Friday, October 20, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut for Olivier Assayas' genre-jumping jumble, PERSONAL SHOPPER

Yes, Kristen Stewart is always an interesting actress to watch, and after putting her through the paces -- and then some -- while helping her win a first-ever César award for an American actress via his remarkable Clouds of Sils Maria, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (shown below) has collaborated again with Ms Stewart on a movie that, while never uninteresting, unfortunately never comes together in any genuinely meaningful way.

Instead, PERSONAL SHOPPER offers so much genre jumping -- from ghost story to murder mystery to fashion-plate parade to technology thriller to identity crisis to (no? yes!) a look at the French real estate market -- that by the time this film has come to its dead-halt finale, and the would-be ghost has answered the all-important question via a certain number of knocks, if you have not already given up in frustration or nodded off to dreamland, you're likely moan aloud, as I did, "Yeah, I figured as much. But so fucking what?!"

Now, M. Assayas has genre-jumped previously. Demonlover, in fact, is one of his most remarkable, ugly and joyous treasures. But here, as writer (of screenplay and dialog) as well as the director, he is working primarily in the English language, as he did in Clean and Boarding Gate, two of his least successful films. And he simply does not possess a gift for this. His dialog is too often ordinary and lifeless when it ought to be precise and probing.

Ms Stewart (shown above and below) is saddled with way too much of this tiresome dialog, and since she is a subtle but not particularly versatile actress, and since her character here is the most important thing in the film, that dialog ought to help her explore and deepen that character. It does not.

Rather, it allows the actress -- who relies to an awfully great extent to a single expression, or if we're lucky maybe two (to which all the stills above and below will attest) -- to simply "be herself" -- which is believable enough, all right, but not very interesting or meaningful in this case.

Her character, Maureen, has recently lost her brother to untimely death, and it would appear that his ghost may be trying to communicate with her (being a "medium" to the spirit world seem to run in their family).

So we get occasional "appearances" by this spirit world, and between shopping trips for her uber-wealthy client, someone/thing is also trying to reach her via cell phone. Because of this, we get rather lengthy texted conversations (M. Assayas proves better with texting dialog than with the speaking version).

Eventually Maureen discovers a dead body, the police are called in, and the murderer (there's really been only a single suspect here, so any "mystery" proves pretty paltry) is quickly caught. Then we're off to Africa for a bit more soul-searching. Trouble is, there just isn't much soul to search.

The movie is almost entirely comprised of Ms Stewart, and the actress is always a pleasure to watch -- even here, without much of a story to surround her. Nothing we see or hear seems all that substantial or even believable.

So I suspect that, in the case of this new film, Assayas was simply diddling or doodling away the time, trying to come up with a story, situation and character that will make his cobbled-together and rather goofy ideas cohere. He doesn't manage this, but he'll bounce back. He always does. (Summer Hours, for example, is one of the richest family/possessions films ever.)

Meanwhile Personal Shopper, from The Criterion Collection and running a too-long 105 minutes, arrives this coming Tuesday, October 24, on Blu-ray and DVD, for purchase and/or rental. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

DALIDA: Lisa Azuelos' beautiful-to-view (and hear) biopic gets L.A. debut prior to VOD

Quite a bit better than the run-of-the-mill, musical celebrity bio-pic, DALIDA, tracking the life and career of one of, if not the most popular European singers of the 20th Century, is a gorgeous movie to both behold and listen to. With the actual Dalida singing many of her most popular songs (along with those of some other greats of that century) and, spanning as it does the 1950s through the 1980s, filled with scrumptious (if sometimes tacky: remember the 70s?) period detail, and filmed with a eye for interesting composition and ace cinematography (Antoine Sanier), the movie is a consistent joy to view.

