Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: Dee Rees' MUDBOUND

“The arc of the moral universe is long, 
but it bends toward justice.”
 ....Martin Luther King, Jr.

Writer/director Dee Rees (below) and screenwriter Virgil Williams adapted this quietly painful yet transcendent saga from a novel by Hillary Jordan — a tale of the daily rigors of two families who work the same unforgiving land in the Mississippi delta of 80 years ago. The ensemble drama, MUDBOUND, gives voice to the point of view of each of the main characters, bound as they are to each other and the mud, furrows, and trials of eking a living off the land. It is also as pure a study of bigotry as you’ve ever seen — the everyday condescension that blacks and other minorities still endure. The movie captures the relentless dailiness of this as if it were today, not the 1940s.

In that way it is also the story of our original sin — the polar opposite of the flag we fly: “all men are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights…..”. The current iteration of American racism smacks of repressed rage at not being so white and Christian anymore; the sounds of America have gotten meaner as our non-white population increases. The President sings the same tune as everybody’s racist uncle and Mudbound’s foul-mouthed Pappy. Trumpism is racism, says Adam Serwer, an Atlantic editor.

Trump’s appeal doesn’t originate in economic suffering; his followers are driven by the desire to suppress non-white America’s civil and voting rights. The film plunges us into the murk of racial memory, the metaphorical mud of the delta; it stars everyday meanness in its Jim Crow rules and poverty. The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of Mudbound compares it to great literature of Faulkner and Steinbeck and the sweeping film sagas of William Wyler and John Ford. The difference in Mudbound is that it is the daily earth-bound struggle itself that is epic — the warp and weave of farm life under segregation in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s, writ large.

The landowner is laconic Henry McAllan, his cheerless wife Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, below), their daughters, and sadistic, racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, early in his years of leading-man heart-crushing) goes off to war and then returns home.

Their tenant-farmer neighbors, shown below, are the Jacksons: Hap (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (a poignantly heroic Mary J. Blige), and their children including oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) who also makes the round trip to war and back home to the delta.

Hap Jackson grieves his ancestral ties to this earth: “What good is a deed? My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother… worked this land all their lives, this land that will never be theirs… They sweated until they bled; they bled until they died… Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails… all their deeds undone. Yet this man, this place, this law say you need a Deed--not deeds.”

Laura McAllan dreams in brown, knees and hair encrusted in mud (constantly refreshed by downpours), boot-shaped brown patches marching across the floor. Violence is part and parcel of country life, she says. “You’re forever being assailed by dead things. Dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard, you smell them rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food. Chickens, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels. Pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat. Start again…..” There is miscarriage, incest, adultery, murder, and Klan violence quietly woven into the fabric. But the central relationship is that of the returning warriors: Jamie a bomber pilot and Ronsel a tank sergeant in the black battalion that General Patton used to spearhead his army (archival photo below).

The story occurs at a turning point referred to as the ‘forgotten years of the black revolution’ — World War II and it’s aftermath.

Ronsel (above, right) says: “Home again, home again jiggity jig; coon, spade, darky, nigger. Went off to fight for my country and found it hasn’t changed a bit. Over there we were the liberator, they were lined up waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering. Here I’m just another nigger pushing a plow…..

“The army gave us separate barracks, separate blood supply, separate latrines... But them European girls they didn’t have any problem with us at all… But that was then… and right now I guess I’m right where I should be — throwing my life away.”

The two depressed men get drunk together, flouting the ingrained habits of segregation and leading Pappy (below, left) to scold Ronsel: “I don’t know what they let you do over there, but you in Mississippi now — you leave by the back door”. It doesn’t take long for both former soldier-heroes to feel like aliens in a South they have grown out of.

In fact, the end of legal segregation in America and the British de-colonialization of Asia and Africa were the unplanned outcomes of war fought against German and Japanese racism. Although, as Ronsel says, they were segregated as soldiers, they got jobs, pulled their weight, and black and white fought as one against the enemy. Dee Rees makes the point with a U.S. flyer shooting down Germans who were pummeling Jamie’s plane, after which the rescuer, a black pilot, hi-fives Jamie on a fly-by (archival photo of black airmen below).

In the 1920’s the socialist speaker/writer, A Philip Randolph, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; during the 1941 war build-up he organized a march on Washington demanding that blacks be hired for factory jobs. When Randolph assured the president that 100,000 would show up and demonstrate, Roosevelt signed the order, the march was pre-empted, and blacks entered the workforce.

