Monday, October 31, 2016

THE PICKLE RECIPE: a charming, Detroit-set, (more or less) Kosher comedy from Michael Manasseri, Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson

Pickles have a pretty good provenance so far as movies are concerned. From at least as far back as Crossing Delancey to the recent and quite wonderful short titled Pickle, the briney cucumber has provided movie-goers with tasty fun. The latest addition is a much-better-than-you-might-expect comedy set in modern-day Detroit and featuring a based-on-reality tale of an elderly grandmother whose famous pickle recipe remains a secret that certain of her family members would love to unlock.

Co-written by Gary Wolfson (at left) who jumps off from his own family history (his grandmother went to her grave carrying that prized pickle recipe along with her) and Sheldon Cohn (below, right), the film may be awash with cliches, yet many of these are given a smart little twist that will have you chuckling in appreciation: the goy who must impersonate a rabbi (and does it surprisingly well -- for awhile, at least) or the psychic who turns out to channel the dead, after all.
The screenplay and dialog set up various challenges that must be risen to -- a divorced dad who needs to DJ his daughter's bat mitzvah, a son who desperately wants his mom's famous recipe, and a bit of a developing romance to turn the film toward rom-com territory.  As directed by Michael Manasseri (shown below) with enough style and precision to make the laughs come to life, the movie simply bounces along from one enjoyable scene to the next, and before you know it, you're hooked and quite liking
the whole thing. Much of the enjoyment comes by way of the very good cast that has been assembled here, led by a veteran actress who is most often seen in smaller supporting roles: Lynn Cohen (shown below). How good it is to finally see Ms Cohen in a starring role, which, by the way, she fills out simply beautifully. This actress -- who has shone brightly in everything from Munich to Master of None to that little-seen-but-terrific indie, Hello Lonesome -- knows how to command an entire scene as easily as she does a small moment.

Supporting her are David Paymer (below, left), who plays her son, and Jon Dore (below, right), who plays her grandson. Both are just fine.

Kudos, too, to a couple of splendid further supporting actors who handle what, in other hands, might be paint-by-number roles with finesse and great good humor: Eric Edelstein (below, right), as the grandson's best friend, Ted, who must suddenly assume that Rabbi role, and Jean Zarzour (at bottom, right), who makes a marvelously quirky psychic.

Thanks to these fine performances, along with a consistently offbeat screenplay that appears to be tried-and-true but then adds that oddball touch that helps deliver the goods, THE PICKLE RECIPE proves not simply edible but pretty damned tasty overall.

The movie also, in its comedic-but-genuine way, manages to address the Holocaust. In a scene near the finale, with a sudden speech by the character played by Ms Cohen, the film becomes even more interesting and psychologically provocative. Does not what has happened here reflect what a lot of Holocaust survivors would do and feel?

The movie, from Adopt Films and running 98 minutes, opened here in South Florida this past Friday, October 28, and will hit New York and Los Angeles, this coming Friday, November 4. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Blu-ray and DVDebut from Film Movement: Ettore Scola's UGLY, DIRTY & BAD

Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola, who died earlier this year, was a director (42 films) and screenwriter (87 credits) who is probably best-known critically in this country for his unusual 1981 film, Passion of Love (upon which Stephen Sondheim based one of his lesser works, Passion) and popularly for his Mastroianni/Loren collaboration, the Oscar-nominated A Special Day. With his 1976 would-be comedy/satire/ neo-realist endeavor, UGLY, DIRTY & BAD, this filmmaker broke surprising new ground.

The result, however, mostly stinks. The film is one of those let's-see-how-gross-we-can-make-things movies that wants to simultaneously show us, while making fun of, the lowest-of-the-low-class. And while, of course, there's some truth to what we see -- and in Italy, with its penchant toward anarchy, even more so -- in terms of comedic style, Signore Scola, shown at right, proves one of those disciples of the bang-you-over-the-head-until-it-hurts school of filmmaking.

Yet whether we are in the land of utter realism or pushed-to-the-brink satire (maybe a very ripe contraction of the the two) remains to be seen. Though made in 1976,  the movie never reached the USA until 1979 (where it was rather lukewarmly received). Now, for some reason, it is being given a slight theatrical release once again, spruced up in digital format.

