Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: another small but strong movie from indie filmmaker Sean Baker

I've been following the films of Sean Baker since his 2004 sophomore effort, Take Out (you can find my review and Q&A with the filmmaker here) and finding that work evolving, growing richer and stronger with each new film. Baker has now made six full-length features, with his latest THE FLORIDA PROJECT, the most precious jewel in the crown. Word was out early regarding how special is this movie and, for those who love narrative films with a documentary feel, as all of his films have so far seemed, this one will not disappoint.

Mr. Baker, shown at right, loves children -- both of the small sort, and those who, though they may look like adults -- see Starlet and Tangerine for a couple of examples -- still mostly act like the kids they've never been able to move beyond. How they manage (or don't) to begin to make that move comprises the arc of those two films and their characters' stories. With The Florida Project, Baker gives the actual small kids their lead and lets them run with it. The result is initially bubbly, bracing and enormous fun, but as the movie moves along, its dark side surfaces almost equally. What's missing for most of these kids is not only proper parenting but the kind of safety net any decent society needs. The movie does not "tell" us this; it doesn't need to because it shows us so clearly everything we need to know.

The film takes place in the Orlando, Florida, area -- far enough away but also near enough to Disney World to make that place resonate without our ever actually having to see it (throughout most of the movie, at least). Instead we and our scrappy heroine, Moonee, played by a very young actress, Brooklynn Prince (shown above, center, and below, right), who makes an indelible impression here, hang out at the low-end motel in which the kids and their caretakers live. All the children are terrific and seem as real as kids get, but Ms Prince receives the major screen time, and she's worth every minute of it.

As her problemed mom, newcomer Bria Vinaite (above) is equally real and twice as troubling, as the character stumbles from one bad move to the next and yet keeps caring for her daughter as best she can -- which is, unfortunately, not really very well.

The filmmaker mixes professionals actors with non-pros and does this with such ease that if you did not already recognize performers such as Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair and especially Willem Dafoe (shown above, and who is as incredibly fine here, playing what you might call a "normal" character, as he has ever been), you would think them all just part of the real people Baker has recruited for his project.

Baker's choice of incident builds carefully and very well to what will be a turning point. We don't know quite in what direction it will turn, nor whether it will help or hinder, but by then we've spent nearly two breathless hours watching, smiling, wincing, frowning and feeling childhood, its joys and discontents, as strongly as you could want -- and all with characters from an economic/social class of which many of us don't rub up against at all often. When we do, we're likely to somehow discount them. Mr. Baker (as with all his films) makes certain that doesn't happen here.

The Florida Project, from A24 and running 115 minutes, opened on its home ground, Orlando, last weekend and will hit Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach this Friday, October 20, along with elsewhere throughout the country now and in the weeks to come. To discover the theaters nearest you, simply click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Andy Serkis' BREATHE walks a fine but difficult line between feel-good and feel-bad

With a serviceable and sometimes more than that screenplay by William Nicholson, excellent performances by a well-chosen cast working near the top of its form, and very smart direction from a first-time filmmaker, Andy Serkis, known best for his computer-generated/performance-capture acting roles, BREATHE turns out to be better in every way than might have been expected. While certain critics have bemoaned Serkis' choice to make his debut directing what some feel is merely a disease-of-the-week movie -- one reviewer, for The New 
York Times, managed to misread the film so completely that she appears to have watched a different one from what the rest of us saw -- TrustMovies feels that Mr Serkis, shown at left, has done a commendable job of telling a story, with honesty and appreciation of what is a near-impossible situation, one that proves every bit as feel-bad as it does feel-good.

That situation is one of adult-onset polio back in the late 1950s that turned an intelligent, vital, healthy young man into a being completely paralyzed from the neck down for the remaining 36 years of his life. How do your turn a story like this into something an audience can not only view and appreciate but find every bit as inspiring and full of fascinating detail as you might wish? Serkis, Nicholson and their cast do exactly that, and they manage to make those impossible-to-contain tears at the finale flow absolutely guilt-free.

The journey of Robin Cavendish, played -- once his body is taken from him, with mostly those amazing, deep-pools-of-expression eyes -- by Andrew Garfield (above), is a remarkable one by any standard, thanks in particular to the help of Cavendish's wife, Diana (performed with humor, restraint and great strength by Claire Foy, below) and his good friend, the inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).

