Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jazz, love, death -- 45 years back -- in Kasper Collin's documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN

It's odd, but somehow quite fitting, that the fellow we learn least about in Kasper Collin's fine documentary, I CALLED HIM MORGAN, is the title character, a jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan. We hear his music and can easily determine how talented he was (very) but his character, his personality, his quirks and all the rest are barely there. Instead, we come much closer to the two important women in Morgan's life: Judith Johnson, still alive, who fills us in on her role as the "other woman," and Helen Morgan, Lee's common-law wife, who rescued the drug-addicted guy from the gutter, nourished him, loved him, and then shot him dead. (If you're expecting "The Helen Morgan Story," you'll be getting something quite different from those starring Polly Bergen or Ann Blyth.)

Mr. Collin, the Swedish filmmaker pictured at right, has done plenty of homework here, and the result is a smart and generous array of history, memory (provided by those two women and Lee Morgan's friends and co-musicians), and some terrific archival film and photography -- all of it set to music featuring Morgan (shown below, left), his own band and that of Dizzy Gillespie, with whom Morgan began his career. All of this makes the movie a must for jazz lovers, and for anyone who might want to take a time trip back to the the USA, the South, and then New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

The manner in which the film incorporates its music is particularly lovely: It is used in a way that the best movie soundtracks do in order to highlight emotions and events yet still manages to stay true to itself as jazz. (Interestingly enough, both Lee Morgan and Miles Davis did not appreciate the appellation of jazz to the kind of music either of them wrote and performed.)

As the movie tells its story -- which is based mostly on the only known interview that Helen Morgan ever gave after her prison term to journalist/teacher Larry Reni Thomas in 1996, as well as another with Val Wilmer in Helen's Bronx apartment back in 1971 -- we learn of Helen's life as child: given up by her mother to be raised by her grandparents, then leaving at a very young age for the "big city."

That city was, first, Wilmington, North Carolina, and then finally New York.

We learn of Helen's cooking skills, her detestation at being photographed (hence the paucity of shots of her here!), and finally of how she met, bonded with and saved Lee, after his descent into drugs. In the course of it all, we are also made acquainted with the culture of the time, and black music experience, and the black experience in general. And of course the casual, embedded racism of the day: Even in a snowstorm, how could it have taken a New York City ambulance one full hour to arrive at the scene of the shooting?

A sad story filled with wonderful music, I Called Him Morgan highlights, among other things, black male patriarchy vs strong black women, and the difficulty with which those women had to negotiate their route in life. After being released from prison, Helen -- never a religious person -- finds what salvation she can by working with and helping her local church in Wilmington, North Carolina.

From FilmRise and Submarine Deluxe, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, March 24,  in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on Friday, March 31, at NYC's Metrograph and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center and elsewhere. Click here to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Charlie Siskel's AMERICAN ANARCHIST tracks the life and times of a notorious author

How bracing, how very nearly shocking it is to see a documentary these days that seems simultaneously old-fashioned (in its decision to simply sit and film its subject quietly and honestly) and somehow quite modern in the way that the filmmaker is willing to allow us to see his modus operandi so fully and thus decide for ourselves whether it is truthful to the situation at hand and fair to its subject. 

This is indeed the case with AMERICAN ANARCHIST, a new documentary directed by Charlie Siskel (shown at left, who gave us the excellent Finding Vivian Maier) about and starring a certain William Powell (not the late "Thin Man" actor), whom we meet in current times at age 65 but who, in his youth at age 19 (as shown below), wrote a book that, initially, he had a difficult time getting published. Once it was, however, sales took off and, in the nearly half-century since, the book has seldom been out of the public eye or that of our news media. That tome is The Anarchist Cookbook, which details the need for revolution and then shows you how to do it, including everything from bomb- and poison-making to the manufacture of illicit drugs. Think of it as a kind of D-I-Y guide to the violent overthrow of, well, you name it.

Conceived and written in the early 1970s during the height of the anti-Vietnam protests and soon after the vicious police/government retaliation against protesting hippies and yippies, for anyone around the 76-year-old age of TrustMovies, it will be easy to understand, even appreciate, the motivation for the writing of such a book. The results of it, however, have been and still remain something else. By now, The Anarchist Cookbook has been connected to violent mass killings everywhere from Columbine to Aurora and many more incidents nationally and internationally, as filmmaker Siskel points out again and again to Author Powell.

Siskel seems to want Powell (that's he, above, in recent times, as photographed for the documentary) to somehow "own up" more fully, as both Powell and his wife keep pointing out. And the man does "own up," but with difficulty and clearly with guilt. His deep brooding and quiet sadness is something the movie captures as well as I've ever seen in a documentary, and this is part of what makes American Anarchist, despite the movie's rather simple-minded title, such a rich and moving experience. Watching and hearing Powell as he tries to explain his actions then and his feelings now, (along with his deeper understanding of the complexities of life) proves an engrossing and transfiguring experience that alone makes the movie a must-see.