One thing this new digital format does is to point up almost immediately what a lousy make-up/aging job was done on the film's lead actor, Nino Manfredi, shown at left, who looks about as fake as can be throughout the movie. Worse, the filmmaker seems to have little understanding of how comedic satire works and so instead piles on the nastiness and shocks, each of which grows less and less funny and envelope-pushing as it appears. Along the way we get transvestism, inter-family sex (both pictured below), religion, money, hypocrisy, robbery, attempted murder and even a fantasy/dream sequence. Nothing manages to raise a genuine laugh -- and that dream fantasy is particularly lead-footed.

A little over midway, Scola goes all Fellini on us, introducing a very large woman-as-sex-object. Things come to a head as Dad brings home this latest "love" to meet the family, and that family, en masse, decides to murder him.

Nothing here is remotely believable (which you need for comedic satire), and coming in as it does at just a shard under two full hours, the film seems to go on forever. At the finale, we're right back where we started, as one of the characters we began with now ends the film in the same way -- except that now she is pregnant.

Several years back, at the FSLC's annual festival of new Italian films, Open Roads, was shown a remarkable movie that accomplished everything that this one probably hoped to -- and about ten times better. That film, It Was the Son (È stato il figlio) by Daniele Cipri, is an amazing piece of work on every level from style and content to performances, writing and direction. Further, it takes place in the same decade as does Ugly, Dirty & Bad. So far as TrustMovies knows, that one never got a theatrical release here. Maybe, in another 40 years, as with Scola's film, those of you still alive will finally get the chance to view it.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Ugly-Dirty & Bad, at the time of its initial release and even now, remains the right-wing's fondest dream (that audiences will see the poor as this useless, stupid and worthless) and simultaneously its worst nightmare: that these are the kind of people who might someday obtain power in a real democracy -- which the world has yet to actually experience. So far it's been mostly breadcrumbs and occasionally an actual loaf or two arriving to us via the ever-rich-and-powerful.

Well, see it and judge for yourself, as Ugly, Dirty & Bad hits Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement this Tuesday, November 1. Eventually it may grace digital venues, too. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

First time on DVD! THE IT CROWD: The Complete Series -- from MPI Media Group

Watching one of British television's (hell, television from anywhere) great series, THE IT CROWD, which ran from 2006 through 2013, proves just as spectacularly funny and off-the-wall an experience today, via the new DVD release of the complete series from MPI Media Group, as it did discovering it for yourself via the various sources it has graced down the years since its debut. If there is a single drawback, that would be the crass and stupid laugh track that accompanies it -- and which seems even louder and more crass now, sometimes nearly drowning out the delightful dialog, than it did a decade ago when the series made its debut.

The product of a very creative, talented and probably slightly unhinged writer/ director named Graham Linehan (shown at left), the show mixes to marvelous effect the talents of this funny fellow with those of his just-about-perfectly tailored cast of three leading actors plus several excellent supporting ones. Add to this the choice of the ideal workplace and occupation: the IT (Internet Technology) department located in the scuzzy basement quarters of a major corporation that seems to produce nothing and is run by perhaps the most obtuse, narcissistic and hilarious of bosses (think a British version of Donald Trump, if that sleazeball idiot were at all -- except for his appearance -- funny).

How all this works together for maximum effect -- silliness (based closely enough on reality to smart and sting) goosed into great, hilarious mountains of humor that arrives equally from character and situation -- is the stuff of legend. The cast, most of whom have gone on to some renown, includes Chris O'Dowd (above, center, and at bottom), Katherine Parkinson (above, left, and below) and Richard Ayoade (above, right, and at bottom)

Among the great episodes (there are many) is the one about the speech having to do with the Internet, in which one of our trio actually shows the audience the Internet itself! This is, I think, one of the funniest episodes I have ever seen because it makes such great use of so much that we think we know (and don't know) about the way we live now, while providing its characters (and actors) with the juiciest of moments to run with. And, oh god, they do.

A word must be said for subsidiary actors like Matt Berry (above, as the boss) and Noel Fielding (below, as, well, you'll discover who he is), both of whom add such bizarre and memorable moments to the show.

I do wish this amazing series could be separated from its god-awful laugh track. But I suppose we must be grateful for what blessings we have. And those, my friends, are copious indeed.

