Friday, July 31, 2015

A genuine art film arrives in town: Jem Cohen's visual treat, COUNTING, keeps your eyes glued

TrustMovies took more notes on the new film, COUNTING, than on any movie he's watched in long while. This meant pressing "pause" far too often and/or going back to view what he'd missed. This is indeed an "art film," which will mean that at least half of my audience will probably stop reading right now. But there's no other way to put it. Counting, demanding but rewarding, doesn't compare to much else--maybe anything--I've seen, and you have to be willing to take a chance and simply go with the movie-maker's flow. Yet after Cohen's Museum Hours, most folk who saw that quietly spellbinding film will most likely want to take the chance. (Museum Hours seems practically a mainstream movie next to this new one.

Perhaps the best way to approach Jem Cohen's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) is to think of it as if you're about to look through someone's scrapbook of photos -- in this case mostly moving images. But, no, it's not your Aunt Millie's favorite shots; this is the work of a born photog-rapher. Even his shots of the most mundane activi-ties are elegantly composed.

Divided into 15 chapters of various lengths (I think the lengthiest is the first -- fifteen minutes shot in New York City from 2012 through 2014 -- the film lasts 112 minutes. This is long for a documentary, particularly one without any real narrative drive. And yet, I would not have given up a single one of the fifteen segments during which we travel from the U.S. to Russia to Turkey and back again (most of the time is divided between the USA and Russia).

Along the way we get small doses of politics (very low-key: blink or pay less attention and you may miss these), culture, cats and dogs, some music and a lot of interesting ambient sound. There is very occasional voice-over narration (again, political) but almost no talking, except suddenly, when things take a personal turn as a close relative grows ill. The chapters are numbered and maybe half of these have a somewhat descriptive title. And at the end, there's a wonderful quotation via the late Chris Marker.

What there is mostly is terrific photography, which is a nonstop pleasure to view. The way Cohen looks at things is quite his own -- whether it's a nearly full plastic container of tea left at a Russian curbside, the faces of animals, reflections in a Manhattan window, shafts of light dancing in the frame (this amazing shot puts to shame the million-dollar special effects which which our movies are currently inundated), a decaying building shown against more modern versions, a lovely meal prepared in less-than-ideal circumstances, and one singular image of the reflection of another building caught in a street puddle, the beauty and surprise of which took my breath away.

There is so much here for photography aficionados, but is the film enough of a meal for mere movie buffs? I don't know. It certainly was for me. Coming out of it, I felt as if I knew Mr. Cohen -- along with his views and concerns -- quite a bit better. Maybe, after seeing it, you will, too. I do know that the Muslim call to prayer has never seemed richer or stranger than what is seen and heard here.

From Cinema Guild and running 112 minutes, Counting, after its Brooklyn debut at the BAM Cinemafest, opens theatrically today in New York at the IFC Center.  Other dates and cities? Maybe, once Cinema Guild gets a bit more on the ball and updates its website, we'll find out.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gordon & Neville's BEST OF ENEMIES tracks Buckley & Vidal and those infamous debates

Ah, the 1960s! What fun they were -- till they got kinda nasty. You know: Vietnam and all. The hippies and the Yippies. And the Chicago Democratic Convention riots. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's new documentary, BEST OF ENEMIES, takes us into those bygone times with flair, panache and no lack of intelligence, as the filmmakers concentrate on a series of televised debates between two very well-known intellectuals of their day -- right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr., and left-winger Gore Vidal.

Gordon and Neville (the filmmakers are shown at right, with Gordon on the left) lay out the framework for their film very well, carefully setting the time and place and taking us back into this era with an excellent eye for politics, culture, and especiallly television. ABC, on which the debates were shown, was the third-rated (out of three) network at the time (Fox had yet to exist), and the debates went a long way toward goosing ABC's ratings to a new high in which it beat out both CBS and NBC. The history we get of all this is solid, smart and telling.

