Monday, December 11, 2017

DVDebut for VICEROY'S HOUSE, Gurinder Chadha's superb distillation of India/Pakistan's "independence"

History, we are told, is always written by the winners. In that case, the history of the independence from Britain of India (and the concurrently-created country of Pakistan) has none of these. Certainly not India nor Pakistan, though some might suggest that the British Empire itself was the biggest winner here, being able, first via its colonization of India, to vastly increase Britain's wealth at the expense of the conquered, and then, depleted of its superpower status by World War II and unable to hold on to India, by "granting" the sub-continent its independence while starting one of the world's most vicious religion wars, which resulted in thousands dead and thousands more homeless -- while allowing, for awhile at least, Britain to hang on to those ever-necessary oil reserves. Good job!

If the above description would seem to simplify things a bit, when you take the long view, the simplification is not by much. One of the remarkable achievements of VICEROY'S HOUSE, the latest film from Kenya-born, raised-in-London filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (shown at left, of Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Predjudice) is how she is able to capture the pomp and ceremony, the history and politics, and the personal lives and motives of a half dozen leading characters and then blend all this together into an intelligent, detailed and often quite moving film.

As deftly written, with an eye to both history and drama, by Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini (with some help from Ms Chadha), the movie posits as its heroes Lord Louis Mountbatten, the final British Viceroy of India (played with his usual class and flair by Hugh Bonneville, above, left), his wife (a reasonable, stern and loving Gillian Anderson, above, right) and their daughter, all of whom are presented as more caring of the Indians than were their predecessors. In each of their ways, these people are shown to genuinely want to do what is best for India. But as history consistently reminds us, what is "best" must take in an amalgam of viewpoints.

In this case, is "best" a division into two separate states made up of the Indian Hindus and a new Pakistan of predominantly Muslims, as Jawaharlal Nehru (Taveer Ghani, above) and Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith, below) both want (depending, of course, on the territory they will be given)? Or is it having India remain an undivided state, as populist leader Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) insists?

The Viceroy and his family have been plunked down in the midst of all this, and whatever they can do or decide is, as always, dependent on the powers-that-be, working their magic (or horror) in the background, unseen but never unfelt. All this plays out beside a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story between a Muslim young woman (Huma Qureshi) and a Hindu young man (Manish Dayal), shown below.

Fortunately this love story is brought to enough life and force that it manages to compete for our interest without detracting from the politics and history involved. Ms Chadha is smart enough not to insist on heroes and villains among the Muslim or Hindus, both of whose viewpoints, needs and demands are shown us with surprising force, brevity and often wit. The more we see and learn, the more awful and intractable the situation seems.

TrustMovies was but six years old when the partition of India took place, so he has only come to understand the situation haltingly and certainly not fully since that time. Yet the results of this partition have continued to plague the world, as these enforced divisions of state -- Korea and Vietnam, to name a couple more -- so often do.

If you are looking for an intelligent, thoughtful and moving example of "history goes to the movies," I don't think you could do much better than Viceroy's House -- the only major vice of which, I feel, is the tacked-on finale that brings our love story to a not very believable end. I suppose Ms Chadha wanted to give her audience its feel-good moment. And indeed it does feel good. But much too convenient and not particularly real.

From IFC Films and running 106 minutes, the film hits DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, December 12 -- for purchase and/or rental. And perhaps soon via streaming, too.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DVDebut for the latest Dardenne brothers' moral exploration, THE UNKNOWN GIRL

Yet another moving and detailed exploration of guilt, caring and the acceptance of responsibility from film-making's most humane, dedicated and talented brother teams, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (pictured below, with Luc on the right), THE UNKNOWN GIRL (La fille inconnue) proves one of the siblings' most intensely interesting and meaningful provocations.

In it, a young doctor named Jenny Davin tells her intern not to answer the downstairs buzzer (which is rung only once) because it is long past closing time and this does not appear to be any emergency. The following day the police arrive and ask for the security videotape from outside the building. Jenny soon learns that the young woman who rang the buzzer is now dead, found earlier that day across the street with a very bad dent in her head.

Many people these days would simply shrug this event off with a "too bad for her but not my fault" response. But our good doctor does a bit more than that. It is clear from the start of this film that Jenny, played with a quiet determination that bespeaks deep reserves of caring and commitment by the fine French actress Adèle Haenel (below, and on poster, top), is not about to let this mistake of hers go uncorrected. She cannot bring the girl back from the dead nor, she suspects, even solve this crime (if indeed it was a crime; it might have been something of an accident).

