Saturday, May 31, 2014

With BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, PJ Raval gives us a tiresome, boring, depressing--but undoubtedly truthful--documentary about certain senior gays

Should gays seclude themselves in a cocoon that includes only their own kind, or ought they engage with the wider world? That is the question that should, but never is, addressed by the new documentary by PJ Raval that opened yesterday in New York City and will hit other cities soon. In it, we meet and spend more time than we could possibly need or want with three gay men of different attitudes, histories and, for that matter, skin color. What they have in common and what we will all have, should we live that long, is age. These men are gay seniors, and, according to some reviewers, this makes the movie meaningful and important. Hogwash. What the movie really says -- without saying it or probably even realizing that it's there -- is that way too many gay seniors have lived a life relegated to their singular gay pursuits without at all engaging with the wider world.

OK: I do realize that the wider world has not and is not always so accepting. No matter what we do, say or deliver in this world, what those of us who are homosexual or bisexual will end up being hung for is our gayness. Still, there are plenty of gay men -- "out" gay men, too -- with lots of straight friends and interests in life that are wide ranging and do not include only -- as the three men shown here live it -- cross-dressing, running a bar devoted to gay drag shows, and working for SAGE and pushing for gay marriage.

Yet for whatever reason, Mr. Raval (shown above), the director and producer of this new documentary BEFORE YOU KNOW IT (as in, "before you know it, you're gonna be a senior, too"), has given us a trio of guys who do not seem to have any interest in anything beyond these immediate topics.  Perhaps they do, and the filmmaker didn't bother to ask them a single question that might lead to discovering this. This is what, for me, made this movie so annoying and finally boring. This, plus its repetitiveness and undue length (110 minutes).

Only one of our men -- Ty Martin, above -- seems fully energized and healthy, and this may very well have to do with his occupation: outreach manager for SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). We see him at work in the office and promoting his organization at a street fair. We also see him connecting romantically with a fellow, Stanton, with whom he has long been friends. The film was shot during the time that gay marriage came into law in New York State, and Ty is all for marriage. Stanton, however, seems not to be, which creates a certain dissonance that is not explored more than cursorily. While Mr. Martin is by far the most active/positive of the three, one would still like to know more about him than only what his SAGE work and push for gay marriage provides.

The movie begins in Niceville (really!), Florida, where an old man (Dennis Creamer, above) shows us his racquetball championship award, his army uniform, and his closet full of women's clothes. Yes, he's a cross-dresser, and a widower who kept his homosexuality well-closeted from his wife and from everyone else -- friends, relatives -- in his circle. The Florida community is evidently uber-religious and right-wing, and so soon Dennis has gone online to find a gay-friendly senior home in Oregon, to which he goes and where he begins to spend part of each year. Dennis is by far the saddest of our guys because he seems to have few social skills and little interest in anything but cross-dressing. I am sure this cannot be true, but filmmaker Raval does nothing to dissuade us from the notion. When Dennis takes a "gay cruise" on a ship filled with mostly young gay guys, the movie reaches its nadir of depression.

In Galveston, Texas we meet Robert Mainor, above, who has owned for a long while the gay drag bar Lafitte ("The oldest gay bar," he tells us, "in the state of Texas, and the longest running drag show ever!"). Due to ill health, Robert is slowly turning over the operation to a younger relative, whom we also meet. We hear about Robert's deceased lover, Hal, watch a number of drag shows, go to the funeral service of a certain Aunt Helen, watch more drag shows and a gay parade or two (one of these is in Portland, Oregon, with Dennis).

The three stories are interwoven so that we go back and forth, back and forth, but never learn much more than we started with. The world of these men seems hugely guarded, fenced-in to an unnecessary proportion, keeping out perhaps the "negative" but also some of the positive that might become a helpful reinforcement. The movie brought to mind the most interesting article I've read in a long while about gays and "liberation," by Richard Kim in The Nation of May 5, 2014. Read it -- and think (if not weep) at the state of affairs of mainstream gay activism. See this movie, too, but try to regard it from a bit wider perspective than the filmmaker has allowed.

