck plays Lee, a handyman formerly married to and now divorced from Randi (Michelle Williams, above), and brother to Joe (Kyle Chandler, below, left) and uncle to Joe's son Patrick (played in the younger version by Ben O'Brien, and in the older by Lucas Hedges, the latter shown two photos below, right). We also meet Joe's addiction-prone wife (a fine Gretchen Mol) and, briefly, the fellow she ends up with (Matthew Broderick). You could not ask for better performances from any of these actors.

Midway through the movie,we learn of the event that has turned Lee's world (and that of those around him) upside down, and it is such a life-changing thing that it has created a division in our main character: a kind of "before" and "after." But so gracefully has Lonergan unfurled his tale that we always know where we are and which Lee we're looking at, even as we come to fully understand who this man now is and how he arrived here. Though this singular event is accidental, it could easily have been prevented, and this is the thing that haunts our hero.

Back to that tragic view: Despite the awfulness of what has happened, and what this has done to Lee, Lonergan's film is full of spirit and specificity, humor and charm. All this goes a long way in making Manchester by the Sea such a splendid experience, even if it leaves us, finally, grounded and more than a little thoughtful concerning life and its sorrows. This is surely one of this year's best movies.

From Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions and running a long but vivid 137 minutes, the film  -- which opened in New York and Los Angeles two weeks previous and is opening nationwide now and in the weeks to come -- hits South Florida this Friday, December 2 in nine locations, with further Florida openings the following Friday, December 9. Wherever you are, to find your nearest theater, simply click here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lucile Hadzihalilovic's follow-up, EVOLUTION, proves another stylish, mysterious provocation

For all those hoping that more brilliant lightning might strike again, after Lucile Hadzihalilovic's earlier amazement, Innocence, I would suggests tamping down those expectations. Her new film, EVOLUTION does not begin to achieve the visual delights coupled to compelling tale that the earlier movie delivered. That said, there is still plenty to enjoy here -- visually, in particular -- if you don't mind some repetition and pacing of the snail variety. As I recall, Innocence ran a couple of hours, while this new film lasts but 81 minutes.

Content-wise, however, the bill remains unfilled. As in her earlier endeavor, Ms Hadzihalilovic, shown at right, takes us to a time and place that exists.... well, we know not where. It could be the future but it might also be some sort of dream or vision. Innocence told a story of a group of young girls and for what they were being groomed. Evolution does the same, but this time with young boys. And it is an even darker vision that the filmmaker presents this time around.

It is also a much less enticing world, in terms of the visuals on offer. Though the film takes place at the seashore, perhaps on an island, once we get inside (we stay there much of the time), the color palette is dark and drab, and although where we are appears to be a kind of  "hospital" located in a tiny village, everything looks about as clean and pristine as a shit pit. Perhaps this village's Health and Welfare budget has been decreed upon by our current Republican Party lawmakers.

The movie, like Innocence, is very spare regarding dialog. There is little of it, but the sense of mystery that hovers over all, together with the creepy visuals, help make up for this lack. Our lead character is a beautiful young boy named Nicolas (played by newcomer Max Brebant, above). In fact this village is peopled only with young boys and adult women: no young girls nor men of any age are ever seen.

What does this mean? And what in hell are the women doing to the boys? The answers slowly become clearer, if not transparent, as "mothers" (such as Julie-Marie Parmentier, above) are shown to be anything but motherly, and only one odd "nurse" (Roxane Duran, below) might possibly turn out to be a figure for good in the life of our little boy.

Evolution proves to be a very dark tale, ugly even. But it achieves its ends via quiet, disturbing images that often raise more questions than they answer. Ms Hadzihalilovic keeps us on track, however, and by the finale we can perhaps find a little hope for our beleaguered protagonist, although even this is rather "iffy," considering all that we still do not know.

What keeps the movie from resonating as strongly as it might is its very slow pace, during which -- for some of the time, at least -- we learn little that is new. Eventually this weighs the film down, especially given its dank, dark interiors and multitudinous nighttime scenes. What keeps it afloat, however, is Hadzihalilovic's fertile imagination and originality. No one that I can think of has made a movie much like either Innocence or Evolution. What's next, I wonder?