Siskel barrels right into things, seeming to begin his interview in media res, and only slowly reveals who this man is and why his story is so important. As the documentary rolls onward we get details of Powell's life as a child (below), a young man and young adult, and then even more details in his older age as a teacher and educator abroad. Powell's history leaves little room in our mind for misunderstanding how The Anarchist Cookbook came about.

We meet his current wife, who proves a thoughtful and helpful woman, and also learn quite a bit about that infamous book. Powell notes in passing that he has not re-read the book since he first wrote it, and also makes clear that he did not try out all, or even most, of the "recipes" included therein. He cribbed many of them untested from where he found them.

Siskel explores, together with Powell, the hypocrisy of the latter's receiving royalties off the publication of the book, even after such time as he publicly rejected its content (which he has done at least twice). Yet despite the damage that the book has done --  due more to those who've read and followed its dicta than to Powell himself -- its author has clearly grown and matured into a kind, loving and productive man. Even so, his authorship has followed him wherever he has gone, resulting in his being fired or asked to resign from various teaching/education jobs along the way.

What may be most impressive about this documentary, however, is the fact that Siskel allows us to see and hear his sometimes abrasive, pushy questions, along with Powell's and his wife's responses to them. The moments between the words being spoken are often as telling as what we finally hear. Whatever Siskel may feel about Powell's guilt and responsibility, he allows us to make up our own mind.

Near the film's end we learn that Powell's second work was a novel titled The First Casualty about the assassin, barely out of boyhood, whose murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand began World War I. At the time he wrote the novel, Powell admired this young man who had, he tells us, the courage of his convictions. The final question asked of Powell by Siskel is whether the author identifies with this assassin. Powell ponders this, but does not answer.

We can answer for him, however, and most of us will agree on No. Powell wrote a book. He did not perform the actual deeds (hell, he didn't even try the recipes). Yet experiencing this remarkable documentary brings us up close -- about as close as we've so far been taken --  to the guilt and possible redemption of another in a manner that makes it ours to wrestle with, as well.

American Anarchist -- from Gravitas Ventures and running 80 minutes -- opens this Friday, March 24, Look for it in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, in Detroit at Cinema Detroit, in Winchester at the Alamo Drafthouse, in New York at the Cinema Village, in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in Jacksonville at the Sun-Ray Cinema, in Atlanta at the Atlanta 14, in Orlando at the Universal Cineplex 20, in Phoenix at the Arizona Center 24, in Houston at Studio 30 Houston, in Kansas City at Studio 28 KC, in Denver at Highlands Ranch 24, in Dallas at the Mesquite 30, and in Toronto at the Kingsway Theater. And if you're not near any of the above, the doc will also be simultaneously available On Demand.
One way or another, see it. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Roger Sherman & Michael Solomonov take us on a thoughtful, visually splendid gastronomic tour IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE

Unlike some of the modern food-porn documentaries that gush over certain chefs or restaurants, together with their fabulous "presentations," the new documentary, IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE, directed by Roger Sherman and featuring Michael Solomonov (along with a number of other fine chefs), seems much less pretentious and a veritable model of intelligent, entertaining filmmaking about food and its delights -- to be found in this case via the little country of Israel. Or perhaps I should identify it as Israel/Palestine.

Mr. Sherman (pictured at left) and Mr. Solomonov's doc never overtly brings up any two-state solution. As one chef reminds us along the way, "Food is not political." Yet, here we see and hear enough chefs with Palestinian and/or Muslim Middle-Eastern roots to quickly realize that Israeli cuisine owes as much to those roots as it does to the Jewish Ashkenazi or Sephardic cultures. All three come into play during the movie and seem to complement each other surprisingly well. Visually, the doc offers some of the most enticing shots of food preparation that TrustMovies has seen.

Solomonov (shown above, left) acts as our guide, leading us around the country of Israel, discovering restaurants and chefs aplenty. That's Mike, above (with Meir Adoni at Mizlala, sampling the chef's Kubbaneh, a Temenite Sabbath bread and below) with Palestinian chef Husam Abbas and his famous Kebab El Babour, for which his restaurant in Umm Al-Fahm is named.

We discover a cheesemaker, below, and learn some interesting tricks of his trade, as well as meeting journalists who've covered the Israeli cuisine scene for some time. We spend a Shabbat evening with a cook and her family, and learn (if we didn't already know this) that most of the citizens of Israel are more secular than religious. Yet the Orthodox sect still exerts huge control over the country, forcing a city such as Jerusalem to close all its shops on the Sabbath.

