Thursday, April 24, 2014

Old-fashioned Russian fun and games, from a Dutchman: Jos Stelling's THE GIRL AND DEATH

There's something (quite a lot, actually) decidedly old-fashioned and operatic about THE GIRL AND DEATH, Dutch director and co-writer Jos Stelling's attempt to give us a period tale involving first love between a young medical student and a tubercular courtesan, the former on his way between Russia and Paris to study, the latter under the thumb of the elderly count who pays for her quarters in the slightly decaying hotel in Germany where the young man arrives to stay the night on his journey.

Mr. Stelling (shown at right) also co-wrote the film (along with Bert Rijkelijkhuizen), and the two of them clearly perceive this as a tale of a first love that, sadly, cannot be. As filmmaker, Stelling has lavished his movie with some gauzy, graceful cinematography (by Goert Giltay) that lingers over everything from the hero and heroine's beautiful faces to the accoutrements of the hotel and the Count's ugly countenance. As writers, the pair clearly decided to tell their story more visually than with dialog. Scene by scene, this is a film remarkably dialog-free (or with very limited use of conversation). This can have its charms, but here, I think, you'd really rather have the lovers talk a bit more and consequently make better decisions. Ah, but that's not the way first love works, right?

The story, bookended by an old man on a train (Sergey Makovetskiy, above) who finally arrives at a cemetery (shown at bottom) near the now-deserted hotel and then... remembers his youth. We meet him again at the end of the film to wrap things up. In between, this lengthy 127-minute movie devotes itself to his story, which is simplicity incarnate: Boy meets girl, boy can't have her, much tsuris ensues -- "I can't." "You must!" "No!" "Yes!" and so on, until around the halfway mark, when it's a few years later, and our young man, returned to the hotel again, has grown a "somewhat" mustache and goatee (in order to age him a bit, no doubt).

The leads are played by attractive performers -- Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (below) and Russian actor Leonid Bichevin (above). Both are as good as they're allowed to be. The supporting cast is fine, too, with much of the acting falling pleasantly enough between realism and silent film style -- which, in a movie that offers as sparse dialog as this one does, seems perfectly understandable.

Both intimations and actualizations of death haunt the film. The palette here is drained of a certain amount of color, and there is one scene (below) of a card game by candlelight and in costumes that might just bring to mind Barry Lyndon.

The lovers' story is constantly up and down, off and on, with about enough actual content to fill perhaps one full hour. And that is the film's biggest problem, as it runs on for over two. If you taste is for beautiful photography coupled to Russian moodiness and depression, however, The Girl and Death could be your cup (well, in this case a samovar) of tea.

The movie opens tomorrow, Friday, April 25, in New York City at the Cinema Village. It will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 on May 23, and  I expect it will appear on DVD and/or streaming/VOD eventually.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Naughty Nazis in Patagonian Argentina in 1960: Lucía Puenzo's THE GERMAN DOCTOR arrives

A huge region of both Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is often known for its desolate areas. It's a place people go to be alone. (Bruce Chatwin was a fan.) In her new film, THE GERMAN DOCTOR (Wakolda is the original Argentine title), writer/director Lucía Puenzo takes us there, but to a very different area: a gorgeous resort nestled in a mountain village next to a beautiful lake. The filmmaker also travels back in time to 1960s, a period far enough after World War II that people were beginning to move on from the Nazi atrocities to find other subjects to explore. In Argentina, however -- a country that managed to make itself into a haven for both Jews and their persecutors -- and particularly in out-of-the-way places like Patagonia, a hive of what we might call early neo-Nazis could (and evidently did) thrive.

Ms Puenzo's film (the writer/director is pictured at left) is based on what is said to be a true account of a Patagonian family who, without knowing it, housed for a time one of the world's most infamous doctors, Josef Mengele, (played by that excellent Spanish actor, Àlex Brendemühl, below), an escaped Nazi who enjoyed experimenting on concentration camp inmates and evidently took this passion with him to South America. Back in 2007 Puenzo gave us a film, XXY, that remains one of the best ever to deal with the condition and problems faced by a gender "other" and her family. In her new film, the 12-year-old girl, Eva (played by Florencia Bado), who provides the heart of this movie, is also a kind of "other," as she has inherited a gene that makes her unusually short. Do you think the good doctor might be interested in her? Were the Nazis naughty?

