Thursday, July 27, 2017

Gillian Robespierre's sophomore effort, LANDLINE, hits South Florida theaters

Well, its credentials as a piece of American Independent Cinema are certainly flawless: actors the likes of John Turturro, Edie Falco and Jay Duplass, along with newer members such as Abby Quinn and Jenny Slate, the latter of whom director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre collaborated with a few years back on the funny, original and much better indie movie, Obvious Child. Their newest collaboration, LANDLINE, though it boasts a number of lovely moments and scenes, doesn't fare nearly as well overall.

Set in 1995, the movie opens on Labor Day, with some awfully laborious (and, yes, funny) sex taking place on screen. Ms Robespierre, shown at left, together with her co-writers Elizabeth Holm and Tom Bean, have fashioned a movie about family set back some 22 years, at a time when technology, computers, the internet (but not yet cell phones) were beginning to control our lives. This will initially make the movie a nice nostalgia trip for some of us. (Benihana, the restaurant most seen in the film, was also perhaps a bit more newsworthy then.)

The themes here, in addition to the perennially popular one of "family," are those of intimacy, fidelity, trust and betrayal -- and how important these actually are (or maybe aren't) to a successful, long-term relationship. All good -- if nothing we haven't encountered at the movies many times before.

When the family's younger daughter (Quinn, above right) discovers -- a little too easily, it seemed to me -- what looks like an affair their dad (Turturro, at right, two photos above) is having with another woman, she eventually apprises older sibling (Slate, above, left) of the goings-on.

They keep mom (Falco, above, center) out of it while they (sort of) investigate matters, even as the older daughter, though engaged to a nice fellow named Ben (Duplass, in bathtub below), nonetheless falls into an her own affair with an old friend she has recently encountered at a party (Finn Wittrock, at left in photo at bottom).

That's about it -- except that the chickens, as they say, do come home to roost. (Oh, there's a little drug-dealing here, too.) The problem is that nothing we see or hear is all that incisive, interesting, funny or moving. (It's certainly not original, either.) Performances are as good as can be, given the material, and the movie is never unwatchable. But we keep waiting for it to take off. Instead it stays firmly grounded until it finally rolls into its predetermined destination.

From Amazon Studios and running a little too long even at 97 minutes, Landline, after hitting the major cultural centers a week or so back, opens here in South Florida tomorrow, Friday, July 28, in the Miami areas at AMC's Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, Regal's South Beach 18 and the O Cinema Wynwood. The following Friday, August 4, it expands to the Palm Beach and Boca Raton areas at Regal's Royal Palm Beach 18 and Shadowood 16, the Living Room Theater, and the Cinemark Palace 20. Wherever you live across the country, just click here to find a theater.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Netflix's latest: a James C. Strouse trifle titled THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES

Not terribly bad, but unfortunately not very good either, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, starring an either miscast or mis-directed Jessica Williams, makes its streaming debut via Netflix this Friday, July 28. As written and directed by James C. Strouse (shown below and who, as Jim Strouse, did a hell of a lot better with his earlier People Places Things), this thankfully short movie introduces us to a character who, in current rom-com fashion, is incredibly inappropriate.

Except when, conveniently, she isn't. This little matter of conveniences sticks out throughout the film like a sore thumb. You may notice it first as Jessica has a date with a new guy (Chris O'Dowd, as delightful and real as always) and suddenly decides to have a few "honest" moments. Great. But then we're back to the nonsense again. Our girl Jessica (below) is a control freak, and this is understandable when so many things in her life are going wrong -- from significant others to the workplace to her lifelong love of theater.

Nonetheless, the girl is, as they say, a handful, carrying her inappropriateness into every area of her life. At best she's mildly amusing; at worst, she's just annoying. -- never more so than at the family baby shower for her younger sister (below), at which her gift is both dumb and, yes, inappropriate.

The themes here include how to fit into things, what divorce does to children, hook-ups vs relationships, and commitment -- to everything from a man to the theater. Plenty of little life lessons are learned along the way, all worked out sweetly and conveniently, and, as with most rom-coms these days, much too quickly and easily.

I don't think I've seen Ms Williams in anything other than Mr. Strouse's earlier People Places Things, in which she was quite good. I suspect that she is not being shown to her best here, but as Mr. O'Dowd (above) notes at one point, she does have a beautiful smile.

