Sunday, October 20, 2019

October Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: Andrew Davies' adaptation of LES MISERABLES (we are all miserable)

"It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I have been taught about myself and half-way believed before I could walk around this earth like I have the right to be here. I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right…"
--Billy Porter accepting his ground-breaking Emmy award for the lead in POSE, 9/22/19

"Equality, citizens, is not …a neighborhood of jealousies emasculating each other; it is...all aptitudes having equal opportunity; ...all votes having equal weight; ...all consciences having equal rights. Equality has an organ: … instruction. The right to the alphabet, we must begin [with] that."
-- from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, vol 2, p 470

Marius: What could be greater than to serve under Napoleon?
Enjolras: To be free. I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of the king or an emperor. And one day we’ll all be fighting about that on one side or another….
-- from the new Andrew Davies' adaptation, chapter 4

Victor Hugo’s tale is such a potent parable that new versions arrive regularly. The latest of many (books, comics, manga, over 50 films, 23 tv productions; radio versions, musicals, concerts, games, animations, plays) now includes a derivative Les Miserables, the 2019 Cannes prize winner and France’s candidate for best International Feature Film in our next Academy Awards (optioned by Amazon for US distribution). Director Ladj Ly tells the story of 2005 riots by young blacks routinely harassed by police in Montfermeil, the Paris suburb where Hugo’s thieving duo, the Thenardiers, kept their inn.

Our subject here is a traditional and reportedly quite book-faithful version now streaming on PBS Passport (or through Amazon) — a 2018 BBC/PBS 6-part drama adapted from the novel by classics interpreter Andrew Davies, above (of Mr. Selfridge, House of Cards and Bridget Jones' Diary); it is nostalgically cinematic with a movingly quiet score. 

Hugo (1802-1885) began scoping out his greatest tome during the June rebellion of 1832 against royal Louis-Philippe, who had replaced Charles X in 1830, but whose moderation did not satisfy republicans.* Hugo was to publish 18 volumes of poetry during his lifetime, 7 novels, 21 plays, was an elected politician, and produced 4000 drawings. (Delacroix wrote that if Hugo had published his art, he would have outshone the artists of their century.) But English speakers know him best through two novels: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Miserables (1862), the latter being “...the crowning point of my work”.

It was a giant canvas for all his, now our, social views — a modern bible. Contemporary critics found fault (Flaubert saw “neither truth nor greatness”; Baudelaire called it “repulsive and inept”) but the public agreed with Hugo — he was their media genius. The French National Assembly took up the issues of social misery and injustice. (Below, Emile Bayard’s famous sketch of Cosette for original printing of the novel.)

Hugo’s adulthood included the second and third of France’s five republics (we are in the Fifth: 1958—). Politics was in his blood; his parents’ views clashed — his father was a high ranking republican officer serving Napoleon, his mother a Catholic Royalist. And after the French Revolution of 1789, the government rocked back and forth between Royalists and Republicans. Hugo’s passions were ignited by pervasive misery made worse by failed harvests, food shortages, cholera, inflation, recession.

He had been guided by his mother’s devotion to king and church before rebelling against her conservatism in his maturity (the trajectory of Marius in the novel is said to have been reconstructed from memories of his poor student days). Later as a member of the French assembly, he was so outspoken a republican he was forced into exile for decades, mostly on the channel island of Guernsey. He presciently called for a “United States of Europe”, a free press, universal suffrage, free education, and abolition of the death penalty. (He did not advocate for racial equality in which our Billy Porter can at last somewhat rejoice, and the issue now invoked by the 2019 black-directed French Les Miserables). But Hugo’s brilliance and literary output led to the French celebrating him as their poet of the common man, to his burial in the Pantheon, mausoleum for heroes, and to his influence on writers like Camus, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky.

Critics have decried the absence of depth in the main characters in the 2012 musical “Les Miz“. They are, however, Hugo’s poster-children of his political arguments against the power imbalance between the 1% and 99%, making ‘Les Miz’ an operatic parable, not a story driven by interpersonal relations.

Andrew Davies’s version is a much richer prose telling in which the characters lift off the poster boards, taking six episodes to humanize the stories of the have’s and have-not’s based on Hugo’s near 2000-page bible; its depth and detail increases one’s absorption in the lives of the trod upon, still unsettled by dictatorship but lurching toward democracy. It was the students who stood on the ramparts; in 1832 most of them died. (Below, Marius, l, and Enjolas, freedom fighters.)