Yet the idea of allowing the dead girl to remain unknown (the police have no clue as to who she was), and thus not being able to inform any family of what happened, proves so troubling to Jenny that she begins her own, very determined investigation. This takes her into quite uncharted territory, especially for a young, caring doctor more used to dealing with sick patients that with what eventually becomes some fairly dark family matters that involve the local police (below), prostitution, and perhaps sex trafficking.

In some ways the film bears comparison to the Dardennes' earlier (and weaker) movie, Lorna's Silence, but it is better in every way, thanks to the conception of Jenny's character and the strength and specificity brought to this by Ms Haenel's performance. And though the film comes close to these dark subjects mentioned above, it remains less a suspense piece or mystery than it does a surprisingly rich study of character(s) under pressure

We are also given a deeper and more profound sense of the town that Jenny and her patients inhabit via some lovely, moving scenes with people of both sexes and various ages. As we meet and become involved with these supporting characters -- above and below -- their own guilt and responsibility is (or is not) slowly uncovered, as well.

How these people respond to Jenny's pushing -- in ways both good and bad but always believable -- may remind you of the Dardennes' recent endeavor, Two Days, One Night. The Unknown Girl, I think, is an equally strong film. It deals, in its own sidelong manner, as does so much of the brothers' work, with immigration and "the other," and with justice and its untimely-if-ever delivery.

Performances are quite real, in the Dardennes' usual documentary style, in which Ms Haenel's work fits like a glove, with an unrecognizable (to TrustMovies, at least) but terrific Dardennes regular, Jérémie Renier, fine as always in the role of the fraught father (shown above, left) of one of the doctor's young patents. Especially lovely, too, is the job done by newcomer Olivier Bonnaud, below, right, who plays that young intern with family/career problems of his own

If you respond, as did I, to the importance of Jenny's search -- during an era in which so much responsibility has been shirked off, if not downright forgotten or deliberately undermined by the corporations and the wealthy who control the crap politicians throughout more and more of our world -- this single act of assuming responsibility will take on enormous importance. It should. And thanks to the Dardennes and Ms Haenel, it is brought to quivering, sad-but-still-glowing life.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films, The Unknown Girl hits DVD this coming Tuesday, December 12, for purchase or rental.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

HEAT AND DUST: Blu-ray/DVD debut for Merchant/Ivory's 4K-restored semi-classic tale of India in the 1920s and the 1980s

If it is not quite up to the levels of those James Ivory and Ismail Merchant classics, Howard's End, MauriceA Room With a View, or The Remains of the Day, not to worry.  The Cohen Film Collection's new release of the 4K restoration of the duo's 1983 film, HEAT AND DUST is more than good enough to rate a viewing (or two -- if not an outright purchase).

This lesser-known but quite fine collaboration, featuring a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on her novel), continues the team's exploration of the sub-continent, its history, culture and mores, with the usual accent on the stupidity and cretinous entitlement of British rule -- without ever leaving out India's own stupidity and backwardness in its attempts at self-rule. The ironies here literally stumble over each other in their sad, merry dance.

Director Ivory, pictured at right, and his screenwriter also poke fun at the American search for "identity and inner peace" that grew ever more assertive during the latter half of the last century, as the young and naive, impacted by the Hare Krishna and other sects, descended upon India in record numbers, searching and/or whining to beat the band.

The young actor, Charles McCaughan (shown below, right), who embodies this American abroad, is a delight, and thanks to the filmmakers' ability to explore human frailty, hypocrisy and denial so cleverly and gracefully, no taint of nastiness or the misanthropic is ever felt.

The director and screenwriter also excel at making clear how the British view of the Indians (just as vice versa) is tainted, so that anything we hear from either about the other must be taken with that proverbial grain of salt. Oh, it very well could be true. But ambiguity always remains.

The stories here span two time periods: India of the 1920s, during which the assistant collector (Christopher Cazenove, above, left) and his new bride (the gloriously beautiful Greta Scacchi, above, right) must adjust to both their British bosses and the India royalty around them.

This tale plays out against another of India in the 1980s, where we find Scacchi's great niece, played by Julie Christie, above, setting out to learn as much as possible about her great aunt's story. Both tales fascinate, and both actresses are, as expected, first-rate -- as is the entire cast, which is also to be expected in a Merchant/Ivory presentation.

Also important to the story is royalty, personified via the Nawab (above, played by Shashi Kapoor, who died only this past week, at age 79), who is quite drawn to the wife of the assistant collector, even as Ms Christie's character finds herself growing closer to the husband (Zakir Hussain) of the Indian family with whom she is boarding during her research.