Puenzo has an un-pushy, easy style that allows her stories to appear to tell themselves, while letting character evolve and situation arise with less melodrama that you might expect, given the choice of her subjects.

Here, the filmmaker begins with the sight of a strange doll that means a lot to our protagonist, her father (who made it), and finally to Mengele. The doll's a symbol, all right, but it is one that, like much else in Puenzo' work, does not scream for attention but rather commands it by virtue of the doll's importance to the people we're observing. (The movie's original Argentine title, Wakolda, is actually the name given by Eva to her doll.)

The filmmaker achieves a good deal of suspense via a sub-plot involving a teacher/photographer/Israeli spy at the school that Eva attends (during the course of the movie Adolf Eichmann is caught by the Israelis, with Mengele high on the "To Capture" list). There is also suspense and a pulling in two directions, as the doctor lets it be known that he can cure Eva's too-short stature (her schoolmates, some of whom are shown above, have taken to calling her "dwarf"). But is this indeed a cure, or simply further experimentation?

Eva's mother (Natalie Oreiro, above), pregnant with twins (yet another inducement/temptation/opportunity for our Nazi doctor), wants Eva to continue growing physically. Her father (Diego Peretti, below, right), who does not trust the doctor, will have none of it, even after the medicine man makes him a solid offer to fund mass production of the doll in porcelain.

All of this activity spins around interestingly, as we become more and more aware of the growing crush our little girl has on Mengele. (Ms Bado is shown at right, with her "mentor," in the two photos below.) In a Hollywood version, all this would be brought to a pulse-racing, melodramatic finale. Instead Puenzo keeps it distanced and cool. Viewers like me will appreciate this reticence (in its home country, the movie took the year's Best Picture award); others may want more bells and whistles.

TrustMovies is pleased with the way Puenzo handles it all, though he admits the movie does not quite rise to the level of XXY, perhaps because, in that earlier film, the subject was both original and shown in a bracing, dramatic, unsentimental manner. While this film is equally unsentimental (this seems a hallmark of the filmmaker), folk my age by now have seen an awful lot of Hitler/Eichmann/Mengele movies, and so some of the bloom of the bizarre has withered from those thorny roses.

Yet the combination of excellent acting, quiet approach to the material, gorgeous locations and of course the subject itself should be enough to bring an audience of foreign-film lovers into theaters for this limited release, and more to VOD & DVD when the movie reaches those venues.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and running just 93 minutes, The German Doctor opens this Friday in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark, in Berkeley at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas, and in San Francisco at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema. Starting the following week and continuing over the next month or so, the film will hit theaters in cities across the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL: Ozon's newest tracks a teenage prostitute & creates a stunning new star

"Ohhhh... she's beautiful!" my spouse whispered as the camera lingered over the gorgeous and leggy new actress (whom we'll bet becomes an overnight star), Marine Vacth, who plays and quite well, the lead in François Ozon's new movie YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL (Jeune & jolie). M. Ozon handed me my favorite film of 2013, In the House, so I suppose one cannot expect a filmmaker as prolific as he to come up with something that good every time. (He's made 17 full-length films in as many years, plus myriad short movies.) Though it will not be my favorite film for 2014, still, this one is plenty good enough: thoughtful, stylish, intelligent, well-acted by all concerned and with a theme -- teenage prostitution -- that should certainly corral a portion of the arthouse crowd.

Ozon, shown at right, is up to his usual tricks here by not insisting on what point is being made. He lays it all out, very well, very intelligently and artfully, and lets us make of it what we will. This does not mean that he is fudging or waffling, however. He's just not a filmmaker who likes to drive his points home. His movie bears more than passing resemblance to a film made for French TV and known over here as Student Services (Mes chères études), by Emmanuelle Bercot, about a college student who hooks on the side to help pay her bills. In Young & Beautiful, however, our heroine is getting paid for sex not out of necessity but more, perhaps, for the sense of power, control and occupation the trade allows her. She is also exploring what sex is and means, for both her and her partners, whilst separating it rather thoroughly from any emotional content.

It's that latter point that will, down the road, present the most trouble for Isabelle (the character played by Ms Vacth, above), who begins the film while on a family vacation by getting involved with a slightly older German student (Lucas Prisor) and losing her virginity with barely so much as a goodbye. She evidently felt nothing pleasurable or otherwise -- as I suspect lots of young girls these days experience with their first time (and maybe always have). With the young, everything is rushed.

