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 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Michael Cross' SECOND NATURE provides some fairy-tale gender-bending that's frisky fun

Its always a pleasure to receive, out of the blue, a new indie movie of which one has never heard (likewise its filmmaker and cast) but that turns out to offer enough surprise and fun to make the watch worthwhile. So it is with SECOND NATURE, the very good-natured, charming, silly little movie that tackles the subject of a sudden switch of genders in an amusing and interesting manner.

We've seen enough "magical" body-switching movies by now that another one, even if it's done gender-wise, might not impress. But filmmaker Michael Cross (shown below) has the better idea to leave his two lead antagonists alone, while flipping the entire environment around them.

This "flip" makes his movie not only a nice surprise but an increasingly funny one, too, as we discover a Hooters-type restaurant switched to "Peckers," in which the scantily-clad waiters are ogled and their "packages" squeezed by the female diners to a world in which men must protest their right to equal pay, paternity leave, and especially their "choice" to get a vasectomy.

Sure, this is all kind of obvious and by the book, and some of the jokes land more deftly than others. Yet by and large, most of this works, and the movie's basic idea smartly carries the day.

Mr. Cross is helped considerably by the talent and charm of his able cast, in particular its two leading actors --- Collette Wolfe and Sam Huntington (shown above, left and right, respectively) -- who play small-town antagonists both running for the office of mayor.

Their game performances and their ability to fill out their characters with traits both good and bad (well, he's mostly the entitled bad guy, but Mr. Huntington manages this with enough humor to make it work) help the movie reach its foregone conclusion with wit and charm.

The plot revolves around the Wolfe's characters grandmother (Carolyn Cox, above, left) and a certain powerful mirror she has buried. Once unleashed, that power must be curtailed within a certain time frame or it will remain in place forever.

Yes, this is fairy-tale stuff, but director and co-writer Cross has paced his film well enough (and made it short enough: 80 minutes) that it doesn't drag and we're smiling and sometimes outright laughing along the way. Special effects are minor but effective, and supporting performances range from OK to just fine.

Overall, Second Nature should provide enough fun for those who discover it to make that discovery worthwhile. It arrives on VOD this coming Tuesday, September 19, on most major platforms, while extending its theatrical run in Seattle (the movie takes place and was made in Washington State) at the Ark Lodge Cinemas through September 21. Click here to find out more about how and where to see it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

In the loop: Gareth Tunley's compelling puzzler, THE GHOUL, arrives on Blu-ray/DVD

A knockout -- even if it may leave you more puzzled going out than you were going in -- THE GHOUL, a movie written and directed by Gareth Tunley so consistently genre-jumping that it's probably sui generis, proves a kind of enigmatic mystery-thriller with over/undertones of everything from the occult to a master class in psychology. Think Repulsion meets... oh, hell, comparisons are pretty useless here. Just watch and wonder. And enjoy. Whatever your opinion at film's end, you'll be hooked throughout and thoroughly enjoying yourself, TrustMovies suspects.

The name most bandied about in the film's advertising is that of Ben Wheatley, who acted as executive producer. And why not -- since his is the most famous of anyone connected with the movie? Yet this is quite unfair, as the movie is better than literally anything Mr. Wheatley has so far accomplished. If any justice remains in the movie world, we shall be hearing from Mr. Tunley (shown at left) again and again.

What this filmmaker has done is to give us the movie equivalent of a Möbius strip or an M.C. Escher drawing. And yet The Ghoul is no mere stunt (or if it is, it's one of the better stunts in film history). It is also a living breathing, beautifully conceived, executed, written, directed and acted tale of... what?

That is the question that will dog you as you watch. The possible answers are plenteous, with character dissolution and/or the take-over of one person's mind and actions by another the most prominent. Our leading man, Chris, played by the unforgettable Tom Meeten (shown above and below) is the film's central character, and he is on-screen for practically the entire movie. Mr. Meeten possesses a face and a body that manage to be, by turns, dowdy, handsome, plain, sexy, riven, graceful, graceless, and always compelling.