But even this version is less interpersonal, more of a poignant dialectic based on Hugo’s social politics. Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair) is Jean Valjean, the wretched criminal, freed after 20 years brutal hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread (below).

David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King in Selma), the near-sex-obsessed policeman and single-minded antagonist, Javert, is hot on Valjean’s trail in a mortal struggle that ends only with the novel. Lily Collins (To the Bone) is angelic seamstress, Fantine, who fatally ignores warnings about rich young men who come to play; Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals), her daughter, Cosette, for whom the abandoned Fantine toils, sells her hair and teeth (last image) to pay Cosette’s keep; Josh O’Connor (The Durrells in Corfu, upcoming as Charles in The Crown), is young nobleman, Marius, who loves Cosette (below).

Marius is ordered to leave home after defying his grandfather’s aristocratic views. David Bradley, below (Walder Frey in Game of Thrones), is the rouged, cosseted old man in his silks — magnificent, pathetic, spurned.

The scurrilous Thenardiers, Olivia Colman (below,  right, from The Favourite) and Adeel Ahktar (below, center, of Murdered by My Father), are petty thieves and droll scene-stealers (Coleman’s most irresistible role) who blithely scam and pilfer (no redemption there) and offer comic relief. Below they are smarming Fantine, promising to love Cosette as their own.

Derek Jacobi (Good Omens) is the goodly bishop whose kind forgiveness sets our hero Valjean on his slow road to redemption.

Javert, Valjean’s former jailer, now the new chief of police, meets up with Valjean who has become a prosperous factory owner whom Javert doesn’t recognize: Javert: ‘I’m told you have restored the prosperity of the town ... Consequently there is very little crime here.’ Valjean: ‘Yes I like to think that that is so.’ Javert: ‘But a thief does not steal because he is poor and desperate; He steals because he has a criminal mentality— because he is degenerate...wicked.’ Valjean: ‘...I have to tell you that there we disagree…I believe most of us are capable of good and evil, but how we turn out depends on our circumstances and how we are treated.’

Valjean does not believe his own words: ‘I am nothing’, he says, having been spat upon so long. It is Javert’s eventual recognition of the uselessness of cruelty and Valjean’s forgiveness of himself for crimes of society that give this parable its heart. But a system so favoring the rich 1 % is worth more didactic spelling out of Hugo’s views than Andrew Davies extracts from the novel even in 6 chapters. Perhaps double the episodes would prod us toward justice now, here. Even if you think you have been-there-done-that, do watch this version. You will still be moved by the contemporaneity of its message and beautiful telling.

*Note: this article sets the political scene for ‘Les Miserables’ in 1832, 43 years after the French Revolution.
The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Home video debut for Billy Senese's pretty-good hospital horror flick, THE DEAD CENTER

Opening theatrically only last week, for a very limited release and soon to be available via home video, THE DEAD CENTER, a relatively quiet, unusual hospital-set horror/thriller written and directed by Billy Senese (his sophomore effort in the full-length division) turns out to be worth a watch due to its highly unsettling atmospherics and storytelling techniques. Something awful is happening from the get-go, but so fractured is what we initially see -- yet so weirdly fascinating -- that we hold on, and on, as some sort of explanation is slowly given us.

Mr. Senese, pictured at left, knows how to do low-key scares quite well, along with providing a group of just slightly off-kilter characters, all of them -- even the killer -- sympathetic in their individual pain and torment.

Further, he has set his film mostly in and around a beleaguered city hospital, barely surviving the usual cost-cutting measures to keep things going, even if they're going not so well.

At the enter of the tale are two men: a caring, if hugely problematic doctor (played by Shane Carruth, below) and a seemingly risen-from-the-dead John Doe (Jeremy Childs, further below), who has disappeared from the morgue, after having already killed some folk, and who will soon begin yet another murder rampage.

For a nice change, this hospital seems to have a mostly caring staff, who treat the patients -- in this mental health division, at least -- with as much respect as it can muster, given the economic situation which well reflects our current times of hospitals under-staffed or simply closing down.

Meanwhile, a third character -- a forensic doctor played by Bill Feehely -- trying to locate that missing corpse begins piecing together evidence of who this very weird fellow is, along with what, maybe, is actually going on.

