Friday, February 24, 2017

Blu-ray debut: PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO--Republic Pictures' penultimate serial is back

1955 must have been a troubling year for movie studios, what with television siphoning off so much of their audience. That was the year that Republic Picturesthe big little studio specializing in B movies, westerns and serials, released one in the last category that TrustMovies -- who was something of a serial fan when he was young -- had never heard of until now. TM was already fourteen at the time of PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO's release, however, so his serial days were long over. Viewing this twelve-part, 168-minute adventure today, makes for mostly a low camp experience: fun for a little while, but soon more of an effort-making bore than anything else.

Panther Girl begins with the scene of an attractive young woman riding an elephant, as a lion looks on. Before you can say crappy-old-fashioned-special-effects, she and her little band of back-lot African natives are confronted with a huge and monstrous crustacean -- on land, in the jungle? Notes our heroine, "This beast does look like an overgrown crawfish." Yes, it does, because, yes, it is -- thanks to the chemical engineering of the serial's leading villain who wants to get his hands on the diamonds in this "Kongo," and so uses his newly minted monster to scare off the local natives.

The initial episode ends with Panther Girl in the clutches of the monster's giant claw (above), and on we go. So far so funny. But things begin to go downhill fast. Trying to binge-watch one of these old-time serials is probably not a good idea because each new episode -- the first lasts around 20 minutes, the following eleven are 13-14 minutes -- begins with the same credits roll plus a recap of the preceding episode, which quickly bores the hell out of you.  It may help if you try to remember that these serials were made for Saturday afternoon youth audiences, the average age of which was probably between five and eight years old. (Since this dovetails with the intelligence level of the average American Trump voter, these old serials may be in for a comeback!)

In any case, almost every one of the episodes features a good-old-fashioned fist fight, almost always between the same three people: Panther Girl's male co-star (Myron Healey) and the serial's two villainous henchmen. These go from fun to funny to tiresome fairly quickly. Meanwhile our heroine is menaced by everything from that earlier lion to the crayfish monster to naughty natives and a man in a monkey suit, above. (It's a virtual Perils of Pauline in jungle setting.)

The trick photography is pretty awful, not nearly as good as that in those early dinosaur movies, in which gussied-up lizards took the roles of the dinos. This poor crayfish hardly seems capable of moving even as fast as the old-fashioned Mummy, let alone doing much damage to anyone or anything.

The dialog is never more than standard boilerplate that shoves the predictable plot from one scene into the next, and the repetition is appalling and monotonous (but remember that we kids had to wait a full week to see the next installment, so for us, back then, there was at least a modicum of suspense generated). Actress Phyllis Coates (the earliest of TV Superman's Lois Lanes) does a creditable job as Panther Girl, while the supporting actors all contribute bread-and-butter jobs as either the good guys or bad.

Released to DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films, the serial hit the street this past Tuesday, February 21. A word must be said about the Blu-ray transfer here, which is simply impeccable: as sharp and clear as if it were filmed yesterday. (Don't judge by some of the photos above, which were all I could find on the internet to use for now.) This excellent transfer made me dearly wish that certain much-better old movies I've recently viewed on Blu-ray could have emerged looking half as good as does this silly serial.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

At NYC's AFA, GIMME SHELTER: HOLLYWOOD NORTH offers a few choice Canadian canapés

We don't expect to see movies that fit the term "blockbuster" coming out of Canada. The current and surprisingly popular/divisive Arrival might be the closest thing to a huge mainstream success to come from our northern neighbor in quite some time, yet it's the movie quiet intelligence and ability to draw us into its philosophical/spiritual dimension that proves its most effective weapon. Instead, Canada has long been noted for its smaller films, either art or genre items, many of which were subsidized from the 1960s through the 1980s first by the state-run Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) and later by the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA) -- the former paid for via tax-payers, the latter by tax-sheltered investments.

The results were iffy, as is usually the case with any programs like these, and a dozen of the films out of the many produced over two decades can be seen in New York City in the current Anthology Film Archives series, GIMME SHELTER: HOLLYWOOD NORTH -- beginning tomorrow, February 24, and running through March 8. On view is everything from Louis Malle's generally-acclaimed-a-classic Atlantic City and Canadian genre king Bob Clark's (Porkys and Black Christmas, the latter of which is part of this round-up) to Claude Chabrol's under-seen (and rightly so) BLOOD RELATIVES, his first film in the English language and very probably his worst, as well.

