Friday, January 20, 2017

FIAF's comedy series continues with Mohamed Hamidi's mainstream ONE MAN AND HIS COW

A movie like ONE MAN AND HIS COW (La vache in the original French) is very nearly above (or maybe below) criticism. It means to bring us all together by any means possible -- and it's damned well gonna do it! In any case, La Vache is part of FIAF's continuing CinéSalon series -- Comedy on Film:What Makes the French Laugh? -- during this January and February. Evidently the film was a big hit in France, and it's not difficult to understand why.

As directed (and co-written) by Mohamed Hamidi (shown at right), the movie is a veritable check-list of hot-button topics -- from immigration and employment through class differences and the uses of (and by) the media. Further it stars two very popular French icons that very nicely represent both class stations and tradition vs immigration: Lambert Wilson (below, center) and Jamel Debbouze (below, left).

The film's star, Fatsah Bouyahmed (above, right, and below, who also co-wrote the movie), is a perfect match for his role as Fatah, the kindly, loving, perhaps-not-too-bright Algerian man whose dream it has long been to display his prize cow, Jacqueline, at the famous International Agriculture Fair in Paris. When he finally gets an invitation to compete, he and his cow take a boat to Marseilles and then walk cross-country to the fair.

Along the way our hero meets a wide array of folk -- from a ne'er-do-well nephew (M. Debbouze) to an impoverished Count (M. Wilson), both of whom begin by looking like bad guys but of course conveniently change their stripes. He stops at the farm of a very nice widow, gets involved in a magic show and its hosts (below), with whom he drinks some alcohol and gets to sing I Will Survive.

Once the media gets wind of this man-and-cow walking-tour of France, our hero becomes big news. Social media takes it to the next step, and before you can say What's French for Facebook?, Fatah is famous. Ditto Jacqueline.

Does the phrase feel-good come at all to mind here? Right. And this little movie bears all the hallmarks of an utterly manufacturer feel-good movie. It also proves pretty much irresistible, despite the fact of its character "turnarounds" and that it makes everything look awfully easy. Fatah gets involved in a labor strike, too, yet the movie resolutely refuses to go into any of the specifics. Consequently there's nothing here to ruffle anyone's feathers.

Still, a movie like this does deserve a place in FIAF's comedy series, for it stands four-square for feel-good values. And it does so in quite the polished, professional manner. Even the ending -- which proves so rule-breaking that it has no right to happen on any rational, reasonable level -- works just fine in its "dumb fun" way.

La Vache will screen at FIAF this coming Tuesday, January 24, at 4pm and 7:30pm, with a guest speaker to be announced and free wine and beer and a nice discussion group following each screening. To learn more and/or order your tickets, simply click here. (So far as I know, there are no plans to distribute the film theatrically here in the U.S., so this may be your only chance to see it.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

STAYING VERTICAL: Alain Guiraudie is back once more -- with yet another jaw-dropper

People do the strangest things in the films of Frenchman, Alain Guiraudie, but damned if the guy doesn't make those things somehow work. After The King of Escape and to herald the debut of Stranger by the Lake, the FSLC in 2014 hosted a retrospective of Guiraudie's work which was in itself quite eye-opening. Now comes his latest movie, STAYING VERTICAL (Rester vertical) and it is every bit as bizarre, riveting and entertaining as the rest of his oeuvre. And definitely not for the mainstream crowd.

M. Guiraudie, pictured at right, looks to my eyes remarkably like an older version of his leading man in this new film (played by Damien Bonnard, shown below and further below). The fact that M. Bonnard plays a filmmaker who's having some trouble creating his latest work, simply adds to this connection. The plot of Staying Vertical ricochets all over the place, introducing characters who interact with each, often sexually, in ways that might seem crazy in a film by anyone else. But for Guiraudie pansexuality and polysexuality seem the norm, as does sexuality between folk of all ages, young adult to grandpappy.

And, yes, not only are sex organs on full display here (as is often the case with Guiraudie), you can expect to see the male ones engorged. (M. Bonnard, unless a prosthetic was used, is very well endowed.) And yet there is no trace of the snickering, shocked or shameful here. Sex, as usual with this filmmaker, is to be enjoyed, if often at a cost, especially when all the rest of the equation -- need, desire, jealousy, and the lot -- come into play.

