Saturday, September 24, 2016

Israel/Palestine via a different, personal lens in Daum/Rudavsky's doc, THE RUINS OF LIFTA

The question of land, ownership, history and all that goes with is always problematic, no matter the location. But when the location is Palestine and Israel, this subject seems very nearly intractable. Over the years there have been a number of fine documentaries and narrative films that have tried to disentangle things -- Colliding Dreams and Rabin: The Last Day are two films that have arrived already this year -- and now we have a very small and very personal little movie that tackles the issue via one single location, Lifta, the only Palestinian village abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israel war that has not yet been destroyed or repopulated by Jews.

As conceived and directed by Menachem Daum, (shown at left on the poster, top), who appears prominently in the doc, and Oren Rudavsky (shown at right, who co-directed Colliding Dreams and, with Mr. Daum, the excellent post-Holocaust-in-Poland doc, Hiding and Seeking), the movie tracks the obsession of two men with this small abandoned village. Over the years, Mr. Daum has become increasingly concerned about Lifta because its actual story goes against much that he, as a Jew, had been taught by his elders and family about what happened there and why.

The other man, Yacoub (at right on poster, top), was a resident of Lifta who, with his family, was expelled from their home and village during the Nakba (the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians who were forced from or fled their homes and villages during the 1948 war).

As Mr. Daum, above, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust, we have a near-perfect combination of people who have suffered enormous displacement and feel powerful attachment to the same homeland. Can there be some kind of rapport and rapprochement to be made here?

Add to the mix an actual Holocaust survivor still remaining alive, an old New York woman named Dasha (shown center, above), one of the few Jewish friends of Menachem who understands his feelings about Lifta. Eventually, Dasha agrees to travel -- at her age! -- to Lifta to meet and speak with Yacoub. The resulting meeting is fraught and difficult, and seeing and hearing these thoughts and feelings pour out is rather extraordinary. Yes, this is but one example involving only two, three people, but this scene -- in fact, this entire movie, gets at the very core of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The state of Israel is planning to turn Lifta into a real estate development for luxury housing (and not, I think, for Arabs), but protesters (above), both Arab and Israeli, are trying to save the land, with the hope of turning it into a UNESCO World Heritage site. But this would depend on approval by the Israeli government. We watch as meetings toward this goal take place, and we see Mr Daum interview various officials and citizens about the project. -- which is no shoo-in, for sure.

Don't look for resolution. There is none here. But we understand, more deeply and fully, the ideas and feelings on both sides. So we've come a step closer, at least, in this -- one of the smallest and most personal of the many Israeli/Palestinian documentaries to have been released. Also one of the most successful.

Distributed by First Run Features and lasting only 73 minutes -- the movie needs no more time to make its points -- The Ruins of Lifta opened at a single New York screen (the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) yesterday, September 23, and will arrive next month on October 28 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Town Center 5.

Elsewhere? Nothing yet. But click here to keep up with any further scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

New York City 
personal appearances! 

On Saturday: 
a Q&A after the 
7:15 & 9:20 pm screenings, 
with the Co-director, Oren Rudavsky, 

and on Sunday: a Q&A 
after the 3:00 pm & 5:05 pm screenings 
with Co-directors Oren Rudavsky & Menachem Daum 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Criterion Collection goes classy -- with a Blu-ray/DVD release of a couple of "DOLLS"

In the latest (Vol. XLI, No. 4) issue of that fine, politically savvy movie magazine Cineaste, amongst the letters to the editor on page 3, comes one from Alan Mark Bishop of Vero Beach, Florida, that takes the magazine to task for not giving a great filmmaker like Terrence Malick his due, as well as for covering too much of the output of  The Criterion Collection such as, in Mr. Bishop's own words, "odd bits of junk like Bitter Rice and Gilda."

For any movie-lover who could possibly not know this, Criterion is a company that has given the home video market some of the best films ever, from all over the world, in the best transfers ever. The company also, occasionally, descends a bit to offer "classics" of the cult and camp variety. Well, Mr. Bishop, hold your nose -- and breath -- for here comes the Criterion release of a couple of films that just might raise Bitter Rice and Gilda into the pantheon by comparison:

Yes, I'm writing here of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, the film manufactured in 1967 out of the uber-famous-in-its-day-and-said-to-be-enjoying-a-current-renaissance novel by Jacqueline Susann, and its 1970 follow-up (though in no way a "sequel"), BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, directed by the then-king of soft-core, Russ Meyer, and written by none other than our famous (though not as famous back then) film critic Roger Ebert.

