Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Fontaine and Luchini are back with GEMMA BOVERY-- and our Emma is all the better for it

That endlessly bored bourgeois young woman, Emma Bovary, returns to the screen this week in the first of two new incarnations. While the second, starring Mia Wasikowska, opens mid-June and is said to hue much closer to the Flaubert novel on which it is based, Anne Fontaine's new comedic twist on the tale has given me and my spouse the most enjoyable time we've had at the movies so far this year.

Fontaine, shown at right, both directed and co-wrote (with Pascal Bonitzer, from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds) the film, and her surprising and engaging stamp is all over this delectable little movie. This is a filmmaker who loves to tease her audience, setting us and our bourgeois notions up for a fall, often in the most hilarious and provocative ways (see Adore, My Worst Nightmare, The Girl from Monaco, and Dry Cleaning for a nicely varied taste of Fontaine's offerings).

Here she takes a number of Flaubert's notions about character, class, women, men, economics and sexuality, and whips them into a frothy, bubbling delight. What's particularly new and wonderful is how she uses the novels (Simmonds' and Flaubert's) to hold a mirror up to some of the differences between British and French society.

In Fontaine's tale Madame Bovary becomes Gemma Bovery (note the change of an "a" to "e"), an English lass recently married to a man who restores antiques (how nice to see Jason Flemyng, above, in a big, solid role again), with the two of them now coming to live in the charming French countryside.

As Gemma, British actress Gemma Arterton (above) does yet another bang-up job in a role that seems absolutely made for her. From St. Trinian's through Tamara Drewe to the more recent Byzantium and The Voices, this fine, young and very beautiful actress keeps using her major skills and looks in increasingly diverse roles. This, along with Tamara Drewe, may be her best performances to date. The actress seems looser, freer, yet much more complex here than most of her roles have so far allowed.

Ms Fontaine's other ace-in-the-hole, as often of late, is the performance of her ex-main-squeeze, Fabrice Luchini, in the film's actual leading role. Luchini plays a local baker so smitten with Flaubert's masterpiece that he finds himself falling in love with Gemma, even as he himself becomes a kind of Bovary character --bored with his own provincial life and struggling to latch on something better.

One of the France's finest actors and always a joy to watch, I would say that Luchini outdoes himself here -- except that you could say that about every one of his performances, from Claire's Knee onwards to the more recent Paris, The Women on the Sixth Floor, In the House and Bicycling With Moliere. To name but a few.

As bubbly, fun and funny as the film consistently is, there of course remains that dark side (as there always is in a Fontaine film, as well as -- in spades -- the original Flaubert). We know from the beginning that Gemma is deceased. How and why, however, remain a mystery that is solved -- wonderfully, wackily, sadly, ironically -- only at the finale.

Meantime, we get a supporting cast made up of some terrific performers, chosen and directed with superb flair and finesse. Look for Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider (above, left), Edith Scob and Mel Raido, each of whom does a fine job of bringing to life, often with very little screen time, the character in question.

Lots of ideas scatter and fly from the screen as the movie unfurls, chief amongst them, perhaps, is that of woman as sacrificial lamb to male desire. But don't let me turn you off with too much weighty theme, for that is but an added inducement  in a film that has everything: romance, sex, intelligence, charm, humor and sublime deftness. Ms Fontaine maintains a tone here -- light, satiric, tricky and consistently surprising -- that could hardly be bettered.

Gemma Bovery, from Music Box Films and running a sleek 99 minutes, open this Friday, May 29. In New York City, you'll find it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema. In Los Angeles, look for it at The Landmark in West L.A, as well as at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.  Soon it will be playing all around the country. Click here and scroll down to see currently scheduled playdates, with cities and  theaters.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Daniel Peddle's SUNSET EDGE: Don't let this precious narrative debut get lost in the shuffle

Another of those small, no-budget indie films likely to appear in theaters and then disappear before film buffs get the chance to view it, SUNSET EDGE -- the first narrative venture from Daniel Peddle, who has also made a couple of well-received-if-little-seen documentaries -- heralds the debut of someone I'd call a born filmmaker. Nowhere near perfect in terms of a story that attempts to fuse dream and reality, it nonetheless marks a writer/director (Peddle) and cameraman/editor (Karim López) cons-tantly alert to color & space, objects & mood, motion & stasis.

