Sunday, August 28, 2016

Olive Films' new Blu-ray of Preminger/Kellogg TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON

Otto Preminger's reputation as a mini-tyrant may have somewhat over-shadowed that of his reputation as a major filmmaker, and while his work, overall, was hit and miss, certain of his movies -- from Laura through Anatomy of a Murder -- have stood the test of time very well. One of his later efforts, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON, from 1970, seemed (and still does) such an odd choice for this often ground-breaking-in-terms-of-subject-matter movie-maker that even film buffs like me tend to forget that Preminger (shown below) was at the helm. Also, the movie flopped critically and at the box-office and so was promptly relegated to the forget-about-it bin.

Based on the 1968 best-seller of the same title by Marjorie Kellogg, who also penned the screenplay, the story tells of three social misfits who meet in a rehab hospital, bond, and decide to make their way in the outside world together. Admission time: TrustMovies knew and became a good friend and neighbor of Ms Kellogg and her long-time companion Sylvia Short in Manhattan in the early 1980s. He'd read the original novel on which the film was based but didn't see the movie during its theatrical release and by the time he'd met Marjorie, the film had disappeared from view.

The "Junie Moon" movie has also never appeared in disc format on either DVD or Blu-ray. All of the above makes its current release by Olive Films something rather special. And while the movie is no great shakes as filmmaking, it does offer a good deal of positives to recommend, starting with the very fine performance by Liza Minnelli (above, left, and below) in the title role, as a young woman whose face has been permanently scarred by a crazy would-be boyfriend (Ben Piazza, above, right) who feels "spurned." (Among the movie's many ironies is the fact that the guy was not being spurned; Junie was simply behaving honestly, if a bit heavy-handedly).

What was ground-breaking about this film (leave it to Mr. Preminger, of course) was that, so far as I can recall, this was the first film to show a movie heroine's scarred countenance so up-front and in-your-face. Preminger, Minnelli and Kellogg conspired to make us keep looking at until we could finally understand something from which audiences and the general populace would prefer to look away. And of course, in the end, we get used to it, accept it, maybe even almost "appreciate" it. We can, at least, as do the other characters here, look beyond it.

At the time of its release, the film's director was accused to not being able to find the right "tone." I don't think so. Rather, most critics and certainly audiences of this time were not ready to deal with a tone that wasn't full-out sentimental when dealing with "problemed" people like these. The other two "misfits," played by Ken Howard (below) and Robert Moore (above), are, respectively, an epileptic mis-diagnosed as mentally deficient and an acerbic young homosexual who has evidently never heard of the closet (or is simply unable to keep himself in it).

The three do indeed form that bond -- they are joined by James Coco as the town's helpful fish monger -- and it is strong enough to carry the movie home, despite some missteps along the way. Minnelli, Moore and Coco are terrific. Only Mr. Howard, in both the character as written and the performance he gives, is too bland, lacking much specificity. Kay Thompson, too, is crackerjack, as the wealthy and bizarre owner of the little house they rent who tries to get the Moore character walking again via pure will-power or faith (maybe she's a Christian Scientist?)

Preminger guides the film along, keeping sentimentality mostly at bay. Only the finale, with what seems rather like an unearned demise, smacks of  too-much. And for a film in which so many of the characters are oddball, the movie stays on track and doesn't continually swat us with cutesiness and moral tips, as does the recent Israeli clunker, Is That You?  Preminger does falls for the need to strut his stuff by giving us, in the flashback scenes of the orphanage into which the Howard character is thrust as a child, weird camera perspectives and color-draining that come off more "arty" than necessary.

Granted, when I sat down to watch, I wasn't expecting much. But when I got up, post-viewing, I felt surprisingly fulfilled -- especially at seeing Ms Minnelli working at full steam and creating one of her fuller and most believable on-screen dramatic characters (in a non-musical, at least: Cabaret is still her triumph).

Running 113 minutes, the movie has been given a so-so Blu-ray transfer by Olive Films. (I am not sure from what kind of materials the transfer was made, but the quality looks somewhere between a good videotape and a DVD.) It hit the street earlier this month and is available now for purchase  (you can order here or elsewhere) and I would hope for rental, too. Netflix, which should offer it, does not -- as yet.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Peruvian-style Capitalism meets major opposition in Heidi Brandenburg & Mathew Orzel's WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE

We've heard, over the years, a lot about Brazil's deforestation of its Amazon region but not so much about what neighboring Peru has done. We're brought up to date with with a jolt and much vigor by the new documentary, WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE that takes us back a few years and then forward as two major political leaders in Peru -- the country's then-President, Alan Garcia, and Alberto Pizango, President of AIDESEP, the country's major organization devoted to indigenous rights -- square off against each other and the policies that each represents.

