Thursday, November 23, 2017

Pablo Berger's latest delight (and follow up to Snow White), ABRACADABRA, opens in Miami

Spanish writer/director Pablo Berger has made three wonderful but utterly disparate movies: Torremolinos 73, Blancanieves, and now his latest, ABRACADABRA.

While each is in a very different genre, each also manages to jump genres, meld them, bend them or maybe just mash them up. In any case, once seen, a Berger film is something you will not easily forget. Even if you don't care for it all that much, it will very probably imprint itself upon your memory.

Señor Berger, shown at left, is mashing those genres with particular ferocity and agility in his new film -- which butts the Spanish male's machismo up against feminine perseverance and endurance, adds a bit of hypnotism, body swapping, the spirit world, matricide and multiple murders, a lot of humor (some of it rather dark), budding romance, and one absolute gem of a dance number. Among a lot else. Yet, as bizarre and sometimes baffling as all this grows, it is simultaneously so oddly enjoyable that I suspect you'll hang on for the ride, which lasts 96 minutes.

The movie stars two of Spains finest actors, Maribel Verdú and Antonio de la Torre (above and below), and both are more than up to snuff, with de la Torre particularly fine in what amounts to a dual role. (The pair's dance scene together is worth the price of admission and then some.)

In the juicy supporting cast are two standouts: José Mota (below, right) and Josep Maria Pou (at bottom), the former as our heroine's oddball cousin, the latter as that cousin's mentor in hypnosis.

I wish I had more time to expand on the delights of this film, but I must cut this one short. If you're a fan of Berger, you'll want to see it; if you don't know his work, it's as good an entry as any.

From Sony Pictures International, Abracadabra opened in Miami on Wednesday, November 22, at MDC's Tower Theater. Will it play elsewhere? Let's hope so.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut for Richard Schenkman's film of Jerome Bixby's THE MAN FROM EARTH

Can you make any kind of decent sci-fi film by using a bunch of people sitting around a single interior location and simply talking their heads off?  The answer, if you haven't already guessed, is Oh, my god, yes! If the film, that is, turns out to be something entitled Jerome Bixby's THE MAN FROM EARTH. Mr. Bixby, who died in 1998 and of whom TrustMovies had not formerly heard, evidently wrote some classic episodes from TV series such as the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone, as well as some not-so-classic endeavors such as the 69-minute It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

I suspect that it might be safe to say that the late Mr. Bixby, shown at left, had poured just about every bit of his ideas and talent and caring about the world and the people in it into his unusual screenplay for The Man From Earth.

Fortunately, instead of coming up with something far too crammed and unwieldy, the man has taken a single idea, run with it to completion and given us one of, if not the most riveting 87-minute "idea fests" in move history.

The film's director, Richard Schenkman (The Pompatus of Love and Mischief Night), shown at right, has done a more-than-serviceable job of bringing this talk to fine life and getting completely believable performances from his troupe of actors, all of whom work together like a super-pro ensemble.

The tale takes place in an out-of-the-way but nicely appointed cabin in a dry and dusty region of California, where a "good-bye party" has been organized for a popular university professor (the tall, dark and mysterious David Lee Smith, below) who is leaving his prized post for reasons that none of his friends can understand.

As we learn that reason -- a whopper indeed -- the movie unfolds and we are knee-deep in everything from physics, finance and religion to history, anthropology and philosophy.

And yes, science fiction. But this is the sort of sci-fi that rejects even one single special effect, and in which the "action sequences" are mostly comprised of one character's turning his or her head to address the adjacent person on the couch. (To be fair, a gun is pulled a couple of times during the course of things, but there's not a ounce of real fighting to be seen.)

I'm not giving away another iota of plot (even the information on the Blu-ray/DVD box offers too much of this) so that you can better appreciate the unfolding surprises. But I will compliment the movie's excellent cast, the best-known of which include a very fine Tony Todd (at right, above, (of Candyman), William Katt, (shown at left two photos below, with Alexis Thorpe), and the works-almost-constantly Richard Riehle, shown at right, below, who is a stand-out here as the psychiatrist who tries to "treat" our hero as best as he is able.

How this Bixby/Schenkman combo keep us glued to the screen via ideas and storytelling is simply a wonder, and even when, as occasionally happens, things appear to be going off the rails, they soon come right back on again. Among the many topics under discussion, religion gets much of the blowback, deservedly so, via its would-be champion (played with equal parts caring and anger by Ellen Crawford, above, left).