Because TrustMovies will take Chabrol's work over that of many other filmmakers, this is the film he chose to watch, having seen most of the others already. In addition to Atlantic City, the series features what may be the very best of David Cronenberg's dark and bizarre oeuvre, The Brood, as well as some pretty good genre movies like the youth-quake Class of 1984, the sort-of mystery The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and the early what-to-do-about-cults movie, Ticket to Heaven.

As for that Chabrol, Blood Relatives -- adapted from an Ed McBain novel by the filmmaker and Sydney Banks -- probably ought to have been made in French rather than English. Chabrol is said to have thought English worked better because McBain had written the original in that language, But the dialog is often stilted and always so prosaic that is is soon clear that Chabrol had little facility for working in English.

It is clear almost from the first scene what is going on and just who the murderer might be, so we spend the rest of the film catching up with what we already know/suspect. Along the way, we get some nice cameos from the likes of Donald Pleasance and David Hemmings, though that fine French actress Stéphane Audran (above, center right, and Mme Chabrol, for a time) is utterly wasted here.

The theme of the movie would appear to be the varied uses of sexuality and lust -- from pedophilia to near-incest to age-inappropriate couplings, but the filmmaker's usual interest in the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie seem somewhat misplaced here. as there is no real depth to anything or anyone. Both theme and character seem paper-thin. Though never what you would call a master of the visual, Chabrol's work here seems unusually drab.

The police-procedural plot has to do with the murder of a teenage girl, with the investigation probing her somewhat odd family life and her workplace. The first half of the movie couples event with investigation; the second half, once the murder victim's diary is discovered, is told mostly in flashbacks pushing us toward the big "event."

In the leading role of the investing policeman, Donald Sutherland (above and above) hovers and is one-note, while the remaining performers range from alert to hardly memorable. Though first released in 1978, Blood Relatives didn't make it to the USA -- and then only barely -- until 1981. You'll understand why when you see the film.

To view the entire schedule for AFA's Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North, click here and then scroll down to click on each individual film for details.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

PARAGUAY REMEMBERED: Dominique Dubosc's poetic, moving memory piece about South American politics, love, art, torture and death

A moviemaker (Dominique Dubosc, shown above) returns, after 40 years, to the Paraguayan city -- Asunción -- in which he spent what turns out to be a most important and formative time, and the result is PARAGUAY REMEMBERED (Memoria desmemoriada) one of the more beautiful, poetic, sad and moving chronicles to time past, love lost and history's most enduring struggle. That struggle is first seen early on, as our filmmaker visits an art show in the city, MalaVision, in which he views a group of haunted/haunting photographs and notices, as he tells us, "a naive painting meant to represent the guerilla that the rich see everywhere -- like they did Communism." What volumes that small sentence speaks to the unending battle here in the USA, in South America, everywhere, between progressive forces and entrenched wealth/power.

M. Dubosc's lovely, moving and quietly angry documentary is getting a very necessary run at New York's Anthology Film Archives this week (co-presented by Cinema Tropical), beginning Friday, February 24 -- click here to view screening dates times -- along with other of his work. Seeing this 89 minute documentary makes me wonder why the filmmaker is not better known. Forty years ago General Alfredo Stroessner was in power in Paraguay, and the little country was experiencing similar horrors to those we may know more about that occurred under military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. Dubosc managed to emerge from Paraguay with life and limb intact, but, clearly, what happened there to him, his friends, co-workers and in particular a paramour, have left an indelible mark on the man.

Written with exquisite attention to detail, meaning and even cadence, the movie's narration is poetic and beautiful, and spoken in French, which is certainly among if not the world's most beautiful language. When, midway, the movie 's narration changes to Spanish via another voice, the result seems jarring. Featuring mostly black-and-white cinematography which is often breath-taking in its composition, as well as its lights, darks and glorious greys, the movie is a visual treat. (The oddly inserted and only very occasional color photography simply underscores how much better is that elegant black and white.)

We hear about Stroessner and see one of the airplanes used to toss into the sea the sleeping bodies of literally thousands between the years of 1976 and 1983 -- carried out, as Dubosc tells us, "in the name of Western, Christian, neo-liberal civilization." We meet and view his friend, Hernan, below, and learn via a charming anecdote how the man became a successful sculptor.

So have things gotten better in present-day Paraguay? This looks questionable, as we see a more recent and quite violent expulsion of landless peasants.  All this is a very personal look at everything from Paraguay's politics and history to anecdotal evidence, along with archival photos coupled to present-day narration and cinematography.

When Dubosc first came to this country, it was to make a film about a typical peasant/farmer family and its experiences. Finally, toward the end of Paraguay Remembered, we watch that family now as they and their offspring view that old documentary, and smile, sometimes laugh at what they see. We see parts of that film, too, even as we also learn that the current family of General Stroessner is pushing to have the man's ashes returned to the country for a commemoration complete with political speeches. Hmmm...

We also learn that a certain U.S. President, Lord of the Drones, met with Paraguay's then-President, and all was well. Hmmm, again. Finally, we get a tiny history of the relationship between Dubosc and the woman he loved and cared about while in Paraguay, and whom he betrayed, at least emotionally, if not perhaps in other ways. This is a memorable, intriguing, unsettling documentary: part memory piece, part guilt trip, part poetry -- all of it unusual and special. Click here for further information on AFA and all screening dates and times. (The filmmaker himself will appear in person on Friday, February 24, for the film's AFA premiere.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Dark-horse pick for Best Animated Feature: Claude Barras' MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Once in awhile, amidst the Oscar-nominated. blockbuster animation movies from the big studios, can be found a small, foreign gem. So it is again this year, with the nomination of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI, the Swiss film directed by Claude Barras, with a screenplay co-written by that wonderful French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. The unusual thing this year, regarding the nominations for Best Animated Feature Film, is that three of the five movies are of this smaller variety: what you might call animated "art" films.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a simply gorgeous, rapturous piece of animation, in which, unfortunately, the vivid style is undercut by the film's somewhat meagre and occasionally clichéd content. I have not seen the other smaller film, The Red Turtle, nor have I watched Disney's nod to feminism, Moana, but I found its Zootopia one of the wittiest and non-stop enjoyable mainstream animation endeavors I've yet viewed -- with a much-needed message about equality and opportunity to impart to this dreadful Trump time, as well.

But back to that Zucchini:  M. Barras' fine accomplishment (the filmmaker is shown above) in this little delight of claymation animation is to turn the usual clichés of the tale of the orphans' life on their head so that we see things in quite a different manner.  Instead of an uncaring bureaucracy that shovels those "wards of the state" into dreary, unpleasant circumstances, here it is the caretakers of the orphans who care the most -- from the head of the orphanage and its workers to the kindly policeman (below, right) who is the first responder on the scene of the accident that renders our little hero, known as Zucchini, an orphan.

Indeed, it is an actual blood relative of another of the orphans who proves the film's major villainess. Oliver Twist (in any of its many incarnations), this ain't. As seems more and more true with each passing year, the wonders that can be done with animated characters to make them emotionally galvanizing are put to amazing use here. Barras' claymation effects are alternately moving and quite funny -- and always richly rendered.

The story tacks our hero's life once his alcoholic mother dies and he is placed in the care of that orphanage, among a small group of children, each of whom is rendered with fine specificity and individuality. Zucchini himself (above) is a lovely creation, as is the young orphan girl, Camille (below, left), who soon joins the crew.

But is is the not-so-typical bully, Simon (below), who quietly and gently takes over as the most special and interesting character. Here, too, Barras and Sciamma upend the usual clichés to create a young boy who will move you beyond expectation.

Kindness and generosity seem in such short supply these days that My Life as a Zucchini immediately takes its place as an arbiter of what might occur, should government begin to wisely and kindly care for its citizens. As seen here, Switzerland seems like some sort of heaven. And the USA? Well, we can dream, can't we?

The movie, distributed by GKIDS in both its original French language with English subtitles and a new (and very good) dubbed-in-English version, runs just 67 minutes. It opens this Friday, February 24, in New York City and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and in Vancouver at the Vancity Theater. In the weeks to come it will hit cities all across the country. To view the many currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- HIDDEN FIGURES: When computers were black and wore skirts

Producer/writer/director Theodore Melfi's (St. Vincent) film HIDDEN FIGURES, for which he has been rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for best picture, is a perfect Valentine to Black History Month. (See Melfi in 3rd photo from bottom.) Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly (below), whose father worked at NASA, it tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, at center, right), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, near right), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, far right), three of many black women instrumental in the space race of the 1960's.

Satiric, educational, and full of feel-good's, it has the makings of a long-running sit-com. It brings together the disparate worlds of early space science and Jim Crow South, beaming bright on the latter with enough good humor to shame those who play dumb to our racist past, and by inference, our intractable racist present.

Jim Crow law legislated segregation from the period of Reconstruction until President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the passage of the Civil Rights laws of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. (While segregation dominated the South by law, Northern segregation was enforced through practice -- bank lending and job discrimination, and de facto school segregation.) In the South segregation laws were posted in schools, rest rooms, water fountains, restaurants, work lunch rooms, transportation, etc.

When we meet our three protagonist human "computers" (the women who did the mathematical calculations of space flight with pencils, slide-rules, and chalk) in the 1960's, they are subject to embarrassing working conditions but thrived on the opportunity to work at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915, morphing into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958). Langley, Virginia, where the story is set, is now one of three research facilities among NASA's ten field sites.

Black women with college degrees were likely to teach, but a confluence of events led President John Kennedy to take action that would change the trajectories of some, notes Richard Paul in "Air &Space Magazine" 3/2014. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's earth orbit, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Alan Shepard's suborbital space flight, the Freedom Rides and imposition of martial law, and Kennedy's man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade speech all happened within weeks of each other in 1961. Kennedy used federal employment to speed integration at the same time NASA and its contractors were creating 200,000 jobs. Kennedy assigned Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to head both the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Thereafter and with Johnson's propulsion, NASA joined the front lines of the civil rights revolution.

In 2015, math genius Katherine Johnson received the recognition she deserved when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting her work in calculating the trajectories of our first human space flight and her figuring that got John Glenn to the moon and back. (She is now 99 years old.)

Melfi has a humorous touch and he humorously touches all types of racism -- institutional Jim Crow, polite naive racism (of which whites are all guilty at one time or another), and the insults of the nasty bigot. The film satirizes a catalogue of acts of discrimination, such as a tableful of white male heads swiveling as a black woman takes a seat. In a particularly memorable example, Katherine Johnson gets promoted from the black women computers group to the task force for space flight but finds that there's no segregated bathroom in the building. We see her dashing madly across the sprawling Langley campus to a segregated bathroom where she can relieve herself legally, though toilet paper and paper towels are in pitifully short supply.

Kirsten Dunst plays a chilly white supervisor who has no notion of her own unconscious racism; Jim Parsons (above, center left) is Paul Stafford, Head Engineer of the Space Task Group, a nasty competitive bloke at ease taking credit for work that isn't his. Boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, above, right, in another of his bland laconic good guy roles) only has eyes for the collective goal -- surpassing the Soviet launch of Yuri Gagarin into space. Harrison seizes on Johnson's genius at numbers and promotes her to the dismay of good-ole-boy engineers; also he knocks down the 'white women only' sign so his math star doesn't have to go missing running across campus to go to the bathroom. ("Here at NASA we all pee the same color.")

Meanwhile Dorothy Vaughn (Ms Spencer, below, left) is running the group of black women "computers" (in the building across campus with the segregated rest room) without the title and management pay she deserves. The IBM computer arrives and Dorothy can see the day they will all be replaced by machines -- we like how she solves this, and also Mary Jackson's creativity. Jackson (Ms Monáe, below, right) has a math and physics degree and wants to study engineering, but the schools are segregated. She sweet-talks a judge.

The upbeat joy in the stories of the three women's race to the moon is propelled by a lively, happy score guided by hip hop artist Pharrell Williams (below, left, with director Melfi), gaining him two Oscar nominations for songs, "Running" and "I See a Victory". (Williams wore two hats, also serving as a producer on the film.) He contributed 8 original tunes. Says A.D. Amarosi, Philadelphia Inquirer, "...Williams rises high; not just with sweet R&B appropriate to the Motown era and the optimism of the space race but with his usual sunny pop-hop, this time tinged with strains of gentle folk and sacred song."

Yes, "Hidden Figures" rises high as history-telling and message-making. By implication it speaks to Southern activist Dr. William Barber's call for "The Third Reconstruction" -- new advocacy and peaceful disobedience to stop voter suppression, housing, debt, employment, environmental, and sexual minority discrimination, not to mention cabs that drive by and hands that clutch purses in the presence of a black man. After every step forward in the march to equality, elites push back, providing workarounds to existing anti-discrimination laws; thus "Hidden Figures" is a call both for more scientific journeys into space and more genuine racial equality.

In April, Netflix will launch a new series "Dear White People" based on Justin Simien's 2014 movie of the same title about a group of black students dealing with polite racism at a mostly white ivy league college -- another small step in 'the third reconstruction'.

Hidden Figures, from 20th Century Fox and running 127 minutes, is playing nationwide now. To find the theaters nearest you, click here.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

LOVESONG: So-young Kim's friendship/love story opens (and deepens and surprises)

If you're already familiar with the work of South Korean-born/Los Angeles-raised filmmaker So-yong Kim -- In Between Days, Treeless Mountain, For Ellen and now LOVESONG --  you'll probably make a bee line for her newest movie, which bears many of the hallmarks of her earlier work: life unfurling naturally with little to no melodrama, relationships that change and grow organically, and especially some fine work with and around young children. All these are here, plus something else: Lovesong marks Kim's most accessible and nearly-mainstream movie thus far.

The filmmaker, pictured at left, here tackles the tale of two young women, longtime friends -- one of them (Riley Keough) married to a rather unavailable man and mother to a young daughter, the other (Jena Malone) still seemingly sewing her wild oats -- who are so very close that during a long weekend suddenly spent together take that friendship to another level. If this sounds anything like your usual lesbian rom-com-drama, it both is and isn't, for Kim spends much less time on the sex and/or lovemaking than on the feelings these two young women have for each other, as well as on the relationship that has built up between them over the years.

The two have a special place in each other's mind and heart, and Ms Keough (at left on poster, top and above) and Ms Malone (at right on poster, top, and above) bring all this to fine life, with the help of Ms Kim's screenplay (co-written with Bradley Rust Gray), which never over-explicates but allows us to see this relationship via its small moments of closeness -- and distance. When Malone's character flirts with a rodeo cowboy during the road trip, we see Keough's jealousy quietly surface.

Along on that trip is Keough's and her husband's (whom we see only via conversations on the computer) three-year-old daughter, played to near-perfection (as has been true with the various children in all of Kim's movies) by a delightful newcomer Jessie Ok Gray (above. right).

That early trip ends suddenly, and then it's several years later, as Malone is about to be married, and Keough and her daughter (now played by, I am guessing, Gray's older sister, Sky OK Gray, who is also as natural and believable as can be) arrive to join the wedding party. The filmmaker allows her child actors to simply behave and then captures their behavior extremely well.

The passing years seem to have only deepened the feelings of the two women, yet that wedding proceeds as planned, if in fits and starts. Lovesong actually grows and deepens as it moves along, even though the relationship between the two women is so halting and unsure. It's there and it's strong, despite all else.

Is it societal control that is forcing the Malone character toward heterosexuality over homosexuality? Clearly, she does have an attraction toward the opposite sex, yet that shown to her female friend seems strongest of all. Ever the character's mother (the usual nice job from Rosanna Arquette) questions her daughter's choice here, and what the poor groom (smartly and charmingly profiled by Ryan Eggold, below with Ms Malone), knows about all this is also unclear.

Ms Kim refuses to tie up loose ends (or almost any ends) yet this does not, finally, matter much. So well and so strongly has she captured the central relationship, despite much that we in the audience still do not know, that the movie manages to be both deeply sad and deeply joyful, as our two characters move on with their respective lives.

Lovesong is a most unusual film, but it's one that perceptive, demanding audiences should find worthwhile.

The movie -- from Strand Releasing and running just 84 minutes -- opens tomorrow, Friday, February 17, in New York City at the City Cinemas' Village East and in Los Angeles on March 3 at AMC's Sundance Sunset Cinema and Laemmle's Playhouse 7. To view all currently scheduled playdates and theaters in some 15 cities across the country, click here and then click on Screenings on the task bar midway down your screen.