Monday, January 15, 2018

Wanna get REALLY angry? Watch the new Aussie doc, KANGAROO: A LOVE-HATE STORY

It's from Australia -- where else? And if you've ever been there (TrustMovies has, a couple of times) and watched with delight all those kangaroos and wallabies in the wild, you've probably been left with an indelible impression and love for this remarkable species. And trust me: You won't get anything like the same result from visiting a zoo. The first time I journeyed down under -- this was back in the 70s -- I heard from some people about what horrible pests kangaroos really were. But then, when I asked around a bit, I was told by others that this was all bullshit, coming from the industries and government officials that wanted to "harvest them," and that, when dealt with properly, the kangaroo population posed little real problem at all.

That was over 40 years ago, and the situation has apparently only grown worse since then -- with kangaroo meat (eaten by both humans and our pets) becoming more popular and the industries that cater to this growing larger and more powerful. No film I've watched in a long while -- including anything, even, about America's current and unspeakably racist and venal sleazebag President -- has made me angrier and more disgusted than the new documentary by Kate McIntyre Clere (above, right) and Michael McIntyre (above, left), entitled quite properly KANGAROO: A LOVE-HATE STORY. I admit that you probably have to be an animal lover to get this worked up, but the filmmakers do a bang-up job of showing you what is going on (along with why), how awful it truly is, and what might be done to halt this -- if enough citizens finally speak up and hold their elected politicians' feet to the fire.

Those feet, by the way, belong mostly, as expected, to Australian politicians (and corporations), but they also include many others internationally, since Kangaroo meat and skin/hide is sold worldwide. What we learn here about how the industry and their lobbyists tried to subvert our own state of California to their needs will open many eyes and also show us, thankfully, that the USA still has some politicians willing to fight for what's right.

Kangaroo approaches its tale and goal using everything from history to statistics to a lot talking heads (here with their bodes shown as well, since we're so often in the wilds of Australia) who follow our kangaroos as they hop and play and are killed -- in the most awful of ways that allow them to die slowly and horribly by hunters who just don't give a damn. Their joey, too (the term for kangaroo young) are affected just as terribly. There is a scene here of one injured joey trying so hard to hop away that it will likely break your heart.

Sure, the film is biased. It wants to preserve a species, for Christ sake. But it allows the "other side" to have its say, and then pretty much pulls the rug out from under it, whether the speaker is a politician or a farmer who insists that the kangaroo cannot be stopped except by hunting them down. We see the ongoing results (over quite some time) of a public relations campaign to denounce these animals as "pests" and how, when done skillfully and long enough, this can turn a population against its own "national" animal.

Wildlife experts and preservationists have their say, too, and it is equally intelligent and anger-making, as we perceive yet another example of how the wealthy, corporate and "elected" are growing richer even as they destroy our planet and the life upon it. Kangaroo is a documentary you'll want to share with everyone you know, but you'll also have to warn them that it is not an easy watch. It is a salutary one, however. This is a movie that will put you on the alert and maybe drive you to action.

From Abramorama and running 99 minutes, Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story opens this Friday, January 19 in New York City (at the Village East Cinema) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Music Hall 3) and will then, over the coming weeks, open in another 15 or more cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Andres Veiel's BEUYS explores an oddly famous-yet-far-too-unknown post-WWII German artist

Joseph Beuys (pronounced boys, but with an "s" sound at the end, rather than a "z"), who lived from 1921 through 1986, was a kind of contemporary of Andy Warhol. Both men expanded culture's idea of what art could be, though Warhol -- in TrustMovies' estimation -- did this mostly for purposes of marketing, wealth and fame, while Beuys, whose vast interests and deep understanding ranged from politics, economics and history to the environment, culture, and education (he was, among all else, a very popular teacher), worked more from his desire to better humanity. And just maybe from a certain sense of guilt and reparation: Our boy flew planes for the Nazis during World War II.