After the war, Truman ordered the integration of U.S. armed forces. Black voters then turned out to help Truman defeat Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. The next leap forward for civil rights wasn’t until 1963, taking us into the modern era of integration.

No -- Mississippi held no post-war hope for Jamie or Ronsel, and Rees crafts off-ramps for them, leaving the delta to marinate in Jim Crow. The viewer comes away feeling waked up again to the fact that ever since slaves were brought to America we have been mired in racism. Still, this movie with its mostly note-perfect story-telling is uplifting rather than depressing. Last week Mississippi opened its civil rights museum and a Democrat, civil rights lawyer Doug Jones, just won an Alabama Senate seat ("turning back the dead hand of George Wallace," said Howell Raines, retired editor of The New York Times and an Alabama native). We are on a journey and must move forward.

Mudbound got raves on the festival circuit but was not picked up for distribution until content chief at Netflix, Ted Sarandos, stepped up. Yet this might be one of the more absorbing and meaningful films of the year in its quiet revelation of America’s original sin. It came to theaters and has been streaming on Netflix since late November and has received some nominations for awards, including Mary J Blige’s ‘Mighty River’, a spiritual she co-wrote and sang for the film (press here to have a listen).

Thursday, December 14, 2017

DVDebut: smart dystopian young-adult viewing in Alex Helfrecht/Jörg Tittel's THE WHITE KING

So much better than mainstream young-adult schlock like The Hunger Games franchise, the practically unheralded but intelligent and evocative movie THE WHITE KING has rather popped out of nowhere. Making its USA debut on DVD via Film Movement on its new genre label Omnibus Entertainment, the movie had theatrical debuts in both the UK and Hungary (it's a UK/Germany/ Sweden/Hungary co-production), but due to its lack of big-name stars or blockbuster status, it is likely to be lost in the year-end shuffle. That's too bad because it is actually a surprisingly intelligent, thoughtful and even subtle work.

Given what the young adult crowd is currently being fed -- from those games that are definitely from hunger to pointless feel-bad-so-you-can-feel-good nonsense such as The Maze Runner, The Fifth Wave, If I StayThe Fault in Our Stars, that Divergent/Insurgent/Detergent series and really quite a bunch more -- by comparison this film comes across as very nearly classic. Co-adapted (from the novel by György Dragomán) and co-directed by Alex Helfrect and Jörg Tittel (shown above, with Ms Helfrecht on the left), the movie simply positions you, along with the family that is at its center, in media res, and in a society for which are given no explanation of what it is or how it works.

Slowly much -- but by no means all -- is revealed and we learn that we're residing in a bucolic dystopia (a very nice change from the usual) in which any dissension is stomped, with the dissenter labeled "traitor." This happens first to the father (Ross Partridge, above,center) of our 12-year-old hero, Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch, above, right), and then to his mom (Agyness Deyn, above left).

Our boy's grandparents (Jonathan Pryce, above, right) and Fiona Shaw (above, center) prove little help, brainwashed as they are by the state, and even his friends (below), cowed by their own parents, can do little to aid him. The film seems less interested in making Djata into any kind of super-hero or even into the usual feel-good, happy-ending movie hero. Instead, it concentrates its energy and ideas into what, exactly, makes up a fascist state, how it has become such and where this inevitably leads.

Early on, dad gives a few words of advice to his son, and we see that advice borne out again and again as the film continues. The manner in which the state uses (and uses up) its populace is shown to us and to Djata in ways that are both awful and surprising, and while the movie does not end on an exactly sour note, it certainly does not offer the "happy"ending-with-built-in-sequel that so many young adult movies do these days.

Instead, The White King (truthfully, I am not sure to what this title refers: Maybe to the huge statue that overlooks the whole countryside) offers a moral that kids, as well as their parents, could do well to ponder: Give the fascist state your obeisance, and you're its slave for life. Within the film, however there are plenty of thrills and adventure, shown most interestingly in what lies inside the fenced off forest where citizens are not allowed.

From Film Movement/Omnibus Entertainment and running a sleek 89 minutes, the movie hit DVD and digital last week on December 4 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

PLANTS: Roberto Doveris explores voyeurism, sex, coming-of-age and the vegetative state -- in an oddball Latin American series at AFA

Despite New York City's being a place in which -- even though Los Angeles/Hollywood claims to be the film capital of the world -- one could always see more international cinema, new or classic, than anywhere else in the USA, because this world-cinema capital regularly misses out on certain perhaps important movies that have garnered acclaim at international festivals or in their home country, Cinema Tropical and NYC's Anthology Film Archives (AFA) are joining forces to help remedy this -- so far as Latin American film are concerned, at least -- with monthly screenings, the last of which (for now) takes place tomorrow, Thursday, December 14, at 7:15 pm at the AFA, in a series, entitled charmingly and lengthily, If You Can Screen It There: Premiering Contemporary Latin American Cinema NYC. 