The sex here, bizarre as it sometimes may look, is also more grounded and vital than in the other Guiraudie films I've seen. For instance, the first time we see the leading lady's sex, in voluptuous close-up, she is about to be pleasured orally by Bonnard's character. We soon after see a similar shot, but then -- suddenly -- a newborn emerges from that orifice. (India Hair, above, with rifle, plays this woman, and she she brings a very unusual combination of need, anger and strength to the role.)

There's a new wrinkle here, however: the introduction into Guiraudie's work of a baby and what this infant means to its father, mother, and the world at large. What this poor kid goes through may surprise and shock you -- wolf bait, anyone? -- but his appearance and importance to the film adds immeasurably to the humanity that holds this odd and careening movie together.

Unusual sexual couplings (even one of the medical sort, above), the difficulty of commitment, sheep and wolves, and anal sex as an aid to euthanasia -- all this and more are offered up in the filmmaker's look at what may seem to many viewers, TrustMovies included, as some kind of alternate universe. But it is one that we might gainfully learn from. And, oh, did I mention that this film is sometimes very funny, too? (The headline that appears on a newspaper toward the film's finale is as good as anything the National Enquirer has ever given us.)

All of Guiraudie's movies, I think, are political -- remember: he also gave us, back in 2001, that marvelous The Old Dream That Moves (Ce vieux rêve qui bouge) -- and this one is, too. Yet, if you try to pin it down to some single idea or another, it seems to half evaporate. Morality, creativity, religion, autonomy, the self vs the other: the connections are all here, but what they might mean dances deliciously in front of you and remains just out of reach. Yet the movie's hold on you does not let go.

I would not have missed this film for anything. And I'll want to see it again, down the road. But recommending it? Only if you're willing to drop, at least temporarily, your preconceptions and go with Guiraudie's flow. The rewards are spectacular. But they'll probably come to you piecemeal, and over some time, post-viewing.

From Strand Releasing and running 100 minutes, Staying Vertical opens this Friday, January 20, in New York City at the FSLC's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and at the IFC Center. In Los Angeles, you can see it beginning this Friday at Laemmle's Royal, and (at morning screenings only on Saturday and Sunday: think of it as going to temple or church) at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Eventually, it will arrive on DVD and digital, so if you're not on either coast, hold on.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Girls in prison, Iranian-style, in Mehrdad Oskouei's surprising STARLESS DREAMS

It begins with the usual, as the perp is fingerprinted and then those "felon" photos are quickly taken, as we follow that prisoner through the process. Except that here, the felon is a girl in her late-teen years, and the location is Iran. Uh-oh. But wait. After viewing STARLESS DREAMS, the new documentary from Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei, rather than experiencing the usual "isn't-prison-awful!" sense you get from so many incarceration movies, you are more likely to feel that this may be the safest, kindest place for these girls in all of Iran.

Mr. Oskouei, shown at right, was evidently given extraordinary access to the prison and its inmates, and he was also able to gain the trust of both the girls and their guards in a rather extraordinary way. Consequently, his documentary is full of what certainly seems like "real life," as the girls chatter and laugh and play games and enjoy what seems -- against their experience in the outside world, either at home with their families or as runaways -- a comparatively idyllic existence.

We meet this gaggle of girls piecemeal and learn only haltingly about each one and her previous-to-prison life. It is not even clear exactly why some of these girls are here -- perhaps for simply running away or being on the outs with their blood family. In other cases we do learn why (patricide is one reason), and yet the details for even this render the murderer at the very least a kind of self-defense victim.

The documentary is often gorgeously filmed: sharp, clear, colorful and with an eye for both detail and beauty (where the latter can be found, at least). Oskouei also offers some lovely compositions and framing.

What makes the film so special, however, is the friendship the girls clearly feel for each other (they share such similar dreadful family backgrounds) and the liveliness and high spirits they so often exhibit.  Which point up even more strongly that the place of Iranian women, in both society and the family, is simply awful.

"Why are you crying, 651?" asks the filmmaker at one point. "Because her story is the same as my story," the girl answers, adding that she is called 651 because, "that is the number of grams they found on me." "How will your family welcome you home? another girl is asked. "With chains and a beating," she answers.

Many of the girls (perhaps most) want to stay in prison. Once you've heard their "family" stories, you'll understand why. They put on a sort of puppet show (below) during which they can hide behind those puppets/masks and say what they think. Yet, they do not seem at all shy about saying this even to a cleric who comes to visit, to whom they deliver some hard questions about god and justice. What we hear of his answers does not in the least suffice.