The new Five-Disc Boxed Set of the complete series hits the street this coming Tuesday, November 1, from MPI Media Group and includes the entire four seasons, plus the stand-alone program, The Internet Is Coming, which has never before been available here in the USA -- and is every bit as funny and wonderful as all that preceded it. Extras include a very nice 16-minute interview with Linehan and his cast.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

At FIAF's CinéSalon in November -- the cinema of a French original: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche

Having seen but three of the five films by the Algerian-born French filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, TrustMovies can't claim to be much of an expert. Also, somewhere between ten and fifteen years separates my first encounter with his work from this most recent one, with the viewing of another film occurring five years back. Yet I have found each of these movies oddly memorable in the manner in which they combine the personal and political, while providing varied viewpoints of both for us to ponder.

Poetic & Political: The Cinema of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche is the name of the new series from the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)'s popular CinéSalon that begins this coming Tuesday, Nov. 1. M. Ameur-Zaïmeche, shown below, is an actor/writer/director who turns 50 this year, so this retrospective is, if we're lucky, a kind of mid-way point in his career. He hasn't made a lot of films, but what he has (based on the three I've seen so far) are well worth viewing.

The series begins this coming Tuesday, November 1, with this filmmaker's mid-point movie, DERNIER MAQUIS (also known by its original title as Adhen). From 2008 and running 93 minutes, it's a tale of the workplace, immigrants, Capitalism, culture and religion told in a manner that gives weight to each of its major characters and their viewpoints, while maintaining Ameur-Zaïmeche's own beliefs (which I would call French Progressive).

The writer/director (at left) -- who also plays one of the leading roles as the worker's boss, Mao (below) -- sees things as they are, while understanding how different and better they might be. He also understands how religion can help bring people together, divide them, even stupify them, while acting as a tool for control.

Here, most unusually but greedily and smartly, religion is used by the boss and his Imam to keep those immigrant workers in line. (The guy has very cleverly provided those workers with their own "mosque.") Even so, Ameur-Zaïmeche endows his anti-hero with just enough caring and concern so that we can't entirely discount him, for even he is troubled by his own actions.

The filmmaking looks rudimentary but this works well within the confines of the tiny budget and the sense of place and characters Ameur-Zaïmeche has created. Islam is pictured here as a fundamentalist religion, yes, but one that is practiced quite differently from character to character. Rather like Christianity and Judaism and much else, I would guess. In any case, tradition vs democracy is one of the themes at the center of the film.

Early on in the film, there is a lot of talk about cocks and circumcision until, suddenly, a joke turns into an act of self-mutilation. This poor character (above), may be naive and rather kind, but he is certainly not cut out for Imam material -- as the current and under-the-thumb-of-the-boss religious leader intends him to be.

Oddly, though events in the movie -- including the discovery and preservation of an animal, the Coypu, I think I have never seen until now --  eventually come to a head, even leading to violence, the film avoids melodrama due to its genuineness and the sense of reality it captures. At times the craziness of the actions here makes them seem that much more bizarrely real. The film will screen at FIAF this Tuesday, November 1 at 4pm and 7:30 pm.


Just how much Ameur-Zaïmeche has grown as a filmmaker is apparent from viewing Smugglers' Songs, made in 2011 , which I covered during the 2012 Rendez-vous with French Cinema. Below is the review I posted at that time:

Ever wonder how the French Revolution came about? No, not around the court of Louis XVI, which is where, movie-wise, we usually get wind of it. In these days of the growing (then subsiding) Arab spring in the east, and the western world's Occupy movement, filmmakers are starting to take notice. I suspect Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche (Wesh wesh, qu'est-ce qui se passe?) has been thinking about all this for some time, for his new film SMUGGLERS' SONGS (Les chants de Mandrin) is rife with the spirit of a growing feeling of and for some kind of new democracy... only back in France in the 1700s. Jumping off from the death/martyrdom of French folk hero Louis Mandrin, Ameur-Zaïmeche, as both writer and director, brings such a fine feeling of now-as-then to the goings-on that I believe audiences lucky enough to see his 97-minute movie will come away charged anew with the sense and spirit of how democracy might build, once citizens of all classes (particularly the underclass) learn to understand and reason around the concept of justice.

One member of the overclass, a Marquis played very nicely indeed by actor/filmmaker Jacques Nolot (above), wrestles with this notion and what it might mean to his servants, his feet and his general well-being, as he chats with a smart peddler, equally well-played by Christian Melia-Darmezin. The filmmaker himself (below) takes on a major role here, as Bélissard, the leader of the small band of the Mandrins, now that Louis is dead. In crisply photographed images, many of them beautifully composed (by Irina Lubtchansky), we move with this fearless band of warriors as they train a new recruit (a deserter saved from military execution), have the songs of and about Mandrin published (we see the fascinating steps to printing and publishing centuries before the time of self-publishing and computers), and witness an exciting jail-break, along with some other tense situations.

