Sunday, June 16, 2019

Our June Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Grimdark tales -- THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES

Grimdark describes a particularly grizzled and surreal dystopian fiction. It features doom, gloom, and pessimism; stuff creaks, groans, clanks, is clouded in mist. Rulers are useless, heroes flawed, doing good is futile, might trumps right. The grimdark category is reportedly inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war’ (grimdark imagery below).

George RR Martin gave us A Song of Ice and Fire which has spun out into the avidly obsessed-over grimdark Game of Thrones (GoT). Dickens favorites are more literary, while recent grimdarks include Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Ripper Street, Walking Dead and THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES, which lean to naked horror. Playing now on Netflix, it has been described as ‘brilliantly grim’ (The Guardian) and is well-enough reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes (80% season 1, 72% season 2). The series stars Sean Bean as a grungy policeman, a shambling contrast to his turn as lord of Westeros’ North.

Bean is himself a memorable character, with dozens of film, tv credits, and awards including a multi-year series based on novels by Bernard Cornwell about a rogue Napoleonic-era soldier named Sharpe. Bean resembles him too much, putting him on the outs in the Me Too era — he has recently married his fifth wife with domestic fray on the record. His character, John Marlott, is fated to live out a variation of Mary Shelley’s monster in her novel Frankenstein (art getting even with Bean, as it were).

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) is a character in the series, played by Anna Maxwell Martin (above l, with Marlott and Ed Stoppard, r, as Lord Hervey). The actual teenage Mary, daughter of two writers and wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote ‘Frankenstein’ anonymously in 1816, revising it for publication under her own name in 1831, having suffered years of pregnancy and loss. (Her story is very well told in last year's bio-pic, Mary Shelley.) For so young a woman at the time of its creation, it is extraordinary psychological drama, seminal science fiction, and a cautionary tale for modern technologists. The main character is science student, Victor Frankenstein, a young man absorbed by the challenge of creating life, who uses electrical current in lab experiments to animate a man-monster that has been stitched together of human parts. The unhappy creature brings tragedy to Victor, his family, and to the monster himself, in which one’s sympathies toward creator, Victor, slowly shift to his creation. Shelley observes: “People are rendered ferocious by misery and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.”

Mary (above) constructed her morbid fiction on the dangers inherent in scientific manipulation of human life and her own losses—her mother died following her birth, invoking loss of love and guidance and Mary buried three of her own infants. In a 2018 The New Yorker review of the novel on its bicentennial, Jill Lepore describes it as “an allegory, a fable, an epistolary novel, and an autobiography, a chaos of literary fertility….”). Shelley was uniquely a mother as well as writer, (in contrast to Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, and George Eliot). Also, her incorporation of the intellectual hot topics of the day such as the work of Darwin and Galvani (the ‘father’ of electrophysiology) have made the novel a touchstone to this day for scientists, inventors of robotics and artificial intelligence, behavioral sciences, genetics. And Shelley’s work itself has more intellectual gravitas than any of its succeeding tellings.

The creators of Frankenstein Chronicles, Benjamin Ross (director, writer, above) and Barry Langford (writer), made crime procedurals about the underworld of Regency London, seeding its two series with real people and situations that allude to the Frankenstein tale but go their own way, using crime, prostitution, drug smuggling, poverty, illness, politics, “tweedy styling, plentiful hats, bursts of viscerally gory violence” (Telegraph). Some have described ‘Chronicles’ as a reimagining of ‘Frankenstein’ — really not so, rather they use Frankenstein memes. There are two freaky lords intent on human animation. An intrepid journalist, Boz, deemed to be Dickens, collaborates with Marlott — serializing the mystery in the paper. Add Sir Thomas Peel, a real British Home Secretary and Prime Minister; poet William Blake; and Ada Byron (Lily Lesser), daughter of poet Byron, raised on science by her mother to counter Byron’s anti-social ways. Ada says: ‘There will be a time when everything you see and do will be influenced by machines …and we must embrace it chewed up in its cogs.’ Mathematician Ada (below) was known for her work on the mechanical computer, presaging the computer age by a century and influencing Alan Turing’s computer code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII.

