Saturday, July 21, 2018

Nabil Ayouch's RAZZIA: a Moroccan apocalypse of great beauty and even greater sadness

Moving from the Atlas mountains of Morocco in 1982 to the city of Casablanca in 2015, RAZZIA begins with the art of  teaching via a fine, smart teacher and his class of students that includes one boy who has a bad stutter and with whose mom our instructor is romantically involved. When we cut to Casablanca, we see a march of fundamentalist Muslims, a beautiful woman (pictured above) dressed in far too Western a style to please those fundamentalists, and a dead bird on the beach that must be properly buried.

The filmmaker here is a fellow named Nabil Ayouch, whose earlier and quite wonderful movie, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, TrustMovies covered  back when he was writing for the late, lamented Greencine Daily. That film dealt with a band of Arab street boys and what happens when one of their number is killed. With Razzia, Ayouch has opened his canvas much more broadly, as his film moves back and forth between mountain and city over 33 years and includes a huge cast and a number of important characters that share the spotlight. Some of the people we see in both time frames, others are shown only in recent times. All are brought to life with immediacy and specificity.

Initially I imagined Razzia was the name of one of the characters here. But, no. Instead, a little research brought up this following definition, which fits the movie's themes quite handily: a hostile raid for purposes of conquest, plunder, and capture of slaves, especially one carried out by Moors in North Africa. While there is no actual "raid," in Razzia, the movie views Muslim fundamentalism as pretty much the same thing.

In the 1982 Atlas mountains sequence, a teacher (Amine Ennaji, above) is silenced and must leave his teaching post because of "reforms" that force religion into everything, destroy scientific learning, and insist that the students study in Arabic -- a language they do not even understand, as they are Berber.

In the Casablanca of 2015, we pick up the life of  that classroom stutterer, now a middle-aged man (Abdellah Dedane, above, right) who works for a Jewish restaurateur (Arieh Worthalter, above, left, and below) in the bustling city.

Our heroine, Salima (Maryam Touzani, below) seems to be in a sort of relationship with an attractive guy, but like so many Arab men he, too, appears to be, if somewhat unknowingly, misogynistic.

Finally we have a young man (played with mounting fire and anger by Abdelilah Rachid, below) who's part of a local rock band and who worships at the altar of Freddie Mercury. Is he also gay, as was Mercury? The subject is almost raised, but we never really know, and perhaps this is one Muslim taboo too many for the filmmaker to engage.

All these characters move and interest us as they wander about Ayouch's vast canvas (the screenplay comes via him and Ms Touzani), with some of them connecting to the others in particularly strong fashion. The many shiftings from past to present are never confusing, and little by little we learn enough about the various characters that they begin to matter more and more.

The movie ends with a double dose of violence -- at a party and in the streets -- that makes it seems as though some kind of Moroccan apocalypse has occurred, followed by a few moments of peace at the beach. All this proves a stunning resolution to a film, the ambitions of which are great and the execution of which is perhaps even greater.

Though lauded at various international film festivals and chosen as the opening night selection at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Razzia never managed to procure a theatrical release here in the USA. So let's be grateful to First Run Features for making its DVD debut possible. The film -- running 109 minutes -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, July 24 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Friday, July 20, 2018

DVDebut: Jacques Doillon's 2010 whopper about theatre, THE THREE-WAY WEDDING

Only the French, bless 'em, could have come up with a movie like THE THREE-WAY WEDDING (Le mariage à trois), in which a quintet of characters talk incessantly and intelligently about themselves, their ideas, their feelings and in particular their sexual and emotional needs but make it so goddamned interesting that you hang on almost every word. France, after all, is the country that gave us Molière and Marivaux -- to whom this film, written and directed by Jacques Doillon, owes plenty.

M. Doillon, shown at right, who recently gave us the not-so-well-received Rodin but earlier brought us the very well received Ponette, has created a tale of theater folk -- playwright, producer, actors and a novice assistant who, by film's end will soon be an actress, too -- who quite literally can't keep anything to themselves.

It's as though they have to give vent, via actions and words, to literally everything they think and feel. The fact they they're in the theater makes this somehow more believable (you know how theater people behave!), as well as making almost everything they say sound like dialog from a play. Fortunately, it's a rather good play.