These three men come together, sort of, at the finale, which is a wild, horrific thing, somewhat tamped down by the filmmaker's refusal to push murder and gore ahead of his more human, character-driven concerns.

The film's problems, for TrustMovies, at least, involve a plot in which, despite the "mystery" in front of us, things still seems a bit too obvious, so that we keep ahead of the game by just enough to grow impatient to get to the final stage. We do, but even that seems just a tad derivative of other sci-fi/horror outings.

As too often happens, the mystery is a lot more fun than its solution, and again, the journey is better than the destination. But Senese and his fine cast certainly keep us going -- and thinking and wincing as we move along.

From Arrow Video (released here in the states via MVD Entertainment Group) and running 93 minutes, The Dead Center (not sure just what that title is meant to signify, other than death) will hit the street this coming Tuesday, October 22, on Blu-ray and DVD for purchase and (I hope) rental.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar's PAIN AND GLORY is, yes, painful and glorious (and funny and moving, and subtle and smart)

Anyone who has followed the more-than-40-year career of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar can hardly help but have noticed the tonal change in his films from the crazy, highly sexual and often darkly comedic to the more serious -- if still sometimes dark and sexual -- explorations into family and Freud (granted, his very own version of the good doctor).

Almodóvar's later films may have been successful to varying degrees, just as were his earlier movies -- though to listen to some critics/fans, those early comedies were all fabulous and wonderful; instead, they too were a mixed bag -- yet one of the distinct pleasures of contemplating this man's fecund career (he is shown at right) comes in seeing, little by little, the enormous depth and growth involved.

TrustMovies is certainly not alone in finding his latest film, PAIN AND GLORY, the pinnacle and culmina-tion (but not the finale, I hope) of his career.

In it, Antonio Banderas (above and below) -- who has appeared in numerous Almodóvar films over the years and whose career took off via this filmmaker -- plays an aging filmmaker very much like Almodóvar, whose life story we see unfurl here via flashback and present-day excursions into his current life of enormous physical pain (everything from excruciating back pain to migraines),

drug addiction, the rekindling of both a friendship and a hugely important love relationship, and a possible career rehabilitation via the rediscovery of one of his successful older films.

If this sounds like a lot to cover in a mere two hours, let it be known that the filmmaker does it all with breathtaking skill, surprising subtlety and intelligence, the expected (but still gorgeous) visuals exquisitely combining composition and color, and drawing spot-on performances from a well-chosen cast that includes Penélope Cruz (above, playing his mother in her younger days) and Julieta Serrano (below, right, as older mom).

The two performance highlights, however, come from that fine Argentine actor Leonardo Sbaraglia (below, right), playing the ex-lover with such passion, wit and alertness that this pretty much constitutes a career-best role -- in a career that already has some really spectacular ones (Wild Horses, Intacto, Contestant and King of the Mountain),

and from Asier Etxeandia (below), as the ex-friend and actor who starred in the filmmaker's most famous work, now estranged but gleefully ready to reconnect via drugs and maybe a new acting role. Etxeandia is exciting to watch in action, and his role is one of the film's best written and realized, as well as its most complicated creation.

Almodóvar does not attempt to make his "hero'" all that heroic. He's a user -- not just of drugs but of people. Watch sadly at how he treats his devoted personal secretary (Nora Navas, below, right). But, oh, god, he is so human. And his creativity, from what we can gather, is worth saving and encouraging.

As the filmmaker's delightfully intelligent younger self, Asier Flores (shown at bottom) proves a real find. This youngster gets one of the film's perfect scenes, in which incipient sexuality overtakes our hero in one marvelous, sudden rush. No explanation necessary, and Almodóvar doesn't belabor the point. (Shown below is the amazingly sensuous César Vicente, who plays the key element in that pivotal scene.)

Another bit of perfection occurs at film's end, when the writer/director simply moves his camera just a tad, in the process quietly letting us know that, "Hey, it's only a movie, right?" Sure. But what a movie!

