Saturday, March 25, 2017

TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT Tyler Hubbard's doc about one of our lesser-known (and happy about it) cultural icons

What to make of Tony Conrad? If you were to judge by TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT, the new documentary from Tyler Hubby -- opening this coming Friday, March 31, at New York City's Anthology Film Archives -- Mr. Conrad was a nearly undiscovered and unheralded genius and multi-talented artist and musician. And yet the proof Hubby offers is as likely to have you rolling your eyes in annoyance or disbelief as climbing aboard his bandwagon. And yet, by the end of this rambling but occasionally charming and/or surprising doc, you will have to admit that Mr. Conrad was pretty much one-of-a-kind.

Hubby's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) begins with a Conrad quote: History is like music. It's completely in the present.  Which, of course, history is not. But this does make for an OK subtitle for the documentary, while also reflecting Mr. Conrad, who was, perhaps more than anything else, a big tease. At various times across his career, he was a musician, an artist, a filmmaker, but mostly and always a provocateur. What Hubby allows us to see and hear of Conrad's work will have all but the hardiest of experimental art and music lovers running for the hills.

Still, what an oddly compelling career this guy had! Together, Tyler and Tony give us some early history of Conrad, such as his time with The Primitives, a music group that included the likes of Tony (shown above, left), Lou Reed (center, left), Angus Maclise (center, right) and John Cale (right). And yet the limelight was evidently something that Conrad not only didn't wish to inhabit but actively disparaged. As someone notes about him in the course of the film, "Tony was the smartest guy in the room, but he had other things to do."

Indeed. Along the way, he and a few "minimalist" musicians make a recording of their own experimental music that never, until nearly the end of Conrad's life, saw the light of day, thanks to one of the group -- La Monte Young, who is clearly shown to be the villain of the movie -- refusing to share the only recorded copy with the other participants. Well, who much cares? As Conrad (shown above) notes, "They wanted to be composers. I wanted to end composing." Listening to some of this music, you can fully understand that desire.

Later, Conrad has a serious fling with both experimental filmmaking and another experimental filmmaker, Beverly Grant, which results in a marriage and even a child. But not a lot of memorable work. Watching Conrad in his youth and particularly in middle age and senior years, the impression here is of an immensely likable guy with minimal talent at just about everything he touches.

His gift, it would seem, lay in being against things (New York City's Lincoln Center, above, was one of these). As someone notes along the way: "He reacted, he pushed back." He did -- and most often in a funny, joking manner. Once he gets into the "teaching" trade, his gift is even more apparent. (And why not? Since all of U.S. education, art, politics and the rest has simply led us to the coronation of Donald Trump, why the fuck not be against?)

From teaching, Conrad moves into documentaries and man-on-the-street interviews, and then to a women-in-prison movie in which all the roles were played by men in drag. Conrad ran out of funds midway through this film, and it was never completed. Decades later, he wants to go back to it, using the same actors in their golden years. "That blows my mind," exclaims filmmaker Hubby, though some in the audience may feel less amazed.

Then the director does something odd and interesting -- going back to the 1970s and a group called Faust, and then to a certain record called Outside the Dream Syndicate, an example, I guess, of early minimalism in music (it's almost trance-like), followed by a fling with Pythagoras and some writing Conrad did in which, by god, he does seem awfully smart (from the little snatch we're allowed to read, anyway).

We see Tony diddling with an art project you might call The Incontinent Underwear (above) -- which seems relatively original and something that the New Tate in London might appreciate. And finally, we leave Conrad, in media res, doing some kind of film or sound project on a busy New York street (see photo at bottom) halting/directing traffic, of all things. 

Conrad died one year ago this coming April and probably soon after this film was completed. If Hubby mentioned this in the film or during its end credits, I missed it, but discovered the fact when I went to Wikipedia. 

So then, the film acts as a kind of oddball memorial to an even more oddball fellow who never made it into, nor ever even strove for, that much-ballyhooed limelight.

From Sixty Cycle Hum LLC and running 94 minutes, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present opens this coming Friday, March 31, for a week's run at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Click here to see other upcoming screenings.