As written and directed by French screenwriter/ filmmaker Lisa Azuelos (shown at right) and adapted from the book by Orlando (Dalida's brother) and Catherine Rihoit, the movie begins with a look at our heroine, brought to surprisingly nuanced life by Italian actress Sveva Alviti (shown above and below), who looks enough like the singer to more than pass muster, and who also lipsyncs and performs the songs with a physicality that mimics the original's own style and grace (you can compare the two by watching various videos).

TrustMovies admits that some of his great enjoyment of this film may have come because he knew next to nothing about Dalida before sitting down to view the movie. He knew her name and that she was hugely successful in France, but that's it. (His spouse, who follows the music scene more thoroughly, had never heard of her at all.) Consequently, this icon's story was new and held quite a bit of interest for him, though how die-hard fans of the singer reacted to this bio-pic, he can't say.

Ms Azuelos begins her tale in media res, with some quick, sharp moments during which Dalida leaves Paris for somewhere that it is clear her family and friends don't want her to go. It's to meet a lover, and so we spend some time between the sheets, philosophizing and making love. Suddenly, we're confronted with the singer's suicide attempt, which happened mid-career.

As Dalida slowly recovers, Ms Azuelos moves us back and forth in time, picking up bits and pieces of her family history, early career (above), love life and more. One of the cleverest methods of exposition here is done via her post-suicide psychologist's interviews with the various important people in her life, as he and they try to collectively get our girl back on track. This allows us to not only learn about Dalida, but better explore the character of those giving testimony.

Certain critics have complained about the lack of depth of character in Dalida herself, but this strikes me as simply wrong-headed. What Azuelos has given us instead is a portrait of celebrity and the woman who gladly buried herself under that alluring but unwieldy and very heavy mantle. Nearly every important decision we see her make has to do with maintaining that celebrity and career -- from how she handles her lovers to why she has the abortion that will render her sterile. (That's Brenno Placido, above, as the young student by whom she becomes pregnant, and Niels Schneider, below, as a Polish prince with whom she has earlier become involved.)

Occasionally, the woman beneath all that celebrity surfaces and her needs make themselves known. But always career comes first. Interestingly enough, there are no villains here. The movie doesn't need them, since Dalida is pretty much her own worst enemy, even if she herself seems to be a relatively kind and decent person. With an unhappy childhood to deal with, even given her wonderful voice and great physical beauty, the gain did not finally outweigh the pain.

Dalida's choice of lovers would appear a bit suspicious, too. When three of the several men with whom you're involved take their own life (not to mention Dalida's own suicide attempt and then its consummation), there's clearly a problem at hand. (Above, left, is Jean-Paul Rouve, as the man who discovers her, whom she eventually marries, and who later suicides; below left is Nicolas Duvauchelle, as one of her later and most narcissistic lovers who also takes his own life.

While the movie refuses to offer any tidy explanations for any of this, the feeling we're left with, despite the talent and beauty on hand, is one of sadness at the waste of it all. (Below is pictured Alessandro Borghi, as would-be singer Luigi Tenco, the first of Dalida's suicidal amors.)

Our heroine even has something of a movie career, too; at one point, the famous Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine has her star in one of his films (below), and once the disco craze hits, she becomes a gay icon -- in France, if not here in the USA.

Along the way, in addition to the wonderful period detail, we get a raft of good music -- mostly snippets, granted, but they're certainly enjoyable ones -- and enough biographical material to complete yet another sad tale of great musical celebrity gone to disarray.

From Under the Milky Way -- in French, Italian and Arabic with English subtitles -- and running  a long but consistently interesting 127 minutes, Dalida will get a one-night-only theatrical appearance in the Los Angeles area as part of the Laemmle Culture Vulture series, this coming Monday, October 23, at 7:30 pm at four Laemmle theaters: Claremont 5, Playhouse 7Royal 3 and Town Center 5. Click here for more information and/or tickets.

