Friday, August 17, 2018

Art, astronomy and even some anthropology blend in Alison McAlpine's heavenly CIELO


What a lovely and impressive mix we have here! Filmmaker Alison McAlpine has given us something unusual, beautiful and even revelatory in her new documentary, CIELO -- the word which, in Spanish, can signify either heaven or simply the sky. Chile's Atacama Desert has been used effectively in a number of documentary and narrative films, most impressively, I think, in Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, in which Guzmán showed us this singular location as both a haven and laboratory for astronomers and a hiding place for the remains of many of those "disappeared" under the cruel, murderous dictatorship of Chile's Augusto Pinochet.

Ms McAlpine, shown at left, does not go into Pinochet's use of this locale but sticks to astronomy, as well as anthropology, as she offers us a look at some of the folk who live and work in the desert and who prove to be every bit as interesting and worth seeing as that fabled desert and its amazing night sky (shown above and below).

These would include those astronomers, both French- and Spanish-speaking, and the local natives, some of whom who gather up kelp from the sea for their livelihood.

The filmmaker's narration is in English, but most of the rest of the dialog (from the astronomers and the native workers) is in either Spanish or French. The astronomers in particular are quite funny and charming, and their interaction is mostly delightful and occasionally profound.

We also meet an older couple of who live in the desert, and they, too, are delightful, especially when she must explain to her husband how the earth moves, along with the concept of gravity. Another younger man, above, tells us, as he prepares a meal, of his experiences in the desert, including an apparition of a young girl that appeared to him numerous times. An angel, he wonders?

Another fine fellow (above and below) dances and flies along merrily; later we see him teaching the local kids fables and myths: how a dog might help his master in the afterlife. Living in the Atacama must make one a bit crazy, at least by what most of us would consider "normal" standards. But there is no denying the joy found here. The movie is full of marvelous anthropology that seems to TrustMovies as strong as that of its astronomy.

We view some fascinating cave/rock drawings, learn about the discovery (by the Swiss) of a new planet called WASP 50, and sit in with another group of astronomers as they laugh and chat. Our filmmaker finally asks them a question: What is your true connection with the sky? The response:
"The sky nourishes us. In the sky, our imagination takes flight -- and anything is possible."

There are many question here, but few definitive answers. No matter. For those who want to ponder ideas on life, death, connection and the universe, Cielo may be the movie for you. A Juno Films release running just 77 minutes, the film opened this past Wednesday, August 15 for only a one-week run in New York City at Film Forum, and will hit Los Angeles at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts on Friday, August 24. To view other currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

DVDebut for Ingrid Veninger's Canadian coming-of-age tale, PORCUPINE LAKE


Sweet, sad, and a little soft around the edges, PORCUPINE LAKE tells the tale of a slightly asthmatic young teenage city girl, Bea (Charlotte Salisbury), who comes to the Ontario countryside, along with her mother, to spend a summer vacation with her dad in the little lakeside community in which he lives and runs the local restaurant/bar. There, she meets a local girl, Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall) of her same age, and the two fall into a kind of friendship/ puppy love that could easily grow into something stronger.

As written and directed by Ingrid Veninger (shown at right), the movie is never heavy-handed nor unbelievable as it tracks this budding love story, as well as the coming apart of the relationship between Bea's parents.

Kate comes from a fairly dysfunctional family of her own, and we meet these folk, too, and wince a lot at their unpleasant antics. We also get to know, slightly at least, the community to which Bea and her mom have come and, again, it is shown to us with some credibility and skill.

Performances from the two young girls (shown above, with Ms Hall on the left) are very good indeed, with Kate's aggressive personality nicely complementing Bea's reticent and much less certain one. As Bea's parents, Delphine Roussel and Christopher Bolton (below, with Ms Roussel on the right), are also very fine: quiet, measured and, in the case of Mr. Bolton, slowly revealing.

The direction is competent, too, rarely rising to anything too melodramatic. What keeps the film from being more than merely OK, however, is the screenplay. The narrative and the dialog carry the plot along and connect events properly, but it's all a little too generic, lacking the specificity that might really bring the movie to more immediate and involving life.

