Thursday, March 31, 2016

Discover the perfect marriage (a couple of 'em) in Laura Gabbert's doc, CITY OF GOLD

OK: the first of these marriages -- of the Los Angeles-based food critic Jonathan Gold to his wife Laurie Ochoa, his former editor -- seems to work wonderfully well both personally and professionally. But it's the second one -- Mr. Gold as a superlative food critic to his hometown and still favorite city, Los Angeles -- that is the proverbial marriage-made-in-heaven. Thanks to the work of filmmaker Laura Gabbert, shown below, we learn a lot about both of these couplings, while enjoying the experience immensely.

Ms Gabbert has the good sense to keep her documentary, CITY OF GOLD, focused heavily on her subject, and Mr Gold (shown above and below, in two of his haunts) proves an intelligent, thoughtful, warm and gracious host -- in the process almost convincing TrustMovies, a former born-and-raised Angeleno who used to hate this would-be city, that it might be pretty damned wonderful, after all. It certainly offers the most amazing array of tasty and varied restaurants that anyone could ask for -- even if you have to drive for hours to get to many of them. Lengthy drives, usually in heavy traffic, have become -- ever since the destruction of the city's fabulous public transportation system during the late 1940s and early 50s -- indigenous to Los Angeles.

Ms Gabbert gives us only snippets of Gold's writing, but these are enough to make us want to go to the source and read more. She weaves history, tradition, diversity and all kinds of food and restaurants -- all of which are filtered through Mr Gold's lovely sensibility -- into the tale of a "critic" who ups the standard for criticism via... well, you'll see. And hear. His thoughts about just about everything seem well worth knowing. He calls one little place a "miracle of entry-level Capitalism" and he and his director have a good time making fun of the "anonymous restaurant critic" (below) -- an idea which he thoroughly pooh-poohs.

We come to understand how and why this critic chooses the restaurants he does -- often family run and what some of us might call a tad "low-end." The reason is because the owners and chefs are cooking for their community, rather than for critics or tourists or "haute cuisine-ists." It turns out that Gold never reviews a restaurant until he has frequented it several times (I believes he mentions that his record is 17 times prior to review). Clearly this is no rush-to-judgment kind of guy. He also, toward the end of this really excellent documentary, explains something that is epidemic to criticism and that he attempts to derail: the idea of "contempt prior to investigation." Gold appears to lack the former but works hard to accomplish the latter.

That last explains a lot about this man and his mission, I think. (He's as likely to cover someone's "taco trailer," above, as go to a sit-down restaurant.) So sit back and enjoy the many interviews with restaurants owners, chefs, and other critics (Ruth Reichl makes an appearance here, too), along with Gold's family and friends. Together all this becomes a genuinely new and revealing look at a place we often take for granted, its enormously diverse people, and the food they cook, eat and share.

City of Gold,  from Sundance Selects/IFC Films and running 96 minutes, after opening in New York and Los Angeles hits South Florida tomorrow in the Miami area at the O Cinema- Wynwood.

In THE FLIGHT FANTASTIC, filmmaker/trapeze lover Tom Moore gives us The Flying Gaonas

Not much of a circus fan, TrustMovies knew nothing about the famous mid-20th Century first family of the trapeze, The Flying Gaonas. But he is awfully pleased that theater director Tom Moore, of 'Night Mother and Grease (how's that for diversity?) -- who, with his new film, THE FLIGHT FANTASTIC is now a fledgling documentarian -- has brought that family to our attention. These guys (and a few gals, too) are worth knowing about and particularly seeing in action up in the air.

Mr. Moore, who, from the only photo we were given (at right), is clearly an aerial lover himself, and this comes through in frame after frame of his documentary, which,as well as offering up a lot of history of the trapeze (and trampoline), spends quite a bit of time watching these amazing athletes do their stuff in the air. If the doc takes a little time finding its footing, hang on a bit and you'll be in for one hell of an airborne ride. Begin-ning with a memorial, the movie cuts to the grounds where the Ringling Brothers Circus once stood and which, today, houses the Gaonas family's trapeze school.

We view students in action at the school, and after a time watching them miss their marks makes us appreciate all the more the wondrous timing and grace of professional trapeze artists. ("If you make everything perfect," notes one Gaonas during the course of the film, "nobody will realize how difficult it all is." Which is why trapeze artists sometimes deliberately miss their mark.)