Given this constant flow of ideas, the movie also manages to grip us emotionally now and then, never more so than at its finale that features a prominent Mr. Riehle and the lovely romantic interest, played by Annika Peterson (below, left). We care enough about the characters here to feel for them, but it is primarily those brain-busting ideas on view that hold us to the screen.

The Man from Earth was actually filmed an entire decade previous but never seems to have been released theatrically. Had it been, it would have earned a place on my 2007 best-of-year list. (In any year, however, this one's a must-see.) The movie was also shot digitally but prior to the increasing use of hi-definition video; consequently the image quality proves only so-so at best -- even on the Blu-ray disc, which makes the upgrade from DVD seem more than a bit unnecessary. In any case, it is the content rather than the visuals that will keep you on your toes.

Released to home video via MVDvisual and with a raft of Bonus Features included, this ten-year anniversary issue of The Man From Earth hits the street today, Tuesday, November 21 -- for purchase or rental. Don't miss it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blu-ray debut for Jean Grémillon's final full-length narrative film, THE LOVE OF A WOMAN

For all his continuing love of French cinema of many kinds, TrustMovies had somehow managed to miss viewing most, if not all, of the work of a certain French filmmaker named Jean Grémillon. The Arrow Academy arm of Arrow Video has now remedied that with its release a few months back of Grémillon's final narrative film, THE LOVE OF A WOMAN (L'amour d'une femme).

Though this was one of his last movies, perhaps it's not such a bad place to begin an appreciation of both the man and his work. According to the excellent full-length documentary feature, In Search of Jean Grémillon, that is offered as a bonus feature on the disc, what we see in this film includes much that was vitally important to this unusual filmmaker.

According to so many of the actors, other filmmakers and especially the famous film historian and co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois -- all of whom we see and hear during this 96-minute documentary -- M. Grémillon (pictured at left) was a fellow who genuinely cared about, loved and understood women about as well as any male filmmaker you can name. This is certainly borne out by The Love of a Woman, in which that fine actress Micheline Presle plays a doctor new to the seashore town where the quite aged physician has only just retired.

Ms Presle (still alive at 95!) is one of those minor icons of French cinema, equally adept in comedy or drama (Devil in the Flesh, Donkey Skin, The Five-Day Lover) who graced international screens for more than 70 years. Combining beauty, intelligence and a kind of bone-deep savvy, she was particularly good at playing career women, and here, as the new doctor in town, she excels once again.

Her love of her job and her great skill at it is demonstrable from the film's start and only grows more powerful as it continues. This is of course despite the typical sexism of the town's males, which, to Grémillon's credit, is never overdone. It is simply there -- even via the film's other protagonist, who doubles as the love interest of our doctor. He is played by Italian star Massimo Girotti (below, left, whose career spanned Visconti's Ossessione to Ferzan Ozpetek's Facing Windows), and the actor manages to bring beautifully to life a man of very ambivalent feelings about work, women and family.

On the basis of but this single film, I'd say that Grémillon was a better director than screenwriter, because his dialog is sometimes a bit too obvious and pushed, as though he is trying to fit it all into a time frame that's simply too constrained. So he leaves it to his actors to bring that dialog fully to life -- and they do.

Style-wise, the filmmaker, who made a lot of documentaries in addition to his narrative films, graces this one with a kind of doc style that concentrates upon the life of the little island off Brittany where the film takes place. It's often a fascinating thing to see, and it adds to the core of truth the film captures. (A couple of the movie's sweetest scenes involve a pair of children and their pet lamb.)

The movie is remarkably feminist, too -- way before its time (the film was released in 1953). How the idea of a woman who loves both her work and her man, even as that man struggles to understand this duality, is brought to compelling life here. Sacrifice is inevitable, but how this occurs and by whom assures that The Love of a Woman is anything but simplistic or simple-minded.