We also get a good look at the two men involved, and this is where the documentary particularly shines. Instead of giving us the expected leaning toward the ultra-liberal Vidal (below, right) at the expense of the ultra conservative Buckley (below, left), the filmmakers give both men a decent shake, exposing their strengths as well as their weaknesses. All this leads to what one might indeed see as the climax of the debates (and the film), at whick point Gore calls William a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley bangs back by outting Vidal as a "queer."

A confrontation like this one was "hot shit" in its day, and in fact still has the power to shock us, due to the livid anger we see expressed via both men. By the time it arrives, however, we've gotten to know the guys a little too well. Both were entitled and rich, and while Buckley tried to hide this, Vidal was perfectly happy to admit it, even as he condemned wealth and class in our country. Yet if Buckley proved his ususal sneering and obnoxious self, Vidal, too, seems awfully self-satisfied. One of the points the film brings home is that these two pretty much deserved each other.

Along the way we get some smart commentary from the likes of Frank Rich ("ABC was the Budget Rent-a-Car of the news programs"), Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Ginia Bellafante and Christopher Hitchens (among many others), with all of this edited down into a fast-paced, sleek and entertaining 87 minutes. Old-timers will relish having a re-look at one of the major cultural events of its day, while youngsters may get a taste of what television's past had to offer before those dreary, dreaded reality shows took over.  

From Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies begins its theatrical run this Friday, July 31, in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver, with openings in dozens more cities across the country in the weeks and months to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PAULO COELHO'S BEST STORY is a pretty good one--particularly if you're already a Coelho fan

If the name Paulo Coelho sets your heart ablaze, then this may be the movie for you. If you've never heard of the guy (my spouse had not; for me, his was just a literary name I'd seen bandied about), then who knows what you may think of this odd but oddly compelling movie -- which appears to be based a good deal on the writer's own life. Well, then: Of course it ought to be his best story!

What kind of a tale is PAULO COELHO'S BEST STORY? A pretty good one that spans the now famous author in triplicate: as a very young man, during the middle-age period in which things come together in the fashion he has long desired, and finally as the aged and successful writer looking back on it all.

As written by Carolina Kotscho (on whose original screenplay Reaching for the Moon was based) and directed by Daniel Augusto (shown at left), the film flits back and forth reapeatedly between these time periods, but it does so with enough gusto and smarts that we can easily follow and enjoy things. (These changing time periods needn't have been spelled out for us as often as they are, as the actors playing the various Paulos make the decades immediately clear).

If this story -- which, as they used to say, offers pretty much everything - - is to be believed, Coelho's life was one hell of a rich and varied one. From his would-be suicide early on to careers as an actor/playwright, factory worker, songwriter/singer and more (all leading up to his first and farthest-off desire to become a writer), Coelho bounces and twists like a veritable whirligig whose years manage to encompass everything from various love stories to electroshock treatments (below) and torture under those usual and typical South American dictators.

The torture scene, in fact, is one of the film's most unusual, as this writer's gift for performance and exaggeration comes most helpfully to the fore. The Paulo of the middle years is the one we observe most often, and as played by Júlio Andrade (above and below), this multifaceted actor fearlessly brings the man to confused, compulsive life.

As we bounce around the map from location to location, Coelho comes more clearly into focus, and our questions (how did he first meet the woman he finally chooses as his mate?) are answered at last. The trip is colorful, exciting, surprising, occasionally funny and sometimes moving. If the movie never coa-lesces into greatness, it certainly provides a fascinating trip into the mind and spirit of a man who truly, desperately wanted to become a writer -- and did.

According to the end credits, Coelho is the only writer in history to be translated into more languages more often than Shakespeare. I think I shall have to read something by the guy, if only to determine just why this is.

Meanwhile, Paulo Coelho's Best Story -- from Music Box Films, in Portuguese with English subtitles and running 112 minutes -- opens this Friday, July 31, in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Portland (Oregon). In the weeks to come, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland will also be showing the film. You can see all playdates, with cities and theaters listed, by clicking here, then clicking on the word THEATERS and scrolling down.