With the help and cooperation of the Gaonases, Moore has assembled an enormous collection of archival footage -- of the family (in the early days, above, and at the height of its career, below) of course, but also of trapeze history, which turns out to be every bit as fascinating as the aerialists themselves.

In fact, the most delightful extended segment has to do with another trapeze artist and his flying family of a generation earlier: Alfredo Codona, (shown below)at a kind of hero for Tito Gaonas, who (unless this story is apocryphal) discovers Codona's quite decorative grave site while walking through a graveyard in Inglewood, California. The filmmaker tells this Codona tale as if it were a silent film, in which the story and the style fit perfectly. Were the rest of the movie as good as this section, The Flight Fantastic would be a classic.

As it is, it's still very good. with memorable aerial shots, a fine family story, and especially extended sections on how the Gaonas family brings trapeze art into the lives of so many people -- including some kids with cancer and other debilitating diseases who experience the trapeze in their own, quite moving manner. (One of these sections brought sudden and unplanned tears to my eyes.) Trapeze therapy evidently can work surprisingly well -- on a wide array of people and on various problem scenarios.

We also learn in another extended section how the famous 1956 movie Trapeze figured in the lives of the family and acted as a strong inducement for Tito (above, center) and his crew to learn and exhibit ever more amazing aerial feats.

All in all, the documentary should prove a treat for trapeze lovers and a welcome surprise for anyone, like me, who is new to the art/sport.

The Flight Fantastic opens this Friday, April 1, in New York City at the Cinema Village, where there will be Q&As held during opening weekend. Elsewhere? Not sure. But perhaps as word-of -mouth builds, we'll see the film opening in other cities, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Samuel Beckett in and on FILM, as Ross Lipman's grand compilation, NOT FILM opens

When I tell you that today, we're covering a two-hour-and-nine-minute documentary about the making of a 22-minute movie, eyes will probably roll. But when the filmmaker is a fellow named Ross Lipman -- noted for his terrific restorations of works by Chaplin, Welles, Altman, Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke and Kenneth Anger -- and who turns out to himself have a tremendous talent for documentary filmmaking, you had best put his movie NOTFILM on your must-see list. That is, if you have any reverence for Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett, cinema history and the artistic and filmmaking processes.

Lipman's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) is all about how another, earlier movie got made: a film called simply FILM, written by that uber-famous-and-reclusive writer Mr. Beckett; directed by a noted theater director but newcomer to movies, Alan Schneider; and starring the beloved silent-film star, Keaton, who died the year after Film was completed.

TrustMovies imagined that he had somehow seen Film when it first appeared. Well, he hadn't. But he is happy to have seen it now. Though not considered much of a success upon its release, the little film holds up much better than critical assessment would have it. All about "the we and the I" (eye) -- with a nod to Michel Gondry -- Film is also about seeing and being seen, and, as always with Mr. Beckett, about the state of being itself.

Film is actually fun. That's a prime moment, above, in which the only sound in this "silent" movie is heard. There is also a marvelous scene of animals doing a kind of slapstick routine, and of course there's Keaton. And though, back in the day, critics and audiences were evidently flummoxed as to what the thing meant, now, with another half century of movies and film knowledge under our belt, audiences should have no trouble deciphering "meaning," should they need it that desperately. (It seemed pretty obvious to me.)

Also, Film lasts but 22 minutes. Even if you don't appreciate it (I think you will), you'll have spent almost no time at all. (We just watched Tarantino's The Hateful Eight last night and gave up nearly three hours to that well-acted, dreadfully written, poorly conceived, sub-level, Agatha-Christie-writes-a-western piece of trash. Talk about wasted time that one can never recover.)

Now, what about NotFilm? Can you really spend over two hours delineating/discovering what went into the making of Film? You have no idea. What Mr. Lipman has given us compiles history, personality, filmmaking and marketing, along with all the "art" and "chance" involved in the moviemaking process. And he does all this with such intelligence and grace that I probably could have watched a full four hours without tiring or even complaining.

Lipman begins with an interesting cliché that he then turns upside down: "Art shouldn't be about art, it should be about life -- as though they were indistinguishable." From there we meet Mr. Beckett and learn of his relationship with Barney Rosset and what he wanted to do with his Film and how he planned to achieve it. While this will be catnip for Beckett fans, even those, like me, who don't find his work as meaningful or brilliant as do some, it will still fascinate,

Using a number of talking-head interviews, done with smart and on-point Q&As with people like Kevin Brownlow; Jean Schneider (the widow of Alan); premiere Beckett interpreter, the now late Billie Whitelaw; and many others, including James Karen an actor friend of Keaton who plays a supporting role in Film, Lipman allows us to learn so very much about how art is created and how life intrudes on that art. (Mr. Beckett's cataracts -- that's the writer, shown above and below -- have much to do with how the Keaton character perceives the world in front of him).

