Tuesday, July 31, 2018

COCOTE: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias' Dominican revenge/art film opens

Is it possible to create a genuine art film around the themes of revenge and religious fervor? On the basis of COCOTE, the new movie from the Dominican Republic written, directed and edited by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, the answer is absolutely not. Don't even bother. Of course, another filmmaker might easily manage this combo, but regarding TrustMovies' taste and viewing patience, this may be the worst and most foolish example of pompous, ridiculous movie-making that I have had to sit through in my close to fifteen years of reviewing. It is, in fact, this year's sterling example of a "fart" film (or failed art film: a movie that is mostly comprised of hot, smelly air).

Almost nothing works, and yet almost everything calls heavy-handed attention to itself in Señor de los Santos Arias' bizarre endeavor (the filmmaker is shown at right) -- which alternates black-and-white and color cinematography, a small-screen then wide-screen ratio, a father and a funeral, religion and revenge (with way too much emphasis on the former) to tell a tale that offers barely enough content for a half-hour television segment yet goes on for a punishing 106-minute length. I held on for the entire film (my spouse gave up two-thirds of the way along), but I must admit to growing angrier as time wore on.

The director has certainly cast a striking, handsome and impressive looking actor, Vicente Santos (above and below), in his leading role -- and then deliberately refuses to let us get a very good look at the guy. Few facial close-ups are to be seen, and though much is made of the actor's large stature, don't expect to view him full-frame more than a time or two -- or from such a distance or in such darkness that the figure you're seeing might just be your next-door neighbor. Yes, de Los Santos Arias appears to delight in withholding.

Ditto regarding the "dramatic" scenes. There are three of what you might call "big ones" here: two involve our hero and his female relatives urging him on toward revenge and another that has him speaking to a local policeman and getting reams of exposition as to how and why things work they way they do in the Dominican Republic (and most of the world, actually: it's simply less subtle here).

In two of the three scenes (above and below), the filmmaker pulls his camera back about as far from the actors as possible and just lets us hear the dialog so that we'll understand that this is, yes, "art."

Worst of all is how long and how often de los Santos Arias insists on showing us yet another religious ritual/service to the point that any supposed Christian watching will surely forthwith beg to become a Muslim or Jew. These scenes are all foisted upon us with zero context, yet they go on and on and on.

We get our lesson on class difference via the rich family for whom our hero works. Absolutely nothing new here (or, for that matter, old that is shown in any depth). Everything about the revenge and the family situation is also offered in such broad strokes that what we learn in this movie makes the Death Wish franchise look deep.

Eventually, something does indeed happen -- hooray! -- and then we get an ending in which, oh, joy!, the filmmaker gets to do his let's-shoot-from-as-long-a-distance-as-possible so the viewer won't know what the fuck is going on. But, come on, guys, it's art!

Do I sound angry? You have no idea. Some of the glowing critical response for this film indicates to me that a handful of my compatriots are so eager to embrace what they see as "new and different" that, once again, the infamous emperor's nakedness goes either unnoticed or unremarked upon.

From Grasshopper Film, in Spanish with English subtitles, Cocote opens this Friday, August 3, in New York City at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on August 17 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3. To view the half dozen or so playdates, cites and theaters currently scheduled, click here, then scroll down to click on Where to Watch

Monday, July 30, 2018

MILLA: Valérie Massadian's exploration of young womanhood opens at NYC's AFA

The movie opens on a shot of a young couple seemingly covered in something like gauze. But then, when the camera captures the two from another angle, we see that they have been asleep inside an automobile, the windows of which have fogged up by their breath. This is the first instance of how, in MILLA, the new film from Valérie Massadian (Nana), what we see and hear turn out to be something more and different from what we might expect. And yet the surprises in Milla are small and quiet, as is the movie itself. It's very slow, too. Those of you who prefer action films, take note.

Ms Massadian, shown at right, intends a study -- of a character (our young heroine, Milla) and of a class of people -- the less educated, wealthy and entitled -- that we are not used to seeing, let alone entering the lives of in any real depth, in mainstream movies. She has succeeded, too.

