Wednesday, November 25, 2015

With BROOKLYN, John Crowley and Nick Hornby come close to touching pure movie joy

BROOKLYN will knock your socks off. But so quietly and gently that you'll imagine you're still wearing them. It is difficult to explain how and why this movie is so special, but allow me to try.

First off, in the midst of our horrific modern world -- ISIS murderers abroad and hate-filled, stupid Republican Presidential "front-runners" funded by corporations and the wealthy bent on turning us all into minimum-wage slaves here at home -- Brooklyn exists as a reminder of an earlier, lost time. So, yes, this is nostalgia. But it's nostalgia done right, in which actions have consequences and the themes of family, homeland, coming-of-age, and the meaning of autonomy are treated seriously.

Secondly, in their actress/star, Saoirse Ronan (shown on poster, top; above, right; and variously, below), director John Crowley (at right) and screenwriter Nick Hornby have a winner and the strongest contender I have seen so far for the Best Actress "Oscar." Ms Ronan -- never a showy actress and, while quite attractive, no great beauty, either -- possesses the ability to display the kind of cool and collected inner strength that most actors would give up a year of Botox to be able to understand and use. But there it is in full view here -- in her speech, movement, face -- displayed in ways that none but the finest actors can muster. In every role -- from I Could Never Be Your Woman and Atonement through The Way BackHanna and Violet & Daisy to the more recent The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ronan shines differently and brightly. Here, at last, she becomes the movie's spine.

Fortunately, this actress is surrounded by other fine performers that bring fully to life a past time and place, together with the people who inhabited it. The tale is of a young woman in Ireland smack at the moment of mid-last century, with seemingly no real opportunities ahead of her. Consequently, her sister and her local parish priest arrange for her emigration to America -- to Brooklyn, where most of the Irish seem to have ended up.

On the way there. Eilis (that is her name) endures a seasick sea voyage (above), and once she arrives, she is homesick to near distraction and feels greatly out of place. But as helped by a kindly local priest (a nice change of pace for Jim Broadbent), employed at a posh department store, and stationed in a rooming house for young women run by a delightful Julie Walters (below, center), our girl begins to blossom, if just a bit. (The scenes around the dinner table at that rooming house are so wonderfully real, alert and on-the-mark that you may feel you've stumbled into a legitimate theater piece and are suddenly watching live actors.)

Then love enters the picture -- personified by a young Italian kid who likes Irish girls. As played to perfection by Emory Cohen (below), who brings such an unusual combination of sweet masculinity and savvy decency to his role, this performance becomes an indelible portrait of first love.

How director Crowley -- who, by the way, has so far given us nothing but excellent, under-seen, independent films (Intermission, Boy A, Is Anybody There? and Closed Circuit) -- brings all this to fruition is key. He never pushes, but instead allows Hornby's excellent, full-of-specifics screenplay to keep things on track by making every moment count. It would seem that Crowley has at last connected with a subject that will resonate hugely with the masses -- and then done that subject full justice.

The odd thing about Brooklyn is that so much works out so well for our heroine that one might wonder along the way just where the "conflict" will come from. Interestingly, it arrives directly from Eilis herself as she returns to Ireland to visit mom and finds herself more than a little attracted to her former home and its people.

Holding the film together is Ms Ronan, who simply gleams with hope and promise. And strength. This actress will pull you into her world like nothing you'll have seen, then hold you in her strong, clear gaze until you imagine that, yes, anything is possible, after all. And you may feel, as though for the first time (certainly at the movies after a very long dry spell) real, radiant joy for characters you have come to love.

Brooklyn, from Fox Searchlight and running 111 minutes, opens today in South Florida and elsewhere. Click here, then scroll down and click on THEATER LISTINGS to find a theater near you in just about any state on the map. Your friends are probably already telling you that this is the movie to see. If not yet, they soon will be.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jay Roach's TRUMBO proves star-studded, knockout entertainment. History and reality? Maybe not...

Even being aware of its superb cast of first-rate performers, TrustMovies found himself totally unprepared for how extraordinarily entertaining the new bio-pic TRUMBO turns out to be. Although heralded as Oscar bait, the movie may actually be too much fun to qualify for that, despite some dead-on turns from ace actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren and John Goodman (among many others -- not to mention Bryan Cranston's lovely job in the title role). For those of us who were alive at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, or for any dyed-in-the-wool movie buffs, Trumbo is simply a must-see. For any others seeking star-studded entertainment, I don't think you can go far wrong.

Yeah, but what about sticking to history and the facts at hand? I'm not so sure as to that part -- having seen some years back the fine documentary about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, also titled Trumbo, which was written by Christopher Trumbo, the (now late) son of the famous screen scribe. In that one, we learned a lot more (about the family's exile in Mexico, for instance) and still had a pretty entertaining time. In this new narrative version, directed by Jay Roach (shown at right), with a screenplay by John McNamara from the book by Bruce Cook, we learn a few things -- though nothing that a follower of the blacklist and those particularly nasty times wouldn't already know.