Even better, Doillon has cast his film with a group of actors who could hardly be improved upon. In fact, their work here proves a near high-water mark for some of them (in TrustMovies' estimation, at least). The estimable Pascal Greggory (above, left, whose work in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and Doillon's Raja you may remember) is the playwright, and he is pitch perfect throughout: smart, witty, narcissistic beyond belief and every bit as controlling (and vulnerable) as you might expect a playwright to be.

As his "ex" and still-possible-paramour, Julie Depardieu (above, right, and further above) matches him moment for moment. Ms Depardieu is better here than I have ever seen her: emotionally on-point through so many highs, lows, and middles that her performance astounds. (One of the several fine things that Doillon's spill-it-all-out dialog succeeds in doing is giving us enormously full-bodied characters by allowing us to see and hear their innermost thoughts and desires.)

Louis Garrel (above, left) plays Depardieu's young actor/lover, and he is as fine as always, bringing his penchant for semi-snotty self-love to the fore and making the most of it. Each actor here manages to make fun of himself/herself (and amuse us in the process), even as s/he rounds out the character to its fullest.

As the pretty little assistant with the porcelain skin and gorgeous red hair, Agathe Bonitzer (above and below) imparts just the right sense of naivete coupled to the power that comes with the realization that one is desired. She makes a lovely and not-yet-too-theatrical addition to this little group.

I only wish that the excellent actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (at left in bottom photo) had been given a bit more to do. He is fine as far as his character is allowed to go, but that's not quite far enough.

A word must be said for Doillon's interesting "choreography" of his actors. They almost never stop moving about -- when they're talking, thinking, even in bed. This adds an extra little surge of energy to the film and to the performances  Nothing is ever static here.

The Three-Way Wedding is such an oddball film for specialized tastes that I must recommend it with that caveat. But for folk who appreciate something brave, unusual and very well-executed, do take a chance on this one!

From Film Movement (but good luck trying to find it on that company's website) and running 109 minutes, the movie hits DVD and digital this coming Tuesday, July 24 -- for purchase and/or rental.
Perhaps via Amazon Prime...?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

First love gets a second time around in Warren B. Malone's Brit rom-com, ACROSS THE RIVER

Random Media has come up with a number of interesting little films of late, several of which have been covered here at TrustMovies.

The company's latest addition, ACROSS THE RIVER, is yet another enjoyable piece of cinema that is small-scale but well enough directed, written and acted to qualify as a success and good enough to be placed on the "watch-it" list of those viewers who appreciate independent cinema, no matter the country of origin (in this case, it's Britain).

The writer/director is a fellow named Warren B. Malone (shown at left), whose first full-length feature this appears to be, after having made a few short films. Even then, Across the River is only 75 minutes long -- which proves just enough to grab us and keep us interested for the day that our two ex-lovers, who've "met cute" after maybe a decade apart, spend slowly and haltingly discovering who each other have since become.

The river in question is London's Thames, and the two folk who need to cross it -- there are various work stoppages going on which make it difficult to get either the tube or a taxi --

are ex-lovers Ryan (played by Keir Charles, above) and Emma (Elizabeth Healey, below). Mr. Charles is particularly good: full of low-key charisma and the kind of slightly goofy quality that can be quite sexy when it is also easy-going and never pushy. Ms Healey, on the other hand, has the more difficult role of the tight-ass, professional woman who must slowly unburden herself of both inhibitions and history. But she is attractive and very good at keeping her feelings close to the vest.

The movie's "re-meet cute" situation proves a tad manipulative, what with a flashback and an awfully coincidental dropping of a cell phone, but once we get past the first few minutes, and Ryan and Emma have properly reunited (even if only to grumble and argue for awhile), the movie springs quietly to life and we're off and running.

How and why these two knew each other and what happened to them leeches slowly from the screenplay, and the two actors (who are credited as screenwriters, in addition to Mr. Malone) perform with enough improvisational style that we easily buy into their relationship -- both then and now.

And if the movie relies a bit too much on the usual small talk -- of the paint job on the Houses of Parliament and the look of the popular London Planetree -- which is often overpowered into silence by the (also low-key) musical score, the filmmaker at least knows where he is going and how to get us there.

