Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Korean action par excellence in Jung Byung-gil's eye-popping, mind-blowing VILLAINESS

TrustMovies suspects that you might have to go back as far as Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita to find an apt comparison to the new South Korean action flick THE VILLAINESS. What an opening sequence this movie has! This is eight minutes or more of pre-title action and mayhem so violent, funny and enthralling that it barely gives you time to catch your breath. And then the movie gets even better: richer, stranger, funnier and more exciting.

As directed and co-written by Jung Byung-gil (shown below), the film offers up a heroine named Sook-hee who is so daunting in her fury and commitment to revenge and justice that she'll have you rooting for her in no time flat.

As with so many of these action/mayhem movies, especially the Korean variety, the themes includes love, trust, betrayal, and parent-child relations, among other things. And, being Korean, yes, the movie is very dark. This one, in fact, may be among the darkest I've seen. (Don't let that smile on the director's face fool you. He has surprises and disappointments in store here that you would never find in an American action movie.) As for the action itself, it's A-1 and often pretty damned original, too. In the first half, we get a samurai sword-fight while on motorcycles, and the finale finds our heroine chasing a bus while driving atop the hood of her car and then proceeds into full-out, gasp-inducing chaos.

Behind it all is the Korean state/government, and while this movie may take place in South Korea, we still get a good strong whiff of a police state. Why not, given this little country's long and fraught history?

Sook-hee, played quite well by Kim Ok-bin (above, of The Front Line and Thirst) makes a strong and genuinely laudable heroine, and by the time we and she have reached the final frame of the film, the smile that appears on her bloody-but-unbowed face makes the movie's title radiate with appropriate anger, irony and sadness.

The men around Sook-hee are hardly her match, though they do try -- especially the sweet, smitten State-employed handler (Sung Jun) who falls in love with her, as well as the blast-from-the-past who suddenly reappears in her life, as a surprise "target" on her second wedding day (the latter is played by the notable Shin Ha-kyun, above).

Three of the women with whom our heroine works in the "agency" also register strongly: the sweet new recruit who becomes Sook-hee's friend, the older agency diva who is soon her nemesis, and especially the ice-queen agency head (Kim Seo-hyeong, above) for whom trust is a dirty word.

At 124 minutes, the movie does ran a tad too long (though this is relatively short for a Korean film, where audiences demand their money's worth, in quantity as well as quality). The filmmaker also packs his tale with flash-backs that fill in some of the blanks in our understanding of Sook-hee's life.

Even if you're not a fan of this kind of film, The Villainess may well win you over (or at least wear you down into "uncle"-crying submission). If you are a fan, better stick it on your "must-see" list now.

From WELL GO USA Entertainment, the movie opens this Friday, August 25, in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Los Angeles at AMC's Dine-In Sunset 5. A limited national release will follow in September. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled cities and theaters.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj's POLINA, a young dancer must find her identity

Art, creativity, dance, choreography, and finally finding oneself: all of these themes shimmer and glow, wax and wane in the course of the new and unusual movie, POLINA. A French film with Russian roots, it is co-directed by Valérie Müller and her husband, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. This pairing of filmmaker and choreographer results in one of the better examples of a movie that tackles art and creativity and actually allows its audience to discover in a believable and dramatic fashion exactly how these things come into being.

There is still a mystery at the movie's core. There must be where creativity is concerned. But the filmmakers (shown above, with Mr. Preljocaj on the right) manage to get so much right -- from a youth spent in the service of one's parents' desires for their children's future to the awakening of a classical ballet dancer to the surprise and joy to be found in modern dance -- that Polina, both the character and her film, seems by virtue of how she blooms and evolves, to be quite an original creation.

As played by two actresses (Veronika Zhovnytska, above, center, is the young schoolgirl, while Anastasia Shevtsova, below, with Niels Schneider, portrays the more mature version), Polina is fascinating figure who never reveals herself fully. This makes the movie even richer, I suspect. She's very talented, smart and caring, and her love for dance -- ballet, modern and finally choreography itself -- is clearly and beautifully demonstrated by both the actresses and the filmmakers.

Director Müller has made two documentaries previously (this is her second feature-length film) but Preljocaj is both a filmmaker and a rather famous choreographer. This film collaboration seems an inspired one, especially in its use of choreography, which is first-class throughout. In fact, TrustMovies does not recall another narrative film (except maybe The Red Shoes and some of Gene Kelly's work) in which choreography proved this vital and important to the tale being told.