In addition the film will also be the opening night, November 3, presentation at the ARPA International Film Festival at the world-famous Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  And if you aren't located in the L.A. area, despair not: Dalida will be released on all major VOD platforms across the country on Tuesday, December 5.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: another small but strong movie from indie filmmaker Sean Baker

I've been following the films of Sean Baker since his 2004 sophomore effort, Take Out (you can find my review and Q&A with the filmmaker here) and finding that work evolving, growing richer and stronger with each new film. Baker has now made six full-length features, with his latest THE FLORIDA PROJECT, the most precious jewel in the crown. Word was out early regarding how special is this movie and, for those who love narrative films with a documentary feel, as all of his films have so far seemed, this one will not disappoint.

Mr. Baker, shown at right, loves children -- both of the small sort, and those who, though they may look like adults -- see Starlet and Tangerine for a couple of examples -- still mostly act like the kids they've never been able to move beyond. How they manage (or don't) to begin to make that move comprises the arc of those two films and their characters' stories. With The Florida Project, Baker gives the actual small kids their lead and lets them run with it. The result is initially bubbly, bracing and enormous fun, but as the movie moves along, its dark side surfaces almost equally. What's missing for most of these kids is not only proper parenting but the kind of safety net any decent society needs. The movie does not "tell" us this; it doesn't need to because it shows us so clearly everything we need to know.

The film takes place in the Orlando, Florida, area -- far enough away but also near enough to Disney World to make that place resonate without our ever actually having to see it (throughout most of the movie, at least). Instead we and our scrappy heroine, Moonee, played by a very young actress, Brooklynn Prince (shown above, center, and below, right), who makes an indelible impression here, hang out at the low-end motel in which the kids and their caretakers live. All the children are terrific and seem as real as kids get, but Ms Prince receives the major screen time, and she's worth every minute of it.

As her problemed mom, newcomer Bria Vinaite (above) is equally real and twice as troubling, as the character stumbles from one bad move to the next and yet keeps caring for her daughter as best she can -- which is, unfortunately, not really very well.

The filmmaker mixes professionals actors with non-pros and does this with such ease that if you did not already recognize performers such as Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair and especially Willem Dafoe (shown above, and who is as incredibly fine here, playing what you might call a "normal" character, as he has ever been), you would think them all just part of the real people Baker has recruited for his project.

Baker's choice of incident builds carefully and very well to what will be a turning point. We don't know quite in what direction it will turn, nor whether it will help or hinder, but by then we've spent nearly two breathless hours watching, smiling, wincing, frowning and feeling childhood, its joys and discontents, as strongly as you could want -- and all with characters from an economic/social class of which many of us don't rub up against at all often. When we do, we're likely to somehow discount them. Mr. Baker (as with all his films) makes certain that doesn't happen here.

The Florida Project, from A24 and running 115 minutes, opened on its home ground, Orlando, last weekend and will hit Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach this Friday, October 20, along with elsewhere throughout the country now and in the weeks to come. To discover the theaters nearest you, simply click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Andy Serkis' BREATHE walks a fine but difficult line between feel-good and feel-bad

With a serviceable and sometimes more than that screenplay by William Nicholson, excellent performances by a well-chosen cast working near the top of its form, and very smart direction from a first-time filmmaker, Andy Serkis, known best for his computer-generated/performance-capture acting roles, BREATHE turns out to be better in every way than might have been expected. While certain critics have bemoaned Serkis' choice to make his debut directing what some feel is merely a disease-of-the-week movie -- one reviewer, for The New 
York Times, managed to misread the film so completely that she appears to have watched a different one from what the rest of us saw -- TrustMovies feels that Mr Serkis, shown at left, has done a commendable job of telling a story, with honesty and appreciation of what is a near-impossible situation, one that proves every bit as feel-bad as it does feel-good.

That situation is one of adult-onset polio back in the late 1950s that turned an intelligent, vital, healthy young man into a being completely paralyzed from the neck down for the remaining 36 years of his life. How do your turn a story like this into something an audience can not only view and appreciate but find every bit as inspiring and full of fascinating detail as you might wish? Serkis, Nicholson and their cast do exactly that, and they manage to make those impossible-to-contain tears at the finale flow absolutely guilt-free.