Because the movie Misters Peddle (shown at left) and López (shown below) have made is about a group of teenagers spending a day in an abandoned trailer park, and is also being publicized as a kind of thriller complete with Hitchcockian overtones, you might expect something quite different from what you get. Yet I think this difference ought to be apparent from the film's first few moments. While the initial shot -- full of promise and perhaps something more -- together with the first words we hear (one character telling another, "I don't think you should do it") indicate that
something may be (or go) wrong, because the teens we see and hear seem so real and actually rather likeable, and the camera-work so fluid and aware -- of nature, of humanity, of connection -- it is difficult to imagine some-thing too awful coming up. Anything can happen, of course, but given these kids and their decent and interesting behavior, would we want it to?

Our quartet (above) -- picnicking on the asphalt with Cheetos and a very weird drink -- kibbitz and carry on, with a bit of jealousy developing between boy and girl, then go their more-or-less separate ways for a time, which leads up to some problems: a missing cell phone, getting lost in the woods, and a possible interloper.

Then suddenly we're introduced to a whole new set of characters, which brings us to the "other" of this tale -- the interloper, or maybe the immigrant. Initially I imagined this character (richly brought to life by newcomer Gilberto Padilla, above) to be a Native American, but instead, it seems his roots are in Mexico. Set in North Carolina, from where I'm assuming the director hails, the film is so full of a sense of place you can practically touch and smell the locale.

Over the course of the movie we see youth and age, past and present and a good deal of memory-maybe-fantasy at work. The sound design and musical score -- both by Ian Hatton -- prove distinctive and lovely, adding immeasurably to the film's success.

As does the first-rate cast of novices chosen to act out the roles. Chief among these, and certainly the best (along with Padilla) of the actors is a lovely young woman named Haley Anne McKnight (two photos above). Her boyfriend is played by William Dickerson (above), and the remaining members of the quartet by Jacob Kristian Ingle (below)

and Blaine Edward Pugh (below). All of them are acquainted in real life, and they are able to bring this friendship to excellent and very believable ends on film -- or video, most likely, in this particular no-budget endeavor.

Also in the cast are three more impressive performers: Alex-Padilla-Maya as the younger version of our "other," Jack Horn (shown at bottom) as his father, and Lilianne Gillenwater (below) as the old woman we see in that transfixing opening shot, who proves to be all kinds of things to this movie.

Memory -- along with a bit of a ghost story -- plays at least as important a place in this film as does present-time action. The movie takes places in what seems like four distinct chapters, with the last connecting to the first in a way that makes dream and fantasy top reality. But whose dream is this? The characters'? Ours? Obviously, it is that of the filmmaker. The beauty and surprise of Sunset Edge reside in how remarkably he has instilled his dream into us. Mr. Peddle and his cast and crew are clearly a group from whom we'll expect more.

The movie, released by CAVU Pictures and running just 83 minutes, opens this Friday, May 29, in New York City (at the Cinema Village), in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Playhouse 7, and in Irvine at Regal's Westpark 8.

Friday, May 22, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD? Another case of misplaced, if not imbecilic, critical hosannas

If you're a fan of nearly non-stop action, you'll probably go for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the third in a fortunately not-so-swift (the last one hit theaters in 1981) series of post-apocalyptic action movies about a taciturn non-hero who keeps saving the day. The first two films starred a much younger Mel Gibson; the mantle has now passed to Tom Hardy. The director of all three is Australian George Miller, whose best work is the under-rated but simply terrific Babe: Pig in the City.

Garnering a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, most of the plaudits seem to come from critics who are impressed that filmmaker Miller didn't go the constant CGI/green-screen route but used "reality" in his filming. Yeah, right. There's plenty of CGI here, folk, so don't imagine you're going to see amazing stunt work above all else. What you do see is lots of action and scenes of it that go on and on and on. They're impressive. For awhile. Mr. Hardy, above (and still seemingly wearing that mouthpiece from The Dark Knight Rises), has a nice face. So what's the point in keeping it covered, as it is through about half of this film? In any case, Hardy proves properly gruff with, of course, the required, caring interior.

Along for the ride -- she initiates it, in fact -- is Charlize Theron, above, complete with CGI-effected robotic wrist and hand, along with a flock of young ladies, below, who appear to be brides of

the weird-assed (and faced), power-mad -- gosh, aren't they all? -- dictator, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne (below), who gets to wear his own rather nonsensical facial mask throughout the film.

Tagging along, off and on, and with a very off-and-on sense of loyalty is a bizarre character played surprisingly well by Nicholas Hoult, below, who -- though covered in white paint -- does not have to wear any mask and thus provides the film's most compelling performance. In thrall to his crazy leader, as seem to be the entire populace, Mr. Hoult makes us care a bit about who he is what he is going through, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the film.

