Sunday, October 23, 2016

Of parentage, parenting and naughty genetic experimentation: Anders Thomas Jensen's wacky/remarkable MEN & CHICKEN

The poster quote comparing this very odd film to a combination of The Three Stooges and The Island of Dr. Moreau is actually not that far afield. MEN & CHICKEN, the Danish/German co-production written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam's Apples, The Green Butchers) offers more proof, if any were needed, that Mr. Jensen's inclination toward the bizarre remains in full swing. In his latest oddball wonder, the filmmaker takes two rather weird brothers, having discovered that their suddenly dead dad is not their biological father, on a road trip to a very un-populated island on which they meet, greet and get to know their whole-lot-weirder extended family.
Further discovery ensues.

Granted that Mr. Jensen, shown at right, has peopled his movie with an array of characters so far from what most of us would call "normal" that it takes some adjustment to weather this movie. The adjustment is worth it, however, for beyond the very dark comedy and search for sexual outlet of the first maybe two-thirds of the film, the final half hour is so increasingly full of surprise, shock, dismay and hope that, should you persevere, you will leave the movie in quite a different state of mind and heart than you found yourself, even a short time earlier.

Much better-liked in England and on the continent than over here in the USA, the movie offers a combination of philosophy, religion, morality and education all wrapped up in black comedy, mystery and family that results in the kind of intellectually horrifying climax (in which the mystery we've been wondering about for most of the movie is finally solved -- but, don't worry, it's not via blood and guts) followed by a denouement that gives new meaning to the idea of "the other," while simultaneously proving almost unbearably moving -- all the more so because it is not "pushed."

The expert cast is led by two fine Danish actors, the peripatetic and versatile Mads Mikkelsen (above, left) and the not-so-well-known but equally fine David Dencik (above, right). The supporting cast of family "brothers" -- Nicolaj Lie Kaas (below, left),  Søren Malling (center, two photos below) and Nicolas Bro (below, right) -- is equally good, though their countenances are obscured by very effective make-up (all our boys here have a tendency toward the hare-lip and other varied deformities).

Because the movie spends a lot of its time on matters related to sex, along with the inability of this family of men to get any, it may strike some viewers as too crass or gross. Again, stick with the film. Its decision to rub our noses in certain things does have a point. (Dad's nickname, it turns out, is "The Sausage of Death," and not without good reason.)

A word must also be said for the Oscar-worthy set design and the amazing location in which much of the movie was filmed. This is a house to remember,  The special effects, too, are first-rate -- often barely there, and just for a moment or two, so that you may find yourself from time to time asking, Did I just see what I think I saw?

TrustMovies missed this film at the time of its theatrical release, as I suspect many of you also did. No matter. You can catch Men & Chicken now, via its Blu-ray/DVD/Digital copy debut from Drafthouse Films.and MVD Entertainment Group. Running 104 minutes and in Danish with English subtitles, the movie hits the street this Tuesday, October 25 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dutch deadpan in Alex van Warmerdam's very dry hit-man comedy, SCHNEIDER VS BAX

Remember Borgman -- that dark, Dutch, sort-of-variation on Boudu Saved from Drowning (and other what-to-do-about-the-trashy-tramp movies)? Alex van Warmerdam, the writer/director of that strange, cunning little film is back again with another bizarre, deadpan, dark comedy-of-menace titled SCHNEIDER VS BAX. It arrives this coming week on DVD, and if your taste runs to this sort of thing, the movie is a good example of this sub-genre.

Mr. van Warmerdam (shown above, right, and at left) also co-stars in the film, as he did in Borgman, and his gruff, low-key, macho presence is quite right for both his role and the film. He handles the screenplay and dialog with ease, and his direction ropes his entire cast onto the same page and style, making the most of this kind of deadpan, at which you often don't know whether to laugh or wince. (You'll probably do both at once.) The filmmaker has created a cast of characters that you may find it hard to warm up to, but this is fine, since some of them will not survive the trip.

The tale here is of a pair of hit men, evidently quite good at their jobs, who -- for some reason which we never really learn -- have been pitted against each other by the fellow who gives them their assignments. Van Warmerdam plays Bax, and another actor from Borgman, Tom Dewispelaere  (below), plays Schneider. Neither character knows the other, and though they fairly quickly learn that their boss is playing them against each other, they still evidently feel they must kill that other in order to survive.