The main protagonists, in addition to Marlott, however, are Lord Daniel Hervey, a private hospital owner played by the excellent Ed Stoppard, his sister, Lady Jemima, played by Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown), Thames River policeman, Joseph Nightingale, played by Richie Campbell, also a small turn by Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn in GoT). Season 2 introduces the devious and secretive Lord Frederick Dipple (Laurence Fox of ‘Inspector Lewis’, charismatic and delicious to watch, below, r) and for pathos, widowed seamstress Esther Rose (Maeve Dermody, l).

Season 1 begins with policeman Marlott on his rounds finding a dead child on the river who has been sewn together from bodies of others (like Frankenstein’s creature). Marlott is charged to find out about it by Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward), who is trying to pass laws that will professionalize medicine and medical analysis. Marlott finds a war raging among factions with assorted nefarious stakes, which I leave for you to discover. The plot drags in parts, despite the intense charisma of characters, themes, and irresistable Dickensian atmosphere. The story arc does not measure up to, say, ‘Ripper Street’. Still if you are a horror fan, you may think it well worth the effort. A third season seems likely but has not yet been announced.

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

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A good doctor gets a pretty good documentary in Bernadette Wegenstein's THE GOOD BREAST

During the first few minutes of watching THE GOOD BREAST, the 2016 documentary directed and co-written by Bernadette Wegenstein, TrustMovies was convinced that any woman having to deal with breast cancer should only be lucky enough to have a doctor as good, as careful and as scientific as the one we first meet here: Dr. Lauren Schnaper. That feeling never fully dissipated but it did lessen somewhat as the documentary drew on.

This was due to the inordinate amount of time this 90-minute movie manages to spend on the subject of Saint Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer. (More about all this later.)

Ms Wegenstein, shown at right, initially introduces us to Dr. Schnaper and her idea that the medical profession allows and, in fact, encourages many more mastectomies than are actually necessary, often by instilling such fear into the patient that full-out and immediate breast removal seems the only answer.

You will most likely have heard this before, but it bears repeating, especially when offered up in such a quiet, non-emotional, and backed-by-scientific-fact explanation as given by Schnaper. The film then wastes no time before introducing us to a quartet of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

These range from a very active-positive gal (shown above, right) who, by the time the film concludes, has turned into a mass of tears and tics, fears and needs, and who actually wants something quite different from the thing she appeared to most desire when the film began. It's sad in so many ways.

The saddest of these women is the one with the most faith in god -- who is so certain that "he" means her to live. She and her family are put through the proverbial mill, as that faith slowly weakens and finally vanishes. The four women provide a kind of balance, as well as a somewhat typical array of diagnoses and outcomes that can be expected here.

And yet, back and back and back again we go to that patron saint and all the many different artworks (one of which is shown above) that portray her and her awfully graphic and literally tortured experience at the hands of these "men of faith." At one point we even take a trip to Italy, below, with Schnaper and her nurse to visit and witness an entire festival devoted to Saint Agatha. Granted, the art exposes the kind of nasty, male-entitled horror to which the women of the time were subjected, so, yes, there's a feminist angle here.

But we finally spend so much time on this less-important byway that the sad saint keeps threatening to become the full-out subject here. And she's not. One wonders if this growing imbalance was more due to Dr. Schnaper or to Ms Wegenstein? Or both? Whichever, poor Saint Agatha finally does these docs  -- the film and the physician -- no favors whatsoever.

Otherwise, The Good Breast offers an interesting, empathetic look at four women facing a particularly difficult challenge -- one that goes close to what many women feel is the very heart of their femininity. The film does point out that not all women treat their breasts as something so sacrosanct. But plenty do, and the result can be as difficult as it is confounding. Just as it is for us men, when we're told our penis and/or scrotum, thanks to prostate or testicular cancer, will no longer be functioning sexually.

From Icarus Films Home Video, The Good Breast will be available on DVD this coming Tuesday, June 18 -- for purchase and rental (the latter also via Amazon or iTunes).

