Monday, January 26, 2015

Here's an odd one, just making its DVDebut: PLATO'S REALITY MACHINE via Myles Sorensen

New filmmakers get points for simply trying something new, even if things don't pan out quite as well as they might have preferred. Or maybe, I should say, as some of us viewers might have preferred. First-time full-length filmmaker Myles Sorensen has his movie opening theatrically this week, and it's an interesting mix of animation (in the form of a video game), live-action narrative and occasional "interviews" with the characters we're watching. The film is titled PLATO'S REALITY MACHINE and although it doesn't quite work overall, it is certainly watchable and sometimes, thanks to the actors on view, even more than that.

What is actually going on in the movie is initially up for grabs, as we're thrust into some futuristic animation (shown below) in which our hero is given a task to perform, along with the order, Don't Trust Anyone. Mr. Sorensen (pictured at left), who wrote and directed the film, offers up a good rendition of a video game (via his animator James Martin), in which our hero joins up with a young woman he has just freed from prison in order to get the bad guys.

Later we see one of his half-dozen actors, the cute and talented Doug Roland, below, whom we just saw recently in Wet Behind the Ears, actually playing that video game. Those "interviews," in which the characters tell us something about themselves and their lives, alternate with scenes of hook-ups (or would-be hook-ups) in which our six lead characters (this is definitely an ensemble piece) attempt to form some sort of connection with the opposite sex.

This is not easy, given the kind of characters we have here. The men all seem to follow that initial Trust no one dictum, while the women are of the needy variety whose method is either to immediately embrace and capture her man via feminine wiles that include good sex and better cooking, or keep him forever off-balance and confused. Neither works very well.

So what we have here in a movie about male/female relationships and trust -- put together in a weird but not impossible-to-master puzzle. That the men have "trust" issues -- inspired no doubt by that video game, which like so many video games, has its share of misogyny -- is no surprise.

The manner in which the scenes alternate is interesting for awhile, but this would have been more so were the characters and situations better imagined and written. The acting is fine, but there is not enough ammunition given the actors for them -- or the movie -- to really score.

Also, that video game is simply abandoned around halfway along. It returns for a moment or two at the film's conclusion, as if to remind us that it was there earlier. The good cast also includes Carolina Bartczak, Trieste Kelly Dunn (above and below) and Heather Shisler in the leading female roles, and Ed Renninger (above, right) and Nathan Spiteri (below, right), along with the aforementioned Mr. Roland.

Plato's Reality Machine, running a relatively fast 79 minutes, opens this Friday exclusively in Los Angeles at the little Arena Cinema in Hollywood. It hit nationwide VOD last week, so you can probably catch it in your own territory. And if you want to stream it instantly, just click here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

One-half of a German lesbian couple pines for a baby in Anne Zohra Berrached's TWO MOTHERS

If only both partners were as eager to have that child mentioned in the headline above, things might have gone differently than they do for the smart and likeable pair of women we meet in TWO MOTHERS (Zwei Mütter), the intelligent, fragmented, but deeply-felt German movie from Anne Zohra Berrached (shown below). Using a documentary style to view her protagonists and their somewhat circumscribed world, Ms Berrached, as director and writer (with some help from Michael Glasauer's script consulting), has come up with a very involving look at a lesbian relationship in the process of growing and perhaps foundering, as one of the two young women finds herself more and more drawn to the idea of having a baby. By any means possible.

Though the film takes place in Germany, a country most of us probably consider relatively progressive (nowhere near the Scandinavian level, however), it seems that -- when it comes to providing lesbian couples state-supported help, financial and/or otherwise -- this country has some learning left to do. The kind of obstacles the couple encounters are surprising -- for one thing fertility clinics that do not, under German law, offer treatment to non-heterosexuals -- and they impact everything from these women's well-being to their pocketbooks.

After exhausting all other avenues, the pair decides to try a sperm donor -- but one who will not insist on being both donor and father. This takes the film into yet further realms of surprise and even a little humor. While the women are played by two fine actresses -- Karina Plachetka (at left, above and below) and Sabine Wolf (at right, above and below) -- the other performers, at least according to what we find on the IMDB, appear to be playing themselves as doctors, donors, and people on the subway and/or street. This certainly adds to the verité quality of the film.

