Friday, September 22, 2017

David Gordon Green's Boston Marathon bio-pic, STRONGER, certainly is -- for awhile, at least....

Thanks to an Oscar-worthy performances from lead Jake Gyllenhaal and supporting actress Miranda Richardson, and a less-showy-but equally-fine one from co-star Tatiana Maslany, STRONGER -- a new film about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing from filmmaker David Gordon Green -- proves a better, much more real dissection of part of that event than did last year's too-often fake but feel-good Patriot's Day.

Filmmaker Green, shown below, provides his usual flair for documentary-like realism coupled to an ability to draw very strong characterizations from his entire cast. The generally well-drawn screenplay -- by actor/writer John Pollono and based on the book by Bret Witter and Jeff Bauman, the latter of whose story the movie tells -- helps a good deal, too.

For a feel-good, triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie -- which, unfortunately, this one turns out to be -- Stronger is surprisingly dark, from the beginning, going forward, and very nearly until its conclusion. To his and its great credit, Mr. Bauman -- portrayed ably by Mr. Gyllenhaal, below -- and the movie about him have trouble defining the man as any kind of "hero" of the Boston Marathon massacre. He was a victim not a hero, and the manner in which the media both heralds and uses him is sleazy and stupid, pointing up much that is regrettable about western society today.

Gyllenhaal's Bauman is, from the movie's initial scene, something of a charming fuck-up. His character doesn't change much throughout, as the actor insists upon showing us his warts-and-little-else personality. He evidently comes from a family of loudmouth Boston drunks, of which Ms Richardson's uber-controlling mother (below, right) is at the forefront.

What makes the movie as powerful as it is comes from Gyllenhaal's hugely committed work. He makes us experience this character's every painful, excruciating moment -- from the bombing itself (seen only in flashback) to waking up in the hospital bed and having the bandages painfully removed to his on-and-off but growing relationship to his girlfriend, portrayed with grit and caring by Ms Maslany, below.

In fact, so continually dark (and believable!) does the movie become, as Bauman descends deeper into depression, doom and drink, that when, far too suddenly, his journey shifts direction, it simply seems both too fast and somehow unearned. And as well-acted, despite too big a bundle of exposition, as the scene is, late in the film, between him and the fellow (played by Carlos Sanz, below, right) who saved his life by applying tourniquets to his thighs at the time of the bombing, as well as another confrontation between Bauman and a couple fans at a sports event, both of these scenes act as too-obvious explanations/shortcuts to recovery.

So, even as Stronger achieves its feel-good finish, its strength weakens accordingly. Too bad, because the performances are compelling and the subject matter and its theme are important. But mainstream movies have their demands, and though this happy ending (or middle, at least) actually happened, the road there, movie-wise, could have been better negotiated.

From Roadside Attractions and running 118 minutes, Stronger opens nationwide today, Friday, September 22. To find a  theater near you, simply click here then click on GET TICKETS on the task bar atop your screen.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The "twatification" of fashion reaches its apotheosis in Michael Roberts' doc, MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS

Yes, "twatification," and though I can't be certain I've coined the word, do feel free to use it if you like. It certainly fits MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS, the new documentary about to hit South Florida (after opening in NYC and L.A. last week). Entitlement oozes from every pore of this diabetic confection, as it also seems to from the film's subject: the gosh-he's-got-an-ego-the-size-of-Texas footwear designer, Manolo Blahnik. In this bizarre and way-too-lengthy film (there's content here for about 30 minutes, yet the movie trails on for 90), we get a little Blahnik history, a look back at those notorious 1960s and 70s, and a view of many of the pretty, colorful shoe designs with which this guy has gifted us.

As director, first-timer Michael Roberts, shown at left, regales us with talking heads of celebrity and fashion -- from Anna Wintour (sans sunglasses!) to Rupert Everett to Rihanna (below, right) --  who drone on and on about the wonders of Mr. Blahnik and his creations. A little of this goes a very long way. My spouse, who has a much higher tolerance for fashion's idiocy than does TrustMovies himself, found the film initially fun, but by its end was rolling his eyes and twitching in annoyance. To quote him: "This could be a recruiting film for ISIS in how it shows our culture."

