Sunday, July 23, 2017

DVDebut -- Thomas Lilti's French charmer THE COUNTRY DOCTOR: an Rx for what ails you

Some movies seem to exist to give expected pleasures -- the good ones with smart, realistic detail that pulls you in; the not-so-good ones via the usual thudding cliches -- and today's "watch," THE COUNTRY DOCTOR, is fortunately one of the former, a French film that shows us a lot about the life of a kind, compassionate, smart and now-sick-himself doctor, Jean-Pierre, who labors in a small provincial town. No spoiler here, since we learn of our medicine man's cancer prognosis in the very first scene of the film.

Then we move to his usual workday: visiting patient after patient, including his parents, and we quickly see how well he does his job. The details are terrific: specific and fascinating (at least they were for a medical civilian like TrustMovies).  As directed and co-written by Thomas Lilti (shown at right), the movie bursts with both energy and ideas. Soon, Jean-Pierre's own doctor has sent him a possible helper/replacement, a new doctor named Nathalie, who seems equally bright and caring, if a little too quick on the draw, diagnosis-wise.

The actors who play this Hippocratic pair could hardly have been better chosen. François Cluzet (above, of Tell No One, À l'origine (click and scroll way down), The Intouchables) gives another of his sterling, lived-in performances as Jean-Pierre, while the lesser-known (on these shores) Marianne Denicourt (below, of Sade and Serial Killer 1) brings to the proceedings, along with her beauty, that special skill of seeming pert-yet-deep and so immediately wins us over.

The supporting cast is made up mostly of the doctors' patients, and each one is brought to quick, sharp life. Via one vignette after another, we grow to know the life of the doctor, his new "assistant," the townspeople (and some of their concerns), as well as our hero's ongoing treatment.

If there is not a misstep in any of the details here, the movie does lose some of its earlier steam by choosing to go the feel-good route, rather than the more expected, would-have-been-more troubling-but-also-deeper route.

This is not a deal-breaker. The results here are medically believable, but they also bypass the opportunity to confront dying and death from the personal and certainly more unusual perspective of the physician himself. Too bad.

The Country Doctor, available from Distrib Films US, makes it DVD debut via Icarus Films Home Video this coming Tuesday, July 25, available for purchase and/or, one hopes, now or eventually rental and streaming.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Little-known Joseph H. Lewis diamond-in-the-rough, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, gets the Blu-ray treatment via Arrow Academy

A director with some 54 credits on his resume, whose films, a few of which -- Gun Crazy, The Big Combo, The Undercover Man -- are oddball gems that are much better known than he is, Joseph H. Lewis (shown below) was one of those filmmakers whose served his material, rather than the other way around. TrustMovies grew up greatly enjoying some of this fellow's films without being aware of who he was or how he fit into the world of movie-making.

All that is beginning to change these days, as Lewis'
better films continue to be more fully recognized and appreciated. One of these is TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (from 1958) which has just arrived on Blu-ray in a smackingly good edition from Arrow Academy -- with some first-class Special Features in tow. Starring that always-capable actor Sterling Hayden (below), playing the son of a recently murdered father who arrives in the titular town to take over his dad's home, the movie proves an unusually low-key and philosophical western about the meanings of freedom and justice.

The movie's excellent screenplay was written, under a pseudonym, by Dalton Trumbo, and it bears a number of this blacklisted writer's hallmarks, starting with its low-key approach and interest in ideas, as much as in action -- all of which director Lewis serves up to a tee.

Once in town and having learned of his father's death, Hayden's character encounters the suave-if-tubby lead villain, essayed with classy smarm by Sebastian Cabot (above, right), along with his hired-gun henchman, played by a crackerjack performer new to me named Nedrick Young, a blacklisted actor/writer who would give us the following year (using yet another pseudonym) the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Defiant Ones.

Mr. Young (shown above and further above) makes a simply terrific villain: intelligent but frightening and as impressive in his own way as is Hayden in his. The pair makes a fine set of adversaries, and the change that occurs in Young's character (I hesitate to call it growth, but yet I think it is) once he encounters a man who is unafraid to die (the fine Victor Millan, below, right), provides a death scene of such simplicity, intelligence and strength that it instantly becomes one of the more memorable that movies have given us.

