Monday, April 24, 2017

Must-see for movie fans and doc lovers -- Daniel Raim's HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY

Previous to viewing the new documentary, HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY, TrustMovies had never heard of the husband-wife team of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and film researcher Lillian Michelson, two of the unjustly unsung folk who labored for decades in film-making areas that the Motion Picture Academy has never seen fit to honor.

Written and directed by Daniel Raim, shown at right, the movie certainly honors the two, along with the fields in which they worked. Unless you are already a knowledgeable part of the motion picture industry, you'll come out of this film with a new understanding of exactly what a good storyboard artist and film researcher can contribute to a movie -- from helping a director and editor get exactly the right shots in the right sequence to learning what kind of underwear teenage girls might have worn in turn-of-the-century Russia.

You'll simultaneously be treated to what is quite a beautiful and enduring love story that spans a couple of generations, as you get to know one of these two people pretty well. Harold Michelson has now departed, but his wife Lillian is still going strong, and she makes a delightful, smart, and sometimes very moving narrator of the events told here. (That's she, above, in her research department, and below, in her youth with Harold.)

The two found each other early on, just after Harold, who was older than Lillian, served in World War II. Against the wishes of his family (for Lillian was an orphan, with absolutely no "prospects"), Harold moved out to Hollywood to pursue art jobs, and Lillian soon joined him, and both their careers took a fast jump-start.

Lillian's, however, was soon crushed by conventions of the time. She was fired for being pregnant. The movie never makes any big play for feminism, but it is feminist all the same by virtue of the tale it tells. (The story of the pair's autistic son, and how the Freudian psychology of the day "helped" the family is one for the books. It will have you seething.) One of the particular joys of the documentary is the smart and often adorable and funny animation used throughout, drawn in charcoal, which is what Harold used on his now famous storyboards.

Whether animating Hitchcock, above (the director asked specifically for Harold to do his storyboards on for The Birds), to The Graduate (below), about which after reading the screenplay, Lillian tells us, Harold couldn't understand why folk found the film funny. That's what Mike Nichols with his keen understanding of humor, contributed. Harold's storyboards, it seems, contributed a lot of the film's best visuals. When we see a clip of Nichols accepting his Oscar for direction and thanking the "group effort" that made this possible, you'll be shaking your head white muttering, "Indeed!"

We hear about so many of the films Harold was a part of -- The Ten Commandments is one of the best known -- that by the end of the documentary we're utterly sold on the importance of the storyboard artist. We also come to better appreciate Lillian's research work.

Certain moviemakers -- from David Lynch to Danny DeVito (above) -- are also on hand to sing the Michelsons' praises. Deservedly so. DeVito, especially, is a font of knowledge and fun. Comparing Harold's storyboard art to the finish film (as in Winter Kills, below) -- which the movie often lets us do, is is eye-opening, too.

And because Lillian makes such a lovely companion as she tells us of her life-and-love journey, we hang on every word (her voice -- chipper, chirpy and wonderfully positive -- is an utter delight to hear). By the end of the movie's 94 minutes, we've been educated, surprised, charmed, moved and royally entertained. Can you ask much more from a documentary? Considering both how Hollywood always takes to heart movies about itself (most recently, The Artist and La La Land) and also how very good this new documentary is, I think I see an Oscar contender here.

Distributed via Zeitgeist Films -- a company that doesn't release a hell of a lot of movies, but I am having trouble recalling even one of their films I didn't hugely appreciate -- Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story opens this Friday, April 28. in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on May 12 in Los Angeles, at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here.

Friday, April 21, 2017

COLOSSAL: Another fine and original sci-fi film from Spanish master Nacho Vigalondo

What happens and why in the frolicsome, funny, and surprisingly thoughtful new sci-fi/monster movie, COLOSSAL, is so oddly charming and original that to give it away seems very unfair to any viewer who enjoys the necessary surprise that should go along with any movie experience. Too many reviewers have already ruined that surprise, but if you're still unaware of it, TrustMovies will do his best not to spoil it for you. The movie begins with the appearance of a monster in, hmmm... Korea. And then it jumps ahead to the USA some 25 years or so later.