Bax gets a surprise visit from his grown daughter (Maria Kraakman, shown below and further below, who is very good in this role) and then from his father -- both of whom complicate his life and reactions -- while Schneider becomes involved with a pimp and whore who equally complicate his assignment. How this all works out managers to be very dark, often funny, and even surprising. You will imagine that you know what is going to happen here, but I can tell you with some certainty that you will be wrong -- in at least a couple of important instances.

Coincidence does occur, and certain scenes seem a tad incredible, and yet so bleak, bizarre and weirdly funny is it all that, somehow, credibility is maintained -- if barely. Simply for the scenes between Bax, his father and daughter, the movie manages to rivet you in its own, special, this-can't-be-happening-but-oh-my-goodness-it-is manner.

In its odd way Schneider vs Bax turns out to be a kind of very late coming-of-age tale -- and a pretty good one, at that -- even though it is not clear for quite some time just who it is that's doing the coming.

From Film Movement and running a fairly sleek 96 minutes, the movie arrives on DVD this Tuesday, October 25 -- for purchase or rental.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Vanity, thy name is Lynne Alana Delaney and/or THE REMAKE. Take your pick.

Normally, TrustMovies does not mark a film with the term "vanity production." But when the movie in question is written, directed and produced by and has as its star the very same person (who also had a hand in the film's casting, production design, set decoration, and even the costume and wardrobe departments), one begins to suspect.

Now, I realize that some of that heavy work load may be due to a small budget, so I must give Lynne Alana Delaney (at left, above, and on poster, top) the benefit of that doubt. Otherwise, this woman must take responsibility for handing us THE REMAKE, one of the most obvious, by-the-numbers, what-a-surprise (not), senior-style rom-coms in a very long while. This is too bad for a couple of reasons: One, the movie will bore anyone who wants even the tiniest challenge and genuine surprise; two, its premise is really not bad. In other hands it might have been stylish fun.

That premise is this: A down-on-his-luck Hollywood director seeks to reunite the two actors who starred in his big hit a few decades ago. The problem is that, soon after this, the male actor (Ruben Roberto Gomez, at right in the two photos and poster, above) stood up his co-star at the altar, and the two have not seen nor spoken since.

In the meantime the woman married, raised a daughter (the lovely Tessa Munroe, above, right) and had a decent career, while the man went back to Italy and nursed his wounds. What really happened seems to take an eternity to unfurl here, though the film lasts only 97 minutes. Further it repeats itself unnecessarily (we get it, we get it) and its couple of big would-be surprises telegraph themselves a mile or two away.

So we're left with the writing and direction (perfunctory at best) and the performances, most of which are OK -- with the exception of Ms Delaney herself, who bugs her eyes, overdoes things and wears too much make-up. She is an attractive woman and is probably talented but perhaps has simply taken on way too much here.

In the supporting cast are old-timers like Sally Kellerman (the blond at far left, above, and always fun to watch), Patrika Darbo (near left, above), and especially June Lockhart (shown at bottom, left), who plays one of the nastiest and most clueless grandmothers to be seen in some time. (And, yes, the movie even includes a cameo by Larry King, below.)

And that's about it. Considering that this movie is supposed to be about the remake of an old film, we see almost nothing of that film itself, but spend most of our time on the same old boring romantic problems that seem so obviously fixable -- if only certain people would just talk to each other. Ah, well: How, then, would all these crummy roms-coms and situations comedies exist to reach their foregone conclusions?

Opening today, so far as we know, at a single theater in the Los Angeles area (Laemmle's Moncia Film Center), The Remake will maybe eventually make its way onto DVD or streaming, where, if you don't live in L.A. area, you can still see it and judge for yourself. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Home-grown terrorism, 1960s-70s style: With AMERICAN PASTORAL, Ewan McGregor directs and stars in the latest Philip Roth adaptation; Woody Allen tackles the theme in his Amazon streaming series, CRISIS IN SIX SCENES

Given how life-and-time-changing were the rather large number of incidents of home-grown American terrorism back in the 1960 &70s -- as Civil Rights appeared so strongly on the national agenda, the Vietnam War raged, protests mounted, and bombings and other assorted acts occurred (I don't think we referred to them as "terrorism" back then; they were instead "violent protests" or assassinations) -- it seems odd how little our cultural landscape, then or now, reflected this.

