Thursday, July 20, 2017

Such imagination! Luc Besson's VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS arrives

For those of us who've loved Luc Besson's earlier work -- La Femme Nikita, The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element and Lucy -- the chance to see this filmmaker bounce back with another imaginative gem is too good to pass up. Bounce he does, and then some. His new VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is a delightful, if a little too lengthy, adventure that puts the leaden and repetitive garbage of the Star Wars franchise to utter shame. It's ever so light on its feet, full of amazing visual effects and wonderfully weird creatures, even as it leads us into and through a hugely involved narrative so easily and richly that we follow along, lapping it up like the happy puppies we moviegoers remain when confronted with a space-travel/kids-adventure movie this clever and enchanting.

M. Besson (shown at left), bless his naughty little heart, also has some fun for the more sophisticated adults on hand. Take his sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space-age pimp, and Rhianna (shown below) as his most special "girl." Here, the latter shape shifts into just about every good-old-fashioned heterosexual male fantasy -- from school-girl to nurse to bondage queen and lots more -- and yet the movie remains so good-natured and welcoming that it never comes near betraying its deserved PG rating. (The violence, too, is distanced and quick; no wallowing in blood and gore here.)

And if the movie's plot is the usual piffle, its theme -- protecting all species and living in harmony (that's what the titular "City of Thousand Planets" is all about) -- is always worth considering.

The leading actors -- Dane De Haan and Cara Delavigne (above) - are just fine as sparring partners and would-be lovers, while Clive Owen (below) makes a perfectly nasty, irredeemable villain.

But it's the vast and amazing array of those other "species" that makes the movie so much fun. As adapted by Besson (from the French comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières), the screenplay introduces each of these bizarre wonders and then spends just enough time with them so that we understand what they're about and what they need to accomplish -- before moving on to the next delight.

This makes the movie bounce along with surprising energy and incident, and just at that moment prior to our saying, OK enough, we're already on to another bit of wonderment. There are so many of these oddball creations that I'll just mention a couple here: the greedy, talkative trio of know-it-alls (above) who land our hero and heroine in and out of trouble, and the aggressive, non-stop alien "attack dog" (below) who gives our twosome quite the clever chase.

Especially lovely is the planet and its inhabitants (two photos below) who set the movie in motion and help conclude it in the kind of feel-good fashion that will please the kids, while providing the lovely beach (shown at bottom) where our twosome may someday honeymoon, if they're lucky.

Interestingly enough, neither Valerian nor his Laureline are anything approaching super-heroes. They are simply very good at what they do, while making the best use of the current technology at hand.

Consequently, I fear, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is simply too smart and too creative for our current dumbed-down audiences (and critics, too), not to mention our cretinous Trump followers who will demand much more violence and hatred than is on display here. (Besson's film is clearly pro-immigration.) So the movie may come and go without making much of a splash now. But like so much of M. Besson's work, it will linger to find an increasingly appreciative audience over time.

From STX Entertainment and running 2 hours and 17 minutes, the movie opens just about everywhere tomorrow, Friday, July 21. To see about a location near you and/or tickets for same, simply click here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ opens: Gastón Solnicki's gorgeous look at Argentine young ladies

The word Kékszakállú is evidently the Hungarian term for Bluebeard, and the movie KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ, from Argentine filmmaker Gastón Solnicki, is said by the writer/director to have been inspired in part by the one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. None of this was in the least evident to me, while watching this very interesting film, though I'm told that selections from that opera are to be found in the movie's musical score. I don't think any of this really matters, however, in terms of one's enjoyment or even understanding of the motion picture.

If you've an appreciation of the visual -- color, composition, camera movement and the like, I don't see how you can not find yourself enrapt, eye-wise at least, by Solnicki's work (the filmmaker is shown at right). Understanding it is another matter.

Since viewing the film, I've read some other writings about it, which purport to explain Solnicki's intentions but to me seem something less than compelling. I won't explain them here because I believe you ought to approach this movie on your own as a pretty much blank slate.

Afterward, sure, go ahead and look up various criticisms and make of them what you will. Meanwhile, just watch and listen and enjoy the really amazing visual sense this filmmaker possesses. We're somewhere in South America, it seems. I noticed references to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina (since I believe the letter to be the filmmaker's home), though the characters here do seem to move around some.

Initially we see a lot of very good looking young bodies on display, in and out of pools, sun-bathing and the like. Clearly we're among the leisure class, with one exception it would seem. However this young woman, below, though she initially appears to be working class, comes from a somewhat wealthy family, too. It is her story the filmmaker seems to connect with most of all.