In BEUYS, his new documentary about this artist/ philosopher/even (sort of) statesman, filmmaker Andres Veiel, shown at left, doesn't connect all the dots or hammer home a lot of theories. He simply lays out many of the facts of this unusual man's life and work and lets us do the connecting ourselves. It is a fascinating, strange and sometimes sad and moving journey Veiel takes us on, but it will, I think, make Joseph Beuys an art figure you will not easily forget.

Unlike Warhol, who usually said the least he could get away about almost everything (he knew enough to shut up and thus be "mysterious"), Beuys -- much more intellectual -- was not merely willing to but usually insistent upon talking about his work, along with politics, society and just about all else. ("What's the point of art if nothing comes of it?" we hear him ask.)

I don't know that the two artists ever actually met, but at one point rather late in the documentary, we're at some art event/party, at which Beuys (shown above and below) is supposed to appear, and we're told that Warhol was there, too, and was in fact looking to meet his German contemporary.

Making fine use of much archival footage, Veiel shows us Beuys as artist, teacher, leader and even idol, though he does not appear to have wanted much of that last one. He -- and his art -- were also challenging, in a manner that Warhol's never was. Beuys never produced room decor for modern sensibilites, and so was not marketable in the way that Warhol was, which is why he was never, then nor now, embraced by the ludicrous/sleazy art establishment so that his works might finally fetch millions.

And while Beuys was quite funny, always smart, and often charming, he also lacked that smug layer of irony and bad-boy persona possessed by someone like Maurizio Cattelan. Veiel gives us some of the artist's history and his estrangement from his parents, who wanted him to work in a local margarine factory. Still it comes a shock to suddenly see him in Nazi Youth uniform, and then flying for Germany in WWII. (A plane crash ended that segment of his life.)

We're with Beuys during his very depressed period post-art school, when he lived with and was cared for by his mentors, and then at his kind of rebirth as a performance artist, garnering fame and even an American tour. (The coyote moment here is a keeper.) Our boy even ran for election via The Green Party, and when you hear about the bizarre diversity of that party during its initial days and just whom it allowed into it, you will better understand its continuing dysfunction and uselessness.

The film ends with a reminder of what is probably -- no, certainly -- Beuys' greatest and most lasting work of environmental art. This is something that must have seemed then, for it does even now, way ahead of its time. After finishing this fine documentary, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Herr Veiel and his crew. I'm very happy to have seen and learned so much about Joseph Beuys, and I suspect that -- unless you already knew it all -- you will be, too.

From Kino Lorber, in German with English subtitles (along with some English spoken occasionally) and running 111 minutes, Beuys opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, January 17, at Film Forum in New York City. As of now there are only a few more playdates scheduled around the country (click here then scroll down to view cities and venues), but since the film is coming via Kino Lorber, there will certainly and eventually be a DVD release.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Our January Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: THE CROWN -- Season Two

As intriguing story and stately pageant, Netflix’s streaming series, The Crown, continues to gleam. Peter Morgan, writer (below left, pictured with director, Stephen Daldry), treats the eyes and mind to the beauty and absurdity of the institution that we are at once possessive of, ga-ga over, and feel superior to — the British monarchy being our own origin story, the authoritarian regime that led us to create a democracy for ourselves. 

Right about now that constitutional monarchy is looking benign and not so absurd, compared to U.S. constitution fuzzies that have permitted exactly what we fought against in the 1700’s — authoritarian rule by an erratic, narcissistic, if not mentally ill leader. The British have since created their own democracy, walling off the Crown from Parliament, so that today it functions primarily as a large PR firm headquartered behind palace walls. Imbued with a deep sense of responsibility at home, Crown royalty work hard, some of them nearly 24/7, supporting charities and civic work that helps make Britain well-meaning, if not great.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (at right), held to the ‘divine right’ view of monarchy. She is said to have told Elizabeth: Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards…..

Of course, that was then. Elizabeth (the spectacular and very hard-working actress, Claire Foy) replies that her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith) believes that church and state should be separate, that if God has servants, they are priests, not kings. Parliament steers its own track now, while the Crown’s adjustment to 21st century mores creeps forward. It offers a tone of caring and civic-mindedness — humanity absent in the U.S. of late.

