Tuesday, July 22, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT: Woody's back with one of his best, starring a magnificent Colin Firth

Logic and reason versus romantic notions of love, faith -- and, yes, even god -- are woven through the work of Woody Allen like threads of thin, bright steel. Now, at what appears close to the close of this comic/tragic filmmaker's career, comes a light-hearted, lovely-to-look-at entertainment that tackles this theme head on. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, in many ways Allen's most mature work (the filmmaker is shown below), is also among his very best.
In no small measure, this is thanks to the stunning central performance by the formidable Colin Firth (shown above -- and below, right, with Simon McBurney). This grand acting job -- among the best to be given by a Brit in some years -- is worth at least two of The King's Speech (a simple-minded movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Mr. Firth inhabits just about every scene in this film, and his performance crackles with energy, specificity and a fierce intelligence. When, at last, some cracks appears in the gentleman's facade, it may break your heart at how hard this character -- a famous magician sporting the Chinese name Wei Ling Soo but here known simply as Stanley -- tries to hide them. Sure, this is light comedy. But Firth, while making it fun, also makes it matter.

If this were all Magic in the Moonlight had on offer, it would more than suffice. But, lord, how much more Allen has in store. The usual game and glittery cast is in place -- including Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater (at left in the penultimate photo) and Jackie Weaver -- with special mention of Emma Stone, (below, right), who pairs beautifully with Firth, as she continues her I-can-do-just-about-anything climb up that stardom stairway.

If several of these actors are under-used (especially Harden and Weaver, below -- right and left, respectively), this simply leaves more screen time for the quartet that counts most: Firth, Stone, McBurney and Ms Atkins (shown at bottom, center), who, playing Stanley's wealthy and very smart aunt, brings equal doses of class and charm to her scenes.

Then there's that scenery. The south of France, Provence, the sea, the sky, the verdant landscape. The time in the late 1920s, and a single glorious scene (below) of a nighttime party at a grand estate puts to shame the whole of the recent and uber-crass Great Gatsby. (Is this Allen's first use of the widescreen format? If not, it's certainly his best use of it.)

The plot? Oh, it's all about debunking a certain spiritualist of the day, which means, of course, seances (below), prescience and the like. Mr. Allen has used "magic" in movies previously, though never with quite the panache of the scene that opens this film.

The dialog here is also the best I've heard in an Allen movie in quite some time: intelligent and clever, but not super-showy. And whether due to the gorgeous locations or continued learning on the filmmaker's part, Magic/Moonlight has a finer visual sensibility than is usual in Woody's work.

What this movie is finally saying, however, and what Mr Allen now may at last understand, is no matter how bright we are -- genius level, even -- there remain things here on earth that we can never know or explain. And that, as it turns out, is just dandy.

Magic in the Moonlight -- from Sony Pictures Classics and running 97 minutes -- opens this Friday, July 25, in Chicago (AMC River East 21), Los Angeles (The Landmark and Arclight Hollywood), New York City (Angelika Film Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and City Cinema 123) and Brooklyn (the BAM Harvey Theater), and Washington DC (Angelika Film Center at Mosaic), with a nationwide rollout to follow over the weeks to come.

Joe Swanberg's HAPPY CHRISTMAS: holiday mumblecore & the screen's most adorable baby

After the enormous success (everything's relative, right?) of his Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg offers up another surprise with his latest effort, a charming little trinket titled HAPPY CHRISTMAS. Catering to ever starrier casts, the filmmaker toplines Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick (making her second appearance in a Swanberg film) -- plus a newcomer who steals the picture right out from under the rest of the cast. That would be Joe's own kid, little Jude Swanberg, a "natural," if I've ever seen one.

The "plot" has Jeff (Swanberg, at right) and wife Kelly (Lynskey) and baby Jude preparing for the holidays, as Jeff's sister Jenny (Kendrick, below) arrives to move in with them. Somewhat irresponsible, Jenny causes problems big and small as she reunites with old friend Carson (Dunham), romances with new friend Kevin (Webber, below), and helps Kelly write her romance novel. That's pretty much it. But the actors are so nicely attuned to each other that watching and listening to them is great fun. And any and every chance we get to observe adorable little Jude proves beyond pleasurable.

Mr. Swanberg has now moved mumblecore into the hipster mainstream; each new his film of his grows more fun. Here, he keeps his m'core bona fides bright and sharp, while adding mainstream sure-fires like children and dogs.

I am not certain that this is quite the way best-selling books are created, but as shown here -- with Lynskey, Kendrick and Dunham doing pro work -- it sure makes for a lot of fun. (Do stay all the way to the end of the end credits for an extra helping.)

Swanberg himself (shown above, right, with Lynskey) is growing into an actor of surprising charm and low-key sex appeal. He carries this movie as easily as do his better-known co-stars, while drawing completely natural performances from every one of them.