We also witness, thanks to reams of archival footage the filmmaker viewed and then parsed, a number of small surprises (how Rosset managed to tape-record Beckett, who was adamant about never allowing himself to be recorded), as well as how Brownlow used his (then) excellent memory to write an immediate transcript of his talk with Beckett.

Lipman spent seven years making his movie, and it shows -- in everything from how people age and change to the amount of material collected and then sifted through to find the gems. We learn that an entire scene that would have brought Film to a half-hour length had to be cut; how Beckett even had camera angles mapped out; and how film critic Leonard Maltin, who was but a youngster at the time, managed to be there on location near the Brooklyn Bridge (above) as filming took place.

Finally Lipman addresses the change from photo-chemical film to digital, and alerts us that the latter is how his film is being shown. Yes, NotFilm really is not film. As written, narrated, photographed and edited by Lipman, this wonderful work is an appreciation of everything from the creative process to Beckett, Schneider and cinematography (we also meet and hear from the late Haskell Wexler who, only by chance, was unable to shoot Film).

This milestone work is being fittingly released via Milestone Films and will open in New York City this Friday, April 1, for a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives and in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque from April 1 - 9. At both theaters you'll have the chance to see Film along with NotFilm. (Check the schedule for each theater.) Further screenings across the country can be found by clicking here. Whether or not Film will be shown along with NotFilm at other venues is unclear as of now. If I were you, I'd call the theater you're near and make certain -- beg if you must -- that management plans to schedule both for viewing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Alexander Sokurov's FRANCOFONIA explores culture & history, war & peace, art & museums

Alexander Sokurov surely is a versatile director. In this new century alone (he's been making movies for over 40 years), his work has spanned the groundbreaking "one-take" museum piece, Russian Ark, to the breathtakingly strange and beautiful Father and Son to The Sun (narratively documenting the abdication of the Japanese Emperor at the close of WWII) to the nearly unbearably moving Alexandra to his version of Faust and now, another "museum" movie that harks back to that Ark and yet is definitely its own thing: FRANCOFONIA.

Mr. Sokurov, pictured at left, often writes, as well as directs his films and he has done so here again. While his visual skills are as fine as ever, it's his memorable writing that turns Francofonia into the special thing that it is. He begins with what sound like phone conversations regarding the very film we're about to see, and then we get visuals of writers such as Chekhov and Tolstoi, then Skype-ing with a fellow named Dirk, during which we hear, "It's not human, dragging art across the ocean!" Only slowly does the content of the movie begin to take shape: art and culture, history and museums, war and peace -- and Sokurov's musings on all of these. And when I call them "musings," this is not to say that they aren't pretty delightful, thought-provoking,and oh, so beautifully spoken (if I am not mistaken, Sokurov does his own narration).

As usual with this man's movies, you'd best pay absolute attention to the visuals and the audio or miss something vital, as Sokurov combines archival footage with beautifully recreated film that looks quite "dated" (it even has that "tracking" strip that runs down the left hand side), making his modern stuff seem archival, too. This is quite nifty.

Rather than giving us a tour of the Louvre, as he did with the Hermitage Museum in Russian Ark, instead he zeros in on that period of the famous French museum during which the Nazis took over half of France, Paris and the museum itself. We get history recreated and narrated, with two fine actors portraying the Frenchman and the German who did the most to "save" the museum's artworks.

The ubiquitous Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (above) portrays Jacques Jaujard, the man in charge of the Louvre, while Benjamin Utzerath plays Franz Wolff-Metternich, the German officer charged with overseeing the art treasures the Nazis took ownership of as they conquered and occupied country after country.  The two men's story runs in and out and around Sokurov's musings in a way that brings us back again and again to the subjects at hand.

Also along for the ride (and the humor they bring) are little Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth, below, right) and Marianne, that symbol of French womanhood and liberty Johanna Korthals Altes, below, left). And while the filmmaker gets a lot of mileage out of Nappy, I wish he could have brought a little more thought and wit to his Marianne, who seems to exist mostly to flounce and gambol like one of those recent Terrence Malick heroines. This may have more to do with the usual filmmaker patriarchal entitlement to "stick with the guys" than anything else. But it does seem a missed opportunity.