From Polina's ballet training to her sudden but full-out revelation of the beauty of modern dance to her first experience with improvisation and finally to her incipient choreography, each step, and its accompanying dancing, seems wonderfully on-the-mark, giving us access not only to the dance itself, but to Polina's experience of it. The film's finale offers one of the most beautiful, moving, and glorious dance duets I can recall -- giving us Polina, her partner (Paris Opera star Jérémie Bélingard, above, a knock-out) and Preljocaj at the top of their game.

Along the path of Polina's education, she is introduced to modern dance via the choreography and person of the head of dance company, played with enormous heat, heart and understanding by the great Juliette Binoche, above. (Is there nothing Ms Binoche cannot do, I wonder? Except play comedy, when the director is as graceless as Bruno Dumont.) This section is as fascinating and full as the rest of the film, and marks yet another change of direction for our troubled heroine.

Ms Müller allows Polina to work out her pathway and life without resorting to melodramatic flourishes. Thus the movie is relatively quiet, despite the fact of her father's involvement with what looks like the Russian mafia. Without even a mention of it, the film is absolutely feminist, and it also offers life lessons without unduly pushing them upon us. Polina is a positive, engaging surprise in just about every way. (That's Alexsey Guskov, below, who plays Polina's smart, stern and caring ballet instructor with just the right degree of rectitude and sentiment.)

From Oscilloscope Films and running 109 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, August 25 in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. On September 1, it opens in Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and Washignton DC (at the Landmark E Street), with a limited nationwide rollout to follow. Here in South Florida it opens on Friday, September 15, in Miami at the Bill Cosford Cinema and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theater. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A country and a family on the road to ruin in Syllas Tzoumerkas' Greek drama, A BLAST

What was it like to have been a citizen of Greece back in 2014, when the film under consideration here -- A BLAST -- was first released? In it, we watch, semi-hypnotized by the behavior -- crazy, highly sexual, and not very loving -- of the family members we encounter. Even when they appear to be trying to approximate kindness, most of their actions comes out as either passive-aggressive or full out angry. And why not, since their country is headed for, if not already completely mired in financial ruin. As the whipping boy for the IMF and World Bank, Greece's employment rate was running at around 28 per cent, with the youth unemployment rate nearly double that. The family's personal lives and financial situation, we soon discover, are even worse.

As written and directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas (shown at left, and more recently the co-writer of that self-destructive doctor movie, Suntan), A Blast begins in media res, as we see a car racing through a forest near the sea, even as we hear a news report of a fire seemingly caused by arson. Tzoumerkas then flashes back to (sort of) happier days, and we see a pair of adults siblings playing/fighting at the beach, as exposition is dropped fairly speedily and well, prior to our meeting these young ladies' parents: mom, confined to a wheelchair but still apparently ruling the roost, along with a rather weak-willed dad.

Our star and heroine, Maria, is played by the oft-seen Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia (above and below, from Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster), a beautiful woman who possesses a good body, expressive face and a fine array of acting chops. In this particular film however, Ms Papoulia proves mostly sex-crazed.

In one bizarre scene (above), she goes into a computer room full of men at work, turns on her computer to a porn site and proceeds to watch and listen, even as the poor guys around her find it, well, hard to concentrate on their own screen.

Her need for sex would seem to stem, at least in part, from the unavailability of her extremely handsome and hunky husband, Yannis (newcomer Vassilis Doganis, above and below), a Greek marine who's off at sea for much of the time. Yannis himself seems to be getting plenty of sex, even if his wife is not: We see him with a pretty black woman at one point (perhaps a prostitute), and then, having a very hot encounter with a male shipmate. Filmmaker Tzoumerkas makes certain we get, early on, a full-frame, full-frontal of his actor in the nude, and then intercuts often pieces of a soft-core sex scene (below) into his film's flashbacks. Thus we get plenty of the physicality of this rather amazing performer, whose first film this was, and who, according to the IMDB, has not been heard of since. Not to worry, what we see of him in A Blast should make Mr. Doganis a rather permanent fixture in some of our sexual memory banks.

As the family's fortunes wane further, and mom's misdeeds (that's Themis Bazaka in the role, below) become apparent, daughter Maria grows crazier and crazier. While Ms Papoulia does a bang-up job of creating this woman's disintegration, Mr. Tzoumerkas has not given us quite enough depth in his screenplay to make the movie into the tragedy that this kind of story probably deserves.

The family seems simply too crazy too soon, and so, even as more weird incidents pile up, our sympathy fails to be engaged past a certain surface point. The situation -- Greece's and the family's -- is certainly fraught and vitally important. Yet the handling of it all, while perhaps enough for the Greek audience that has by now lived through so much pain, austerity and other major crap, may not prove quite enough for those of us internationally who have yet to feel the ever-tightening vise of globalization and wealth inequality as wielded by the world's most powerful at their most damaging.