This final offering in the series is a Chilean movie from first-time filmmaker (who also edited his film and perhaps had a hand in the writing of it, too, but I can find no accreditation for its screenplay), Roberto Doveris, shown at left, entitled PLANTS (Las plantas). In it, a young girl, Florencia (newcomer Violeta Castillo), who appears to be in transition from adolescence to womanhood, undergoes some very bizarre experiences, feelings, ideas and reading material. The latter, a book (or maybe a comic) entitled Las Plantas, is the story of sentient plants who take over their human nurturers at night (or maybe only during the full moon: things are not always too clear here), to which our heroine becomes rather addicted, to the point at which we wonder if she herself is not imagining this story to actually be happening to her. Or not.

Meanwhile, she has the care of her comatose brother Sebastian, a very hot-looking sleeping beauty (Mauricio Vaca, below, right), whom she bathes and cares for and whose diaper she changes, all in a manner than seemed to me pretty unbelievable. (Are comatose patients so easily managed at home, while being left along for hours upon end?). Florencia's other interests range from choreography and dancing with two male friends to combing the internet for possible sexual partners.

The one she finds -- we watch, as do Florencia and her pals, as he jacks off  online and later in person through her glass doorway, above -- proves to be another very hot young man, older and more experienced than our girl, but ready for some nice hard-core action. The actor, Ernesto Meléndez, has a handsome face, a good body and proves very well-endowed in the dick department (hard and soft), so for these couple of scenes alone, the movie may be worth some viewers' time. In any case, Señor Doveris once again suggests that hard-core moments can easily be shown in an otherwise dramatic/comedic film without the world of culture coming to a sudden end.

Florencia also has a mother, above, who is ill (or doing a good job of feigning, as another relative suggests), and our poor girl has clearly been saddled with too much responsibility, though in almost all matters save those sexual, she is quite willing to slough things off much of the time.

Doveris is concerned here, among other things, with coming-of-age, sexuality, the vegetative state (of both plants and humans), and storytelling, together with its ability to entrap us. He even flirts with a touch of animation, as above, along the way. His skills include some visually stunning scenes in which color (bright lavender and pale green), composition and camerawork (by Patricio Alfaro) come together in stunning manner; and his ability to slowly reveal the who, what, why and how of his characters and their connection is a plus, as well.

The big problem is that, beyond all this, he is unable to actually join his themes and ideas into anything more than vaguely coherent. Nothing comes home to roost. We understand what he wants his movie to be about, but that's not the same thing as actually achieving it. Beyond this, the decent acting, and the hot and fun sex scenes, Plants amounts to mostly a big shrug. The movie certainly shows promise, however, so we'll look forward to Doveris' next endeavor.

Meanwhile, this one plays just one time in New York City at AFA tomorrow, December 14, at 7:15pm. Click here for tickets and/or further information.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Latasters' MISS KIET'S CHILDREN: kids on film in a fine and helpful Netherlands school

The earlier documentary of which the new one, MISS KIET'S CHILDREN, should most remind you is probably that fine French kids-in-school doc, To Be and To Have, which let us spend some time in a one-room, mixed-grade schoolhouse in the French countryside.

Among the differences between that doc and this new one are the country we're in (The Netherlands), the larger size of the school, and the fact that most of the kids here are recent immigrants (several from Syria) -- which addresses a subject that has grown hugely in importance throughout the European Union over the fifteen years since the release of that earlier film.

The product of filmmakers Petra Lataster-Csisch and Peter Lataster (shown above, left and right, respectively), the film offers no narration -- written or voice-over -- nor any talking-head interviews, but is simply a you-are-there, let's-watch-these-kids-and-the-interaction-with-their-teacher approach. It works. The children, for the most part, seem either unaware of the camera or so used to it that it makes little difference to them. Only one of these -- a very funny young fellow named Jorj (shown below) -- occasionally seems to be playing to the camera. And, damned if he isn't very good at it!

That titular teacher, Miss Kiet (above and below), seems a font of inspiration and warmth, yet stern enough when more control is necessary. Early on in the film she makes the point that the differences between us all is something beautiful, and this idea is quietly carried on throughout, as we watch the kids learn mathematics, movement, spelling and even how to tie a shoelace.