The filmmaker here is one of my favorites, Nacho Vigalondo (shown at left), who has now given us three fine sci-fi films (Time Crimes, Extraterrestrial, and this one), as well as the excellent, modern-day, surveillance thriller, Open Windows. If his latest is not quite up to the wonders of Extraterrestrial, which is among, if not the best sci-fi film I've yet seen, it is, by virtue of being a Vigalondo movie, a "must" to view. It is also his "starriest," boasting a cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, with Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell in smart supporting roles.

Hathaway (at right) plays a very problemed-from-alcohol young woman, whose boyfriend (Mr. Stevens, below) kicks her out of their NYC apartment, and so she returns home to her parents' empty house in the sticks, where she takes up with an old school chum (played by Sudeikis). The movie takes place in both Seoul, Korea, and and the USA, and this very arbitrary choice of locales is one of the reasons why the film demands such a large suspension of disbelief.

Extraterrestrial posited the coming of aliens in space ships that simply hovered over our world without engaging with it. This was actually easier to buy than Colossal's plot gimmick, for the humans in that earlier film grew and changed due to their own responses to this not-quite alien invasion. Here, the monsters are certainly connected to the humans, but that connection demands a leap of faith in a manner that the earlier film did not.  That said, if you're willing to make the leap, Colossal provides some wonderful, original fun, along with terrific performances from the entire cast.

Ms Hathaway has never been better (and that includes her Oscar-winning performance), and Mr. Sudeikis (above) is a revelation. A very easy-to-enjoy actor, he has never been either this surprising nor this good. Nelson and Stowell (below. with Sudeikis) offer lovely turns, as well.

Again, I am not telling more about the plot because it would spoil the surprise. I'll just say that things here revolve around anger and how we use it.

If you enjoy sci-fi and/or movies with more than their normal share of originality, this one is definitely for you.

Colossal -- a charmingly ironic title -- running 110 minutes opens here in South Florida today, Friday, April 21, at the Brickell City Centre Cinema, the AMC Sunset Place and the AMC Aventura and here in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood.

It's playing elsewhere across the country, too, so click here to find the theater(s) nearest you.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Religion rides again in Kirill Serebrennikov's Russian cautionary tale, THE STUDENT

But this time, praise whoever, it's Russian fundamentalist-style Christianity (rather than the Muslim religion) that's front and center, as a very hot-looking young student makes it clear to his peers, his teachers, the school administration and his mom how the world around them is going to hell in that proverbial handbasket. But if you are expecting something akin to the fine German film The Wave, in which crazy political ideas take the place of religious ones, stop right there.
This is all about one young man's perception of god and what that big guy really wants.

In THE STUDENT, the interesting and provocative new film from Russian screenwriter and director Kirill Serebrennikov, shown at right (which he adapted from the play by Marius von Mayenburg), the young and clearly all-too-impressionable high schooler named Venia (from Veniamin) has somehow got it in his head that the world he lives in is no damned good. From the outset the movie makes clear against what Venia -- played with remarkable reality and charisma by the young, sexy Pyotr Skvortsov (on poster, top. and bellow) -- is railing: the Russia pictured here looks like a teenage Sodom & Gomorrah, with beaucoup nudity, full-frontal male and female, and plenty of sex. Golly, what would Vladimir Putain -- oops, sorry: Putin -- whose picture we note on the wall of the school principal's office, have to say about all this?

The Church is certainly no help here. As Venia notes, the local priest has himself been thoroughly co-opted: His sage advice to Venia's weak-willed mom goes something like, "People who pray live longer. It's been proven!"

Venia's best friend, Grisha the cripple (Aleksandr Gorchilin, above) has the hots for our sloe-eyed, thick-lipped anti-hero, but since, according to Venia, god hates faggots, this relationship is not going to end well.