As it is, Porcupine Lake is perfectly enjoyable so far as it goes. If you like coming-of-age tales, especially those involving same-sex attraction, there'll be an added hook. I do wish, though, that the film's distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures, had invested in optional English subtitles. The sound quality varies so heavily from scene to scene, with ambient sounds and music absolutely loud enough but dialog so often obscured that I found myself raising and lowering the my volume control throughout the film, which proved annoying as hell.

Running a swift 84 minutes, the movie hit the street this past Tuesday, August 14 -- and is available now, via DVD and digital, for purchase and/or rental

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Better-than-average giallo arrives on Blu-ray: the 1974 Massimo Dallamano/Etore Sanzò WHAT HAVE THEY DONE to your DAUGHTERS?


Italian filmmaker Massimo Dallamano was a B-movie writer/director who came to prominence in the 1970s. Up until then he was a good cinema-tographer whose career spanned the mid-1940s through the mid 60s. His film WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, made just two year prior to his death, is a smart little mash-up that conflates the giallo/thriller/police procedural genres, while giving fans of all three a pretty good run for their money.

Well cast using some of Italy's popular actors of the era and written (by Dallamano, shown at left, and co-writer Etore Sanzò) with a good deal more intelligence than many of the then-popular giallo movies, Done/Daughters begins with the discovery of a nude teenager whose death appears to have been a suicide, but of course we suspect it may be a murder. From there the film tackles everything from a teen prostitution ring servicing the rich and powerful (who else?) to government corruption and a very nasty serial killer in a motorcycle helmet who sports a bloody machete. Yes: yikes!

What's going on here, and how the the pair of investigators on the case -- an female assistant D.A. (unusual for the era in which the film was made) and a local police inspector -- discover this is handled with savvy and enough filmmaking skill to keep  the viewer alert and interested.

As suspects emerge (and are sometimes murdered in the graphic, bloody giallo manner), the depth of and disgust we feel for the corruption at hand makes itself keenly felt.

In the role of the female D.A., the beautiful Giovanna Ralli (above, of Deadfall) brings a quiet seriousness to the proceedings that proves a big help in countering some of the sleazier aspects of the film, while Claudio Cassinelli (below, of The Suspicious Death of a Minor) offers the usual solid-if-stolid leading man machismo that's required in this sort of endeavor.

There are a couple of good chase scenes, smart stalking via hand-held camera, and some especially interesting Italian police procedural tactics that keep us interested. Less a who-dunnit? than a who'-s behind-it? scenario, the movie wraps up with multiple resignations borne out of frustration and anger. Well, as the French say (and the Italians certainly understand at this point), plus ça change.....

From that by-now giallo specialist, Arrow Video, the new Blu-ray -- distributed here in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group -- hit the streets yesterday, for purchase and (I would hope somewhere) for rental. As with all of Arrow's product that I've seen, the Bonus Features alone are worth the purchase price. In addition to the excellent Blu-ray transfer, there are some fascinating interviews with the film's composer and editor, a grand new video essay from Kat Ellinger, and even some harcore footage shot for (but never used in) the film by its director.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

World War II France, the Holocaust, and Marguerite Duras combine in Emmanuel Finkiel's exceptional MEMOIR OF WAR


Marguerite Duras was certainly among France's most fascinating modern writers -- in terms of both her work and her life, the latter of which spanned 1914-1996. She was a prolific writer, with many of her works brought to the screen, and she was also a filmmaker of some note and even an occasional actress. Of everything TrustMovies has seen by her and about her, however, perhaps the strongest so far is the new film MEMOIR OF WAR by French filmmaker Emmanuel Finkiel, which, in its original French title, La douleur, translates simply as "the pain."

M. Finkiel (shown at right) has made a small but resonant work of art that manages to simultaneously capture a slice of World War II France under Nazi control; a very good sense of the kind of impressionistic writing at which Ms Duras sometimes excelled, as well as something of her difficult but decidedly bracing character; and most especially, I think, a clear-eyed look at the pain caused by the Holocaust -- by focusing not on the victims themselves but rather on those family members and friends who hoped against hope that their husbands/wives/ children/friends/lovers had somehow survived.

Though the star of this film is Mélanie Thierry (above), who is giving here the performance of her career (so far), for me and from this point onward, the face of The Holocaust will probably be that of the incredible actress, Shulamnit Adar, shown below, who has a major supporting role as the Jewish mother who awaits news of her handicapped daughter taken from her early in the Nazi's despicable war on humanity.