Considering how many movies, books and TV shows covered the Manson family and its so-much-more sensational
crimes, this lack is more than a little noticeable. We've seen a few documentaries down the decades, and we had the pretty-good TV movie Katherine (which has, since then, had its title changed to 'The Radical'), the musical Hair, of course (but that offered protest than was non-violent), and a few novels that, mostly quite after-the-fact, addressed the issues that were then at hand and quite vital to the good old USA.

One of these was Philip Roth's American Pastoral, first published in 1997, of which we now have a movie version, also called AMERICAN PASTORAL and directed by and starring Ewan McGregor (shown at right), with a screenplay adapted by John Romano. The other currently-streaming-via- Amazon cultural artifact that tackles this time period and its discontents is -- of all things -- the latest endeavor by one, Woody Allen, and is titled CRISIS IN SIX SCENES. The two works, while covering similar territory, could hardly be more different.

This is not unexpected, of course, considering the oeuvre of Mr. Allen and Mr. Roth. But comparison of both these two new "entertainments" -- having seen them in the same week, as did TrustMovies -- proves rather striking and edifying. While neither work is entirely successful, both are eminently worth seeing, mulling over and enjoying for their various strong points, which are many. American Pastoral explores terrorism and its results darkly, while Crisis in Six Scenes gives us the light and quite funny/satiric side via the usual Woody witticisms/characterizations. Both make you think and ponder nonetheless. Seen together, they add up to a particularly tasty, nourishing and worth-digesting meal.

I have not read the Roth novel, and therefore can only go by what the movie version offers. (I have read several of Roth's early works and found them sometimes funny and well-written but awfully misogynistic.) The movie, it seems to me, shows that Mr. McGregor has real potential as a filmmaker -- even if the result he has given us here is remarkably flat. But wait: It's often that very flatness that keeps us glued to the enticing and engulfing plot.

Everything is straight up and straight out, from the early exposition/narration to the individual scenes that tell and show us what we need to know. The story, of the "perfect" American family -- Dad's a high school football hero, mom's a beauty queen, and their daughter, ah, there's the catch. She's a lovely little all-American blond named Merry, with a stutter, a keen intelligence and perhaps the kind of real and all-inclusive empathy that (we're being told of late) can prove unhealthy.

In any case, Merry turns into a protester and then into a "terrorist," and the remainder of the movie details the unraveling of this family in a succession of scenes that grows darker and more unsettling, partially because we never completely learn how and why the change (or maybe growth) in Merry happened. We do get a major clue, however, in the scene with the family around the television, as one of those Vietnamese monks of the time self-incinerates himself as the world watches. Merry's reaction here is so strong, so indelible (the fine little actress, Hannah Nordberg, above, right, nails this moment) that it brings the concept of empathy to searing life. Nothing is quite the same thereafter.

If Nordberg allows us inside her character -- she does so again, in a scene that skirts the Oedipal (or its female counterpart) -- most of the other actors do not. And this seems almost purposeful, as we skate along the surface and the plot details build. Jennifer Connelly (three photos above) is fine as the beautiful wife who finds her own way of coping (though Roth's misogyny is most apparent here), David Strathairn (above) impresses, as always, as the narrator, schoolmate, and Molly Parker (below) does, as well, as Merry's double-duty therapist.

Orange Is the New Black's amazing Uzo Aduba shows us a whole new side as our hero's assistant at the glove-making factory (is she Roth's idea of the "good negro"?) that he has taken over from his aging father (the very good Peter Riegert. below). And then there is Mr. McGregor. This actor has been just fine in film after film. Here, he is perfectly OK, but it is in and through him that the flatness of the film most shows up. He's the character we're able least to get inside: Utterly passive; he reacts to everything but rarely acts on his own. While this may have been Roth's and now McGregor's intention, it does leave a kind of hole in the movie.