Before You Know It opened yesterday in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and will hit the Los Angeles area on June 13 at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, before moving on June 20 to the Arena Cinema in Hollywood. To view all currently schedules playdates, cities and theaters, click here.

Friday, May 30, 2014

AGNES VARDA: FROM HERE TO THERE screens free tomorrow at the FSLC and plays the SundanceNOW DOC Club in June

What is it that makes little Agnès Varda (below) such a nonstop delight? This whirlwind of energy and ideas and connections -- filmmaker, documentarian, artist, raconteur and widow of another fine filmmaker, Jacques Demy -- has a (relatively) new series of documentaries, made for and shown on French television back in 2011, and titled AGNES VARDA: From Here to There (Agnès Varda: de ci de là).

This utterly charming, nonstop fascinating series of five separate episodes, each running 45 minutes, will make its New York City debut tomorrow (Saturday. May 31) at and courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center at 6pm in the Film Center Amphitheater, where it will screen free of charge. Tickets will be distributed one hour prior to performance time at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, only one ticket per person, and you can expect a line to form somewhat early. (If you miss its FSLC screening or live elsewhere around our huge country, the series will begin showing on the SundanceNOW DOC Club in June -- the best reason I can imagine to join this excellent documentary content provider.)

TrustMovies expected to watch only a couple of the five episodes before covering the series, but no --  that was not to be. Each segment is so accomplished and riveting in its quiet and unshowy manner, as it brings you up-close-and-personal to various artists, filmmakers and friends of Ms Varda that I couldn't wait to get to the next episode. In fact, I decided that there could not be a better way to start my day with with this series, so I watched one every day earlier this week with my morning coffee and oats. Each 45 minutes held me rapt and left me feeling terrific -- eager to begin my day. How much more can you ask of a documentary?

Varda's secret, I am guessing, is simply a matter of taste -- her own good taste and willingness to look at and be challenged by most anything/everything she views. The connections she makes are significant, and though I was unaware of most of the artists she covers, their work proved so interesting that there was not one I wasn't pleased to have brought to my attention.

In episode one, she tackles Chris Marker, and, as usual, anyone who tried this, vis-a-vis the late filmmaker, comes a cropper. As much as I love Marker's work, the man himself was so bent on keeping as much of himself and his own personality out of view that Agnès can only play around a bit to little avail (she does some cute things with Marker's cats) and then we move on.

Soon we're in Nantes with Anouk Aimée and Michel Piccoli for a celebration of M. Demy. Then we meet many more artists even more interesting than the mysterious Mr. Marker, though their work may be less so. We see collage, installations, singers, painters.  "I wonder what happened before that?" Varda remarks of a photo (above) we're just then viewing. And then she shows us an entire "before" video of these same people. She's such a little devil!

Manoel de Oliveira, whose Gebo and the Shadow only just opened here, turns up in this episode, too, telling us that "Reality is a dramatization organized by society." Interesting. He also notes that "Solitude is something I have no experience with," and then does a fine Charlie Chaplin impersonation and some splendid fencing (below), using his cane. What a guy! (What an 102-year-old guy! At the time, actually: he's now 105.)

Episode two takes us to Brazil, Brussles, Stockholm and Venice. In a Brazilian gift shop, Varda notes all the work on display and remarks, "You get a lot of hope for five Euros." We see again some of her marvelous work from The Beaches of Agnes. And then it's off to Brussles for a Magritte celebration! A highlight here is the woman journalist who comes to interview Varda. She is bald. Of course Agnès wants to know more about this, and so turns the tables and interviews her.