Trust Movies had long imagined he'd seen Valley of the Dolls, but as he began watching this new Blu-ray from Criterion, he realized with a shock that he never had. He'd only seen brief moments from it over the years that his spouse of nearly three decades, had called him in to view. Spousie does some really fab imitations of its various actors and songs, and I strongly suspect (but cannot absolutely prove) that the film's popularity comes from and now rests almost completely in the minds of hearts of our gay population, worldwide. The film has become a "classic" of gay camp. Unintentional camp, at that -- which is always the best kind.

Set in the same time frame as its release, the late 1960s, an era when great change was afoot, the movie actually harks back to the repressed 1950s in its feeling and spirit. As flatly and flabbily directed by Mark Robson (who did much better by Peyton Place), it tracks the fortunes of its three protagonists, Anne (the beautiful Barbara Parkins, above), Neely (an atrociously miscast Patty Duke, below), and Jennifer (played by a better actress than we imagined at the time, Sharon Tate, shown two photos below).

As the movie very slowly moves along, it becomes more and more repetitive, tiresome and boring, until one wants to scream, Get the fuck on with it! It's particularly tone-deaf and visually bananas about what a Broadway musical (or maybe a Broadway 'review': it's impossible to tell what the movie-makers had in mind here) might look and sound like.

Nothing in Broadway's past, present or (one hopes) future ever resembled this number in which Susan Hayward (or probably her dubbed voice), below, sings about growing some tree, as a multi-colored 50s-modern chandelier rotates in a manner that appears to be obscuring at times the view of her from the very audience for whom she's supposed to be performing.

But all this, I guess, is part of the "fun" and what makes the movie the camp-fest it remains. There are some wild and funny (unintentionally, of course) scenes along the way, involving everything from drugs and ambition to naughty sex that destroys the sanctity of love and marriage. (No? Yes!) -- the best of which offers a catfight involving a wig (below), during which Hayward and Duke duke it out.

Ms Parkins looks lovely but is required to do little more than bemoan her fate. She does get to appear in the movie's single visually accomplished extended scene, in which her character becomes a nationwide sensation hawking a cosmetics line.

Ms Tate's gets the knee-jerk/tear-jerk character and gives it her best shot, while all the guys on screen seem to be in service to our three (or four, counting Ms Hayward) gals -- which must have pleased the female audiences of the time, while accounting for the film's enduring attraction among us gays.

About the casting of the recently-deceased Ms Duke, it isn't that she was a bad actress. She delivers what is called for in a perfectly adequate manner. But what is called for (her character is said to be based upon Judy Garland) requires at the very least the kind of charisma that this actress simply did not have. She (or her dubbed voice) is no great singer here, either, so her meteoric rise to fame appears simply ridiculous. Ah well, that's part of the fun, too.

I'm glad I finally got to see this "classic" movie (the Blu-ray transfer often looks spectacular, as is Criterion's wont), but I have to say that I'm, well, bemused by its reputation. Even its vaunted gowns (by Travilla) -- unlike those of another, better movie fashion designer Orry Kelly -- have not stood the test of time. Though they, too, add to the camp.


Camp of a very different sort --along with a well-deserved "classic" status -- is provided by Beyond the Valley of The Dolls. Made only three years later, in a bid to cash in on the success of the earlier film (note the not-coincidental arrangement of the threesome two photos up and the one just above), the Meyer/Ebert collaboration resulted in a movie that shocked/delighted audiences bigtime (those who initially ventured out to see it). Though made for a small-enough budget that it was a success originally, the movie has gained in popularity and box-office over the forty-six years since.

Its almost immediate zoom to cult status, where it has remained, is for very good reason. There has never been another movie like it. A supposed satire, the movie veers from banana-level silliness to shock and gore, features a set of songs that are actually quite good -- two of these, In the Long Run and Candy Man, I watch and listen to ever now and again: they're so melodic, bouncy and fun -- and titillates us with all kinds of would-be hot sex (straight, near-gay and muy lesbian). Beyond hits every button imaginable and will keep you alternately giggling and gasping at both its effrontery and its success.