The dialog here seems particularly on the mark -- genuine without ever being "writerly" or overly sophisticated. As much as the movie documents the trials and the time these take before something actually happens, the filmmaker keeps the focus on our two women. This works well because they are at the heart of the drama, and it is their relationship we're rooting for -- at least until it becomes more and more clear that one woman wants what the other does not.

Along the way we meet a number of interesting people who figure into the tale, and as months and more months pass, tension builds and alternatives seems to disappear, while insemination after insemination goes by with nothing to show for them, other than reduced finances. There's a lovely little scene in which Ms Wolf meets, but briefly, an adorable little boy in the library, and we imagine that she may be changing her mind about chil-dren. Finally there's a fellow named Flo who applies as the possible donor, and things take a turn for better or worse, depending on your perspective.

The risks to a relationship when a surrogate is used is shown here to quite believable effect, and while the movie stops short of any actual closure, it is pretty clear where it -- and the relationship -- is headed. Two Mothers, from TLA Releasing under the Canteen Outlaws banner and running a very brief 75 minutes, hit the streets on DVD this past January 13.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Best Foreign Language Film nominee (and maybe winner?) -- Abderrahmane Sissako's TIMBUKTU

TrustMovies hasn't yet seen Estonia's Tangerines nor Argentina's Wild Tales, but of the three BFLF Oscar nominees he has seen -- including the beautifully photographed but terribly obvious Ida and the tell-us-again-how-corrupt-and-bullying-modern-Russia can-be Leviathan -- Mauritania's small-scale but gorgeous and engrossing TIMBUKTU by veteran director Abderrahmane Sissako is by far the best. It shows us things we have not previously seen, especially what the incursion of Islam fundamentalists into a town in Africa means to its inhabitants (rather than what this kind of fundamentalism might do to our own western sensibility), and it does this in a manner that is thought-provoking, comic, sad and, yes, frustrating. This film is also remarkably beautiful to watch.

Mr. Sissako, shown at left, is able to weave several stories together loosely but mindfully, so that we follow both the "soldiers of god" and the inhabitants they seek to control. We see the lives of these people as they were but may be no more, and view the innate beauty of both place and person, while also noticing some of the flaws that even the dearest of the inhabi-tants possess. There is no doubt with whom the filmmaker sympathizes but he's too smart a guy to pretend that one side is perfect and the other perfectly awful. He allows us to view and even under-stand every character's viewpoint -- as ridiculous as this sometimes can be.

In the opening scene what looks to me like a gazelle races gracefully across the African plain pursued by soldiers shooting at it in an open jeep. We fear for that gazelle, but then a commanding voice says, "Don't kill it, just tire it out." (Isn't this the goal of fundamentalism?) And then we meet various characters at work and at leisure -- both of which will very soon change by becoming "against god" and therefore suddenly illegal.

A man who owns some cattle relaxes in a tent with wife and daughter. When he must leave for awhile, one of those soldiers drives up and clearly has intentions toward the wife. "Why do you only come here when my husband is gone?" she asks, and he is shamed into leaving.

In the craziest/silliest bit of religious nonsense, a woman selling fish is told she must wear gloves, while men must roll up their pant-legs. A mosque is visited while celebrants are at prayer, and the soldiers are reminded that they are in a house of god. Of course, they know this and so back off -- at least for a bit.

But then, in Sissako's boldest and smartest movie, a collision occurs that the soldiers have nothing to do with. While slaking their thirst in the river, the cattle of our very contented fellow break into the nets of a local fisherman, who has previously warned the young boy who tends those cattle. A spear is thrown and suddenly everything changes.

More than anything else, Timbuktu is about justice -- and its quicksilver elusivity. It is also about how we try so hard to get around whatever stands in the way of what we imagine to be that justice, whether this means playing football, which has now been banned, with an imaginary ball, or singing songs that may possibly squeak by because they have a religious meaning, after music, too, has been outlawed.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe I noticed in the thank-you's a nod to Elia Suleiman. This shouldn't be surprising, as the two filmmakers have subtlety, style and an inquiring mind in common. Both hope to understand conflicting viewpoints while already understanding how difficult this can be.