More than merely teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, however, what Miss Kiet excels at most, it seems, is problem-solving. She is near constantly helping these kids learn how to solve their problems without resorting to anything that approaches fighting or violence. Later she will explain to them: "For every problem, there is a solution!" And, by god, she's there to demonstrate this fact.

From near the opening moment, when a little girl arrives at school having fallen down outside into what must have been a mud puddle and now has on wet and dirty pants, to the Christmas pageant, complete with song and dance, which the kids rehearse and then put on near the film's conclusion, various problems arise and are handled by Kiet and eventually by the children with understanding and a slowly acquired skill.

The movie deals mostly with those children from Syria, though one young boy (above) hails from Macedonia. As we watch the little girl Liane (or Leeann, as it is sometimes spelled here) on the playground, and see her flinch again and again and look up into the sky when any loud noise is heard, we can't help but wonder if she is remembering the bombs and violence of her native land. Finally the teacher talks with Jorj about why he has trouble sleeping, and, sure enough, this started back in Syria. "There is no 'bang bang' here, is there?" he is asked. No, but his sleep remains troubled.

Miss Kiet's Children will appeal most, I suspect, to teachers and/or anyone who harbors the instinct for teaching, and then to those who love watching the faces of children for all the unbridled emotions these can show. The faces here are marvels indeed, and the filmmakers have captured them in all their troubled glory. Finally though, the documentary seems to TrustMovies not quite as accomplished a To Be and To Have. The fact that it sticks mostly with only four or five of these kids made me wish I had seen more of the rest of the class and how the others interacted with these five. You can't have it all, of course, not even within a two-hour framework of this film's two-hour running time.

On the same bill with the full-length documentary is a seven-minute animated short entitled WHEN I HEAR THE BIRDS SING by Trine Vallevik Håbjørg, with animation by Øyvind Tangseth and Ms Håbjørg. Using simple animation that suddenly turns gorgeous, colorful and inspired, the soundtrack offers up snippets of interviews with children of the Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa who were left homeless and/or nearly killed during the violence that followed the 2010 election. They talk of their ambitions, as well as of their travails. In its simplicity, style and beauty, the film is a small but sublime accomplishment.

From Icarus Films and in Dutch with English subtitles, Miss Kiet's Children opens tomorrow, Wednesday, December 13, at Film Forum in New York City for its U.S. theatrical premiere, and then on Friday, December 15, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

DVDebut for VICEROY'S HOUSE, Gurinder Chadha's superb distillation of India/Pakistan's "independence"

History, we are told, is always written by the winners. In that case, the history of the independence from Britain of India (and the concurrently-created country of Pakistan) has none of these. Certainly not India nor Pakistan, though some might suggest that the British Empire itself was the biggest winner here, being able, first via its colonization of India, to vastly increase Britain's wealth at the expense of the conquered, and then, depleted of its superpower status by World War II and unable to hold on to India, by "granting" the sub-continent its independence while starting one of the world's most vicious religion wars, which resulted in thousands dead and thousands more homeless -- while allowing, for awhile at least, Britain to hang on to those ever-necessary oil reserves. Good job!

If the above description would seem to simplify things a bit, when you take the long view, the simplification is not by much. One of the remarkable achievements of VICEROY'S HOUSE, the latest film from Kenya-born, raised-in-London filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (shown at left, of Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Predjudice) is how she is able to capture the pomp and ceremony, the history and politics, and the personal lives and motives of a half dozen leading characters and then blend all this together into an intelligent, detailed and often quite moving film.

As deftly written, with an eye to both history and drama, by Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini (with some help from Ms Chadha), the movie posits as its heroes Lord Louis Mountbatten, the final British Viceroy of India (played with his usual class and flair by Hugh Bonneville, above, left), his wife (a reasonable, stern and loving Gillian Anderson, above, right) and their daughter, all of whom are presented as more caring of the Indians than were their predecessors. In each of their ways, these people are shown to genuinely want to do what is best for India. But as history consistently reminds us, what is "best" must take in an amalgam of viewpoints.

In this case, is "best" a division into two separate states made up of the Indian Hindus and a new Pakistan of predominantly Muslims, as Jawaharlal Nehru (Taveer Ghani, above) and Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith, below) both want (depending, of course, on the territory they will be given)? Or is it having India remain an undivided state, as populist leader Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) insists?

The Viceroy and his family have been plunked down in the midst of all this, and whatever they can do or decide is, as always, dependent on the powers-that-be, working their magic (or horror) in the background, unseen but never unfelt. All this plays out beside a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story between a Muslim young woman (Huma Qureshi) and a Hindu young man (Manish Dayal), shown below.