Otherwise, Francofonia is a non-stop delight, offering up lovely visuals, even as it gives us non-stop ironies about art and culture, war and various kinds of peace/collaboration. The film would make a fine bookend to the popular French TV series, A French Village, about the country's occupation during WWII, At one point the narration mentions that the "same old slow-seller" has once again appeared on the market. "The product may be very expensive or be free. Yet the price of this product is always set by the buyer. What is it? Can you guess? Think it over...."

The movie rests on what Sokurov chooses to tell us, and how and when, and against which visuals he places all this. His choices could hardly be bettered, and his finale is as splendid as the rest of the film, as he gives his two main characters (and us) a look into their very interesting futures. The movie ends with a shot of two empty chairs, and then a blood-red screen which, in time, turns to a more peaceful blue. Quite fitting. And wonderful,

From Music Box Films, in Russian, French and German with English subtitles and running just 87 minutes, Francofonia opens this Friday, April 1, in New York City at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and then over the weeks and months to come, elsewhere across the country in some 30 cities. In the Los Angeles area, look for it to open on April 15 at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. Click here and then click on THEATERS (about one-third of the way down the screen) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues. 

Emmanuelle Bercot's César-winning, nature-nurture coming-of-age drama, STANDING TALL

One of the things TrustMovies likes best about the films of actress/writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot -- Backstage, Student Services, (her episode of) The Players, On My Way and now STANDING TALL -- is how willing Ms Bercot is to simply jump in head first and start swimming until she reaches the other shore. She may not be the most artistic, stylish, realistic or brilliant of filmmakers, but her movies are always worth seeing because she gets the job done. She tackles her subjects honestly, draws excellent performances from her casts, and makes us think hard and consider the many possibilities implicit in the subject matter she chooses to film.

All this is true once again, perhaps even more so, in her latest work, which is all about how a young boy -- we first meet him as an (at least verbally) abused child of around five years old -- grows slowly, very slowly, into a somewhat autonomous young man. Ms Bercot (the filmmaker is shown at left) begins her movie with only dialog heard. When we see visuals, the camera stays out of facial range, as though we should not see the identity of these people because some their behavior regarding a child is so shocking. What we finally view is a little boy who's simply quiet or cowed into submission by a mother accusing him of being a full-out monster.

As with all French films about the law, crime and social services, the job of the "judge" will seem very different from what we have here in the USA. In that initial scene, as identity become clear, we see that the judge is played by French icon Catherine Deneuve, above, who understands her role here as someone who is both the law-giver and final decision-maker but who also acts as a kind of heavy-duty social worker, trying to help her charge into responsible adulthood.

This has long struck me as an interesting combination, one that might be healthily used here in the America, too. In any case, the next time we see the child, Malony -- played with flaring anger, sadness, dark humor and great neediness by newcomer (and César award-winner for this role), Rod Paradot  -- so prone to explosion and irresponsibility seems Malony that we, like many of the others around him, are often ready to give up.

Ms Deneuve's judge does not, nor do a few of her helpers, including another César-winner for his role, Benoît Magimel (above). Against these two are set Paradot's mom, a long-time loser who has never taken the least responsibility for her own life or actions (played with proper ferocity by Sara Forestier, below). Of course the child wants his mother, rather than a foster home, so back and forth we (and the film) swing, as Malony goes from home to a kind of low-key reform school, to home again, prison, and so forth.

The journey is alternately hopeful and grueling, but it is never boring or unbelievable. What we finally achieve is an understanding of how incredibly difficult it is to nurture a child grow into an autonomous man without help from his immediate family. No matter how much the state may try -- and the workers we see here really do -- to call their job an uphill battle is putting it mildly.

While the ending is what one might call feel-good, Ms Bercot is too smart for merely that. We've seen so much slippage along the way that we know there will probably be more to come. And because the film takes in our current and very dismal economic times, this just adds to the problematic nature of the whole experience. Still, as they say: You gotta have hope.

From Cohen Media Group, in French with English subtitles, and running 119 minutes, Standing Tall opens this Friday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. For other currently scheduled playdates, simply click here.

Monday, March 28, 2016

SAM KLEMKE'S TIME MACHINE: Matthew Bate offers up a sad, beautiful, profound bombshell

Every so often (more like few years), it seems, comes along a movie so original, so different from anything else you've seen that it seems to speak to something quite profound about our humanity, our strivings and our limitations. Back in 2014, it was a small documentary entitled Magical Universe; this year it would seem to be another small-budget-but-huge-in-its-concerns doc called SAM KLEMKE'S TIME MACHINE.