From IFC Midnight, Evolution opens this Friday in New York City at the IFC Center.  Elsewhere? Not sure, but as the film will simultaneously appear on VOD, if you want to see it anytime soon, you will surely be able.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Steven Okazaki's MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI explores the life, times & films of a great actor

Toshirô Mifune was an important movie star for those of us, like TrustMovies, who spent their adolescence and early adulthood in the thrall of foreign language films -- the likes of which we'd never before seen in our still-young lives. From 1947 through 1995, the actor made more than 182 movie and television appearances, though his international breakout hit, Rashomon, did not arrive until 1950. (Another of his most acclaimed performances, in Stray Dog, came one year earlier, but that film was not released in the U.S. until 1963.)

In the 2015 documentary MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI, filmmaker Steven Okazaki (shown at left) gives those of us who revered Mifune -- who was the first and best of the many "strong, silent types" (Clint Eastwood, for example) who followed after him -- the opportunity to learn a lot more than we've previously known about the man, his life and times. Mifune was Japanese, all right, but he was born in China (to Japanese parents) and raised in Dalian. He never actually lived in Japan until he was 21 and WWII was well under way. He served in Japan's military and fell into acting, as so many post-war Japanese did as a way to better survive.

Okazaki's movie begins by telling us of the greatness of Mifune (shown above and below) and what might not exist without him. But can the film make the case for all this? We get some interesting information on the history and culture -- particularly regarding Japanese cinema -- that was new to me, at least, and what the early "ronin" movies meant to Japanese audiences, given their themes of heroism and sacrifice.

We hear from various actors and other movie professionals who worked with Mifune, from his son -- who tells us that it was his father's compassion that made him so rebellious -- and from everyone concerned about Mifune's long and hugely productive relationship with the great filmmaker and collaborator, Akira Kurosawa (below, left).

The two men made multiple movies together and then suddenly parted ways, never to return. The why of this is explored somewhat, but even with all hands on deck and offering possible reasons, we never learn but haltingly and marginally what actually happened between the two men, who died within a year of each other -- Mifune in 1997, Kurosawa in 1998.

We do learn that two of Mifune's favorite things were cars and alcohol, though neither seems to have had too much of an adverse effect. Along the way, we discover that Toho Studios, where many of Mifune's most famous films were made, had little understanding of how to use women in its films. (Yes, Ozu worked elsewhere.) Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese chime in at points with interesting thoughts and opinions.

Coming in at just 85 minutes, the movie never for a moment bores as it dances and skips along. But one might have wanted more length, as well as more depth, for overall exploration. By its end, however, it does answer the question posed in my third paragraph, above: It absolutely makes the case for Mifune as an original, a landmark performer and a great actor.

From Strand Releasing, and spoken in English and Japanese (with English subtitles), the documentary opens this Friday, November 25, at the IFC Center in New York City, and on December 2 at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills and Landmark's Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will hit another ten cities over the weeks and months to come and eventually appear in DVD. Click here and then scroll down and click on Screenings in the task bar to see all currently scheduled playdates with theaters and cities listed.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

ON THE MAP: Dani Menkin's ode to world basketball and the surprising '77 Israeli team

I suspect you will have to be neither a huge basketball fan nor a staunch lover of Israel to still be amazed and moved by the new documentary, ON THE MAP. As written and directed by Dani Menkin (who gave us the wonderful Dolphin Boy, as well as the more recent and not-so-hot narrative film, Is That You?), this sprightly, enthusiastic movie introduces us to a certain Maccabi team from Tel Aviv that made sports and Israeli history back in 1977 by putting Israel, as its captain tell us, "On the map--not just in sports but in everything!"

Mr. Menkin, shown at right, is clearly besotted with love for this team, and he manages to share that with his audience in a way that is exciting, refreshing, and even sometimes heart-stopping. It helps, of course, that the story here is top-of-the-line: a come-from-behind, success-despite-all-odds tale of hard work plus talent that pays off bigtime. And Menkin tells it supremely well, using a smart combination of history, culture, some first-class interviews, and archival footage of the players and their games that brings all this to fine, immediate life.

We see the players then (above) and now (below), and we hear from most of them, too. One of them, Jim Boatwright, is now dead, but his ex-wife makes a fine substitute -- funny, appealing and moving, as she tells us of those days and times and what it all meant to her husband.

The captain of the team -- its star player and the man who most helped bring these players all together -- was Tal Brody (below), whom we see in action on and off the court. We also hear from Brody's friend and co-player (some decades back), Bill Walton, who clearly is still moved and amazed by what these Maccabis did. Hearing Walton talk about all this is one of the documentary's highlights.

