Friday, May 26, 2017

Italian film lovers, prepare -- FSLC/Istituto Luce Cinecittà's OPEN ROADS series arrives!

That annual slice of heaven for fans of Italian film is nearly upon us. OPEN ROADS, the yearly collection of new Italian cinema from The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà will begin this coming Thursday, June 1, and play for one full week through Wednesday afternoon, June 7. TrustMovies has at this point viewed only eight of the fourteen films to be shown but he must say that this year's roster is shaping up to be one of the darkest so far. And why not -- considering that Italy, along with the rest of the world, is slipping deeper into everything from debt (personal and national) and that ever-widening gap between the uber-rich and the rest of the population to the increasing effects of climate change and the crumbling of those "rocks" of Italian society: the family and, oh, yes, religion?

Speaking of family and religion, Open Roads' opening night movie decimates these to the point of no return. INDIVISIBLE (Indivisibili) tracks the tale of a pair of Siamese twins named Daisy and Violet (is this a nod to that great Broadway musical Side Show or maybe just to the actual twins themselves?) whose talent at singing and visual beauty have kept their parents, along with the Church, in the money for some time. When the twins discover that an operation could free them at last, all bets are off, and the movie lights out on a very bizarre road-and-sea trip as it explores everything from family and identity to our deepest desires/needs.

As directed and co-written by Edoardo De Angelis, and starring a pair of beautiful and unsettling actresses, Angela Fontana (who also stars in another series film, Due Soldati, see below) and Marianna Fontana, assisted by a crack supporting cast, the film is finally as unsettling as its two leading actresses: raw, alternately ugly and lovely, with the kind of gaze at religion and family that will make you question all the great Italian film about those two icons that have gone before. The movie also shows, as do so many others in this year's series, the Italian citizenry as doltish imbeciles with little more on their mind than following a fake religion and consuming the latest in... whatever. Whew, is this one dark experience! Indivisible screens Thursday, June 1, only -- at both 1:45 pm and 6:30 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

Three years ago Roberto Andò gave us that great actor Toni Servillo as identical twins in the charming and pointed political/social comedy Viva la libertà. Andò and Servillo are back again with THE CONFESSIONS (Le Confessioni), a darker (yes, of course) look at the world today, even if the representative of The Church is this time, and for a change these days, the good guy. The movie gives us a very interesting theory of the ideas and actions that lie behind, say, the IMF/World Bank policy of "austerity" for countries that are in deep financial trouble. While the result for those countries may be horrible indeed, the resulting movie is as elegant, funny, somber and fascinating as you could want, boasting a superb international cast (many of whom are shown in the photo, top), led by Servillo in his usual fine form.

That cast includes a particularly well-used Daniel Auteuil, plus Connie Nielsen, Pierfranceco Favino, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lambert Wilson and Marie-Josée Croze, among others. The movie is a mystery -- of what, why and how -- and if by the finale, some questions remain unanswered, I suspect you'll have gotten so much out of this unusual film already that you won't much mind. The Confessions screens Thursday, June 1 only, at both 4 pm and 9 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

The students who actually complete their "training" at the prep school shown us in CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT (I figli della notte) could easily, I think, grow up into that set of "world-class" economists observed in Le Confessioni. You will have to view both films to get the connection, but that's OK, since each is well worth seeing. Initially, the young men we meet at this school would seem to be "problem" children. But as the movie unfurls, we slowly become aware they may be a good deal more. Or less. The movie, directed and co-written by Andrea De Sica, concentrates on two of these boys and the girl that one of them meets at the local (and rather bizarre) brothel.

Both movies are in their way metaphors, with Le Confessioni a metaphor brought to elegant, slowly pulsating life. Figli della notte remains a metaphor because it is almost other-worldy. Yet it is so beautifully, creepily filmed and acted quite well, considering that it is at all times simultaneously real and unreal, that it casts a kind of magical (if ugly, and yes, dark) spell. And the performances of, especially, Ludovico Succio (above, left, of La Sapienza) and Vincenzo Crea (above, right), work wonders in pulling us into this warped world. Children of the Night screens Sunday, June 4, at 4 pm and Wednesday, June 7, at 4:30 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

The one comedy I've seen so far proves surprisingly dark, as well. AT WAR WITH LOVE (In Guerra per amore) begins like some kind of rom-com farce involving everything from World War II and FDR to Mussolini vs the Virgin Mary and the Mafia (Sicilian and American versions).

This sounds like a recipe for something very spoofy and goofy, and indeed the movie is all that, along with a lot else. It darkens as it moves forward, and the tone changes in just the right manner and at just the right speed so that by the finale, we're practically pinned to the floor with our mouths agape, our laughter curdling in our throats.