From Sony Pictures Classics (and I would guess a front-runner for Best Foreign Language Film nomination), in Spanish with English subtitles, and lasting 113 minutes, Pain and Glory, after opening in key cities, hits South Florida this Friday, October 18, all over the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach areas. To find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here, then click on GET TICKETS, scroll down to the October 18 dates and find your local theater(s). Or just fill in your zip code in the blank space and make things even easier.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A standard-issue, no-tricks, yet perfectly calibrated movie from François Ozon? You'll see, as BY THE GRACE OF GOD opens

What's this? A movie from François Ozon that breaks no new ground in any direction yet tells a very important story so well that it could hardly be bettered? Yes. It is almost as if this famous French bad-boy filmmaker was thumbing his nose (and various other body parts) at those who've accused him of being mostly style, envelope-pushing and little else.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD (Grâce à Dieu) finds Ozon, pictured at left, working at his peak and showing us that he can, in the space of two hours and 17 minutes, give us a vital tale of religion and freedom, including a huge cast of characters -- each one fully created and performed -- that is compelling from the first and ever more riveting and enveloping as it moves steadily, often quietly along. Ozon has directed with a touch that is alternately light and strong, while writing/adapting his screenplay from a true story that has been, over recent years, making off-and-on headlines in France.

The filmmaker uses standard tropes such a narrative voice-over to lead us into this tale of adult French men, former or still-practising members of the Catholic faith, who have only recently stopped repressing memories of sexual abuse by a particular priest.

One after another they find each other and begin to explore ways to break into the tight circle of rigidity formed by the church, the media and the law -- all of which have long held sway over the very noticeably Catholic country of France.

After the initial and still very religious whistleblower (played by Melvil Poupaud, shown three photos up) tries his best to even slightly crack the protective shell of the church with no success, he convinces another family man, now an atheist (Denis Ménochet, two photos above)  to join him. Both their statute-of-limitations have run out, so they must seek younger men willing to come forward. (Turns out there are plenty of these, as our priest was quite the randy fellow where teenage boys were concerned.) This is not an easy task, though they are able to convince one highly troubled man (played beautifully by Swann Arlaud, above) to participate.

How Ozon and his fine cast bring all the plot strands and characters -- major and minor -- together with strategy, emotion, subtlety, and even a good deal of humor is more than exemplary. In fact, the film works even better than did our Oscar-winning Spotlight from a few years back. (That's Éric Caravaca, below, right, as the smart, caring doctor who joins the group.)

The run-up to the finale is exciting, of course, but it is the what-happened-here credit crawl at the end that should put your knickers in a twist. At this point, there should be no doubt in your mind how very Catholic a country France remains. For all it has brought the world in terms of philosophy, the arts and culture, it remains given over to myth worship that is not simply appalling but utterly detrimental to any real growth.

Although the male actors are the stars here, Ozon allows his females to shine brightly, too, among them that great French actress, Josiane Balasko (above, right), playing the Arlaud character's supportive if guilt-ridden mom. After winning Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the film seems to TrustMovies to be a shoo-in for whatever the Academy has renamed the Best Foreign Language Film category this year. Scene by scene, line by line of succinct, smart dialog, By the Grace of God could hardly be bettered.

From Music Box Films, running 137 minutes and in French with English subtitles, the movie opens in New York City this Friday, October 18, at Film Forum and The Landmark at 57 West, and on October 25, it will hit Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt), Washington DC (at the Landmark E Street) and Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Landmark Kendall Square. On November 8, it will open here in South Florida in the MDC Tower Theater and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Click here then scroll down to click on Theatrical Engagements to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Friday, October 11, 2019

DVDebut for Jessica Gorter's doc, 900 DAYS: Myth & Reality of the Siege of Leningrad

Says the old man to the old woman, after turning off their TV set: "It's better to watch an empty screen than to watch this comedy." The "comedy" to which he's referring is the current (well, current when this 2011 documentary was filmed, at least) Russian television coverage "honoring" those "heroes" of the famous Siege of Leningrad by the Nazi Germans during World War II.

Why this fellow, himself a siege survivor, is so angry and caustic will be revealed, again and again, during the course of the 77-minute documentary, 900 DAYS: MYTH & REALITY OF THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD, from Netherlands-born filmmaker Jessica Gorter.

Though made much before the current and seemingly worldwide siege of idiot nationalism had taken such firm hold, Ms Gorter's movie (the filmmaker is shown, left) offers a fine tonic of anti-nationalism -- from wherever state that foolish form of patriotism comes.

In this case, it's Russia, with its pompous rhetoric, ego-driven oligarchs, and stupid military parades full of medal-laden men marching in what might as well be goose-step -- for all the difference there is between Nazism and whatever fascism tickles your fancy. (The fellow below, as you'll learn, wears his own medals with a certain irony.)