His peers makes fun of Venia, all except for Lidiya (Alekandra Revenko), who tries to seduce him, while the school principal, a relic of older times, seems almost willing to cave in to the kid's religious nonsense, suggesting, or maybe pleading, to his instructor, "Why can't you teach both theories -- evolution and religion?"

That instructor, very well acted by Viktoriya Isakova (above, right), is your textbook progressive: smart, forward-thinking and caring. But she's no match for a guy with god on his side.

How all this plays out is alternately shocking and ugly, obvious and unexpected. It asks the question, Just what constitutes fertile ground for the seed of religious fanaticism? Its answer is a populace that combines religious faith with fear and stupidity (This sounds something like Trump's America, no?), with the result, as one character in the film reminds us, leading to totalitarianism.

The Student, a hugely entertaining and hot little movie, does not end in any nice, neat, wrapped-and-ready bundle. Which is all the better. It is worth checking out, particularly if you want yet another incisive and scary look at the modern Russian state.

From Under the Milky Way, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, April 21, in San Francisco at the Four Star Theater, and on April 28 in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque. A nationwide limited release will follow.

Surprise! Ben Wheatley & Amy Jumps' chatty action movie, FREE FIRE, is good, nasty fun

First off, there's the ace cast. After their last abortive collaboration on High-Rise (which also sported a very good cast), this newest effort of the writing/directing team Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley -- FREE FIRE -- turns out to be the most downright entertaining of their work thus far. It's empty as hell, regarding any meaning that might be ascertained, but watching and listening to the actors assembled here strut their very impressive stuff is certainly worth the 90 minutes of screen time. You'll snicker (enjoyably) at much of the dialog, and keep your eyes wide open at the action/visuals.

Mr. Wheatley (shown at left) and Ms Jump enjoy combining humor (usually very dark) with violence (often rather ultra), but here -- perhaps because of their cast of criminal characters, a couple of these semi-classy, most of them not -- though much of the action, once it begins, is full of gunfire, the violence seems rather toned down, while the humor is dark, yet little more than you might expect from folk such as these.

The plot entails an illegal arms deal gone bad, first via some uncontrollable rage among the participants, then later from an out-and-out betrayal. Who is responsible for the latter remains a mystery for quite awhile, adding to our interest, which is already piqued by the smart ensemble cast.

The actors include a nice mix of British/Irish/Aussie/South African/American actors -- from the up-and-very-coming Jack Reynor (above, center) to Cillian Murphy (below, left),  Sharlto Copley, Noah Taylor (above, right), a bushy-bearded Armie Hammer (above, left) and Brie Larson -- plus a lot more, all of whom are first-rate.

Jump and Wheatley have jiggered their often quite comic dialog very nicely to fit each actor so that we learn what we need to -- both plot- and character-wise -- from the plentiful words that keeping sprouting like vinegar-laced popcorn from the actors on hand. We soon know who these people are and why literally none of them are to be trusted nor cared much about. Which of course makes what happens to them go down all the more easily.

Mr. Copley, above, left, does a bang-up job as a sleazebag overly concerned with his new suit, while Ms Larson, below, as the lone woman in the crew, runs the gamut from would-be romantic heroine to me-first moll who's better with gun-play than foreplay.

Actually, just about everyone here is a very lousy shot, and considering how much ammunition is expended in the course of the film (oodles, really), it takes an awfully long time to waste the game cast. But the wasting is relatively fun, overall. Who remains -- and how and why -- is usually tricky and enjoyable in this genre of film, and so it is here. I make no great claims for the movie, but for what it is, it certainly delivers the goods. (That's Sam Riley, below, as perhaps the dumbest and most problematic of a generally dim crew.)