The journey of Robin Cavendish, played -- once his body is taken from him, with mostly those amazing, deep-pools-of-expression eyes -- by Andrew Garfield (above), is a remarkable one by any standard, thanks in particular to the help of Cavendish's wife, Diana (performed with humor, restraint and great strength by Claire Foy, below) and his good friend, the inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).

It is the specific detail found in that journey, taking us from England to Africa and across Europe, too, that adds such pleasure and fascination to the tale, as Robin and his helpers find ways of making his own life (and consequently those of other polio and wheelchair-bound patients) richer and more acceptable.

Simply staying alive was thought to be nearly impossible at this time. Making the lives of the respirator-bound more comfortable was not even a consideration -- except perhaps in a certain country noted for its cleanliness and efficiency, as above, where the film's most surprising and quietly shocking scene takes place.

In the supporting cast, special note must be made of the wonderful Tom Hollander (this year's BAFTA winner for The Night Manager) in the small but juicy roles of Diana's twin brothers. The finale is every bit as moving and unsettling as you might expect, but perhaps the film's biggest jolt of emotion comes as the end credits roll and we view photos of the real family and discover how this film came into being and who the person is who was most responsible for shepherding it to the screen.

From Bleecker Street and running a lengthy-but-utterly engrossing 117 minutes, Breathe, after hitting New York City and Los Angeles last week, opens around the country this Friday. Here in South Florida, you can catch it in the Miami area at the The Landmark at Merrick Park 7 and AMC Aventura; in Sunrise at the Regal Sawgrass; in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway Theatre; in Boynton Beach at the Cinemark; and in West Palm beach at the AMC City Place. Wherever you live, click here and then scroll down to find the theater near you.

Monday, October 16, 2017

LIBERATION DAY: North Korea again, from an unusual angle, in Olte/Traavik's new rock doc

I'm not sure why but, so far at least, nearly every movie I've viewed about North Korea -- mostly documentaries but also even the sometimes-comic The Interview -- have proven too long, repetitive and a little too boring for their own good. Finally, here comes a documentary to do with North Korea that, despite its being -- yes, again -- too long, repetitive and a little too boring for its own good, is still more enjoyable and thought-provoking than the usual. If not as much fun as the winner (so far) in this genre, The Lovers & the Despot, the 2016 documentary, LIBERATION DAY provides enough intelligence and eye-opening food-for-thought-and-view that it slips just barely into the realm of acceptability.

As co-directed by Uģis Olte and Morten Traavik (the latter of whom is shown at right), the movie's most interesting moment occurs immediately, as this quote from the rock band Laibach appears onscreen:

All art is subject 
to political manipulation 
except that which speaks 
the language of 
the same manipulation. 

Hmmmm, we think to ourselves and immediately begin applying that idea to the movie, country and band at hand, the first of which details the would-be momentous event of this band's surprising invitation -- the first ever for a rock band -- to perform inside the highly closed state of North Korea. That the band's accouterments, from costumes to appearance to performance and much else -- fairly drip of fascistic images (coupled to conscious and consistent irony) makes the invitation even more bizarre.

Unaccountably, a couple of Laibach's songs became hugely popular in North Korea, perhaps because these were "cover" versions of songs from, yes, The Sound of Music, which the North Korean populace probably heard without benefit of any accompanying visuals, thus making them near-completely lose both the sense of Laibach's irony and (most likely made-fun-of) overt fascism.

So here we are as the band arrives in North Korea for what is perhaps the most unwelcoming "welcome dinner" in history, and then we watch and listen as the band's program is consistently undercut by the North Korean censors, even as Laibach tries its level best to abide by the hugely curtailed "freedom" that country allows. Early on, one of the retinue decides to go for an unscheduled walk-around-town, despite the fact that the group has been warned not to go anywhere alone and/or without prior permission.