Sam Klemke, the film's "star," as well as one of the filmmakers here, is a rather ordinary fellow (that's he with cat, above in teenage days, and below, as an young adult) who hoped to become a well-known filmmaker when he was younger, back in the early 1970s. To this end he began filming himself and his surroundings from that time onwards (the invention of affordable home video equipment made this more possible and practical), and has ended up with what is perhaps the largest archive of film-about-oneself that exists today.

When Klemke posted a condensed YouTube video of his filming over the years that went viral, one of its viewers was Australian-based filmmaker/pop-culture excavator, Matthew Batewho with his co-writer Sandy Cameron, made this 90-minute movie that distills Klemke's oeuvre into an amazing portrait of himself, his world, our world and humanity's strivings, foibles, needs and desires. Mr. Bate has assembled something so different and profound that it will be like little you've so far experienced from movies.

Someone -- I would guess this to be Bate, Cameron or both -- had the just-about-perfect notion of placing Klemke's story against that of the famous space probe, Voyager, with its Golden Records that supposedly demonstrate mankind's glorious achievements.

The Voyager was sent into space in the same year -- 1977 -- that Klemke began his filming and was sent, it was said, in hopes that some other life forms would eventually find it and learn all about mankind and what we have accomplished. (Conveniently left out, as the narration notes, were "accomplishments" such as The Holocaust.) Oh, the chutzpah! And I mean this in terms of both projects: the Voyager's and Klemke's.

To his everlasting credit, Bate had the good sense not to ram home the incredible differences in those Golden Records and Sam's home movies. He simply alternates the stories of Sam and Voyager, bringing up various facts and tales about each and letting us draw our own conclusions. Yet the manner in which all this is threaded and unfurled allows us to reach some pretty interesting assumptions on the way to being amused, moved and provoked into thinking about, oh, so many things.

One of the funniest and most telling of these involves the fact that the late scientist/entertainer Carl Sagan wanted to include photos on the voyager of a man and woman completely nude so that other life forms could see and understand how human beings of both sexes were built. Oh, the ruckus this began amongst Republicans and religious fundamentalists who felt that nudity was not to be tolerated. So the idea is scrapped, and guilt, shame, stupidity, hypocrisy and denial triumph -- as usual.

Contrast this with our Sam, who not only features himself nude and full frontal but with an erect cock -- both in his younger and his middle-age years. (From the look and size of his member, our guy might have had a more productive career making porno films.) The contrast here of western culture's hypocrisy and denial against an ordinary guy with a camera is breathtaking. As it is, almost consistently, all the way along in this fascinating film.

Whether Bate found (or had made) the soundtrack voice we hear narrating the Voyager footage, it was a brilliant notion to have it all in French, so that we can then take in the beauty of spoken French, even as we read the lovely, poetic subtitles that build a case for the importance of the voyager and its golden records. Without undue pushing, all this makes ever stranger, funnier and sadder the contrast with Klemke's life and "art."

So who is Sam Klemke and what has he achieved? On one level he is a sad and deluded young, then middle-aged, then finally elderly male. We meet, briefly, many of the women who pass through his life as an "entitled" man (patriarchy is ever-present). but it is not in Sam's interest to allow us to get to know them or their attitudes beyond the cursory.

Sam does not finally achieve much of anything -- he fails at everything except his knack for good caricature, which he markets at locals malls -- and he often has to move back in with his parents. (How mom and dad felt about all this goes mostly unexplored.)  And yet Sam persists. And endures. The movie may bring to mind Samuel Beckett -- but with a lot more blather than minimalist poetry.

In any case, this juxtaposition of Klemke and Voyager is a brilliant move. Even as the documentary draws inward into Sam's tiny world, it simultaneously opens out into so much else. (The few moments in which we experience 9/11 through his and his girlfriend's eyes are remarkable.)

Again and again we are drawn up short and made to think, contrast and compare. Sam Klemke's Time Machine is a singular experience, one that should not be missed by thinking/feeling adults and very probably by their teenage children, as well. It has been a long, long while since I have witnessed a movie so ripe for discussion and exploration, both during and after its viewing.

From Virgil Films and Visit Films and running just 90 minutes, the movie is available beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, March 29, on DVD and Digital HD -- for purchase or rental. To view the movie (via either rental or purchase), simply click here and then click on WATCH NOW.