The women in the film are quite interesting, as well, particularly the our villain's "kept woman" who does not seem to quite have to strength to stand on her own. As played by an actress also new to me, Carol Kelly (below, left, and at bottom center), this character proves to be another of the movie's memorable people with some interesting things to tell us.

Terror in a Texas Town, while adhering to practically every last one of the cliches of the movie western, still manages to often be quiet, thoughtful, and sometimes surprising -- never more so than in the scene (below) in which three bad guys work over our hero, and instead of the expected all-out, razza-ma-tazz fight scene, we get something quite other.

Conversations between characters are equally low-key and telling; they make us listen and consider. And director Lewis serves the intelligent screenplay exceedingly well, drawing expert performances from all, and keeping the relatively taut story-line moving along at a decent pace.

At most, I suppose, this is simply a very good example of the B movie that used to show up on double bills and sometimes proved better than the main attraction. But it is yet another feather in the late-arriving cap of this unusual and far-too-unheralded film director.

From Arrow Academy (distributed here in the USA by MVD Visual and running a lean 80 minutes. Terror in a Texas Town arrived on Blu-ray disc on July 11 in a new 2K hi-def restoration from the original film elements, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Also worth watching and included on the Blu-ray is the excellent introduction to the film (and its director) by Peter Stanfield.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Such imagination! Luc Besson's VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS arrives

For those of us who've loved Luc Besson's earlier work -- La Femme Nikita, The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element and Lucy -- the chance to see this filmmaker bounce back with another imaginative gem is too good to pass up. Bounce he does, and then some. His new VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is a delightful, if a little too lengthy, adventure that puts the leaden and repetitive garbage of the Star Wars franchise to utter shame. It's ever so light on its feet, full of amazing visual effects and wonderfully weird creatures, even as it leads us into and through a hugely involved narrative so easily and richly that we follow along, lapping it up like the happy puppies we moviegoers remain when confronted with a space-travel/kids-adventure movie this clever and enchanting.

M. Besson (shown at left), bless his naughty little heart, also has some fun for the more sophisticated adults on hand. Take his sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space-age pimp, and Rhianna (shown below) as his most special "girl." Here, the latter shape shifts into just about every good-old-fashioned heterosexual male fantasy -- from school-girl to nurse to bondage queen and lots more -- and yet the movie remains so good-natured and welcoming that it never comes near betraying its deserved PG rating. (The violence, too, is distanced and quick; no wallowing in blood and gore here.)

And if the movie's plot is the usual piffle, its theme -- protecting all species and living in harmony (that's what the titular "City of Thousand Planets" is all about) -- is always worth considering.

The leading actors -- Dane De Haan and Cara Delavigne (above) - are just fine as sparring partners and would-be lovers, while Clive Owen (below) makes a perfectly nasty, irredeemable villain.

But it's the vast and amazing array of those other "species" that makes the movie so much fun. As adapted by Besson (from the French comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières), the screenplay introduces each of these bizarre wonders and then spends just enough time with them so that we understand what they're about and what they need to accomplish -- before moving on to the next delight.

This makes the movie bounce along with surprising energy and incident, and just at that moment prior to our saying, OK enough, we're already on to another bit of wonderment. There are so many of these oddball creations that I'll just mention a couple here: the greedy, talkative trio of know-it-alls (above) who land our hero and heroine in and out of trouble, and the aggressive, non-stop alien "attack dog" (below) who gives our twosome quite the clever chase.

Especially lovely is the planet and its inhabitants (two photos below) who set the movie in motion and help conclude it in the kind of feel-good fashion that will please the kids, while providing the lovely beach (shown at bottom) where our twosome may someday honeymoon, if they're lucky.

Interestingly enough, neither Valerian nor his Laureline are anything approaching super-heroes. They are simply very good at what they do, while making the best use of the current technology at hand.

Consequently, I fear, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is simply too smart and too creative for our current dumbed-down audiences (and critics, too), not to mention our cretinous Trump followers who will demand much more violence and hatred than is on display here. (Besson's film is clearly pro-immigration.) So the movie may come and go without making much of a splash now. But like so much of M. Besson's work, it will linger to find an increasingly appreciative audience over time.