Most of the folk we meet in Gorter's documentary are pretty old -- who but the very elderly survivors would remain alive well into the 21st Century? -- but they are still remarkably cogent and fiesty. The man below, together with his wife, has plenty to say in his quiet, serious manner (she's more open and talkative, but no less intelligent),

while the sad woman below seems still to be reeling from those early-life events that changed everything for her. Though remaining a major cat-lover throughout her life, as you'll soon see, she also tells us the story behind that strange painting of a cat and a pair of killers, shown to the left of her, that TrustMovies suspects you will not easily forget.

Gorter's film is full of -- besides these aged talking heads -- archival footage of the Stalingrad Siege that ought to give a pretty fair picture of what went on there, from the corpses in the streets (as below) to the relentless Russian propaganda (still going on today) that cast the citizens of the doomed metropolis as heroes rather than the victims they clearly were. And victims not only of the Nazis but of their own despicable government.

You'll hear about everything from cannibalism (complete with statistics of the time regrading the large percentage of cannibals that were not members of the Communist Party!) to the eating of one's own household pets, and you'll witness some very interesting conflicts among these survivors concerning the good deeds of old Joe Stalin. In one bizarre scene, shot during a tour being given to school children regarding this famous siege, one young fellow faints dead away as a particular visual is shown on the effects of dystrophy.

You should come away from this relatively short but piercing and absolutely necessary documentary with a new-found appreciation of what the people of Leningrad endured -- along with disgust at how their own government let them die back then and continues, in its quest toward absolute nationalism, to betray them even today.

From Icarus Home Video, in Dutch and Russian with English subtitles, 900 Days: Myth & Reality of the Siege of Leningrad will make its U.S. debut on home video (DVD and VOD) this coming Tuesday, October 15 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN: Blu-ray debut for Stanley H. Brasloff's would-be cult classic

Whew! It's been awhile since TrustMovies has seen a movie -- even one from the early 1970s -- quite as bad as the please-mommy-let-me-become-a-cult-classic! piece of nonsense from one, Stanley H. Brasloff, entitled TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN.

According to the funny and certainly striving Bonus Feature on the disc about this would-be moviemaker, Mr. Brasloff based his film upon a supposedly true tale he had heard that I guess he felt might make a groundbreaking movie.

It probably did break some ground back in the 70s -- badly, but what-the-heck -- regarding sexuality, psychological disorder and especially incest. Yet so thuddingly poor is much of the dialog that the actors hired to speak this silliness should not be held fully responsible for the result. They try. Oh, god, do they try. (As director, Brasloff would seem to have encouraged them in this mode.)

Chief among them is the film's star, Marcia Forbes, shown above (with some of those titular toys) and below, right, whose only movie credit this film turned out to be. Talk about a career-stopper. In truth, Ms Forbes is asked to do what Meryl Streep perhaps could not (Ms Streep would have had the sense, however, to turn this movie down flat), but Forbes certainly gives it her best shot, playing a young woman whose very bad-parenting parents have managed to raise a real nutcase.

But she's a very pretty nutcase, so she pulls in just about everyone within her small orbit. Supposedly afraid of sexuality (especially from her young husband, played by Harlan Carey Poe, above, left), when she finally gets some, she's immediately ready to go for broke.

Much of the movie is devoted to our heroine's desire/attempt to locate her father, whom she has not seen for years and years, a task for which she uses a local Manhattan whore (Evelyn Kingsley, above, left), who has own designs on our girl, along with her pimp (Luis Arroyo, below, right).

Dad (Peter Lightstone, below) finally does make the expected appearance, and we have a family reunion to end all family reunions. At times, the movie does indeed approach the glories of unintentional camp but never quite goes full out enough to make us snort properly. And because it was made during those sexually-groundbreaking 70s, you can "read" it as a plea for heightened sexual awareness and openness -- until, that is, we get to the lesbian scene. Then it's all ooooh, naughty, naughty!

Ah, well. You can't have everything. And in the case of Toys Are Not for Children, you can't have much of anything. But if you are an aficionado of this sort of thing, be my guest. The new Blu-ray, from Arrow Video (distributed here in the USA via MVD Visual) -- running 85 minutes, and including a few of those usually notable Arrow special features -- hits the street today, Tuesday, October 8, for purchase and (I would hope) rental.