From the beginning Blahnik (shown above, left) comes across as something of an effete snob, and though he has little of intelligence to tell us, he at least does so with energy and spirit. But Mr. Roberts' contributions to the film are particularly misguided and obtuse. While some archival footage and photos are used (as below), the filmmaker prefers to give us staged recreations of childhood and young adulthood that range from so-so to simply silly, seeming to be on view so that we can see how "creative" this director can be.

The nadir is reached during a pointless episode in which Roberts creates a tacky, technicolor and completely unnecessary update of the Dietrich/von Sternberg Blond Venus (shown below: Is this the filmmaker's audition to direct a remake, perhaps?).

Along the way we get quite a bit of Bianca Jagger, a look at the footwear the guy designed for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antionette, and a section in which Blahnik and John Galliano reminisce. I must admit that the movie is rather lovely, sometimes quite beautiful, to look at (those shoes set against various nature/floral scenes), though the most fun visually has to be the delectable petits fours shown us at one point, the top of which offers up the image of a Manolo shoe on the frosting.

And although the shoemaker's love/sex life is alluded to and then put aside (one would guess he is gay, but, well, maybe not), we do learn something of the importance of Blahnik's relationships with three women, the late Misses Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi and Tina Chow

Mostly, though, it's just Wintour (above), as well as others, wagging on about Blahnik's brilliance in a movie so filled with self-love and ego-boosting by others that I am surprised the filmmaker, his cast and crew could view the finished product without feeling noticeable embarrassment.
From Music Box Films, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards opens this Friday, Sept. 22 in Miami at the O Cinema Wynwood and in Ft. Lauderdale at the Savor Cinema, and next Friday, Sept. 29 at the Living Room Theaters here in Boca Raton. To find venues elsewhere around the country, click here and then click on THEATERS in the task bar midway down your screen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Another dancer documentary, Elvira Lind's BOBBI JENE, opens in New York City

After Dancer, Restless Creature, A Ballerina's Tale, and a number of other dance-themed documentaries that TrustMovies has seen over the past few years, the newest example -- BOBBI JENE, directed by Elvira Lind -- arrives as an odd but not uninteresting addition to the genre. The movie of which it most reminds me, however, is not a documentary, but the highly detailed, psychologically astute narrative film, Polina. Interestingly, both movies are being released within a few weeks of each other via Oscilloscope Films.

Filmmaker Lind, shown at right, is clearly fascinated by Bobbi Jene Smith, an Iowa-born women who, more than a decade ago, left her home and family in the USA to go study and apprentice with Ohad Naharin, the director of Israel's famous Batsheva Dance Company, where she became one of the principal dancers and eventually a choreographer, too.

The film begins as Bobbi Jene has made the decision to leave Israel, return to the U.S. and pursue her own career as... well, it looked to me like a combination of dancer/ choreographer/ teacher. The movie details her journey toward all this, even as it gives equal time to her romantic life and sexual relationships, which involve a former connection to her teacher/mentor/lover Narahin, her current boyfriend Or Schraiber (also a dancer with Batsheva), and most bizarrely and importantly with a sack of something (flour, cement?) that she uses as a masturbatory device in her main performance piece that we see in great detail here.

Yes, Bobbi Jene, the movie and the woman (shown above, below, and on poster top), wants to be a ground-breaker and barrier-buster. And they are, to some extent, at least. But for all the shock and awe the "dancer" produces (audiences at her live performances we see do seem stunned and moved to see a nude woman reaching orgasm right in front of them), the movie itself consistently glides along the surface of things, telling and showing us what is happening without much probing.

Which raises the oft-asked question regarding certain documentaries: Would this tale have been better told as a narrative film? My answer is "yes." Because, though the characters we see are clearly "acting" for the camera (and doing an excellent job, too), this is hardly "real life." Some scenes, especially those between Bobbi Jene and Or, seem staged or at least re-created. A narrative movie might have allowed us to experience love making between the pair (rather than discretely cutting away as happens here) so we might compare what our heroine is getting from Or with what she gets from that sack she uses in her dance routine. (This may sound silly, but that sack gets the most sexual-partnering screen time of anything we see.)