The film is also available simultaneously on Amazon Instant Video -- so Coelho fans across the USA should be able to access it double quick. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Daniel Hoesl's SOLDATE JEANNETTE wryly targets today's naughty consumer culture

SOLDATE JEANNETTE translates roughly to Soldier Jane, but don't worry: This movie is no European rendition of G.I. Jane (and it's leading lady is certainly not reminiscent of Demi Moore). No. The more-or-less sub-title of the movie -- a European Film Conspiracy -- might give you a better sense of what is actually going on here. Made on a shoestring (probably a thrift-shop shoestring at that), the movie -- via a very odd screenplay that tells only the minimal but fills in the blanks via the performances -- makes us question the society in which we live and wonder about other ways we might better manage it.

As written and directed by Daniel Hoesl, shown at left, Soldate Jeannette is pretty much an ironic and rather sleek indie film European-style, that wants to indict crass materialism but has a very odd way of doing this. Live the good life it exhorts us; just do it via theft and undermining the bourgeoisie by lying, conning and then skipping town.

Fortunately Herr Hoesl has found a most interesting actress (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, shown below) to essay his leading role, that of an approaching-middle-age woman who is not only down on her luck but seem to actually court this. The various activities she gets up to are too much fun to give away here, but they cover a multitude of sins.

Ms Orsini-Rosenberg proves a large, horsey but not unattractive actress with the ability to hold our eye and mind as she brings her ever-under-the-radar schemes to fruition.

Her character resists the pleas of both family and friends to live according to the current notions of consumer society. She is her own gal at all times -- from her passe clothing choices to the karate class she joins, from her notions of investment advice (and its payoff)  to the interest she takes in a young co-worker (Christina Reichsthaler, above, right) with whom she bonds, once our heroine goes "on the run."
Soldate Jeannette is more a smart, cute provocation than any kind of realistic, believable or serious movie. It's not even really a genre film. But it is fun, and I suspect that it -- and the performance of its leading lady -- will keep you alert and semi-surprised throughout.

Its DVD --  in a good transfer from IndiePix Films and running just 79 minutes, with some movie-making extras included, as well -- is available now for purchase or rental.

Monday, July 27, 2015

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER: Nadav Lapid's film makes good on promise of POLICEMAN

When Corinth Films released the Israeli film Policeman last year, it seemed as if an important new director -- Nadav Lapid -- might be knocking at our door. With the release this week by Kino Lorber of Lapid's newest work, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, that knock now sounds like enormous pounding. This movie is about so many things -- art (what it is and where it comes from), teaching, how children learn, poetry, plagiarism, what's important in life and how to achieve it, even the state of Israel itself -- that if Lapid managed to handle a couple of these well, we'd be impressed. Instead, he does it all, in one of the supreme juggling acts of modern cinema. He's so good in fact, that you're seldom even aware of the balls being in the air.

The writer/director, pictured at right, gets so much correct in this, his third full-length feature, that I can only marvel at his accomplishment -- from the story idea to the themes explored right through to the final execution. The tale here is of the titular teacher and her five-year-old student, whom we view almost immediately in thrall to creativity, composing a poem that is clearly far beyond any normal five-year-old's abilities. How the teacher responds to this, and how her response triggers various responses in others, becomes the meat of the movie.

Along the way, we meet a most interesting array of characters, many of whom, have their own reactions to both the poetry and the child (some, it turns out, do not know that the former evolved from the latter). We come face to face with various kinds of plagiarism, with hypocrisy, and with cultural cretinism masked as sensible consumerism and the ability to make money. Or is it vice versa?

I am guessing that the filmmaker's sensibility cleaves toward art over commerce, but he allows the other side -- embodied by the child's uber-successful father -- its due.

Lapid also allow us to view the child in various ways: as a real poet (even if his poetry does appear to come from some strange and "other" place), as a relatively normal, playful kid, and as maybe a child touched with more than a trace of Aspergers -- if not an outright idiot savant. (The young performer chosen for the role, newcomer Avi Shnaidman, could hardly be better.)