The movie cannot help but be ultra-feminist against the all-encompassing patriarchy that is Islam and Iran. As to her future, one young woman predicts that she will die in the gutter one day. "Don't you want to fight for a better life," the filmmaker asks? "Society is stronger than I am," she answers him.

One girl, at last reunited with her family (one of the few that seems even halfway bearable), tells us, "I'm just so happy: It feels strange." What happens to the couple of girls who actually go back to their families? We never learn the outcome of this or about what happens to any of the other girls. And the fact that the filmmaker was given such access to the prison does make me wonder if perhaps he was not expected to portray that prison in a good light.

Still, what he has given us in this portrait of Iran's younger generation of females is, while deeply disturbing, also something to cherish. From The Cinema Guild and running a brisk 76 minutes, the documentary opens this Friday, January 20, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. On Jan. 26 & 28: it will play the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; on February 10 it opens at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison, and on April 14 at the Colorado State University/ACT Human Rights Film Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

DVDebut: Three knockout actors highlight Jason Lew's moving/flawed THE FREE W0RLD

There is so much that is so good about THE FREE WORLD, last year's film from writer/director Jason Lew making its DVDebut tomorrow, that it is too bad the movie doesn't quite hold up overall. Yet what's good here is good enough to warrant a watch. Mr. Lew, shown below, is interested in themes like justice, retribution, guilt and the demands of necessity, and for much of the film, he handles these with intelligence and skill, and his terrific cast puts it over with feeling and aplomb.

The movie begins with a man's voice speaking to what we might assume is some kind of support group -- maybe of parolees or soon-to-be ex-prisoners -- leading to the first of the film's pleasant (sometimes not so) surprises in this tale of an ex-con, the woman he becomes involved with, and his place of employment, which figures prominently in the plot.

Ms. Lew has cast his movie about as well as could be imagined, with every role -- the leads to the supporting parts -- written and played fully and exactingly.

In the role of that ex-con is an actor -- Boyd Holbrook (shown above and below) --that TrustMovies has now seen several times and found exceptionally good in quite a range of roles. Just the other night we saw him play the charming, good-looking "chef" in the better-than-you've-heard sci-fi thriller Morgan, and he was also excellent in, among other films, Little Accidents, Gone Girl and Run All Night.

The Free World proves his best film yet, and were the movie seen by more of our "cultural guardians," as well as by the public, it would have put him firmly on the map. As it is, it will stand as testament to what Holbrook is capable of, should he not finally get the kind of major roles he ought to be playing. As the woman who slowly becomes his "significant other," Elizabeth Moss (above, left, and below) adds yet another feather to her very densely populated cap.

Moss is particularly adept -- from Mad Men through Top of the Lake to the recent Queen of Earth -- at playing semi-losers, letting us experience the emotional states of these women while refusing to play for unearned sympathy yet never allowing us to lose our concern for them.

The third major performance is not a lead, but as it is played by the always wonderful Octavia Spencer (shown on poster, top), it becomes another reason the see the movie. Ms Spencer takes the role of Holbrook's employer, and she brings her usual charismatic warmth and engulfing love to the proceedings.

Around two-thirds of the way through, the film turns into a violent, action/chase thriller. This is certainly believable enough, given the set of circumstances we've already been shown. But Lew neglects to give us certain information that would be nice to know: Were the couple deliberately betrayed by their friend?  If so, why? And what the hell were the bad guys here going to do with the pair, and again, why?

These are not deal-breakers, for the movie still works on a certain level of excitement and adrenaline, and Holbrook clearly can play the heavy-duty macho hero with the best of them. But the abrupt change, together with the lack of context, flaws the film. Nonetheless, it offers a final scene that stays true to what I think Lew is trying to tell us about "the free world."

The movie, from IFC Films and running a well-paced and involving 102 minutes, arrives on DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, January 17 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: REBELLION -- 1916 Easter Rising and three little maids

from Easter 1916 
by W. B. Yeats

 All changed, 
changed utterly:
 A terrible beauty 
is born. 

On Easter Monday 1916 with World War I raging in Europe, about 1600 Irish rebels and followers staged a rebellion against British government rule: declaring independence, seizing a few buildings in Dublin (including the General Post Office, shown in an original photo below) and clashing with British troops. It was over in six days, a blip compared to the Great War, but its symbolic value raged on, wore on. Pegged to Easter, the Rising itself took on glory and martyrdom.