I was not so impressed with an earlier work (The Mafia Kills Only in Summer) of Pierfrancesco Diliberto (who now suddenly seems to be going by the cutesier/sillier name of Pif) , but I must say that this new film won me over completely. It offers up the collusion of power with money, even -- or especially -- during wartime, while its look at the Mafia on both sides of the Atlantic is nasty and sobering. America, it seems has a lot to answer for concerning the post-WWII proliferation of the Sicilian branch of this worthless, murderous men's club. Signore Diliberto (shown above, right) excels here in the roles of writer, director and leading actor, too. At War With Love, which offers one of the best low-key funny/sad ending moments in movie history, screens Saturday, June 3, at 9:15 pm and Tuesday, June 6, at 2:30 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

A new film from Italian master Marco Bellocchio is always an event, and his latest -- SWEET DREAMS (Fai bei sogni) is no exception. This is one of my favorites of this filmmaker, and, yes, it's a little too long, sometimes seems to ramble, and the first half is better than the second. But when a filmmaker is this good -- concerned with so much of what makes Italian life spin and resonate, and with the talent and skill to bring all this to wonderful life and art -- I'm more than happy to give the man his lead and let him go wherever it takes him. Here it takes him into the life of a fellow (Italian everyman Valerio Mastandrea) who lost his mother at a young age and has never recovered from it. He's successful to a point, but his life is enormously circumscribed due to this death and the manner in which those around him in his childhood -- and even now, in adulthood -- have handled the situation.

Also in the large cast are Bérénice Bejo as the doctor who helps our hero, and Barbara Ronchi, indelible as that mother who has gone missing. The opening scene, featuring mom and son doing the twist, is one memorable keeper, and later in the movie Bellocchio finally allows the son to dance again, and this, too, is both beautiful and wrenching. Mastandrea's performance is, always with this smart and accessible actor, beautifully and believably calibrated. Midway along, we get a splendid scene featuring French actress Emmanuelle Devos (above). The filmmaker, who is approaching eighty years, shows no signs of faltering so far as I can see. Here, as director and co-adapter (of a novel by Massimo Gramellini), he is in full swing. Long may he reign. Sweet Dreams plays Sunday, June 4, at 9 pm and Tuesday, June 6, at 8:45 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

The saddest of all the films I've so far caught has got to be FIORE, directed and co-written by Claudio Giovannesi. It's certainly not the darkest -- there's way too much energy here for that -- but the sadness at the heart of the film arrives because the filmmaker causes us to care so very much about its leading character and then has that character betray herself and her better instincts over and over again. Why? That is the big question the movie asks, and the responsibility falls mostly on the character herself: Daphne (played to the hilt and beyond by Daphne Scoccia), who simply cannot seem to help herself, time after time. Sure, her parenting wasn't so hot (her dad, played by the oft-seen Valerio Mastandrea, is trying harder now), and the state, while not villainous and actually rather caring, is simply unable to reach this young woman.

Much of the film takes place in the prison where Daphne resides, and the details here seem quite unlike the what our USA offers prisoners, but they also seem pretty believable. Love, or something like it, arrives in the form of another problemed inmate, Josh, played by Josciua Algeri, a very good young actor who met his own untimely end in an auto accident this very year -- which only adds to the sadness of this film. Giovannesi's style is full of chiaroscuro lighting and close-ups that bring us into great intimacy with the characters. This is his third full-length narrative film, and we shall surely be hearing from him -- and his alluring and talented lead actress (who seems like a cross between Kristen Stewart and Angelina Jolie) -- again soon. Fiore plays Friday, June 2, at 9:00 PM and Monday, June 5, at 6:45 pm at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

My favorite film in the Open Roads series (so far, at least) would be the new one from Marco Tullio Giordana (shown at right). I am using his photo here because, perhaps, his latest movie is so new that a poster for it does not yet exist. (I could not find one, at least.) Titled TWO SOLDIERS (Due soldati), it is said to be the third in Giordana's trilogy about organized crime that includes the very fine One Hundred Steps (2000) and Lea (2015). This filmmaker also gave us the memorable movie/TV series The Best of Youth. In this new film, the soldiers are in very different wars/organizations. One, played by Dario Rea, below, is fighting in Afghanistan. (Is George W. Bush's Coalition of the Willing still going on?) The other is a low-level-but-on-the-rise member of the local Mafia.