What we get, however, and what makes this movie such a delight, is some superb casting that combines the right "look" with the talent necessary to create a cast of characters right out of both central casting and, seemingly, life itself. This is more than mere stunt because each performer (that's Ms Mirren as Hedda Hopper, above, left, and Mr. Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson. below, right).

These are names that ring a bell, but interestingly enough one of the most moving and odd characters in this movie is a much lesser known screenwriter (actually a composite character made up of traits of several Jewish members of the Hollywood Ten), whose situation provides grist for the filmmaker's mill. That would be the blacklisted screenwriter, played quite beautifully by Louis C.K. (above, left), who becomes the most important of the many satellite characters revolving around Trumbo. Mr. C.K. imbues this man with as much humanity -- fear, fight, acceptance, love -- as any supporting performance this year. Academy: take note.

Around halfway along we meet Frank King, the B-moviemaker who gave Trumbo a second chance. As played by an all-stops-out John Goodman (above), this character -- and his baseball bat -- just about walk away with the film.

By the time, we get to the likes of the Spartacus period and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman, above) and then to Exodus and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, below), we've arrived in, well, movie heaven. Juicy doesn't begin to describe the dribbling delights of all this Hollywoodland fun.

If that fine actress Diane Lane (below, with Cranston) seems a bit wasted as Trumbo's ever-faithful, ever-lasting wife, Cleo, well, that's small price to pay to the rest of this notable "entertainment." In the film's final major speech by Trumbo, we also hear an interesting "take" on the blacklist -- which will probably irk both left- and right-wingers. And stick around for the newsreel clips during the end credits: They're quite something, too.

From Bleecker Street and running 124 (not one of them boring) minutes, Trumbo opens here in South Florida and elsewhere throughout the USA as part of your Thanksgiving pleasures, tomorrow, Wednesday, November 25. Click here and scroll down to find a theater near you.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ivano de Matteo's screen version of Herman Koch's popular novel, THE DINNER, hits DVD

I hadn't read the novel (by Herman Koch) on which the award-winning Italian film, THE DINNER, was based. My spouse had, however, and he pronounced it a very fine film, as good as, though somewhat different from, that novel. The movie's tag line -- How far would you go to protect your children? -- should quickly bring to mind another Italian movie that hit US screens early this year: Human Capital. Both are, in their way, scathing critiques of Italian life today, though "Dinner" has the edge on "Capital" in some interesting ways.

First off, the film's director and co-adaptor (with Valentina Ferlan), Ivano de Matteo (shown at left), seems less interested in singling out for shame and reprisal the Italian upper classes and bourgeoisie than he is in offering up the human condition in all its complexity: love, anger, hypocrisy and occasionally even some self-examination.

The film begins with an act of road rage involving two drivers and one of their children and ends with a rather different sort of rage on a road. In between we meet those involved in that initial incident, as well as an extended family of two generations who find themselves also involved, from very different angles, in the results of that road rage. Before long, the family is also enmeshed in another, even darker and more unsettling incident that proves a much stranger example of, well, road rage again.

One of the strengths of this film is that it does not go where you expect. and when it goes elsewhere, it does so quite honestly and believably. It's a short film, too -- only 92 minutes -- yet in that time de Matteo and Ferlan lay their groundwork so well that there is no way we can say that the characters we are left with have not evolved from the characters we've been watching all along.

Those characters include two brothers, a highly-paid lawyer played by Alessandro Gassman (two photos up) and a pediatric surgeon (Luigi Lo Cascio, just above)

and their respective wives, Barbora Bobulova (below) and Giovanna Mezzogiorno (above). You will find your sympathies moving back and forth, but slowly, as character further reveals itself, goosed ever onward by the situation conceived by Koch in his novel and brought to fine life by the filmmaker.

Those children who (may or may not) need protecting are played all too believably by Jacopo Olmo Antinori (below, left) and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (below, right) and will make many of us parents want to take a second look at our own children, whom we may not know as well as we might imagine. The film will also make us take another look in the mirror and wonder what we would do under the circumstances found here.

This is the film's major achievement. It does not judge. It simply unveils. And it does this spectacularly well, with unusual economy and precision. The finale, in fact, is a case study in how little you need to show to make clear your point. The Dinner, distributed by Film Movement, arrives on DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, November 24. As with many of Film Movement's releases, the film will soon be available digitally as well, as it debuts on Netflix as of December 23.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

THE BAT takes us back to the 1950s mystery movie genre--but unfortunately, pretty batly

Well, it has Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead in in leading roles among the ensemble cast, but it also boasts a tale by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a popular mystery writer of the early-to-mid 20th Century, whose work has not stood the test of time. The story, based on a play Rinehart co-wrote in 1920, is by far the weakest and silliest thing in the film, though it gets some competition now and again from the dialog and performances, most of which seem to hover just this side of camp.

