Tuesday, November 19, 2019

VARDA BY AGNÈS: the French filmmaker's final gift is--no surprise--another marvel & treasure

A combination of honest, eloquent lecture filled with fascinating tidbits of French film history and a kind of crash course in first-class filmmaking -- granted, it's from a single, personal and very unusual perspective -- VARDA BY AGNÈS, the final film from one of the greats, Agnès Varda, who died this past March, is as eye-opening, charming and moving as any of her many fans will certainly expect.

As much as TrustMovies imagined he already knew about Varda and her work (the filmmaker is shown at right and below), the new documentary offers alternately the expected and some nice surprises.

Chief among the latter is the extended recent interview with that fine French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, who starred early in her career in Varda's Vagabond, from 1985. Bonnaire's conversation with the filmmaker is engaged and loving, even though some very difficult days of filming are recalled by both women.

We revisit other classic narrative Varda cinema such as Cleo From 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur, along with more recent documentaries like The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnes, and last year's Faces Places, and the result is a kind of partial/mini retrospective which both reminds us of how wonderful are these films and brings us new information about them and the manner in which they were made.

Along the way, we learn of Varda's beginnings as a photographer, of her first foray into filmmaking -- La Pointe Courte (that's a young Alain Resnais, at work editing the film, above with Varda) -- and we even get to see her dressed as a potato for her Venice Biennale presentation (it's somehow a perfect visual match!).

The documentary grows ever more personal as it moves along. Even though Varda's oeuvre was so often focused on others, as she grew older, the work became as much about her as about her subjects. Fortunately she remains as interesting as they were.

This final testament is a grand way for the filmmaker to make her exit, and if this is your introduction to her work -- and you're relatively young -- you'll have plenty of time to drink it all in. Released by Janus Films, Varda by Agnès (which was originally produced for French television in two one-hour segments), in French and some English with English subtitles, runs two full hours and opens this Friday, November 22, in New York City at Film Forum and at Film at Lincoln Center. It also opens Dec 5 in Los Angeles at the Aero theater and then will be expanding nationwide. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

November Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: PEAKY BLINDERS 5 -- Tommy Shelby Meets a Fascist Power Player

Steven Knight’s magnetic (or repellant, depending on your tolerance for violence) gangster series* based on his working-class Birmingham roots (said to be bookended by the two world wars but, he hints, may go further) still gives you chills from the first sight of Tommy Shelby on his horse. Series 5 opens with the 1929 Wall Street crash which thundered across the pond. Tommy (Cillian Murphy, at right and below) and his nouveau-riche family (Aunt Polly Gray, played by Helen McCrory, two photos down, now has a Bentley and a boy-toy pilot to fly her to Monaco) have an overseas base in Detroit. It supports Shelby dealings in cars and motor equipment and is run by Aunt Polly’s long lost son, whiz kid Michael Gray (Finn Cole). Tommy told Michael to sell their U.S. stock holdings but Michael took American advice — now their pile is up in smoke.

Tommy, bookmaker turned socialist politician, is now a Labour MP, self-styled man of the people. He has married his secretary, former prostitute Lizzie (Natasha O’Keefe), after getting her pregnant. They are companionable, but in difficult moments, Tommy conjures true-love first wife Grace (Annabelle Wallace), murdered in series 3 but alive to him (and us). However, he pursues without drama what he does best — scheme, strategize, and direct subordinates. He operates under the theory that "the corridors of Westminster are very dimly lit, and for those who make the rules there are no rules... we own the ropes. Who's going to hang us now, eh?"

Knight’s smart, taut story-telling continues to attract fresh top talent, including Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Miniaturist) as American mob daughter, Gina, Michael Gray’s new wife. Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), as gypsy, Abarama Gold, is now a full fledged gang member; the recently dead Alfie Solomons, played by Tom Hardy, is happily undead, though beloved labor leader Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) is given short shrift. Knight reports that a part may be forthcoming for Brad Pitt who has expressed interest in joining the saga.

Episode one resets the Peaky template, its most potent imagery and sound tuned to doleful theme song, Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand and overall pungent scoring by British songwriter, Anna Calvi. (She has just released You’re not God, written for Series 5.) Loner Tommy rides out into the countryside to a lone red phone booth; he plugs in a coin, and orders a hit. Tommy describes the ensuing shoot out later to his querulous family Board (the Shelbys now avoid the bloody side of their business). As a one-time favor to a high court judge and House of Lords member, and, notably, for 50k pound in cash, a pimp was killed who traffics children — the pimp was blackmailing the judge.