When I say "story," I am using the term about as loosely as a narrative film can manage. There certainly is no plot here, and the characters are defined by snippets of such minimal dialog that we can only conclude that they are wondering somewhat about their future and what it holds. One young woman does try to imagine herself in various work situations, with not much luck. (And she's a piss-poor driver, to boot.)

There is a heavy sense here of ennui in the present and trepidation of the future. And yet there is almost no indication from any of these young women (the young men are around mostly for decoration -- which they certainly provide) of anything in the larger world that might exist outside their immediate lives and desires. To call them shallow is to accord them a little too much depth.

What we see of the workplace, pristine and sterile, is equally minor -- used mostly, once again, for some great visuals. (One set actually resembles some outre Rube Goldberg invention.) Almost all the living interiors are beautiful and swank, while nature and the outdoors is green and lush. (One character, the hunky young man below, does seem to have come down with a case of maybe poison ivy, however.)

The ending, too, can be taken in alternate ways: positive, toward a new future, or negative, heading into darkness with no map or direction in sight. Still, I'd watch the film all over again (it lasts only 72 minutes), just for the wonderful visuals. The stunning cinematography (from Fernando Lockett and Diego Poleri) is sharp, clear and full of content that continually pleases the eye.

Distributed by Cinema Tropical in partnership with Cinema Slate, the film opens in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this Friday, July 21, and will expand, one hopes, elsewhere over the weeks to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Klaus Härö's THE FENCER -- shortlisted for 2015's BFLF Oscar -- finally opens in the USA

Lovely, old-fashioned movie-making that has a splendid, based-on-real-life story to tell, it's easy to understand why THE FENCER made the early cut for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination two years back. It's also easy to see why it did not make the final cut of five films, as -- good as it is -- it's a little too predictable in its style, storytelling and just about all else. But that should not detract from the pleasure and enjoyment the movie will bring to audiences, particularly, I suspect, the senior crowd.

As written by Anna Heinämaa and directed by Klaus Härö (shown at left), the film is consistently a treat to view -- even if it is set in a pretty ugly Estonia of the 1950s. That little country, bordering the Baltic Sea across from Finland, was invaded by Germany during World War II, and then occupied post-war by the USSR until that Communist behemoth dissolved into its continuing orgy of Oligarchy Capitalism after 1991. The film begins with a title card explaining how certain Estonian men, having been forcibly conscripted into the German Nazi army, had to then hide their past from the Russian authorities or face prison and worse -- for something over which they had no control.

Such is the fate of the film's hero, Ender, played with a understandable combination of fear and withholding by Märt Avandi (shown above), who flees Leningrad for Estonia and there takes a job teaching physical education in a small-town school.

In better days, he was a competitive fencer, so when he is forced by his nasty superior to coach a Saturday sports class, he ends up teaching that class how to fence.

If his nemesis, the school principal (nicely played by Hendrik Toompere, above center), is a bit too much of a lip-smacking villain (as is his overly eager assistant (Jaak Prints, above, left), well, this is all part of the film's old-fashioned fun.

As is Ender's newly-found girlfriend, another teacher at his school, portrayed with the necessary obeisance-masking-deeper-grit that was required by women back in the 1950s (and, oh gosh, often today, too) by the lovely actress, Ursula Ratasepp (above, center right).

The students are pretty much standard-issue, except for two of them: Jaan, a boy whose caring and intelligent grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak, above, left, of the wonderful Tangerines) evidently has in his past some issues of interest to the Russian police, and the quietly intense girl, Marta (a terrifically alert and focused performance from young Liisa Koppel, shown

at bottom and on the poster image, top), who is the first to ask for fencing lessons and goes on be a part of the fencing team entered into the competition in Leningrad (above) that will bring all the movie's plot strands together for an effective climax.

As I say, other than the unusual tale told, together with its accompanying history and location, the movie is relatively predictable. But it is every bit as enjoyable, too.

From CFI Releasing, in Estonian and Russian with English subtitles, and running 99 minutes, The Fencer opens theatrically this Friday, July 21, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, and on August 11 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 and in other cities simultaneously. Here in South Florida, it will open on August 18 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters,
click here and then scroll down.

Damien Power's crackerjack -- but extremely ugly -- survival thriller, KILLING GROUND

As much as I am in awe of KILLING GROUND -- which is the best film of this particular sub-genre (lovers-go-camping-and must-suddenly-fight-for-their lives) that TrustMovies has yet seen -- I am somewhat loathe to recommend it unless I also say that, as frightening and thrilling as it is, it's also one of the most matter-of-fact ugly movies I have ever seen. Now, it is nowhere near the bloodiest nor goriest of this genre. In fact, there is about as little of all that as could be imagined, considering what happens here.

