Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Don't-miss Blu-ray/DVDebut: Alan Rickman's elegant, humane look at Louis XIV & friends

A LITTLE CHAOS, the second film to be directed by actor Alan Rickman (he also co-wrote it, along with  Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan) is something of a surprise. While we expect a certain level of elegance and class (often of the dark sort) from Mr. Rickman -- the actor/director/writer is shown below -- what we get here is all that and more. In this perfectly imaginary look at the environment of King Louis XIV of France (the beginning screen roll clues us in that only one of the many things we're about to see is based on fact), we're made privy to the kind of "court life" we've seldom seen on the screen.

There's a kind of humanity, together with a naturalness and innate hesitancy, that makes many of the best scenes of this film (which has a lot of them) ring with a rare combination of spontaneity, believability and charm. As fine a writer and director as Rickman proves, he's still best as an actor. Here, playing the plum role of Louis XIV (below, center), he is at his best, making of this amazing monarch something more passionate, intelligent, inquiring and special that we've yet seen. In fact, Rickman's performance, script and direction call more to mind the brilliant Rossellini film,The Rise of Louis XIV than anything on French court life to come out of Hollywood (including Sofia Coppola's silly and superficial Marie Antoinette).

In one sense, King Louis is but a subsidiary character to the two romantic leads essayed (and well) by Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts (below and on poster, top), playing Sabine and and André, landscape gardeners of the day -- in a time when women were expected to do little more than bear children or (if at court) gossip and wear glamorous attire.

These two characters are hardly conventional romantic hero and heroine. Their initial attraction is less about lust than intellectual stimulation, mutual interest and simple companionship. But as you watch A Little Chaos, be aware of how Rickman's Louis controls the film. It is he who begins it and, in fact, keeps it on track throughout. The movie is more a lovely nod to that rare thing, the (relatively) benign dictator, than any standard romantic nonsense.

It is also about gardening, and what a little of nature's own chaos can add to human design; about the need for some passion in one's life, as well as beauty and security; about identity and a "woman's place" in a time of utter male domination.

Mid-movie there is a simply stunning scene -- quiet, rich and beautifully acted by Rickman and Winslet -- in which deliberately mistaken identity leads to a coming together of class and interests, and which gives us further understanding of the character of Louis and why he was able to rule so long and so (relatively) well.

The movie is worth your time for this scene alone, as well as for another, at the climax, in which a woman is compared to a rose -- in which the writing is simply splendid and the visuals, of the men arrayed on one side, the women on another, speak volumes with nary a word being said. The finale, too, is something to view, as the camera pulls back and back and back, until even the kingdom of the "Sun King" is seen to be something small, after all.

Rickman, his co-writers, crew and cast give all these themes a workout that proves both elegant and humane, simultaneously literate and lovely to look at. (Versailles and French court life simply demand Blu-ray, and the transfer here is generally stunning.)

When this film hit theaters (few and for a mere few days) about six weeks back, reviews ranged from mildly approving to condescendingly smarmy. Most critics, rather than engaging with what was placed in front of them, opted to want something else and so targeted the film for not being that something else. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Keep your eye out for good work from the likes of Stanley Tucci (above), Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle (shown six photos up) and Paula Paul. And if the above review sounds at all promising, give A Little Chaos a shot. It hits the street today, August 4 -- from Focus Features and running 117 minutes -- on Blu-ray and DVD.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

DVDebut: writer/director Rustam Branaman's AA- and Jesus-loving melodrama, ANY DAY

ANY DAY could as easily have been called Any Movie, for all the meaning encased in its pointless title. It is, in a word, mediocre in almost every way. The story -- of a drunken boxer who kills a man in the first scene, goes to prison, and then spends the rest of the movie trying to rise above his reputation -- is mostly by the numbers. As written by Rustam Branaman (he also directed), characterization is minimal: Everything occurs for plot effectiveness rather than deepening our sense of who these people are. The dialog ranges from wooden to adequate, and by the time of the finale, you'll swear the movie is really a commercial for either Christianity or Alcoholics Anonymous (maybe both). Only the acting by a game and well-chosen cast saves the film from a humdrum snooze-fest.