If you're interested, the only place to see The Incredible Jessica James right now (starting this Friday, anyway) is via Netflix streaming. So: your move. (That's Lakeith Stanfield, above, left, who plays Jessica's ex very well, even though his character, too, seems only quasi-real.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Michael Almereyda probes Hampton Fancher (and Hollywood) in new doc bio-pic, ESCAPES

If TrustMovies had to pick a single quality that describes what filmmaker Michael Almereyda consistently achieves more than any other in his films, I would call it empathy for the subject at hand. Almereyda's style is often so strange (and equally wonderful, however) -- have you seen his Happy Here and Now? -- that the empathy comes across as something other than the more usual 'sympathy' that pushes us to shed a tear for our poor protagonist. Yet that empathy stands tall amidst other conflicting feelings: surprise, wonder, confusion, even occasional queasiness.

In his second-latest film, ESCAPES (another new one, Marjorie Prime, opens soon), Almereyda, shown at left, takes a good, long, loving look at a fellow possessing the very classy name of Hampton Fancher that many of us have heard of yet probably know little about. The filmmaker begins by showing us, as we hear Fancher's gravelly-yet-mellifluous voice (which narrates the entire documentary), our young man (shown below) as the typically hot-looking-yet-impoverished Hollywood actor, struggling to make ends meet, even as he refuses to be taken care of by his current and more successful actress girlfriend. That girlfriend is owed some money by her ex-boyfriend, and Fancher is keen on her getting the debt paid back. That story turns out to be just one of many succulent tales that Fancher regales us with over the course of this consistently interesting, surprising and enriching 89-minute movie -- which bounces along merrily, due to both Fancher's abilities as a raconteur and Almereyda's very interesting use of accompanying visuals.

What the filmmaker has cleverly done here is to splice together one after another of Mr. Fancher's many appearances on screen and TV (50 of them are seen here by my count) to form a kind of constant backdrop for the actor/writer's storytelling. Other actors -- from Troy Donahue (below, left) to Raymond Burr -- appear with Fancher in scenes from his various films and television series.

The key to why these scenes were specifically chosen appears to be their mood and the intention of the characters on screen, reflecting whatever situation Fancher is currently describing. They're clearly not that situation, but the manner in which they reflect it is by turns amusing, surprising, graphic and/or silly. It's all great fun, in addition to being an original and appropriate way to couple visuals to verbal storytelling.

Among the many anecdotes, the best may be Fancher's tale of arriving in Harrisburg, PA, for a special screening of an earlier (and evidently pretty awful) movie he'd made, and then coupling for a day (and a night) with the plain-Jane secretary of the person in charge of his appearance there. This is a humdinger and then some, and it just keeps getting better as it goes along. Divided into chapters with interesting heading, the movie spends one of these giving us a fascinating take on Fancher's own early history, growing up (at right) at as part of a half-Hispanic family in Southern California and then ending up, for a time, as an evidently pretty good Flamenco dancer (below), before setting his sites on a career as an actor, and then a writer, in Hollywood.

His career as the former did not take off, past a slew of minor and then supporting roles, and he admits in the course of the film that he never really wanted to act and was, in fact, a lazy actor, who never bothered doing his homework regarding character. It was as a writer (as well as executive producer of but a single film) that he is likely to be best remembered. That film was Blade Runner, which, as an actor, Fancher had tried to option from its author Philip K. Dick early on, and was finally able to do with the help of his good friend and (by then paralyzed) actor Brian Kelly, who had starred in the popular TV series, Flipper. The section devoted to Kelly sheds a good deal of new light on Fancher, the friendship between the two men, their careers and competitiveness, and Fancher's psychological profile.

The man's relationship with several women important in his life comes to the fore, as well, especially that of his connection to and love for actress Barbara Hershey. Of course, it is via Fancher himself that we are hearing all this, but I have to admit that the guy seems like a relatively reliable witness and somebody I might have been happy to know and be lucky enough to call my friend. (That's the more-or-less current Mr. Fancher -- still a good-looking guy, even as he approaches his 80th year -- shown above and below.

From Grasshopper Film, Escapes opens tomorrow, Wednesday, July 26, in New York City at the IFC Center, and from there moves to another 14 cities around the country over the weeks to come. It will play Washington DC at the Landmark E Street Cinema beginning August 4, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, starting August 11. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here then scroll down to the bottom of your screen and click on Where to Watch.