From Arrow Video and distributed here in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group, the film is available now on Blu-ray and DVD -- for purchase (and I hope for rental, as well). Click here for further info.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

November's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BLACK SAILS

What’s to be done with the unwanted ones, 
the men who do not fit, 
whom civilization must prune from the vine 
to protect it’s sense of itself? 
Every culture since earliest antiquity 
has defined itself by the things it excludes. 
As long as there is progress, 
there will be human debris in its wake…
Sooner or later one must answer the question: 
what becomes of them? 
In London the solution is to call them criminals 
and throw them in a deep dark hole. 
I would argue that justice demands 
we do better than that; 
that a civilization is judged not by whom it excluded 
but how it treats the excluded. 
(...from Season Four, Episode 10) 

An unexpectedly original, ambitious, and close-up look at piracy during its heyday, BLACK SAILS (on demand at STARZ) is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel “Treasure Island”. The series is set in early 1700’s Bahamas ahead of Stevenson’s yarn and winds down with the burial and abandonment of a fabulous cache on ‘Treasure Island’s mysterious Skeleton Island. Fictional characters from the novel mix with real pirates of history to make the colorful and mostly entertaining tale spun by co-creator’s Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine (l and r, below).

I emphasize ‘mostly’ because the show-runners did not get a grip on the story until season two. The project’s attachment to producer Michael Bay’s first TV project (he of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Transformers blockbuster riches) likely enticed STARZ to approve four seasons even though season one was a dud. (New Yorker critic David Denby called Bay “stunningly, almost viciously untalented”, to which Bay is reported to have replied: “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.”)

But never mind — Black Sails’ fanbase was rapturous and went beyond teenage boys. After season one, the writers developed a thought-provoking narrative surprising for an action series. Set in a pirate milieu we know most through myth and fable, we find the machinations of the colonial powers, the slave trade, and a community of maroons (slave escapees) who are hidden away from island civic life with lethal ways of staying hid, their own rituals and hierarchy.

There are plenty of invigorating ship battles, land skirmishes, personal conflict, and roiled forces of nature photographed so intimately you can feel the sea boil and the sun parch. But the action derives its thrills not from adventure but because you have become engrossed in the lives of the characters, acted by a terrific cast hailing from at least six countries.

The theme of Black Sails is a tug of war over Nassau between colonial Britain and rebel pirate desires for a haven of their own. The pirates hoped to make their new world not just an extension of the old but autonomous and free — pirate havens were early democracies before the great powers got around to them, organized to provide as much individual liberty and equality as possible. Here, their collective self-government grows into a collaboration between maroons and pirates, the former adding their numbers to throw at British and Spanish military who sought to quell slaves and hang pirates. One rides out this narrative knowing the rebels are doomed — the pirate heyday will last just a few decades, after which international piracy laws and military presence will end their golden era. 

The first season involves pirate pursuit of the Urca, a Spanish galleon carrying a vast treasure, adventure that deserved no more than a couple of episodes. The booty remains at issue among the Spanish, British, and pirates from series start to finish, eventually ending up on Skeleton Island, respectfully teed up to mesh seamlessly with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. One character, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who fenced pirated goods and managed commerce in Nassau’s pirate haven, lurches between wanting Nassau to be self-governed, and coming to embrace new British Governor, Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts), first as his captive, as a means to this end (Ms New and Roberts are shown below).

Woodes Rogers was a (real) Brit who inherited his family shipping business, became a sea captain and was appointed Governor of the Bahamas twice, eventually establishing order, although (accurately) Black Sails leaves him bankrupt and defeated after his first stint on the job. His assignments as governor grew out of the rise of armies in Europe whose missions included stamping out piracy because it disrupted commerce and the slave trade.

The pirate response to colonial corruption led them to evolve their own self-management. (‘Every man has a vote in affairs of moment…’) Among them were refugees from persecution and sailors experienced in navel warfare seeking employment. According to Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722), there are low wages and hard labour in an honest service, while the life of a pirate offers reward and liberty.

Among the pirates in Black Sails’ fictional world are Stevenson creations Long John Silver (Luke Arnold), Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), shown above, from left.

More major players were pirates who did exist such as Charles Vane (above, far r) created by the unexpectedly magnetic Zack McGowan. Vane was a protégé of Edward Teach — more famously known as Blackbeard (at right) played by Ray Stevenson.

Also real, was the dandyish, erudite Captain Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) who produced the famous skull and crossed swords flag and contemplates his legacy: “It’s the art that leaves the mark; it must transcend.” (Writer J. Steinberg comments: his piece of artwork will outlive him and all of us.)

Rackham’s brooding pirate lover, Anne Bonny (the very good Clara Paget) is shown below, with Vane and Rackham.