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A 19th-century French farming village, minus the men, in Marine Franssen's THE SOWER

How this little village comes to be missing all its adult males is a nasty part of French history involving the coup d'état of 1851, during which males thought to be sympathizers with the republican cause were rounded up and either killed or imprisoned. As usual with coups of this sort, those in charge could care less what happens to either the men or the villages left "male-less" due to an would-be emperor's craving for power.

In THE SOWER (as ironic and double-edged a title as you're likely to find), a movie directed and co-written by Marine Franssen, the women of this bereft little farming town take into their own very capable hands matters involving everything from sowing and harvesting to school-teaching and sex.

That last, of course, proves both pivotal and the raison d'être of the film that Ms Franssen, shown at left, has given us -- adapted from the short story, L'Homme semence, by Violette Ailhaud.

I suppose it is not too much of a spoiler -- since the tag line at the bottom of the poster, top, points this out -- to mention that the women of this village have made a pact: We agreed, if a man come someday, he'd be all of ours.

As you will expect, a man does indeed come, and before long, as you will also expect, some sexual sharing is in the offing.

If this sounds a little too much like a century-old, costume version of something as sleazy as Indecent Proposal or its more current and not-to-be-missed version (if you enjoy exquisitely attuned trash), What/If on Netflix streaming, you can rest easy. Because The Sower is ripe, all right, but with the genuine feeling of sisterhood between the women of this little village, both the younger set and the older, all of whom work together to achieve what needs to be done to keep things intact, until -- if ever -- their men return.

When a single man does appear -- nicely played by the very-attractive-if-intentionally-closed-off Alban Lenoir (above) -- this fellow does what you'd expect, especially as he is initially "courted" by the most attractive and virginal of the town's young ladies, given a precise yet muted performance by an actress new to me, Pauline Burlet (below), who brings a pleasing combination of beauty and keen intelligence to her role.

What happens here is both expected and maybe not, with a result that is primal and completely understandable, given the unusual circumstances of this village. Best of all, there are no villains here -- except of course the royal powers-that-be. Instead, people act in their own best interests but also, finally, in the interests of the village.

By the quietly moving finale, The Sower has become a kind of unusual, unending love story in which there is sorrow and parting but also regeneration and hope. Ms Franssen has given us a tale that could have easily degenerated into mere, if pleasing, eroticism and instead suffused it with compassion, morality, humanity and a deep understanding of desire, need and what you might call not merely mutual sexual satisfaction but something a good deal more "overall."

From Film Movement, in French with English subtitles and running an appropriate 98 minutes, The Sower seems to have bypassed any U.S. theatrical release to go straight to home video, hitting the street on DVD and digital streaming this past Tuesday, June 11 -- for purchase or rental. Seek this one out, it you enjoy intelligent, thought-provoking love stories.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Solitude in company: Thomas Stuber's original, bittersweet and beautiful IN THE AISLES

It may not be the first film to adapt a Strauss waltz to an unusual visual, but for the most part IN THE AISLES, the new film from Thomas Stuber (he directed and co-wrote it with Clemens Meyer), is an original work of humanist art.

Beginning with its locale -- a kind of German version of Costco during, mostly, the graveyard shift -- the movie introduces a set of characters who slowly grow on you until you come to love them and want to care for them as though they were your very own.

Mr. Stuber, shown at right, takes his sweet time with all of this, so if you demand action and car chases, do please move along. Yet as quiet as all this is, it is also never for a moment boring.

This is due to a screenplay that doles out its information haltingly and pretty much in the manner that these characters themselves would offer it. They don't like to intrude -- on each other or even, it seems, on themselves.

The actors chosen for these roles are very good indeed, and even if you've seen them previously, the characters they play here will seem ideally matched with the performers.

The young man who acts as a kind of guide for us -- because, as the film begins, he is being trained for his first day on the job -- is Christian, played by Franz Rogowski (above, of Transit and Happy End). The object, soon, of Franz's affection is a pert and pretty co-worker named Marion (Sandra Hüller, below, of Toni Erdmann) .