In its last 20 minutes or so, the movie rises to its own occasion and  -- interestingly enough, once our couple has again been separated -- actually becomes more intense, funny, charming and propulsive. The film's ending, in fact, is even rather moving. In all, this is 75 minutes of British not-quite-rom-com slice of life that proves worth experiencing.

From Random Media, Across the River made its worldwide debut via Digital, DVD and VOD yesterday, July 17 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A murder mystery from Hirokazu Kore-eda? Yes, as THE THIRD MURDER opens in theaters

Really? A murder mystery from Hirokazi Kore-eda, the fellow who has made all those wonderful Japanese films about family and relationships and philosophy and responsibility? Yes.

And THE THIRD MURDER is indeed about family and relationships and philosophy and responsibility. And also, especially, about justice, motive and character --  that last in every sense that you can imagine for this hugely encompassing word.

Mr. Hirokazu, pictured at right, whose classic Maborosi (the new Blu-ray release of which TrustMovies covered only last week) rather set the Japanese standard for films concerning all of the above themes, has now taken those themes and applied them to the murder mystery genre.

The results will most likely please his current fans a good deal more than they may satisfy those who expect anything remotely like a conventional murder mystery.

The Third Murder begins in a dark and deserted field at night in which a rather grizzly murder (followed by a cremation) takes place. Thanks to Hirokazu's skill and subtlety, sound effects jar us more than the visuals.

It seems clear from the beginning exactly who the murderer is. But who he is in terms of his character and why he has done the deed remain murky yet continually compelling. And Kôji Yakusho, above, who plays this very unusual role is equally compelling.

We learn something of the Japanese justice system, meet friends and family of the victim, as well as of that of murderer's defense attorney (Masaharu Fukuyama, above) -- who initially does not want this case but slowly grows closer and closer to the man he is defending.

What is learned about the victim will hardly ingratiate the guy to viewers, and once we've met his sleazy wife and hugely troubled daughter, this third murder begins to become as understandable as the first two, which we learn of in the course of the investigation.

Still, this is murder, and so justice must be served. But how? The defense attorney's father (above, who is himself a judge) offers one solution, but his son keeps soldiering on, hoping for a way to get his client a life sentence (or less) rather than death.

Religious motifs -- yes, that cross (seen above and below) -- figure in prominently,

as do dead birds, a thank-you note and peanut butter. Motives are mulled over and seem initially promising but then unclear, while truth, as ever, is utterly elusive.

Toward the finale, there is a scene of such supreme visual power, depth and even a weird kind of suspense as our two heroes come as close as possible to "joining."

Now, I have seen this kind of visual done previously on a number of occasions, but never as well as here. The sense of separate entities trying their best to understand each other and become one has rarely been brought to such vibrant, emotional and philosophic life.

If you are in the market for any cut-and-dried procedural or even a mystery with some sort of surprise finale, better look elsewhere. But if the ever-amazing and endlessly engaging ideas of family as both salvation and hell, justice as an elusive goal worth pursuing, and character as something that evolves rather than springs fully formed from DNA, then The Third Murder might just be your cup of chrysanthemum tea.

From Film Movement and running 124 minutes, the movie opens in New York City this Friday, July 20, at the Quad Cinema and on August 3 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, with other cities to follow in the weeks and months to come.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Lee Liberman's Monthly Sunday Corner: E. M. Forster’s HOWARDS END offers Edwardian class struggle and real estate porn

E.M. Forster (1879-1970) stopped publishing fiction at age 45 although he lived on until 91, as essayist, lecturer, librettist, and broadcaster with a post at Cambridge — esteemed in the intellectual life of Europe. Why he stopped delivering the novels that so distinguished his youth was puzzled over. An untraditional biographer, Wendy Moffat, professor of English at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, retold his story (E.M. Forster:A New Life, 2010) through the viewfinder of his homosexuality. Although other biographers had revealed his orientation years before, Moffat’s unusually provocative version (her critics object to her giving short shrift to his major novels) resulted from her having turned up a diary and other materials that had not figured in earlier discussion about Forster’s life and work. She found dozens of short stories unpublished until recently, although his one homosexual-themed novel, Maurice, debuted a year after his death in 1971.