Ms Adar has a face that seems to register multiple feelings at once, each of them strong and true. What she goes through here and how she does it should imprint on your memory indelibly. The plot, such as it is, goes back and forth in time and involves Duras' husband (her married name was Antelme), his disappearance, her affair with his best friend Dionys (Benjamin Biolay, below),

and her having to chat up (and perhaps do a lot more than that) a French collaborator (Benoît Magimel, below) who may or may not be able to offer help to her imprisoned husband. The tale, as such, might not seem like much. But the manner in which the filmmaker chooses to tell is very much in keeping with the Duras style: impressionistic, elliptical, full of hesitation and the kind of self-condemnation that can easily double as self-exoneration.

Finkiel, who adapted Duras' autobiographical novel as well as directed, makes such excellent choices in terms of how much to show and how much to leave unseen, and he draws terrific performances from his cast, especially from Ms Thierry, who, as good as she has been elsewhere, has never had a role this encompassing and demanding.

How Finkiel weaves all this together so artfully yet provocatively is pretty close to brilliant. Memoir of War takes its place in the front rank of films about WWII France, the Holocaust, and a woman's sacrifices and needs.

From Music Box Films and running 127 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, August 17, in New York at Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the following Friday, August 24, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center theaters and elsewhere, including here in South Florida at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Miami. Over the weeks and months to come, it will play all around the country. Click here, then click on THEATERS on the task bar halfway down the screen to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

DVDebut for Dominic Savage's unusually dark and difficult drama, THE ESCAPE


All about a woman who, to save her sanity and herself, must opt out of marriage, motherhood and maybe even -- were it on the menu -- apple pie, THE ESCAPE, written and directed by Dominic Savage, goes so quietly against some of life's ingrained tenets that it will genuinely disturb viewers happy with the status quo. When the movie opened here theatrically this past May, reviews were quite positive, yet the response of audiences, whom one would assume were mostly the "art" film crowd, has been not so good. This is one anxiety-making movie.

As both writer and director, Mr. Savage, pictured at left, has what seems an unusual way of working with script and actors (do watch the Bonus Feature interviews with both him and his star, Gemma Arterton, shown below): a kind of "lay out the bare bones of what happens, make sure your actors fully understand their characters, and then... improvise!" It works. The Escape is an intelligent, deeply-felt exploration of a woman unhappy because her life (which, yes, she has had the major hand in determining) has proven not at all satisfying.

Ms Arterton -- beautiful and extremely capable -- continues to grow as actress with each role. Last year she starred in one of 2017's best films, Their Finest, and if The Escape does not prove quite up to that level, her performance in it certainly does. Interestingly, her character of Tara has much in common with another character currently on theater screens: a married woman named Agnes, played by the great Kelly Macdonald, in the movie Puzzle.

Puzzle is the easier film to accept, not nearly as hard-edged or demanding and also closer to our status quo is finding a balance between a woman's needs and the demands of marriage/motherhood. Both films are must-sees, even if The Escape may prove difficult for more conventional folk to accept.

In the role of Tara's somewhat obtuse, self-involved but still loving/caring husband, Dominic Cooper (above, left, who starred with Ms Arterton back in 2008 in the underseen/underappreciated Tamara Drewe) makes a terrific foil for his co-star. We feel for him and his situation, even as we can also see him through Tara's tired eyes.

The filmmaker coaxes fine and very real performances from his two child actors, while Frances Barber,  French star Jalil Lespert (above) and Marthe Keller all get excellent cameos as, respectively, Tara's more traditional mother, a hot-looking photographer who trails Tara and then befriends her at a museum, and a sudden unexpected helper toward the end of her journey.

The movie belongs to Ms Arterton, however, with whom we remain at every step of this difficult voyage. So emotionally and articulately on-point is the actress at each moment that, even when we can't agree with her actions and decisions, we absolutely understand them.

By the finale, the movie has circled around to end where it began. But, my, the amazing difference between what we knew then and know now allows us to understand and (perhaps grudgingly) accept the difficult decision that has been made.