But it is the attempt that counts -- particularly when that attempt is so utterly beautiful to view and finally so sorrowful to contemplate. Sissako's finale is a continuous piece of filmmaking that holds you breathless -- until it suddenly leaves you lost in media res.

Timbuktu -- from Cohen Media Group, running just 97 vital minutes and spoken in five different languages, including English (with subtitles when not) -- opens this coming Wednesday, January 28, in New York City (at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) on Friday, January 30, and then at other Laemmle theaters in the weeks following.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Xavier Dolan and his continuing MOMMY problems come to the fore once more

Xavier Dolan, the French-Canadian boy-wonder is at it again. The currently 25-year-old writer/director -- I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways (we haven't been theatrically graced yet with 2013's Tom at the Farm) -- is still having some trouble growing up. Hell, so do we all. But most of us do not make overlong, boring and repetitive movies (yes, with some brilliant stuff in them, now and again) out of the experience. MOMMY, Dolan's latest endeavor, is yet another look, in pointlessly small-screen mode (more of this later) at an extremely troubled relationship between mother and son.

M. Dolan, pictured at left (photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, courtesy of Getty Images), generally chooses some excellent actors to use as bait and gives them surprising, often shocking stuff to say and do. Initially, we're hooked. And then, little by little -- at least for those of us who want more than a lot of repeated yelling, cursing and getting all in-your-face -- we become so annoyed and tired of it all that we slowly remove ourselves from that hook. And so it is here: for every fine acting moment and bit of choice dialog, there are several more that grow awfully wearisome.

We should probably begin our critique with the opening credit explanation that Dolan feeds us, explaining that his movie is set in some slightly distant future when Canada has passed a new law that, if I am remembering correctly, gives parents the right to hospitalize their problemed offspring as wards of the state. I am assuming he must do this because, as Canada now stands, what happens in the movie could not happen without this slightly "otherwise" circumstance. But since the film is all about fraught relations between mother (Anne Dorval, above) and teenage child (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, below), a not particularly unusual problem, one would think that the filmmaker could have handled this without this pointless if-things-were-otherwise element.

Further, Dolan has elected to shoot almost all of his film in an aspect ratio the IMDB calls 1:1. This is ridiculously narrow, like watching an 8-1/2 x 11 piece of paper on screen. (Even more so because we are always aware that the movie's frame is not properly filled out.) Well, thought I, he'll soon open up to wider proportions. Hah. We wait almost two hours before the filmmaker finally decides to grace us with width -- and then it's only for a brief fantasy segment in which the characters appear to be have aged into better versions of their former selves. Ah, a few feel-good moments thanks to wide-screen!

Otherwise, Mommy is mostly all screaming and fighting and then making up (briefly) before starting all over again. A neighbor (Suzanne Clément, above) who has her own problems -- speech and communication among them -- gets involved with our pair, as mom's friend and son's "caretaker," and this of course leads to further "fraughtness." After now seeing four of Dolan's films, several things seem clear. Our boy likes 'em lengthy (this one runs two hours and twenty minutes) and repetitive. There are enough of what you'd call plot and content here to last an hour or so. The rest is filler, though handled at times with great passion.

Passion, along with connection and relationships, are Dolan's aces-in-the-hole -- even if all these seem to have no real consequences along the way -- until at last we get to the point that the filmmaker has been promising since that opening credit explanation. Consequence does not even exist, it seems, regarding the poor teenager whose face our boy earlier burned almost beyond recognition in the group home in which they both lived. But I guess that's OK somehow because, hey, it's all been so "passionate." If you've seen several of Dolan's oeuvre and then encounter Mommy, you may want, as do I, to make a small suggestion: Fucking grow up, Xavier! Or at least give us movies that do.