Though her movie begins slowly and may have you thinking, "Oh, my: another vérité look at the life of the lower class," do hold on. Milla proves something more because it does not take for granted that the life here is anything less than genuine, important and even positive -- though certainly difficult, yes.

Massadian does not cram on the crap, as do some would-be realist filmmakers. Milla's life has ups and downs, with one major loss midway, but she copes as best she can. And in the starring role, newcomer Severine Jonckeere (above and below) proves a lovely and very moving addition to the canon of near-real characters caught on film. A collection of small scenes caught at various times and in differing place, each of which makes its simple point, Milla quietly and slowly builds to something major.

Though the film is slow-paced and rigorous, once you take its characters on their own terms, just as the filmmaker has done, you watch, learn and grow along with them. The cinematography involves mostly interiors -- that car, the couple's squatter residence, a bar, hotel, vegetable stand, and eventual apartment for Milla and her son -- but the exteriors, including the sea and the fishing vessel on which Milla's boyfriend finally finds employment, are beautifully handled, as well, often in the kind of middle distance that allows us to feel for and appreciate the characters via their surroundings.

Milla is a tale of slow growth, change and acceptance: of what life throws at you, of motherhood, of responsibility. The sparse dialog seem reflective of the characters and their circumscribed lives. Once Milla's son Ethan arrives, after but a brief time with him as suckling infant, we see him as a young child. Ethan Jonckeere (below), who I presume is the actual son of the leading actress, is certainly one of the most adorable child actors you'll have seen: completely natural, never posing for the camera, and totally involved and engaged in life.

The filmmaker includes everything from a musical number to some lovely poetry, a shipwreck unseen but experienced via a dirge, loneliness and coping, and a cat ("You don't want me to pet you," Milla observes, "but you're not leaving." How cat-like). The momentary imagined return of the dead boyfriend, played with quiet grace and caring by Luc Chessel, once to comfort a grieving Milla and again to observe his sleeping son, is handled with the same finesse as the rest of this unusual movie.

Above all else, the film is cautiously hopeful. These days, that's quite a lot. From Grasshopper Film and running a lengthy 128 minutes, Milla opens this Friday, August 3, in New York City at Anthology Film Archives, and in Los Angeles on August 15 (only at 8pm) at the Acropolis Cinema. That seems to be it theatrically, but we shall hope that DVD and digital will soon be in the works.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

NICO, 1988: Susanna Nicchiarelli's splendid three-years-in-the-life bio-pic in U.S. premiere

The name Susanna Nicchiarelli rang a familiar bell to TrustMovies and, sure enough, he'd seen two other of her films in past years via the FSLC's Open Roads series of new Italian cinema, both of these child-centered but very different tales: Cosmonauta (click, then scroll down) and Discovery at Dawn (La scoperta dell'alba). Both were worth seeing, though they did not give him a clue to how far this talented filmmaker has come with her latest work, NICO, 1988. The subject here is the German rock singer, Nico (whose real name was Christa Päffgen), who rose to fame as one of Andy Warhol's "superstars," and was vocalist for the rock group The Velvet Underground before embarking on a music career on her own.

Interestingly, Ms Nicchiarelli (shown at right) seems to also see this bio-pic as a kind of child-centered film, for Nico's paramount object of affection (and guilt) is her son, Ari, a young photographer prone to suicide attempts whom she did not or could not care for properly when he was a child. While this child connection is not the be-all/end-all of the film, in terms of emotional connection, it provides Nico's, as well as the viewer's, strongest bond.

Bio-pics are not my favorite genre of film, but I have to say that Ms Nicchiarelli, who both wrote and directed the movie, has given us one of the best I have seen. It may not tell us everything we might want to know about this unusual singer/performer, yet everything it tells us works. All of what we see and hear comes together to create an odd and arresting look at Nico/Christa in the final few years of her life.

The film's ace-in-the-hole is its superb cast, beginning with star Trine Dyrholm (above), whom we are more used to seeing in much more glamorous roles (from The Commune to A Royal Affair and Troubled Water). Dyrholm is glammed-down to the max; she sings her own songs here, too; and what a voice she possesses! This Nico is not an easy person to deal with, but Dyrholm makes her utterly real and often surprising. (The real Nico was a good deal more beautiful than Dyrholm, but no matter: The actress will own this role, I suspect, in perpetuity.)