When the Mafia soldier (Daniele Vicorito, below, right) is wounded and must hide and somehow recover, he ends up in the apartment of that soldier and his about-to-be bride (Angela Fontana, from Indivisibili, at left, below).  This may sound highly coincidental on paper but how Giordana films it seems both appropriate and believable. From there, his movie deals in grief and doubt, need and compassion, and even though it includes only these three characters plus family members and friends of both the bride and the Mafia soldier, it manages to encompass much of current Italian society. The picture it paints is anything but pretty. This is another very dark film in terms of the Italian obsession with consumerism. Giordana also indicts war -- in both of the varieties we see here.

This is a movie in which characters actually change -- not much but enough -- as we viewers watch and wonder (in both senses of that word). The filmmaker makes us think, feel and struggle, as our sympathies grow and change. His characters struggle, too, and are all the better for it. Two Soldiers plays Open Roads on Friday, June 2, at 1:30 pm and Tuesday, June 6, at 6:30 pm -- both screenings at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

If there's a lemon in this series, it would have to be the sole documentary in the bunch, DELIVER  US (Liberami), which is all about modern-day exorcism, as practiced in Sicily. Huh? Yeah. As directed by Federica Di Giacomo, this truly bizarre movie will have you convinced that Sicilians must be among the stupidest people on earth. Or maybe simply a people utterly mired in a nonsense religion, so much so that they will blame just about everything and anything on Satan. Or -- if you are easily swayed -- that Sicily must be a hotbed of Satanic activity in which way too much of the population is possessed and are then ministered unto by a priest that does some of his exorcisms via phone. No? Yes!

The filmmaker takes no sides here, nor does she even question anything we see, as she tracks the stories of these "possessed":  among them a teenage girl, a middle-age woman, and a young man with piercings and beaucoup tattoos (above). One priest here appears to be either downright nutty or himself in thrall to something a little "other." One scene in church begins to looks like a Catholic physical therapy session.

Eventually we see a priest who seems to treat all this like the self-induced attention-seeking behavior it probably is, and finally some prescription medicine even enters the picture. Briefly. The movie ends with a convention of exorcism priests in Rome, and then the credits tell us of the huge increase in cases of Satanic possession and how the Church has had to hire extra exorcists. The movie left me thinking that Italy has got to be the single dumbest country in the western world. But then I remembered that we had recently "elected" Donald Trump. Deliver Us screens only once, Sunday, June 4, at 6:30 at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater.

Do check out the entire 
OPEN ROADS series by clicking here.

TrustMovies will hope to be able to view the
other six films in the series over the coming few days. 
If and when he does, he'll post each review  
at the top of this link. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Dave Ash's sequel to 2021 -- TWIN CITIES -- to premiere at Film Invasion Los Angeles

Every so often, but far too rarely, TrustMovies views a new film by an unknown filmmaker that deserves a much wider viewing public than this little blog can manage to provide. Such as film was 2021 (click here for a review) and so, too, is the new sequel to that film -- TWIN CITIES -- by Minneapolis-based filmmaker David Ash. His new film, in fact, is even more ambitious in concept and execution than his earlier endeavor, though it is not quite as effective as 2021. It is still more than worth seeing, and I hope it will jump-start this "local" filmmaker to national prominence.

Mr. Ash, pictured at right, continues his tale of two oddball lovers, John and Emily, who met and tried to form a relationship in 2021. Now, they're married, she's expecting, and John -- as bi-polar and troubled as ever -- is about to discover something about his health that will change everything. Or not. What is real and what is not get quite the workout here, in terms of both what happens to our characters and the game the filmmaker is playing with us viewers. Not for nothing is Ash's movie titled Twin Cities. Yes, it takes place in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region, but its narrative, too, is broken into two distinct strands/sections that, while they play off each other, are also quite impossible to meld.

The first section/story seems to belong mostly to John (played again with amazing force and commitment by Clarence Wethern, above, left), the second to Emily (again, the equally committed and talented Bethany Ford Binkley, above right). It's wonderful to see them together again, playing off each other with such rapport and skill.

John, above, struggles with those same old demons (his mental state and a job that he is extraordinarily good at yet does not want to do), while Bethany, below and now pregnant, has written a best-seller and finds herself blocked concerning that second novel, which her publisher is anxiously awaiting.

In the movie's second section, all has changed, and rather drastically -- yet so many details are so similar but also exactly different. The parents in section one belong to John. In section two, they are Emily's -- with the major health issue transferred from one sex to the other. (That's "mom," played by Mary Beidler Gearen, below).