The film's star, Sean Bean (above and below), is shown in just about every one of the movie's scenes. It's his story and his picture. But as good as Bean often is, he can't save this tale because he's been given far too little to work with and so comes across as an actor waiting for his character to coalesce.  (Sometimes you could swear you see him grasping at the straws the screenplay provides, hoping for something more specific on which to hang his motivation and performance.)

As his angry but loving sister, Kate Walsh is as effective as this actress is allowed to be, but it is Nolan Gross, as her young son, who pretty much steals the movie. Gross has got the "Jesus" role (he's uber-loving, strong, centered, and sacrificial), and as written, it's pretty silly. But the young actor rises to the challenge surprisingly well. Love interest is provided by a sensible Eva Longoria (above, right), while the "best pal" role goes to the always-fine Tom Arnold (below, left), as a guy who manages the local pizza shop and gives our hero much-needed employment.

That's about it. If the cast entices, take a chance. You could do worse and undoubtedly have, many times previous. From Anchor Bay Emtertainment and running 99 minutes, Any Day hits the street this coming Tuesday, August 4, for purchase or rental.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

DVD/Blu-ray Debut: Mads Mikkelsen in Kristian Levring's THE SALVATION

Revenge is sour, nasty and jumps back and forth between a couple of agrieved parties in THE SALVATION, the latest movie from Danish director Kristian Levring. One of those parties is a real shitheel of a man, however, so there's certainly no contest regarding for whom you're gonna root. Which also makes for little irony or surprise along the way. This is a kind of High Noon for folk who like a lot of violence and killing, a little sex, and a cast far too good for what's up there on screen. (What's up there actually looks quite good -- in Blu-ray, at least: crack cinematography, editing, sound design, and all the other technical specs.)

Almost any movie starring Mads Mikkelsen is worth a watch, and The Salvation is no exception. There's a lot to like here but litttle to love, as we've seen it all before, though the plot on parade has been cobbled together pretty well (the screenplay is by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen) and is acted even better by a first-rate cast that includes Eva Green as a mute, mysterious good-time gal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as that very naughty bad guy.

After awhile, however, you can easily tell who'll go down and who'll survive. So all the violence and killing, while necessary plot-wise, begins to take its toll on your patience. From IFC Films and running just 92 minutes, the movie hits DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, August 4, for sale and/or rental.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A genuine art film arrives in town: Jem Cohen's visual treat, COUNTING, keeps your eyes glued

TrustMovies took more notes on the new film, COUNTING, than on any movie he's watched in long while. This meant pressing "pause" far too often and/or going back to view what he'd missed. This is indeed an "art film," which will mean that at least half of my audience will probably stop reading right now. But there's no other way to put it. Counting, demanding but rewarding, doesn't compare to much else--maybe anything--I've seen, and you have to be willing to take a chance and simply go with the movie-maker's flow. Yet after Cohen's Museum Hours, most folk who saw that quietly spellbinding film will most likely want to take the chance. (Museum Hours seems practically a mainstream movie next to this new one.

Perhaps the best way to approach Jem Cohen's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) is to think of it as if you're about to look through someone's scrapbook of photos -- in this case mostly moving images. But, no, it's not your Aunt Millie's favorite shots; this is the work of a born photog-rapher. Even his shots of the most mundane activi-ties are elegantly composed.

Divided into 15 chapters of various lengths (I think the lengthiest is the first -- fifteen minutes shot in New York City from 2012 through 2014 -- the film lasts 112 minutes. This is long for a documentary, particularly one without any real narrative drive. And yet, I would not have given up a single one of the fifteen segments during which we travel from the U.S. to Russia to Turkey and back again (most of the time is divided between the USA and Russia).

Along the way we get small doses of politics (very low-key: blink or pay less attention and you may miss these), culture, cats and dogs, some music and a lot of interesting ambient sound. There is very occasional voice-over narration (again, political) but almost no talking, except suddenly, when things take a personal turn as a close relative grows ill. The chapters are numbered and maybe half of these have a somewhat descriptive title. And at the end, there's a wonderful quotation via the late Chris Marker.