And yet in this, his first full-length film after a slew of shorts, writer/director Damien Power (shown at left) has managed to get just about everything right. This would include the ability to engage us with his characters (all of them, good and evil); build suspense and atmosphere in equally deft, quick strokes; rouse simply superb performances from everyone on screen (including a near-infant and a dog); and then, once the tension he's created has reached its peak and the plot's "explosion" has occurred, see to it that we're practically unable to take a breath until those final credits start to roll. The filmmaker even manages to lay out his tale using past and present in a way that keeps us unnerved and guessing until that aforementioned explosion of violence takes place, making inevitable all that follows.

The movie of which Killing Ground may most remind you would be Eden Lake, the James Watkins 2008 survival thriller starring Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender. This one is even better, more sophisticated in both its construction and execution, and equally unnerving and thrilling. Also, the filmmaker thankfully refrains from making us view a lot of the horror that happens. This will displease torture-porn connoisseurs. Yet the scenario itself is so full of irredeemable ugliness that I can't imagine anyone accusing Mr. Power of being too prissy.

Our lead characters are a couple who is, from the sound of things, thinking about getting hitched fairly soon. He (the fine Ian Meadows, above) is a doctor, and she (an even better Harriet Dyer, below) is -- hmmm... I am not even sure I know or remember what occupation she has (other than trying to stay alive). They arrive at their camping destination to discover another tent pitched ahead of theirs. Yet no one is in it, so the couple expects to see and meet their "neighbors" fairly soon.

The villains of the piece are two men (Aaron Pedersen, below, right, and Aaron Glenane, below, left) who are revealed along the way as Outback psychopaths (the setting here is Australia). Their behavior grows crazier as the movie rolls along, but that behavior also cannot be discounted because, as nutty as it gets, it still unfortunately seems to fit these truly frightening and unpredictable characters all too well.

While our hero and heroine would seem no match for these two men, the latter's very oddness and plentiful kinks play into what happens and why. There is another entire set of characters, too, and these -- a father, his relatively new bride, their barely out of infancy child, and his daughter (Tiarnie Coupland, below) from an earlier marriage -- bring the past into the present, while giving the movie its ugliest charge.

That's it for plot, so as not to provide any more spoilers. The film, by the way, is highly feminist -- in its own non-showy way. So if you're partial to suspense, creeping dread, and edge-of-your-seat thrills, you could hardly do better than Killing Ground. But, yikes: You've been warned.

From IFC Midnight and running a sleek 88 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, July 21, in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset. If you're near neither city, despair not: The movie simultaneously hits VOD nationwide.

Monday, July 17, 2017

In Andrew Becker & Daniel Mehrer's SANTOALLA, a near-empty Galician village mirrors immigration, culture clash and murder

In their debut film, SANTOALLA, a new documentary, Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer take us to that titular location, a word which turns out to be a kind of contraction of the actual name of the tiny village of Santa Eulalia in Galicia, Spain. Here, amidst the lovely-if-wild landscape and the charming, friendly goats, we meet an interesting couple from The Netherlands, Martin Verfondem and Margo Pool, who, two decades back, decided to leave the "big city" and find some quiet, rustic spot far from civilization where they could set up their own self-sustaining farm and home.

After traveling Europe and Asia for two years in their RV, the couple (shown below; the filmmakers are shown above, with Mr. Becker on the left), at last found what they imagined would be the perfect spot: the nearly deserted village of Santoalla, which at this point in time had only a single Galician family remaining there: an aged husband and wife and their two sons, one of whom is mentally handicapped.

What happened once Martin and Margo bought an abandoned stable, began turning it into their home, planting their crops and raising their farm animals, turned out to be not quite what this enterprising couple had in mind. Initially, however, things looked awfully good. The pair seems like as perfect a couple for this sort of endeavor as you could find.

Becker and Mehrer give us Martin and Margo's story via archival photos and film, along with interviews with Margo and the neighboring family. As tensions rise due to that family's (the husband and wife are shown below) objecting to Martin's plans for not only his and Margo's farm but for the little village itself, we also get some local television reporting, courtroom appearances, and finally, once Martin suddenly and inexplicably disappears altogether, the local police are called in.

This is a sad, depressing but not, TrustMovies thinks, all that unusual a true-life tale, particularly when tradition clashes with modernity, one culture with another, immigration raises its head (if in a rather different manner than we are sued to these days) and the power implicit in being the sole occupants of a town is suddenly challenged. Yet for all that's going on here, the documentary drags from time to time. Instead of all those lengthy tracking shots, minutes might have been better served by footage devoted to further interviews with police, as the mystery begins to be solved.