It is the specific detail found in that journey, taking us from England to Africa and across Europe, too, that adds such pleasure and fascination to the tale, as Robin and his helpers find ways of making his own life (and consequently those of other polio and wheelchair-bound patients) richer and more acceptable.

Simply staying alive was thought to be nearly impossible at this time. Making the lives of the respirator-bound more comfortable was not even a consideration -- except perhaps in a certain country noted for its cleanliness and efficiency, as above, where the film's most surprising and quietly shocking scene takes place.

In the supporting cast, special note must be made of the wonderful Tom Hollander (this year's BAFTA winner for The Night Manager) in the small but juicy roles of Diana's twin brothers. The finale is every bit as moving and unsettling as you might expect, but perhaps the film's biggest jolt of emotion comes as the end credits roll and we view photos of the real family and discover how this film came into being and who the person is who was most responsible for shepherding it to the screen.

From Bleecker Street and running a lengthy-but-utterly engrossing 117 minutes, Breathe, after hitting New York City and Los Angeles last week, opens around the country this Friday. Here in South Florida, you can catch it in the Miami area at the The Landmark at Merrick Park 7 and AMC Aventura; in Sunrise at the Regal Sawgrass; in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway Theatre; in Boynton Beach at the Cinemark; and in West Palm beach at the AMC City Place. Wherever you live, click here and then scroll down to find the theater near you.

Monday, October 16, 2017

LIBERATION DAY: North Korea again, from an unusual angle, in Olte/Traavik's new rock doc

I'm not sure why but, so far at least, nearly every movie I've viewed about North Korea -- mostly documentaries but also even the sometimes-comic The Interview -- have proven too long, repetitive and a little too boring for their own good. Finally, here comes a documentary to do with North Korea that, despite its being -- yes, again -- too long, repetitive and a little too boring for its own good, is still more enjoyable and thought-provoking than the usual. If not as much fun as the winner (so far) in this genre, The Lovers & the Despot, the 2016 documentary, LIBERATION DAY provides enough intelligence and eye-opening food-for-thought-and-view that it slips just barely into the realm of acceptability.

As co-directed by Uģis Olte and Morten Traavik (the latter of whom is shown at right), the movie's most interesting moment occurs immediately, as this quote from the rock band Laibach appears onscreen:

All art is subject 
to political manipulation 
except that which speaks 
the language of 
the same manipulation. 

Hmmmm, we think to ourselves and immediately begin applying that idea to the movie, country and band at hand, the first of which details the would-be momentous event of this band's surprising invitation -- the first ever for a rock band -- to perform inside the highly closed state of North Korea. That the band's accouterments, from costumes to appearance to performance and much else -- fairly drip of fascistic images (coupled to conscious and consistent irony) makes the invitation even more bizarre.

Unaccountably, a couple of Laibach's songs became hugely popular in North Korea, perhaps because these were "cover" versions of songs from, yes, The Sound of Music, which the North Korean populace probably heard without benefit of any accompanying visuals, thus making them near-completely lose both the sense of Laibach's irony and (most likely made-fun-of) overt fascism.

So here we are as the band arrives in North Korea for what is perhaps the most unwelcoming "welcome dinner" in history, and then we watch and listen as the band's program is consistently undercut by the North Korean censors, even as Laibach tries its level best to abide by the hugely curtailed "freedom" that country allows. Early on, one of the retinue decides to go for an unscheduled walk-around-town, despite the fact that the group has been warned not to go anywhere alone and/or without prior permission.

Undoubtedly because the freedom-to-film is every bit as subject to censor and "permission" as all the other freedoms in this self-titled democracy, what we end up watching for a too-long 100 minutes is often repetitive and not at all what might be the best or most apt visual for us to see. Still, over time, things come together, as does the concert itself, and we're finally treated to a small portion of this, as well as to the absolutely bizarre response from its seemingly baffled audience.

Along the way, yet another stand-off between the Koreas, North and South, occurs and various provocations continue to arise. All this happened before our own nutcase/liar-in-chief rose to the Presidency, but it certainly would have been even more interesting had Laibach's performance come a couple of years later.

In the press quotes for the film, as well as in the actual film itself, we are treated to reactions from HBO Emmy-winning John Oliver and everyone's favorite (mine, at least) Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as to the importance of the band's visit. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls this "a genuinely historic event."  Indeed, historic the visit may be, but the movie about it surely ain't. Instead, it keeps promising so much more intelligence, laughs, music, surprise, wonder and/or irony that it can possibly, under these constrained circumstances, ever deliver.

