Sunday, April 30, 2017

OPHELIA: a little-seen Claude Chabrol "take" on Hamlet hits Blu-ray/DVD via Olive Films

Who'd have imagined that TrustMovies would be covering, on subsequent days, films by two noted French filmmakers with highly misanthropic views of the world -- one with little talent (see yesterday's post on Bruno Dumont), the other a master of the movies, Claude Chabrol, who managed to smartly link France's "New Wave" to its more "establishment" cinematic past.

One of Chabrol's (the late filmmaker is shown at left) earlier movies -- his ninth of some 60 made over a period of 51 years, plus another dozen films or series episodes made for television -- OPHELIA, as you might quickly guess, is this fellow's updated "take" on Shakespeare's Hamlet, viewed as, among other things, class warfare. Chabrol always had it in for the haute bourgeoisie, but neither did he view the working class with any kind of confidence or love.

This political overlay, in any case, is mostly skin deep, as the director/co-writer is much more interested in doing riffs on the original, which anyone who knows the play should find surprisingly amusing and often quite smart.

These includes that gravedigger scene, a bit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, an Horatio-like best friend, the play-within-a-play (this time a film-within-a-film) and lots more.

The title character -- played by the lovely Juliette Mayniel (at right) -- is actually named Lucy and hates being referred to as Ophelia, and our Gertrude and Claudius characters (here known as Claudia and Adrien) are given proper depth and charisma by Alida Valli (below, left) and Claude Cerval (below, center).

But it is the Hamlet character, Yvan, that gives the film its most bizarre kick. As played by an actor I've never noted previously, though he played smaller roles in four other Chabrol movies, André Jocelyn (shown above, right, and below, left), was sometimes also known as André Josselin. Ophelia marked his rise to a "starring" role, yet it also marked the end of his career. I am not aware of what kind of reviews this actor received critically in France and elsewhere, but I suspect that they were perhaps unkind, for M. Jocelyn turns his Hamlet character into a twit who soon morphs into full-out twat.

I cannot help but also think that this is exactly what Chabrol wanted (his movie is full of dark, subtle humor, to which Joslyn's performance richly contributes), since this filmmaker was never one to beat around the bush as to what he was doing. The character of Shakespeare's Hamlet is already so full of indecisiveness that tweaking it a bit further just adds to the bizarre fun. And M. Joslyn is nothing if not steadfast, making his Yvan more and more annoying as the movie moves along.

The "mousetrap" film-within-the-film is Ophelia's high point, done as a silent movie that makes its premiere audience (all save the Gertrude and Claudius characters) laugh delightedly. Being French, of course, the film is full of ersatz philosophy and poetry, as well as labor unrest. And, yes -- this, too, adds to the humor on hand. Chabrol also has his very own ending in mind -- which is full of surprises, small and large. While not among the filmmaker's most memorable works, this is still a pleasure to see and savor.

The Blu-ray transfer I viewed was sparkling indeed: crisp and clear and a delight to watch. No extras are included on the disc, but simply to have this rarely-seen Chabrol movie available (and to see the beautiful face of Valli, above, once again) is more than worth one's time and, depending on the size of your pocketbook, one's money.

From Olive Films, Ophelia hit the street earlier this month and is available for purchase, if not perhaps for rental.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hong Kong filmmaker SCUD's latest, UTOPIANS, debuts from Breaking Glass

If you are a fan of copious nudity -- full-frontal and Asian -- you'll certainly want to take a gander at UTOPIANS, the newest film from an up-until-now-unknown-to-me filmmaker who goes by the name of SCUD. His film begins with our hero, a young student named Hins Gao, played by the cute, talented and nicely-endowed actor, Adonis He (below), in what appears to be his film debut, dreaming about bondage and arousal by both female and male (though sex with a man does seem to scare him a bit).

Not to worry. Our young hero, who also fantasizes entire rooms in which normally fully-clothed folk are suddenly nude, is soon in the thrall of a new teacher named Antonio Ming (Jackie Chow) who tells the class all about ancient Greece and Socrates and man-on-man sex -- which annoys our hero's religious girlfriend (Fiona Wang) all to heck.