At the time Irish public opinion had been rather indifferent to revolutionary fervor, but as victors do, the British overplayed their hand in carrying out revenge executions and atrocities. Courts-martial were held in secret without offer of legal defense and leaders executed; one, James Connolly (original image of him, above, reclining on pallet), faced the firing squad tied to a chair with a shattered ankle. As the executions proceeded, public outrage grew. Even folk opposed to the Rising came to its defense, and desire for independence began to spread. 

Two years after the Rising in 1918, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republic Party, won a landslide victory, formed a breakaway government, and declared independence from Britain. A treaty established the Irish Free State in 1922; it became the modern day Republic of Ireland in 1949, including 26 Southern and Western counties. Six Northern counties remained with the UK (below).

Ireland is Britain's oldest colony, under its thumb in one form or another since the late 12th century. The eventual military defeat of Gaelic Ireland by Protestant minorities occurred in the 1600's (in Scotland, the British destroyed Gaelic and Highland clan culture in 1746). Conflict simmered on in Ireland between majority Catholics and minority Protestants who controlled the bulk of the Irish economy. In 1800 an official merger created the United Kingdom in which Ireland lost its parliament and became governed through representation in London. Irish nationalists fought in British Parliament for a home rule bill that they finally won in 1914 but which was then suspended when World War I broke out. Meanwhile a secret revolutionary group began planning the Easter Rising, hoping to use wartime confusion to advance Irish independence.

While the story of the Easter Rising is legend, its 2016 Centenary led the Irish network RTE to make REBELLION which debuted in the US on Sundance last Spring and is now available on Netflix. Reviewers have quarreled with its problems; I did too, but even flawed, it was absorbing and memorable. (It falls in the category of 'not terrific but I liked it anyway'. ) The issue for American viewers, if not its Irish audience, is the lack of context to anyone unfamiliar with the Rising: English rule over Ireland, and incessant religious conflict (no wonder our founders were so adamant about religious freedom). The dramatic problem was the rapid introduction of many characters and their stories, cutting among them early in the series at dizzying, off-putting pace. You can gauge writer Colin Teevan's imperatives: represent the points of view of rich, poor, English, Irish, rebel fighters, British army, with friends and family members falling on opposite sides. There simply was not enough time to assimilate all the story lines. The problem lessened as Teevan focused on the women chosen to represent the many who participated in the action but whose stories have been ignored in prior versions of the Rising.

To that end, the five-episode drama opens on the performance of "Three Little Maids from School Are We," the famous trio from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "The Mikado," itself a satire of British bureaucracy, racism, and misogyny. From there we follow the fictional paths of the 'three little maids' as their paths cross and diverge during the Rising. Elizabeth Butler (Charlie Murphy, center) is a medical student and rich banker's daughter; May Lacy (Sarah Greene, right) is an apolitical secretary to a British bureaucrat with whom she is having an affair, and Frances O'Flaherty (Ruth Bradley, left) is a passionate member of the rebellion (all three are also show at bottom of this post).

Elizabeth's prominent family includes her parents, played by Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Ian McElhinney (GoT and Rogue One), at left, the most famous cast members. Elizabeth (Ms Murphy, the compelling young actress of The Last Kingdom) spends the Rising dressed for her wedding which she cuts out from just as the fighting begins. Her Virgin-Mary look, white silk dress and powder blue coat, grows progressively disheveled as she, bloodied, tends to injured rebels. The groom she deserts is an Irish officer in the British army, ignorant of his fiance's increasing affinity for the rebel cause and distaste for upper class privilege. But he, too, while awaiting her at church, is ordered to report for duty to put down the rebellion, putting him on the opposite side of Elizabeth; she, meanwhile, has befriended Socialist rebel, Jimmy Mahon (Brian Gleeson, son of the ubiquitous Brendon Gleeson, shown below and in cover photo at the top), whose lot she throws in with.

May Lacy's affair with Charles Hammond (Tom Turner) is heating up as the battle engages; to protect her from the fighting, he sends her to his suburban home. There mistress May is put through the wringer by Hammond's abusive upper-class wife (Perdita Weeks, below, who is the younger sister of Honeysuckle, of Foyle's War).