From STX Entertainment and running 2 hours and 17 minutes, the movie opens just about everywhere tomorrow, Friday, July 21. To see about a location near you and/or tickets for same, simply click here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ opens: Gastón Solnicki's gorgeous look at Argentine young ladies

The word Kékszakállú is evidently the Hungarian term for Bluebeard, and the movie KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ, from Argentine filmmaker Gastón Solnicki, is said by the writer/director to have been inspired in part by the one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. None of this was in the least evident to me, while watching this very interesting film, though I'm told that selections from that opera are to be found in the movie's musical score. I don't think any of this really matters, however, in terms of one's enjoyment or even understanding of the motion picture.

If you've an appreciation of the visual -- color, composition, camera movement and the like, I don't see how you can not find yourself enrapt, eye-wise at least, by Solnicki's work (the filmmaker is shown at right). Understanding it is another matter.

Since viewing the film, I've read some other writings about it, which purport to explain Solnicki's intentions but to me seem something less than compelling. I won't explain them here because I believe you ought to approach this movie on your own as a pretty much blank slate.

Afterward, sure, go ahead and look up various criticisms and make of them what you will. Meanwhile, just watch and listen and enjoy the really amazing visual sense this filmmaker possesses. We're somewhere in South America, it seems. I noticed references to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina (since I believe the letter to be the filmmaker's home), though the characters here do seem to move around some.

Initially we see a lot of very good looking young bodies on display, in and out of pools, sun-bathing and the like. Clearly we're among the leisure class, with one exception it would seem. However this young woman, below, though she initially appears to be working class, comes from a somewhat wealthy family, too. It is her story the filmmaker seems to connect with most of all.

When I say "story," I am using the term about as loosely as a narrative film can manage. There certainly is no plot here, and the characters are defined by snippets of such minimal dialog that we can only conclude that they are wondering somewhat about their future and what it holds. One young woman does try to imagine herself in various work situations, with not much luck. (And she's a piss-poor driver, to boot.)

There is a heavy sense here of ennui in the present and trepidation of the future. And yet there is almost no indication from any of these young women (the young men are around mostly for decoration -- which they certainly provide) of anything in the larger world that might exist outside their immediate lives and desires. To call them shallow is to accord them a little too much depth.

What we see of the workplace, pristine and sterile, is equally minor -- used mostly, once again, for some great visuals. (One set actually resembles some outre Rube Goldberg invention.) Almost all the living interiors are beautiful and swank, while nature and the outdoors is green and lush. (One character, the hunky young man below, does seem to have come down with a case of maybe poison ivy, however.)

The ending, too, can be taken in alternate ways: positive, toward a new future, or negative, heading into darkness with no map or direction in sight. Still, I'd watch the film all over again (it lasts only 72 minutes), just for the wonderful visuals. The stunning cinematography (from Fernando Lockett and Diego Poleri) is sharp, clear and full of content that continually pleases the eye.

Distributed by Cinema Tropical in partnership with Cinema Slate, the film opens in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this Friday, July 21, and will expand, one hopes, elsewhere over the weeks to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Klaus Härö's THE FENCER -- shortlisted for 2015's BFLF Oscar -- finally opens in the USA

Lovely, old-fashioned movie-making that has a splendid, based-on-real-life story to tell, it's easy to understand why THE FENCER made the early cut for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination two years back. It's also easy to see why it did not make the final cut of five films, as -- good as it is -- it's a little too predictable in its style, storytelling and just about all else. But that should not detract from the pleasure and enjoyment the movie will bring to audiences, particularly, I suspect, the senior crowd.

As written by Anna Heinämaa and directed by Klaus Härö (shown at left), the film is consistently a treat to view -- even if it is set in a pretty ugly Estonia of the 1950s. That little country, bordering the Baltic Sea across from Finland, was invaded by Germany during World War II, and then occupied post-war by the USSR until that Communist behemoth dissolved into its continuing orgy of Oligarchy Capitalism after 1991. The film begins with a title card explaining how certain Estonian men, having been forcibly conscripted into the German Nazi army, had to then hide their past from the Russian authorities or face prison and worse -- for something over which they had no control.

Such is the fate of the film's hero, Ender, played with a understandable combination of fear and withholding by Märt Avandi (shown above), who flees Leningrad for Estonia and there takes a job teaching physical education in a small-town school.

In better days, he was a competitive fencer, so when he is forced by his nasty superior to coach a Saturday sports class, he ends up teaching that class how to fence.

If his nemesis, the school principal (nicely played by Hendrik Toompere, above center), is a bit too much of a lip-smacking villain (as is his overly eager assistant (Jaak Prints, above, left), well, this is all part of the film's old-fashioned fun.