In fact King George V (above, left), Elizabeth’s grandfather, broke with tradition to affirm that the House of Windsor owed its loyalty to the British people above all, and to establish the precedent of personal outreach and public service that the royals practice now. (A Netflix documentary, The Royal House of Windsor gives a full account of the history of the 100 year old dynasty.) Her parents, George VI and Elizabeth, outdid themselves bucking up the Brits during the blitz, remaining a presence in London (below).

Having been trained dutifully to serve, Elizabeth addressed the nation by radio on her 21st birthday: “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Ms Foy portrays the model public servant. Every thought, every worry, every struggle appears on her face and in her eyes; the Queen’s earnestness is palpable.

Crown 2 offers another elegantly, expensively wrought 10 episodes each of which demonstrates, sometimes satirically, the clash between tradition and progress. There is threat to the royal marriage, education trauma for young Prince Charles, parliamentary crisis as England’s colonial domination slips, and for Elizabeth, learning on the job how to “be” with her subjects.

Take the episode, ‘Marionettes,’ in which the Queen delivers a staff-written, unknowingly condescending speech at a Jaguar auto plant that is promptly rebuked by a peer, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan, above left, a character actor with a talent for satire and irony, shown with the real Altrincham, right). He calls her old-fashioned, priggish, and tone-deaf in the new age of republics replacing monarchies — his words ricocheting across British tabloids. Humble Elizabeth meets him in secret, where he offers suggestions, most involving her being more open and approachable, nearly all implemented in a year. Her first TV holiday greeting was a warm homily delivered in 1958 (below). The palace later conceded that Lord Altrincham did as much as anyone in the 20th century to help the monarchy.

Elizabeth’s flamboyant sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, below, right), gets two tabloid-ready chapters in her love-life following the debacle of her broken relationship with her father’s divorced equerry, Peter Townsend (the church still rigidly denying royal marriage to a divorce with a living spouse). Her next love is avant garde photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later titled Lord Snowden. The versatile Matthew Goode (below, left) plays him as controlling and enormously sexy. Armstrong-Jones ran with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals. He had several lovers while also romancing Margaret, including a married couple both of whom he had sex with, the wife pregnant with Tony’s child at Tony and Margaret’s wedding. The narrative suggests that his desire for her was partly fostered by his own mother’s disregard of him as the lesser of her sons and his need for her approval.

The marriage was happy for some years but eventually broke down, each of them willful and needing the spotlight, though they successfully raised two talented, artistic children and remained friends till Margaret’s death in 2002. Armstrong-Jones was the first commoner to marry into the royal family in 400 years, theirs was the first royal wedding televised (below), and their divorce the first since Henry VIII. (Prince Charles’s marriage to a divorcee has paved the way for Harry’s uncontroversial impending nuptials.)

One episode, Vergangenheit, (means ‘past’ or ‘past history’), was especially provocative and reverberates now—here. Peter Morgan’s narrative bobbed and weaved, so please watch Edward VIII, the Nazi King, also on Netflix, to get the full picture. According to this short documentary, the Brits were lucky to have the “divorcee” excuse to deny Elizabeth’s uncle David, new playboy King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings, below, left), his bride of choice, which led him to abdicate in favor of his brother, Elizabeth’s father, a man of responsible character. Our FBI had been watching David’s paramour, American Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams, below, right) because of her Nazi sympathies. President Roosevelt was fielding American anti-war sentiment on his way to war — he could not afford the glamorous duo rallying that sentiment into a movement.

David too was pro-German, seduced by Hitler’s charisma and power. He wanted to reconnect with his German ancestral roots decisively severed by his father because of anti-German sentiment in England during World War I. George V dropped the German family name in 1917, inventing ‘House of Windsor’ (named after one of their palaces) for the sake of "Englishness."