This splitting of the narrative into two strands is certainly interesting, but I do not think it adds anything to the characterizations, which proved much stronger in 2021. It may make us think and think again about some of the philosophical points raised by Mr. Ash (who both wrote and directed) concerning life, death, religion, faith, work, love and more, but I don't believe the use of twin narratives actually adds any more depth to the discussion.

It does give these actors plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their chops -- which they do. (That's Gabe Angieri, playing Dad, above.)  It also shows the filmmaker's wonderful rapport with those actors. He, along with his writing, draws such immediate, specific and emotionally compelling performances from his leads, which also include Peter Christian Hansen (below) as Emily's significant other in the second section. that scene after scene grabs you and does not let go.

Mr. Ash, along with his treatment thus far by the independent film establishment and its critics, brings up an interesting point regarding insider and outsider art. A film I covered earlier this week -- Matías Piñeiro's Hermia and Helena -- is a perfect example of "insider" art:  Piñeiro's work is beloved by insiders and the filmmaker, in his latest work, even uses many of these people in his film. His latest is too long and so thin that it practically disappears while unspooling. But his work has caught critics' fancy bigtime (mine included, at least where one of his earlier films is concerned).

Ash, on the other hand, living and working in Minnesota yet producing some masterful stuff, remains an outsider. Really now: It's time for a change. Maybe new exposure for Twin Cities will foment that change. Do you have to have already seen 2021 to appreciate Ash's latest film? I don't think so, although seeing them both can only increase your enjoyment and connections.

As I mentioned in the headline above, the movie premieres next month on June 11 in L. Film Invasion Los Angeles. Click here for more information and/or here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I AM HEATH LEDGER documents the late actor's too-short life with non-stop praise

I was certainly as much a fan of the actor Heath Ledger as anyone else, but after watching this very poorly judged documentary about him, in which not a single negative word is uttered or seems to ever have been thought or imagined by anyone on either side of the camera, one comes away from the film wondering how in hell the world missed this second coming of the messiah (or first coming, if you're a religious Jew). The movie may be titled I AM HEATH LEDGER, but TrustMovies can only imagine that Mr. Ledger would himself be embarrassed and annoyed at this vast and one-sided compendium of non-stop praise.

When, toward the end of the film, one of Ledger's best friends speaks about the actor's death, there is nary a mention of drugs, and instead we get the phrase "medicated sleeping." Right. As directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray (shown at left, with Mr.Murray on the right) and written by Hart Snider, this doc lets its interviewees go on and on about the wonders and talents of the actor until you are just about bludgeoned into submission. In between all the praise, you may still manage to learn a few things you didn't already know.

The film deals primarily with Ledger's life and ten-year career in the USA (he'd done some television and made three movies in his native Australia prior to this). From 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and The Patriot through his posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight (below) and his appearance in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which he never completed due to his death in 2008 at the age of just 28, that career is handled with enough detail to keep us interested and involved.

We hear from his father, mother and sister, and from many of his childhood-through-adult friends, as well as from Aussie actors such as Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn. What they have to say, while germane, seems to have been edited for maximum positive, feel-good/sad reaction. One of the most interesting sections is devoted to director Catherine Hardwicke talking in detail about Ledger's work on character development for Lords of Dogtown.

Seeing this film will remind you anew of the very real loss Ledger's death proved to both the acting profession and to his loved ones and fans. But a documentary about this actor was an opportunity to genuinely probe, as well as to honor him, and that chance has been thoroughly muffed.

At the very beginning of the documentary, one of Heath's friends notes that "If it wasn't on the edge, it didn't interest him. If there wasn't some risk involved, he had no time for it." This, as much as anything, may account for the abbreviated life the movie gives us. Edgy/risky, after all, cuts both ways and may have led to that final "risk" Ledger took. Taking this into account and exploring it might have enriched this movie no end. Instead, it's all just "wasn't he wonderful!"

From Virgil Films and running 91 minutes, I Am Heath Ledger made its Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD debut yesterday, May 23, and is available now for either purchase or rental.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Gourmet food, luscious locations and Diane Lane in Eleanor Coppola's PARIS CAN WAIT

If you're a sucker for movies that offer reams of food-and-travel porn or a fan of that intelligent and beautiful actress Diane Lane (on poster, left), then PARIS CAN WAIT, the new film by Eleanor Coppola (her first full-length narrative work, and yes, she's the wife of a certain Francis Ford), will most likely be your cup of (lukewarm) tea. The movie, set in the French countryside, is often gorgeous to view, the many meals look succulent indeed, and Ms Lane comes through like the trouper she has long proven to be.