The movie is Chris's journey, and Meeten makes it -- thanks to camerawork (Benjamin Pritchard) that consistently finds the right subject and view and editing (which seems to be divided amongst several folk) that couples all this with precision and speed -- something from which you cannot avert your gaze. As writer and director, the filmmaker provides smart detail after detail in the foreground, background, and via the strange and varied cast of supporting characters that makes that journey utterly riveting.

The plot make perfect sense. For awhile. From the opening scene, in which we learn of a bizarre double murder to the penultimate one that provides a kind of climax that explains (and yet maybe doesn't) all that has gone before, Mr. Tunley is able in something like 85 minutes to bring us full circle and yet keep us going even farther (afield).

Along the way we meet a would-be girlfriend (Alice Lowe, two photos up), a bizarre best friend (James Eyers, above), a therapy companion (Rufus Jones, below, right), and especially a couple of very strange but interesting therapists (beautifully brought to life by Niamh Cusack and Geoffrey McGivern) who, together, bring the movie its most unsettling blend of kind, charming compassion and utter manipulation.

There is even an oddball character (Paul Kaye, below) whose entire job in the movie, it seems, is simply to tell a most interesting and funny shaggy-dog story. What drives the film forward (and may simultaneously drive you nuts) is how believable everything seems. Until it is clear that -- yes? no! -- something quite else is wrong here. Still, we and Chris persevere until we've reached... ummm, you'll see. What you'll make of it all is up for grabs.

On the Blu-ray disc's Special Features is a delightful short film featuring the director and much of his cast -- all of who, it tuns out, are comedians known for their character-driven, stand-up comedy routines. Considering that The Ghoul may be one of the most dour, dark creations ever to hit video, this seems particularly intriguing. It's like that clown who so wants to play Hamlet (and then does it damned well) -- times ten.

From Arrow Video and released here in the USA via MVD Entertainment, The Ghoul arrived on Blu-ray (in a fine transfer) and DVD last week, and is available now for purchase and/or (I hope) rental. For folk who demand something different, compelling and lots of fun, this one's a don't-miss deal.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

José María Cabral's WOODPECKERS, a prison melodrama via the Dominican Republic, opens

It's been awhile since TrustMovies has seen a decent film set in a Latino prison (the 2012 Get the Gringo may have been the last one), so this new movie from Dominican filmmaker José María Cabral proves, for awhile anyway, a welcome change of pace. Taking place in one not-so-hot prison in the Dominican Republic, and then for its final half hour or so in another, even worse, behind-bars venue, WOODPECKERS (Carpenteros) acquaints us with the plight of a new inmate named Julián, played by the charismatic Haitian-born, Dominican-raised actor Jean Jean. As Julián and we learn the ropes in this new environment, we discover that, as ever, these ropes include mostly the usual: the pecking order, cruel guards, good guys and the bad, crummy food and lodging, and one oddity that stands out from the rest.

That would be the sign language the inmates use to communicate from afar with the female inmates in the prison next door, which makes these men the Woodpeckers of the movie's title. (How this name came about is also explained to us via the usual exposition.)

Señor Cabral, shown at right, does a good job of immediately submerging us into this milieu and quickly setting up the situation in which his protagonist (the svelte M. Jean, pictured below, left) and antagonist (a beefy, bonkers inmate named Manaury, played by the excellent Ramón Emilio Candelario, below, right) are pitted against each other. The reason for their antagonism is, of course, the woman -- Yanelly -- with whom Manaury has been "woodpecking." (And, yes, she's the pretty, spirited spitfire of all those women-in-prison movies you know and love.) When Manaury, who's always misbehaving, is sent to a place where he can no longer visually connect with her, he teaches Julián how to do this for him. Guess what happens?