"Now the pimp is lying in a ditch..and the world is in a better place," says older brother Arthur, above (Paul Anderson), whose moods range from docile to ferocious. His Quaker wife Linda (Kate Phillips) is done with her rescue mission of this most violent, damaged Shelby— she’s had it. And ‘Holy fuck’, exclaims sister Ada, below, (Sophie Rundle). "So now your business is improving the world?.....". (Rundle distinguished herself lately playing lesbian Anne Lister’s ‘wife’ in Gentleman Jack.)

Ada’s taunt turns out to be thematic: Tommy does good by doing bad but his intention is indifferent. In fact he operates stone-cold vacant, having been drained of emotion long ago by the war and the loss of Grace.

Before this episode ends, we have met this season’s nemesis: real politician and MP, Oswald Mosley, who led the rise of the fascist party in Great Britain. A swave, handsome devil married to the most beautiful of the 3 Mitford sisters, he’s played by Sam Claflin (Their Finest) in a role Claflin (below r; the real Mosley, l) calls his most grown up, that is, playing the conniving, manipulative, magnetic demagogue of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The 1929 crash is the background noise of this season along with mob actions to replenish company coffers; also, lovely Michael Gray is now dour; he has returned from Detroit and his friction with Tommy is rough. But writer Knight has positioned the rise of Oswald Mosley of Ancoats, sixth baronet (1896-1980), as the focus, to coincide with the twenty-first century rise of demagoguery. Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Mr. Selfridge) describes the period as a breeder of fascism, which spread like an incurable disease. Claflin says of Mosley: “ ...he was both incredibly charismatic and incredibly manipulative...people fell for it without agreeing with anything he [said]...the same as the Trump situation.....”

Winston Churchill says to Tommy: “When I hear that man speak, I see the green shoots of another war growing up around his feet. And you see exactly the same thing I do.”

Mosley left the Labour Party to start the British Union of Fascists, was voted out of his seat in Parliament, but led the fascist party (50,000 members) from 1932-40 and its successor, the Union Movement, from 1948 until 1980, his death. (Below Mosley in 1934; Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Claflin gives Mosley the authority that seduced his followers but not quite the charisma. But we do get a hint of what’s coming in Mosley’s later populist campaigns — ‘BRITAIN FIRST’ and ‘FALSE NEWS’ — messages smartly rejected by the British electorate.

Tommy and Mosley take their measure of each other and joust verbally with mutual dislike — if Tommy were real, the two would certainly have interacted. Here Tommy has Churchill’s blessing to spy on Mosley with the aim of taking him down (“Do what you have to do, Mr. Shelby”); we look forward to seeing our bad man trounce that other bad one, so redolent of Hitler and other flashes in the pan who have punctuated recent history.

Series 5 has been panned as the worst and praised as the best — it churns with comic-book violence and super-seriousness; but the tone is depressed because Tommy is depressed. He fears he is losing his edge, his seat on the mountain top. He uses opium regularly. His successes offer no satisfaction and bad things keep happening. Tommy is less mindful of Mosley’s fascism than of his growing power — better have him out of the way. Nephew Michael Gray (second photo below with his new wife) is also a threat, having crafted his own path to the top. Tommy’s little daughter Ruby is afraid of him, and he’s shamed by son Charlie: “it’s what everybody says ...it’s what you do...shoot horses...shoot people .....”

Think of this outing with the Shelby’s as a dreary passage in the long story of their lives, more downer than upper. We leave Tommy seriously down, hanging by a thread. The series thrives on the stories about this extended family. The Mosley/fascist digression is especially noteworthy now and reveals how intently the British follow American politics — Europeans are reportedly carrying our impeachment hearings live. But one hopes Knight makes more stories about gritty, dusty, clanging Birmingham and the locals closest to his heart.

The Bafta-award winner has moved up from BBC Two to Britain’s premier BBC One channel (it plays on Netflix here) because the gang who weaponize razor blades are now popular and notorious. It’s the British version of our own crime sagas like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘The Godfather’, and will have its own distinctive place in film history — its characters are that well-conceived and entertaining. Steven Knight is currently writing the scripts for Series Six.

*Note: ‘Peaky Blinders’ beginnings are reviewed HERE

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Blu-ray gift for Bud Abbott & Lou Costello fans: all 28 of their movies in ABBOTT & COSTELLO: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection

TrustMovies has never been sure quite why the antics of comedy team Abbott & Costello have not been enshrined into the certified canon of movie greatness, as has the work of so many other comedians and comedy teams. Was it because the pair was too mainstream?