Perhaps a little less sex and a little more specificity regarding Greek life, family and otherwise, might have made this movie -- if less marketable internationally -- more meaningful and important.

From IndiePix Films and running a just-about-right 80 minutes, A Blast makes its U.S. DVD debut this coming Tuesday, August 22 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sacha Guitry's LA POISON gets The Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-ray & DVD

Sacha Guitry. Hmmm... Of course, you've heard the name of this Russian-born, French playwright/filmmaker/actor. But his actual work...? Not so easily or quickly identified. As much as TrustMovies prides himself on knowing and appreciating French film, he is embarrassed to say that, until viewing LA POISON -- the 1951 film to be released on Blu-ray and DVD this coming week via The Criterion Collection -- he had never actually seen a Guitry movie. All that has now changed, as I plan to lap up each and every film by this fellow that I can find.

La Poison proves an original surprise from its opening credits onward. In those credits, which suddenly move from the usual written-words-on-screen to an in-person appreciation, as M. Guitry -- shown above, center, with two of his actors from the film -- takes the time and trouble to thank each of his actors, as well as his cinematographer, editor, set designer, music composer and every last person who collaborated on the film for their efforts. (He even makes a quick phone call to thank a woman we never see but whose voice we hear in the film.) Guitry also manages to get in a delightful bit of praise for, as well as a dig at, La Comédie-Française, regarding those two actors (Jean Debucourt, left, and Jacques Varennes, who flank him, above.

Because, La Poison is the first and only piece of Guitry I've seen, I must base my ideas and opinion solely on it. From this, I'd say the man had a great gift for witty dialog, smart and subtle satire, and a marvelous appreciation of human hypocrisy combined with a gift for unveiling that hypocrisy in all its varied splendor. His theme here is marriage gone about as sour as marriage can go, which had led to its participants' plans to do away with each other. Hers (Germaine Reuver, above), the poison of the title, is the more standard approach, while his (that great and unique French actor Michel Simon, at left, below) turns out to be something quite different that blossoms and evolves in amazing ways as the plot unfurls.

Guitry's film begins slowly and sweetly, with a look a "typical" French provincial town that turns out to be both typical and not so. The town's priest (Albert Duvaleix, above, right), as in the work of Marcel Pagnol, dispenses as much logic and solid, worthwhile advice, as he does religion, while the town gossip, (Pauline Carton, below), rather than being some mean-spirited bitch, turns out to be pretty smart, as she and the town pharmacist go over the various ailments that plague the citizens, and she compares here own notes regarding a person's character with the prescription given him (or her). This is a scene -- cleverly mixing humor, intelligence and moral ambiguity -- that you will not have encountered.

Once the "murder" plot is set in motion, the pace picks up mightily, as do the film's humor, satire and surprise. How Guitry works out his particular and peculiar "morality" is as smart, shocking and delightful as anything you'll have seen. Tt will have you alternately laughing and gasping, and always alert so as not to miss a single, clever, engaging bit of word play or moral hypothesis.

Performances are all you could want (Guitry clearly knew his actors and what they could accomplish like the back of his hand), and his keen appreciation of what human beings -- including, yes, children -- so often understand and can reveal seem to me pretty extraordinary. (That's Jeanne Fusier-Gir, above center, as the town florist.)

Criterion's new Blu-ray is spectacular indeed. The transfer could hardly look better, competing I should think, with the film's quality at the time of its theatrical release. Supplements include a lovely appreciation of Guitry, his work, and particularly this film, by no less than Olivier Assayas, while the supplementary 24-page booklet includes a fascinating essay by Ginette Vincendeau that details the movies strengths, as well as its misogyny, along with details of Guitry's life and WWII activities. It's a must-read (but see the film first), as is the wonderful obituary on Guitry included here, which was written by François Truffaut.

Arriving on both Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection this coming Tuesday, August 22, La Poison, in French with English subtitles and running just 85 minutes, will be available for both purchase and rental.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Joshua Z. Weinstein's MENASHE: Inside Brooklyn's Hasidic community, undercover

Likely, for non-Jewish viewers at least, to set Judaism back maybe 200 years, MENASHE -- the first full-length narrative film from Joshua Z. Weinstein (below, who directed the much better "Taxi Garage" episode from the documentary True New York) proves a very well-acted piece of utter nonsense. Other reviewers have suggested keeping an open mind regarding the film, but I would suggest a sieve or colander instead. TrustMovies admits he has little interest in or affection for the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, but he has certainly enjoyed and found worthwhile other films concerning this subject (A Price Above Rubies is one of these).