David’s attraction to power played out in his love for Wallis: she was the dominatrix; he the submissive. His admiration for Hitler was narcissistic and na├»ve; his public statements argued against Britain’s call for war with Germany in the name of “peace.” Meanwhile, Hitler feted and cultivated the couple for future use (as Putin has done with Trump). Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, Joachim Ribbentrop, had an affair with Wallis while she and David were courting; she remained Ribbentrop’s confidante for years, passing him British secrets. FBI and (literally dug up) German war files reveal that David was being groomed as Hitler’s puppet king, if/when Germany conquered Britain. David believed the continued bombing of London would lead his brother, King George VI, to surrender — a revelation that horrified his family. To David, Nazism was a self-evident good; he was mystified, angered at his family’s rejection (in the face of) his “peaceful” and “noble” ambitions. (In the first season of The Crown, the family disdain of David and Wallis seemed overly cruel; only in Crown 2, do we find out why.)

Because loose-lipped David had already hurt the war effort, especially tipping Germany to choose the least defended route to invade France, Churchill contrived to keep the couple as distant as possible. They were kept out of England and shunned by the royals, even by his mother, Queen Mary. In the end Parliament leadership was grateful that Wallis’s divorces kept David from the throne and the crisis his rule might have provoked. Fortunately he was too passive and shallow to overcome the constraints placed on him — but what if he had been strong and manipulative?

Given that both our nations have verged on authoritarianism in the modern era, one is left to ponder whether either system has more to offer than the other in so far as protecting our inalienable rights.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Short take: Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller, THE COMMUTER, offers Liam Neeson and foolish fun

If you're anything like me and find Liam Neeson the kind of actor who almost never disappoints, even if the occasional movie he inhabits may, little could keep you away from his latest, titled THE COMMUTER and once again directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (of Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night), the trailer for which has been screening in theaters for what seems like at least the past six months. That trailer, as usual, gives away far too much and lays out practically the whole plot.

Even so, there are enough surprises up the sleeves of its three credited screenwriters to keep us interested, while Collet-Serra (below) directs with enough panache that we enjoy even some of the more nonsensical portions.

Our beleaguered hero (Neeson) has so much happen to him in the course of a single day, even before he steps onto the commuter train -- whose route appears to begin as part of the NYC subway system and then change somehow to that of Metro-North (though maybe things have drastically changed since I left the city three years ago) -- that the poor guy will immediately have your complete sympathy. In any case, before you can say Vera Farmiga (who plays the poor guy's antagonist), he is knee-to-neck deep in big-time trouble. One of the things that makes the movie so much fun is the terrific casting of every last one of the roles.

In addition to Neeson and Farmiga (above), we have Sam Neill, (below), Patrick Wilson (further below), and Elizabeth McGovern -- all of whom are rather wasted, as their roles don't amount to much at all. Yet it's always enjoyable to see them on screen, so this remain a plus. Even better are the many more unsung performers who plays the other folk traveling on this bound-for-hell train.

The plot takes a multitude of twists and turns, half of which are smart and half nonsense -- but all turn out to be rather fun. Toward the finale the movie even delivers its own "I am Spartacus" moment, which is so embarrassingly stolen that seniors in the audience will wince. But even this ends with a good laugh.

The Commuter may turn out to be this year's Kidnap, that Halle Berry movie that was by turns utterly ridiculous and slam-bang fun. Any way you look at it, as mindless entertainment goes, you could do a hell of a lot worse than boarding this particular train.

From Lionsgate and running 104 minutes,. the movie opens wide today. To find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The artist as user: Laurie Simmons' sometimes funny/often pretty MY ART opens in theaters

Film-goers who saw and recall Tiny Furniture may remember that its writer/director/star Lena Dunham's mom, Laurie Simmons, made a nice appearance in that film. Ms Dunham returns the favor in Simmons' first full-length endeavor -- opening tomorrow in New York City and entitled MY ART -- though she plays not Simmons' daughter but a former student who has now become a lot more famous than her teacher.