As is Ender's newly-found girlfriend, another teacher at his school, portrayed with the necessary obeisance-masking-deeper-grit that was required by women back in the 1950s (and, oh gosh, often today, too) by the lovely actress, Ursula Ratasepp (above, center right).

The students are pretty much standard-issue, except for two of them: Jaan, a boy whose caring and intelligent grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak, above, left, of the wonderful Tangerines) evidently has in his past some issues of interest to the Russian police, and the quietly intense girl, Marta (a terrifically alert and focused performance from young Liisa Koppel, shown

at bottom and on the poster image, top), who is the first to ask for fencing lessons and goes on be a part of the fencing team entered into the competition in Leningrad (above) that will bring all the movie's plot strands together for an effective climax.

As I say, other than the unusual tale told, together with its accompanying history and location, the movie is relatively predictable. But it is every bit as enjoyable, too.

From CFI Releasing, in Estonian and Russian with English subtitles, and running 99 minutes, The Fencer opens theatrically this Friday, July 21, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, and on August 11 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 and in other cities simultaneously. Here in South Florida, it will open on August 18 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters,
click here and then scroll down.

Damien Power's crackerjack -- but extremely ugly -- survival thriller, KILLING GROUND

As much as I am in awe of KILLING GROUND -- which is the best film of this particular sub-genre (lovers-go-camping-and must-suddenly-fight-for-their lives) that TrustMovies has yet seen -- I am somewhat loathe to recommend it unless I also say that, as frightening and thrilling as it is, it's also one of the most matter-of-fact ugly movies I have ever seen. Now, it is nowhere near the bloodiest nor goriest of this genre. In fact, there is about as little of all that as could be imagined, considering what happens here.

And yet in this, his first full-length film after a slew of shorts, writer/director Damien Power (shown at left) has managed to get just about everything right. This would include the ability to engage us with his characters (all of them, good and evil); build suspense and atmosphere in equally deft, quick strokes; rouse simply superb performances from everyone on screen (including a near-infant and a dog); and then, once the tension he's created has reached its peak and the plot's "explosion" has occurred, see to it that we're practically unable to take a breath until those final credits start to roll. The filmmaker even manages to lay out his tale using past and present in a way that keeps us unnerved and guessing until that aforementioned explosion of violence takes place, making inevitable all that follows.

The movie of which Killing Ground may most remind you would be Eden Lake, the James Watkins 2008 survival thriller starring Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender. This one is even better, more sophisticated in both its construction and execution, and equally unnerving and thrilling. Also, the filmmaker thankfully refrains from making us view a lot of the horror that happens. This will displease torture-porn connoisseurs. Yet the scenario itself is so full of irredeemable ugliness that I can't imagine anyone accusing Mr. Power of being too prissy.

Our lead characters are a couple who is, from the sound of things, thinking about getting hitched fairly soon. He (the fine Ian Meadows, above) is a doctor, and she (an even better Harriet Dyer, below) is -- hmmm... I am not even sure I know or remember what occupation she has (other than trying to stay alive). They arrive at their camping destination to discover another tent pitched ahead of theirs. Yet no one is in it, so the couple expects to see and meet their "neighbors" fairly soon.

The villains of the piece are two men (Aaron Pedersen, below, right, and Aaron Glenane, below, left) who are revealed along the way as Outback psychopaths (the setting here is Australia). Their behavior grows crazier as the movie rolls along, but that behavior also cannot be discounted because, as nutty as it gets, it still unfortunately seems to fit these truly frightening and unpredictable characters all too well.

While our hero and heroine would seem no match for these two men, the latter's very oddness and plentiful kinks play into what happens and why. There is another entire set of characters, too, and these -- a father, his relatively new bride, their barely out of infancy child, and his daughter (Tiarnie Coupland, below) from an earlier marriage -- bring the past into the present, while giving the movie its ugliest charge.

That's it for plot, so as not to provide any more spoilers. The film, by the way, is highly feminist -- in its own non-showy way. So if you're partial to suspense, creeping dread, and edge-of-your-seat thrills, you could hardly do better than Killing Ground. But, yikes: You've been warned.

From IFC Midnight and running a sleek 88 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, July 21, in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset. If you're near neither city, despair not: The movie simultaneously hits VOD nationwide.