Ms Coppola (shown at right), who both wrote and directed this trifle of a movie, sets her heroine, Anne, up with a hubby -- the under-used Alec Baldwin (below, left), who mostly ignores her, her career and her interests to focus on his own -- and that hubby's business associate, Jacques, played by Arnaud Viard, who promises to deliver Anne via automobile to the couple's digs in Paris. But Jacques has his own agenda, which involves stopping at every important tourist site, fabulous inn and swank hotel along the way, dining and drinking like there was no tomorrow, and, yes, allowing a certain "attraction" to bloom.

Bloom, it does, and before you can say, "Where have I seen this movie, maybe 20 times before, but usually done with a lot more subtlety?", 92 pleasant, pretty minutes have past and the film has finished. M. Viard, below, whose career so far has been in French film and TV that has not, for the most part, reached our shores, makes a perfectly appropriate tour guide and would-be lover. I do wish the distributor has seen fit to grace our critic's screening link with English subtitles, however, because TrustMovies missed about one-third of Viard's very heavily-accented English dialog.

Ms Lane, as ever, is the consummate actress. Beautiful enough to consistently hold our gaze, she also brings whip-smart intelligence and nicely buried feeling to so many of the moments here that she almost convinces us that any of this really matters.

Ms Coppola has constructed her tale in a fashion that is not remotely believable (if the goal were actually getting to Paris and not making a movie about travel and food), but she has written her screenplay/dialog with a bit of occasional zing and then directed the proceedings well enough to keep us watching.

How you will react to the last-minute breaking of the fourth wall so that Ms Lane can let us know that all this has just been playful naughtiness will depend, I think, on your tolerance for the cutesy. Bon appétit!

From Sony Pictures Classics, after opening two weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles, and elsewhere the following week, Paris Can Wait hits South Florida this Friday, May 26, in Miami at the CMX Brickell City Center and the Tower Theater. Click here and then click on GET TICKETS to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters around the country.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Saffire & Schlesinger's RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN goes inside a legendary ballet dancer facing age, pain and retirement

A great ballerina coming to terms with aging, a possibly career-ending hip operation, necessary change and the eventual need to do something other than dance -- all this and more is covered in one of the best ballet-dancer-biographies yet brought to the screen. RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN, the new documentary from Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, is right up there with Nancy Buirski's Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and much better than the recent Misty Copeland bio-doc, A  Ballerina's Tale.

Saffire and Schlesinger (shown at right) appear to have had remarkable access to Ms Whelan -- at rehearsal, in actual performance, at home with her husband (photographer, David Michalek), and with her New York City Ballet "boss" Peter Martins (who, as always, comes across as someone you can trust about as far as you can toss), and with many of her ballet partners, past and present. The result is a multi-faceted look at Whelan that makes the ballerina seems remarkably consistent: a huge talent who is simultaneously a good person. As one of her contemporaries points out far into the movie, Whelan's behavior to everyone in the company -- from security guard to dresser to other dancers -- changed for the better the way that the dance company operated.

Restless Creature (which doubles as the name of the dance project Whelan came up with as a route to her post-NYC Ballet career), though it does not spend all that much time on her past and childhood history, opens in media res, as the dancer is faced with an upcoming hip operation that could end her dancing career. How she handles this, with courage and difficulty, is as exemplary as so much else that we see.

And yet, because the filmmakers zero in so finely and consistently on this woman, we can easily believe what we see and hear.  Whelan does indeed seem beloved of so many of her co-workers and choreographers, and as we see her dance (at first just in snippets, then longer and more involved as the documentary proceeds), we actually get some understanding of how difficult all this is and why dance careers, so like sports careers, are usually quite circumscribed, if not downright short. (At age 47 -- when the movie was shot -- Whelan has had an unusually long and successful run of 30 years.)

We hear from her choreographers, too, and learn something of how they work with their dancers to create the beauty and magic we view from the audience. Though the idea -- first of the operation and what its result might be, and then of the actual retirement that looms  -- seem to have our dancer often on the verge of tears, she never (or the filmmaker have chosen not to let us see this) gives in to them.

The post-operation ups and down are shown us, too, and at times the movie seems almost like a suspense thriller: So the career is over? Wait: Maybe not! "When am I gonna know that I'm safe again?"  the  dancer asks at one point.

Overall, bits from some 20 different ballets are shown us, and at the conclusion, we realize what all this has been building toward: a final dance that is so sensational that you'll fully appreciate and understand both why ballet is such a beloved art form and what Whelan has done to enrich it. Then all the applause and the flowers and the love arrive. What a moment. What a movie!

From Abramorama, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens in New York City this Wednesday, May 24, at Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. It hits Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal on Friday, June 9, and will play a number of other cities around the country, as well. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.