That this character also complains about her difficult success may clue in the viewer as to the ironic and just a little nasty nature of this sometimes funny but more often realistic "take" on the artist's pursuit of her art and success.

That this semi-fledgling (even though she's 68 years old) filmmaker, shown at right, has a nice sense of humor is evident from the opening credits, during which elevator doors close in on the very title of her film, crushing it in the process. Along the way, and with literally every artist we meet (including our heroine, Ellie) there is a sense of the single-minded ("my art above all else"), entitlement and the necessity to "use" everyone around her -- albeit with a lot of seductive charm, of course. How the artist must keep herself separate and "alone" so that she can properly create is also given its due.

When the opportunity arises for Ellie to get away from New York City and complete a new project in the large, lovely and very elegant home and studio of a friend upstate, she goes (along with her beloved dog, Bingham, below) and is soon surrounded by a new group of people who slowly but significantly becomes a part of her "art."

That art, evidently similar in ways to the art Ms Simmons is best-known for, has to do with taking her beloved "old movies" -- from Morocco and Bell, Book and Candle (below) to A Clockwork Orange and Some Like It Hot -- and recreating small scenes using herself and the new friends in the leading roles. I didn't buy the fact that this kind of thing would turn the head of an important art gallery owner and becomes a huge success. But within the framework of the plot Ms Simmons has contrived, it works well enough.

More important, it also gives the viewer the chance to see an artist's ambition on relatively naked (and, yes, but quite charming) display, and should bring to mind the rule that a number of people I've known throughout my life live by: Never get involved with an artist. The movie, by the way, is also often stunningly photographed, with colors so alive and gorgeous that they nearly vibrate (the cinematographer is Tom Richmond).

Fortunately the little satellite of new friends who help Ellie with her work include three male actors (from two generations) who are very good indeed. These would be Josh Safdie, (above, left), John Rothman (above, right, and especially Robert Clohessy (center, left), each of whom brings to life his interesting character as well as possible -- at least to the extent that Simmons has enabled him. (The usually fine Parker Posey, who has a small but silly role in the film, is not that lucky.)

How everything works out may not be quite what you expect or want, especially for the character portrayed so very well by Mr. Clohessy. (TrustMovies has seen this particular actor countless times already but he has only, with this film, suddenly become memorable to me: Clohessy is that moment-to-moment perfect here, creating a full-blown and wonderfully real character in about as small an amount of screen time as seems possible.) All this is part of the oddball strength of My Art, which is funny and charming at times but in which the artist's personality and needs simply mow down everything in their path, poor Bingham included. Be warned.

From Film Movement and running a just-long-enough-not-to-wear-out-its-welcome 86 minutes, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, January 12, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and then the following Friday, January 19, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ziad Doueiri's THE INSULT opens, shortlisted for this year's Best Foreign Language Film

When Ziad Doueiri's The Attack hit theaters back in 2013, TrustMovies was impressed with everything about that film, from its concept and complexity to its execution and disquieting semi-resolution. Now comes this Lebanese filmmaker's latest and, if possible, even more impressive work, THE INSULT, which has already been shortlisted for this year's Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. Along with The Square it is up there with the best I've seen for this past year. And it is also perhaps the most important.

What Mr. Doueiri, who directed and co-wrote (along with Joelle Touma) has to say goes to the heart of so much that is going on throughout our world today. Instead of moralizing, this supremely talented and generous filmmaker concocts an incident that sets individuals, a community and finally a small country on their ear and in the process explores the situation from angle after angle until we understand more than we ever imagined we might about the participants. (And they, praise be, have begun to better understand, in maybe the smallest of increments, each other and themselves.)

The Attack was set mostly in Israel and put us into the experience of a highly successful Arab-Israeli doctor who suddenly learns that his wife has killed herself, along with a number of others, in a suicide bombing. How he and his Israeli friends and co-workers respond to this is as complicated and often unnerving as you might guess.