Yet Isabelle knows that this sex thing is marketable with men, and soon she is surfing the web, posting availability and finding partners who will pay (though not always as much as was promised). We see her engaged in various couplings with men quite different in type and age. Her favorite partner, in fact, is the older man, Georges, played by Johan Leysen (above); the rest are all just johns.

What happens in the film is both expected (in the ways society handles this sort of thing) and not (in the manner that Ozon handles his characterization of Isabelle). Thanks to his quietly probing but never insistent viewpoint and to Ms Vacth's very believable characterization -- not exactly confused but certainly exploring: Isabelle is only 17, remember -- we end up with an unusual film that offers a hot-button topic done coolly and credibly.

As is often the case with Ozon, there are bonuses aplenty, starting with the appearance, late in the film, of Charlotte Rampling, in a small but wonderful role that the actress fills to the brim. There is also a lovely, sad chapter around mid-way that explores Isabelle' relationship and love/sex life with a boy her own age (Laurent Delbecque, above). The difference in maturity between the genders, along with the characterization of the girl's inner life against the boy's outer has rarely been shown so clearly and pointedly.

Isabelle's family, too, is shown in all its ravaged glory. Mom (Géraldine Pailhas, above, left) is divorced, but step-dad (the ever-present and always fine Frédéric Pierrot) is a decent guy, while (Fantin Ravat) is everything you'd want and expect in a kid brother -- and twice as adorable. Yes, this family has its problems, but because it is made up of relatively decent people, you can't look to it for anything approaching a full explanation of Isabelle's unusual behavior.

In fact, considering some of Ozon's visuals of Paris (such as the one above), you might more helpfully look at society, media and culture for explanation. In any case, Young & Beautiful -- from Sundance Selects/IFC Films and running 95 minutes -- opens here in the USA this Friday, April 25, in New York City at the IFC Center. I can't find it playing anywhere in the Los Angeles area -- that's surprising -- but as it will appear on VOD simultaneous with its theatrical release, you should be able to view it in practically all major markets across the USA.

Steven Knight and Tom Hardy turn LOCKE into an original and compelling "confined space" film

If LOCKE is a stunt -- and to some extent, it certainly is -- then it's a damned good one. This is one of those increasingly frequent "confined-space" movies  (with the exception of its initial scene, in which the title character, played by Tom Hardy leaves a construction site, gets into his car and drives away) where every-thing takes place inside an enclosed space -- that car -- from which no exit seems easily possible. The odd thing about Locke, however, is that it is not a thriller, the genre into which every other confined space film I can think of -- from ATM to Brake, Buried, Elevator, Freezer and Last Passenger (which also opens this week and takes place entirely on a train) -- neatly fits. And why not? With enough events front-loaded, that confined space just increases the thrills. But no: Locke is... well, it's a drama for adults. How's that from a movie-maker -- Steven Knight -- who clearly has quite the pair of balls.

Mr. Knight, shown at left, has been more prolific as screenwriter (Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace and Eastern Promises are among his many efforts) than as a director (Redemption), but Locke may change all that. So compelling an actor is Mr. Hardy and so specific and alert is Knight's script to the life and problems of his character (whose name is Ivan Locke) that, together, they turn the movie into a tour de force of feeling, emotion, anger, surprise and even a little humor. How? Knight lets his audience slowly learn where Locke is going and why, while simultaneously allowing us understand what this means to the life this man had led up until now. Knight and Hardy manage all this via phone conversations -- which cannot be overly expository or we'd simply not buy them -- that fill in everything from situation to character.

Locke talks to his wife, his son, another woman who is important to him, his boss, an underling, and a couple of other people, all of whom come across marvelously, thanks to voice casting and talent. (Among the voices are those of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Tom Holland.)

There is a job at stake and a family life that may be shattered, and Mr. Hardy's fine performance captures all of it and more -- lots of tiny moments that add up to "character" -- his, and the folk to whom he is speaking. The plot -- and yes, there is one -- is derived from all these conversations, which build into something quite special.

Aurally, the movie is magnificent. I don't see how you could ask for much more, sound-wise. (If broadcast during the heyday of radio, Locke would have been an award-winning drama). Visually, there are times when I think more could have been done -- the camera remains on or near our man, occasionally glancing out the windshield or at the car phone by which these many calls are being made -- but thanks to Hardy's face and talent, Locke at least comes close enough for jazz.