Menashe, however, is so thoroughly misjudged in terms of its plotting and especially its title character "hero," whose stupidity is such a complete turn-off  -- he quite literally does everything wrong -- that only the simple-minded could care much about him or what happens to him. This is not due to the actor, newcomer Menashe Lustig, shown above and below, who plays the title role (and quite well), but to the writer/ director's ham-fisted handling of it all. Really Mr. Weinstein, how did this poor schlub mange to even reach adulthood intact -- let alone marry, have a child and find any kind of permanent employment? I find it odd that critics would refuse to accept this sort of manipulative deck-stacking in even a silly rom-com -- but here, it's OK?

Well not by me. Menashe, both the man and the movie, seem to do just about everything to undercut themselves and any possible success that either might have. We can take a little of this, even a medium amount along the way. But when every last event smacks of stupidity and failure (culminating in a smoke-filled apartment that could have been avoided so easily and more helpfully for all concerned), red flags have arisen to the point of practically blocking out all else we see on-screen.

This is too bad because the remaining actors here are also excellent, in particular the boy, Reuben Niborski (above, right), who plays Menashe's son, and Mr. Weinstein has managed a couple of other odd feats, as well. For one thing, he has shot his film with the actors speaking in Yiddish, a language the filmmaker admits to not speaking nor understanding and that is almost never used in films. (Not to worry, there are English subtitles aplenty.) He also made his movie on the sly, since the Hasidic community does not permit cinematography within its bounds. So any scenes that involve the community at large were photographed surreptitiously.

While one might debate the ethics (or lack of them) involved here, Weinstein's inter-weaving of these scenes with those that are more intimate and could be shot elsewhere is impressive and pretty seamless. And as he draws fine performance from his entire cast, there is much to be impressed with in Menashe.

Yet, as the movie continues on its dour and tiresome way, it becomes increasingly a heavy slough. And its would-be happy (or at least happier) ending also seems suspect. Now, after all this, our hero decides to "get with the program"? OK. If you say so.

Is Menashe fair to the Hasidic community? No more nor less so that other films that have offered this slice-of-life up for appraisal. It is a community closed off and unwelcoming except to those who tow the line. And since that line includes the likes of "Women should not be allowed to have a driver's license" (an opinion that is voiced by a female yet!), most audiences, I fear, will not be positively impressed.

Or maybe, unlike that famous old Levy's Rye Bread commercial, you really do have to be Jewish, after all.

Meanwhile, Menashe, which has already opened in major cities, hits South Florida today at the following venues: in Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the AMC Aventura, Tower Cinema and O Cinema Miami Beach; in the Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Lake Worth areas at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theater, Cinemark Palace, and the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Elsewhere across the USA, click here to find a theater near you.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WHOSE STREETS? Documentarians Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis answer the question

Here we are again, back in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Michael Brown and the aftermath of that death. Yet, as much as you may have heard, seen and read about young Mr. Brown and the city and peculiar culture of Ferguson (and TrustMovies saw, heard and read quite a lot about it during those fraught weeks following that August 2014 shooting), nothing has had quite the impact carried by the new documentary, WHOSE STREETS?, directed and co-produced by the team of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis (shown below, with Mr. Davis on the left).

The documentary's sense of vivid immediacy comes via the footage videoed during the time immediately after the shooting and beyond, as Ferguson residents -- some of them activists and civic leaders, most of them just inhabitants -- take to the streets in grief and anger as, slowly, the history of this mostly black city-under-siege come to light. Yes, the movie is too long and too repetitive (more judicious editing could have easily snipped ten to fifteen minutes), but its power and timeliness is unassailable. Unless, of course, you're one of those who marched (or would have liked to) for white supremacy last week in Charlottesville.

The angle taken by Ms Folayn and Mr. Davis is direct and personal. As one elderly protestor notes early on: "We're not doin' this just to be rantin' and ravin'. We want to talk about this issue." The issue, of course, turned out to be about much more than Brown's death, which was a horrible outcome of the continued suffering that residents of Ferguson have experience down the decades. (The Federal investigation into this showed quite clearly the injustice at work here.)