Best of all, after regaling us with all this sex-and-sin-and-come-on-in, at its close the movie offers up a hilarious explanation of what we've just seen that makes it appear as if Meyer and Ebert want us to think we've gone to church. (Or temple.)

The movie begins with an unexplained mini-slaughter, as the credits roll, that ends with a gun placed in a mouth (below). We then go back in time to the story that leads us up to this point, which becomes the film's finale.

The story is full of incident and move quite fast (unlike its sorry predecessor), and the performances are all surprisingly good. One in particular stands out -- and in fact gets better with every viewing. That's the one from John Lazar (below and further below), who plays the character of music promoter/manager Z-Man Barzell, said to be based on the character and career of Phil Spector.

Mr. Lazar is simply brilliant -- as over the top as the movie itself but also so specific, genuine and bizarrely real that he comes to own the movie. You can imagine this actor playing everything and anything from Iago to (as Z-man himself might have it) SuperWoman, with panache and smarts. A very good-looking performer when young, Lazar is said to have credited Beyond with the destruction of his career because he was only offered weird roles from this point on.

I don't buy it, as careers are made from much more than any one role -- from luck and grit and continual trying, among other things -- but Lazar will be remembered so long as movies exist for this amazing performance that, all by itself, makes the movie a must-see.

The ladies who play the rock-and-roll threesome at the center of the film are just fine -- that's hot little Dolly Read, as the central character/singer of the group, above, left, with Michael Blodgett, who takes his place as perhaps the sexiest, sleaziest bad boy of 70s cinema. Below, left, is voluptuous Edy Williams, aka Mrs. Russ Meyer (for a time, at least), along with David Gurian, who seems to have appeared in only a single movie -- this one -- as the sweet/sexy original love interest for Ms Read.

Mr. Gurian (below, right) has a scene in a wheelchair during the finale that is so hilariously crazy that I suspect that the sound of the audience laughing at his character may have soured him on ever making another movie appearance. Too bad: he was a cutie who also could act. But he probably didn't realize just how bizarre was this movie he was acting in.

Having seen the film at least a half dozen times now -- three or four of these via home video -- I can vouch for this new Blu-ray transfer as the best of the lot. From The Criterion Collection, the Dolls pair -- Valley running 123 minutes and Beyond 110 minutes -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, September 27 -- for rental (I hope) or purchase. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Watch Jeff Feuerzeig's AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY -- and you may feel the need to bathe

Boy, that "truth" thing! Ain't it a bitch? Here comes yet another new documentary in which, for all I know, literally everything we're dished out here is the "truth." However, since everything about the original situation is also a lie, which, as lies are wont to do, begins spinning off more and more lies in order to keep the original in place, what we're soon engaging with is something so grandly nefarious that one might call it "the whopper of 'em all." Still, what the hell: If Jayson Blair can get his very own movie, why not JT Leroy?

Jeff Feuerzeig, who wrote and directed AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, begins his film with a quote from Federico Fellini about creativity and truth -- A created thing is never invented and it is never true: It is always and ever itself -- that is clearly designed (by Feuerzeig, not by the late Signore Fellini) as an excuse for all that follows. Though it does not in the least manage the necessary excusing, it does prove but the first of many things about this fascinating-but-sleazy documentary that waves a red flag.

In truth, I would not know how to go about making an honest documentary about a situation like this, and perhaps Mr. Feuerzeig, realizing that he faced the same dilemma, chose what looks, more and more as the movie unfolds, like the easiest route. He simply hands the documentary over to its "protagonist," a woman named Laura Albert (above) who devised the whole JT Leroy scam and then brought it to pulsating, media-savvy life -- in the process, turning it into one of the most infamous, crazy, we've-conned-you-good! literary hoaxes in the history of, well, literature.

The above description sounds tasty enough to suck you in, no? Then why does this documentary begin to reek so foully, so quickly? TrustMovies thinks it's because Ms Albert never once in the entire proceedings shoulders any real responsibility for wrong-doing. She tells her tale as though it were just the most enjoyable, amusing and necessary thing to do. Now, if you feel, as Albert clearly does, that making up a story but labeling it as a true memoir, then creating the character who supposedly wrote the thing -- different age and different sex from the actual author -- in order to gain some of that wonderful stuff called fame is simply A-OK, then you'll probably embrace the documentary as all-fun-and-games.