Our boy and his teacher are soon seeing a lot of each other, and while Ming's philosophy would appear to be "indulge in all kinds of sexuality 'cause it's so good for you," most of what we see is homo, with a bit of bi on the side. No matter. Adonis (who does indeed make quite an Adonis) is getting what he wants and so is his very sexy teacher.

SCUD, pictured at right, is rather like a Radley Metzger (if Mr. Metzger were gay and Asian), determined to show us the joy of sex and letting go -- even if, as in this case, it leads to a morals charge for poor Mr. Ming and then a court case that involves his student, the student's mother and some past history that has to do with birth dates and parentage.

There's coincidence aplenty here, together with silliness and sexuality. But there is also a rather lovely kind of innocence at work (and play) that you may find, as did I, quite disarming. Also, if you're not adverse to nudity and sex that's straight, gay and bi -- complete with one scene featuring Mr. He engaging in masturbation with a very erect cock -- there is certainly enough to keep you alert visually.

SCUD does seem to take the idea of Utopia pretty seriously. Well, he's still young and his philosophy, I'm afraid, is not exactly what you'd call deep. But he certainly knows how to make a very pleasant, attractive soft- (and sometimes hard-) core movie with a game cast and enough plot devices to keep one hooked.

So buckle up (or maybe unbuckle) and let yourself go. If you're young, Utopians will take you places you may not yet have been, and for us older folk, it'll arouse nice memories and maybe even something a little more, ummm, solid.

From Breaking Glass Pictures and running 94 minutes, the movie makes its DVD/VOD debut this coming Tuesday, May 2 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Bruno Dumont is back again with another "comedy," SLACK BAY. Run for the hills.

Ah, Bruno Dumont. If there is another international movie-maker coupling such great renown to so little talent, I shall be surprised. After regaling us with a couple of early and dark tales that were credited for raising more questions than supplying any answers (always a good ploy for pseudo deep-thinkers, and which TrustMovies admits took him in to some extent), Dumont moved on to two truly terrible, appallingly useless and unbelievable films -- Twenty-nine Palms (a new low-point in film-making) and Flanders (not much better).

After tackling religion, very poorly, in Hadewijch, this writer/director (shown at left) did a couple more films (that I chose not to see: we critics do have our limits), before apparently turning his attention to comedy with the well-received Li'l Quinquin, which pretty much every critic (even a majority of audiences) seemed to like. Now we have SLACK BAY, Dumont's new "comedy," which, after missing his last three movies, I decided to give a try. Oh, my god. This is an embarrassment beyond belief: one that has completely finished me off, Bruno-wise.

Ostensibly a mystery about the sudden disappearance in a seaside area of a few people (more and more of them as the movie progresses), in which our "favorite" director gets to try his hand at everything from cross-dressing to cannibalism to magical flying, in the process getting his extremely starry cast -- the strongest assembled for any of his movies -- to overact and embarrass themselves in ways that would immediately decimate less sturdy careers.

Until you've seen Juliette Binoche (above, center) overact like crazy, I swear you will not believe this is even possible. Fabrice Luchini (left and below) and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (right) fare a tad better, if only because they're allowed a tiny bit of subtlety along with their craziness.

M. Luchini has been given (or perhaps he actually chose it) a body deformity that enables him to appear grotesque, as do several other characters in the film, particularly, the very fat police inspector (Didier Després, below) involved in finding the culprits here, who consistently falls down -- quite literally -- on the job.

Yes, M. Després is rather heavy, but how the filmmaker heavy-handedly offers up this tired and repetitive slapstick schlock is so stupid that you may have to keep your hand under your chin to avoid the consistent dropping of your jaw. On the plus side, there is some lovely cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines, and my favorite line of dialog comes as one character notes, "There's a storm on," when, all around, we see only clear, sunny skies.

Dumont makes his upper-class characters deformed and ridiculous and his lower class ones obdurate and nasty. His film work by now pretty much marks the man as a talent-free misanthrope, and Slack Bay only adds to the evidence on hand.