Monday, July 24, 2017

William Oldroyd's LADY MACBETH expands to South Florida theaters (and elsewhere)

Clearly setting most critics aflame with its rather eerie-if-cornball combo of sex and violence coupled to concerns of class, race, patriarchy and the use of power, LADY MACBETH, the first full-length film to be directed by legit theater fellow, William Oldroyd, and adapted by Alice Birch (from an original story by Nicolai Leskov), turns out to be an interesting enough look at the above themes, if finally a fairly shallow and and not very trenchant exploration of them. What begins as a low-key and unsettling view of the life of an oddly-if-interestingly "abused" young woman, who is sold into marriage, slowly and equally quietly evolves into a tale of revenge, unbridled lust and multiple murder.

It's all quite fun. And ugly. The former for awhile, the latter throughout. This is as much due to the ability of Mr. Oldroyd (the filmmaker is shown at left) and his cinematographer Ari Wegner to compose the frame -- while using lighting and color in such clever ways that, at times, you might think you were viewing a Vermeer -- as to the fine acting from his new-found star, Florence Pugh, shown above and below, who handles herself with surprising precision and resolve.

The remainder of Oldroyd's cast fills the bill nicely, too. The characters here are inseparable from their time period and place: a 19th Century rural England in which patriarchy rules all with a nastily iron hand and not a trace of any glove, velvet or otherwise.

Therefore our "heroine," Katherine, finds herself trapped in a not-only loveless marriage, but one in which she is ordered about like chattel and expected to act as servant in almost as many respects as the household's actual servants, which include a maid or two and the male workers on her husband and father-in-law's estate. (In fact, all of them seem to have more freedom than does our poor Katherine.)

As we witness her ordeal, our sympathy goes out to the young bride again and again, until at last she takes the reins and proves so powerful, vicious and unstoppable that a certain amount of credibility flies out the window, even as the behavior of others so conforms to her needs that events grow a tad too coincidental for comfort. (That's Cosmo Jarvis, above, right, who plays the hot young hired hand with whom Kathrine falls in lust.)

By the bleak finale, we're left to consider the uses and abuses of power, as well as a hierarchy that places the while male in charge and the white female next in line, with the servant class far down the chart, and those servants of color on the very bottom rung (at which point they seem all too willing to sacrifice themselves silently, if not gladly). Yes, it's fun times.

Is this the way of the world back then? What about now? How much has changed? All these questions bubble to the surface over the course of the film, and that bubbling proves just fine. I only wish the movie did not seem quite so cast in stone, with each character and/or event offering nary a surprise along the way. Lady Macbeth is powerful all right, but as quiet, elegant and precise as is Oldroyd/Birch's adaptation, it's also sledge-hammer obvious.

From Roadside Attractions and running a sleek 89 minutes, the movie -- after opening in major cities around the country -- hits South Florida (and elsewhere) this Friday. In our area, look for it in Miami at the AMC Aventura 24Regal South Beach 18 and The Landmark at Merrick Park . In Fort Lauderdale it opens at The Classic Gateway Theatre, and in West Palm Beach at the AMC CityPlace 20, and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood 16, and at The Movies of Delray. On August 4, The Movies of Lake Worth will be added to this mix.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

DVDebut -- Thomas Lilti's French charmer THE COUNTRY DOCTOR: an Rx for what ails you

Some movies seem to exist to give expected pleasures -- the good ones with smart, realistic detail that pulls you in; the not-so-good ones via the usual thudding cliches -- and today's "watch," THE COUNTRY DOCTOR, is fortunately one of the former, a French film that shows us a lot about the life of a kind, compassionate, smart and now-sick-himself doctor, Jean-Pierre, who labors in a small provincial town. No spoiler here, since we learn of our medicine man's cancer prognosis in the very first scene of the film.

Then we move to his usual workday: visiting patient after patient, including his parents, and we quickly see how well he does his job. The details are terrific: specific and fascinating (at least they were for a medical civilian like TrustMovies).  As directed and co-written by Thomas Lilti (shown at right), the movie bursts with both energy and ideas. Soon, Jean-Pierre's own doctor has sent him a possible helper/replacement, a new doctor named Nathalie, who seems equally bright and caring, if a little too quick on the draw, diagnosis-wise.