Along the way, Albert, together with her Leroy creation (a gay, abused, teenage, would-be transgendered street urchin/hustler just longing for a world into which s/he can fit) cons everyone from supposed literature connoisseurs to celebrities in just about every field from music to movies to books to you-name-it. And, of course, the media just goes wild over a story (drugs. sex, prostitution, abuse) and a storyteller (under-age sex, queer and tearful) like this. In terms of lies and pretense, only the Donald could Trump it -- and, as we know, the media sure has given him plenty of undue attention.

What Albert really craved was success and celebrity above all, and from what we see here, she still does. And so the doc certainly shows us clearly and precisely how our culture of celebrity spawns more of the same, while feeding off itself in the process.

From filmmaker Gus van Sant -- who would of course gravitate toward someone of Leroy's ilk and is conned to a fare-thee-well (that's he above, right, with Albert and actor Michael Pitt) -- to television writer David Milch to actress turned director Asia Argento (below, right), the gullible just keep falling fast and hard. Ms Argento evens stars in and directs a so-so movie based on the LeRoy's "masterwork," The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

No one involved with Albert is safe, with doctors and analysts coming off as especially easy marks. Now, evidently, most of these folk are angry at Albert for putting them through the wringer once again via the new documentary. Well, honeys: You deserve each other. Whether or not the audience deserves to sit through this film is another question. Several times during and again at the end, I found myself muttering, Who gives a shit? I sure didn't, but then I also didn't follow Leroy's career during its ascendancy nor much during the scandal that followed.

If you followed that trajectory, the movie might just be your cup of whatever. Certainly it is full of details as to how the big lie was foisted upon us, and those details are often pretty amazing. And amusing. Overall though, it would seem as if Ms Albert is simply praying for this doc to hit pay dirt and provide her with a second round of celebrity and fame.
Good luck, dear.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a rather lengthy, considering its "true" content, one hour and fifty minutes, the movie -- after hitting the bigger cities and more noted cultural centers over the past couple of weeks -- opens here in South Florida tomorrow in Miami area at the O Cinema, Wynwood. You can click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY -- Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel's food and farming doc opens

When we think about our food and where it comes from, the last thing on many of our minds is the humble little seed. Those of us who follow the ever-rising control of big corporations worldwide, however, may think first of seeds, and then of power-hungry behemoths such as Montsanto, soon, it would seem, to be merged into Bayer, an even bigger power-hungry behemoth: (You can register your disapproval of that merger by clicking here).

SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY, a new documentary from Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, very smartly begins with a kind of history of seeds, introducing us to an ex-hippie farmer, shown below, who has now collected literally thousands of varieties of seeds, and who tells us that, sadly, we've lost 94 percent of our seed diversity during the 20th Century.

It was wise of the filmmakers to provide us this seed history and importance before showing us what the reign of Capitalism and "hybrid seeds," along with corporations and their venal and ridiculous idea of "patenting" nature are doing, with the help of slime balls like Clarence Thomas, surely the sleaziest member of our current Supreme Court. Next we move to Mexico and the fascinating story/history of corn. "We are seeds," explains one of several of the Indians who guide us through all this, as we are made to see and understand the kind of love that goes into caring for seeds. (Seed farming and seed banks, we learn, are now internationally connected.)

We visit Hawaii and watch as neighbors and whole communities protest the poisoning of their land and their children via toxic pesticides. We learn that NAFTA, by selling subsidized corn in Mexico, has forced two million farmers off their land. We see something similar in India, thanks to -- yes, again -- Montsanto. We view "Seed schools" in action via the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, an organization devoted to increasing, rather than further depleting, seed diversity.

Seed: The Untold Story is a vitally important documentary, subject-wise, at least. But, as you may have gathered from the above paragraphs, its approach to its subject is scattershot and all over the place. Also, for anyone who has followed the subject of food and farming via the number of good documentaries that have appeared over the past decade or two, the movie cannot help but seem repetitive. A figure such as Vandana Shiva, above, has already made some 78 appearances on film and TV, including the documentaries Dirt! The Movie and Solutions locales pour un désordre global. (Click the preceding link and then scroll way down for my review of that latter film.)

Filmmakers Betz and Siegel (shown above, with Betz on the left) are to be thanked for their efforts, even if the end result does not rise artistically to the level of importance of the subject itself. There are still plenty of things to be learned and gained from viewing this movie.