Back and forth we go, but under Ivory and Jhabwala's firm and constant hands, we are never confused nor unsure about where we are -- even if, quite intentionally, we can not always be certain of motive or even occasional actions. Eventually all (or most) is revealed, and the results leaves us satisfied but a little sad, as does so much the fine work of this storied team.

Along the way, we're treated to some gorgeous and amazing set pieces --state dinners and the like -- and even get another small but sharp and juicy performance from Merchant/Ivory regular Madhur Jaffrey (shown below, behind those binoculars), playing the mother of the Nawab.

And so it goes, for yet another of this pair's remarkable forays into human nature and cultural prisons. Running a lengthy but always interesting two hours and ten minutes, Heat and Dust will hit Blu-ray and DVD this coming Tuesday, December 12, in a two-disc set packed to the gills with Bonus Features. I hope that Cohen Media Group will continue its restorations of these Merchant/Ivory films until we're able to see every last one of them so beautifully and rigorously restored.

Friday, December 8, 2017

VODebut for Pascal Elbé's queasy but energetic con-man bio-pic, THANK YOU FOR CALLING

TrustMovies doesn't think he'd ever heard of a man named Gilbert Chikli, prior to viewing the 2015 film, THANK YOU FOR CALLING (Je compte sur vous), which turns out to be all about this very sleazy real-life fellow. Written (with some help from Noé Debré and Isaac Sharry) and directed by Pascal Elbé and starring Vincent Elbaz as this con-man extraordinaire, the movie moves along lickety-split and is great fun to view as we watch in wonderment at the great gift for conning people that our anti-hero possesses.

M. Elbé, shown at left, has both paced his film very well and given it enough visual flair to keep up gratefully watching, even as the stuff that M. Chikli gets up to on-screen is growing ever more queasy-making. For some (my spouse, for instance), this will make it difficult to identify with or care about the Chikli character because you will feel much more concern for the some of the people he's bilking along the way. However, so incredibly strong a performance is being given here by Vincent Elbaz (shown below and above) that this is quite likely to dissolve any objections into thin air.

I have seen M. Elbaz in a number of other films, and have always found him perfectly acceptable, and sometimes very good. But this has got to be the juiciest role he's yet undertaken, and he is simply extraordinary in it. He appears a "born" con man who can't for a moment stop living to scam, and he's so good at it that we can only gasp and then barely keep up with his shenanigans. His performance seems absolutely improvised, too, and the skill with which Elbaz convinces us that he's "thinking fast on his feet" proves sheer amazement.

Elbaz puts to use every ounce of his charisma and sex appeal, both to hold viewers' interest and to keep in line all the many characters who circle around him -- his wife (played by Julie Gayet, below), brother (Ludovik Day, above, right), son and his other "marks" Yes, he constantly deceives even those people whom he should most love and cherish. I suppose that he does love and cherish them, but only in his own bizarre manner.

From the movie's wonderfully witty opening scene -- which shows us Chilki as a young boy who must somehow handle a visit from the local police -- to the penultimate one in a French police station that will leave you equally amazed and amused, the filmmaker and his leading actor join forces to bring this sleazebag's story to crazy but vital life. Clearly, his narcissistic and creepily entitled mother (played with ugly gusto by Nicole Calfan) was a major force in the life of both the boy and the man he became.

Elbaz convinces us from almost the start that he indeed lives for the scam and knows no other way to behave. How "truthful" the film is to what actually happened, I cannot say, but clearly, Chikli got away with so much so often that his real life very nearly defied believability. His "reel life," then, would seem to follow suit. Even the French police inspector (wonderfully played by Zabou Breitman, above, left) who stays on his trail seems to harbor a certain grudging respect for this man.

From Under the Milky Way, running just 94 minutes, in French with English subtitles, the film supposedly hit VOD this past week, though I was unable to find it listed on the company's U.S. website. In any case, for fans of Elbé, Elbaz, and real-life con-men stories, I'd call this one a "must."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Chris Peckover/Zach Kahn's BETTER WATCH OUT: a holiday babysitting movie for the ages

Yikes -- they just don't do this in movies! Well, now they do. In fact, there is maybe one film (I will not give away its name but it was made in 1956) with a similar theme in which some very bad things happen. Based upon a famous Broadway play, the Hollywood movie version, of course, had to futz around with the finale to make sure conventional justice was done. BETTER WATCH OUT, on the other hand, dispenses with just about all the rules of this particular game that you will have formerly viewed. And so well done is it that the movie becomes an instant classic among Christmas-themed, dark thrillers that also boast great comedic flair.