Marriage, fidelity, parenting, employment: the themes here are big ones, and they are given their due. So wrapped up do we become in Ivan's situation that by the finale, when we hear a certain sound -- one, by the way, that we've heard countless times before -- such a flood of emotion/satisfaction/healing is released that we're likely to be caught by surprise at how very moved we suddenly are.

Locke, from A24 and running just 85 minutes, opens this Friday, April 25, in New York City at the AMC Lincoln Square 13 and the Angelika Film Center, and then on Friday, May 2, it will open in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Raphael.  To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then click on THEATERS. (The movie's site could use some updating, however, as the Los Angeles entry seems to have the wrong theater and the wrong date....)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Experience the third world more fully than usual; Sylvia Caminer's TANZANIA: A JOURNEY WITHIN

Stick with TANZANIA: A JOURNEY WITHIN. I say this because you may be tempted, as was I, to imagine that you've stumbled into watching yet another documentary about a first-world twit hoping to discover her or himself by visiting a third-world country. Though the movie does begin with an indication of something serious -- our heroine looks mighty sick and is headed for the hospital -- it immediately flashes back to a much earlier time, as college students Kristen Kenney and Venance Ndibalema (hereafter to be called Kris and Ven) explain why they will soon be traveling to Ven's home country of Tanzania. And then they are there, and before you can say "Don't do that," Kris is out in the streets of Dar es Salaam -- blond braids flowing, heavy-duty eye make-up in place -- dancing in front of the natives and generally making a spectacle of herself. Gheesh.

Soon after Kris uses the word "primitive" to describe the culture, to which Ven takes understandable offense. Very slowly, and probably intentionally on the part of the film's director, Sylvia Caminer (shown below), the movie, along with these two characters, begins to deepen. Soon we meet Ven's mentor, the woman who encouraged him to try to get to the United States, and then little by little, we learn of this young man's history, his family and what happened to them. Previous to this, however, we climb, along with our friends and their guides, that famous snowy mountain, Kilimanjaro, and once again, poor Kris seems hugely out of place. She wonders -- and we do, too -- whether she will survive this climb.

Then it's off to the Serengeti, where we see some wildlife, and Kris gets ecstatic and begins to sound like whatever passes for today's Valley Girl: "Shut up -- there's a giraffe!"  Kris seems to repre-sent, more than anything else, that unique need among American youth, female variety especially, to be happy and chipper at all times -- no matter how many teeth are set on edge in the process. She explains things that we don't need to know: A propos female lions protecting their kill, "It would be the same thing in my family, if someone was coming to steal our food." Well, OK.

So thank god for Ven, who turns out to be not only Kris' savior but the film's. He tells us how his mother taught him to use a knife and fork -- in a country where everyone uses his/her right hand to eat -- and we begin to see how the young man was set on the course he has followed.

The pair travels to a outlying village were we meet Ven's grandmother (above: his mother is dead, and the story of how and why adds immensely to the movie's pull).

Around the halfway point, Kris' make-up seems to lighten a good deal and then disappears all together. She, too, begins to win us over via what looks like some genuine growth and change. In the village, we spend time with the women and learn their place here. They do the work -- all of it, it seems -- and are rewarded for their trouble with the AIDS virus, which they get from their lazy, errant men.

We see HIV experienced here in a very new and disquieting way, as shown in the situation of a child suspected of having the disease (both her parents died of it) and so is shunned through-out the community. "Death is the last wedding," as one tribal saying goes. Finally Kris herself undergoes an affecting break-down as she realizes in a more profound way the enormous differ-ences between this culture and her own.

One young woman in the village, in particular (she's shown above, with Kris), wants desperately to be able to leave it and become a teacher. How difficult this turns out to be we eventually learn.

We search for the grave of Ven's mother; when we find it, the movie comes upon genuine grief, which is powerful stuff. Little wonder Kris finally admits, "I was soulless before this trip. Everything in my life was material. This is the real world." It certainly is for those who must live here.