Happy Christmas is a little holiday bauble, bright and assured and silly as can be. And very enjoyable.  The film, from Magnolia Pictures and running just 78 minutes, opens this Friday, July 25, in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and here in New York City (and elsewhere) the following Friday, August 1 -- after playing VOD since the end of June. You can view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dan Krauss' THE KILL TEAM asks the question, What kind of soldier is fighting our Mideast war?

Around this point in time, most thinking Americans will have by now asked themselves, What has our country achieved from its 12- and 13-year wars in the Mideast? Followed by the answer, Nothing. And then, of course, much less than nothing, for the negatives just keep piling up. The latest of these, movie-wise, is the new documen-tary THE KILL TEAM, which details how one American family, the father a veteran of Vietnam, his son now serving in Afghanistan, the mother looking on in horror, as the story of a group of American soldiers who murder Afghans for sport first surfaces via the son to his parents, who try to alert the military to no avail. The son's life is threatened by his own platoon members, as well as by man in charge. Eventually, the son -- a whistle blower undergoing the punishment our country reserves for these people -- is prosecuted for murder by the military.

Whatever faith you might have in America as a working democracy will be further shredded by this new documen-tary directed, produced and photographed by Dan Krauss, shown at left. In it we meet that aforementioned family of Adam Winfield, below, the 21-year-old infantryman who blew the whistle -- and paid the price.

We already understand what kind of government lied us into the second of these wars, while dropping the ball thoroughly regarding the first one. The current government continues this ugly farce without ever calling into judgment the earlier administration that ought to have been criminally prosecuted. With this movie, we can now call into question what kind of soldiers are fighting our wars. The answer is not a happy one: bullies, sickos and sheep-like creeps in far too high a number.

If Mr. Krauss' film only gave us the testimony of the Winfield family, this would be enough to grab and move us. Oddly, it is the testimony of some of the other fellows in Adam's platoon (shown below and further below) that rather seal the deal. These fresh-faced kids/killers will soon have your jaw somewhere in the vicinity of your knees.

You won't want to hear and see all this. There will certainly be no rush to theaters to embrace this documentary in the manner that audiences did with, say, Searching for Sugar Man. But the film exists. It is on record, as it were. And this is very important. .

That said, I wish the film were better organized and better made. Even at 79 minutes, with a lot of pregnant pauses as the film moves along, there is not enough content here to fill up the air space. We get repetition when we want more information.

Still, the story staggers, and the idea that there are many more similar situations out there will no doubt occur to viewers. (At right is shown one of our soldiers, grinning, with his Afghan "kill.") How does one take something like this "in" and process it? I don't know. But we need to. And I am grateful that Mr. Krauss, for all the film's shortcoming (honesty is not one of these), has given us the opportunity to try.

I also find myself wondering how Mom and Pop Winfield are managing these days (there they are, above, flanking Adam). Certainly as much as their son, these people are true American heroes. We owe them, and Adam, our gratitude.

The Kill Team, from Oscilloscope Films, opens in New York City this Friday, July 25, at the FSLC's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and in Los Angeles on August 8 at the Landmark NuArt. In the weeks to come it will play another half dozen cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

VODebut (and in theaters soon): Victor Garcia's creep-fest/supernatural thriller, THE DAMNED

If, when you set out to make a genre movie -- a supernatural thriller, say -- you decide to "borrow" some themes and tropes (after all, there's little these days that has not already been done), make sure you're borrowing the good ones. In their new movie, THE DAMNED, screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio and director Victor Garcia have stolen from some genre greats -- The Hidden, for one -- and come up with a surprisingly deft film that begins as a kind of atmospheric creep-fest that, once the various levers are in place, snaps shut into a suspenseful time-is-of-the-essence thriller.

Señor Garcia (shown at right), who hails from Barcelona, and his cinematographer, Alejandro Moreno, certainly know how to set us up: a creepy prologue, then a nightmare and an unsettling family situation, missing passport and flash flood -- all leading finally to that decaying hotel/mansion, a frightened old man and a captive child. The early camerawork, hand-held but not unduly jiggly, plus the color, composition and lighting, ensure that we're quickly in thrall to the super-eerie atmosphere.

For some filmmakers, this would be enough (it's usually not for us moviegoers, however), but Garcia and D'Ovidio give us plenty more, including characters whose rather interesting back stories come to the surface in a manner that provides one of the cleverer twists in this tale of possession by a centuries-old evil.

The characters -- father, daughter, new wife-to-be, news reporter/sister-in-law and her hunky video/sound man -- are also smarter than the usual forget-to-turn-on-the-light variety. They argue and bond and then, of course (some of them, anyway) must die.