In addition to Ferguson residents, we also hear from the police, the Missouri governor, and even from that weak sister, President Obama. The media coverage -- we see prevaricator Brian Williams and Fox News, among others -- was often garbage, as it remains today, but some of the witnesses and residents proves compelling, in particular a young father whose CopWatch camera captures quite a lot (until the lease on his apartment is refused renewal by the corporation that owns the building), a young mother and her daughter (who isn't so happy about all her homework), and a young woman whose chant, "We will continue to fight for our rights!" proves a rallying cry for a neighborhood.

These people and others help bring the movie to sad and angry life. When a second young man -- Vonderrit Myers -- is also killed in October 2014, the movement, as one protester explains, is "re-energized."  The film is full of angry, poignant moments -- from the chant of "This is what Democracy looks like!" (if only) to a demonstration leader advising the local clergy to "Get up off your ass and join us!" to a young man who explains, "I gotta live here when they (the media) leave."

The single shot of the face of a lone black policewoman during the demonstrations may be worth the entire movie, and by the time we get to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson (the police officer who shot Michael Brown) and the riots/protests begin once again, you will more than understand how the Black Lives Matter movement arose of out of these -- and so many other -- deaths of unarmed black men and women.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a little long at 100 minutes, Whose Streets? opens tomorrow, Friday, August 18, here in South Florida exclusively at the O Cinema Wynwood. Wherever you live around the USA, click here to locate the theaters nearest you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan writes and directs another fine where's-the-justice? movie

One of last year's best films, Hell or High Water, turns out to have been no fluke, as its first-class writer, Taylor Sheridan, is back this year with another top-notch movie that is again all about trying to obtain a little justice from people and things -- think corporations, society, America -- that are quite unwilling to provide it. Hell or High Water tracked the banking industry in Texas, while Sheridan's new one WIND RIVER, which the writer has also directed, is set on an Indian reservation in Wyoming, where the malfeasance has dribbled down from another sort of corporate entity into its employees.

If Mr. Sheridan (shown at left, who also has had quite a lengthy career as actor) is not quite up to the level of the two directors who have filmed his other screenplays -- David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve -- he has nonetheless done a very respectable job, and often more than that. He captures with great strength and tact the the pain and grief surrounding a death in the family (two families, actually), as well as handling the mystery and thriller elements very well, too. In fact, his movie's single action scene is one of the best we've witnessed in a film in quite some time.

This extended scene (above) is by turns surprising, suspenseful, shocking and as full of violent action as a connoisseur could want. But it is in the quiet, thoughtful moments that Sheridan's poise and accomplishments are also evident, never more so than in the film's final scene, as our hero (one of them, anyway, given a deep, quiet and full embodiment by the excellent Jeremy Renner) and his Indian friend (another wonderful performance from Hell or High Water's Gil Birmingham) sit in the snow, below, as they quietly talk and ponder.

Sheridan's stars here are Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, below, making further good on the predictions of a long and starry career made at the time of this actress' earliest appearances on film. These two work so well together, even as their characters keep their appropriate and professional distance, that I hope we'll see them together in other films again soon.

Mr. Sheridan's deepest concerns appear to be with the longing for and journey toward justice. In Hell or High Water, this is fraught with ironies and sadness. Here it is more direct but no less difficult. Wind River is a depressing movie -- what film about American Indians worth its salt would not be? -- but it is so well conceived and executed that I doubt you will be bored for even one moment of its 107-minute running time. The film is alternately sad and darkly funny, surprising and lively, thrilling and doleful.

All the subsidiary characters come to vital life, too, and this is not easy, I suspect, for a relatively new filmmaker to achieve. Sheridan's writing is unusually on the mark, however, giving us lots of info with little verbiage.

From The Weinstein Company, the movie opened in New York and L.A. a week or two back and hits South Florida this Friday, August 18 -- in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale areas at AMC's Aventura Mall 24, Coral Ridge 10, Sunset Place 24, and Weston 8; at the Cinebistro at Cityplace, Dolphin Mall 19 Theatre, Miami Lakes 17,  Cinemark Paradise 24, Cinepolis Grove 13, Cinepolis Deerfield 8, Deerfield Beach,  Gateway 4, IPIC Intracoastal, The Landmark at Merrick, and Regal's Oakwood 18, Kendall Village Stadium 16 and South Beach 18. In West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, you find it at AMC's CityPlace 20, The Movies of Delray, Downtown 16 Cinemas Palm Beach Gardens, Cinemark's Palace 20 and Boynton Beach 14, Cinepolis Jupiter 14, IPic Entertainment Mizner Park 8, Regal Shadowood 16 and Royal Palm Beach 18. Wherever else you reside in our large, and increasingly Trump-dumbed-down country, click here to find the theaters nearest you.