By the time the credits roll, you'll probably want to order one of the bracelets that are mentioned in those credits, along with the charity that's been set up and that hopes to eventually stamp out malaria in the region (

Meanwhile Tanzania: A Journey Within, running 102 minutes, opens this Friday, April 25, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on May 2 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Noho 7.  To see other playdates for the film, click here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Life imitates art, quite beautifully, in Philippe Le Guay's enchanting BICYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE

French filmmaker Philippe Le Guay has had quite an interesting career, working successfully in various genres -- from his most recent hit, the nostalgic and socially-conscious rom-com The Women on the 6th Floor to his earlier and very dark movie about work and family, Nightshift (Trois Huit) and a very interesting and barbed look at how the French bourgeoisie lived back in 2003, The Cost of Living. All told, he's directed eleven films (theatrical and television) and written twenty-two. Now comes one of his best: BICYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE, the charming, classy tale of a classic piece of French literature attempting to be brought to exhilarating life by a pair of France's finest actors (Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson) -- who happen to be portraying a pair of France's finest actors.

M. Le Guay, shown at left, came up with the idea for this film along with M. Luchini (the two have collaborated several times), who is said to be an expert on the great playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name, Molière. Despite his great gift for comedy and farce, M. Luchini would seem to possess an intelligence both wide-ranging and deep, all of which is put to use by the actor and M. Le Guay in this new film. In it, Luchini plays Serge Tanneur (below, left), a well-respected actor who has given up his profession due to its pettiness and nastiness of the people who surrounded him. Into his now quiet life comes M. Wilson, as Gauthier Valence (below, right), another successful actor who currently is the hot TV star in what sounds and looks like a soapy series about a cosmetic surgeons who always seems to be saving lives. Gautheir wants to get back to his theatrical roots and so is set on having Serge join him in a new production of Molière's The Misanthrope.

But who will play Alceste, the meaty title role of the play? Gauthier wants it for himself, but Serge says no.  If he is to return to the stage, he must play Alceste. Well, maybe the two actors could switch roles periodically, giving both the chance to shine? Serge insists on a few days of rehearsal before giving his answer, and so the two begin to rehearse, as well as spend a lot of time together in the little seaside town where Serge dwells.

There they meet Francesca (Maya Sansa, above), an Italian divorcee who is initially angry at them and the world around her but then quickly (a tad too quickly, perhaps) warms up to our two chums.

The meat of the movie charts this growing relationship between the men, and theirs with both the play at hand and with this new woman, and it gives us a raft of small moments of jealousy and envy, as well as others that bring to the fore the actor's skill with this playwright and the playwright's great skill with words. Molière lovers will kvell. (Yours truly once played Philinte in a college production of this play, and even though I was far too young and green to appreciate even half of its genius, this opened the door to my enduring love for the playwright.)

Midway, there's a fine scene in which a young actress, keen to continue making porno films, takes a mother-induced meeting with our classic actors and reads a speech from the play. What begins as cringe-inducing, slowly turns into something lovely, as the character (and actress: newcomer Laurie Bordesoules, below) warms to the words.

The movie should also give lovers of The Misanthrope a field day, for it finds within the characters of the two men, and the woman, plenty of similar characteristics to those of Alceste, Philinte and Célimène and the rest of the play's cast of characters. In fact, there is one brilliant scene near the finale in which Serge looks over the entire galaxy of people involved in the upcoming production and sees... well, you'll see. This is a splendid few moments brought to fine life by Le Guay, Luchni and the rest of the cast.

If you know Luchini's work -- from Claire's Knee onward, you'll know that there is damn little he can't do. His work here is sterling; the man just gets better and better with age. M. Wilson, below, looks fabulously sexy (as he so often does) but here this is cleverly combined with that ever-so-slightly self-satisfied "star" quality that successful actors sometimes radiate.

Ms Sansa, below, about to be seen here in the USA in a terrific role in Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, makes a lovely foil for our guys. Though it is pretty clear that the whole story was designed to explore actors, acting and Molière, the three leads do yeoman work at turning their "characters" into as close to full-blooded people as possible.

Le Guay might have spared us two falls off bikes and into the canal (though it probably seemed important that this happen to both Gauthier and Serge). Overall, though, the movie is one near-constant joy to see and hear, as it gives one of the world' great playwrights and his work yet another choice moment in the sun.

From Strand Releasing and running 104 minutes, Bicycling with Molière, gets its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, April 23, in New York City at Film Forum. In Los Angeles, look for the film at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 on May 2, and at Laemmle's Town Center on May 9. Elsewhere? Let's hope. Otherwise, watch for it eventually on DVD and maybe Netflix streaming.