As very well directed and photographed (sometimes in the midst of violent unrest) by Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel (shown above, respectively right and left), and edited by Carla Gutierrez to maximize our understanding of what is going on from various angles and viewpoints, the documentary brings us up-close-and-personal to power wielded South American style by two men absolutely intent on seeing that their ends come to fruition.

While Progressives and environmentalists will of course side with Señor Pizango (above, center) and American Republicans and other promoters of Capitalism will favor Garcia (below), the filmmakers do an excellent job of offering up both men's viewpoints honestly (Garcia refused to cooperate or give interviews to the the documentarians), but it is clear from what we see that the Peruvian government, under Garcia and his minions, enacted laws that were actually illegal. Under International Convention C169, to which Peru was a signatory, it is mandatory that before the government passes a law that affects the rights of it native people, those people must first be consulted. This was never done, and since these laws have given huge corporations the power to despoil the Amazon and impact badly the heath of the natives, Pizango goes full-out against Garcia to stop this.

How all this is done -- via speeches, actions, and the use of the media to (mostly) bolster the government's case -- escalates into the kind of implacable force that leads finally to violence and death. The film, evolving rather like a thriller, proves intelligent and engulfing, showing us concisely and irrefutably how actions have consequences, many of them unintended -- perhaps on both sides, though the use of what appears to have been unnecessary gunfire by the government forces places a stronger burden of guilt upon Garcia.

The documentary show us once again, but dramatically and with startling immediacy, how the one percent of America -- in the South just as in the North -- exercises its control with an iron hand, consequences be damned. It also shows how, in fighting this control, the limits of behavior can be stretched past the breaking point.

Many scenes resonate, but one in particular, in which a cold and entitled TV talk show host "interviews" Pizango and tells hims that she should not have to be without electricity and lights because of his protests. "What about our rights?" he counters, and she cuts him off, ending the interview.

We hear several times from a scurrilous Minister of the Interior, as well as from various indigenous people, and the most personal and saddest part of the film deals with a father whose son was one of the policeman who were killed during the violence with protesters, when several of the protesters were also killed. The man's son has never been found, and the father spends his days and months searching for any information. What he finds at last is deeply moving and unsettling in ways expected and not.

The two worlds here -- wealthy and poor, the government and the people, the urban and the indigenous -- do indeed collide, and this will happen more often now that, thanks to activists, whistle-blowers and the use of social media, we can more quickly see and understand what is going on in our world and why. Once you've viewed this strong and riveting movie, I suspect that it will come to mind first from now on, whenever you hear of or think about Peru.

From First Run Features and running 103 minutes, When Two Worlds Collide opened in New York last week at Film Forum, where it is continuing its run through this coming Tuesday. It will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on Friday, September 16, as well as in another ten cities and theaters. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Friday, August 26, 2016

So adorable you could puke: Dani Menkin's Israeli/American road movie, IS THAT YOU?

Having been a big fan of Israeli documentary filmmaker Dani Menkin's Dolphin Boy (released here in 2012), TrustMovies was primed to see his first foray into narrative filmmaking, IS THAT YOU? (which has been subtitled The Road Not Taken). Post-viewing, I can now say that it has been a long, long time since I've sat through a movie that so set my teeth on edge. By the time it was over, I was surprised not to have ground those little white chiclets down to gum level, even as the milk in my refrigerator curdled. I guess I was simply unprepared for all the cutesy-pie, oddball characters and wring-your-tear-ducts sentimentality that this movie accrues.

Now, I admit that there will be many folk out there in audience-land who will love this kind of film. And I am somewhat surprised that it rubbed me so fiercely the wrong way. But it did, and here's why. From the outset, Mr. Menkin, shown at right, would seem to be attempting some kind of would-be Cassavetes number, as our hero, played by the oft-seen and usually good Israeli actor, Alon Aboutboul, below, arrives in the USA to visit his estranged brother. From the outset it is clear that these two are oil and water, with Mr. Aboutboul, who was recently seen as the villain in London Has Fallen, playing one of those super-sensitive/ super-sexy older men, while his bro is one of those uber-crass Israelis by way of the USA.