Episode three takes us to Basel, Cologne and St. Petersburg, where we see an igloo made of huge stones and then cathedral made of dried but quite edible pasta. Agnes eats it, with a bit of grated German cheese. There are potato images galore (above and below: that's Varda in a potato suit with the late Jonas Mekas). If she occasionally tells us things we either already know or could easily figure out (looking out at a city, she says, "Hundreds of thousands of people I don't know, and they all have their lives." Well, yes.), more often she'll come up with something swift, smart and fun.

Artist Christian Boltanski notes that "We all have our own dead child still inside us" (his morphing self-portrait goes from adult back to child). His wife, Annette Messager, is also an artist, whose work is perhaps even more interesting than that of her spouse. The two discuss their living situation in a sensible, thoughtful way, coming to terms with why we love who (or what) we do.

Episode Four takes us to Lyon for a 2009 art event. We begin with the Chinese and move on to Mr. Button, (Varda, above, has given that name to this artist she love). Then Varda returns to La Pointe Courte (the eponymous site of her first full-length film) and meets some of the men who played extras in that film, now fifty years later! We meet Jean-Louis Trintignant (below) and hear that famous actor read poetry and then speak quietly with Varda. We learn about fishing, too, and some odd facts: "Did you know that 90% of all fish are caught dead?"

The final episode takes us to Mexico, where the huge difference between the classes registers strongly. To Varda's credit, she bites the hand that feeds her (literally) by contrasting the enormous breakfast spread of food she is offered with the beggars and street vendors outside the four-star hotel where she is being housed by the film society that invited her there. The art we see is wondrous, however, and we also get a very interesting interview with Carlos Reygadas and a visit to Frida Kahlo's home.

The above are my highlights; you'll have your own. If you're already a Varda fan, you'll do whatever it takes to see this series. If you're new to the woman, this series -- from The Cinema Guild and running a total of three hours and 45 minutes -- is a fine place to make her acquaintance.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mads Mikkelsen in Arnaud des Pallières' AGE OF UPRISING: THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS

Kohlhaas?  Was that Kohlhaas Walker? No: that's from Milos Forman's hugely under-rated film of E. L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, and it's spelled Coalhouse. Otherwise, though, Michael Kohlhaas and Coalhouse Walker have a lot in common, their quest for justice in particular. The new film, AGE OF UPRISING: THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (a rather cumbersome title for what was simply called Michael Kohlhaas in Europe), during its first hour seems pretty much your typical clanking-armour revenge movie.

Hang on, please, for the film's second hour proves so much better -- deeper, more encompassing and profound -- that if you have any interest in philosophy, class issues, religion, justice, the monarchy and Europe in the sixteenth century, I believe you will find this movie more than a little eye-opening and finally quite moving. Director Arnaud des Pallières, shown at left, has given us a film that captures the "look" of the times, as well as a character, Michael Kohlhaas, who evidently did indeed exist. As co-adaptor (with Christelle Berthevas) of a novella by Heinrich von Kleist (whose work, according ot the IMDB, has been adapted for the screen some 57 times!), M. des Pallières spills out his most impressive and thought-provoking work as the movie continues.

Granted, his star Mads Mikkelsen (above, right), who possesses probably the most consistently riveting male face currently on screen, helps make that first hour more bearable. In it, our hero Michael, whom he plays, and very well, as a highly moral man, is taken terrible advantage of by the local Baron, illegally confiscating Michael's horses, then setting dogs on his much-loved servant, and finally... well, you'll see. By the end of that initial hour, our hero has rounded up (many of the men come to him of their own volition) a small army (below) of the disenfranchised and dissa-tisfied, and has killed a number of the Baron's henchmen. So far, so-so.

But then, the film begins to probe some depths. As Kohlhaas' army grows, The Catholic Church gets involved. That fine actor Denis Lavant plays a churchman who tries to convince Kohlhaas to end his siege, and their conversation is a fine one, bringing to light the usual case of the Church supporting the powers-that-be, whoever they may be. Then the Princess of the realm (Roxane Duran), whom the Baron serves (she's the sister of the current French King), agrees to give Kohlhaas amnesty. (The visit the Princess pays him, arriving in the midst of his al fresco bath, is something to see -- and hear.)