On the other hand, I suspect that the local police were maybe not so eager to give extended interviews. Certainly that neighboring family was not. From what we see of the four of them, they were never more than quasi-welcoming to begin with, and the wife/mother (shown above), in particular, contradicts herself often enough to seem an outright liar. (Either that, or she has already grown demented.)

By the end of Santoalla, we've seen and heard enough to have our appetite for resolution sated, our feeling for poor, left-alone Margo increased exponentially, and perhaps our idea of starting an organic farm in a lovely far-away location thoroughly dragged through the mud of reality. Still: those friendly, prancing little goats are fucking adorable.

From Oscilloscope Films, running 83 minutes, and in English and Galician with English subtitles, the documentary opens this Wednesday, July 19, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, on Friday July 28 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and in Taos, New Mexico, on Sunday, August 13 at the Taos Center for the Arts.  Click here and then click on SCREENINGS on the Task Bar at top to see any subsequently scheduled screenings.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

AMNESIA: Marthe Keller stars in the versatile Barbet Schroeder's latest surprise

Say what you will about the career of Iranian-born, raised-in-African-and-South-America, studied-at-the-Sorbonne director, writer and often producer, Barbet Schroeder, but this hugely versatile and usually successful fellow seems to be able to make movies both documentary (Terror's Advocate) and narrative, the latter in multitudinous genres -- from More to Maîtresse, Barfly, Reversal of Fortune and now his latest addition, an intimate little drama of past, present, guilt and sound, entitled AMNESIA.

Mr. Schroeder, shown at left, certainly chooses interesting projects, as a quick scan of his IMDB resume will prove. His latest, the bittersweet story of a German expat woman in her senior years coming to terms with her past, also gives this senior-years filmmaker (he'll be 76 next month) the opportunity to explore things like guilt, courage, memory and retribution.

For his lead actress and star, Schroeder is fortunate to have a woman who seems to have grown ever more beautiful and able over the years. That would be Marthe Keller, shown below and further below, who plays a character named Martha, about whom we know almost nothing as the film begins. By its end we've learned plenty.

Though set on the uber-photogenic island of Ibiza (in the 1990s), Amnesia deals more with Germany than with Spain, where a German fellow named Jo, played by the current face and body of young Germany, Max Riemelt (below, of The Wave, Free Fall and the often silly but lots of fun Netflix series Sense8), moves in nearby the gorgeous house occupied by Martha and begins what becomes a fast friendship.

Jo has come to Ibiza to work on his music, as well as (or so he hopes) perform as a DJ in a local club (named Amnesia), and soon we and Martha are listening to his music, learning a little about him, and watching as this May/November friendship grows.

Martha is keeping a lot of secrets, and the closer our pair grows, the more we and Jo learn about this lovely, buttoned-up lady. Those secrets involved Martha's past, as well as Germany's, and when Jo's mother (Corinna Kirchhoff), second from right, below and grandfather (played by the great Bruno Ganz, below center and two photos down, the face and body of an older Germany) come for a visit, the shit -- quietly and understatedly -- hits the proverbial fan.

Much of this movie is devoted to sound -- Jo's music, and the quiet, lovely conversations between him and Martha -- and the secrets, those of Martha as well as the grandfather, are revealed simply via talk. This makes the movie much less melodramatic than it might have been in the hands of other filmmakers and/or cast members.

Instead, we are forced to slowly and quietly confront what we see, hear and learn, and then make what we can of it all. There are no villains here, only people who had to make urgent, sometimes horrible decisions, resulting in guilt that leads to a kind of forced amnesia.

And yet the movie, thanks to its simply gorgeous location scenery and its even, thoughtful tone, is never difficult to endure. In fact, it is a genuine pleasure to see and hear Ms Keller in a role that makes such fine use of her skills. Ditto Mr. Riemelt, and the rest of the small cast.

Especially well-done is the very genuine and loving relationship that develops between Martha and Jo and which, though we do not see its consummation, becomes a momentarily physical one, too, I suspect. This sort of thing is tricky, but it handled here about as well as can be.

Mr. Schroeder, as co-writer (with Emilie Bickerton, Peter F. Steinbach and Susan Hoffman), frames his story as mostly flashback, with its opening and closing segments set a decade hence. This works well, too, giving us both closure and a lovely sense of necessary continuity.

From Film Movement and running just 96 minutes, Amnesia opens theatrically this Friday, July 21, in New York City at the Cinema Village, and will then hit several other cities in the weeks to come. (It opens in South Florida at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, August 11.) Click here then scroll down to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. For those of you not in or near the cities where the film will open theatrically, it will simultaneously be available to view on July 21, via VOD.

Note: Barbet Schroeder will be at the opening night 
screening at New York City's Cinema Village this
Friday, July 21, to introduce the film and do a Q&A.