And yet this very hole forces us to wonder and consider everything anew. American Pastoral may leave you unsatisfied in certain ways, but I suspect your will mull it over. And maybe over again. Is this the plight of the American father and man? To have all the expectations laid out in one neat, long row? And then to have them, like those famous dominoes, fall flat? What was America's responsibility in that very unjust Vietnamese war? And how exactly does an act of political violence assuage anything? (Dakota Fanning (below, right) plays the daughter Merry grown up, and she, too, is flat but still impressive, while leaving us longing for answers, of which there will be none. And rightly so. This character's empathy is far-ranging, eternal and clearly destructive to her and those around her.

From Lionsgate -- and supposedly running a more than two-hour time frame, which now seems to have now been cut down to around 105 minutes -- the movie opens nationwide this Friday, October 21. Here in South Florida it will play the AMC Aventura 24 in Miami, Regal's South Beach 18 in Miami Beach, and the Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton. Click here and then click on GET TICKETS to find the theater nearest you.


The game-changing character in Mr. Allen's new series -- quite similar in intentions and even looks (if not at all similar in style and depiction) to American Pastoral's Merry -- is Lenny Dale, played by, of all people, Miley Cyrus (above, left), who is actually good -- charming, bright and alluring -- enough to attract another important character, the also bright-but-too-buttoned-down young businessman, Alan, played by the very good John Magaro (above, right).

It is into the upper-middle-class home of TV and novel writer, S. J. Munsinger (played by Mr. Allen, above, left) and his wife, Kay (the wonderful Elaine May, above, right), that the gun-toting Lennie breaks one late night, turning the Munsinger household upside down. On the run from the law for a number of "terrorist" acts, Lennie brings up those same themes of justice, retribution, rights and wrongs.

But this, being a Woody Allen creation, uses all these same themes for lighter entertainment. The series begins, however, with a montage of 60s events -- civil rights, Vietnam, etc -- that offers ample evidence of Lennie's claims, and so, even as we chuckle and chortle throughout these six episodes, with each one lasting around 22 minutes and giving us a little over two hours of fun and games, we are still consistently reminded of what -- out there and far away from this comfortable household -- is happening to others, thanks to American policy, both foreign and domestic.

If this sounds like an odd combination, it certainly is. Yet Allen pulls it off with his usual savoir faire. His S. J. Munsiger (note the syllable similarity to a certain J.D. Salinger -- which is used for a very funny situation late in the series), offers Mr. Allen in his typically nerdy, neurotic schlemiel mode (just older here). He is as funny as ever, and his ability to satirize the 60s/70s in terms of how events effected (usually not) the comfortable middle class is very much on target.

In his large supporting cast appear everyone from Joy Behar (above, center), as one of Mrs. Munsinger's book-club attendees, to famous French comic Gad Elmaleh as one of Kay's marriage- counseling clients. (Some of her advice to these clients is very funny, if not perhaps very typical). The break-in leads to consciousness-raising, romance, and some silly but funny derring-do (below) by Sidney and Kay -- all before the everything's-gonna-be-fine finish, which seems to gather together on screen maybe half of Westchester County.

From the ever more active Amazon Originals production group, Crisis in Six Scenes is streaming now and should provide copious laughs and not a little nostalgia for the senior set. Amazon Prime members can watch it free of charge. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's CREEPY: The Japanese master of quiet fright returns -- with a jolt

If you've seen a film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- say, PulseCure, Tokyo Sonata or the beautifully oddball Bright Future -- you'll know how remarkably quiet, riveting, beautifully-if-unshowily composed and surprisingly diverse this filmmaker's work can be. Kurosawa (shown below) is noted mostly for his films that fit somewhere into the thriller/ mystery/other-worldly realm. His latest, the perfectly titled CREEPY, is a terrific addition to that realm.

TrustMovies would call this very creepy movie one of Kurosawa's best, except that I say this about each of the man's films. I've never seen a bad one. He's too subtle and too interested in character and motivation to ever hand us anything so typically "frightening" as those Ringu/TheRing movies. Kurosawa frightens us in an entirely different manner. There is always something beyond our understanding in his films, but he gives this to us in such as way that we buy into it and finally accept that it indeed goes beyond what we can fully comprehend. Somehow he even makes us grateful.