From A24, Free Fire opens nationwide tomorrow, Friday, April 21. Here in South Florida you can find it at the following theaters: Aventura Mall 24, Aventura,; Miami Lakes 17, Miami Lakes,  Cobb Hialeah Grand 18, Hialeah; South Beach 18, Miami Beach; iPic, North Miami Beach; Intracoastal 8, North Miami Beach; Sunset Place 24, South Miami; Cinepolis Grove 15, Coconut Grove; Kendall Village Stadium 16, Miami; Southland Mall Stadium 16, Miami; CMX Brickell City Center 10, Miami; Oakwood 18, Hollywood; Coral Ridge 10, Ft. Lauderdale; Cypress Creek 16, Ft. Lauderdale; Sawgrass 23, Sunrise; Magnolia Place 16, Coral Springs; Pompano Beach 18, Pompano Beach; T-Bird Drive In, Fort Lauderdale; Silverspot Coconut Creek Cinemas, Coconut Creek; City Place 20, West Palm Beach; Royal Palm Beach 18, Royal Palm Beach; Cinepolis, Jupiter 14, Jupiter; Mizner Park 8, Theatres, Boca Raton, and the Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton. To find a theater near wherever you are, click here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

James Gray's amazement, THE LOST CITY OF Z, tells of British exploration in the Amazon

An unusual combination of intimate family drama, adventure spectacle, and thoughtful, sometimes near-mystical philosophy in which these genres, which could hardly be more different, meld in a most beautiful and affectionate manner, THE LOST CITY OF Z is the kind of movie that will probably stick in the minds (and hearts) of intelligent audiences long after other, more heralded attractions have come and gone.

The work of writer/director James Gray (shown at left) -- whose earlier family dramas from Little Odessa (1994) through Two Lovers (2008) were always fraught and fascinating, until he hit that weirdly-phony-but-gorgeously-photographed bump in the road from 2013, titled The Immigrant -- this new film is not only his best yet, it may very well become a part of the movie canon in terms of exceptional "exploration" films.

What Mr Gray chooses to show and tell us, as his movie moves back and forth between early 20th Century England and several trips to the Amazon jungle in South America, gives us a rich and surprisingly deep portrait of British family life and in particular one man's (the explorer Percy Fawcett) desire to discover what he can about earlier civilizations, along with his deeply help conviction that what unites the world's many "tribes" is their common humanity.

This, of course, runs afoul of the then-held belief of white male British superiority over all else, just as it runs counter to the prevailing notions of the United States' crass and despicable current leader and his money-grubbing, white-supremacist notions. Yet, so strongly does explorer Fawcett believe in this, and so thoroughly does he abide by this in his words and deeds, that this character, played with great strength and precision by actor Charlie Hunnam (above and below) in what is certainly his finest role so far, is finally, if strangely, triumphant. (What a blessing for us and for him that Hunnam didn't have to star in the crapola Fifty Shades of Gray and its sequel, as was initially announced.)

Whether this actor is addressing a roomful of his peers, as below, or engaging in family discussion or discipline, Hunnam is always on target, and his combinations of strength and generosity, manliness and honor combine to form a unusually memorable character. He is able to convey both period believability and the kind of inner character turmoil that neither knows nor demands any particular time frame.

In the able and vast supporting cast are Robert Pattinson (below and barely distinguishable, so immersed is this actor in the role) as Fawcett's second-in-command,

Sienna Miller (below) as his able and enduring wife,

and Tom Holland (below, at right) as the older version of Fawcett's eldest son, who is initially angry with his father but eventually accompanies him on his final journey.

If there's a villain in this mix, it would the character of James Murray (played with a subtlety that turns encouragement into menace by Angus Macfadyen, below), who initially backs financially and even accompanies Fawcett on the voyage until his fear and irresponsibility take over. (Note to explorers: Never allow an overweight crybaby to join your party.)

Certain critics (The New Yorker's for one) have objected to the lack of "madness" in this adventure film. Yet Gray offers both suspense and surprise on these Amazon journeys. But because he is more interested in ideas than action (Percy Fawcett's actions are as much of the mind as of the body), the filmmaker keeps his movie grounded in these ideas, the major one being of our common humanity.

Offering up the typical fighting between the natives and the white explorers/colonizers would have only delivered the usual us vs them, good vs evil -- which is exactly what he entire idea of this film is against.