Moorehead (shown at extreme right) and Price (near right), both of whom certainly knew how to tease camp into entertaining fun, do their thing here, with Moorehead in particular providing the movie a sense of professionalism that never wavers. The plot somewhat clunkily combines bank fraud and embezelment with a serial killer preying on women (and when necessary, men) in that typical mystery setting of the old, dark house. The identity of the killer, known as The Bat, is supposedly the hook that audiences will bite, but that identity, after awhile, at least, is fairly obvious, despite the scattered red herrings along the way.

Some good fun is also provided by Lenita Lane as Moorhead's maid/cook/companion. (Ms Lane was married to the film's writer/director, Crane Wilbur.) It is also some dumb fun to see what passed for B-movie, would-be mainstream entertainment toward the end of the 50s (this one's from 1959), so if you're inclined, you can obtain The Bat via The Film Detective, running only 80 minutes but still a little long (in the tooth, too). Click here and then here to learn how.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Mexico and drugs--again--in Bernardo Ruiz's rather stock doc, KINGDOM OF SHADOWS

Anyone who has followed the seemingly eternal tale of this country's "war on drugs," and the connections provided by our own government (remember Iran-Contra?), drug runners, and dirty politicians and dirty police on both sides of the border will, I suspect, find little new or particularly riveting about the documentary that opened today, KINGDOM OF SHADOWS, written and directed by Bernardo Ruiz. This year, especially, there have a number of documen-taries and narrative films on the subject, with plenty more having reached us in past years.

Having seen many of these recent movies myself, I wasn't certain what to expect from Kingdom of Shadows, save for some new ideas, new information, and maybe other ways to look at the entire situation, in which our neighbor to the south, the forever drug-and-violence-addled Mexico, is front and center once again. Instead what I got was mostly more of the same, without any of it adding to the information I either already knew or could easily figure out. Filmmaker Ruiz, shown at left, has cobbled together stories from three participants: an old-time drug dealer (now, it seems, retired), a younger ex-dealer who becomes an undercover drug enforcement agent for the USA, and a woman whose job it is to find links to the "disappeared," folk of all ages and both sexes who have been lost and most likely murdered due to their involvement in the drug trade or simply to their being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Don Henry Ford, Jr. (above), tells us what it was like in times past ("Back in the day, nobody carried a gun"), while Oscar Hagelsieb (below) tells his story, which includes how the violence so epidemic today began to spread from the narco-involved to those who were not. We hear about corrupt police (surprise!) and maybe the most interesting tidbit: How the Mexican community longs for the days when there was just one strong drug cartel in charge of it all. We also learn how the new(er) police force, the Fuerza Civil, is seen as a more trustworthy alternative. Really? OK.

The third wheel is Sister Consuelo Morales, below, who appears to have given up her life to tend to the needs of the families of those "disappeared." Her story (and the little we learn of those she tries to help) proves the saddest. But because none of these three stories connect in any way other than being obviously drug-related, there is little "build" to the movie. We got more involved in those "disappeared" in that very good Mexican soap opera of a few years back, Casi Divas.

Also interviewed is a member of Human Rights Watch, and we see, particularly at the finale, face after face of the grieving family members of those who've gone missing. Mexico seems to me even more troubled and deeper in despair than at anytime I can recall. Or maybe it's just that the Internet has brought down so many barriers that used to disguise how countries routinely lie about everything.

A perfectly acceptable, entry-level look at the "drug war" and its consequences, Kingdom of Shadows -- from Participant Media and running just 74 minutes -- opened in theaters today, as well as being available via VOD.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

France's submission for the Oscar is... Turkish! Deniz Gamze Ergüven's exhilarating MUSTANG

What are the ways out of (or around) the forced marriage by her fundamentalist family of a young Muslim girl to a man she has no interest in or connection to? We learn a few of these in the new movie MUSTANG, and they are, for the most part, utterly crap alternatives -- one worse than the next. And considering that the film has, as its collective heroine, five sisters, all of marriageable age, Mustang proves a treasure trove of anti-fundamentalist messaging. It is also, despite its sometimes sorrowful events, an absolutely thrilling, exhilarating and often joyful experience.

Written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (shown at left) -- a cosmopolitan young filmmaker born in Turkey and educated in France, South Africa and the USA -- the movie offers yet again a Turkish tale of the evils of fundamentalism and patriarchy, particularly where the female of the species is concerned. We've seen a number of these movies with Turkish settings, from Bliss and The Edge of Heaven to the BFLF Oscar entry, When We Leave and especially last year's surprise The WatchTower. None, however, has had quite the bracing effect of bringing its theme to life as does Ms  Ergüven's effort.