Drug-addicted bigtime but still able to perform up a storm,  the star is about to tour Europe when the film begins, with a new manager (the fine John Gordon Sinclair, shown below, right: remember Gregory's Girl?) and a new but mostly talented back-up band.

We get to know and care about -- only to the extent necessary, but this is enough -- all of the characters on view via a script that gives each his/her due with without being over-expository or obvious. Nicchiarelli uses a very welcome documentary-like visual approach, which adds a layer of reality all its own, along with the expert period detail of the production design (it's simply there, without having to call attention to itself).

Further, the film has been shot in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1.37 : 1, which helps take us back to the not-so-distant past.  The filmmaker juggles it all -- dialog, story, performances, visuals and period -- so very well that we're hooked from the outset and only grow more impressed and concerned as the movie progresses and characters seem to pair off into interesting duos. The music runs a fascinating gamut, too -- from Nature Boy and These Days to the marvelous Nibelungen.

In the supporting cast is the wonderful Anamaria Marinca (Five Minutes of Heaven, Storm) as the band's violinist, and the gorgeous Sandor Funtek (above, right, of Blue Is the Warmest Color) who plays Nico's son Ari. (Ari is given special thanks by the filmmaker during the end credits). I don't think you need be a fan of Nico to appreciate the movie -- I was certainly not: As a young man, I abhorred all things touched by Warhol -- yet the movie may indeed make you a fan. And of Ms Dyrholm, as well.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a sleek 93 minutes, Nico, 1988 has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, August 1, in New York City at the newly renovated Film Forum. It will opens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 3, at the Landmark NuArt, and in Santa Barbara at the SBIFF Riviera Theater on August 17. To learn of further playdates across the country, click here. (If you don't find further playdates just now, check back later, once word-of mouth on the film has taken hold.)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Lauren Greenfield's documentary, GENERATION WEALTH, opens in South Florida

What a bizarre (but still somewhat absorbing) misfire is the new documentary, GENERATION WEALTH, written, directed and produced by Lauren Greenfield, shown below, who back in 2012 gave us another oddball, interesting and not entirely successful doc, The Queen of Versailles. The movie begins as some kind of warning/exploration about how our society is worshiping/pursuing the almighty dollar to the point of no return. Early on, we view an Asian ESL teacher making sure her clients learns the really important words: Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Hermès and so on.

Then we meet a few of these "pursuers," including a couple of workaholic hedge-fund managers, one of whom eventually goes to prison.

Tossed in with all this is also a school-bus driver who travels to Brazil to get some major plastic surgery, a stage mother and her single-digit daughter intent on finding fame via beauty contests and maybe a reality TV show, and finally Ms Greenfield herself, along with her mother, husband, children and all their stories.

Focus is clearly not Greenfield's strong suit, and before long the viewer may be wondering whether the movie's title ought not have been Generation Workaholic (which would include both Greenfield and her mom), or maybe Generation Addiction (which could include just about everyone covered in this documentary, as each is addicted to something). We even get a small recap of the husband/wife who were the subjects of The Queen of Versailles.

Greenfield's movie is simply all over the place in terms of locale, subject matter, characters, and themes. Had she concentrated more firmly on any one of these, she might have been able to put together a cogent piece of agitprop. Instead the focus keeps shifting and slipping to the point that you may want to grab her script and take a red pencil to about half of it.

The way that Greenfield and her friends and family keep popping into the narrative is almost embarrassing. Had she made a film about this subject only -- her own sense of partial abandonment by her mother and the effect that has had on her life and that of her own family -- she might have had a subject worth tackling. (Her mom, who keeps smiling throughout, clearly would prefer not to think about nor admit to past mistakes.)

And for all Greenfield's would-be concentration on wealth and greed, this is hardly news to anyone who follows cultural/economic trends. Ditto the need for too much body enhancing surgery. And/or the quest for fame. By opting to cover so much by using so many, she weakens her theses and manages to give us both too much and too little at the same time.