Our "newbie" (Marion's pet name for Christian) is under the tutelage of long-time employee Bruno, whose initial gruff manner belies a sad heart of gold. As played by Peter Kurth, below, left -- the lead villain (one of them, anyway) from Babylon Berlin -- Bruno is a wonderful character, rich, deep and quiet, and one who grows and grows on us, until....

All of the night shift employees, no matter how small the role, are brought to fine and specific life here. Eventually this small group and its place of work becomes a world in itself, one that we are only too happy to abide in for the 125 minutes we're allowed to. In the Aisles proves a small, alternately bright and dark, wonder.

From Music Box Films, in German with English subtitles, the movie opens this Friday, June 14, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles on Friday, June 21, at Laemmle's Royal and on June 21 and over the weeks to come expanding to another 15 cities and theaters, including the Bill Cosford Cinema here in the Miami area on July 5. Click here, then scroll down to click on Theatrical Engagements to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Warning: The latest GODZILLA movie is bad enough to put the franchise to bed--for good--

but the irony here is that the cast assembled for this one is as good as any in all of the rest of the Godzilla movies put together. Ah, well... GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS gets so little right -- from the woeful "science" at hand to the special effects that look second-hand, second-rate and way too dark (that last is the reason that the Jurassic Park series and Kong: Skull Island are so watchable: you can actually see what's going on!) to the tiresome script to the near-constant chaotic visuals and sound -- that, should you stick to movie out until the end, you might find ushers handing out congratulatory You-actually-sat-through-it! awards in the lobby.

Since we paid for our tickets to this film, TrustMovies didn't feel at all guilty about leaving the mess of a movie around two-thirds of the way through. You would think that the fact that we were even sitting in those comfortable and ultra-reclining seats ought to have made the experience at least bearable. No: That's how bad this movie is.

Granted, the Godzilla franchise has always been silly (except for the original 1954 Japanese film--not the ridiculous "American-ized" version), never more so than when someone decided -- as here, again -- to toss in every last monster the old guy has ever faced off against. Motha, Rodan, some Hydra-headed thing, the works. Yet nothing does. Did someone say, The more the merrier? Hardly. This just adds to the length.

From Warner Brothers and running 132 minutes, the film is playing nationwide (but at less screenings than last week: word of mouth will out). Click here if you really want to find a theater near you.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

David C. Coffin's BEYOND HOARDING proves a worthwhile, hour-long cautionary tale about a too-often overlooked neurological disorder

At least TrustMovies thinks that hoarding stems from a neurological disorder. That seems to be the consensus of the "experts" gathered together for this surprisingly winning little documentary about the very problematic (to the individual afflicted and to the surrounding society, as well) condition said to affect somewhere between two and five per cent of the U.S. population. If you've seen anything about hoarding via television, you may be primed for the usual skeevy, sleazy TV approach to things.

BEYOND HOARDING is a lot better than that. As directed by David C. Coffin (I believe the filmmaker is shown at right, but there is no photo of him on the film's web site to corroborate his identity), the movie turns out to be a very personal project. Back in 2007 Mr. Coffin's great uncle was involved in a terrible accident in Woodmere, New York, that was caused by hoarding, and this led the filmmaker to make his movie. As the film begins, we see the results of that accident, which revealed a barely living body buried beneath several feet of refuse, and then, days later, a second body, dead.

How all this happened and why, together with the reactions of relatives (none of whom lived nearby) and neighbors (two of which are shown below) combine to offer a picture of a condition/disease that is not at all well understood.

From Long Island, we move to Seattle and a father/daughter relationship (below) coming apart due to hoarding, even though this hoarder (the father) is a relatively clean and even somewhat neat one. Still, that hoarding takes its toll. One of the strongest points of the movie is how it warns us to be careful of passing judgements too easily without learning all the information necessary to understand the individual situation.

Beyond Hoarding broadens its scope with the introduction of its third set of characters: an older Boston hoarder, and the younger man -- Jesse Edsell-Vetter, of Metro Housing, Boston, shown below, left -- who works very hard to help the hoarder understand what his affliction is all about and how to circumvent it, even in very small steps and stages.