The problem here, for viewers who insists on more than mere action, is that the world depicted seems utterly free of  logic. How do these people we spend our two hours with (and the movie is at lest 30 minutes too long: the earlier Mad Maxes clocked in at around 90 minutes) manage to exist? We never see them eating (save a moment featuring a small surprise beetle), and only once does our hero take a drink of water. Mother's milk appears to be the meal of choice -- for the bad guys, at least -- but it that really enough to fully nourish a grown man?

The movie spends its first two thirds with the good guys running away from the bad guys toward some "greener" spot called home. The last third has them running back again toward their original and ghastly location, followed once more by the bad guys. That's the plot. The climactic chase, for all its ferocious action and death, is barely believable, while the result of that chase and the requisite toppling-of-the-villain is so ridiculously simple and easy as to approach camp.

Let me be clear: The movie isn't horrible; it's simply stunted. Sure, the action is well-executed, but a good movie, just like a good life, requires something more. Mad Max: Fury Road -- a B-movie raised, thanks to its multi-million-dollar budget, to something beyond its grasp -- arrived to surprisingly small box-office, considering its hype. I would expect a steep decline in its second week grosses, as well, once word-of-mouth sets in (the cinema we frequented had maybe a dozen in attendance at a late afternoon showing), so if you plan to see the film in theaters, better do it soon. Or wait for the Blu-ray/DVD.

Oh, yes: one more thing. Here's another 3D movie being shown in theaters that don't bother to get the projection right (we saw it at AMC's Kips Bay in NYC). Consequently the 3D looked dark and muddy throughout. And don't use the "Yes-but-this-is-post-apocalyptic" excuse, either, since most the movie takes place in the bright and sunny desert. Theaters are charging us more for 3D (which did not used to be the case), while giving us a third-rate viewing experience: One more reason why box-office grosses continues to decline, even as admission prices go up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Alonso Ruizpalacios' fluid, energized, gorgeous GÜEROS -- new and special from darkest Mexico

One of the great pleasures of viewing all these small independent, foreign and documentary films is that, sitting yourself down in a Manhattan screening room and awaiting what's about to be shown -- particularly when it's a first full-lengther from a director of whom you've not heard -- you just never know what you're going to get. When what you get is as bracing and original as GÜEROS, the new film directed and co-written (with Gibrán Portela) by Alonso Ruizpalacios, you want to stomp and shout and maybe write a review like the following.

What Señor Ruizpalacios has accomplished is genuinely special, an explosion of utterly crack black-and-white cinematography that brings to life a strange and marvelous, yet in some ways ordinary story melding social issues, politics, coming-of-age, revolution, love and sex -- everything, in fact, that you might expect from a modern-day Mexican movie except kidnapping, torture and murder. (There is one scene that seems to presage some of this, but fortunately we're whisked away to better things.)

I have no idea where or how Ruizpalacios came up with the germ of this idea and then brought it all to fruition. Wherever and however, it has turned out wonderfully well. From the opening that begins with a definition of the title word and then a shot of what looks like maybe some eggs to a rooftop endeavor that goes very wrong to incident after incident that leap and spring and roll over one another until a kind of mosaic of an entire society comes into focus -- this is one hell of a rich, energetic and beautiful experience.

For some of us more jaded reviewers, in fact, Güeros is not unlike discovering movies for the first time. Comparisons have been made to the French New Wave. Believe me, they're apt. Ruizpalacios mixes politics, class, and humanity's striving in a unique way. At times, his film will seem like a kind of not-just-waiting-but-actively-searching for Godot -- and then, yes, actually finding him!

The biggest difference between this film and the 60s New Wave is probably society itself, which has now moved on, in an increasingly fast and furious manner, from life as it was then to the utter craziness of now. (Or at least the Mexican student riots of 1999, during which the film is set.) Movies have kept up with these changes, of course, and occasionally perhaps surpassed them, as I think Ruizpalacios' film is doing. One of the beauties of this movie is how what you initially imagine the film will be about keeps growing, changing and widening its scope into something much richer and more important. Like life itself.

For a long while, the movie appears to be about boys and young men scamming and/or just having fun. Then a musical performer/idol of the boys enters the picture, followed by a politically active girlfriend  -- all of which which takes the film into new and more expansive realms. How the filmmaker ties all this together, while leaving much of it still open-ended, is what makes Güeros the wondrous accomplishment that it finally becomes.