Flint, however, is the impresario, carrying this saga on his steely frame. Toby Stevens has the same upright bearing of his mother, Maggie Smith, in her portrayal of Violet, Countess of Grantham of Downton Abbey. Their show of determined obstinacy and resemblance is marked.

Flint owns Black Sails, yet is unknowable. Our interest in him, beyond observing his ferocity and genius for leadership, develops in season two when his backstory begins to unspool slowly in flashback culminating in episode 2.5. We see him in early career as affable young Lieutenant James McGraw, assigned in 1705 as naval liaison to the Hamiltons in London —the elder Hamilton an earl and son Thomas a member of Parliament, whose wife Miranda (Louise Barnes) is penetrating, wise, and lovely. Thomas Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones) wants to assemble a colony on Nassau, install an honest governor, and most notably, grant full pardons to the pirates — a scheme that is anathema to his father, the earl. (Below, from l, Miranda, Thomas Hamilton, James McGraw.)

McGraw slowly embraces the reform idea and comes to admire Thomas’s idealism. (Miranda says: you can recognize a great man by his relentless pursuit of a better world.) She knowingly seduces McGraw into an affair with both herself and her husband. The elder Hamilton gets wind of it, and uses their ‘disgrace’ to thwart the despised plan. Thomas is confined to an institution or dead; Miranda and McGraw are permitted to vanish. They go to Nassau where he morphs into his Ahab-like Captain Flint and they share a home when he’s not pirating.

We now see that Flint’s rage at being designated a non-person because of his love for a man has driven him headlong into a relentless career getting even with the establishment. McGraw’s naval mentor, Hennessy, when dismissing him from service, intones: “Every man has his flaws but not this, it is too profane.” Later Miranda insists he is ‘fighting to fight’ always in the midst of violence and danger to forget his shame over having loved Thomas.

Flint channels his remaining bits of humanity into a working relationship with John Silver, an ingenious fellow who loses his leg during the series (and gains the ‘Long’) but is more than Flint’s equal in getting his way. Together they become an unparalleled team and defeat Woodes Rogers at sea, ending his first governorship of Nassau. Silver orchestrates an agreement between the pirates and the maroons (he has fallen in love with the queenly Madi). And there’s an improbable series end for Flint, as Silver both drives him out of piracy and devises a heart-rending rescue for him (bottom image).

As the tale progresses, much relationship deepening and fracturing increases the series' addictiveness along with stunning sea action sequences and absorbing visits to Cuba (run by Spain) and several American colonies. We grow with Max, (Jessica Parker Kennedy, below) a beautiful, mixed-race prostitute who loves women and climbs her own ladder of power. Hannah New’s Eleanor Guthrie fares less well. This is New’s second major role, following the Spanish series “The Time In Between” (Netflix) in which, speaking fluent Spanish, she was lovely. Here, she has unconvincing ‘badass’ moments in which too many “f—k” swears make her less not more so. She is too much of a nurturer for this part. However the excellence of the ensemble as a whole and the increasing urgency of the story arc once underway does not leave the viewer wanting.

If adventure is your thing, thoughtful revelations about race, love, and power in the context of chaos and competition among players will be a bonus. If you normally shun the adventure genre, you will find much here to satisfy your need for deeper material once you slog through (or better, skip almost all) season one. The Flint/Silver relationship especially takes you into their power struggle, willingness to kill each other, and well of genuine caring that matures through the seasons. Black Sails was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa (on a set and with ships just repurposed by Outlander for its voyage to/in the Bahamas during the late 1760’s, debuting now on STARZ).

Each episode opens with a smashing musical theme by Bear McCreary (also the music director for Outlander) using the hurdy-gurdy to striking effect; it accompanies a spectacular series of computer-generated alabaster and bronze pirate sculptures inspired by Rodin, Bernini, and anonymous carvings found on ships, crypts, and gravestones in Baroque, Gothic, and Rococo style. Watch this.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Nicole Garcia's old-fashioned love-story-plus-twist, FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON, on DVD

Some of us will watch Marion Cotillard in just about anything, but don't worry: You won't have to lower  your standards much to find one of her latest endeavors, FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON, worth your time.

This old-fashioned-with-a-twist love story, set a half-century back, is well-acted, -written and -directed, even if it does ask you to accept one whopper of an imagining by it's protagonist. But then, l'amour fou can do that, don't you think?