Yes, any subtlety goes almost immediately MIA here. The plot has to do with our hero tracking down an early love-of-his-life, which sets him off on a road trip in which he meets character after character who are just so oddball and cute that you cannot believe for a minute that any of them could ever exist. I suppose that maybe one of them might, but sticking the entire lot into a single movie proves a big mistake.

The first of these (if you don't count those two brothers) is a man who now lives in the house where the former girlfriend once lived. So of course this guy immediately invites our hero in to show him a series of photos on his stairs that offers up a message/moral. (So many messages/morals are offered up in the course of this film that you'll be ready to suggest, as one famous movie mogul once advised, that the filmmaker ought use Western Union -- or, these days, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or whatever else is the latest in social media.)

But, no: The filmmaker just keeps piling the messages on, mostly via a pretty young woman filmmaker whom our hero meets early on and sticks with for nearly the rest of the movie. As played by Naruna Kaplan de Macedo (at left, above and below), the performance is believable only to the extent that the actress can circumvent the ridiculous character the filmmaker has conceived.

So on we go through one new cutesy introduction after another -- commitment-phobic single guys, kindly married lesbians, opera-singing policemen (certainly the dumbest thing in the film), and so forth. Note to story-tellers: It's fine to have your searched-for party move to a different location, once or even twice. But three or four times within the same film? No thank you.

But I'm off-message. As we learn from yet another fellow we meet: "If you love somebody and they love you, don't let 'em get away."  Duh. If you want to feel manipulated within an inch of your life, this is the movie for you. It almost (but not quite) makes me want to re-think Dolphin Boy. Running a thankfully brief 81 minutes, Is That You? opens today, Friday, August 26, in New York City at the Cinema Village, and is expected to open in the Los Angeles area sometime in September. I would also imagine it to be a shoo-in for a few theaters down here in Southern Florida, especially in Boca Raton.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Gaming -- of all sorts -- distinguishes the new sort-of-thriller, Adam Randall's LEVEL UP

One of those ever-more-plentiful what's-going-on-here-and-why? movies, the new would-be thriller/suspense film, LEVEL UP, takes a typically irresponsible male, who would rather spend his time drinking, drugging and gaming than working for a living, and puts him through one hell of a day or so in the service of... what, exactly? Our entertainment, one would guess. But that means you would need to be pretty heavily into gaming yourself before finding worthwhile this over-reaching combo of an early David Fincher film, The Game, and its more recent online cousin, Nerve.

As directed and co-written (with Gary Young) by Adam Randall, shown at left, the movie and its WTF plot seems initially pretty silly before turning serious and then even life-threatening. Our non-hero, Matt (played by Josh Bowman, below, left) gets off on his usual morning of doing damned little but slouching around and maybe playing video games. Then, just after his girlfriend leaves for work, he has his day interrupted by three hooded fellows who do some very naughty things.

And yet, no matter how horrible life becomes for poor Matt, this viewer could not shake the sense that everything going on here was one big, complicated and maybe pointless game. Along the way various scenarios present themselves, coming either via the film itself or perhaps from the several other movies we've seen that have played similar games:

Because his girlfriend has suddenly been kidnapped, Matt must then go all over the place and do all kind of weird things to save her life. Is all this merely the adventures of a poor shnook or schmuck being used for nefarious purposes? Maybe. But, really now, if you want someone killed, would you have to go to this much complicated trouble to do the job?

Or maybe this is some kind of treatise on the evils/perils of too much gaming (as Nerve tried so hard to be)? Or a cautionary tale about how the Internet is taking over our lives? Or could it really be about... surveillance? Or this: After a time of being around a bunch of numbskull males, one begins to wonder if the whole idea and plot has been concocted by a group of women who have grown thoroughly fed up with their dim-bulb men.

Matt's adventures takes him from one oddball place and person to another, and Mr. Bowman, who is in just about every scene in the film, certainly proves to be game. Some of the other males and females have their moments, too. Little by little, that plot begins to offer a few revelations, though nothing that quite pinpoints exactly what is going on. At least not for a very long time.