Our final character is a Minnesota woman, below, who clues us in to some important "do's and don'ts," hoarding-wise. It turns out that this woman was utterly traumatized by the act of some of her "helpful" friends, who cleaned up and actually emptied out her house of all of its glut -- without telling her in advance and which sent her on a unnecessary and very unhelpful shopping spree. Hoarding cannot be easily solved via good natured but unknowing "others."

What causes hoarding? The jury is still out, but evidently it is not actually related, as many imagine, to obsessive-compulsive disorder but rather to a kind of neurological impairment. Until further research is done, however, we'll have this little film to help guide those of us with friends or relatives suffering from this problem.

The documentary arrived on Blu-ray/DVD and most major Digital Streaming and Cable platforms last month and is available now for purchase or rental. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

What a gal: BARBARA RUBIN AND THE EXPLODING NEW YORK UNDERGROUND explores a special time, place and culture

Barbara Rubin. That's a name TrustMovies hadn't even heard of prior to viewing Chuck Smith's charming and disarming new documentary about this young woman, who, at age 16, thanks to circumstances, smart choices and a little luck, found herself working with Jonas Mekas to help to organize and become a kind of moving force in the experimental film culture that rose to prominence in the 1960s.

It was not only experimental film that Ms Rubin fostered and even created; she brought together titans of poetry, performance art, music and more. Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed owe an awful lot to this energetic and talented gal.

BARBARA RUBIN AND THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND explores the early life (and early problems, as well) of the titular young woman briefly and succinctly, letting us see from almost the beginning what an unusual person she was. People who knew her describe her as a "mystic," and before you pooh-pooh this word (as I usually do), you may find (as did I) by the end of this fairly short documentary that you, too, are ready to apply the term to this unusual woman.

Filmmaker Smith (shown above) may not have given us the "all" of Ms Rubin, such a surprising and event-filled life did she lead, but what we see and hear should be enough to make us more than aware of what a singular force she was in the 1960s and, to maybe a lesser extent in the 70s.

How Rubin (shown above and below with Andy Warhol) was mentored by Mekas but soon went out on her own at age 18 to create an experimental film -- Christmas on Earth (originally to have been titled Cocks, Cunts and Christmas on Earth) -- that was both sexually explicit and genuinely experimental and that evidently still remains powerful enough to shock audiences. (The tidbits shown here certainly entice, but I would love to see the entire film.)

Her very close relationship with gay poet Allen Ginsberg (she wanted to bear his children) was pivotal to her life, and yet how (which we see and hear about here) and why (which we never quite understand) she suddenly embraced Orthodox Jewish religion and culture seems genuinely amazing, adding luster to that "mystical" theory. One friend opines that Rubin simply overlaid her love of Buddhism onto Orthodox Judaism. (The doc's Jewish orphanage moment should make a believer out of you, I suspect.)

Whatever Rubin did, she seems to have done it fully and with no qualms nor half measures. From her oddball letter to Walt Disney to her becoming perhaps the first woman to explore and open the Kabbalah to women, Rubin broke that mold for what a woman could do, just as she had done in the experimental film world -- which was a male-only place for the most part (as was the film world in general).

How her life ended (at age 35) seems both shocking and unnecessary. But then, there is so little known about the details of her time as a very fertile wife  -- take that, Mr. Ginsberg! -- in an Orthodox Jewish community in the south of France, who is to say her contribution here was any more or less important than that to the world of experimental film?

The various talking heads we hear from include film critics Amy Taubin and J Hoberman, the late Mr. Mekas himself, and most trenchant and insightful of all, author and assistant professor Ara Osterweil, clearly too young to have known Rubin but definitely deeply affected by the woman & her work.

From Juno Films and running just 78 minutes, after opening a couple of weeks previous at the IFC Center in New York City, the documentary screens at at the Roxy, San Francisco, on Wednesday, June 12, and hits the Los Angeles area on Friday, June 14, at Laemmle's Music Hall and then expands to Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5, and Claremont 5 on June 17. Click here to find any further playdates, cities and theaters that may have been recently added.