Accord seems to have been reached, but then things change. How and why and what happens is profoundly moving and revealing of morality, justice and the balance of power as these were perceived and defined in the mid-1500s. The final scene, featuring the wonderful Bruno Ganz (above, right, as a character called only The Governor) is spellbinding in every way, leaving us, as well as Kohlhaas both shaken yet somehow at peace, having begun to understand one's place in a world vastly larger than oneself.

The filmmaker has managed to round up quite a starry cast in supporting roles, from Sergi López as a one-armed, would-be recruit and Amira Casar as the local Abbess to Mélusine Mayance (above, left, from Sarah's Key) as Kohlhaas' daughter and Jacques Nolot as his kindly but frightened lawyer.

From Music Box Films and running 122 minutes, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, May 30, in New York City at the Cinema Village, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 and Playhouse 7, in Miami at the Tower Theater, and in Phoenix at the Film Bar. Click here (and then click on THEATERS) to see further scheduled playdates.

With NIGHT MOVES, Kelly Reichardt attempts a modern-day version of Crime and Punishment

With her new environmental-activist-or-is-it-eco-terrorist film, NIGHT MOVES, critical darling Kelly Reichardt has also given us a movie that can't help but hark back to the likes of Dostoyevsky and his Crime and Punshment. One of its stars, in fact, the ubiquitous Jesse Eisenberg, would make a great Raskolnikov (except that he's now already played him in this film). Reichardt's latest involves a plot to bomb a local dam (which we learn early on, so it's not much of a spoiler), its execution & aftermath.

Ms Reichardt (shown at right) -- who directs and sometimes, as here, co-writes with Jonathan Raymond -- continues to adhere to her slow-moving, minimalist, slight-on-the-exposition screenplay and direction. This has its merits (few of us seem to love heavy exposition) and its problems (it can lengthen a film, as here, past the point of what its content will bear). We learn only the barest minimum about any of our three bombers -- Eisenberg's character (below, left) is joined by a young woman (Dakota Fanning, center) and older man (Peter Sarsgaard, right).

A dribble of character info appears now and then -- she's maybe from a rich family, the older guy's a veteran -- but almost nothing about our lead character, played by Eisenberg, below, who begins the film glum and ends it even glummer.

Who is actually in charge here? We never learn this, though none of our three seem particularly bright or gifted in the eco-terrorism game. The Sarsgaard character, in particular, is constantly being proved wrong about stuff small and large, while Fanning's girl, below, though believing in crystals and other new-agey blather, seems to be the most direct, capable and action-oriented of the three.

Most surprisingly, no one appears to have considered the possibility of their act's having unintended consequences. Well, they're young and dumb, I suppose. But in terms of character, action and politics (the movie may appear apolitical, but it's all there, woven into the fabric of the story), there is finally so little on offer that you really must suspend your disbelief after awhile to tolerate the plot machinations.

That said, Reichardt does give us a suspenseful build-up to the bombing, even if the film is far too slow to qualify as a thriller. (Her most successful movie so far would be Wendy & Lucy, in which she wraps politics, economics, character, storytelling and our larger society into a moving and believable film.)

The scenes of "communal life" also seem a little deadening, unless that's the point the filmmaker hopes to bring home about folk who live outside the mainstream (I wouldn't imagine this to be her goal). But then, literally everyone/thing in this movie -- including the scenery -- seems inordinately glum.

The title of Night Moves -- not to be confused with the 1975 Arthur Penn film starring Gene Hackman --does double duty as a description of the goings-on and the name of the boat used to bomb the dam, arrives in New York City this Friday, May 30, from Cinedigm, where it will play the Angelika Film Center. In Los Angeles, look for it on June 6th at Laemmle's Noho 7.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jewelry and justice weave through Pond and Marcolina's LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE

Talk about movies that get you feeling all kinds of things about their protagonist! THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DORIS PAYNE is one for the books. This short but incisive and nimble little documentary about a famous (infamous is probably the more correct word) elderly black woman jewel thief packs so many ideas, conflicting and otherwise -- about justice, race, friendship and trust -- into its short frame that you'll be glued to the screen, even as you're trying to figure out what you really feel and think regarding this woman.

