Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Matthew Ross' FRANK & LOLA: all about love and betrayal and noir and not much else

Matthew Ross (not to be confused with Matt Ross, who recently gave us the wonderful Captain Fantastic) certainly garnered a game cast to star in his new feature, FRANK & LOLA. What film fan would not be interested in seeing a movie with Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Michael Nyquist, Emmanuelle Devos and Justin Long? All of these performers (and several others) do their best with what has been set before them. But by the end of this too-long (even at 87 minutes) pastiche of been-there-done-that, you are likely to be tapping your fingers on whatever solid surface is nearby, while muttering, "This was a big nothing."

Mr. Ross, pictured at left, may think he is telling us something important (or even interesting) about love and its discontents, including jealousy, revenge, and the like. But there is nothing here we have not seen elsewhere and handled much better.

Content-wise, and for all its nice sets and locations (Las Vegas and Paris), the movie offers so little new or novel in the plotting that you may feel that there simply must be some big reveal to be expected by film's end. Don't.

Shannon and Poots (shown above and below, left and right, respectively) play hot-n-heavy lovers who barely know each other but fall at-first-sight, then spend the remainder of the movie lying and/or acting like filmdom's biggest fall guy. The effect is nicely acted but distinctly under-whelming. Most ten-year-olds will have a keener idea of the perils of love and lust than is to be found in this film. Ms Devos and Misters Long and Nyqvist add some class and charm to the proceedings, to little avail. This is one of those movies that will have you scratching your head as to why it ever got made -- let alone saw a release on digital HD and VOD.

But here it is. So, if you've a mind, you can find this release, via Paladin and Universal Studios, on VOD at your local cable channel or perhaps streaming somewhere. Good luck.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Afghanistan meets Northern California in Ian Olds' oddball tale, BURN COUNTRY

A fish-way-out-of-water story, BURN COUNTRY -- the first full-length narrative film from Ian Olds -- proves better at enticing us in than it does fulfilling its promise once we become involved in the tale. And yet that may be part (maybe the whole point) of the tale: How very strange it is to try to enter and then correctly appraise the world of people you barely know, who may, in fact, not want you in their world, after all. That is the situation of our protagonist, a young Afghan fellow named Osman (played very well by Dominic Rains, shown below).

Osman worked, expertly it seems, as a translator for a U.S. journalist whose beat is in the middle east, and because of this has been given asylum in the United States. He is now located in the backwoods of Northern California, visiting/living with the mother of that journalist (the fine Melissa Leo, shown below) and expecting to find a job at the local newspaper.

That job works out, sort of, but not in the manner Osman was expecting, and little by little he meets the townsfolk and becomes involved in some very bizarre doings: arson, beatings, a disappearance and a possible murder. Exactly what happens, along with how and why, we piece together haltingly, just as Osman himself must do, and the biggest strength of Mr. Olds' movie (the filmmaker is shown at bottom) is that we see and know only what Osman himself learns about this whole mess.

Along the way, Osman sees his first sight of the ocean and a beach, gets involved with a pretty young woman (Rachel Brosnahan, in the penultimate photo, below) and her rather bizarre acting instructor, and meets, gets beaten up and then befriended by a guy named Lindsay (James Franco, below and further below, doing another good job in full-out weirdo mode).

More and more bizarre and unsettling do things appear until we and Osman are ready to think the very worst of America's small towns (and why not, as these people apparently elected the asshole of all time to become the next American President?).

Things do sort themselves out. Sort of. Which leaves us even more unsettled -- with only some understanding of what has just transpired. One of the townsfolk lets us and Osman know that, in this a particular area of the country, everything is eventually forgiven. Well, OK.

Meanwhile, Osman has been in touch via phone with his journalist mentor along the way, and the final scene -- a quiet beauty of a few moments -- should make viewers appreciate Afghanistan in a manner we would never have expected.