And so we come back to that above quote and what it says/means. The art/language of Laibach (wherever did the band get its name, I wonder? It always makes me think of that famous sexual direction, "Lie bach and spread your legs") is so full of irony, as well as politics, history, pretense and fantasy, while the art/language of its host (is there "art" in North Korea? Isn't real art individually created rather than collectively?) is something real, chilling, provocative and hugely damaging to its citizenry. Or perhaps Laibach is saying that its own art is above such manipulation because -- ah-hah! -- it already understands/speaks in that same manipulative manner.

Well, figure it all out for yourself. The movie, disappointing as it is, is still worth seeing for the questions it raises and for the event it covers. Released by Sundance Now, the documentary receives its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum this Wednesday, October 18. Elsewhere? No idea, but one would imagine the film will see the light of day (or the light of a movie-house disc player) in a few more cities around the country.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- RIPPER STREET: British late-Victorian police procedural

Whitechapel is life in all its wild and rotten splendor; 
beside it, the rest of the world seems a tomb. 

The streaming series RIPPER STREET might have escaped me were it not for an accidental meet up with an enthusiastic review, followed by a binge-watch and absorption from the first moment. Set near the time that the ghoulish Jack the Ripper serial-murdered his prostitute victims, the 5–season police drama is particularly energetic, suspenseful, and literate, thanks to prolific writer-creator, Richard Warlow (below).

Real life persons (events, and the Dublin shooting locale) lend historicity, for example Edmund Reid and Fred Abberline, the former played by series lead, Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), and the latter by Clive Russell (Game of Thrones, Outlander); Abberline was Reid’s superior (below).

Reid headed criminal investigation at H Division in Whitechapel where Ripper did his crimes. Although you’d expect so, the series does not directly address the murders. They add dolorous atmosphere, a guilty prod to the police for work unfinished, in that Ripper was never caught. (Episode 1.1, a copy-cat murder, is as close as Div H police get.) In the main, Ripper Street is a deep dive into the late 19th century world of London’s East End and the battles by its protagonists to solve crimes, keep the peace, and have some semblance of private life and love. 

Reid’s particular sidekick is his forensic pathologist, an American with a shady past, Homer Jackson, played by Adam Rothenberg (above, second l). Jackson is a “two-penny sawbones, a snake-oil-pushing clap doctor” whose outside-the-box genius for uncovering crimes in the bones and tissues of victims is invaluable to Reid. Homer has a wife from whom he is estranged, Long Susan (far l) a criminally inclined, heart-of-gold brothel madam played by MyAnna Buring (Twilight Saga, Downton Abbey).

Fellow officer(ctr. r) is Inspector Bennet Drake, the craggy Jerome Flynn (GoT's Bronn) and one more main player, Rose, the prostitute who seeks to better herself, is played by Charlene McKenna (far r). Drake’s gnarly charisma is a helpful offset to MacFadyen’s buttoned-up Inspector Reid — the center spoke around which action turns, “attached to Whitechapel as if by lead weights on a river bed”.

The Dickensian world of Whitechapel comes to life with assorted guest players such as the winsome (Ms) Charlie Murphy (above, l, of Rebellion, The Last Kingdom), and the very appealing Damien Molony (above, r) in an episode that stews together romance, Irish politics, and a battle for adoption of either alternating or direct-current electricity.

Joseph Mawle (shown above, of The Hallow and Clapham Junction) has a recurring role as the evil-doer Inspector Shine, revealing his unshowy acting chops (above). Iain Glen (GoT, Downton Abbey); Jonas Armstrong (Robin Hood); the talented David Dawson (Alfred the Great in The Last Kingdom) as newspaper hound and dandy Fred Best (below); Lydia Wilson, John Heffernan, Josh O’Connor, Amanda Hale, and more familiar faces appear from BBC, PBS and other networks' series.

Whitechapel itself is an affecting character. St Mary’s, a small local chapel dating from the 1300’s, lent its name to the area which became a slum in Victorian times as Irish, Jewish, Indian, and other foreigners crowded in to this and other East End neighborhoods. ‘Elephant man’ Joseph Merrick (below) lived and died in Whitechapel, often on exhibit as a curiosity (one story is his).