Calling Bobbi Jene's routine "dance" is also a little iffy, I think. "Performance art" maybe, but I didn't see much dance here. Her act most reminded me of the work of Marina Abramović, with the sexual element even further front-and-center. This is not difficult to take, however, for Bobbi Jene has a wonderful, beautifully-sculpted body, a pretty face and flowing hair, all of which we see plenty of during the course of the doc. Her commitment to her cause certainly comes through, even if that cause seems at times more than a little one-note.

A narrative movie would also have allowed more probing into subjects that, here, are simply brought up and then laid to rest: Bobbi Jene comes from a hugely Christian, maybe even fundamentalist, family. Surely the split, even the reconciliation was filled with more drama than we experience from the documentary. Ditto the relationship with Or (shown above, left).

So far as her sensational dance piece is concerned, maybe you have to witness this in person. For all the praise and tears and accolades we see the audience heaping on her, post-show, what we actually view via the film certainly did not move me to any extreme whatsoever.

And yet Bobbi Jean's story is a fascinating one. Its combination of needs -- sexual, psychological, practical and career-wise -- makes it unusual and compelling. But the film itself, as much as any I've recently viewed (save last week's very personal and oddball family memoir Red Trees), puts me in mind of how "incomplete" even a good documentary can be.

From Oscilloscope Films, in mostly the English language, and running 95 minutes, Bobbi Jene, opens this Friday, September 22, in New York City at the Quad Cinema; on Friday, October 6, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal; and on Friday, October 13, in San Diego at Media Arts Center. To view any further additions to the playdates/cities/theaters list, click here then click on SCREENINGS (or simply scroll down).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Romania unveiled (again) in Corneliu Porumboiu's funny and exotic THE TREASURE

Exotic? Well, yes. For those of us not reared in Eastern Europe, at least, the latest movie from one of Romania's crack filmmakers, Corneliu  Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective; When Evening Fall on Bucharest), THE TREASURE, is quite the delightful piece of exotica in everything from its characterizations to its situations to the behavior of just about everyone on view. Oh, it's all quite "normal" on one level, and yet all is just different enough in various ways to raise eyebrows and curl lips.

Not for nothing do the characters here so often refer to the pre-Communism, Communism, and post-Communism eras. The film -- along with its characters and situations -- reflects all this, in spades.

Filmmaker Porumboiu, shown at right, tackles his tale from three perspectives -- workplace, family and history (personal and country) -- and he, as ever, makes fine use of them all. From the movie's opening in which a very young child berates his father for being late to pick him up from school, to the scene in which dad reads to his little boy from the Robin Hood story (which figures very nicely, subtly and ironically into the goings-on) through dad's job as civil servant, his relationship with his wife, and then with a slightly-too-needy neighbor, the movie teems with life and exotica in terms of how life, love and property all work in Romania today.

That father, Costi, is played by a wonderful actor named Toma Cuzin (above, and last seen on these shores as the hunky prisoner of Aferim!), here in a role that calls for him to play the put-upon peacemaker, which he manages to a "t."

Once Costi becomes involved with the neighbor (Adrian Purcarescu, above), who offers our hero what looks like a possible get-rich-quick scheme involving the title subject, the movie quickly takes off, building up a slow but steady head of steam and not a little suspense.

And yet, suspense and thrills are hardly what Porumboiu is going for. Instead he explores the often funny and ironic manner in which those close to Costi react to his new situation. From his wife to his boss to the local police near the property where this treasure is said to reside, the reactions are simultaneously witty and very telling in terms of the Romanian social contract, such as it is.

One of the film's best performances comes from the fellow (Corneliu Cozmei, above, center) who offers, cut-rate, his services as a "treasure hunter." Here, of all things, class and entitlement vs Communism and the work ethic come into amusing play.