Friday, March 24, 2017

KINO!2017's festival of new German cinema opens at Landmark Sunshine, New York City

After last year's very worthwhile German film festival in New York City, TrustMovies thought he ought to take a look at what this year's event offers. Sure enough, of the quartet of films he was able to screen, all four are worth seeing, while one of them is an absolute knockout: remarkably intelligent and timely, as well as hugely entertaining. That would be THE VERDICT (known simply as Terror as its original German title), a fictional account of a trial involving a German military pilot who shot down a hijacked passenger plane headed for a stadium full of people. This has not happened yet in any Western country but it certainly could, and the movie, which takes place entirely in the law court, is a absolute humdinger, so riveting you'll hang on every word -- from a few minutes in, all the way to the gripping double ending.

The writing here -- adapted from the play by Ferdinand von Schirach via the film's director Lars Kraume (The People vs Fritz Bauer) and Oliver Berben -- is so exemplary that I should think it will soon be taught in film classes internationally. Closely reasoned yet full of wit, surprise and reality, the screenplay takes a fictional event and makes it so encompassing and real that you're hooked like the fish that, once has bitten, can ever free itself. You can and must take the side of everyone involved here -- from the pilot (Florian David Fitz, above), who was doing his duty as best he saw it... the prosecuting attorney (played by one of Germany greatest actresses, Martina Gedeck, above) to the various judges and other witnesses on hand. The subject is so up-to-the-minute and the handling of it by the writers so clear-eyed and encompassing that everything from immigration and the Muslim religion to the taking of lives, justified or not, will be rolling around your brain, trying desperately to sort themselves out.

The film is even-handed but never simplistic, and as you await the decision of the court you will perhaps still be wavering a bit. Once that decision is reached, stick around: There is another one coming -- and not simply because audiences on either side will be satisfied, but rather so that we can understand the reasoning that went into each decision. This film could also very handily be taught in law schools, I think. See it.

Ms Gedeck stars in another good film this year, too, a drama called ORIGINAL BLISS (Gleißendes Glück) that tracks the current life of a woman who's having a hell of a time sleeping at night. We enter her world slowly and piecemeal but well enough to determine that she is deeply problemed. The more we learn, the deeper those problems go, and we also learn that they involve her handsome husband (Johannes Krisch, below), at the same time as they introduce her (and us) to a new man in her life (played by Ulrich Tukur, on poster, above).

Herr Tukur plays one of those self-help gurus who initially seems like a smart and even helpful guy, but -- whoa! -- he has some problems, too. Well, don't we all? As directed and co-written by Sven Taddicken, the film is never uninteresting, and Ms Gedeck is, as ever, remarkable. (Catch her in The Wall, if you haven't already.) The actress pretty much carries the movie, though Tukur is excellent, too, as always. It's an odd tale told here, with characters so off-the-beaten-path that some audiences may not care to follow them. But if you're given to themes of desire and dysfunction, by all means check out Original Bliss. It's original -- and then some.

For folk like me who had never heard of the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, the new movie about her starring Carla Juri (so scarily memorable in Wetlands) will probably entice. Beautifully filmed and gorgeously in "period," PAULA is directed by Christian Schwochow and co-written by Stefan Kolditz and Stephan Suschke. It covers the time of Paula's life from art student through her ill-fated marriage to a man with "fear" problems (oddly well-founded, as it turns out) to a few years of creating paintings that would eventually be seen as both important and even ground-breaking for women in art.

Ms Juri turns Paula into a generally delightful and high-spirited young woman whose way around male chauvinism (personified especially by her art instructor, above) is to ignore it -- or plow right through it. She's convincing, all right, but I wonder if things were ever as easy as this character seems to make them, back in the day. Her poor lover-turned-husband is no match for Paula, though she seems to have loved him and stood by him (in her own fashion), and her story, if a little too telescoped and occasionally too typically artist-bio-pic-ish, is still an interesting one. I'm happy to have made Paula's  filmic acquaintance, and I suspect that you may be, too.