By the 1880’s there were reportedly 60 brothels and 1200 prostitutes. Noxious businesses located there, the sounds and smells of tanners, brewers, and metal shops comfortably distant from the affluence of central London. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry headquarters (below), dating from the era of Elizabeth I, cast Westminster Abbey bells, Big Ben, and the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia.

The East End has been in our sights over and again. In 1660’s Shoreditch, East End, Shakespeare plied his trade at the Curtain Theater (Shakespeare in Love).The late 1990’s series Bramwell featured a woman doctor operating on this turf and telling stories of East End poor; Call the Midwife (1950’s-60’s)is a more recent take, and Tom Hardy’s recent Taboo features East End locations. However, Warlow’s Ripper Street is likely the most consistent, visceral, and frenetic portrait of this small piece of real estate. Division H policed a bit over a mile and 67,000 poor, including factories, tenements, brothels, and pubs. Their stories addressed labor conflict like the Match Girls strike and discrimination against Jewish, Chinese, and Indian minorities.

The ever-present thread of women seeking to control their own lives and bodies is revealed in Long Susan’s career, for which she pays and pays more. New technology arrives — the telephone and micro-reader, blood typing, finger printing, and the invention of film become lynchpins for murder.

Rose, the prostitute, is manipulated into being photographed by a pornographer who strangles his subjects in front of the camera; we are introduced to the amazing invention of moving images, sure to become cash cows for future pornographers. A gang of child criminals is led by an adult man who directs the boys to capture girls for sale to groups of men; Reid traces the source of the Plague to a “Molly House” (gay/transgender brothel); a train robbery results in the deaths of 55 people; Long Susan finances a hospital and is convinced to treat victims of back-alley abortions when an affiliated male doctor is discovered using poor women for experimentation and sterilization; the stockholders of a shipping company are dismayed to find that a woman is the inventor of a new engine that could save the company; a work house administrator is found to have murdered sickly children in his care.

Four seasons serve up a steady diet of these social-justice-themed police procedurals, each complex and tightly wound, but season five resolves the relationships of the main characters while bringing to justice a poor fellow who having seen his mother eaten by wolves, bites his victims to death: “homo homini lupus est — man is wolf to man” (that's Jonas Armstong, above, as Nathaniel).

Curiosity if not hope, is satisfied because these tales of Whitechapel do not end with a warm glow like episodes of Call the Midwife. Rather, life and loss go on: “We are doomed to the ragged purgatory of these streets...Lady Justice holds her righteous tit.” (Inspector Shine). And, as creator Warlow writes, there are diamonds to be mined from pain.

Ripper Street streams now via Netflix.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

On DVD, a delightful, 203-minute course in American film history -- THE CHAMPION: A Story of America's First Film Town

What a little treasure trove for film lovers is the new Milestone Cinematheque release of THE CHAMPION: A STORY OF AMERICA'S FIRST FILM TOWN. I may have previously heard something about Fort Lee, New Jersey, being a place where early movies were made, but nothing had prepared me for the details that spill out -- surprising, funny, and full of so many names of our early and important filmmakers, actors and eventual and/or would-be moguls -- during this 35-minute-but-too-short-by-half documentary.

It's rare for TrustMovies to wish a film were longer, but he could have easily sat through another hour or more of this one. Still, this two-disc set is more than worth its cost, as it also offers eight silent films from the heyday of Fort Lee (the early 1900s through World War I) plus another short documentary from 1935 detailing even more about movie-making in this New Jersey precursor of Hollywood that was, by the 1930s, already a movie-making ghost town.

As written and directed by Marc J. Perez (based on the book Fort Lee, the Film Town by Richard Koszarski), The Champion takes us to the spot where those famous Perils of Pauline were filmed, shows us what certainly must be one of the earliest "special effects" to be seen onscreen (in a silent movie called Rescued from an Eagle's Nest), and puts us in touch with some famous (or almost) names like Florence Lawrence (shown above), said to be the first real "movie star," as well as stand-bys like Goldwyn, Laemmle and Sennett, as well as names that ought to be better known and maybe someday will be.

In that last category would fall the first black feature filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, and the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché, who wrote, directed and/or produced some one thousand films and actually owned her own film studio -- all before women could even vote here in America.

The Champion concentrates most on a man named Mark Dintenfass, who came to Fort Lee in 1910 and decided it would be smart move to build a studio nearby (in Englewood Cliffs). He purchased land and built what would become the hugely successful (for awhile) Champion Studios, the mark of which is shown below.