Instead Mr. Gray gives us one of the most memorable, beautiful finales in the canon of exploration. The final scenes will haunt your memory -- but in the most mysterious and hopeful of ways.

Mr. Gray has always been most interested in telling a good story, and in The Lost City of Z he has finally given us a great one -- and told it in the manner most appropriate and remarkable.

From Bleecker Street and Amazon Studios, the movie opened in a limited run last week and this Friday hits theaters all across the country. Here in South Florida, it will play the Miami area at the AMC Aventura Mall 24, AMC Sunset Place 24, Regal South Beach 18, CMX Brickell City Center 10, O Cinema Miami Beach, Tropic Cinema Key West; in  Broward at the Classic Gateway Theater, Regal Oakwood 18, AMC Pompano Beach 18; and in West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce at the Cinemark Palace 20, Regal Shadowood, Movies of Delray 5, Movies of Lake Worth,Paragon Wellington 10 AMC City Place 20, Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16 and the AMC Indian River 24 (in Vero Beach). Wherever you are, to find a nearby theater, simply click here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon's doc, THE PENGUIN COUNTERS is about exactly that

A ragtag documentary about a ragtag team of field biologists who travel to the wilds of Antarctica to count the dwindling penguin population, THE PENGUIN COUNTERS' goal, notes its main character and leading biologist Ron Naveen according to the film's press release, is to inspire audiences "to think more positively and proactively about climate change." Proactively, I can understand. But positively? Maybe not. But since we seem to be stuck with climate change, thanks to decades of venal and corrupt politicians, culminating in the current reign of the most corrupt, foolhardy and worthless of them all -- and, yes, Mr. Trump, I am speaking of you -- we might as well embrace our demise and "adjust."

This very minor documentary -- but it is one not without its charms -- has been directed, written, produced and shot by the team of Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon (both of whom are shown above), with help from Erik Osterholm. The film is probably a shoo-in for penguin lovers, a lot of whom must exist, given the huge success of that silly, anthropomorphizing doc, March of the Penguins. The birds we see here are mostly what are known as Chinstrap Penguins (one of which is shown below), and though we do see a lot of shots of these, we don't see all that much about penguin life that we haven't seen previously.

What we do see is Mr. Naveen (below) and his crew of biologists as they plan for, travel to and then do their "count" of the penguins they find in a certain area of Antarctica. Along with this, we get a very short and small history of explorer Ernest Shackelton and his much-lesser-known (unfairly, it would seem) helper, Frank Wild. The film's most moving scene involves a "funeral service" for Wild (set up by those who wish to honor him), and even though you, as I, may never have even heard of the guy previously, this section of the doc cannot fail to impress via the deep feelings Wild's descendants and followers clearly possess. The funeral service becomes a tardy but important kind of memorial for this lesser-known explorer.

Early on Mr. Naveen explains that "Penguins are indicators of ocean health and are also going to ultimately be the sentinels of change." He and his crew seem to have discovered that the one breed of Chinstrap may actually be growing and getting stronger. Is this because it can better handle climate change? If so, how and why?

When we finally arrive at the "counting" of the penguin population, we rather expect that the above questions will be at least partially answered. So far as I could tell, they are not. Though we (and the biologists) are there at the height of the breeding season, how they manage their counting, along with how accurate it actually is, remains something of a mystery. It is clearly only an estimate.

Along the way, the crew certainly eats well. Considering the film's short length (a few seconds over 67 minutes), quite a bit of time is spent viewing the tasty-looking meals that are served. We learn very little specifics about any of the crew members, either, But those penguins are fun to watch, and the Antarctic -- "It's very easy to kill yourself here," we're told -- is certainly a beautiful, if desolate, place to behold.

From First Run Features, the movie has its theatrical premier this Friday, April 21, in New York City at the Cinema Village. Being from FRF, it will certainly make its way to home video eventually, with a DVD and maybe streaming options, too.