Pornography even gets it due via ex-porn star Kacey Jordan, and we view a Bar Mitzvah complete with go-go dancer/strippers but by the end of this overlong documentary, nothing we hear or see registers as either original or even remotely bracing. I would say that Greenfield needed a better editor, but four of them are listed in the credits. I guess it really is the focus here that is most out of whack. I wish Ms Greenfield better luck next time.

An Amazon Studios Release and running 109 minutes, Generation Wealth -- after opening in our major cultural capitals a couple of weeks back -- hits South Florida this coming Friday, August 3. In Miami, it will play the Regal South Beach 18, AMC Aventura, and AMC Sunset Place. In Boca Raton, look for it at the Regal Shadowood.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Vahid Jalilvand's NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE: The arrival of a fine new filmmaker from Iran

New York City's venerable art house, Film Forum, reopens this coming week with a new screen and a new and most welcome Iranian film entitled NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE. As co-written (with Ali Zarnegar) and directed by sophomore filmmaker Vahid Jalilvand (shown below), the movie is very nearly as good as much of the work of Iran's more experienced filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi. Via its specific, small-scale key incident, the film slowly grows into a hugely compelling situation that encompasses an entire community and culture.

Misters Jalilvand and Zarnegar have created what you might call a "hospital procedural" in which the cause of death is paramount but just slightly unclear.

Responsibility and guilt hover over quite a number of people involved here, but the two main recipients are the husband/father Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh, shown below) of a family clearly having some trouble making financial ends meet, and the prominent Dr. Nariman of the local hospital (played by Amir Agha'ee, further below) who seems to be having no financial problem at all.

How these two meet and proceed thereafter is the thread that binds the movie, which is full of Iranian culture and mores, some of which are easily understood, while others may take more consideration by those of us who've not lived in a society such as this. Still, so much that we see and hear in this film is indeed "international."

How the police and judicial system proceed with their investigation, together with the way in which the medical establishment works (or doesn't quite) -- it's all here, woven into the fabric of the film with great skill and subtlety. And the death at the center of the movie is among the most surprising and quietly compelling in cinema.

Without ever raising its voice (though its characters sometimes do), the film manages to be feminist and anti-fundamentalist via the look we get into the thoughts and actions of its two major female characters: Sayeh, the doctor's lover (Hediyeh Tehrani, above), who also works as a doctor at the hospital, and Leila, Moosa's not-so-acquiescent wife (Zakieh Bebahani, shown below).

Both of these women add to the depth and strength of the film by constantly nudging their men toward (or occasionally, as in Sayeh's case, away from) greater responsibility. Class, economics, and reputation come to the fore, and are handled with just as much skill as all else in this arresting movie about ethics, morality, autopsies and chickens.

No Date, No Signature proves a fine way to reopen Film Forum, and should also greatly please fans of the immaculate and thoughtful work of Asghar Faradi. Released by Distrib Films US, running 103 minutes and in Farsi with English subtitles, the movie has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, August 1, in New York City at Film Forum, and will open on August 10 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. To view all past and upcoming playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here and then click on Watch Now on the small task bar midway down the page.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

How dark and deadly can WWII Germany get? Discover Robert Schwentke's THE CAPTAIN

Antiheroes don't come much more non-heroic than the young German army deserter who goes by the  name of Willi Herold, and who -- thanks to the discovery of a abandoned jeep, a uniform and some food --  is soon impersonating a German Captain and getting up to some really awful stuff.

Herr Herold actually existed, and even if the movie made about him -- entitled THE CAPTAIN and just having its U.S. theatrical debut -- is fictionalized, this young man's short but shocking military career should astound and depress you, big-time.

The film's writer/director, Robert Schwentke (shown at left) has had a varied career, including both German and American films (from Flight Plan and RED to the Insurgent/Allegiant duo), but nothing he's done that I've seen would have prepared us for the bleak and nasty ugliness of this intimate little World War II epic. What young Herold does and how he manages it might defy credibility were the history of WWII not already so crammed with shock and unbelievable horror. As played by Max Hubacher (shown below), a young actor whose career seems to have been set in major

motion by this role and film, Herold remains as fascinating and mystifying as he is a cipher. We know nothing about him prior to his desertion (except a couple of platitudes his daddy told him). Though he initially seems like someone we might root for as he runs away from the German military police whose aim is clearly to kill him, once his escape is made and his disguise in place, he slowly becomes more and more horrific. All of which makes this young man's single scene of what seems like "feeling" (shown in the penultimate photo below) all the more bizarre.