Frances (below) meanwhile, a trained soldier involved with leadership, fully engages in fighting and killing, at which she is dogged and accomplished.

Trapped in the middle are the poor, especially the many children caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the British army. A ten year old member of the family below goes missing and is later found dead.

The Rising is put down as animals are put down. The British assembled 16,000 troops in a few days and obtained complete surrender from the ragtag remnants. The last episode is devoted to 'the Reckoning' experienced by our three heroines, as well as the suffering of others -- there would be no mercy. The only one who salvages anything is the pregnant May, who negotiates schooling and a promotion in exchange for giving up her baby to the childless Hammonds. Elizabeth and Frances remain alive, their prospects grim.

Mr. Teevan in effect has written a passion play in which the British reprise the Romans, martyring leaders and fueling a movement to come. The series works better with the passion play construct in mind rather than as straightforward narrative about a resistance movement. The dramatic weaknesses are dwarfed by the enormity of watching freedom and self-determination ground up by an authoritarian military power and there being no happy ending for any of the characters we've come to care about. Yet these events launched the actual rising of Irish independence which arrived not long after. As Yeats memorialized, 'a terrible beauty is born'.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

LEONARD COHEN: BIRD ON A WIRE, the 1972, never-in-theaters documentary from Tony Palmer, opens at NYC's Film Forum

Could there a more timely release of a fabled documentary from decades past that was never seen theatrically than this 1972 film about the 20-city European tour by the recently-deceased Leonard Cohen (who was only 37 at the time) and his talented crew of musicians? Beginning in Dublin and ending in Jerusalem, the tour, its highlights and discontents are all captured on the fly by documentarian Tony Palmer in a film that proves intimate, inclusive and full of Cohen's music -- which, heard like this and at this point in the artist's career (he had not yet given us Hallelujah, for instance), does register as sometimes repetitive and similar, one song to another. But his lyrics: Ah, these were and are as poetic. elusive and beautiful as ever.

Over the long haul, Cohen (below and further below) and his work proved about as "evergreen" as one could want, but back in the early 70s the artist was in his heyday, and his songs -- from Suzanne to Chelsea Hotel, So Long, Marianne to that title tune -- reflect the period so very well. Mr. Palmer (shown above) tells us at the beginning that his film is "an impression of what happened during the tour." From the outset, it is clear what a quietly commanding presence Cohen is. When an interviewer asks what success means for him," he answers quickly and succinctly, "survival."

Along the way we learn that the rights to Suzanne were stolen from the artist by a "friend," and we see a probably rather typical (but still surprising in its reality) near-hook-up between the artist and one of his fans (below) after a concert in (I think) Germany. "It's hard to come on to a girl in front of the camera," Cohen explains somewhat sheepishly.

The guy is very good at interviews -- even if he may dislike doing them (and even if the interviewer, as below, forgets to press RECORD) -- and he proves generally honest, direct and thoughtful. He calls himself a combo chansonnier, Euro singer and synagogue cantor, and at one point talks about how trying it can be to lose contact with a song's emotion due to the constant repetition of having to sing it at concerts. Later in the film we'll see this seemingly happen, with the result that Cohen simply stops performing, mid-show.

And while the guy seems willing enough to offer his audience its money back when the band's sound system goes haywire, he's not so hot to do the refund thing, after he's walked out mid-concert. Well, you can't always be a mensch, right?

Palmer's doc, with its unshowy, graceful style (the filmmaker both directed and edited), captures Cohen and his band, if not warts and all, certainly not in any hagiography-seeking sort of way.  We see Cohen, as well as his producer/band-mate Bob Johnston, taking showers; one band member casually confesses to actually nodding off during a concert; and Cohen himself can sound awfully silly sometimes.

"Loneliness," he tells us, "is a political act." Well, no, it's not an action, it's a passive state. And while his lyrics can be wonderfully artful and subtle, at least one of the songs we hear -- purportedly about Abraham and Issac -- is way too tub-thumpingly obvious.

Just like most of us, Cohen, too, could be occasionally full of shit. And as he himself admits during the course of several interviews we're privy to, he was not much of a singer, either. But there's just so much poetry and yearning and caring in those lyrics. And, boy, could the guy turn out some lovely tunes!

New York City's Film Forum will play Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire for two weeks, beginning this Wednesday, January 18. Elsewhere? One would hope so. I will try to do some digging -- and post the results as soon as I can discover them.