Well, so were Martin & Lewis, yet Lou Costello's comedy is one hell of a lot subtler than that of Jerry Lewis. But, then, I guess the French critics -- followed by some of the American variety -- didn't take Costello (below, right, with Bela Lugosi) quite to heart the way they did our Jerry.

Bud Abbott (below, left) was a terrific "straight man" for Costello's antics, and an excellent stand-in for us in the audience, making the comedy all that much funnier. But it was the chubby, endearing, frightened and foolish Costello who always made us laugh -- and love him all the more for his many foibles.

This new collection -- so far as I know, the first time their 28 films have been gathered into an entire collection (and certainly the first time they've appeared in high-def, in these glowing, delicious, black-and-white transfers that look better than any A&C movie I've yet seen) -- is a must for fans of the duo. Though the Blu-ray edition is a pricey $136, that's still under $5 per movie, while the copious Bonus Features alone should keep you busy for the remainder of the year -- if not the rest of your lifetime. (Which might amount to the same thing for those of us in the 70s/80s category, who grew up laughing at the antics of this pair.)

The films themselves range in release date from 1940 to 1955, during which the duo made on average a couple of movie per year. The first of these is ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS (above), in which A&C get billing below stars of the time like Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly (later Oscar nominated for The Bad Seed), but above that of co-star Robert Cummings. This movie, another of so many that demonstrates how much better was the screenwriting for even throw-away comedies back in the day, is an entertaining little lark, complete with songs (by Jerome Kern) and a musical-number finale that's a glorious hoot.

The team of A&C made nothing but comedies, of course, yet within that framework they inhabited an enormous number of genres -- from westerns (The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap, a delight that co-stars the great Marjorie Main, above) to war films (Buck Privates, In the Navy, Keep 'Em Flying), horror (A&C Meet Frankenstein) to sci-fi (A&C Go to Mars below), among others. What's more, their comedy routines lend themselves so easily to all these genres -- for genres, over time of course, are ever more easily parodied.

The famous routines -- of which Who's on First? is probably most known (and seen in its entirety via One Night in the Tropics) -- are still great fun, and so are these two sterling comedians. Kids today who have never seen Abbott & Costello will have some delight in store, should their parents see fit to grace them with a look at these funny, fun-filled movies.

As of now, I've seen only a half dozen of the 28 included in the three discs in this collection -- Hold that Ghost, co-starring the wonderful Joan Davis (above, center) is another "must" -- but I won't be sharing it with even my very best friends until I've viewed the whole collection, which constitutes an absolute treasure for A&C fans.

From SHOUT! FACTORY, Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection hits the street on Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, November 19. The transfers are wonderful and, as earlier noted, the Bonus Features assembled here are themselves worth the collection's asking price. (Still, I do hope these discs will turn up somewhere for rental, as well.) 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

In theaters: Swati Bhise's would-be history lesson, THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI

A more appropriate title might have been, The Warrior Queen of Nonsense, for this new British film from novice director Swati Bishe, THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI is so like amateur-night-at-the-movies in so many ways that your eyes may glaze over long before the end credits roll. Full of exposition, and then more exposition, then even more exposition, the film does give us some history regarding British control of India, the notorious East India Company, and a supposedly very-upset-about-this-whole-awful-thing Queen Victoria, who keeps directing her underlings to do the right thing (of course they never do). But since the resulting movie looks so silly, paltry and mostly unbelievable throughout, we end up imagining that the history here may be as faulty as the manner in which it has been told. Unfair? Maybe, but there you go.

Because the movie also stars, in the role of the would-be warrior queen, Ms Bishe's (the director/co-writer is pictured at right) own daughter, Devika Bishe (shown below, who co-wrote this movie), the film has all the markings of a vanity production.

The younger Bishe is a nice-looking young woman but nowhere near a good enough actress to embody this warrior queen. She is also not helped by "action" scenes that border on dreadful and a "warrior-women-in-training" scene that is even worse.

Literally all of the film's best scenes involve very good Brit thespians who give their all to the less-than-sterling expository dialog with which they are "blessed." These include the likes of Jodhi May as the Queen, Derek Jacobi as Lord Palmerston, Rupert Everett as Sir Hugh Rose, Nathaniel Parker as the mustache-twirling villain Sir Robert Hamilton, and Ben Lamb as the Brit good guy Major Robert Ellis. These pros will keep you awake, at least.