Seed:The Untold Story -- from Collective Eye Films and running 94 minutes -- opens this Friday, September 23, in New York City at the Cinema Village and the following Friday, September 30, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center.

Will the film be shown elsewhere? I have no idea, and since it does not yet even appear on the Collective Eye web site, don't expect any help there, either.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Amy Nicholson's short, sweet PICKLE opens theatrically with Myers/Whittet's GIRL ASLEEP

Excuse me if I am putting the cart before the horse here, but PICKLE -- the delightful and profound little 16-minute short by Amy Nicholson (shown below) starring her fascinating parents, Tom and Debbie Nicholson -- is such a must-see that it rather puts in the shade the perfectly OK feature film, GIRL ASLEEP, with which it shares the bill. What a blessing that the U.S. distributor of both, Oscilloscope Laboratories, saw fit to place both on the same bill -- which, together, adds up to 93 minutes of fun, frolic and food for thought.

While it obviously comes as no surprise to Ms Nicholson that her parents are people who can't seem to help but come to the aid of the other species on our planet who need their help, we are introduced to this couple as Tom asks us, "How interesting can a fish be when he's standing up in a sponge because he can't swim?" You'd be surprised. By the time we return to Pickle at film's end, you'll have been regaled with tales of animals, fish and fowl that will blow your mind & heart.

Don't mistake my words here; there's not a trace of terk-jerking or pushing buttons. Just tales of animal rescue that are bizarre, funny, appealing and rather amazing, too -- beginning with a Perdue chicken (no doubt going off to slaughter) who falls off the back of a truck and becomes Debbie's first rescue. As these tales pile up, they become a kind of pet lover's dream (or worst nightmare).

Yet Ms Nicholson's dry, inquiring tone, coupled to her very charming parents and some delightful animation as needed (since most of these pets have long since departed this vale of tears), makes for a one-of-a-kind movie experience that I suspect you will treasure.

Look for Peanut, the cat with a bad heart; Ginger, a chicken who must undergo amputation; Pogo, the paraplegic opossum; and finally that stump-bodied little title fish. How this black and hilarious movie that is all about sickness and death can keep you giggling throughout is just one of the mysteries here. Look for some sudden and amazing topiary from Tom, too. And finally, we get a quiet, thoughtful finale that will knock your socks off. Pickle is a 16-minute don't-miss -- and one I want to share will everyone I know and love.

And now for the main attraction: GIRL ASLEEP, a coming-of-age tale about a misfit high-school girl, Greta (Bethany Whitmore, at right and below), who is just about to celebrate her fifteenth birthday. Her family is concerned but not very helpful (in fact, by arranging a birthday party for their daughter to which they invite her entire class, they just about do her in). She has no friends except for one dorky boy, Eliott (Harrison Feldman, below, left)  who maybe has a crush on her -- or perhaps simply knows when he sees another nerd in need.

As written (from his own play) by Matthew Whittet and directed by Rosemary Myers (shown below), the movie is written and filmed with a kind of clever, deadpan stylization that takes things into a slightly surreal realm -- but not so far that reality topples.

Girl Asleep treads a rather fine line rather successfully for its first half, as our Greta is set up for one problem after another, as one embarrassment follows the next. But this is nothing like the WeinerDog, Dawn, of Todd Solondz fame. Greta, despite her wanderings into fantasyland, is a good deal more centered and strong. Even if she does not yet realize that fact. (Those are her three biggest school nemeses, below.)

How she comes to the necessary realization involves a very long fall-asleep/fantasy sequence in which, I must admit, the symbolism and metaphor become way too much. S&M (symbolism & metaphor, in this case), works best when it is not terribly obvious, which unfortunately it is here. And the sequence goes on and on and on. (Perhaps this fantasy sequence worked better as "theater," because it is so very theatrical.)

Then, just as we've pretty much given up, the movie redeems itself completely with a wonderful and surprising finale, in which what happens is unexpected but just about perfect, leading us into a place and position that were always there but have only now revealed themselves. On balance, Girl Asleep is worth the watch. And coupled as it is to Pickle, the experience proves more than worthwhile.

From Oscilloscope Laboratories, this smart double bill opens this Friday, September 23, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and the following Friday, September 30, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine. Over the weeks to come, the two films will play all across the country. Here in South Florida, you can see them in Miami at the Bill Cosford Cinema, beginning October 7. To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and then click on SCREENINGS.