We learn some history of Mr. Solomonov and his family -- including a brother killed in service of his country shortly before his military term would have ended -- and some history of Israel and its immigrants pertaining to food and culture and why Israeli cuisine was for so many years considered inferior. Explaining how and why this changed is part of the film's mission.

Changed it has, and the many different dishes and meals we see prepared and sampled should make a convert out of you, as it did me. Everything from street food to the selections in some of the famed restaurants look as enticing as food can get. Yet it's all hands-on, no-nonsense cuisine, made with mostly, usually only, local produce.

We learn of the tension between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic sects and how the old-time Ashkenazi cooking -- "cold, boring and guilt-ridden," as one woman puts it, is becoming more vibrant and inclusive.

The movie is also a kind of travelogue, taking us to city after city in all parts of this tiny country. (That's Michael, above, with a seafood maven known as Uri Buri.) From tiny villages to Tel Aviv, we see it all.

We learn how, below, irrigating using salt water makes cherry tomatoes even sweeter (sometimes too sweet), and we discover the Nabatian culture, including its dormant-for-centuries wine industry, and how wine production is flourishing once again. (Our guide explains to us that he is not a drinker, and the reason he gives becomes the documentary's funniest line.)

Full of interesting ideas, scrumptious visuals and a lovely multiculturalism, In Search of Israeli Cuisine should prove a simultaneous treat for foodies, history buffs, and travel lovers. The movie, from Menemsha Films and running 94 minutes, opens this Friday, March 24, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The following Friday, March 31, it hits Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal and Town Center) and a few other cities. Elsewhere? Yes, so click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

DVDebut: Asif Kapadia/Christopher Hampton's featherweight but very pretty ALI AND NINO

A movie that has much in common with last week's offering, The Ottoman Lieutenant -- same time period (World War I) and same location (the middle east) -- ALI & NINO, from that very up-and-down director, Asif Kapadia, and similar screenwriter Christopher Hampton, has all the markings of a work-for-hire done by people who were not especially enamored by their subject matter but labored dutifully and professionally to produce a decent product.

They have, and at only 100 minutes, the movie is not difficult to sit through. Visually, in fact, it is quite a treat, what with its gorgeous interiors (homes/palaces of the uber-wealthy) and exteriors (it was filmed in Azerbaijan and Turkey in some pretty spectacular locales). But the writing by Mr. Hampton is merely workmanlike, telling its story pretty much as expected, while the direction by Mr. Kapadia (shown at right) is of the same ilk.

The two leads are played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (above, right) and Spanish actress Maria Valverde (above, left). Both are charming, attractive and play well together. Though limited by what they were given to do and say, they acquit themselves professionally. As does much of the oddly starry and underused supporting cast, led by Mandy Patinkin (below) and Connie Nielsen and Nino's parents, with the standout performance given by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio (at bottom, right), playing the rather quickly dispatched villain of the piece. He's hissable and more.

A lot of incident is packed into the movie's running time, and as this piles up, it simultaneously seems to somehow lessen in importance, even though it deals with issues like life and death and love. But we've seen it all before, even if not perhaps in such picturesque locations.

From IFC Films and after a very limited and don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it theatrical release, the movie hits DVD this Tuesday, March 21 -- for purchase and/or rental. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

HEATHER BOOTH: CHANGING THE WORLD completes Lilly Rivlin's women activists trilogy

First she gave us a terrific documentary about the life and times of activist/writer Grace Paley, then followed this with a shorter but fascinating film on Esther Bronner, the woman who brought us the first feminist seder. Now, Lilly Rivlin offers up her hour-long documentary, HEATHER BOOTH: CHANGING THE WORLD, which will introduce many (if not most) of us to, as Ms Rivlin puts it, "the most important person you've never heard of." This film's a winner, too.

Rivlin, shown at left, has a way of fishing out the facts of a life and stringing them together in a fashion that draws you in, makes you think and then connect the dots that lead from personal life to politics to change. All three women she has so far memorialized are good examples, and while Paley was certainly the best known, Bronner and now Booth make fine follow-ups. And this time, Rivlin is taking on a living woman -- which seems to bring even more energy and vitality to her film. (Of course, Booth herself could hardly be more vital and alive!)

So who is Heather Booth? (That's she, above, in both her younger and more recent days.) Well, the woman is an "organizer," and if that might seem at first a bit mundane, we soon learn how important this job is, along with how it most effectively can be done. We also learn about the forces that drive her -- love people, hate injustice -- and how her status as an "outsider" probably fueled the fire.