Small in scale but done with what seems to me to be surprising accuracy, Smugglers' Songs might be the earliest example of Occupy France, as it show us how the fire of revolution was lit, back when. This little gem, perhaps the "sleeper" of that year's Rendez-vous, so far as I know never received a theatrical release on these shores, so it is wonderful that FIAF is bringing it to us now. Running 97 minutes, it will screen at FIAF on Tuesday, December 6 at 4 & 7:30pm.

I'll hope to be able to watch a final film in this series, Story of Judas (above), from 2015, which will screen at FIAF on Tuesday, December 13 at 4pm and 7:30. If and when I do, I'll post that review either here or in a post all its own. Meanwhile, you can view the entire program of  Poetic & Political: The Cinema of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche , curated by Delphine Selles- Alvarez, by clicking here. Enjoy! 

About FIAF: The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) is New York’s premiere French cultural and language center. FIAF's mission is to create and offer New Yorkers innovative and unique programs in education and the arts that explore the evolving diversity and richness of French cultures. FIAF seeks to generate new ideas and promote cross cultural dialogue through partnerships and new platforms of expression.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

BY SIDNEY LUMET: Nancy Buirski's first-class doc is yet another fine one about a filmmaker

Joining two other recent and terrific documentaries -- Hitchcock/Truffaut and De Palma -- that both herald and open up the work of great filmmakers, BY SIDNEY LUMET, the new documentary from Nancy Buirski (who also gave us the excellent Afternoon of a Faun and The Loving Story), reminds us of a wonderful filmmaker who died five years back and whom you might not immediately stick on your list of favorite directors. Watching Ms Buirski's incisive new film should place Lumet up there with the best, while giving you all the reasons why.

Buirski (shown at right) accomplishes this in the simplest of ways: She lets Mr. Lumet talk, while intercutting examples of his work, his history, and a bit of the history of the USA along the way. That is all the movie is, and that's all it takes to make it about as perfect -- intelligent, gripping, eye-opening, surprising and entertaining -- as you could want or need.

Aside from Lumet, there are no other talking heads that ramble on about the man and/or his work. Nor does there need to be. Mr. Lumet, it turns out, was extremely cogent and well-spoken. Not humble, neither was he full of himself. He had, it would seem, an excellent understanding of his abilities, as well as of some of the things that he lacked.

Ms Buirski begins her documentary with Lumet telling a tale of his time in WWII, in Calcutta, on a train, when a group of soldiers swept up a young Indian girl from the station platform, and then passed her around among them to be raped. Lumet is dumbstruck and wonders what he should do. We leave this tale in mid-stream and return to it only at film's end.

In between, Lumet talks of his family life, his time as a child actor (at left), his difficult father, and a contract with (I believe) MGM that somehow hinged on another young actor, Freddie Bartholomew. We learn a lot about his early years as a television director -- and in passing also learn that Yul Brynner, too, in his early years, was a very fine director! It will not surprise movie fans to learn that justice and the search for same is a hallmark, probably the main theme, of Lumet's work. (That's Sean Connery, below, in one of Lumet's least-seen and -appreciated movies, The Hill.)

And yet, what a versatile director he was in terms of projects (some of which he chose, others that were chosen for him). As we view scene after scene, from one film after another, I suspect that you, as I did I, will exclaim under your breath: "Oh, my god: He made that movie, too?" (During the final credit sequence, we get a list of all of the films directed by Lumet, and it's a humdinger: long and mostly good, even if it leaves out the excellent work he did for television.)

From 12 Angry Men (his first film, above) through The Verdict to his penultimate movie Find Me Guilty, Lumet was often in the courtroom, though just as often perhaps in the police station (Serpico, Prince of the City, and Q&A) and most definitely on the street a lot -- as in what many consider his best movie, Dog Day Afternoon. (How amazingly current this one seems, as much now and when it was made. That's Sidney, below, with his star Al Pacino.)  What Lumet says about New York City, its streets and its ravishing winter light, is -- as so much else he tells us -- pointed, well-said, and true.