From IFC Films and running just 101 minutes, the movie hits DVD and digital streaming tomorrow, Tuesday, August 14 -- for purchase or rental.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

August's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman GODLESS: chaos and love in the Old West


An elegy is a memorial poem expressing loss and grief; this multi-Emmy-nominated, limited-series on Netflix eulogizes our myth of the unbroken West as a romance of pain not glory. A long tale in seven parts, it is elegiac, filled with sadness. Scott Frank is the prolific screen-writer (Dead Again, Get Shorty, Walk Among the Tombstones) and director of this different Western, executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh. It’s got its own spin on the spaghetti, memorializing Western imagery with solemnity and a lovely mournful score. But despite sad events, the story is garnished with enough droll wit and good will to make it uplifting, not depressing, once you know the characters and buy into the premise. Author Frank initially sparked MeToo enthusiasm by winding his narrative around the widowed women of the town of La Belle, New Mexico, a territory in the 1880’s. Their men were killed in a ghastly mine accident; now they are building a church and longing for their new preacher to bring God. La Belle’s ladies are doers, however, not MeToo-ers. Such losses often occurred during westward expansion; they are a typical cross-section — a rare few leaders and many timid followers.

Rather, the over-arching plot features Roy Goode, (played by gifted young Brit, Jack O’Connell, of Unbroken and Skins) and his messy bond with sociopathic villain Frank Griffin, below (Jeff Daniels of The Newsroom and The Looming Tower), who obviously got a kick out of this bi-polar-ish outlaw and is now Emmy-nominated for the role). The grudge match frames the series but does not camouflage its appeal as an ensemble piece with many characters to like.

Others are Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), two more Brits who lose their British accents in the West. Among the American cast are Sam Waterston as sensible, honorable Marshal John Cook (below, center) and real Texas cowboy, Scoot McNairy (Fargo, Halt and Catch Fire) as La Belle’s Sheriff Bill McNeu. Quiet-voiced Merritt Wever (Walking Dead, Nurse Jackie) is Maggy, who wears her dead husband’s pants, his mayoral job, and some authority around town. Her pretty lover Callie was a prostitute, now the town’s teacher. La Belle’s children go to class at Magdalena’s House of Rapture, the town brothel, closed since the mine accident (in the second picture from top: Maggy is left foreground; Callie, center). There are miscellaneous others, such as a single-minded newspaperman from Taos who is feverish on the Roy Goode/Frank Griffin soap opera, a German woman artist who rides her horse around town naked except for boots (“airing her private parts”), and a nun who does good works.

The dominant character is the landscape, its enormity subjugating people and rickety wooden buildings. Everyone and thing is dwarfed by vast plains, distant hills, and scrub. The pictures here don’t reflect the beauty of its stark expansiveness or the enveloping dust, fog, smoke, and clouded light. Writer/director Frank (below) and photographer, Steven Meizler, stage every image to leverage our imaginings of Western myth — the solitary rider against big sky, bandits riding en masse toward trouble, guns twirling into holsters.

Flashbacks, most drained of color, reveal back stories like the feud between Roy and Frank, which advances leisurely toward a final show-down. Frank, who can be kind as he is murderous, adopted Roy as a boy and lovingly taught him outlawry. One day the crimes piled up too high for Roy (good at his core) and he rides away from his mentor, who starts a war of revenge. (“Frank’s out there spilling blood from hell-to-breakfast trying to make me feel bad for leaving him.”) After a heist by Frank’s gang, Roy absconds with the mine payroll Frank stole off a train going through Creede, hoping Frank will follow him and the money away from taking revenge on the town. Roy shoots up Frank’s arm, which will be cut off and carried around decaying, Frank’s nauseating relic of Roy’s desertion. But Frank and his men do return to Creede, hang, shoot, or burn everyone, and continue their blood thirsty fugue hunting Roy and anyone who has harbored him.

Frank calls himself a preacher and wears a cleric’s collar. One Sunday in a nameless town, he rides his horse up a church aisle to the altar where he expounds to the assembled: “You know I don’t ever want to come back here and burn this house of the Lord down to the ground. So let’s bow our heads and pray that Roy Goode don’t never show up here. But that if he does, none of you well-meaning souls take him in. Unless you want to suffer like our Lord Jesus suffered for all of us. Amen.”

In-between the debacle at Creede and the final shootout in La Belle, are stories of daily life in the environs, moving sympathetically among characters whom we come to know, backing and filling (including how Frank got so twisted), until the saga finishes perfectly with Roy’s breathtaking long ride home.