Shucks: you already have! So from here, we move from threats to actual physical harm, as our new twosome (that's Judith Rodriguez Perez as Yanelly, below, left) moves farther from that nasty third wheel. All this is filmed with plenty of panache and pizzazz, and the performances from the entire cast are believable and up-to-snuff.

What becomes a problem is the coincidence that keeps popping up -- would an inmate so casually toss his prized cell phone on the cot then leave the room so it could be easily stolen? -- as well as the all-out melodramatic crescendo with which the movie closes, in which every last expected emotion is wrung from every last expected situation.

Now, some of  you may easily fall for all this (The New York Times reviewer certainly did), but I guess I've just seen too much of this too often to wholeheartedly give over again. Woodpeckers is fun, however, and energetic and full of enough incident to keep you relatively hooked -- the fixing of a broken air conditioner is one such event -- even if the 106-minute running time is a tad long for this kind of film.

From Outsider Pictures, in Spanish with English subtitles, the movie opens tomorrow in  the New York City area at the AMC Empire 25, Regal's UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14 and the Concourse Plaza Multiplex Cinemas in the Bronx, with a limited national release to follow. Here in South Florida it will open next Friday, September 22, at Miami's Tower Theater and AMC's Aventura 24. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, theaters and cities.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Holocaust: a beautiful, contemplative view in Marina Willer's doc, RED TREES

Marina Willer, shown below, the director and co-writer of RED TREES, is a designer by trade, and this skill is on view almost constantly in her new documentary about her father, Alfred, and his boyhood in Czechoslovakia during World War II, which has been expanded from a shorter film Ms Willer made earlier. This Jewish family, we learn in the course of the movie, was one of only twelve in Prague that managed to survive Hitler's and his Nazi's onslaught that resulted in the Jewish Holocaust. Alfred's memories are given voice by the late Tim Piggot-Smith.

Willer's film is foremost a visual treat, with some ravishing scenes of everything from foliage to factories shown in stunning color and/or composition. The filmmaker, shown at left, has taken her title from her father's childhood experience in discovering that the was color blind: He drew his trees in red rather than green.

In addition to the great beauty of her film, Red Trees is distinguished by its contemplative view of Holocaust memory, as well as by its originality. I can think of few films on this subject that come at it from anything like this perspective. (The great narrative film, Fateless, has a contemplative quality, but its engine is powered much more strongly by drama, incident, anger and compassion than is the engine of this film.)

In fact, this contemplative quality -- together with writing that occasionally seems more than a bit obvious and the viewpoint of the narrator (above) that is never questioned though it elides much and leaves out ever more --  finally turns the film into something less incisive and compelling than it might have been. Marina explains that, for years, she had not known about any of her father's history because, as did so many Holocaust survivors, he preferred to hold so much of it inside.

We understand how and why Alfred's father was kept alive by the Nazi -- his skills in chemistry was of use to the Germans -- but not how Alfred himself managed to stay alive. Since literally everyone else Jewish who was connected to the pair -- friends, family, co-workers -- were murdered or committed suicide, Alfred was certainly one lucky young man. (Perhaps we missed some of the heavily-accented English dialog along the way.)

There are a number specific details I garnered from the film that I had not known previously. Among other restrictions, Jews were not allowed to drive, so that family had to rid itself of it automobile. All along the way, Alfred ticks off one after another victim of the Holocaust, without giving us much detail of anything or anyone. He has already told us several times, "You learn not to look." Then finally he adds, "but you never forget."

Interestingly, the movie itself does little except look -- at the great beauty and/or fascinating design it finds all around and even in memory. But it never really probes, leaving us with a narrator who may or may not be particularly reliable, though he is certainly interesting. Eventually, post-war, the family relocates to Brazil, a country the filmmaker extols for how diverse and welcoming it is. Diversity? Yes. Equality? Not so much.

From Cohen Media Group and running a relatively brief 82 minutes, Red Trees opens this Friday, September 15, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Quad Cinema), in Los Angeles (at various Laemmle theaters) and elsewhere. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down.