The directors -- Matthew Pond (below, left) and Kirk Marcolina (below, right) pictured with their elegant and oh-so-unsettling leading lady, now 83 -- clearly have a relationship with their subject. I would guess they even like and enjoy her company (who wouldn't, expect maybe the law enforcement officers who keep arresting her?). Yet what is undoubtedly the movie's key scene, in which Doris "explains" to one of the directors what she "meant" when she clearly lied to him and/or the authorities about her whereabouts at a certain time, we suddenly see before us just how this woman manages to somehow justify herself against all odds, while breaking trust with the very people who are trying to tell her story. This is an amazing few moments, and they become the film's game changer.

And yet... Once we've seen and heard of Doris' history -- both as she tells it and as we hear it from a couple of friends, as well as meeting her son, who seems a chip off the old block but without the class, sass, and skill of his mom, and her daughter, who seems a decent sort, and in fact keeps her face covered so that she cannot be identified from the movie -- making a hard and fast judgment on the woman is not all that easy.
We may feel, as does the judge who must sentence her -- and I don't know that I've ever seen a judge who seems more reluctant and unmoored by what he must do -- every bit as confused and unsettled.

The movie can't help but raise the question of race and the history of blacks in America, but smartly does not "play" the race card, at least not in the sleazy and stupid manner of so many politicians. Doris raises the issue and it is clearly part of what has gone into her own history. But only part.  This woman appears to have a genetic predisposition toward stealing. (Is this possible? Why not?)

Granted, we could spend a good three or four hours on the subject of Doris Payne, her life and work. Yet the 74 minutes Pond and Marcolina give us seem enough to acquaint us with an endearing and very upbeat woman who somehow makes us sad. She also makes us think, and wonder at life and what it gives us, and how we use it.

The Life And Crimes of Doris Payne -- from Films Transit -- opens today in New York City at Film Forum. Elsewhere? I don't know, but maybe you can ask the distributor (see the Films Transit link above). In any case, watch for this one when it finally begins making the rounds of VOD and streaming.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

WE ARE THE BEST! Lukas Moodysson gets back on track with an energizing paean to adolescence

After his prolonged visit to the dark and dismal side -- Lilya 4-ever, A Hole in My Heart, the odd but at least short Container and finally the bottom-of-the-barrel Mammoth -- Lukas Moodysson bounces back with the kind of movie in which he first made waves (Show Me Love, Together). His new one is titled WE ARE THE BEST! and for once that exclamation point is not de trop. This tale -- of two young girls (from the looks of it, they're middle-school age) who form a "girl band" with literally no experience to back them up, and the third girl they bring in who actually plays an instrument -- is so full of vitality and life bursting from its seams that, from the first few frames, you're smiling and hooked.

I am not sure what it was that sent Mr. Moodysson (at left) to the brink of despair (with, I must add, little natural talent to bring this despair to anything but tired, pile-it-on-with-a-shovel storytelling), but it is awfully good to have him back where it would appear he belongs. That would entail giving us a lighthearted but quite real look at Scandinavian kids in Stockholm circa the 1980s. They're distinctive, maybe a little too "different" and somewhat troubled by their family situation or how they're treated at school, yet they're able to handle this via friendship and Scandinavian culture ("Democracy," as somebody in the movie smartly notes).

As played by Mira Barkhammar (Bobo, above center), Mira Grosin (Klara, at right) and Liv LeMoyne (Hedvig, at left), they're as genuine as they are delightful -- and as enjoyable to spend time with as any kid characters I've seen on film since those in The Way Way Back.