The film's most bizarre scene is probably the one taking place in the local police department, regarding exactly to whom the police must turn to open up a certain locked box. The finale manages to be sweet, sad, and ironic as hell, while losing none of the credibility and satirical edge that Porumboiu has so cleverly built.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films, and running a just-right 89 minutes, The Treasure hits DVD today, Tuesday, September 19, for purchase and/or rental. (It's also available now via Netflix's streaming service, for those who have it.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut for Kelly Reichardt's best yet: the quiet, beautifully crafted CERTAIN WOMEN

TrustMovies has run warm, though not hot, on the work of Kelly Reichardt over the past decade -- from Old Joy though Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Crossing, Night Moves and now a work that brings together all this filmmaker's gifts, while doing away with the ungainly combination of outré plotting, bizarre characterization and unnecessary melodrama that marred certain films (like Meek's and Moves). The great strength of Reichardt's most recent movie, CERTAIN WOMEN, lies in its strong, assured characterizations coupled to performances so specific and lived-in that there is not a single untrue moment in the entire movie.

It may be that Reichardt's greatest strength (the filmmaker is shown at left) comes in telling the movie equivalent of short stories, for that is what we have here: three tales joined in the most interesting of ways. This joining is handled not in the typical overly clever manner we've seen so much of over the years, but rather by the relationships of four women, not so much to each other as to other people in or near their same Montana town. Certain Women is a remarkably quiet movie, too -- considering that it deals with subjects as usually inflammatory as hostage-taking, infidelity and unrequited love.

As screenwriter (adapting from stories by Maile Meloy), Reichardt has, as usual, cast her movie extraordinarily well, using Laura Dern (above) as centerpiece in her first tale of a lawyer whose oddball client (a wonderfully goofy, sad and afflicted Jared Harris) goes calmly ballistic;

Michelle Williams (above) in the second story of a wife trying to save her marriage, family and self via a building project that will stay true to its organic community roots, even as her husband (James le Gros) strays and her daughter grows further distant;

and the duo of Kristen Stewart (above) and Lily Gladstone (below) in her final tale, in which a local ranch hand (the glowing-from-within Ms Gladstone) slowly becomes involved with a night-school instructor (Ms Stewart) who visits the town twice weekly to teach the locals "school law."

Each section is filled with the kind of rich, right detail that holds the viewer fast, while deepening story and characterization. So real and so vital is moment after moment that, despite the lack of what we might call normal "drama," the movie remains consistently riveting. In all, Certain Women proves a profound and beautiful experience, involving growth, change and deep disappointment.

Had I seen this film during at the time of its theatrical release, it would certainly have made my last year's "Best List."  As it is, I am grateful to have viewed the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc in a lovely transfer that captures equally well the majestic Montana landscape and these actresses' near-perfect performances. The movie hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, Tuesday, September 19 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS--"meaningless mess" or Quentin Tarantino masterpiece?

Quentin Tarantino's provocative World War lI revenge fantasy now on Netflix is off-putting -- also comic and worth pondering. At film's end, Brad Pitt's red neck German scalp hunter, Aldo Raine, carves a swastika deep into the forehead of Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award for the role). Aldo says: 'This may be my masterpiece'. The remark is Tarantino's editorial comment on his film.

Even if some think Basterds (2009) is a mess, you can still identify with Tarantino's glee at his revision of history. Here in 1944 is the destruction of the entire Nazi high command, Hitler included, as they sit, dressed to the nines, viewing a film premier in a darkened cinema that is suddenly engulfed in a fiery conflagration fueled by nitrite-laden unspooled celluloid. The work calls to mind the difference between insisting your fantasies are real [your m.o., Mister President] and an artist crafting make-believe into a message. Here, as Tarantino has said, is his story of how cinema can save the world.

It is also wicked satire, filled with references to American war movies, Westerns, and Italian-made 'spaghetti' Westerns (see note at end) that emerged in the 60's and 70's to exploit/satirize American 'shoot-em-up's'.

The prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone, now about 90, scored many spaghetti Westerns and his sweeping compositions dominate Basterds. (Morricone fully scored Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' in 2015).