My biggest question after viewing this film: Why is it even getting a theatrical release? And from Roadside Attractions, yet -- the company that only recently gave us that better bit of Oscar bait, Judy? Perhaps it is smarter not to speculate.

In any case, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi -- in English and running 102 minutes -- opens tomorrow, Friday, November 15, here in South Florida in the Miami area at the AMC Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, and at the Regal Sawgrass 23 in Sunrise.

To learn if and where the movie is playing near you, click here and follow through.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

4th annual AMERICAN FRINGE FESTIVAL opens in Paris, November 15-17, with nine new films

We don't normally cover openings in Paris, but in this case it's a festival of new American movies, "on and of the margins of the U.S.," as the press release explains, and featuring the international premieres of nine independent films. Another reason for coverage is that the curators of this fest are two people that TrustMovies has very much enjoyed knowing and working with over the past years: Richard Peña, former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Livia Bloom Ingram of Icarus Films, both of whose film knowledge and personal taste we've found to be very much worth our attention.

Notes Mr. Peña, à-propos this fest, “Much of what is acclaimed as ‘indie production’ in the U.S. today differs little from Hollywood commercial product in anything except budget. American Fringe reveals that the defiant and irreverent spirit that drove independent cinema pioneers is still very much alive if not often enough seen or celebrated. Moreover, in addition to exploring new cinematic ideas and forms, these films often focus on the margins of American society⁠—regionally, sexually, politically.” Bloom Ingram adds, “Each year, as we view the latest new American films in search of our annual selection for American Fringe, I’m inspired anew. Though these nine artists may still be ‘under the radar,’ each film is a singular display of talent, craft, vision and commitment to fierce independence.”

From what I can gather, the films will be shown at Paris' prestigious La Cinémathèque française  You can learn all about this year's program (in English) at this site, and in French at this one. While I had big plans to see several of this year's movies, I ended up having time to view only two -- though both were very much worth my time.

GREEN HOUSE -- directed by Armando Lamberti and written by Lamberti and the film's star, Brian May (shown above and above) -- proves a deadpan hoot boasting maybe the most gorgeous color palette I've seen in ages. I could watch it again just to drown in that uber-saturated cinematography (by Matthew Cherchio). It also offers perhaps the most all-out annoying character to be seen in cinema this past decade. As played by Mr. May, this is a guy you'll want to grace with a fat lip about every 60 seconds. This has got to be some sort of record-setting asshole, and Mr. May gives him an all-stops-out nastiness coupled to a certain reticent quality that helps render the character bizarrely special.

The movie's ending, as well as its end credits sequence, delights in a fuck-you-all insouciance that you'll either revel in or hate. Either way, Green House is something else indeed.

At the other end of the spectrum is the remarkably moving, thought-provoking and utterly serious documentary entitled SEADRIFT -- about the eponymously titled seaside community in Texas where, back in 1979, a Vietnamese refugee made national news by shooting and killing a local crabber. How and why this happened is explored in hindsight by filmmaker Tim Tsai by looking at historical records and interviewing the surviving folk from both the original local (and very white) Seadrift shellfishing community, and that of the immigrant Vietnamese who were "rescued" and moved to the USA, once we Americans pulled out of Vietnam after wreaking havoc there for more than a decade.

Mr. Tsai is even-handed in his exploration of now and then, of the locals and the Vietnamese, and what he shows us are people on both sides who were buffeted about by circumstance in some cases beyond their control. How the Vietnamese were summarily dumped into locations like Seadrift without any preparation for either them or the communities into which they were thrust could hardly help but stir up bad feelings. It was, as one participant notes, "a fast culture shock."

From early annoyance through eventual anger and finally violence, the documentary progresses. Of course we see nationalism and racism front and center (hello, KKK!) but we also see, eventually, some coming to terms with past sins and present feelings so that growth is made. One of the major moments comes as the daughter of the victim of the shooting talks about how one of the most famous wartime photos from Vietnam, together with the subject of that photo, has changed the way she looks at things.

Seadrift ends with an historical/political idea so on-the-mark it ought to be heard worldwide -- and certainly by those who still feel, after all that has transpired over there, that the USA had a good reason to be in Vietnam.

In addition to these two worthwhile films, there are seven more (including one short subject) on the American Fringe schedule. You can view all the programs by clicking here (for English) or here (for French)And if you happen to be in Paris this week, well, lucky you!