Mommy, from Roadside Attractions, opens today in New York City (at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) and in the West Los Angeles at The Landmark.  It was, by the way, the Canadian entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Kate Barker-Froyland's SONG ONE: All about the Brooklyn music scene & crossing the street safely

The music scene in Brooklyn, New York, is certainly worth learning about (and listening to) but it turns out that understanding how to cross a street safely is the more important thing in SONG ONE, the pleasant little first-full-length film from a woman by the name of Kate Barker-Froyland. As good as is the music created by the character, Henry, whom we see first in this movie, his street crossing skills are so inept that he quickly ends up in a coma in the hospital -- which then whisks us off to Morocco, where his sister, Franny, gets word of the accident and rushes home to be at his side. I don't think I'm giving away heavy-duty spoilers here, as all this occurs within the film's first few minutes, but I do worry that crossing the street is something for which we may be losing our abilities, as this is the second such accident in a movie in as many weeks (the great and wonderful film, Still Life, ending its theatrical run today, offers up this fraught street-crossing event, too).

Ms Barker-Froyland, shown at right, is intent on bringing to life the Brooklyn music scene as it exists either now, or just a bit ago, as well as healing family bonds (Franny and Henry were not speaking, and their mom is yet another problem in the mix), as well as providing a sweet love story. She succeeds -- to some extent, at least -- in all three of these endea-vors, yet does not really fill any of them to the max.

Two of the movie's three plot arcs are pretty predictable; the third offers a beguiling little surprise, ending the film with more subtlety and charm than we'd expected. So, overall, I'd give Song One a recommendation, especially if sweet stories and folk music are your thing. And if you're a fan of Anne Hathaway (above) and her enormous eyes, then I'd suggest a definite look-see.

Some of the music is enjoyable, too, in a light kind of way (the music in Rudderless, out now on DVD, is much better), as performed by singer/actor Johnny Flynn, above, who plays the iconic hero of Henry and a sort-of love interest for Franny. Mr. Flynn also plays a fellow who is having a very lengthy case of writer's block, music style, and perhaps this has worn into his performance, which seems always a little bit tired and lacking energy.

Not so with the mother of the family, above, left, played very well by Mary Steenburgen. Son Henry is mostly in that hospital bed, so actor Ben Rosenfield (above, right) doesn't get much of a chance to shine but makes the most of the little non-comatose screen time he gets.

Overall, the movie goes by relatively painlessly, and at only 85 minutes it certainly doesn't over-extend its stay. From Cinedigm, Song One opens this Friday, January 23, in a very limited run. Here in New York City it will play the Angelika Film Center, and in the Los Angeles area at the Arclight, Sherman Oaks. Elsewhere? Not sure, but Cinedigm will be releasing a DVD of the film at the end of March. Click here and then scroll down for more info. 

Blu-ray/DVDebut: James Mottern & Emilio Mauro's munchkin Mafia saga, BY THE GUN

TrustMovies uses the term "munchkin" in his headline for two reasons. One is that this odd little movie is very much Mafia-lite, and second, because of the small-in-stature, large-in-talent actor, Toby Jones, who acquits himself quite well as one of the Cosa Nostra's higher-level under-lings. Otherwise, although the film -- written by Emilio Mauro and directed by James Mottern (below) -- begins with some small promise of something a bit different, it soon degenerates into utter nonsense.

The film begins with our anti-hero, Nick (Ben Barnes) picking the pockets/ wallets of the two young ladies with whom he has clearly just spent the night. We soon learn that he is "connected" to a local Mafia figure (played by Harvey Keitel, below) and is longing to become a "made man." Before you can say, Don't do it, he's also involved with a pretty young lady (Leighton Meester, further below) whose dad is another local Mafia figure.

There is one interesting scene of the supposed ceremony surrounding that of a newly "made" man. Otherwise, performances are as good as they can be, given the generally problematic dialog that often sounds as if it had been written simply to advance the feeble plot. With conversation that seems to be used mostly for vamping, midway along there is perhaps the single longest and most drawn-out Will-he-or-will-he-not-pull-the-trigger? scene in the history of movies, easily going past suspense and surprise into the annals of unintentional camp.