The 'spaghetti' is dominated by excess -- a satirized vision of our mythical West. Villains are crazed, violence explodes hysterically, and the music swoons. Tarantino pauses his action to add 'spaghetti' touches -- the score changes, the characters freeze into iconic poses, and the action speeds or slows in homage to his objects of satire.

One insider bit is Pitt's Aldo Reine likely named for Aldo Ray, an actor famous for his roles in Westerns and war films. But while the other players exaggerate their characters with some nuance, Pitt plays Aldo as a one-note comic-book villain. His dumb, Southern red-neck schtick is almost dismissible except that it stands out so unfavorably from the rest of the ensemble. In particular, Waltz as Jew-hunting Col. Landa (below) steals the lead from right under Pitt's nose. Waltz is so droll, so full of smarm and deceptive insinuation, you can't resist loving this one you are supposed to hate. (Tarantino has inverted our natural sentiments toward these two.)

Tarantino exploits the film-insider and spaghetti-Western thing to the hilt -- Basterds is his own 'spaghetti'; its inside jokes compete for attention with the WWII story to the film's detriment. It unfolds in five busy acts that do not build to its fantastical climax. Chapter One, 'Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France', is the bucolic opener that introduces the sly Landa in the act of uncovering a family of Jews hidden in a farmhouse in rural France. One escapes, Shoshanna, (the lovely Mélanie Laurent, below, four photos down, and on poster, top, in middle row, left), who goes on to become the proprietor of a small Paris cinema which she uses to stage violent revenge against the Nazis.

Chapter Two, 'Inglourious Basterds' (below) depicts the group of Jewish-American terrorists led by Aldo, whose mission is to kill Nazis and scalp them. (Aldo is part Apache; each Basterd owes him 100 scalps.)

Chapter Three, 'A German night in Paris', takes place in a basement bar at which Basterds and other cohorts are shaping their own plot to assassinate the German high command in Shoshanna's theater. Among the co-conspirators are suave British spy and snooty film critic Archie Cox (is he named for Cary Grant whose given name was Archie?) played by Michael Fassbender, and a glamorous German film star turned Allied spy, Bridget von Hammersmark, the delightful Diane Kruger (both, below). Their German night in Paris climaxes as some old memory of yours of a crazed shoot-out at the OK corral.

'Kino', the word for cine or cinema in a number of languages, is half the title of Chapter Four: 'Operation Kino'. 'Kino' refers to the erudite in film, the visionary themes and messages that elude mass film goers but show up in art houses dubbed 'cinema's'. In this chapter the two murder plots advance as the pure opposite of erudite cine, rather as gruesome comedies of error -- anything that could go wrong goes wrong. The 'kino' in-joke is too "in", but the underplayed slapstick is a delight. 

Chapter Five, 'Revenge of the Giant Face', opens on the premier of 'Nation's Pride' which documents the 'true' story of German Private Frederick Zoller's miraculous war exploits (Zoller below, playing himself on screen). The versatile Daniel Brühl is Zoller, who follows the beautiful Shosanna around like a hopeful puppy. Their acquaintance doesn't end well.

Meanwhile Hitler is machined-gunned over and over (see last picture) by Aldo's Basterds (attired in various disguises), as Shoshanna's giant face, spliced into Zoller's film, announces Jewish revenge on the Nazi audience as the theater explodes into the street.

In rewatching Basterds,  I found its bits witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Yet it was too long, too talky, too violent. The chapters are so busy and discreet from each other that the momentum of the narrative is thwarted. This armchair critic thinks the plot might be as smooth as ice cream if staged as a musical or operetta -- better vehicles to absorb the non-through story line, the humor, the violence -- like Little Shop of Horrors or Sweeney Todd. In film, Joe Wright found an inventive frame for his Anna Karenina: he turned his cameras on a fully constructed theater to tell the story, interspersing set theater pieces with a few scenes filmed in natural locales. In short, some kind of distancing mechanism is needed to stage Tarantino's bloody satire more explicitly as fantasy. Still, I liked it -- Basterds' characters are wonderful and the collective revenge on the Nazis for their despicable horrors is immensely satisfying.

Note: For more on Spaghetti Westerns, click here