As directed and co-adapted by Moodysson, from his wife Coco's comic book, the movie simply sails along full-speed from scene to funny scene -- none of which go for any over-the-top laughs. But the film'll still keep a smile on your face all the way through.

Scene after scene works beautifully -- bonding over a cut on the hand, the "religious" discussion, the haircut, the food fight, the punk boy band the girls meet and go all gooey over -- and in this case, as usual, it's a male who screws things up a bit.

Especially fine are the scenes detailing how the girls first imagine becoming a band and then begin to think up a song and lyrics. All this is smart and amusing and quite believable, too. This may be lightweight stuff, wrapped in a nice time capsule, but there's hardly a more enjoyable hundred minutes of movie viewing currently available.

We Are the Best! -- from Magnolia Pictures -- opens this Friday, May 30, in New York City at the film centers Angelika and Elinor Bunin Munroe, in West Los Angeles at the NuArt, and across Canada in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. In the weeks to come it'll play all across the USA. To see currently scheduled playdates, click here.

Monday, May 26, 2014

If Don McKellar's THE GRAND SEDUCTION seems, sounds and looks awfully familiar...

...that's because a mere decade separates this new English-language film from its French-language predecessor, of which it is a remake: La grande séduction (released here in the USA in 2004 as Seducing Dr. Lewis). Having now seen and enjoyed both films, they really don't seem that different -- except for the language spoken, the casts and the film-making crew. The only prominent name I recognize from both is that of Ken Scott, who wrote the original and is credited as co-writer, with Michael Dowse, on the new version. The director is one of my favorite Canadian filmmakers, Don McKellar (whose Last Night remains the best film ever made about the end of the world).

TrustMovies was initially surprised that Mr. McKellar, shown at right, would choose a project like THE GRAND SEDUCTION, which is about as mainstream/
independent as storytelling gets: utterly old-fashioned and feel-good as all heck. After all, this actor/writer/
director is more often involved with edgier, satirical stuff (like Childstar or his legendary performance in the Canadian TV classic Slings and Arrows). Still, the fellow recently reached the half-century mark so maybe the onset of age and maturity has given him an appreciation of things a tad more traditional and conventional. Whatever: McKellar proves a fine helmer of this sweet, funny tale of a harbor island town and its tiny populace who lie, cheat, and bribe their way to success.

Success for this little town, by the way, means finding a doctor (played by Taylor Kitsch, above) willing to set up shop permanently, so that a large corporation that has chosen the town as one of its "finalists" will then build a promised factory there that can employ its long out-of-work men and women. The biggest difference between the earlier film and the current one has almost nothing to do with the film-making process (both are handled professionally: well written, directed and acted) and everything to do with the current economy of most of the world.

With unemployment on the rise and money scarce, so much has changed since 2003 when the first of the two films was made. Our current state of affairs gives the new film an extra charge of anger and sadness because, as it clearly pointed out in the course of the film, the new factory that supposedly recycles waste material will simply be a sop to environmen-talists by showing that the corporate world -- yes, the same one that already controls everything -- actually "cares" about the environment.

Still, the new mayor of the village (the always fine Brendan Gleeson, above and below) knows that the factory will at least employ him and his mates, and so he sets about corralling the populace to do anything and everything to convince the doctor of what a fine little village this is and how much he will want to be a part of it.

All this leads to lies large and small, of every sort, from sports to love to even proving to the factory hotshots that the village has double its actual population. (The morality here would definitely fall under "the ends justify the means" philosophy.) This is silly but generally endearing and because McKellar uses a deft hand at not overdoing things -- this is especially true of the relationship between the doctor and what seems to be the town's only attractive woman (Liane Balaban) -- we follow along and buy into this very large wad of tasty taffy.

The Grand Seduction -- from EntertainmentOne, running 112 minutes, and featuring particularly lovely opening and closing segments -- hits theaters this Friday, May 30. In Los Angeles it opens at The Landmark in West L.A. and in New York City, at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.