What there is mostly is terrific photography, which is a nonstop pleasure to view. The way Cohen looks at things is quite his own -- whether it's a nearly full plastic container of tea left at a Russian curbside, the faces of animals, reflections in a Manhattan window, shafts of light dancing in the frame (this amazing shot puts to shame the million-dollar special effects which which our movies are currently inundated), a decaying building shown against more modern versions, a lovely meal prepared in less-than-ideal circumstances, and one singular image of the reflection of another building caught in a street puddle, the beauty and surprise of which took my breath away.

There is so much here for photography aficionados, but is the film enough of a meal for mere movie buffs? I don't know. It certainly was for me. Coming out of it, I felt as if I knew Mr. Cohen -- along with his views and concerns -- quite a bit better. Maybe, after seeing it, you will, too. I do know that the Muslim call to prayer has never seemed richer or stranger than what is seen and heard here.

From Cinema Guild and running 112 minutes, Counting, after its Brooklyn debut at the BAM Cinemafest, opens theatrically today in New York at the IFC Center.  Other dates and cities? Maybe, once Cinema Guild gets a bit more on the ball and updates its website, we'll find out.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gordon & Neville's BEST OF ENEMIES tracks Buckley & Vidal and those infamous debates

Ah, the 1960s! What fun they were -- till they got kinda nasty. You know: Vietnam and all. The hippies and the Yippies. And the Chicago Democratic Convention riots. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's new documentary, BEST OF ENEMIES, takes us into those bygone times with flair, panache and no lack of intelligence, as the filmmakers concentrate on a series of televised debates between two very well-known intellectuals of their day -- right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr., and left-winger Gore Vidal.

Gordon and Neville (the filmmakers are shown at right, with Gordon on the left) lay out the framework for their film very well, carefully setting the time and place and taking us back into this era with an excellent eye for politics, culture, and especiallly television. ABC, on which the debates were shown, was the third-rated (out of three) network at the time (Fox had yet to exist), and the debates went a long way toward goosing ABC's ratings to a new high in which it beat out both CBS and NBC. The history we get of all this is solid, smart and telling.

We also get a good look at the two men involved, and this is where the documentary particularly shines. Instead of giving us the expected leaning toward the ultra-liberal Vidal (below, right) at the expense of the ultra conservative Buckley (below, left), the filmmakers give both men a decent shake, exposing their strengths as well as their weaknesses. All this leads to what one might indeed see as the climax of the debates (and the film), at whick point Gore calls William a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley bangs back by outting Vidal as a "queer."

A confrontation like this one was "hot shit" in its day, and in fact still has the power to shock us, due to the livid anger we see expressed via both men. By the time it arrives, however, we've gotten to know the guys a little too well. Both were entitled and rich, and while Buckley tried to hide this, Vidal was perfectly happy to admit it, even as he condemned wealth and class in our country. Yet if Buckley proved his ususal sneering and obnoxious self, Vidal, too, seems awfully self-satisfied. One of the points the film brings home is that these two pretty much deserved each other.

Along the way we get some smart commentary from the likes of Frank Rich ("ABC was the Budget Rent-a-Car of the news programs"), Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Ginia Bellafante and Christopher Hitchens (among many others), with all of this edited down into a fast-paced, sleek and entertaining 87 minutes. Old-timers will relish having a re-look at one of the major cultural events of its day, while youngsters may get a taste of what television's past had to offer before those dreary, dreaded reality shows took over.  

From Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies begins its theatrical run this Friday, July 31, in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver, with openings in dozens more cities across the country in the weeks and months to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PAULO COELHO'S BEST STORY is a pretty good one--particularly if you're already a Coelho fan

If the name Paulo Coelho sets your heart ablaze, then this may be the movie for you. If you've never heard of the guy (my spouse had not; for me, his was just a literary name I'd seen bandied about), then who knows what you may think of this odd but oddly compelling movie -- which appears to be based a good deal on the writer's own life. Well, then: Of course it ought to be his best story!

What kind of a tale is PAULO COELHO'S BEST STORY? A pretty good one that spans the now famous author in triplicate: as a very young man, during the middle-age period in which things come together in the fashion he has long desired, and finally as the aged and successful writer looking back on it all.