Now, in The Insult, Doueiri returns to Lebanon and pits a Lebanese Christian (Adel Karam, above, left) against a Muslim Palestinian (Kamel El Basha, above, right) who, along with his wife, has taken refuge (as have so many other Palestinians) in Lebanon. The filmmaker's canvas opens up to explore Lebanese society and culture in ways and from angles that I doubt most of us have come anywhere close to previously seeing. It is eye-opening, to say the least.

The workplace, the justice system, family matters, history and much more is given us in a tightly-woven plot that avoids melodrama but manages to stay sharp and on course throughout. Most wonderfully, there are no villains here. Oh, you may imagine there are and perhaps feel quite some hatred for certain of the characters. But wait.

The great blessing Doueiri bestows upon us is to allow us to finally understand what his characters have experienced, while allowing them to do this, too. Don't worry. There are no huge "breakthroughs" or eureka! moments here. Yet the filmmaker's steady accretion of small, incremental information builds beautifully and believably to completion.

How Israel -- so often the main agenda but here seen sidelong -- plays into all of this is particularly unusual and gratifying. Like so much else that Doueiri manages, Israel, too, becomes something we must view in a different light.

I am obviously leaving out almost all reference to plot here because the manner in which the filmmaker gives this to us is simply too good -- too nuanced and surprising -- to ruin for you. Do yourself a favor and go see The Insult as soon as you're able -- and before you've read much more about it.

From Cohen Media Group, the movie -- in Arabic with English subtitles and running 112 minutes -- opens this Friday, January 12, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and The Quad, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Hope so, but I can't find any further playdates on the Cohen web site for the film.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

VAZANTE: Daniela Thomas' trip to a time and place you'll not have experienced until now

An immersion -- so strong, specific and total -- into an experience you're not likely to have undergone elsewhere, VAZANTE, the new movie from Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas (shown below), is one of a kind.

Ms Thomas has created a world of mid-1800s Brazil, photographed in the kind of sumptuous black-and-white cinematography (by Inti Briones) in which you will lose yourself completely.

Her movie offers a minimum of dialog and is slowly paced, but it is so beautifully and intelligently put together that you will have little difficulty following its action plot, or character motivation.

Briones and Thomas show us a small piece of Brazil's vast slave trade of that century, taking place in the countryside on the estate of a seigneur whose diamond mines have failed and who is too entitled and stupid to realize that his land can be profitably farmed (by those same slaves who worked the mines -- one of whom actually shows him how).

The film's leading character -- a near-perfect example of how entitlement creates inequity, injustice, stupidity and horrific waste -- is played quite well by Adriano Carvalho (below, right). Some time after his wife dies in childbirth, our anti-hero finds himself attracted to her niece, Beatriz, who is also the daughter of the fellow who runs his estate. The young actress (Luana Nastas, below, left) who plays Beatriz brings out everything from the girl's playfulness and disquiet (she is so young that she has not had her first menstruation) to her budding sexuality and her need for companionship of any kind.

The pair's marriage, as might be expected, is a disaster: one that accumulates slowly but inexorably, and we watch in fascination and finally horror as the inevitable occurs.

Ms Thomas, who directed and co-wrote (with Beto Amaral) sees to it that we also come to know surprisingly well the group of slaves, above, who work inside and outside the estate. Their own hierarchy and connections, as well as their sometimes surprisingly sense of morality and justice, adds immensely to the manner in which this compassionate and tragic movie engulfs us.

Beatriz's closest companion is also the son (Vinicius Dos Anjos, above) of the woman our seigneur has chosen as his sexual companion, which adds yet another dose of irony to the tale. The inequality here mirrors that of today's Brazil (the favelas, of course, are a lot more crowded), with Brazil's legacy of slavery simultaneously different and similar to that of the USA. Each country, it seems, would prefer to ignore this in perpetuity. Thank god for the artists working in both.

Vazante, from Music Box Films, in Portuguese with English subtitles and running 116 minutes, opens this Friday, in New York City at the IFC Center, and on January 26 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Over the weeks and months to come it will play at least another ten cities across the country. Click here (then scroll down and click on THEATERS in the task bar) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.