This is probably for the better, since mysteries are almost always more fun than their resolutions. The movie looks snappy, too; it's well filmed and edited, and the performances are as good as the concept and characters call for. Over all, I could have done without it -- though perhaps I've already seen too many films a little too much like this one. You younger folk may have more patience -- due to having less of a catalog/backlog of movie memories to weigh the film down.

In any case, Level Up -- from filmbuff and running 84 minutes -- will open tomorrow, Friday, August 26, for a week-long run in a dozen theaters in a dozen cities across the country, including  New York (at the Cinema Village), Los Angeles (at the Downtown Independent), and Austin (Alamo Drafthouse, Slaughter Lane). Look for it in Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Milwaukee, San Francisco/San Jose, Seattle/Tacoma, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Detroit, too. On September 26, the film will make its nationwide VOD debut.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Philippe Faucon's FATIMA: France's Best Picture winner opens in U.S. theaters

The French, in my humble opinion, have long been perverse -- culturally, socially, politically, sexually, you-name-it-ly -- and this is, to a large extent, part of the country's charm and appeal, especially to some of us Americans who might like to be a bit more sophisticated but may lack the wherewithal. That country's choice this year of FATIMA as its César-winning Best Picture award would seem to bear this out. I can't think of a Best Picture choice from a European nation as unusual and oddly challenging since perhaps Spain's Goya Award to Solitary Fragments (La soledad) back in 2008.

There is little beyond the Best Picture selection that the two films share -- except their superior quality and the fact that they were such a surprise choice. Jaime Rosales' Spanish masterpiece about (among other things) society, family, caring and terrorism runs two hours and fifteen minutes, while Philippe Faucon's (the filmmaker is shown at right) look at the immigrant experience in France lasts all of a mere 75 minutes. Yet in terms of reach and grasp coalescing, the film is near perfect.

If TrustMovies had been voting for this particular award, his choice would have been Marguerite over Fatima for reasons of ambition, challenge and execution, though he loves both movies very much. And god knows, immigration (particularly from Arab countries) remains the hot-button issue worldwide and especially in France where, since (and probably long prior to) The Battle of Algiers, movies have been responding to life and political situations.

M. Faucon's film is simplicity itself, using a quiet documentary style to depict the life of an immigrant family in which the mother, the eponymous Fatima (played, in her acting debut, with self-effacing gravity and style by Soria Zeroual, shown above and further above), is a cleaning lady who works long hours to support her two daughters. Her husband (Chawki Amari, below, right) has left her for another woman, though he does make occasional appearances, gifting his daughters with merchandise like a new pair of sneakers.

One daughter, a pretty teen played with haughty, angry rebellion by newcomer Kenza Noah Aïche (above, left), can't seem to stifle that anger and so makes her mother's life more hellish than it needs to be, Fatima's older daughter, Nessrine (played by Zita Hanrot, below, left, of Eden and The New Girlfriend) is about to enter medical school and desperately needs more money, not to mention more confidence, to manage this. It is a testament to the filmmaker's skill that he handles all three actresses, as well as the rest of his diverse cast -- fledglings and pros -- so well that they appear a most believable family, within the fuller society at large.

Not all that much "event" takes place throughout the movie, but what there is proves enough -- along with the utter truthfulness of how Faucon dramatizes what we see -- to capture our mind and heart. I don't remember ever experiencing such enormous and unadulterated joy at a character's success as I felt at the close of this film. (I believe that is Zakaria Ali-Mehidi, above, right, who plays Nessrine's new friend Sélim.) How M. Faucon introduces us to cultural habits involving dating and sexuality, as well as how important image and reputation are to the older generation, is handled particularly well -- with an understanding of both the positive and negative aspects involved.

Faucon, as director and co-writer, shows us how especially difficult life can be for immigrants like our heroine, who do not learn to speak and write French. Late in the film, writing in her own language, Fatima demonstrates a keen intelligence, as well as poetic gift, as she describes a generic, all-purpose Fatima, without whose help and care, the French-speaking "white" populace could barely exist.