The final film of the four I viewed is a documentary entitled POWER TO CHANGE: THE ENERGY REVOLUTION, and it holds up Germany as a kind of model European country in terms of renewable energy and the decentralization of energy systems. This is a genuinely fascinating film, alternately energizing in the possibilities it shows us and also depressing, as we see that Germany, too, is prey to lobbyists and money and so many of the same things that plague us here in the USA.

Though the movie begins with a fellow, above, who wants to create a form of pelleting made from waste materials (he manages it but then discovers that his machine isn't working so well, after all), the film soon gives way to an Iranian-born German citizen and entrepreneur (below, right) who initially pooh-poohs the idea of smaller, individually created "energy savers" only to come around to this view over time. His journey (and ours) is filled with specifics, statistics and some pretty fascinating stuff, among this a long-term unemployed man who finds a wonderful new career in helping others save energy.

Even after viewing this fine film, I do wonder how important the individual can be when the state refuses to do what is clearly right and necessary. Well, we can continue to push and hope for the best (or, given the USA's current Trump regime, at least not the worst). Germany has it better in so many ways, it would seem. Good luck to them.

This showcase for new German cinema hits New York City next Friday, March 31,and runs through Thursday, April 6, at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. In addition to these four films, there are many more worth a look. You can view the entire schedule by clicking here

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jazz, love, death -- 45 years back -- in Kasper Collin's documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN

It's odd, but somehow quite fitting, that the fellow we learn least about in Kasper Collin's fine documentary, I CALLED HIM MORGAN, is the title character, a jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan. We hear his music and can easily determine how talented he was (very) but his character, his personality, his quirks and all the rest are barely there. Instead, we come much closer to the two important women in Morgan's life: Judith Johnson, still alive, who fills us in on her role as the "other woman," and Helen Morgan, Lee's common-law wife, who rescued the drug-addicted guy from the gutter, nourished him, loved him, and then shot him dead. (If you're expecting "The Helen Morgan Story," you'll be getting something quite different from those starring Polly Bergen or Ann Blyth.)

Mr. Collin, the Swedish filmmaker pictured at right, has done plenty of homework here, and the result is a smart and generous array of history, memory (provided by those two women and Lee Morgan's friends and co-musicians), and some terrific archival film and photography -- all of it set to music featuring Morgan (shown below, left), his own band and that of Dizzy Gillespie, with whom Morgan began his career. All of this makes the movie a must for jazz lovers, and for anyone who might want to take a time trip back to the the USA, the South, and then New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

The manner in which the film incorporates its music is particularly lovely: It is used in a way that the best movie soundtracks do in order to highlight emotions and events yet still manages to stay true to itself as jazz. (Interestingly enough, both Lee Morgan and Miles Davis did not appreciate the appellation of jazz to the kind of music either of them wrote and performed.)

As the movie tells its story -- which is based mostly on the only known interview that Helen Morgan ever gave after her prison term to journalist/teacher Larry Reni Thomas in 1996, as well as another with Val Wilmer in Helen's Bronx apartment back in 1971 -- we learn of Helen's life as child: given up by her mother to be raised by her grandparents, then leaving at a very young age for the "big city."

That city was, first, Wilmington, North Carolina, and then finally New York.

We learn of Helen's cooking skills, her detestation at being photographed (hence the paucity of shots of her here!), and finally of how she met, bonded with and saved Lee, after his descent into drugs. In the course of it all, we are also made acquainted with the culture of the time, and black music experience, and the black experience in general. And of course the casual, embedded racism of the day: Even in a snowstorm, how could it have taken a New York City ambulance one full hour to arrive at the scene of the shooting?

A sad story filled with wonderful music, I Called Him Morgan highlights, among other things, black male patriarchy vs strong black women, and the difficulty with which those women had to negotiate their route in life. After being released from prison, Helen -- never a religious person -- finds what salvation she can by working with and helping her local church in Wilmington, North Carolina.

From FilmRise and Submarine Deluxe, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, March 24,  in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on Friday, March 31, at NYC's Metrograph and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center and elsewhere. Click here to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Charlie Siskel's AMERICAN ANARCHIST tracks the life and times of a notorious author

How bracing, how very nearly shocking it is to see a documentary these days that seems simultaneously old-fashioned (in its decision to simply sit and film its subject quietly and honestly) and somehow quite modern in the way that the filmmaker is willing to allow us to see his modus operandi so fully and thus decide for ourselves whether it is truthful to the situation at hand and fair to its subject. 