While I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Burn Country, except to an audience who especially appreciates the intentionally unclear/ambivalent, there is certainly enough here to mull over, chew and maybe even digest. In the cast are stalwarts like Thomas Jay Ryan, too, so that's a plus, while Mr. Rains, who won a Tribeca Festival Best Actor Award delivers in fine form.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and Orion Pictures, the movie, running 102 minutes, opens this Friday, December 9, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Elsewhere? No idea. But as it will simultaneously play VOD in most major markets, if you want to view it, I am sure you'll be able to find it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT: Jaco Van Dormael's best film since Toto the hero

Jaco Van Dormael, that visual master of prestidigitation and whimsy, is back -- with a "religious" movie that is not merely irreverent but downright nasty (deservedly so: we're talking god here), smart, angry, romantic, charming, funny, feminist, and philosophical, too. It is also a major delight from start to finish.

M. Van Dormael (perhaps I should not being using the abbreviation for Monsieur, but the movie is spoken partially in French), shown at left, the Belgian filmmaker who has given us at least two marvelous movies -- Toto The Hero and Mr. Nobody -- has now provided a kind of trilogy of world-class amazements with his latest work, THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT, via which we learn that god is alive and unwell mentally and living in Brussels, with his beleaguered wife and angry, adolescent daughter.

God is also a power-hungry, nasty fanatic who likes to screw things up and set rules (a number of which we learn) designed to gum up everything from mankind's fondest hopes to its smallest endeavors. And, yes, he works via computer. That he is played by the consummate actor, Benoît Poelvoorde (above), just adds to the fun.

When that daughter (the pert and pugnacious Pili Groyne, above, right, and below (the fabulous actress Yolande Moreau plays mom, above, center) decides to do something about her dad's decadent reign, the plot takes off and doesn't stop until the guy is put in his place and the world can maybe begin again. Under new management.

How we get there proves all the fun, and this also allows Van Dormael to let loose with his full arsenal of too-much-ness. If ever a movie called for this kind of over-the-top whimsical style, it's The Brand New Testament, and the writer/director goes at it full-throttle. What he comes up with is too good to give away. You'll have to see the movie to experience the full fun.

Suffice it to say that we'll meet not only the daughter's more-famous brother -- a certain Jesus fellow -- but also a new round of "disciples" (above) that include -- as did the earlier ones, I suspect -- just your average, problemed guys with, this time around, some gals added to the ever-bubbling mix.

Among the latter is that French icon Catherine Deneuve (in background, above, and second from right, two photos above), as game as ever and here to be found in bed with a gorilla -- and, no, I do not mean Gérard Depardieu in his macho nutcase mode -- but the real thing. Each of the new disciples, you see, is afflicted with a rather desperate human need, which our good daughter and her brand new testament can heal.

In the midst of all the invention here is a dream sequence featuring a disembodied hand doing a lovely dance that helps another of those disciples (Laura Verlinden, above) with her own physical limitation. Van Dormael's past use of whimsy has, I think, alienated certain critics. Here, however, they may find themselves in the fold, due to the director's ability to make that whimsy unusually pointed, meaningful and rich -- and, in the case of Ms Verlinden's character, exquisitely moving.

Simply on the basis of another small but choice character named Kevin -- who, each time he turns up, makes us guffaw anew -- The Brand New Testament is a must. Do stay and view the entire end credits to enjoy Kevin's final visit. (That's yet another fine and famous Belgian actor, François Damiens, above, playing a disciple with a killer instinct.)

The movie -- one more gem (along with The Innocents, Francofonia and Monster With a Thousand Heads) to be released this year by Music Box Films -- in French and German with English subtitles, runs 114 minutes. In terms of length, this comes in about halfway between Toto and Nobody. Where whimsy is concerned, shorter, I think, is generally better. The film opens this Friday, December 9, in New York City (at The Landmark Sunshine Cinema), Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and South Florida: in Miami at the MDC Tower Theater, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters, and in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway Theater. Over the weeks to come the film will open in another 36 cities. To view them all, simply click here and then click on THEATERS in the task bar midway down the screen.