No one here behaves in a manner you could even begin to call "normal," and so, after awhile, you lose any expectation of caring about what happens. Worse, whenever the screenwriter can't seem to decide what to do with his characters, he simply kills them off. Hey, that's easy! And though most performances are at least adequate, the lead one from Mr. Barnes is not. Sorry, but this guy is too busy trying to be a sex symbol to even approach the level of "junior" don.

Probably the best performance, other than Mr. Jones' (above), comes from a surprising source: the rapper/actor named Slaine (below), who, as an Irish outsider who hates all the Italians, gives a consistently ugly, angry, stops-out performance.

By the Gun, from Millennium Entertainment (recently renamed Alchemy) and running 110 minutes, hit the streets this past Tuesday, January 20, on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

She wuz robbed! Jennifer Aniston is terrific in Barnz and Tobin's smart and deeply-felt CAKE

Well, she got a Golden Globes nod, but nothing from those classier awards, the "Oscars." Over her more than 25-year career, Jennifer Aniston has given a number for first-class performances (have you seen The Good Girl or Life of Crime?), occasionally in movies that were anything but. Nothing I've as yet seen this attractive and gifted actress do begins to compare with her work in CAKE, the new movie about a woman who spends her waking hours either sedated or in heavy-duty pain. Why she's in this state is told us in fits and starts by the intelligent, riveting screenplay by Patrick Tobin and directed extremely well -- neither overdone nor under-done -- by Daniel Barnz (of Phoebe in Wonderland and Won't Back Down). This is Barnz's best work by far.

If the movie sounds like a recipe for depression, be assured that, while it does not skirt the state of being in constant pain -- which Ms Aniston brings to full and horrific life -- the actress is so alive and on target with each thought that crosses her mind and emotion that fills her face, that she keeps us at near-constant attention and, yes, delight. She's that good. (If you have ever experienced any lengthy and severe pain, you'll be aware of how well the actress captures the body movements that must accompany this.) And Mr. Barnz, shown at left, uses just the right touch to bring her story to solid, alternately awful and funny, life. And although the actress, below, looks far from her usual, sporty glamour, her perfor-mance is less a make-up tour de force than genuine, from-the-gut acting.

Fortunately for the film, Tobin and Barnz have more on their mind than simple story-telling. Instead, they give us a lot of fantasy and flashback -- often merging the two into the kind of thing that someone on a combo of pain and prescription drugs might experience.

These most often consist of the use of actress Anna Kendrick (above) -- in what is certainly one of her more bizarre roles -- as the dead woman who once belonged to the "Pain" support group to which Claire (Aniston's character's name) also belonged.

Also vital to the story's success is the character played by Adriana Barraza (above, right) as Claire's caregiver and all-round support. Having myself experienced the joys of a first-class care-giver (we had one who assisted my spouse's mother, who lived with us for the last decade of her life), I can vouch for the importance of a person like this, as well as to the great depth and truth -- all the love that she shows, in addition to the necessary anger -- in Ms Barraza's fine performance.

Yes, there are some men in Claire's life, too: one from the past -- her ex-husband, played beautifully by Chris Messina (above) -- and a new one, played with cracked charm by Sam Worthington (below). There are some children, too, one of which occupies a very special place in things and whom we do not see for quite awhile.

Cake turns out to be about not just pain but loss, too: the major kind that will remain for the rest of one's life. Without becoming at all maudlin or pushing for tears, the movie probes the psychological aspects of Claire's pain and why, even with the all exercises and therapy she has completed, no relief is yet in sight.

Through it all, Ms Aniston keeps her hurt, her anger and her humor front and center. It's that last one, dark and dirty as it often is, that helps keep the movie blasting on all cylinders. In the supporting cast are a wealth of fine performers, with special commen-dation to actors such as William H. Macy (shown at left) as a sudden re-intruder into our heroine's life, and Felicity Huffman as the put-upon leader of that women-in-pain support group.

The movie -- from Cinelou and running 102 minutes -- opens this Friday in New York City at the AMC Loew's Lincoln Square 13, in L.A. at the AMC Century City 15, and in the Chicago area at Showplace Icon at the Roosevelt Collection with Icon IX, and probably elsewhere, too.