From her first task -- handing out anti-capital-punishment flyers in Times Square -- through the Mississippi terror and the Civil Right demonstrations during the 1960s, we follow her career with interest and often surprise. She worked with Fannie Lou Hamer -- above, center -- in the south, where her sense of the need for social justice was strengthened by living with a black family. From there her skill for organizing seemed to bloom and flourish.

From racial justice to abortion rights and the creation of "Jane" (at a time when abortion was still illegal), we follow her career, professional and personal (there is a lovely section here devoted to "When Heather Met Paul," the man who became her husband and co-worker, though in a very different venue).

We discover the ACDC (Action Committee for Decent Child Care), and The Midwest Academy where, against all conventional wisdom, Heather proves that "organization" can indeed be taught. The movie does skip around a lot, even, it seems, in terms of time frames, yet there is not an uninteresting minute in all of the 60.

We watch as, with Booth's help, Harold Washington is elected mayor of Chicago, and eventually Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is formed (and has by now returned almost twelve billion dollars to consumers!). Accolades to Booth from both Warren and Julian Bond are included in the documentary. The movie's a call to action, as it demonstrates just what a wonder Heather Booth really is. Watching and listening to her will give you much needed courage. The film ends with the election of Donald Trump, a declaration of concern and -- of course -- the need for organization.

Distributed by Women Make Movies, Heather Booth: Changing the World will make its debut in Sarasota, Florida, beginning next week at the Through Women's Eyes Film Festival on Saturday, April 1, at 3:15pm (click here for the complete film schedule); and again during the Sarasota Film Festival on Monday, April 3, at 4:15pm. Click here for this festival's complete schedule.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mark Pellington's best film? THE LAST WORD might just qualify, thanks to Shirley MacLaine

If you don't already consider Shirley MacLaine to be a national treasure, entertainment-wise, you certainly will after viewing her latest film, THE LAST WORD. This creditable attempt at deepening the usual feel-good/senior-citizen movie goes places you may not expect and does so with enough intelligence and flair to make the movie a trip worth taking. In it, Ms MacLaine plays Harriet, a difficult, demanding old woman who's been forced out of the business she started and brought to huge success and is now just waiting, well, to die.

A control freak of long-standing, when she gets the idea to have her obituary written prior to her death (so she has control of that "last word," as it were), she hires the young obit writer for the local paper, Anna (played by Amanda Seyfried, below) to do the job. As directed by Mark Pellington (shown at left) and written by Stuart Ross Fink, the movie is often very funny, at times surprisingly resonant and moving, and almost always an enjoyment to view. If it doesn't reach genre greatness, it is at least willing to tackle more than what the usual feel-good film tends to offer us.

The last time TrustMovies saw Mr. Pellington's work, that was the 52-minute music video called Lone. I wasn't overly impressed, though I have enjoyed other of his films. The Last Word strikes me as perhaps the best overall work he's done in quite some time. Beautifully cast, with each performer nailing his or her role quite well, and written with enough pizzazz to keeps us interested and smiling, the movie is visually smart, as well. Note the moment that occurs during a round-up of various characters who have known Harriet, all of whom hate her guts. During the words of one particularly angry, hurtful fellow, the camera pans down just a few inches below his chin and -- suddenly and with such subtlety -- the moment becomes twice as funny.

Films like The Last Word that deal with seniors, end-of-life, and what's-it-all-about seem to need to be feel-good by their very nature. So when one comes along that's at least willing to explore a little more deeply, this is worth savoring. The movie does not turn our heroine into any kind of a saint. She stays pretty much a curmudgeon throughout, but as we learn more about her (and MacLaine, above, helps us understand how and why she's the way she is), we can appreciate Harriet and enjoy her even more.

We meet her ex-husband (a nice job by Philip Baker Hall) and eventually see her reunited with  her estranged daughter (a lovely, rich scene anchored by Anne Heche, above), and along the way, the movie raises worthwhile questions about what it takes to be a good mother, a good friend, and a real professional. And the answers aren't necessarily the easy ones. When (and how much) to control, and when to let go are explored, too. And if a couple of side plots are handled a little too easily, well, this is what blocks the movie from achieving a higher level.

Still what's there is plenty good and plenty enjoyable. In the supporting cast are a number of fine actors like Thomas Sadoski (above), Tom Everett Scott and Joel Murray. And MacLaine is a funny, nasty, total delight. There's life in the old girl -- and in the senior-citizen movie -- yet!

From Bleecker Street Media and running 108 minutes, The Last Word opens here in South Florida tomorrow, March 17, in Boca Raton at the Cinemark Palace 20, the Living Room Theaters and the Regal Shadowood 16; in Palm Beach Gardens at Cobb Theaters Downtown 16; and at the Movies of Delray.  Elsewhere? Of course. Click here and then scroll down to FIND THEATERS & TICKETS.