Yet it takes much more than a single man -- even a high-level military officer -- to achieve what  is accomplished here. How Herold is helped along, and by whom, is what makes the movie even darker and more disgusting.

The apex/nadir is reached in a lengthy celebratory dinner honoring this "officer" and his work, with food and alcohol aplenty and even a pair of Jewish comedians to entertain the troops with ugly jokes. How those whom one might call "good" Germans are coerced into helping the horror is effectively demonstrated, and this landmark scene ends by offering up the single way out, when one is forced to enable this kind of evil.

As effective as is young Hubacher, the excellent supporting cast proves even better, with Milan Peschel (above and below, left) the standout, as the infantryman who initially helps Herold, only to grow increasingly aghast at (and a reluctant party to) his actions.

During the films final half hour, it grows nearly (and rightly) surreal, as this war must have seems for so many people. As director, Schwentke gets much not merely "right" but on-the-nose, though I wish he had done away with a few unnecessary artsy/fartsy overhead shots and that single moment when the excellent black-and-white cinematography (by the excellent Florian Ballhaus) must change to color in order to make a point that has already been made via the script.

Otherwise, The Captain is strong, hideous stuff. Gird up your loins and prepare. The movie will make you glad all over again that Germany and Hitler lost their war and should have you hopeful that Donald Trump and the Republican Party will lose theirs against America. We shall see.

Meanwhile, this Music Box Films release, running just under two hours and spoken in German with English subtitles, opens tomorrow, Friday, July 27, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, in Chicago at the Music Box Theater on August 3, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt on August 10 -- before expanding to another dozen or so theaters over the weeks/months to come. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down to click on THEATERS.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Ol Parker's MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN proves almost exactly what you'd expect

Who knew that ABBA has given us so many second- and third-rate songs? TrustMovies certainly didn't until viewing (and listening to) MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN, which has plenty of these, plus a reprise of a few of the group's greatest hits that were used in the original 2008 film version of this international legitimate-theater-blockbuster-turned-film.

The new addition is really a kind of celebration -- a second-rate one, yes -- but still a celebration of ABBA's enduring music and the supremely silly story engendered around that music in order to contrive a plot line for the now-famous musical.

As directed by Ol Parker (shown at right) in the sort of paint-by-numbers fashion that Jackson Pollack might have used, were he a paint-by-numbers guy, this new movie is so awful from its start -- an embarrassing school commencement scene set in Britain -- that this proves perhaps the right thing, after all, for the film then has nowhere to go but up. And so it does, in very slow, small increments until, by its finale, it has become almost OK. (It helps that, in that finale, we finally get to see Meryl Streep, shown at bottom, as a kind of fantasy/phantasm who delivers the movie's sweetest song.)

Otherwise, we're back again with those same three would-be fathers (Brosnan, Skarsgård and Firth, above), their sort-of daughter and her beau (Seyfried and Cooper, below), all of whom go through the hoops created for their character-less characters originally conceived by Judy Craymer and now fleshed out by Mr. Parker, along with Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson.

The new twist is the by-now old saw of the "prequel," in which we're made privy to the doings of the younger version of the Streep character (Lily James, below) and how she came to have her dalliances with those three guys, whom we now view in their younger versions, too.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with Seyfriend's character reopening that hotel dedicated to her mom, while the movie flashes back and forth, past to present, without generating a lick of surprise or suspense. Unless you count the last-few-minutes appearance of Cher (below) in the role of Grandma, who gets to sing one of the film's better numbers, Fernando.

But no matter. The movie is supposed to be a celebration -- of ABBA's music and these characters whom some of us clearly love and want more of -- so those of you who want to celebrate will certainly do so. Meanwhile, the rest of us who accompany you to the cinema can enjoy the pretty people, the pretty scenery, and whatever other small favors this movie is able to deliver.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, from Universal and running 116 minutes, opened last weekend nationwide. To find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here.