As directed and co-written by French actor and filmmaker Nicole Garcia (shown at left), the movie is beautiful to view and rather fun to consider, both as it is moving along and post-viewing, too.

Adapted from the novel by Milena Agus, the film takes place in France, Switzerland and Spain and stars Ms Cotillard, Louis Garrel and Alex Brendemühl. Visually and talent-wise, what's not to like?

Each actor acquits her/himself well, and the cinematography (by Christophe Beaucrane) is generally entrancing and always varied, as we travel from the French farming countryside for a rest-cure in Switzerland and eventually to sunny, coastal Spain.

Ms Cotillard (above) plays a physically and emotionally problemed character named Gabrielle, forced by her mother into marriage to a man (Brendemühl, below, right) for whom she cares nothing. But when M.Garrel (at left, two photos below) comes into her life, ah -- things change!

How all this pans out, beginning near the end then flashing back to the start of things, works well, and Ms Garcia proves adept at holding us firm through some very quirky situations. (The oddest of these flirts with mental illness in a manner that displeased my spouse but which I was to view as unlikely but acceptable, given that, hey, this is a movie, after all.)

The film's great theme is actually love -- in two of its many forms: one, a short view that's immediate and insistent, the other a long one, strong and sacrificing. The result is strange, beautiful, thought-provoking and, yes, sentimental, but awfully kind and caring.

From IFC Films, in French with English subtitles and running two hours, From the Land of the Moon (the original French titles is Mal de pierres) arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday, November 21 -- for purchase or rental.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Jamie M. Dagg's sophomore effort, SWEET VIRGINIA: good cast, good score, so-so movie

SWEET VIRGINIA, the second full-length feature from director Jamie M. Dagg, bears more than a passing resemblance to this year's much better mystery, Wind River. For starters, Jon Bernthal acts in both: here in the leading role, in Wind River playing a supporting part. Both take place in out-of-the-way locations and feature a murder mystery at their center.

But in Wind River, the theme of justice is paramount; Sweet Virginia, a much more manufactured concoction, is content to connect its dots via the father of the film's "villain" being a big fan of its hero, an injured-and-thus-retired rodeo cowboy named Sam Rossi. The connection is tenuous at best, silly at worst.

So be it. And since we must, in all fairness, deal with what we have, Sweet Virginia does offers a number of pluses. Director Dagg, shown at left, has assembled an excellent cast, a good musical score (by brothers Brooke and Will Blair), and a number of scenes that pack in enough suspense, mystery and drama to keep us hooked.

The biggest problem -- other than there seems to be no ongoing investigation by authorities of the triple murder that begins the movie (one scene, hell, even one shot, of something like this might have set our minds to rest) -- is the exceedingly coincidental quality of the tale told here.

That cast, though, is a very good one. Led by Mr. Bernthal, above -- who currently seems to be the go-to guy for "strong silent type" roles and is here able to communicate with few words a depth of feeling and caring that helps considerably in keeping us attached to the wobbly plot -- it also includes another excellent and upcoming young actor in the role of Bernthal's ambivalent antagonist,  Christopher Abbott (shown below) of Hello I Must Be Going and James White.

Our hero's main squeeze, a lately widowed woman, is played by the fine Rosemarie DeWitt, below, while the always interesting Imogen Poots (two photos down) has the role of the character who sets the story in motion: a three-year unhappily married woman (also recently widowed by that multiple murder) who does not, it turns out, possess a whole lot of smarts or morals. The women, as so often happens in American movies, play a distinct second fiddle to the guys.

The screenplay and dialog for Sweet Virginia were written by twin brothers Benjamin and Paul China, and the Chinas prove good at plot machinations without undue exposition -- even if, as noted above, those machinations soon begin to seem more manufactured than organic. (I did miss some of the mumbled dialog toward the beginning of the film, however. I suspect this was due less to the actors than to the sound quality of the streaming link we critics were sent, in which ambient sound and musical score occasionally overpowered dialog.)

The very dark cinematography, coupled to the location shooting (said to be Alaska but filmed in British Columbia), the musical score, and low-key performances of characters who are themselves all pretty dark and unhappy, combine to bring a finale that features some violence and blood (but not enough to qualify as gore).

From IFC Films and running a just-about-right 93 minutes, Sweet Virginia opens theatrically tomorrow in New York City at the IFC Center, (and maybe elsewhere, too), as well as simultaneously via VOD.