Fortunately this love story is brought to enough life and force that it manages to compete for our interest without detracting from the politics and history involved. Ms Chadha is smart enough not to insist on heroes and villains among the Muslim or Hindus, both of whose viewpoints, needs and demands are shown us with surprising force, brevity and often wit. The more we see and learn, the more awful and intractable the situation seems.

TrustMovies was but six years old when the partition of India took place, so he has only come to understand the situation haltingly and certainly not fully since that time. Yet the results of this partition have continued to plague the world, as these enforced divisions of state -- Korea and Vietnam, to name a couple more -- so often do.

If you are looking for an intelligent, thoughtful and moving example of "history goes to the movies," I don't think you could do much better than Viceroy's House -- the only major vice of which, I feel, is the tacked-on finale that brings our love story to a not very believable end. I suppose Ms Chadha wanted to give her audience its feel-good moment. And indeed it does feel good. But much too convenient and not particularly real.

From IFC Films and running 106 minutes, the film hits DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, December 12 -- for purchase and/or rental. And it's now available for streaming via Netlfix.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DVDebut for the latest Dardenne brothers' moral exploration, THE UNKNOWN GIRL

Yet another moving and detailed exploration of guilt, caring and the acceptance of responsibility from film-making's most humane, dedicated and talented brother teams, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (pictured below, with Luc on the right), THE UNKNOWN GIRL (La fille inconnue) proves one of the siblings' most intensely interesting and meaningful provocations.

In it, a young doctor named Jenny Davin tells her intern not to answer the downstairs buzzer (which is rung only once) because it is long past closing time and this does not appear to be any emergency. The following day the police arrive and ask for the security videotape from outside the building. Jenny soon learns that the young woman who rang the buzzer is now dead, found earlier that day across the street with a very bad dent in her head.

Many people these days would simply shrug this event off with a "too bad for her but not my fault" response. But our good doctor does a bit more than that. It is clear from the start of this film that Jenny, played with a quiet determination that bespeaks deep reserves of caring and commitment by the fine French actress Adèle Haenel (below, and on poster, top), is not about to let this mistake of hers go uncorrected. She cannot bring the girl back from the dead nor, she suspects, even solve this crime (if indeed it was a crime; it might have been something of an accident).

Yet the idea of allowing the dead girl to remain unknown (the police have no clue as to who she was), and thus not being able to inform any family of what happened, proves so troubling to Jenny that she begins her own, very determined investigation. This takes her into quite uncharted territory, especially for a young, caring doctor more used to dealing with sick patients that with what eventually becomes some fairly dark family matters that involve the local police (below), prostitution, and perhaps sex trafficking.

In some ways the film bears comparison to the Dardennes' earlier (and weaker) movie, Lorna's Silence, but it is better in every way, thanks to the conception of Jenny's character and the strength and specificity brought to this by Ms Haenel's performance. And though the film comes close to these dark subjects mentioned above, it remains less a suspense piece or mystery than it does a surprisingly rich study of character(s) under pressure

We are also given a deeper and more profound sense of the town that Jenny and her patients inhabit via some lovely, moving scenes with people of both sexes and various ages. As we meet and become involved with these supporting characters -- above and below -- their own guilt and responsibility is (or is not) slowly uncovered, as well.

How these people respond to Jenny's pushing -- in ways both good and bad but always believable -- may remind you of the Dardennes' recent endeavor, Two Days, One Night. The Unknown Girl, I think, is an equally strong film. It deals, in its own sidelong manner, as does so much of the brothers' work, with immigration and "the other," and with justice and its untimely-if-ever delivery.

Performances are quite real, in the Dardennes' usual documentary style, in which Ms Haenel's work fits like a glove, with an unrecognizable (to TrustMovies, at least) but terrific Dardennes regular, Jérémie Renier, fine as always in the role of the fraught father (shown above, left) of one of the doctor's young patents. Especially lovely, too, is the job done by newcomer Olivier Bonnaud, below, right, who plays that young intern with family/career problems of his own

If you respond, as did I, to the importance of Jenny's search -- during an era in which so much responsibility has been shirked off, if not downright forgotten or deliberately undermined by the corporations and the wealthy who control the crap politicians throughout more and more of our world -- this single act of assuming responsibility will take on enormous importance. It should. And thanks to the Dardennes and Ms Haenel, it is brought to quivering, sad-but-still-glowing life.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films, The Unknown Girl hits DVD this coming Tuesday, December 12, for purchase or rental. And it's now available for streaming via Netflix.