The actors who play this Hippocratic pair could hardly have been better chosen. François Cluzet (above, of Tell No One, À l'origine (click and scroll way down), The Intouchables) gives another of his sterling, lived-in performances as Jean-Pierre, while the lesser-known (on these shores) Marianne Denicourt (below, of Sade and Serial Killer 1) brings to the proceedings, along with her beauty, that special skill of seeming pert-yet-deep and so immediately wins us over.

The supporting cast is made up mostly of the doctors' patients, and each one is brought to quick, sharp life. Via one vignette after another, we grow to know the life of the doctor, his new "assistant," the townspeople (and some of their concerns), as well as our hero's ongoing treatment.

If there is not a misstep in any of the details here, the movie does lose some of its earlier steam by choosing to go the feel-good route, rather than the more expected, would-have-been-more troubling-but-also-deeper route.

This is not a deal-breaker. The results here are medically believable, but they also bypass the opportunity to confront dying and death from the personal and certainly more unusual perspective of the physician himself. Too bad.

The Country Doctor, available from Distrib Films US, makes it DVD debut via Icarus Films Home Video this coming Tuesday, July 25, available for purchase and/or, one hopes, now or eventually rental and streaming.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Little-known Joseph H. Lewis diamond-in-the-rough, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, gets the Blu-ray treatment via Arrow Academy

A director with some 54 credits on his resume, whose films, a few of which -- Gun Crazy, The Big Combo, The Undercover Man -- are oddball gems that are much better known than he is, Joseph H. Lewis (shown below) was one of those filmmakers whose served his material, rather than the other way around. TrustMovies grew up greatly enjoying some of this fellow's films without being aware of who he was or how he fit into the world of movie-making.

All that is beginning to change these days, as Lewis'
better films continue to be more fully recognized and appreciated. One of these is TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (from 1958) which has just arrived on Blu-ray in a smackingly good edition from Arrow Academy -- with some first-class Special Features in tow. Starring that always-capable actor Sterling Hayden (below), playing the son of a recently murdered father who arrives in the titular town to take over his dad's home, the movie proves an unusually low-key and philosophical western about the meanings of freedom and justice.

The movie's excellent screenplay was written, under a pseudonym, by Dalton Trumbo, and it bears a number of this blacklisted writer's hallmarks, starting with its low-key approach and interest in ideas, as much as in action -- all of which director Lewis serves up to a tee.

Once in town and having learned of his father's death, Hayden's character encounters the suave-if-tubby lead villain, essayed with classy smarm by Sebastian Cabot (above, right), along with his hired-gun henchman, played by a crackerjack performer new to me named Nedrick Young, a blacklisted actor/writer who would give us the following year (using yet another pseudonym) the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Defiant Ones.

Mr. Young (shown above and further above) makes a simply terrific villain: intelligent but frightening and as impressive in his own way as is Hayden in his. The pair makes a fine set of adversaries, and the change that occurs in Young's character (I hesitate to call it growth, but yet I think it is) once he encounters a man who is unafraid to die (the fine Victor Millan, below, right), provides a death scene of such simplicity, intelligence and strength that it instantly becomes one of the more memorable that movies have given us.

The women in the film are quite interesting, as well, particularly the our villain's "kept woman" who does not seem to quite have to strength to stand on her own. As played by an actress also new to me, Carol Kelly (below, left, and at bottom center), this character proves to be another of the movie's memorable people with some interesting things to tell us.

Terror in a Texas Town, while adhering to practically every last one of the cliches of the movie western, still manages to often be quiet, thoughtful, and sometimes surprising -- never more so than in the scene (below) in which three bad guys work over our hero, and instead of the expected all-out, razza-ma-tazz fight scene, we get something quite other.

Conversations between characters are equally low-key and telling; they make us listen and consider. And director Lewis serves the intelligent screenplay exceedingly well, drawing expert performances from all, and keeping the relatively taut story-line moving along at a decent pace.

At most, I suppose, this is simply a very good example of the B movie that used to show up on double bills and sometimes proved better than the main attraction. But it is yet another feather in the late-arriving cap of this unusual and far-too-unheralded film director.

From Arrow Academy (distributed here in the USA by MVD Visual and running a lean 80 minutes. Terror in a Texas Town arrived on Blu-ray disc on July 11 in a new 2K hi-def restoration from the original film elements, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Also worth watching and included on the Blu-ray is the excellent introduction to the film (and its director) by Peter Stanfield.

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.