As written by Carolina Kotscho (on whose original screenplay Reaching for the Moon was based) and directed by Daniel Augusto (shown at left), the film flits back and forth reapeatedly between these time periods, but it does so with enough gusto and smarts that we can easily follow and enjoy things. (These changing time periods needn't have been spelled out for us as often as they are, as the actors playing the various Paulos make the decades immediately clear).

If this story -- which, as they used to say, offers pretty much everything - - is to be believed, Coelho's life was one hell of a rich and varied one. From his would-be suicide early on to careers as an actor/playwright, factory worker, songwriter/singer and more (all leading up to his first and farthest-off desire to become a writer), Coelho bounces and twists like a veritable whirligig whose years manage to encompass everything from various love stories to electroshock treatments (below) and torture under those usual and typical South American dictators.

The torture scene, in fact, is one of the film's most unusual, as this writer's gift for performance and exaggeration comes most helpfully to the fore. The Paulo of the middle years is the one we observe most often, and as played by Júlio Andrade (above and below), this multifaceted actor fearlessly brings the man to confused, compulsive life.

As we bounce around the map from location to location, Coelho comes more clearly into focus, and our questions (how did he first meet the woman he finally chooses as his mate?) are answered at last. The trip is colorful, exciting, surprising, occasionally funny and sometimes moving. If the movie never coa-lesces into greatness, it certainly provides a fascinating trip into the mind and spirit of a man who truly, desperately wanted to become a writer -- and did.

According to the end credits, Coelho is the only writer in history to be translated into more languages more often than Shakespeare. I think I shall have to read something by the guy, if only to determine just why this is.

Meanwhile, Paulo Coelho's Best Story -- from Music Box Films, in Portuguese with English subtitles and running 112 minutes -- opens this Friday, July 31, in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Portland (Oregon). In the weeks to come, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland will also be showing the film. You can see all playdates, with cities and theaters listed, by clicking here, then clicking on the word THEATERS and scrolling down.

The film is also available simultaneously on Amazon Instant Video -- so Coelho fans across the USA should be able to access it double quick. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Daniel Hoesl's SOLDATE JEANNETTE wryly targets today's naughty consumer culture

SOLDATE JEANNETTE translates roughly to Soldier Jane, but don't worry: This movie is no European rendition of G.I. Jane (and it's leading lady is certainly not reminiscent of Demi Moore). No. The more-or-less sub-title of the movie -- a European Film Conspiracy -- might give you a better sense of what is actually going on here. Made on a shoestring (probably a thrift-shop shoestring at that), the movie -- via a very odd screenplay that tells only the minimal but fills in the blanks via the performances -- makes us question the society in which we live and wonder about other ways we might better manage it.

As written and directed by Daniel Hoesl, shown at left, Soldate Jeannette is pretty much an ironic and rather sleek indie film European-style, that wants to indict crass materialism but has a very odd way of doing this. Live the good life it exhorts us; just do it via theft and undermining the bourgeoisie by lying, conning and then skipping town.

Fortunately Herr Hoesl has found a most interesting actress (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, shown below) to essay his leading role, that of an approaching-middle-age woman who is not only down on her luck but seem to actually court this. The various activities she gets up to are too much fun to give away here, but they cover a multitude of sins.

Ms Orsini-Rosenberg proves a large, horsey but not unattractive actress with the ability to hold our eye and mind as she brings her ever-under-the-radar schemes to fruition.

Her character resists the pleas of both family and friends to live according to the current notions of consumer society. She is her own gal at all times -- from her passe clothing choices to the karate class she joins, from her notions of investment advice (and its payoff)  to the interest she takes in a young co-worker (Christina Reichsthaler, above, right) with whom she bonds, once our heroine goes "on the run."
Soldate Jeannette is more a smart, cute provocation than any kind of realistic, believable or serious movie. It's not even really a genre film. But it is fun, and I suspect that it -- and the performance of its leading lady -- will keep you alert and semi-surprised throughout.

Its DVD --  in a good transfer from IndiePix Films and running just 79 minutes, with some movie-making extras included, as well -- is available now for purchase or rental.