His movies may thrill, frighten, shock and startle us. But they also approach art. Creepy begins with a detective questioning a serial killer and trying to get at the man's motivation and morality. This does not end well.

Soon after, our "hero" (a particularly fine, strong and taciturn performance from one of the best-looking men to grace current cinema, Hidetoshi Nishijima, above, and below, center) is living with his wife and big, shaggy dog in another part of town and attempting to get on with his new life as a teacher, and, along with his wife, to get to know his new neighbors. This does not go well, either, and it leads us, the family, and some of our hero's former co-workers into very dark waters.

To go much further into plot points would spoil things. Suffice it to say that the cast includes the great Teruyuki Kagawa (above, left, and below, from Devils on the Doorstep and Key of Life) as the family's most unusual neighbor, and Yûko Takeuchi , who brings beauty, pathos and finally something very strange and frightening to her role of the detective/teacher's long-suffering (and then simply suffering) wife.

The beyond-our-understanding element here is some kind of strange liquid injected into the various characters that appears to allow them to be controlled utterly. Or maybe only somewhat. The degree is important, and it is central to the theme and mystery here, which deals with responsibility, morality and motivation. By the end of Creepy, you will not only have been creeped-out but left, as are certain family members, to wrestle, perhaps forever, with the results of what they did -- or didn't -- do.
And why.

The movie -- from KimStim Films and running a long but never-for-a-moment dull 130 minutes -- opens this Friday, October 21, in New York City (at the Metrograph), Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts) and San Francisco (Roxie Theater), with a further rollout across the country coming in November. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Justin Kelly's KING COBRA explores the gay porn industry via some real-life characters

Sometimes it seems like just about every second movie is "based on true events." Yesterday's film certainly was; so is today's, though this one deals with a milieu that's a good deal shadier. KING COBRA tackles the tale of one, Sean Paul Lockhart, aka Brent Corrigan and later Fox Ryder, a just-under-age gay kid who leaves his California home to come east and begin making movies and having sex with his mentor/director, the owner of a successful pornography company called Cobra Video. Ambition, jealousy and murder follow.

Earlier this month we covered Seed Money, a documentary about another, even more successful, gay porn operator and his thriving business, though that film -- much more encompassing of time periods, fashions, tastes and trends -- offered nothing so sleazy and blood-splattered as this. Written and directed by Justin Kelly, shown at left, King Cobra proves interesting, of course (what film dealing with all this would not?). It also proves a little too safe.

For a film to want to give us a look at the hardcore porn industry and then completely avoids any full-frontal shots (not even soft: This is a Hollywood product, after all) seems a bit odd, don't you think? Granted, Mr. Kelly and his starry cast are more interested in probing "character" than mere sex play, and he and his actors indeed do a pretty good job of bringing to life these highly troubled strivers.

The four male leads include Christian Slater (above left), as the head of Cobra; Garrett Clayton (center left, above), as the naive twinkie, Lockhart/Corrigan; and James Franco (above, right), as a would-be wealthy fellow who wants to keep his younger, porn-actor lover (Keegan Allen, center, right, and below) in the accustomed style.

Two high-profile actresses -- Molly Ringwald as the Cobra owner's sister, and Alicia Silverstone, as Lockhart's mom -- complete the major cast, but the women's roles are so cursorily conceived and written that these two characters could have been left out of the film entirely with little damage done. No, this movie belong to the guys, as you might expect in a film that deals so heavily with the gay porn industry.

Because three of the four males we meet here are extremely troubled people (Lockhart seems the least so, but then the movie also seems based more on his version of events than on anything else), we're almost constantly confronted with jealousy, ambition run amok, some very bizarre stabs at love (and then some very bizarre stabs), and of course the hot sex. And while the performers are more than up to these tasks, by the finale, despite the obvious strangeness of it all, it somehow seems like a little too much of the same old/same old.

Think of King Cobra as noir gone gay. Or maybe a treatise on the evils of the pornography business (that ends up showing how "good" porn can be made). Or perhaps just a movie that's simultaneously dark and silly. And, in its peculiar way, offers a certain amount of odd, bleak fun.

From IFC Midnight and running 91 minutes, the film opens this Friday, October 21, in limited theatrical release, while hitting VOD the same day.