And the teacher herself? Whew! As performed by the Israeli actress Sarit Larry, she is a mass of obsessive contradictions that make for one of the most complicated, strange, sad and memorable characters to grace a movie in a long while.

The obsessions of this teacher, Nira, move the plot onward in a convulsive but surprisingly believable manner. The movie raises a host of questions, almost none of which it can answer. Yet that undoubtedly is the point. We need to think, and think hard, about all of these things. What kind of art and culture and commerce -- in fact, what kind of country, do we want?

Without much of a push, you can take The Kindergarten Teacher as a kind of metaphor for the state of Israel, the birth of which appeared to offer such possibility, the result of which today seems a tight, nasty knot of contradictions. (Had it made here in the USA, the movie would fit America rather well, too.)

Whatever: This is quite a piece of movie-making, and it opens in New York City this Friday, July 31, at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Francesca Beale Theater.

Further openings are set for Cleveland, Miami and Santa Fe during August and September. To see all currently scheduled playdates and theaters, click here and then scroll down.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stevan Riley's LISTEN TO ME MARLON brings us Marlon Brando in -- mostly -- his own words

Who knew? Marlon Brando, just as did Richard M. Nixon, enjoyed audio-taping himself and his words of wisdom. He also, as we learn right up front in the new and pretty damned fascinating documentary, LISTEN TO ME MARLON, had himself "digitalized" for posterity (and probably for lots of money, though the late actor doesn't go into that aspect). This information -- the theme of which set off one of last year's more interesting movies (Robin Wright at The Congress) -- makes the documentary seem initially very au courant. Yet it's the history, the terrific archival visuals, and the sometimes bizarre audio tapes we hear that combine to make the movie a don't-miss for any Brando fan and at the very least watchable for those of us who found the actor alternately appealing and appalling.

The fellow who has put together this Brando-fest -- Stevan Riley, shown at left, who acted as director, writer and editor (and excels at the latter: this is a very well assembled documentary) -- has gifted the ongoing Marlon machine with an even more marketable and newsworthy film than the recent doc on Miss Monroe has done for the always-in-gear Marilyn machine. What Listen to Me Marlon offers, however, is a kind of integrity rare in movie-icon documentaries, due to the in-his-own-voice-and-words monologue by the late star himself (shown on poster, top, and below).

Sure, Brando's words are at times self-serving, as to be expected, but there is also honesty and probing to be found. Further, the film gives us a surprising inclusive look at nearly the full career of the man, from his own, rather singular perspective. (Some films you might want to learn more about are short-shrifted -- Reflections in a Golden Eye, for one -- but most of the important work is here.)

Yes, the guy was a major narcissist. On the other hand, he had a lot to be narcissistic about: a great face, full of expression and emotion, and a gorgeous body he knew how to use. Only his voice -- high and nasal -- proved a drawback. He either never had vocal training or didn't care to use it. Two out of three ain't bad, and Brando's early career, shown here quite fully, is still the high mark of the male American movie actor. No one has yet surpassed it.

How he became who he became -- via parents, acting teachers and his innate intelligence-- is shown us, along with career highlights, behind the scenes footage, and a wealth of archival film, much of which I don't think has surfaced till now.

This is often a heady mix. As the actor's career and personal life begin their nose dive, and then that career restarts, we see bits of pieces of children (above and below) and an ex-wife. At times, his words border on the loony -- as did his life and, sadly, some of his later performances.

But we come away from the movie seeing that life and even those performances as part of the complete Brando journey -- which has never seemed so strange, personal, rich and resonant as it does here.

Much of the movie is indeed Brando speaking, but inter-cut now and again are bits and pieces of various media mavens giving their "take" on the actor and what he had gotten up to. The contrast is noticeable and shows the media up for what it too often is: worthless. (We also see how easily and delightedly Brando could charm that media, particularly the ladies -- at least in his early, hunky years.)