I suspect this is because the filmmaker concentrates as much on the vitality of her heroines as she does on their plight. Consequently, we are immediately charmed and continue to react to the girls' bravery and spunk, despite some of the awful things that will happen to them.

This becomes a fine balancing act, and Ergüven pulls it off rather spectacularly. She has terrific help from the young actress, Günes Sensoy, who in her film debut, proves remarkably gifted at creating a character named Lale (above), who turns out to be part "Annie" and part "Nancy Drew" but mostly just a decent and believable kid -- raised, as were her sisters, by her grandmother -- who suddenly sees her life turned upside down by an angry fundamentalist uncle with designs, I would guess, on the dowries these five attractive sisters will fetch.

The movie begins with a high-spirited scene at the beach as school lets out and the girls bid goodbye to a beloved teacher, after which the sisters and a few of the young boys go for a frolic in the sea. From there it's all down-hill, as the fundamentalism of the male elder and, yes, the enabling women of the family and town, crush our girls. Yet the spiral is leavened with near-constant push-back from the younger set. The form this takes ranges from talk-back humor to out-and-out disobedience.

There is a price to pay, of course, and it comes as one after another of the sisters is married off. To whom and how makes for fascinating viewing, as do the various ways in which the sisters do or don't avoid the worst. What actually is the worst becomes the movie's unsettling shock and surprise.

Toward the finale, Mustang (whose title is never spelled out, but you'll readily understand to what it refers) turns into a kind of thrilling life-and-death struggle: a thriller, a mystery, a chase-and-action movie -- all without lessening or slighting its theme and message.

The film is France's submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year, and despite its seeming much more Turkish than French, it is indeed a co-production of France, Turkey, Qatar and Germany. Under any label, it's a damned good film.

Mustang -- from the Cohen Media Group, in Turkish with English subtitles and running 97 minutes -- opens this Friday, November 20, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angels at Laemmle's Royal. Over the weeks to come it will appear in another dozen cities (including, on January 15, the Living Room Theater here in Boca Raton and the Tower Theater and Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami). Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Alanté Kavaïté's THE SUMMER OF SANGAILE: Lithuania's entry into this year's Oscar sweeps

TrustMovies can't quite imagine what some of the older members of the Academy will make of the hot lesbian love scenes in THE SUM-MER OF SANGAILE, the official Lithuanian entry into the upcoming Best Foreign Language Film contention. Whatever reaction those scenes produce, I can't help but think that members will be greatly impressed with the cinematic beauty and quiet, tender artfulness of this unusual movie. Its plot may be a mere wisp, involving the coming-of-age of its fragile heroine, yet the film's visuals -- beginning to end -- prove stunning.

That the film, written and directed by Alanté Kavaïté (shown at right), won the Sundance Film festival award for directing (world cinema -- dramatic) should give some indication of how surprising those visuals are. Beginning with our heroine, Sangaile (the lovely Julija Steponaityte, below), entranced by the amazing-if-frightening work of a local stunt pilot during his air show, the film almost immediately cuts to our other protagonist, Auste (Aiste Dirziute), also a looker but one whose true beauty emerges more slowly as the film progresses.

Auste (below), hugely attracted to Sangaile, sets about meeting and seducing the slightly younger girl, and she make no bones about any of this. A bright, creative young woman, gifted in fashion and photography (both the clothes and the photographs seen here are good enough to turn the heads of titans in both industries), Auste uses these skills to draw Sangaile -- who early on in the film has a clearly unsatisfying sexual encounter with a young man from Auste's group -- close, closer, then whew!

All the while, Ms Kavaïté's concern for the environment in which these girls exist -- the incredibly verdant countryside, the spacious sky, the local lake, the very different homes in which the two girls live -- into which come the almost profound art that Auste produces with the visual help of Sangaile combine to create a memorable fragment of a movie. (The outstanding cinematography is by Dominique Colin.)

Sangaile has health problems -- diabetes, perhaps, and vertigo that keeps her from pursuing her dream of flying -- and she also has a somewhat distant mother, a former ballerina who appears to have had some trouble honing her parenting skills.

For her part, Auste seems surprisingly competent as both an artist and autonomous person. She "manages" the relationship as best she can, while helping Sangaile toward her own autonomy. The movie, however, is finally more a visual feast than any deep exploration of character or relationship.

But as that, The Summer of Sangaile is well worth seeing as it gently yet luxuriously probes the place of family, friendship, sexuality, creativity and challenge in the lives of the young.

From Strand Releasing, in Lithuanian with English subtitles and running 97 minutes, this Lithuania/France/Netherlands co-production opens in New York City at the IFC Center this Friday, November 20, and in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Cinema on December 4.