We learn how history -- from the creation of Israel to its various wars to the 1972 Munich Olympics -- played into the importance of what happened in 1977. We also meet the one black player on the team, Aulcie Perry (below, center), and learn how a plate full of cakes determined his fate with the team, and how and why he later converted to Judaism.

We're there as Moshe Dayan (above, right) congratulates the team, as well as when Prime Minister Rabin resigns from office on the very day of one of the team's most important games. The anecdotes here are well-chosen, pointed and entertaining -- adding up to a first-class documentary that will have you on the edge of your seat, cheering, holding your breath, and finally maybe shedding a tear or two.

From Hey Jude Productions and running just 85 minutes, On The Map opens in Los Angeles this coming Friday, November 25, at Laemmle's Royal and in New York City on December 9 at the Cinema Village. Click here, then click on SCREENINGS, to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. There will be personal appearances in Los Angeles and perhaps elsewhere, too. Check the theaters' listings for dates and times.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tom Ford's adaptation, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, tackles art (in several forms) and love

Based on the novel, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright, the new film from Tom Ford -- famous fashion designer-turned-moviemaker who earlier gave us A Single Man -- NOCTURNAL ANIMALS appears to be about some extraordinarily shallow people attempting to connect (or re-connect). But, again, as with his earlier film, to quote the famous Ms Stein, "There's no 'there' there." Visually, as we might expect from Mr. Ford, the movie is often jolting or chicly impressive; character-wise, it is running almost entirely on empty and cliché.

From Ford's opening scene (the filmmaker is shown at left) -- in which grossly obese nude women dance, burlesque-style, in enormous video projections, while their real-life counterparts laze throughout a huge art gallery in a kind of performance-art installation -- we are treated to, I presume, the filmmaker's idea of how far our degenerate art world has sunk. (If this is not his point, then I guess I would have to include him and his movie into this same sink hole.)

The art gallery owner herself (another versatile performance from Amy Adams, above) freely admits what trash this art show is, as she mulls over the possibility of giving all this up and joining the ranks of hoi polloi. Her friend consuls her that she has a much happier life as she is, and that's as far as that idea ever goes.

Into this gallery owner's life arrives a manuscript of a novel about to be published, written by her ex-husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, above), who has dedicated his novel to her and now wants her to read it. She does, and the movie then divides its time between the story embedded in that novel and the gallery owner, whose life present and past we learn about in bits and pieces and flashbacks.

All of this, however, is offered up to us as almost shockingly generic. Her ex's novel, which deals in a random highway incident culminating in rape, murder, guilt and finally revenge, is pulpy and obvious, while the supposed "love" story, involving the husband and wife in their younger, happier and more innocent days, provides little more than standard-issue characterization that does not allow us to care about nor remain much interested in these people.

The screenplay is awash in the obvious -- everything from self-help bromides like Don't-turn-into-your-mother to the usual art-vs-commerce stuff. There little that's specific and engaging here. But perhaps that's Ford's point: Do our lives simply mimic bad pulp novels? The world of Ms Adam's character is certainly a gloomy one: a faithless, unloving husband; a career that no longer provides satisfaction; and the usual set of stock-but-chi-chi friends (with Armie Hammer, Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen all wasted in these roles).

What little life the movie has is found in the visualized novel, with Michael Shannon (above) again doing a great job in the fairly thankless role of a taciturn cop, and Aaron Tayor-Johnson (below), glowering sleazily and sexily as the lead villain of the piece.

In all of this emptiness, there is, finally, no real point (that hasn't been made a thousand times previously) right up to and including an ending that, while at least pleasantly subtle, seems also staggeringly pointless. What? After all this nonsense, you actually expect us to give a shit?

By its close Nocturnal Animals may remind you of something like the stillborn collaboration between, say, Douglas Sirk and Jim Thompson, slightly updated into the 21st Century: a bizarre piece of pulp melodrama, greatly gussied up and striving with all its might to ascend into art. Or even into something marginally pertinent. I am not sure if the film is only pretending to not understand how pointless it is, or if Mr. Ford actually is this clueless. Perhaps we should think of his movie as a near-perfect entry into the upcoming America of Donald Trump.

From Focus Features and running a lengthy 117 minutes, Nocturnal Animals opens this Friday, November 18, in major cities across the country. Here in South Florida, it will play the AMC's Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, and Regal's South Beach Stadium 18, Miami; the Gateway 4, Fort Lauderdale; and the Cinemark  20 and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton. To see all currently scheduled playdates throughout the country, click here (then "x" out the trailer so you can view the info you actually came for).