As fascinating as the movie often is, it is also hagiography. And yet I think that even those of us who go into the film imagining Brando as over-rated may come out of it a bit more convinced of his place in the pantheon.

Listen to Me Marlon -- a Passion Pictures production coming to us via Showtime and Showtime Documentary Films and running 97 minutes -- opens this Wednesday, July 29, at Film Forum in New York City, and in Los Angeles on Friday July 31, at The Landmark.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER docu brings back our "Soph"--at least part of her--to view

From Barbara Walters to Bruce Vilanch, Carol Channing to Tony Bennet -- they all loved her (she even worked for Walters' dad early in her career). Sophie Tucker, the star of the new documentary, THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER, was the proverbial "household word" back in the day. So how come more of our current young people don't know who she is/was? That's a question the makers of this new documentary intended to find out and share with viewers young and old (us oldsters do remember). To a large extent they have succeeded.

Rowdy, raucous ladies who entertain by being naughty are hardly a new phenomenon: Hello Bette Midler! But Miss Tucker, shown on the poster above and photos below, was among the earliest and most notable here in the USA. As directed, photographed and edited by William Gazecki, at right, and produced by Lloyd and Susan Ecker, the resulting movie is as much a love letter to the "Soph" as it is anything else. For those of us who enjoyed her but knew little about her, it's a revelation, all right -- but one that manages to reveal a lot about the lady's history and career highlight while keeping mum on much of her personal life. Miss Tucker was a very private woman.

She was also, it would appear from what we learn from this film, bi-sexual -- which might account for a large portion of that need for privacy. As reminiscent of Sophie Tucker are performers like Midler (whose tributes to Tucker in her various shows first turned the producers into fans), the one you may most be reminded of is Mae West -- who probably stole the look, as well as some of the costumes, from the Tucker we see at left. West took Tucker's ribald spirit to much greater excess, and though she proved a sexy and fine, if limited, performer, she certainly couldn't sing like Soph. (Midler did that -- and then some.)

Tucker also did not ever have the movie career that West managed, and the documentary take pains to explain (without ever mentioning Miss West) how this happened and why. Instead she stuck with live performances, radio and, to some smaller extent, television.

The movie also makes us privy to Sophie's very interesting beginning: her family's Kosher restaurant, where, in passing out flyers to local actors, Soph caught the performing bug. We learn of her early work as a "coon shouter" performing in blackface (yes!), her time in the Ziegfield Follies, and a little trouble she had with the "I Don't Care" girl, Eva Tanguay.

We also learn about some of Soph's men, including a hubby or two, her son, and the replace-ment pianist (above) who became pretty much her lifelong confidante and accompaniest.

We see how clothes contributed to this "red hot mama," and how Tucker even hobnobbed with Al Capone during Prohibition. Her maybe biggest break came via Willliam Morris (who was then a theater owner,
prior to his opening that certain fabled agency).

There's a wealth of information here, most of which will probably be new, even to long-time fans of the woman, including a keeper of a tale about Sophie's song, "My Yiddishe Mama" and it uses during World War II. We also view the raft of famous folk who loved to see Sophie -- and be seen with her -- everyone from Hopalong Cassidy (at left) to Eddie Cantor (below, left) to Judy Garland (at bottom).

The documentary is alternately funny and moving and always informative. If we don't really get to "know" Soph all that well, that's OK, too. She was a performer, after all -- and above all -- and, as the movie makes clear, she was a damned good one.

From Menemsha Films and running 96 minutes, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens tomorrow, Friday, July 24, at NYC's Cinema Village with a live show after each screening, in which the film's producers will field a Q&A and talk about the upcoming Broadway musical, Soph. The film will also play Manhattan at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Claremont 5, Royal and Town Center 5, at the Westpark 8 in Irvine, and in Massachusetts at the West Newton Cinema. Southern Florida, where TrustMovies is now based, will see a seven-week run, beginning November 7, and California's Palm Desert gets a five-week run, come February 6, 2016. To see all currently scheduled playdates and theaters, click here and scroll down.