The beautiful, lustrous black-and-white cinematography by Damián García (El Infierno) is a huge asset here, as are the fine performances, real enough to have you sometimes imagine that you're watching a documentary. The well-chosen cast includes a quartet of players, the best-known of whom is the uber-charismatic Tenoch Huerta (above, left, and at bottom, of Deficit, Casi Divas, Get the Gringo and Sin Nombre), who here has perhaps his best role yet as the older brother. Huerta has that kind of James Dean magnetism that captures us by never pushing and, in fact, playing hard-to-get.

Younger brother is played by Sebastián Aguirre (above and on poster, top), who nicely combines the anger of adolescence with the need to learn and grow. He easily carries us -- -and the movie -- via this learning experience. Best friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), though by necessity the character who must fade into the background, fades quite well, while Ilse Salas, below, who has the single major woman's role, connects the movie to both sexuality and politics with enormous energy and spirit.

Constantly pulsating with life and ideas, Güeros might prove to be such an arthouse find, if not an out-and-out crowd-pleaser, that Señor Ruizpalacios may never again come up with anything quite so spectacular. But I'll bet you'll want to be sitting in the theater when his next film appears.

From Kino Lorber, in Spanish with English subtitles and running 106 minutes, the film opens tomorrow, May 20, in New York City at Film Forum. In the weeks and months to come, it will open in Santa Barabara, Montreal, Denver, Houston and Victoria, BC. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Streaming tip: Don't miss the BBC's David Blair/ Jimmy McGovern, BAFTA-nominated COMMON

One of those "little" films (made for British television) that could easily escape your notice, COMMON, happens to star two great-but-lesser-known-than-Helen-Mirren British actresses -- Jodhi May and Susan Lynch -- who are always worth watching. Further, the film also tackles an important social/ political/class issue, that of prosecuting possible criminals under the British legal process known as Joint Enterprise, which, while useful in some situations (one of which the film makes quite clear), can also be used to punish the innocent in ways terrible and hugely unjust.

The writer, noted British scribe Jimmy McGovern (shown at left, of Cracker, Priest, and Go Now), and director David Blair have created a swift, smart, extremely moving tale of a family trapped in a Joint Enterprise situation -- how this comes about and what happens as a result. Fortunately for us viewers, McGovern and Blair are as interested in the characters and their situations as they are in righting a social/legal wrong, and so the movie works on a number of levels.

The situation, into which we are immediately thrust, is this: a young man is behind the wheel of a car waiting for his pals to emerge from a pizza shop. When they do -- rushing and screaming for him to drive away -- it soon becomes clear that they were not there for any pizza.

What has happened was completely unexpected so far as our innocent lad Johnjo (Nico Mirallegro, above) is concerned. The unfairness of what happens to him -- especially set against what happens to some of the other young men involved -- in the course of this riveting and exceedingly well-written, -acted and -directed film will set your teeth on edge. Which of course is the point. Mr. McGovern is noted for edgy teeth-setting, which drives certain segments of British society a bit mad (here are two opposing views of the film from sources right and left).

TrustMovies found the film to be much less preachy about its "theme" and much more about what loss and despair can do to entire families. The two actresses -- May (above, second from left) and Lynch (shown below)-- portray respectively, the mother of the innocent driver and the mother of the victim of the crime, a young man who was not involved in any way except as bystander menaced by the most thuggish and crazy of the bunch (a very scary and believable Andrew Ellis).

Ms Lynch, always an unfussy, direct actress, no matter how "showy" the role might be, provides her scenes of grief with such immediacy and sorrow that they will move you almost beyond belief. And Ms May, slowly coming to realize what has happened and why, proves as genuine and specific as any actress you can name. These women are the moral center of the movie; they understand what to do and why it must be done better and sooner than any of the men.

As the missing father of the family, Daniel Mays, above, brings a fine mix of guilt, shame and honesty to the proceedings, and his character becomes more and more important as the movie moves along.

Concerning "joint enterprise," and as befits so many judicial processes, the film seems less about the thing itself than how that process is applied toward justice. The movie's most telling moment comes in a scene in which it is shown that our boy Johnjo was simply too honest and direct with his confession. Had he gotten a lawyer and bargained, as does another character in the film, things might have turned out quite differently. What a lesson is here proclaimed.

There must be a way in which the concept of joint enterprise can be used to the benefit of real justice, rather than in the all-or-nothing manner we're shown here. It's up to the Brits to figure out how. In the supporting cast, everyone proves top-notch, with a surprise appearance by Michael Gambon (above) as the sitting judge in the case.

Meanwhile, catch this must-see movie -- from BBC LA Productions -- while it's available to stream via Netflix, Amazon, and maybe elsewhere.