This story, along with many others, are told briefly and well in the documentary, which ends, as I say, too soon, but then allows you to take a look at some of the silent films that came out of this era and town. Chief among these is the 31-minute version of ROBIN HOOD, made in 1912 by Eclair America, which was to become the first American-produced version of the tale. The longest of the films is THE DANGER GAME (from 1918) running one full hour.

The other short silents run from nine to eleven minutes each, and though some are in better restorative shape than others, all are great fun to watch and marvel over -- both for how far film (and now video) has come, and how much fun, even enlightening, it could be back at its near-beginning. In fact, this new set makes a lovely complement (or maybe vice versa) to one of last year's most interesting movie-history documentaries, The First Film.

From The Milestone Cinematheque, and running, in all, 203 minutes, this two-disc set features a 2K restoration of that 1935 doc on Fort Lee entitled Ghost Town. For five of the films, all produced at Champion Studio, this new release marks the first time these silents will have appeared on DVD. Special thanks are due The Fort Lee Film Commission for its work in putting together this fine set. The Champion, complete with all its extras, hits the street this coming Tuesday, October 17 -- for purchase and/or (I hope) for rental, too.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tao Ruspoli's MONOGAMISH continues the everlasting search for what works best re marriage, love, sex, kids and all the rest

A not-uninteresting combination of visual/verbal confessional, educational films from the 1940s and 50s, other archival snippets from film and TV, the filmmaker's family history, along with that of the idea of marriage itself, and talking-head interviews with sociologists, marriage counselors and advice columnists, MONOGAMISH, a new, four-years-in-the-making documentary from Tao Ruspoli (shown two photos below), reopens (once again) that seemingly eternal discussion of whether or not monogamy really works and is the best resolution for folk who are in love, want to marry and start a family -- or who would simply rather fuck for awhile, before moving on to greener, or at least other, pastures.

Now, if you're anything like me, you had your first discussion about all this during college (for TrustMovies, that took place back in the late 50s/early 60s), and the same subject reared its fascinating head again during the late 1960s with the hippie crowd and its anything-goes sexuality, and then the following decade with the me-generation, its swingers and the explosion of the porn industry.

Part of the charm -- and, yes, it must be also said, the naivete -- of this documentary arrives, for us old folk, at least, from the realization that, oh-oh, here it comes again: that old question, Does monogamy work? Of course not, or not very well. But, as one of the many quotes from the famous featured in the film (and paraphrased here) reminds us, monogamy may not work well, but it's the better than anything else we've got. Or is it?

By the surprising, amusing and fairly jaw-dropping finale of this film, much of what you've seen and considered will be called into question. (No answers will be provided, however, for that would require a re-visit to or by Rispoli in perhaps another ten years.). This filmmaker first arrived on my map some eight years ago, with his narrative movie (done in documentary style) called Fix, which was unusual and great fun, too. Since then he has concentrated on documentaries, none of which I've seen -- until this one. One of the reasons for his making this film was the split from his significant other, actress Olivia Wilde, and its repercussions.

The talking  heads from past and present includes everyone from the right-wing uber-idiot, George Putnam to the sensible and quite easy-to-take gay columnist Dan Savage (above), who is clearly a good friend of Ruspoli whom the director turns to for help in his time of need. As his film tackles monogamy and its discontents, it also explores history, women as property, and the rise of feminism. As one fellows asks in the course of the film, "Do you want to overturn thousands of years of civilization?" No, but maybe thousands of years of patriarchy, yes.

Along the way we get a great quote about marriage and second marriage from Oscar Wilde, a lovely poem by William Butler Yeats, interviews with a number of folk who are experimenting with what we used to call "alternate life styles" (above). The director even includes a little narrative interpolation featuring a hitchhiker (below) and the lucky pair who pick her up.

The movie may be all over the place, but it manages to -- yet, again -- raise enough interesting questions about an old, old subject to hold our attention. And that ending, a humdinger, does indeed make the trip both thought-provoking and worthwhile. And please, Tao, let us know what happens here. (Since the movie was finished back in 2014, I suspect that plenty has already occurred.)

From Productions and running a lean 74 minutes, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, October 13, and will expand to wide release in November. Theaters? Well, in New York City, it's playing at the Roxy Cinema in Tribeca. That's all I know so far....