It's seems a rather stunning discovering that just a man speaking, together with some of his visual history and a lot of his films (the clips from which are very well chosen and wonderfully edited into the documentary) could be this thoughtful and riveting. Well, of course: It all depends on the man and the movies. And, in this case, the documentary filmmaker: Thank you, Ms Buirski! You have sent us back to Lumet with newly opened eyes -- and a huge desire to see many of his movies again: some of his early work that features icons like Marlon Brando (below in The Fugitive Kind) and Sophia Loren (That Kind of Woman),  and especially, Daniel, his adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow book.

By the time this amazing and wonderful doc comes to a close, you will understand much more fully, thanks especially to that World War II/Calcutta reminiscence, why Mr. Lumet proved so interested in justice and the search for it against so many odds. (Yes, that's Peter Finch, in another of Lumet's memorable movies, Network, below)

By Sidney Lumet, running 103 minutes, opens tomorrow, Friday, October 28, in New York City (where else, so far as Sidney was concerned?) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and the following Friday, November 4, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Hope so, but I don't know. Seeing as the movie is part of the American Masters series, you'll certainly be able to view it eventually via Public Television.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Park Chan-wook's THE HANDMAIDEN: full of secrets and lies -- and it's drop-dead gorgeous

If you're a fan of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (J.S.A., his Vengeance trilogy, and Thirst), you'll make a bee line for his newest film, THE HANDMAIDEN, which is very probably his best. It is certainly his most beautiful film, often breathtaking in its color and composition, but it is also his most placid -- even thought it's filled with mystery, betrayals, and finally just a tad's worth of his signature violence and blood. It is also one of the sexiest, most voluptuous movies I've ever seen -- brought to life, or at least to movie life, with that peculiar (to us westerners) Asian blend of inscrutability, perversity and out-and-out passion that offers up a very hot time.

Mr. Park, shown at left, is gifted in so many areas -- storytelling, visual sense and provocation -- that prove pertinent to the tale he tells here. It is lifted pretty much intact (as I remember, at least) from the British lesbian mystery series Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England and first shown on television in 2005. Park has made the move to Korea and Japan seem utterly appropriate in terms of plot, behavior and all else. And his movie is maybe ten times as beautiful as was the original -- which was perfectly fine in its own manner.

Fingersmith, in three episodes, ran three hours, and The Handmaiden, coming in at nearly two-and-one half, is almost comparable in length. The plots (as I recall, at least), while similar in basic outline, vary greatly in their details, especially as concerns a "reading group" composed of wealthy Japanese men for whom one of our heroines performs. (These scenes are among the movie's most bizarre, perverse and, in their way, beautiful.)

The tale told involves a pretty young girl who is a pickpocket in a family of criminals, another of whom, posing as a wealthy Count, has wormed his way into the trust of a man who controls the inheritance of a niece whom the Count plans to woo, marry, dispose of, and inherit her wealth. To more easily accomplish this. he uses the young girl to serve as the lady's hand-maiden and help convince her that this Count is the man of her dreams.

The filmmaker tell his tale from three vantage points, that of the handmaiden, then from the POV of the lady for whom she works, and finally from the usual, all-knowing viewpoint we're more used to in our movies. Though much of the same material is covered, seeing it so differently proves enriching, surprising and very entertaining. Our sympathies moves back and forth between the two women, finally coming to rest almost equally on both. (The men here are entirely pigs. Of their time, of course, but pigs all the same.)

The plot may have its coincidences and contrivances but so enthralling are the characters and the beautiful visuals that I don't think you'll mind one bit. (I kept wanting to takes notes on the film but could not pry my eyes away from the screen long enough to do so.) A terrific cast has been assembled here, and it performs to the hilt. The little details Park allows us to witness -- taking care of milady's too-sharp tooth, for instance -- are just about perfectly chosen for both beauty and intimacy.

This movie is so full of quiet surprise and finally a kind of passionate dedication to freedom for its quartet of characters (in very different ways, however) that I don't want to spoil one bit more of the rapturously convoluted plot by blabbing further. The Handmaiden -- like Snowpiercer and a number of other South Korean films -- keeps this little country still at the forefront of some of the best and most unusual mainstream arthouse cinema.

Being distributed across the USA by Magnolia Pictures, running 145 minutes and remaining unrated, the movie -- after opening in New York and L.A. last week to mostly excellent reviews -- hits cities around the country this Friday, October 28. Here in South Florida, it plays the Coral Gables Art Cinema in the Miami area, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. To see all currently scheduled playdates and theaters, click here