Forster’s late-life fiction is thought not to measure up to his early novels. The early work sprang from deeply-held liberal social and political views. Forster’s great-grandfather, Henry Thornton, was an abolitionist leader who supported William Wilberforce’s activism in Parliament that ended the slave trade. Forster wrote an under-appreciated biography (1956) of his great-aunt: Marianne Thornton 1797-1887; A Domestic Biography that told the story of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect liberals, especially Marianne’s brother, Henry Thornton, as well as Forster’s own family history. (My review of Amazing Grace, the story of Wilberforce and Thornton, is here.)

Howards End, the novel (1910), expressed both Forster’s (the writer is shown at left) socio-political views and his belief in the need ‘to connect’, a head-vs-heart story reveling in industry and technology’s effect on everyday Edwardian life. The acclaimed Merchant-Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala film of 1992 on Netflix is now joined by the 2017 BBC mini-series adapted by Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea, Margaret) and directed by Hettie Macdonald on Starz for your comparison. Three families represent three social classes whose views represent the tensions in the story. The Wilcoxes are nouveau richer-than-rich, their fortune made in the (exploitative) rubber industry in the colonies; the young Schlegel siblings are comfortable enough to live off their inheritances (most like Forster’s own history). The Basts are poor, their windows rattle from trains thundering by. Leonard Bast, who seeks self-improvement, meets Helen Schlegel at a comically pretentious Ethical Society ‘Music and Meaning’ lecture-demonstration of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (1992). The Schlegel’s do-gooding brings about tragedy for him in the end—Forster’s lessons being that good intentions only go so far, liberalism itself has its own pretensions, and plutocrats can be mindlessly cruel.

Henry Wilcox is a master of efficiency and ignores the poor except as a source of exploitation. His wife Ruth (above, Vanessa Redgrave, the Wilcox matriarch,1992), lacking interest in women’s rights and the arts, is nevertheless deeply attached to nature through her inherited ancestral home, Howards End, (just one of several glorious dwellings in the real estate aspect of this story). The Wilcoxes and the Schlegels have met in Europe and taken a fancy to each other. The upper-class bohemian sisters Margaret and Helen and their brother Tibby (below, Margaret and Helen, 1992) are literate, intellectual, and consumed with the arts and the causes of the day such as suffrage and the plight of the poor. They remind us (blue staters) of our liberal guilt. They prize connection, truthfulness, kindness. The Wilcoxes on the other hand, practice self-repression and lack intuition or empathy — their wealth is their pleasure; they talk only of business and sports. Son Charles Wilcox, James Wilby (1992), says: …"those Schlegels...putting on airs with their ghastly artistic beastliness."   These two families intrigue each other at first—they are titilated and unnerved by their differences. Helen tells Meg of her visit to the Wilcoxes at Howards End (2017): "When I said I believed in the equality of the sexes, he [Mr. Wilcox] gave me such a sitting down as I have never had! And like all really strong people he did it without hurting me... he says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage -- nicely."

Forster has set up the social mismatch in the name of rising above differences ‘to connect’; a comic-tragic drawing-room imbroglio follows involving the disposition of Howards End (below, 1992). For after all, the one thing they do have in common is their preoccupation with real estate — they either dream of it, seek to acquire it, or have just moved in or out of it.

Ruth Wilcox and Margaret bond over the pastoral beauty and earthiness of Howards End. Their mutual fondness leads Ruth to handwrite a note on her deathbed requesting that Howards End be given to Margaret, knowing its rustic simplicity would be truly cherished. Widower Henry brushes off his wife’s dying wish, and despite none of the Wilcoxes’ having affection for the sprawling country house (son Charles calls it ‘a measly little place that never really suited us’), Ruth’s handwritten note is tossed in the fire. However, the newly bereaved Henry Wilcox courts Margaret.

Margaret says to querulous Helen about her engagement to Henry (2017): "I don’t intend him…to be all my life…more and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it….I don’t intend to correct him or to reform him, only connect. I’ve not undertaken to fashion a husband to suit myself using Henry’s soul as raw material." Margaret sees the good in Henry and admires him (although their differences almost break them).