The always sexy and usually proactive Peter Facinelli (two photos up and below, right) plays Dad, while Sophia Myles (above, and below, center) essays his upcoming bride, while Nathalia Ramos (shown at bottom) plays the generally angry daughter.

Most of the cast, Spanish or Hispanic all, appear to hail from either Spain or maybe Colombia, where this movie was filmed. Each of them is on the mark, character-wise, and some -- Carolina Guerra as the sister-in-law -- are unusually attractive. Look for a staple of Mexican/Colombian telenovelas, Juan Pablo Gamboa, as the local cop who gets involved with our crew.

The Damned was originally titled Gallows Hill -- a perhaps more unusual name -- yet the generic "Damned," given how you'll feel by the end of the film, works even better. The movie is also plotted in tighter, more-interesting-than-usual fashion for this genre, with its prologue and conclusion firmly connected. This makes the whole of what we've just witnessed sadly satisfying -- if on a very dark level.

From IFC Midnight, The Damned, running a sleek 88 minutes, will be available this coming Friday, July 25, via VOD, and will open in a limited release in theaters on August 29.

The master MASTER BUILDER: Wallace Shawn, André Gregory & Jonathan Demme grace Ibsen

Who'd have imagined this? One of Henrik Ibsen's last plays, The Master Builder -- one that is not that often produced because it's so dense and difficult -- has now been brought to the screen in a modern dress version (translation and setting) that is the best by a very long shot that I have ever seen. Granted, I've only seen it on stage twice (and read it back when I was far too young to appreciate it). Yet this new version surpasses anything I've seen in bringing to light the play's meaning(s), characters and dialog. It is, first frame to last, a riveting experience.

Most of the credit must be laid at the feet of Wallace Shawn, who translated the play -- and so well! -- in this new version, which was first done as legitimate theater under the direction of André Gregory. Shawn then adapted that transla-tion into this screenplay, directed by Jonathan Demme (shown at right). Triple-threat Shawn, shown below, also acts the leading role of the master architect Halvard Solness as though he were born to play it. Perhaps he was. I doubt I shall ever associate another actor so thoroughly with this role.

If you've seen Shawn on stage and/or film, you of course know that he is very short of stature, so playing a "great architect" and a man entire towns look up to would seem a bit of a reach. Not at all. So fiercely intelligent is Shawn, so thoroughly has he immersed himself in the play and the role that he simply owns it. We hang on his every word, and he pays us back with the richest, most encompassing characterization imaginable.

What a horror is Solness! The lives he has destroyed! And yet, Shawn also allows to perceive the greatness that was there, and why this still matters. Though Solness and Shawn rule, the rest of the cast is equally strong, with a special shout-out to an actress I must have seen previously, though here she proves indelible: Lisa Joyce. Ms Joyce plays Hilde Wangel, the young woman (or maybe she's simply an apparition) who comes to visit Solness, telling him of the enormous impression he made on her as a young girl when he visited her town a decade previous. If you want to see a master class in acting, watch Ms Joyce and Shawn in their scenes together. These are sheer, unadulterated, moment-to-moment brilliance.

Mr. Gregory, above, right,  plays Knut Brovik, one of those men whom Solness has effectively destroyed. He's now working on the destruction of Brovik's son, Ragnar -- a fine Jeff Biehl, above, left -- a talented architect who works under Solness' thumb. Gregory's one scene, in which he begs Solness to honor his son's work, is one of the most moving I've encountered in a long while.

Finally, there is Julie Hagerty  in the role of Aline Solness, Halvard's beaten-down wife. Ms Hagerty may be best known for her dizzy comic timing in movies such as Airplane! and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, but her dramatic chops are fully in evidence here. She makes Aline somehow a figure of improbable yet enormous neurasthenic strength.

The always excellent Larry Pine (above, right, as the local doctor) and Emily Cass McDonnell (as Solness' bookkeeper/mistress -- another life waiting to be destroyed) complete this remarkable cast.

A year or two back, when Cindy Kleine's André Gregory: Before and After Dinner opened theatrically, we saw in that documentary scenes of the Master Builder play being rehearsed or maybe even performed. Those scenes looked very good, as I recall. But little could have prepared us for just how good this production really is.

A MASTER BUILDER (can't think why Shawn changed the title from the original The to an A, but I guess he's entitled) opens this Wednesday, July 23, for a two-week run in New York City exclusively at Film Forum. Distributed by Abramorama and running two hours and seven minutes, it will undoubtedly play theaters elsewhere, too. But since Abramorama still does not have a working website (come on, get with the program!), we'll never know....