This is indeed the case with AMERICAN ANARCHIST, a new documentary directed by Charlie Siskel (shown at left, who gave us the excellent Finding Vivian Maier) about and starring a certain William Powell (not the late "Thin Man" actor), whom we meet in current times at age 65 but who, in his youth at age 19 (as shown below), wrote a book that, initially, he had a difficult time getting published. Once it was, however, sales took off and, in the nearly half-century since, the book has seldom been out of the public eye or that of our news media. That tome is The Anarchist Cookbook, which details the need for revolution and then shows you how to do it, including everything from bomb- and poison-making to the manufacture of illicit drugs. Think of it as a kind of D-I-Y guide to the violent overthrow of, well, you name it.

Conceived and written in the early 1970s during the height of the anti-Vietnam protests and soon after the vicious police/government retaliation against protesting hippies and yippies, for anyone around the 76-year-old age of TrustMovies, it will be easy to understand, even appreciate, the motivation for the writing of such a book. The results of it, however, have been and still remain something else. By now, The Anarchist Cookbook has been connected to violent mass killings everywhere from Columbine to Aurora and many more incidents nationally and internationally, as filmmaker Siskel points out again and again to Author Powell.

Siskel seems to want Powell (that's he, above, in recent times, as photographed for the documentary) to somehow "own up" more fully, as both Powell and his wife keep pointing out. And the man does "own up," but with difficulty and clearly with guilt. His deep brooding and quiet sadness is something the movie captures as well as I've ever seen in a documentary, and this is part of what makes American Anarchist, despite the movie's rather simple-minded title, such a rich and moving experience. Watching and hearing Powell as he tries to explain his actions then and his feelings now, (along with his deeper understanding of the complexities of life) proves an engrossing and transfiguring experience that alone makes the movie a must-see.

Siskel barrels right into things, seeming to begin his interview in media res, and only slowly reveals who this man is and why his story is so important. As the documentary rolls onward we get details of Powell's life as a child (below), a young man and young adult, and then even more details in his older age as a teacher and educator abroad. Powell's history leaves little room in our mind for misunderstanding how The Anarchist Cookbook came about.

We meet his current wife, who proves a thoughtful and helpful woman, and also learn quite a bit about that infamous book. Powell notes in passing that he has not re-read the book since he first wrote it, and also makes clear that he did not try out all, or even most, of the "recipes" included therein. He cribbed many of them untested from where he found them.

Siskel explores, together with Powell, the hypocrisy of the latter's receiving royalties off the publication of the book, even after such time as he publicly rejected its content (which he has done at least twice). Yet despite the damage that the book has done --  due more to those who've read and followed its dicta than to Powell himself -- its author has clearly grown and matured into a kind, loving and productive man. Even so, his authorship has followed him wherever he has gone, resulting in his being fired or asked to resign from various teaching/education jobs along the way.

What may be most impressive about this documentary, however, is the fact that Siskel allows us to see and hear his sometimes abrasive, pushy questions, along with Powell's and his wife's responses to them. The moments between the words being spoken are often as telling as what we finally hear. Whatever Siskel may feel about Powell's guilt and responsibility, he allows us to make up our own mind.

Near the film's end we learn that Powell's second work was a novel titled The First Casualty about the assassin, barely out of boyhood, whose murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand began World War I. At the time he wrote the novel, Powell admired this young man who had, he tells us, the courage of his convictions. The final question asked of Powell by Siskel is whether the author identifies with this assassin. Powell ponders this, but does not answer.

We can answer for him, however, and most of us will agree on No. Powell wrote a book. He did not perform the actual deeds (hell, he didn't even try the recipes). Yet experiencing this remarkable documentary brings us up close -- about as close as we've so far been taken --  to the guilt and possible redemption of another in a manner that makes it ours to wrestle with, as well.

American Anarchist -- from Gravitas Ventures and running 80 minutes -- opens this Friday, March 24, Look for it in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, in Detroit at Cinema Detroit, in Winchester at the Alamo Drafthouse, in New York at the Cinema Village, in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in Jacksonville at the Sun-Ray Cinema, in Atlanta at the Atlanta 14, in Orlando at the Universal Cineplex 20, in Phoenix at the Arizona Center 24, in Houston at Studio 30 Houston, in Kansas City at Studio 28 KC, in Denver at Highlands Ranch 24, in Dallas at the Mesquite 30, and in Toronto at the Kingsway Theater. And if you're not near any of the above, the doc will also be simultaneously available On Demand.
One way or another, see it. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Roger Sherman & Michael Solomonov take us on a thoughtful, visually splendid gastronomic tour IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE

Unlike some of the modern food-porn documentaries that gush over certain chefs or restaurants, together with their fabulous "presentations," the new documentary, IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE, directed by Roger Sherman and featuring Michael Solomonov (along with a number of other fine chefs), seems much less pretentious and a veritable model of intelligent, entertaining filmmaking about food and its delights -- to be found in this case via the little country of Israel. Or perhaps I should identify it as Israel/Palestine.

Mr. Sherman (pictured at left) and Mr. Solomonov's doc never overtly brings up any two-state solution. As one chef reminds us along the way, "Food is not political." Yet, here we see and hear enough chefs with Palestinian and/or Muslim Middle-Eastern roots to quickly realize that Israeli cuisine owes as much to those roots as it does to the Jewish Ashkenazi or Sephardic cultures. All three come into play during the movie and seem to complement each other surprisingly well. Visually, the doc offers some of the most enticing shots of food preparation that TrustMovies has seen.

Solomonov (shown above, left) acts as our guide, leading us around the country of Israel, discovering restaurants and chefs aplenty. That's Mike, above (with Meir Adoni at Mizlala, sampling the chef's Kubbaneh, a Temenite Sabbath bread and below) with Palestinian chef Husam Abbas and his famous Kebab El Babour, for which his restaurant in Umm Al-Fahm is named.

We discover a cheesemaker, below, and learn some interesting tricks of his trade, as well as meeting journalists who've covered the Israeli cuisine scene for some time. We spend a Shabbat evening with a cook and her family, and learn (if we didn't already know this) that most of the citizens of Israel are more secular than religious. Yet the Orthodox sect still exerts huge control over the country, forcing a city such as Jerusalem to close all its shops on the Sabbath.

We learn some history of Mr. Solomonov and his family -- including a brother killed in service of his country shortly before his military term would have ended -- and some history of Israel and its immigrants pertaining to food and culture and why Israeli cuisine was for so many years considered inferior. Explaining how and why this changed is part of the film's mission.

Changed it has, and the many different dishes and meals we see prepared and sampled should make a convert out of you, as it did me. Everything from street food to the selections in some of the famed restaurants look as enticing as food can get. Yet it's all hands-on, no-nonsense cuisine, made with mostly, usually only, local produce.

We learn of the tension between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic sects and how the old-time Ashkenazi cooking -- "cold, boring and guilt-ridden," as one woman puts it, is becoming more vibrant and inclusive.

The movie is also a kind of travelogue, taking us to city after city in all parts of this tiny country. (That's Michael, above, with a seafood maven known as Uri Buri.) From tiny villages to Tel Aviv, we see it all.

We learn how, below, irrigating using salt water makes cherry tomatoes even sweeter (sometimes too sweet), and we discover the Nabatian culture, including its dormant-for-centuries wine industry, and how wine production is flourishing once again. (Our guide explains to us that he is not a drinker, and the reason he gives becomes the documentary's funniest line.)

Full of interesting ideas, scrumptious visuals and a lovely multiculturalism, In Search of Israeli Cuisine should prove a simultaneous treat for foodies, history buffs, and travel lovers. The movie, from Menemsha Films and running 94 minutes, opens this Friday, March 24, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The following Friday, March 31, it hits Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal and Town Center) and a few other cities. Elsewhere? Yes, so click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.