Undoubtedly because the freedom-to-film is every bit as subject to censor and "permission" as all the other freedoms in this self-titled democracy, what we end up watching for a too-long 100 minutes is often repetitive and not at all what might be the best or most apt visual for us to see. Still, over time, things come together, as does the concert itself, and we're finally treated to a small portion of this, as well as to the absolutely bizarre response from its seemingly baffled audience.

Along the way, yet another stand-off between the Koreas, North and South, occurs and various provocations continue to arise. All this happened before our own nutcase/liar-in-chief rose to the Presidency, but it certainly would have been even more interesting had Laibach's performance come a couple of years later.

In the press quotes for the film, as well as in the actual film itself, we are treated to reactions from HBO Emmy-winning John Oliver and everyone's favorite (mine, at least) Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as to the importance of the band's visit. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls this "a genuinely historic event."  Indeed, historic the visit may be, but the movie about it surely ain't. Instead, it keeps promising so much more intelligence, laughs, music, surprise, wonder and/or irony that it can possibly, under these constrained circumstances, ever deliver.

And so we come back to that above quote and what it says/means. The art/language of Laibach (wherever did the band get its name, I wonder? It always makes me think of that famous sexual direction, "Lie bach and spread your legs") is so full of irony, as well as politics, history, pretense and fantasy, while the art/language of its host (is there "art" in North Korea? Isn't real art individually created rather than collectively?) is something real, chilling, provocative and hugely damaging to its citizenry. Or perhaps Laibach is saying that its own art is above such manipulation because -- ah-hah! -- it already understands/speaks in that same manipulative manner.

Well, figure it all out for yourself. The movie, disappointing as it is, is still worth seeing for the questions it raises and for the event it covers. Released by Sundance Now, the documentary receives its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum this Wednesday, October 18. Elsewhere? No idea, but one would imagine the film will see the light of day (or the light of a movie-house disc player) in a few more cities around the country.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- RIPPER STREET: British late-Victorian police procedural

Whitechapel is life in all its wild and rotten splendor; 
beside it, the rest of the world seems a tomb. 

The streaming series RIPPER STREET might have escaped me were it not for an accidental meet up with an enthusiastic review, followed by a binge-watch and absorption from the first moment. Set near the time that the ghoulish Jack the Ripper serial-murdered his prostitute victims, the 5–season police drama is particularly energetic, suspenseful, and literate, thanks to prolific writer-creator, Richard Warlow (below).

Real life persons (events, and the Dublin shooting locale) lend historicity, for example Edmund Reid and Fred Abberline, the former played by series lead, Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), and the latter by Clive Russell (Game of Thrones, Outlander); Abberline was Reid’s superior (below).

Reid headed criminal investigation at H Division in Whitechapel where Ripper did his crimes. Although you’d expect so, the series does not directly address the murders. They add dolorous atmosphere, a guilty prod to the police for work unfinished, in that Ripper was never caught. (Episode 1.1, a copy-cat murder, is as close as Div H police get.) In the main, Ripper Street is a deep dive into the late 19th century world of London’s East End and the battles by its protagonists to solve crimes, keep the peace, and have some semblance of private life and love. 

Reid’s particular sidekick is his forensic pathologist, an American with a shady past, Homer Jackson, played by Adam Rothenberg (above, second l). Jackson is a “two-penny sawbones, a snake-oil-pushing clap doctor” whose outside-the-box genius for uncovering crimes in the bones and tissues of victims is invaluable to Reid. Homer has a wife from whom he is estranged, Long Susan (far l) a criminally inclined, heart-of-gold brothel madam played by MyAnna Buring (Twilight Saga, Downton Abbey).

Fellow officer(ctr. r) is Inspector Bennet Drake, the craggy Jerome Flynn (GoT's Bronn) and one more main player, Rose, the prostitute who seeks to better herself, is played by Charlene McKenna (far r). Drake’s gnarly charisma is a helpful offset to MacFadyen’s buttoned-up Inspector Reid — the center spoke around which action turns, “attached to Whitechapel as if by lead weights on a river bed”.