Saturday, July 19, 2014

DVDebut: Sloan Copeland's WET BEHIND THE EARS tracks the young, naive and unemployed

WET BEHIND THE EARS, the new film from NYC-born Sloan Copeland addresses one of U.S. society's more pressing problems -- what to do with the current unemployed-college-graduate generation -- in a light-hearted but never silly fashion, turning it into a pleasant comedy of latter-day manners that also includes romance, criminality and coming-of-age. Certainly not a great film, it succeeds so well mostly due to its dialog and performan-ces, both of which have intelligence and charm to spare.

Mr. Copeland, shown at left, is responsible for both directing the movie and for writing some of that smart dialog, the rest of which is credited to his adorable and talented star, a young lady named Margaret Keane Williams (on poster, above, and below), who turns the leading lady, a recent college grad named Samantha Phelps, into a naive but endearing ball-of-tinder just waiting for the right match to light her up. The match arrives, all right, but not so quickly and from an unex-pected source that leads to further surprises.

One of the most pleasant of those surprises is the attitude the movie and its moviemakers take toward a certain criminal endeavor involving movies themselves. In hard times, all kinds of corners get cut for reasons of survival, and Wet Behind the Ears-- even if it is basically a coming-of-age rom-com -- is not afraid to recognize this. And to treat it as just another step on the road to adulthood.

With no real work experience, our Samantha is finally forced to take a job at an ice cream parlor, while living with her parents and taking flack from her smart-ass older brother (Michael Giese, above).

Working like this, in the small town where you grew up, means bumping into former high school friends (above) and feeling "put down," but Samantha perseveres and finally connects to an old friend named Dean (Doug Roland, below) now working in the "film business," who becomes a kind of mentor, corrupter, and possible romance.

Meanwhile, best friend Vicky (Jessica Piervicenti, below) -- with whom Samantha was supposed to share an apartment once she found a job -- is having major problems at home, finding a proper roommate...

...and at work with a bitchy boss (Angela Jeanneau, below) who likes to make Vicky miserable for the fun of it. All of this is stirred briskly into the plot's pot for some humor, suspense and general good effect.

Every last performance here is energetic and fun, and with a consistent level of decent writing and direction, the movie proves a very easy watch.

Look for Wet Behind the Ears -- from Cinema Libre Studio, running 88 minutes and an audience favorite at second- and third-tier film festivals -- arriving on DVD for sale or rental, this coming Tuesday, July 22. (In about one month, the film will also be available via streaming/VOD sources such as Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and Cinema Libre On Demand.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Streamable: Roger Ross Williams' GOD LOVES UGANDA gets "A" for content, "C" for execution

If you're GLBT-friendly, you no doubt already know about the African country of Uganda and its ultra-homophobic stance -- legislation on the brink of being passed that would criminalize homosexuality with imprisonment, and repeated acts of it with the death penalty. Of what you might not be so aware is the role that right-wing, fundamentalist Christian church groups from the USA play in bringing this despicable "purge" into practice. All these blond, blue-eyed, smiley-faced young people bringing despair and death to an already much-defiled (remember Idi Amin?) country is one of the nastiest ironies you're likely to see -- among the many of our new millennium).

What filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (shown at right) has given us in his documentary GOD LOVES UGANDA is a look at what's going on inside and outside this little African country that is dovetailing into the most extreme kind of abuse of gays. He presents a few self-styled African experts on the subject, one of whom explains that he can no longer go back to Uganda for fear of reprisals; another is a churchman who lives there, and who has for years been fighting this anti-gay government stance. Here in our own country, Williams tracks down the religious groups that are sending their "missionaries" to Uganda to preach the anti-gay gospel. Out of all of the teachings of Christ Jesus, you might imagine that these religious nuts would choose from important things such as the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (often compared to the Old Testament's Ten Commandments). Instead, these nitwits find tiny references (in which Jesus does not even figure) in order to rabble rouse against this minority.

We meet some of these fresh-faced kids and their still-somewhat fresh-faced leaders (above and below), as well as the old cranks who still seem to rule the "Moral Majority" roost. We spend some time with one older "Christian" woman, who finally admits to having had a lesbian affair way back when -- for which, it seems clear, she's still pining a bit and doing a good deal of penance.

The movie spends about one third of its 83-minute time span pussy-footing around its real subject, while setting us up for the kill. When that finally arrives, we keep circling back and back again to the same people and the same ideas. There's too much repetition here, and not the best organiza-tion--even though the subject at hand is certainly compelling & important.

We keep moving back and forth between Uganda and the U.S., hearing from politicians and religious leaders (pro and con the homosexual-bashing), but not from those Ugandans who are being "converted" to learn what they might think of all this, and why. There are few "shadings" here; everything is pretty much black or white. Which makes God Loves Uganda one of those documentaries preaching to the already converted.

You can catch the film -- which will certainly raise your blood pressure a notch or two -- now via Netflix streaming and elsewhere.