Doleful complications ensue with the Basts in which Leonard (Joseph Quinn, above, 2017) becomes much more than a pet project to Helen Schlegel, alienating Margaret, who seeks to protect Henry from ‘unpleasantness’. For his part, the poor are the way of the world. The guilt-ridden ones, the Schlegels, turn out to lack the material position to help the couple and Henry Wilcox recoils indignantly when he discovers Bast’s wife to have been a youthful indiscretion of his own years ago. Hence the couple suffers, the victims of bourgeois do-gooding gone awry. Actually the story is a gently tragic comedy of errors supplying hypocrisy and denial in large portions. Both film and mini-series offers up a very sharp portrait of class pretension.

As for which of the productions does it better, the Merchant-Ivory film versus the 4-part mini-series, need one choose? The former is too special for words, Emma Thompson winning an Academy Award for her fresh, original Margaret, is truly one of the most engaging heroines in cinema. Helena Bonham Carter is entirely magnetic as Helen— her face all storm-clouds over her impossible brother-in-law Henry (Anthony Hopkins).

Ailing Ruth Wilcox is classic Redgrave — oh how you believe and feel for the grande-dame and wonder that son Charles, the terrific Mr. Wilby (doing a prescient Trump Jr. imitation) and daughter Evie, Jemma Redgrave (niece of Vanessa), have so little of their mother’s generous spirit about them. Although just over two hours, the film packs in Forster’s spritely essence, warm heart, and pointed social satire. (Click here for TrustMovies review of the new boxed set released in 2016 which captures the magic of the Merchant-Ivory.)

But the mini-series is also fine; conversations are deeper, more revealing of E.M. Forster’s social commentary, although the episodes lack the glowy effervescence and pungent satire of the film and sometimes plod. The casting of Alex Lawther [for a look at this young actor's versatility, see him in Goodbye Christopher Robin, Ghost Stories and the ace Netflix series, The End of the F***ing World) as Tibby, the youngest Schlegel and a slightly snobbish Oxford student and droll bookworm, and Tracey Ullman as Aunt Julie are perfect additions to the main cast: Haley Atwell and Matthew Macfayden as Margaret and Henry, (above), Philippa Coulthard, Mr. Quinn, and Julia Ormond. (Lonergan reduced Ormond’s role as Ruth Wilcox so jarringly that the matriarch’s importance to the story is hurt.)

It would seem no one could measure up to a character as unforgettable and charismatic as Bonham-Carter’s Helen, and even though she takes the prize, you will still be charmed and attracted to the winsome Coultard (shown above, with the outcome of the ‘unpleasantness’ she caused Margaret and Henry because of her friendship with Leonard Bast).  Also Ms Atwell, whose intelligent, expressive Margaret holds her own against Emma Thompson’s magnificence, still is not Thompson’s Academy Award winner.

On balance the mini-series is lovely if leisurely Edwardian pieces set in a milieu of social change (the pragmatic and imperialist vs the cosmopolitan and intellectual) are your cup of tea and the original if you simply want to know the story of Forster’s beloved work and are up for a completely faithful, joyous, and beautiful film. The Merchant-Ivory is a work of art, but I would not have missed the mini-series (and Tibby and Aunt Julie, below). A Forster fan should know both.

We are left with the question of the effect of Forster’s sexuality on plot and theme. For one, the drama in both film and series is sexless — its romanticism lacking in romance or sexual tension. The tension is class-related. Wendy Moffat’s revelations help here, as well as common sense. Forster did not have his first sexual experience until his late 30’s, years after writing the novel. Underneath his project to demonstrate ‘human connection’ must have lurked his own unrealized desire for the perfection of love-and-sex melded; stories of heterosexual love were incongruous with his own being. But over-analyzing the topic sells short Forster’s profound humanity. There is value in human connection between opposites as among all, sex having nothing to do with it. (During the seasons of this very political era, however, one is predisposed not to seek connections with opposites.)

At any rate, Moffat writes that after Forster became sexually active and had a series of romances, the marriage plot fiction became a masquerade. His growing personal contentment led him to avoid publishing fiction in favor of social and literary criticism. He kept his homosexual-themed writings private. (He is shown below, in later life, with friends).

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