Nicolas Pesce's THE EYES OF MY MOTHER: horror often viewed at a discreet distance

Beginning with a scene on a country road in which the driver of a truck sees something untoward just ahead of him, and then taking us into the lives of one of the strangest families to be found on film, this new pristine, black-and-white movie makes Norman Bates look like a piker and shows up the Austrian oddity, Goodnight Mommy, as the artsy piece of schlock it is. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER will not be to everyone's taste (not even to all horror aficionados) but it ought to quickly take its place in the annals of quietly creepy, one-of-a-kind movies.

Its writer/director, Nicolas Pesce (shown at left), spares us much of the gore quotient possible here but none of the ghastly realizations of exactly what has been, is now, or soon will be going on. Believe me, these are lulus. And because they are often seen at a discreet distance, with music that quietly foments rather than knocks our eardrums silly, the result is often as breathtaking as it is horrifying. This is a film, no matter how "good" it may be, that you will not want to recommend to those who have trouble with the transgressive.

Eyes, surgery, cattle, obsession and a whole lot more make themselves felt in ways major and minor throughout the film, along with the bizarre behavior of not just the three principals in the family -- dad, mom and little girl -- but in the smiling interloper who sets into play the awful plot and then pays for it, bigtime, in a manner that may put you in mind of The Secret in Their Eyes.

You do not need plot details for a movie like this. Best, I think, if you're a horror fan, to simply approach it as tabula rasa as possible. The little girl (above) grows up into a young woman (below) who proves both one of the great horror villains and a characters who, given her fraught history, remains somehow vulnerable and (almost) sympathetic.

The cinematography (Zach Kuperstein) is stunning throughout, and the performances of every cast member on the nose. The logic of the film may leave something to be desired, but because The Eyes of My Mother has the strong, dark feel of a waking nightmare, you will probably forgive this (or not even notice) -- so simple yet propulsive is this relatively short (only 76 minutes) tale.

The behavior of our "leading lady -- the unusual but very fine Kika Magalhaes --  is so keyed to need, parenting (that's dad, being bathed, above), and socialization (the latter achieved, it would seem, via old movies, mostly noir, seen on TV) that whatever happens here seems somehow less over-the-top than the manner in which our "heroine" has most likely been raised.

From Magnolia's Magnet division, in mostly English and a little Portuguese with English subtitles, the movie opened this past weekend, December 2, in five cities and will hit another 14 this coming Friday, December 9, and even more over the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. Simultaneously, The Eyes of My Mother is available via VOD, Amazon Video and iTunes.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

ME, MYSELF & HER: Lesbian rom-com-dramedy fluff from Italy's Maria Sole Tognazzi

TrustMovies moves up and down re the work of Italian filmmaker Maria Sole Tognazzi (he's quite high on A Five-Star Life, somewhat lower on The Man Who Loves, and maybe in the middle regarding her newest movie, ME, MYSELF & HER (a much simpler and more intelligently worded Io e lei, in the original Italian). Though there have been a number of Italian movies with full-out gay themes, this is said to be the first relatively mainstream Italian movie to tackle a lesbian relationship.

Ms Tognazzi, shown at right, casts her movies expertly, with some of Italy's finest actors in leading roles. Here she uses that always wonderful, multi-Donatello-winning Margherita Buy in one role and a quite beautiful and talented actress (from The Great Beauty), Sabrina Ferilli, in the other. The two play off each other with skill, precision and great believability, as they take us into the shoals of a five-year-old relationship that appears to be badly fraying.

As is her wont, Ms Tognazzi deals with the upscale bourgeoisie -- this time, an architect named Federica (Ms Buy, above) and her lover, an ex-actress and now-restaurateur, Marina (Ms Ferilli, below), who appear to have a relatively placid relationship -- except that Federica wants her sexual preference to remain private, while Marina could give a good god-damn about all that. When the opportunity arises for Marina to act again in an upcoming movie, the pair's relationship is put to the test.

The two actresses, as well as the rest of the supporting cast, are all first-rate, but the scenario itself seems second-hand and lacking in much depth. Everything hinges upon the relationship here, and what we see of it, despite the good work of the actresses involved, seems awfully, well, typical. There's an indiscretion, followed by anger, separation, sorrow and resolution. And all of it is just a little too easy.

All this surprises me a bit because the film was co-written by the writer and director, Ivan Cotroneo, of one my my favorite Italian films of the past decade, Kryptonite! (click and scroll down to view particulars). Still, we have the beauty and talent of Buy and Ferilli, and some gorgeous locations in which to bask (though nothing like those in A Five-Star Life), and a nice serving of Italian rom-com fluff. So the time is spent painlessly and pleasantly.

Just don't expect much depth or surprise -- which is too bad. If indeed this is the first lesbian rom-com-drama from Italy, the gals deserve a little more interesting scenario than we get here. (There is, however, a terrific looking cat, above, to help bide our time.) Even Federica's relationships with her son, ex-husband and new/old man-in-her-life (Fausto Maria Sciarappa, below) are shown so lightly that they seem to skip along a surface of what must have more interesting stuff roiling beneath it.

Ditto the relationship between Marina and her business associate, which looks as if it could have been given a scene or two all to itself. But if you're looking for something pretty and classy and nicely acted by some of Italy's finest, Me, Myself & Her should adequately fill the bill.

From Wolfe Video, In Italian with English subtitles, and running 102 minutes, the movie goes straight to VOD and DVD here in the USA this Tuesday, December 6 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DVDebut: Food waste gets its comeuppance in Baldwin/Rustemeyer's doc, JUST EAT IT

How much perfectly edible and nutritious food do the "haves" of the world waste yearly? The answer will stop you in your tracks, as will so much else in this new, highly entertaining and quite thought-provoking documentary, JUST EAT IT: A Food Waste Story. From filmmakers/participants Grant Baldwin (he directed, edited, photographed, handled the music and co-stars) and Jenny Rustemeyer (she produced and also co-stars in the doc), the movie shows us what these two filmmakers (shown below) feel, think and then tackle -- once they're made aware of just how much food the world wastes.

After explaining how most of the world's wasted food is both safe and nutritious, Grant and Jenny decide to try to live for six months entirely on discarded food, and they bring us along for the ride. This could prove too cute and silly by far, but we spend only part of our time on this experiment. The rest of the film is filled with smart and timely interviews with food-and-its-waste experts who talk about everything from the huge quantities of fruit and vegetables (these are the most wasted foods) constantly tossed away (that's Tristram Stuart, below, with a busload of wasted bananas)... the results of dairy and livestock on this waste, as well as waste's impact on our energy sources. At one point we are told that "The water embedded in the food we throw out could meet the household needs of 500 million people." Just watch what happens to a full stalk of celery as it is prepared for 'market' and you'll cringe.

We learn about how appearance counts for so much more than nutrition in the buying habits of most consumers (whether shopping at supermarkets or farmers' markets) and how it has been a very long time since there were any public service announcements about food waste (we watch popular 1940s-50s actor Jack Carson make a Don't-Waste-Food plea during World War II).

And yes, we also watch as our couple takes to dumpster-diving to find food to keep them going over those six months. What they find is as eye-opening as all else. I think it was Jen (or maybe Grant) who tells us, "If you could see the quality of the food we find, we've been eating pretty well!" The problems with landfills and waste, how food scraps can make for a productive business (pigs love 'em!), what sell-by dates really mean, and a special kind of grocery store and how it serves its specific public (the fellow shown below is a proud worker in that store) -- all of this and more is included in a documentary that rarely loses momentum nor importance as it gets its message out.

Best of all are the many ways the movie shows us how we, too, can make a difference via our own "food" behavior: using what's in our refrigerators rather than eventually tossing it all out, shopping more sensibly, and choosing those not-so-pretty fruits and veggies that most consumers have already bypassed in their shopping.

From Bullfrog Films, distributed here in the USA by Icarus Home Video and available to view in two formats on the disc -- the 73-minute theatrical version, as well as a 50-minute classroom cut -- Just Eat It hits the street on DVD this coming Tuesday, December 6, for purchase and/or rental.

Friday, December 2, 2016

HOWARD'S END on Blu-ray: the 25th anniversary of a genuine and enduring classic

"Only connect" -- as in, That's what we must do: simply connect with each other -- has become one of the prime themes associated with the famous British author E.M. Forster. His novel, Howard's End, was the book in which that phrase first appeared, I believe, and if the 1992 movie version of HOWARD'S END (releasing to Blu-ray this coming week via the Cohen Film Collection) managed to leave the famous phrase out of the film literally, Forster's plea (maybe command) remains present in every way imaginable -- intellectually, philosophically, visually, artfully -- throughout this splendid movie. TrustMovies loved the film at the time of its initial theatrical release, and he appreciates it even more viewing it this second time around -- having gone from middle age to old age and a perhaps more thoughtful stance.

What the film's director, James Ivory (shown at right), producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have accomplished is to telescope the novel into filmic form without losing too much of its complexity while keeping those much vaunted connections -- between people and classes -- ever at the ready in ways large and small, obvious and not so. They have also, via their wonderful selection of actors, brought to rich life all these hugely constrained but also minutely detailed and highly complex characters.

Chief among these are the members of two families: the well-off but not wealthy Schlegels (two sisters, a brother, and an aging aunt) and the very rich Wilcoxes, a husband and wife and their several children and grandchildren. The two are connected by what at first appears to be a love match (soon aborted) and then a kind of deep and surprising friendship between the sickly Ruth Wilcox (the Oscar-nominated Vanessa Redgrave, above) and the elder sister Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson, below, who won a Best Actress "Oscar" for this role).

Their friendship leads to an unusual real estate transaction, a family's disregarding their dying mother's wish, and beyond this to love, commitment and revelations of past misdeeds -- all of which bring to light Forster's admonition but in ways that prove this connecting to be vastly more complicated than simple. This is what gives both the novel and the film their marvelous sense of encompassing life that spans age and class, gender and behavior with equal acuity and a kind of non-judgmental understanding of human need.

Other major roles are played by Anthony Hopkins (above), as the Wilcox paterfamilias; James Wilby as his thoughtless, entitled son; and especially Samuel West (below, left, with Helena Bonham Carter, riled and radiant as the younger Schlegel sister) in the pivotal role of Leonard Bast, surely one of Forster's most poignant characters -- a man who strives mightily against class force and his own servile nature to succeed in ways material and spiritual that he himself can barely imagine.

There is such deeply buried emotion roiling throughout the story, bubbling to the surface only often enough to carry us along, that the result you may feel post-viewing is something akin to marvel and near-shock as to how very much has been accomplished in terms of story, character and theme within a mere two hours and 22 minutes.

One of Ivory's great strengths as a filmmaker has always been his attention to detail without ever pushing it on us in any "Oooh, look at this!" manner. His film is spectacularly beautiful, but in a kind of "Well, there it is" style in which beauty, sadness, humor, character, performance and theme all blend seamlessly. (If you bypassed, due to the rather stupid critical drubbing it received upon its 2010 theatrical release, the man's most recent film -- a rich and wonderful concoction titled The City of Your Final Destination -- do try to grab a viewing. I hope Cohen eventually gives this one the 4K treatment, too.)

Ivory's oeuvre is so much better and more important that many of our critics have let on over the years -- often lumping the man in with the Masterpiece Theater ilk -- that the Cohen Film Collection's restorations in its ongoing Merchant Ivory Library should prove a gift beyond measure for film buffs worldwide. Meanwhile, Howard's End, after a limited, nationwide theatrical re-release, hits the street on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, December 6, for sale and/or rental. In this new, two-disc set, there are plenty of fine Bonus Features, as well, that should keep you busy for extra hours. These include a Collector's Booklet with essays and stills; new interviews with director and cast; Behind-the-Scenes featurettes and documentaries; a 2016 On-Stage Q&A; the original theatrical trailer and the 2016 re-release trailer; and a new audio commentary track.