 There is Alice Fletcher (Dockery), a Boston woman who owns a horse farm and is come to her circumstance following several horrific events. A widow, she is mother to son Truckee (below), a precocious observer of fact (Samuel Marty), and daughter-in-law to Paiute medicine woman, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). There is sexual tension as Alice’s bond grows with Roy, whom she takes on to tame her wild herd and who schools Truckee on hanging on to the saddle and dealing discreetly with dolts you feel like killing. 

Dockery and O’Donnell make you watch their every moment; they are masters of the unsaid, perfectly-communicated. But Roy needs to ride away to his brother in California before his presence draws Frank to La Belle or Alice’s farm.

There’s Mary-Agnes, ‘Maggie’, mayor of LaBelle, as she tries and fails to outmaneuver the Quicksilver Mining Syndicate’s silvery-tongued talker who easily extorts La Belle’s mine from the ladies’ town council; also Maggie grieves, believing Callie is cheating on her. Blackdom, a nearby town, is filled with famed Buffalo soldiers-turned-farmers, where young Whitey Winn (Brodie-Sangster), La Belle’s self-important, naive Sheriff’s deputy, courts Louise (Jessica Sula). Her father won’t tolerate this ‘white boy and his white troubles’ in Blackdom; he thrashes her. Lovesick Whitey confesses to Maggie, “I feel like I sprained my damn heart.”

La Belle’s Sheriff Bill McNue, below (McNairy), is eating humble pie. His eyesight is failing and with it his reputation as an able lawman. He wants to get together with Alice and looks out for her interests, but the time feels wrong. For the duration he’s on the trail of Frank Griffin — an unlikely power imbalance that makes the death-struggle between Capt. Ahab and Moby Dick look like a fight between equals.

Why ‘Godless’ you wonder. Frank advises a wagon train of traveling Norwegians (whom he lets pass by, graciously, except for forcing sex on one woman): ”There ain’t no higher-up around here…This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle…Godless country. The same God that made you and me also made the rattlesnake. That just don’t make no sense. All man can count on is his self. That’s the truth.”

However, acts of violence are intercut with stories of warmth and kindness. Whenever a person or a horse is shot or women raped, the narrative shifts to something good — everyday small moments of people living their lives. Alice sits at her rough-hewn candle-lit table patiently helping Roy sound out his letters and write his name. He has been civilizing her horses; she is teaching him to read. In that moment in a dark saloon, the kindly, sensible Marshal Cook (our loved Jack McCoy of “Law and Order”) is suddenly shot dead. Frank was waiting for him.

 An apostle of chaos, Frank’s kindness is a deceptive part of his mayhem. Following the murder of Marshal Cook, Frank and his gang happen by a house filled with smallpox-ridden folk, tended by a young woman, herself afflicted. Frank stays to help her with the dying and the piled-up dead. (No one is all bad.) But some have called the violence in ‘Godless’ gratuitous. I don’t think so. Here, intermittent violence is on purpose. The law is needed. Scott Frank shows us with precisely-deployed violence that our myth of the heroes who conquered the West is more a story of the interregnum before statehood, of cruelty and loss rather than greatness.

The absence of civil order predisposes the random violence; events bang into each other without consequence except to cluster and predispose more violence (a pattern called ‘chaos theory’). But statehood will come when the population reaches 100,000, bringing order and maybe God. Back in the day, however, the women of LaBelle get on with defense of their town. Alice is at Maggie’s side and the rest of the town’s womenfolk rain bullets down on Frank’s gang. Roy Goode chases Frank out of town to their final showdown.

At La Belle’s cemetery where the mourners have assembled to bury their dead, a stranger appears. He humbly moves through the crowd to the front with a book (not pushy with a horse like Frank) and reads a famous poem that brings some peace to those who grieve, (and these folks need it to have lived in those times and ably passed down their genes to the present day). Here is the moving elegy offered by the new Pastor Moore (below):

 *Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch….. A thing for fools this, and a holy thing. A holy thing to love. For your life has lived in me, Your laugh once lifted me. Your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy. Tis a human thing, love. A holy thing To love what death has touched. *-----Judah Halevi, medieval physician and poet

Note 1: See the splendid title sequence to each episode of Godless HERE.  
Note 2: Scott Frank describes the mapping and staging of the final battle in La Belle, illustrated with clips from the film and analysis by Frank and Merrit Wever, as reported by the Huffington Post HERE.

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