The blessings and rewards of a film like this one may be diminutive and quiet, but they are all the more impressive for the way their small size turns into vast scope. From Kino-Lorber, Fatima opens this Friday, August 26, in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then on September 16 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Let's hope that, once word-of-mouth grows a bit, the film will find further venues. Click here and then click on PLAYDATES to keep up with future bookings.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Early reality TV re-examined, as Robert Greene's KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE opens

What was she doing and why was she doing it are two of the questions provoked by the new quasi-documentary, quasi-narrative, quasi-intelligent examination of an actual 1974 on-air suicide by a TV talk show host that took place in Florida. Robert Greene's film KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE strikes me as an almost perfect example of what I'd call a relatively new and very narrow genre subset: the Aren't we-clever Brooklyn movie. This is probably not fair to Brooklyn or movies in general, but so be it. The film tackles the distressing subject of suicide and how to examine this from an honest POV, but then bangs you over the head with its "findings," even as it very nearly bores you to death in the process. (I am told that nobody in the film actually lives in Brooklyn, including its director. But the film reminds me of Bklyn at its most pretentious.)

Mr. Greene, pictured at left, gave us the 2014 documentary Actress, another overpraised film that TrustMovies expected to cover but had to refrain from doing so because, at the press screening I attended, the film's start was delayed so long, due to having to wait for the critic from (I believe) The New York Times. So I had to leave ten minutes before the finale in order to arrive on time for my next screening. One does not fairly review a movie one hasn't seen the whole of, but from what I did see of Actress, I found both the subject and the film made around her much less interesting than did the filmmaker.

So it is again with Kate Plays Christine, in which actress Kate Lyn Sheil (above) -- whom I've enjoyed to a point in a few other films, and in the Netflix series House of Cards -- both plays and investigates the history and personality of that TV host, Christine Chubbuck (shown below). The film's credits list Mr Greene as its writer, and that would seem to include much of the dialog placed in the mouth of Ms Sheil, who did not seem, to me at least, to always be improvising or even creating her own in-the-moment dialog. This may be because Greene is on record as saying that, as concerns documentaries, "The only way to get the the truth is layering constructed truths and leaving them unresolved." Which seems to be what he has done here. Oh, yes: It is all very self-reflectively "meta" -- but more Metamucil than anything else.

His movie is a mix of would-be investigation -- interviews with folk who knew and/or worked with Ms Chubbuck) and narrative scenes in which Greene uses actors to dramatize important scenes and moments in the life just-before-her-death of the talk show host. Except that, for all I know, Greene may have also used actors to portray some of those supposedly real-life folk who are interviewed. It's that kind of movie.

In addition, most of these scenes -- whether they are "documentary" or "narrative" -- are barely adequately (sometime not nearly that) handled. Ms Sheil, who in the main performer in the film, is not a particularly riveting actress. Whether she is speaking to us in the same dreary, droning voice in the "doc" portions, or "acting" in the narrative sections, she is, well... less than commanding. But I would tend to blame this more on Greene than on the actress. (We shall see what Rebecca Hall does with the same role in the full-out narrative drama, Christine, scheduled for release this October.)

The doc occasionally does come to life, as when Kate interviews an elderly white-haired-but-very-tanned newscaster who tells her that Christine's suicide was meaningless, useless and did not accomplish a thing. This angry, controlling and cold-as-dry-ice fellow would seem to represent the perfect Florida Republican member of the Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to corporate power and greed -- and the scene whips the movie into high gear for a short time.

We watch as Kate transforms (sort of) into Christine by doing some slightly-Stanislavski Actor Prepares business, then getting brown contacts to cover her blue eyes (above), being sprayed with a fake tan (below) and often talking about her debut to the subject of the documentary: "I want to pay respect to Christine Chubbuck and empathize with her, which of course I do."  For his part, Mr Greene is on record as saying that making this movie has illustrated the risks of pointing a camera at any subject. I would think he'd have understood that point several movies ago.

The documentary is exploratory to some extent, but the slowness of its pacing, together with the sameness of so much of the content becomes deadening. In the article in this past Sunday's New York Times Art & Leisure section, the filmmaker notes that he wants the film to actually cave in on itself, under the weight of the questions it asks. "It has to fall apart to work." Greene certainly has achieved the falling-apart part. His film does not work as documentary, as narrative, nor as anything else except perhaps as a trying, tiring exercise. The film's ending would seem to want to implicate us viewers -- but succeeds in implicating the filmmaker and his star instead.

From Grasshopper Film and running a rather lengthy hour-and-52-minutes, Kate Plays Christine opens tomorrow in New York City at the IFC Center and then on September 16 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Noho 7. Elsewhere? A few cities are on the docket. Click here then scroll all the way down to click on Where to Watch.