Note to filmmakers: 
There is no fee to submit your film 
to the next edition of American Fringe. 
Simply go to this site, enter your name, email, film title, 
logline, and screener link; your film will be considered.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scott Z. Burns' riveting THE REPORT offers a long-term, tied-to-a-desk brand of heroism

Wow. Filmmaker Scott Z. Burns has finally done it -- giving us an actual adult "action" movie in which the action comes from a quiet, determined man who insists on getting the truth out to the public, as well as from the supporting folk who help (or sometimes hinder) his doing it. The result is one of the year's best films: suspenseful, exciting, provocative and about something important -- the torture that our nation's CIA engaged in during the early part of this new century (the excuse for which was of course 9/11) and the congressional report about that torture and how that report came close to never seeing the light of day.

In THE REPORT, Mr. Burns (shown at right) -- best-known till now for his writing and producing credits -- shows us the ins and outs of everything from the torture itself (via well-done flashbacks that conjure the horror, ugliness and, yes, stupidity and uselessness of it all) to the long, hard, detailed road to piecing together a case against the CIA and bringing it to fruition.

Burns' screenplay well crafts all of this (his choice of events, along with how much of each to offer us, is precise and telling), while his dialog is cogent, to the point, and smart without ever seeming overly witty or too clever. The style may be documentary-like but the movie has all the narrative drive it needs.

If Burns' filmmaking style is straight-ahead and no-frills, this seems fitting. And he draws spot-on performances from his entire cast, which is filled with big names in even the smaller roles. In the leading roles are Adam Driver (above) as the young desk man who leads the investigation and puts together the titular report, and Annette Bening (below) as the Senator -- Dianne Feinstein -- whose power drives the report. Both actors could not be bettered. Driver excels at making even the smallest detail come to bright life, while Bening tamps down any kind of excess so that we see a politician trying to do what's right, even as she must continually play the political game.

The starry supporting cast includes everyone from Corey Stoll and Jon Hamm (below) to Maura TierneyMichael C. Hall and so many other noticeable names, all of whom excel in even the smallest roles. Along the way, we revisit some shameful situations, from Abu Ghraib and EIT (enhanced interrogation technique) to break-ins, cover-ups and more. By the finale, while you'll be galvanized and moved, you may also be prone to consider just how far we've devolved, over a decade or so, into a culture and political administration for which just about every action these days demands a cover-up.

From Amazon Studios and running two hours, The Report opens in theaters this Friday, November 15, and will be available via Amazon Prime Video at the end of this month.

Monday, November 11, 2019

On digital: Tom Cullen's PINK WALL highlights the ups and down of a six-year relationship

"Who are these people?" you may ask yourself during the initial scene of PINK WALL, as two characters begin babbling on in ways that appear improvised but also seem more than a little "off." Unfortunately, this babbling never stops, and while the two actors involved -- Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass -- have fine track records, given the tired and tiresome situations and dialog they are given here, try as they might (and they mightily do), characters we care about, empathize with or even believe are real never finally or fully materialize.

The fellow most responsible for this would be the writer/director, Tom Cullen (shown at left), who also happens to be, according to the IMDB, the long-term partner of Ms Maslany (shown above and below), which goes a distance in explaining her involvement here. Mr. Cullen made a large and positive mark as one of the lead actors in Andrew Haigh's Weekend, and he has graced some other good films.

This is Cullen's first foray into writing and directing however, and he clearly did not learn much from Weekend's spare and on-the-mark disalog. The chattering here is near-constant and often grating as all hell.

"Don't they ever shut up?" TrustMovies wondered from time to time as this 82-minute (but still too long) movie unfurled. No, they don't, but if the subjects this pair of long-time lovers discuss did not seem so typical and if the discussion rose above mostly cliché, we might better appreciate it. The most interesting section involves open relationships, and here, for a change, a few other characters are also involved. Even this extended scene gives us little new to ponder concerning the age-old question -- except maybe the first cock-size-à-propos-cunt-size exploration I've seen on screen.

I suspect the movie wants more than anything else to be "cool," as one of its characters accuses the other of always trying to be. It may indeed manage this, depending on your definition of the word. Time-wise the film moves back and forth between year six and year one of this relationship, with each of its half-dozen scenes meant to show us more of this fraught relationship. Finally, though, it all fudges together into the single non-stop talk-fest of two good actors trapped in poor material.

By way of recent companison, however, this movie is way better than Entangled. From 1091, Pink Wall hits digital tomorrow, Tuesday, November 12 -- for purchase and/or rental.