The conception of director/co-writer (with Zach Kahn) Chris Peckover, shown at right, the movie begins as your typical, if rather sexually interested babysitting movie featuring a fouler mouth than usual. (The film is R-rated, the reasons for which, as it moves further along, you will ever more fully understand.) This is a home invasion tale with a twist that, once it occurs, takes us into quite uncharted territory.

That's it for plot, folk. This one deserves utter no-spoiler respect, and I suspect its many fans will rightly refuse to disclose any secrets.

What I can say is that Better Watch Out has been cast to perfection, starting with that babysitter, the beautiful, poised and intelligent Australian actress, Olivia DeJonge (above and below) -- who is simply a knockout.

Her twelve-year-old charge is played by the angelic-looking young Aussie actor, Levi Miller (above, left, and below, right, who also played Peter in the ill-fated Pan), and Mr. Miller walks away with the movie. They don't give acting awards for films of this genre, but if they did, the kid would be a shoo-in. He is that extraordinary.

The rest of the cast is equally well chosen, from our hero's best friend, played by Ed Oxenbould (at left, above) to Aleks Mikic (below, right), who plays our heroine's current boyfriend, and Dacre Montgomery, who takes the role of her ex.

In the roles of our little sleepwalking cherub's parents are two more favorites: Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen (below, right). They're just fine, too. Everyone gets quite into the spirit of things here, and the result is a humdinger.

If you read some of the negative reviews, say, on the IMDB (critics were mostly bowled over by the film), you will find a sensibility that screams, "Wait! You just can't do something like this in a holiday/home-invasion movie!" (Unless you're Michael Haneke, of course.) But you can. And they have. And the result, as they say, is a lulu. Don't let this one get past you under any circumstance.

From WellGo Entertainment, and running a just-right 89 minutes, after a short but successful theatrical run, the movie hit DVD and Blu-ray this week -- for rental, purchase and, I believe VOD/streaming, as well. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sexual harassment squared in Sharad Kant Patel's genre jumper, SOMEBODY'S DARLING

A very interesting, often impressive blend of frat house misbehavior, feminist leanings, male prerogative, sexual harassment and the supernatural, SOMEBODY'S DARLING, the first full-length narrative film from Sharad Kant Patel, proves a surprisingly artful concoction -- a movie that hits several of today's hot-button issues head on, even as it successfully morphs into something quite creepy and otherworldly.

Mr. Patel, shown below, is mashing at least two major genres here, and doing this in such a way that be gives both their due, while withholding from us as long as possible the specifics that will eventually enfold one genre, the obsessive love story, into the other -- which is something else indeed.

Before TrustMovies does any over-praising, he must admit that the movie, though only 80 minutes, is still a bit too repetitive for its own good. Yet within those 80 minutes, Patel does such an interesting job of leading and misleading us, dropping hints and clues with skill and panache, that despite the film's refusal to give up its secrets much prior to the finale, he keeps us hanging on. In addition to the screenwriting and direction, our filmmaker is also responsible for the editing, visual effects, some of the music and sound design, and even the color grading and the inventive title sequence. Pretty much top to bottom, this is Patel's baby.

His story of a particular frat house at Williamsburg University (sounds real enough but isn't) and what these bad boys get up to with the girls on campus is typically nasty and unpleasant. But one of the guys, Christian, the frat house President, seems both better and worse than the others. When he becomes smitten with a young lady named Sarah, who prefers to keep her distance from the likes of these frat boys, all the usual bets are off.

As played by Paul Galvan (above, left) and Jessa Settle (above, right) these two characters easily hold the screen, thanks to their talent, looks and charisma, and to Mr. Patel's having given them plenty to do and say that keeps us glued. This is a love story of sorts, and exactly how and why these two feel the way they do is unveiled to us slowly and artfully.

How the filmmaker handles everything from simple (or not so) storytelling to sex, love and past lives is done with enough style and subtlety to impress without appearing pretentious. This is a feat of sorts. And he has also cast his smaller roles well, with an eye to making his young women pretty and slightly vapid and his young men -- for instance, Matt Tramel, below -- pretty and slightly bizarre. It works.

His finale is a shocker that makes exquisite sense. It also makes us think back to what we've seen earlier and how we've misread certain events that now look so different, appalling instead of frat-boy appealing, with the stakes so much higher than we had first imagined.

And yet, ah, what might have been! Somebody's Darling is indeed a love story, but as with almost all obsessive ones, it proves very, very dark.

After a successful festival run, the movie hit VOD -- via iTunes, Amazon and elsewhere -- on December 1, for rental and purchase. It's worth a watch.