Yes, there's a love story of sorts, with one lover just about clubbing the other to death. Ah, how Dumont! What in hell is this filmmaker trying to say or do here? His movie fails as comedy most of all, but also as satire and/or political/social/religious critique. The film is something to see, all right, but mostly as a touchstone against which all lesser failures can be measured. Oh, come on now, you're probably saying: The movie can't be that bad! Yeah? See for yourself.

From Kino Lorber and running a head-scratching, mind-boggling two hours and two minutes, Slack Bay opened in New York City last week (at the FSLC and the Quad Cinema), and in Los Angeles yesterday, Friday, April 28 (at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and Playhouse 7. You can click here (then scroll down) to view upcoming playdates across the country.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Brett Berns & Bob Sarles' smart and savvy music doc, BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY

Though co-directed by Brett Berns, the son of its subject Bert Berns, the new music history-cum-biography documentary BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY turns out to be no slavish hagiography about "my wonderful dad." Oh, you can feel the love and appreci-ation of the younger Berns for his father throughout, but the movie is so full of facts and characteristics -- not nearly all of them positive -- about Bert Berns that by the end of this fast-moving and wonderfully entertaining doc, you'll feel as though you've ingested pretty much the full measure of the man.

You'll also find yourself amazed by just how much Berns père contributed to the 1960s music scene -- writing, performing, arranging, producing an enormous amount of the best songs of this fecund period of rock-and-roll. Co-directed by Bob Sarles, the talented producer/director/editor of a wealth of fine documentaries (the two co-directors are pictured above, with Sarles on the right), BANG! is a near-non-stop review of greats songs, along with many of the folk -- songwriters, producers, performers -- who brought them to us, from Ellie Greenwich (center left, below) and Phil Spector to Van Morrison and Neil Diamond (at left, below).

Not to mention the powerful (and just a little scary) triumvirate at Atlantic Records (shown at bottom, with Berns), who became a large part of Mr. Berns' great success. The documentary charts the history, both family and business, of the elder Berns, along with his questionable physical health, which was obvious early on, along with his incredible drive to succeed and the talent he clearly possessed in order to achieve that success.

Along the way, you hear some lengthy snatches of great old tunes, with the fascinating stories that go with them, so that the movie -- for us seniors, at least -- will be a kind of delicious time trip back to our youth. (Hearing and seeing Van Morrison so young again, as above and below, is a treat, as is his very interesting thoughts about his mentor, Mr. Berns, today.)

The elder Berns long possessed an interest and fascination with mobsters, too, and the doc does not skirt this issue. For awhile, you may imagine that the titular Bang! will have something to do with the man's demise. But no, those health issues remain instead front and center.

For much of its speedy running time (just 94 minutes), the film bounces so joyously, if occasionally scarily, along that when the sadness at last arrives, you'll understand and even somehow appreciate it. I suspect that the late Mr. Berns would be pretty delighted with this film and proud of the work that his son, together with Mr. Sarles, put into it.

From Abramorama, the documentary opened this past Wednesday, April 26, in New York City at the IFC Center, and will opens in Los Angeles on Friday, May 5, at Laemmle's Noho.  To view all upcoming screenings across the country, click here and scroll down.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

David Bezmozgis' NATASHA explores the Russian emigrant community in Canada

Beginning with some promise, as we view a family of Russian emigrants in Toronto and soon learn that one of the family, an "uncle" with pretty consistent marital problems due to some rather bad choices, is once again about to embark on matrimony, NATASHA -- the 2015 film from Canadian writer (of Latvian birth) David Bezmozgis -- soon concerns itself with the title character, the daughter of that uncle's new wife, and her budding relationship with Mark, the teenage son of one branch of this family. Mark's mother encourages her son to introduce little Natasha, unhappy and estranged from her own mom, to her new city.

That introduction soon includes sex, lies and teenage obsession, the latter on the part of poor Mark, who turns out to be the perfect mark for the wiles of this budding Russian trollop. Mr. Bezmozgis, shown at left, is said to be an acclaimed writer in his native land, but on the basis of this movie, an acclaimed filmmaker he ain't. Natasha is as tiresome, trashy and obvious as its non-heroine, with just about enough content to fill a half-hour television show.
Unfortunately, the film lasts 96 minutes.