The Dickensian world of Whitechapel comes to life with assorted guest players such as the winsome (Ms) Charlie Murphy (above, l, of Rebellion, The Last Kingdom), and the very appealing Damien Molony (above, r) in an episode that stews together romance, Irish politics, and a battle for adoption of either alternating or direct-current electricity.

Joseph Mawle (shown above, of The Hallow and Clapham Junction) has a recurring role as the evil-doer Inspector Shine, revealing his unshowy acting chops (above). Iain Glen (GoT, Downton Abbey); Jonas Armstrong (Robin Hood); the talented David Dawson (Alfred the Great in The Last Kingdom) as newspaper hound and dandy Fred Best (below); Lydia Wilson, John Heffernan, Josh O’Connor, Amanda Hale, and more familiar faces appear from BBC, PBS and other networks' series.

Whitechapel itself is an affecting character. St Mary’s, a small local chapel dating from the 1300’s, lent its name to the area which became a slum in Victorian times as Irish, Jewish, Indian, and other foreigners crowded in to this and other East End neighborhoods. ‘Elephant man’ Joseph Merrick (below) lived and died in Whitechapel, often on exhibit as a curiosity (one story is his).

By the 1880’s there were reportedly 60 brothels and 1200 prostitutes. Noxious businesses located there, the sounds and smells of tanners, brewers, and metal shops comfortably distant from the affluence of central London. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry headquarters (below), dating from the era of Elizabeth I, cast Westminster Abbey bells, Big Ben, and the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia.

The East End has been in our sights over and again. In 1660’s Shoreditch, East End, Shakespeare plied his trade at the Curtain Theater (Shakespeare in Love).The late 1990’s series Bramwell featured a woman doctor operating on this turf and telling stories of East End poor; Call the Midwife (1950’s-60’s)is a more recent take, and Tom Hardy’s recent Taboo features East End locations. However, Warlow’s Ripper Street is likely the most consistent, visceral, and frenetic portrait of this small piece of real estate. Division H policed a bit over a mile and 67,000 poor, including factories, tenements, brothels, and pubs. Their stories addressed labor conflict like the Match Girls strike and discrimination against Jewish, Chinese, and Indian minorities.

The ever-present thread of women seeking to control their own lives and bodies is revealed in Long Susan’s career, for which she pays and pays more. New technology arrives — the telephone and micro-reader, blood typing, finger printing, and the invention of film become lynchpins for murder.

Rose, the prostitute, is manipulated into being photographed by a pornographer who strangles his subjects in front of the camera; we are introduced to the amazing invention of moving images, sure to become cash cows for future pornographers. A gang of child criminals is led by an adult man who directs the boys to capture girls for sale to groups of men; Reid traces the source of the Plague to a “Molly House” (gay/transgender brothel); a train robbery results in the deaths of 55 people; Long Susan finances a hospital and is convinced to treat victims of back-alley abortions when an affiliated male doctor is discovered using poor women for experimentation and sterilization; the stockholders of a shipping company are dismayed to find that a woman is the inventor of a new engine that could save the company; a work house administrator is found to have murdered sickly children in his care.

Four seasons serve up a steady diet of these social-justice-themed police procedurals, each complex and tightly wound, but season five resolves the relationships of the main characters while bringing to justice a poor fellow who having seen his mother eaten by wolves, bites his victims to death: “homo homini lupus est — man is wolf to man” (that's Jonas Armstong, above, as Nathaniel).

Curiosity if not hope, is satisfied because these tales of Whitechapel do not end with a warm glow like episodes of Call the Midwife. Rather, life and loss go on: “We are doomed to the ragged purgatory of these streets...Lady Justice holds her righteous tit.” (Inspector Shine). And, as creator Warlow writes, there are diamonds to be mined from pain.

Ripper Street streams now via Netflix.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman