Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Identity, change, freedom and responsibility in Atsuko Hirayanagi's oddball debut -- OH, LUCY!

When the performance of Shinobu Terajima (the blond on the poster at left) in OH, LUCY! walked away with a nomination for Best Female Lead at this year's Independent Spirit Awards, this surprised a lot of us.

Once we'd seen the movie -- which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week -- we understood. (The film, written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, also garnered a Best First Feature nomination.)

This is the unusual tale of a depressed and repressed middle-aged Japanese woman who, via an odd turn of events, ends up taking a course in the English language that very quickly sends the life she's been used to into a tailspin.

Ms Hirayanagi, pictured at right, has made a very strange but completely compelling movie that pulls you in from its initial scene, in which a hushed, almost sweet, suicide occurs, as a young man whispers goodbye into our heroine's ear before jumping in front of one of those Tokyo subway trains. As we find out more and more about this woman named Setsuko, who will soon be calling herself  "Lucy," it becomes increasingly clear how problemed she is.

Her English teacher, with whom she has but a single session before her life is thoroughly upended, is played by Josh Hartnett, an actor who could upend just about anything or anyone. Hatnett took a brief respite from acting a few years back, and since then his choice of roles, as well as his performances, have only grown richer and more interesting.

As an English instructor with quite an unusual teaching style, Hartnett (shown above, center, and at bottom) soon doubles as a unlikely romantic lead, the kind of guy who just can't resist sex when it is forced upon him aggressively enough. The actor gracefully goes from teacher to heart-throb to heel without missing a beat, and there are scenes here in which he seems to have regressed to an overgrown kid, losing ten years in the process.

While Hartnett helps hold some disparate pieces and places together (the movie moves from Japan to Southern California and back), the film belongs to its star and leading lady, Ms Terajima (above and below, right), who uses that blond wig to help effect a personality change that seems at once bizarre but absolutely necessary.

We meet Lucy's sis, another angry lady (played with ferocity and confusion by Kaho Minami, above, left) and her daughter, Lucy's niece, Mika (the adorable Shioli Kutsana, below, right), who is the catalyst for those English lessons and just about everything else that follows.

Oh, Lucy! goes from dark to delightful, sweet to sad without losing its footing. The workplace in Japan is not presented as anything very good, and the fact that suicide occurs or is mentioned a number times throughout doesn't say a whole lot positive about the culture or the society. Sure, America presents a kind of alternative, but this is clearly just a stopgap before real life intrudes again and must finally be faced.

From Film Movement, in English and Japanese (with English subtitles) and running 96 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the new Landmark 57 West and the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt. The film's director will be making personal appearances in both New York and L.A. Check theater schedules for details.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

SUBMISSION: Richard Levine's timely and unsettling adaptation of a Francine Prose novel

Perfectly timed to the current Me2 movement, though not in quite the manner you might expect, the new film by director/adapter Richard Levine -- from the well-regarded novel, Blue Angel, by Francine Prose -- SUBMISSION tackles the idea of sexual harassment from a very different viewpoint. Though TrustMovies has not read this particular novel by Ms Prose, he has always found her writing strong, intelligent, thoughtful and often surprising in its choice of not just her subject but her attitude about that subject.

Here, the sexual harassment comes from both sides and in ways that are not so apparent early on. Motives are unclear, and sex itself seems maybe not nearly as important as things like fame, ego and that always problematic sense of self-worth. As director and adapter, Mr. Levine, shown at left, negotiates all this with remarkable ease and facility so that we are taken in, just as is the movie's protagonist, played with a simply wonderful combination of naivete and smarts by the always-good but here in that rare leading role that allows us to understand just how spectacular this actor can be: Stanley Tucci, below.

Mr. Tucci allows us to identify with and understand his character so thoroughly that, somewhere near the film's conclusion, my spouse murmured aloud, "Oh, this poor guy!" You'll feel the same way, and yet you will also understand exactly how he has managed to put himself in this unenviable position.

You may also feel a very odd combination of anger and admiration for his antagonist, portrayed with exactly the right mix of intelligence, neediness, ambition and a just-slightly-marred allure by Addison Timlin, above. The performances by these two actors could hardly be bettered, and the alternately sweet and naughty little dance they do together grows more complicated and unsettling as the movie progresses.

And, yes, sex is indeed involved, but the harassment portion of the equation is a lot more pliable and provocative than certain viewers might wish. The small liberal arts college that is the setting of the film is brought to satirical and mostly realistic life, while supporting roles  -- from our hero's wife, played by Kyra Sedgwick, below, and one of his faculty friends (Janeane Garafalo, shown at bottom, right) -- are very nicely limned, as well. While the novel was published back in 2000, the filmmaker has updated the content to include (and make some fun of) more current and problematic educational "tools" such as safe spaces and trigger warnings.

What happens to Tucci's character is awful but somehow expected, and the movie (as I imagine was the original novel) is not content to merely leave it there so that we and the characters can stew in our/their own juices. The ending -- which is abrupt yet just about perfect (the last line of dialog is heavenly) -- should put you in mind of something with which I suspect Ms Prose, Mr. Levine, the actors here and most of us writers, too, would all agree: In the end, it's the work that counts.

From Paladin and running 106 minutes, Submission opens theatrically this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the new Landmark 57 West. On Friday, March 9, look for it around the rest of the country in some 45 cities major and minor -- from Los Angeles (at various Laemmle theaters) to elsewhere, at locations including both the Regal and Landmark chains.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Another attempt at nouveau horror in Philip Gelatt's 2-character creep-out, THEY REMAIN

Somewhat similar to last year's all-atmosphere/low-on-plot-and-characterization movie, It Comes at Night, this new film -- the sophomore effort from Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House) entitled THEY REMAIN -- relies on quite a lot of exposition coupled to an attempt at slow-burning suspense and creepy behavior (from both its protagonists and from the animal/insect life on view). TrustMovies admits that he is impressed by the continuing attempts of filmmakers to find new ways to tell the same old stories. But for every Babadook or Creepy that appears we seem to get a double dose of the very labored, tiresome and ultimately annoying movies such as It Comes at Night, Daguerrotype, and now this one.

On the plus side, Mr. Gelatt, shown at right, sets most of his movie in daylight, in a quite beautiful, autumn-colored countryside in which the bad things that will soon happen take place in often the brightest of sunshine and greenery. The plot, such as it is, has to do with a couple of scientists/researchers that have been sent to this site by a "big corporation" (yes, feel free to read oh-oh! into this) in order to study the "animal life," which we soon learn is behaving oddly.

Because, I am assuming, of his very low budget, Mr. Gelatt does not allows to see this odd behavior on view. Instead, we're told about it secondhand, via the researchers. Oh, we do see a small animal skeleton, and a dog who actually seems to be behaving pretty much like dogs often act. But, again, since we're getting most of this via exposition, we'd best try to read something into all this.

The movie is mostly what they call a "two-hander," meaning we have only two characters on view: our researchers (played by William Jackson Harper, above, and Rebecca Henderson, below) who, it tuns out, have had some kind of past relationship that must have ended badly. So now they can spend the movie being vaguely annoyed with each other until, yep, they start having sex again. Or do they? As the movie moves along, it grows more difficult to detect dream or fantasy from reality.

Our pair knows from the outset that the site upon which the are doing their research doubles as the place where a series of grizzly mass murders occurred some time back. So now the animal life is affected? Is it the soil? The water? Or our researchers' imagination? Maybe even that naughty corporation, the representatives of which -- a pilot who flies in supplies and a disembodied voice we hear only over the phone -- are clearly assholes. Perhaps our two protags are simply going nuts, all on their own.

Whatever it is, it seems to take for-fucking-ever to make itself known. Meanwhile, we get lots of wandering-thru-the-woods and unpleasantness between our two lead characters, who actually don't seem to have much "character" of their own. We also get some very clunky exposition about their respective family life (wouldn't they have told this to each other during their earlier relationship?) but little else except increasing arguments, paranoia and a some now-and-then sex.

Oh, yes: A word or two ought to be said about the use of nightmare/intuitive memory flashbacks that help fill in plot-lines. Either find a better way to include these tiresome tropes or, better yet, leave them out altogether and come up with a entirely different way to inform your audience of "what happened earlier." Here, we see that naughty cult at work with snippets that increase in length but don't add much that's worth our energy or concentration. Plus, the POV for these flashbacks/fantasies seems more than a little "iffy."

By the time we've reached the end credits, the "they" who "remain" are unlikely to be the annoyed audience members who paid good money for their tickets to this nonsense. The poster (shown top) by Jeanne D'Angelo, however, is lots of fun.

From Paladin and running about 20 minutes too long at its 102-minute length, They Remain opens this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and on the following Friday, March 9, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. A national release (probably highly limited) is said to be upcoming, as well.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Toni Servillo in Francesco Amato's screwball comedy from Italy, LET YOURSELF GO

After viewing that great Italian actor Toni Servillo in everything from the fine films of Paolo Sorrentino to the delightful and/or ruminative political/economic satires of Roberto Andò to the pitch-black family comedy It Was the Son and so many more wonderful movies, it may come as a particularly bright surprise to see him in what can best be described as an Italian screwball comedy.

In Francesco Amato's new film, LET YOURSELF GO (Lasciati andari), Signore Servillo plays an up-tight Jewish psychiatrist who is saddled with at least as many problems as the fairly woeful clients whom he (sort of) treats. Of course, our shrink is able to hide his problems better.

The film's co-writer (with Francesco Bruni and Davide Lantieri) and director, Signore Amato (pictured at right), has created something we don't see all that much of these days, particularly featuring an actor in the lead role as fine and full-fledged-serious as Servillo.

That would be the screwball comedy -- something so goofy and ridiculous that you certainly can't take it seriously yet conceived and executed so well that you can't help but be royally entertained.

And when TrustMovies calls Servillo's character (shown above, center) a Jewish psychiatrist, don't go to this movie expecting anything in which religion plays much of a part (Catholicism is almost as important here as Judaism). Fortunately, more than anything else, the film is a very human and humane comedy. You end up rooting for just about every character in it. And since a couple of them are escaped felons and another in a con artist/scammer, this is something of an accomplishment for Amato, his cast and crew.

The movie begins with a very screwy-looking fellow (the scary/funny Luca Marinelli, above, right), having just buried something in the ground, trying his best to count off the paces from where his "loot" now resides. Clearly he is mathematically, maybe mentally, challenged. But he's oddly amusing, even so. We won't return to him again until perhaps the movie's final forty minutes. But when we do, the remainder of the "plot" suddenly begins falling into place, and the film grows more bizarre and hilarious right up into and including the end credits (which you really must sit thru to reap the full comedic benefits).

Along its meandering but wise and witty way, Let Yourself Go makes smart fun of everything from psychotherapy (above) to physical fitness (below), synagogues and Communion. To try to describe the plot would only give away too much and probably ruin some fun in the process.

Best to just mention how very good is the Spanish actress Verónica Echegui (at right, above and below, of My Prison Yard and Bunny and the Bull) as the young exercise trainer who gives our shrink his new lease on life.  Ms Echegui has been doing lovely work for fifteen years now. She does not seem to age much and just grows more charming and versatile with each new role.

As for Servillo, the actor proves he can handle a mainstream comedy as easily and well as he does those various "art" films. He knows how to simply be quiet, alert and on-the-mark and thus manages to pull in every bit of humor he (and his movie) needs. As the "straight" man around whom the satellite of comic performers revolve, he asks for neither laughs nor sympathy yet somehow gets both. What an actor this guy is!

A non-stop delight that grow better, funnier and crazier as it moves long, Let Yourself Go -- from Menemsha Films and running 112 minutes -- opens here in South Florida this coming Friday, March 2 in the Miami area at the AMC Aventura, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters and the Regal Shadowood, in Fort Lauderdale at the Savor Cinema, in Hollywood at the Cinema Paradiso, in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show and at the Movies of Del Ray and Lake Worth.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Martial arts/Bruce Lee fans: Don't let George Nolfi's BIRTH OF THE DRAGON get by you

While TrustMovies' daughter and grandkids were visiting, daughter -- who is a big martial arts enthusiast and practitioner (as is our son-in-law and their children) -- insisted we watch a movie entitled BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, which all of them had already seen but did not mind viewing again. We did -- and were more than just pleasantly surprised. This is one of those films that got a terrible critical response but that audiences enjoyed more than three times that of the critics. More important, it offers a view of that martial arts idol/icon, Bruce Lee, that knocks him down a peg or two while making clear what a wonder he was, even if, concerning his martial arts philosophy/spirit, this guy had some major learning still to do.

Set in San Francisco back in the 1960s, the movie -- directed by George Nolfi (shown, left) and based on an article, Bruce Lee's Toughest Fight, written by Michael Dorgan, which was then adapted by screenwriters Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson -- proves a model of this kind of film-making: smart, fast-moving and able to beautifully juggle its several themes and plot-lines so that we easily follow them while coming to also care about its several protagonists.

I suspect that some, perhaps many, of Bruce Lee's fans were angry at the depiction of their hero shown here, for Mr. Lee in his younger days, while clearly a martial arts force to contend with, might also have been just too cocky and smart-assed for his own good. Certainly as played (and very well, too) by the fast, skilled and sexy Philip Ng (below), the character seems more than capable of being the champion he so clearly was, while needing a lot of help in the humility/attitude department.

Playing opposite Mr. Ng with equal skill and charisma is the wonderful actor Yu Xia, below, who takes the role of kung-fu master Wong Jack Man -- the fellow Mr Lee must cajole into fighting him -- and fills it so completely with his remarkable combination of strength and modesty that you're likely to become a convert before the movie ends.

Lee imagines that Wong Jack Man has come all the way across the ocean to learn what Lee is up to and perhaps dissuade him from teaching the ancient Asian art to westerners. But things are much more complicated (or, depending upon how you view it, much simpler) that that, and this grand master proves to be just about everything that Lee is not and yet somehow aspires to be.

The fight, up to which everything is leading and which provides the film with its terrific climax and even better denouement, is brought about by two other characters who prove crucial to the plot, as well as to the great charm and sweetness of the film. Lee has a student (Billy Magnussen, above) who falls in love with a newcomer from China (Qu Jingjing, below, left) and wants desperately to help the girl pay off her "debt" to the sleazebags who brought her to the USA and by whom she is now employed.

This love story, in other hands, might come off as standard and obvious, but thanks to the work of the writers and director and especially to Magnussen, who unveils things we've not seen previously in this actor, the character seems remarkably sweet, naive and caring, alternately pig-headed and kind. It's a lovely performance, and so we root for this young couple much more that we do, say, for other more obvious lovers (the pair in the recent and utterly manipulative movie, The Mountain Between Us, for instance).

The fight and its aftermath are also handled with style, grace and intelligence. Connoisseurs will appreciate the "moves" on view, but the heart of the matter is devoted to the how and why of things. Exactly who wins the fight is especially succulent. What we get here is so much better than what we're consistently fed via our mainstream/blockbuster/fantasy-world nonsense.

The Birth of the Dragon is full of kung-fu, all right, but it is also rich with competing philosophies and ideas -- about everything from martial arts to the ways in which we might choose to live our lives. It's a lovely piece of work, and it should have been a lot more popular than it was. But, no: We live in a time of mostly super-hero fantasy trash, it seems. In any case, you can (and should) check this movie out yourself. It's available on home video now -- via DVD or streaming.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ben Parker's THE CHAMBER: Confined-space melodrama opens in theaters and digitally

The first alert that something may be amiss about THE CHAMBER -- a somewhat new (made in 2016) confined-space movie from writer/director Ben Parker -- is the fact that the "scientists," or maybe "military" folk who come aboard the mini-submarine (that rather thoroughly confines everyone's space) refuse to tell the sub's captain, who appears to be the movie's hero, why they are there or what they are searching for. This is suspect to and for the captain but also to and for the very believability of the movie's plot.

You will either accept this "fact" or not, but to keep watching, you'll need to pretty completely suspend what they used to call your "disbelief." (Though, in the age of Trump, could there possibly be much disbelief left to suspend?) Mr. Parker, shown at right, does an adequate job in the directorial department but a quite below-average one as a writer. On the plus side is his ability to keep us guessing as to who is good and who isn't and why. But by the time we find out, his plot, motivations and all else seems so jumbled as to make his would-be confined-space thriller/melodrama not so much about "who will survive?" as it is about "who cares?".

One reason I decided to give this movie a spin is its star: Johannes Kuhnke (above), who was so fine as the lead in that near-avalanche/family film Force Majeure. He is certainly OK here, but the role is limited to mostly silly plot machinations involving nuclear naughtiness and, yes, North Korea and the U.S., with Charlotte Salt (below), playing the head of the antagonist group. (Given its 2016 provenance, the film is timely, at least.)

As The Chamber takes place under the sea, you needn't place any bets on whether or not the water will soon rise around its protagonists/antagonists. But as the characters keep doing dumb things and are allowed to continue this for far too long, your patience may run out before the movie does.

Granted the situation here is grim, but did Mr. Parker need to make his characters so alternately dumb and crazy? The craziest is played (and well enough, certainly) by James McArdle, below, and the sweetest by Elliot Levey, above. But the nonsense piles up in the last half-hour to the point that it grows so silly that it very nearly becomes fun. Almost. Dumb and tiresome finally win out.

Really, now: You increase your passenger list by two people, yet you don't bother to include two more survival suits? The ending is such that I asked myself why in hell I bothered to sit through all this. Oh, right: It was Mr. Kuhnke's fault.

From Cinedigm and running too long, even at only 90 minutes, The Chamber opens tomorrow, Friday, February 23, in a few theaters and on digital streaming. Your move....

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

BLACK PANTHER: The latest stupid-hero movie is upon us -- and breaking records, of course

The difference this time is that the schlock is in black-face, which does make a nice change from the usual schlock in white-face (or, as per Wonder Woman, schlock in pseudo-feminist-face). Still, schlock is schlock. And, as a good friend of mine who, after hearing all the plaudits from amazed critics and so rushed off to see the film on opening day, pointed out to me: "It's a children's movie, for god's sake." Which does makes one wonder about the destabilization of our increasingly idiotic critical establishment.

Oh, the movie scores it points about racial inequality-and-so-on. But since it is all about having and using super-powers, so what? This does not make the film anything approaching "serious." There are some nice moments along the way, including a lovely comedic performance from Letitia Wright (as our hero's sister), and the finale did move me more than I expected. For that I credit the movie's courage in allowing a major character (Michael B. Jordan, above, the best thing in the film) to represent unalloyed black anger turned crazy and near-suicidal in the face of centuries of injustice.

Overall though, the film is too long, too obvious and too repetitive. Chadwick Boseman, above, is better seen in just about anything else (don't miss him as James Brown in Get on Up). The rest of the starry cast come through as expected but are unable to rise above the second-rate and second-hand material. Well, what do you want? It's Marvel, for fuck's sake. (And, no, DC ain't any better). This will be the last stupid-hero movie that TrustMovies bothers to view or review.

BLACK PANTHER, running two-and-one-quarter hours, is playing all over. Click here, if you must, to find a theater near you. For an antidote to this nonsense, I recommend you try Strong Island, streaming now on Netflix and nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A heads-up: TrustMovies is taking a short vacation....

...due to few-days visit from his daughter and grandchildren.

He'll be back in action mid-week. 

Till then, see a movie and enjoy yourself!