It also offers up an ending that simply stops dead -- exactly at the point where we finally have a bit of interest in "what happens next," the preceding portion having been more than apparent and utterly predictable.

Performances are perfectly OK, befitting the material to a tee, with Alex Ozerov (above) making a hale, hearty and hot-looking teen with those typically raging hormones, and Sasha K. Gordon (below) providing a blandly non-expressive face in order to make us understand how coolly deceptive our little girl really is.

Other family members fare better and are more interesting, but there is finally no getting around just how banal and obvious is Bezmozgis' message. The Eastern Europe emigrant experience in the West is, of course, an often fraught and difficult one, but I find it odd that My Father's Guests, a French film by Anne Le Ny that you can stream via Netflix -- a comedy no less -- offers a much more nuanced, interesting and even believable look at an emigration-for-marriage situation than does this supposedly "dramatic" movie.

While we get a bit of family conversation regarding Israel, politics and the Jewish experience during the course of Natasha, the movie's main goal seems closer to titillation than anything else. This tiresome exercise, from Menemsha Films, opens tomorrow, Friday, April 28, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Further playdates? Nothing appears to be on the agenda as yet.

However, Mr. Bezmozgis and the film's two young stars will make personal appearances over this coming weekend at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Click here or here to see the appearance schedule.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

After a ten-year hiatus, Steven Shainberg is back directing--with sci-fi thriller, RUPTURE

You may remember Steven Shainberg from his critically popular Sundance-heralded film, Secretary, or maybe his interesting (but less popular with critics or audiences) Diane Arbus fantasy bio-pic, FUR. That film, and/or possibly some other things, led to our not hearing from Mr. Shainberg (shown below) for a decade, so far as directing is concerned. The good news is, he's back. And the even better news is that his latest film, RUPTURE, is quite a bizarre, frightening and entertaining addition to the sci-fi/kidnap-thriller sub-genre.

It also offers (spoiler ahead, so skip to the next paragraph if you want maximum surprise from this little movie) quite a nice new wrinkle on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers template, especially in the manner in which it introduces new characters as we move along and then slowly unfurls their intentions toward our kidnapped heroine.

That heroine would be the single mom, Renee (played by Noomi Rapace, below: the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who seems simply a normal woman just trying to provide her young son and herself with decent life prospects.

When, after setting up this sense of normalcy and pleasant family life, our heroine is kidnapped, we feel as shocked, frightened and confused as does she, trying to come to terms with what happened and -- particularly -- to what end?

The latter is doled out to us very slowly and very cleverly by the director (who also contributed the story) and his screenwriter, Brian Nelson, who only allow us and Renee to understand what is happening in such confusing dribs and drabs that this makes our and her frustrations and fear continually mount.

To give away those dribs and drabs would only add more spoilers, so TrustMovies will just say that they are provided by an ensemble of fine character actors like Peter Stormare (above, left), Michael Chiklis, (above, center, and below), Lesley Manville (above, right) and Kerry Bishé, (above, second from left), each of whom creates as much of a character out of these oddball villains, as possible, given that we and the camera rarely leaves the face, body and fear being experienced by the formidable Ms Rapace.

This actress has a fine role here and she gives it what it needs, holding us in thrall and in hope for her future throughout. And Mr. Shainberg sees to it that we stay with her, exterior and interior, until the troubling finale.

The film's ending is a humdinger: leaving a lot open-ended, even as it makes clear what has happened and will continue to happen. Rupture is a nice addition to this sub-genre mash-up. For all the earlier films from which it borrows, the end result seems surprisingly original and very frightening and queasy-making indeed.

From AMBI Media Group and running 102 minutes, Rupture opens this Friday, April 28, in New York City at the Cinema Village and in the L.A. area at the Arena Cinemas. For all you who don't live on either coast, the film will simultaneously hit VOD.

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.