Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Arrow's Blu-ray debut of Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT proves a multi-faceted delight

TrustMovies had not seen THE APARTMENT -- the multi-Oscar-winning and now classic Billy Wilder movie -- since 1960, the year of its initial release. He was 19 at the time and far too untutored in life to begin to appreciate the film's unusual mix of compassion and cynicism that marks it, even today (hell, especially today), as something rather special. To say that this movie "holds up" is putting it far too mildly. In our current times of me2 and the off-the-charts political correctness that makes an intelligent person want to stop the world and get off, the film is like a slap in the face that wakes you and sets you back on course.

That said, its cynicism -- about male prerogative and the role of women in the workplace back in mid 20th Century America -- still startles.

Mr. Wilder (shown at left), who directed and co-wrote the film with his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, pulls no punches in his depiction of the ways in which the male corporate executive treats the female as chattel/accessory -- and worse, how totally accepted all this is by both sexes.

It's the latter, however, that will probably raise viewers' pulses and redden their faces. Come on now, was it ever really like this? Yes, dears, it was.
And kind of still is. For the most wealthy and powerful.

That Wilder was able to make to make both a comedy and a love story from material that ought to creep us out was just part of his skill set. His and Diamond's attention to detail and just the right amount of repetition (to remind us but not club us senseless) plus their ability to set up situations, surprises, jokes and emotions in a manner in which they eventually coalesce and pay huge dividends down the road is, I think, unequalled in American movie history.

The film stars two of the most talented and popular actors of the day -- Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine (above, right and left, respectively) along with an impressive third wheel, Fred MacMurray (below left), playing against his usual happy-family-man type (though some moviegoers will recall his work in Wilder's Double Indemnity).

The tale tells of a corporate schlub (Lemmon) who is good enough at his accounting work but is "getting ahead" by allowing his married corporate bosses to use his apartment as a sex pad for their assignations with their mistresses. Maclaine plays one of the elevator operators in the corporate building who seems to have managed to keep herself aloof from these predatory males.

Much of the comedy arises from the bone-deep hypocrisy and denial of the males, as well as from the enormously adept stars, who make almost everything we see and hear both comic and sad. Even the film's "happy ending," while delicious enough, comes slightly curdled if you allow yourself to consider the character of its protagonists.

He is all too willing to bow to power for a little recognition, while she's ready to use suicide as a way out of a failed romance. Sure, maybe they've changed a bit along the way, and we do get the clinch and the kiss at the finale. But tomorrow? Better not think about that. Yet Wilder has built all of this right in.

The filmmaker is both compassionate enough to see these folk as fallible humans and cynical enough to know how little real long-term change is likely to happen.

Filmed in widescreen black-and-white, the movie's a pleasure to view and hear in this new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with original uncompressed PCM mono audio. As usual with Arrow Video, the Special Features are many and wonderful. Especially good is The Key to The Apartment, a new appreciation of the movie by film historian Philip Kemp.

From Arrow Academy (released here in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group) and running exactly two hours, the new Blu-ray disc is available now -- for purchase and (I would hope somewhere) for rental.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Winter Solstice with Lee Liberman — a vikings mashup: THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS

A raft of streaming films on all things Nordic have storied us with Vikings — near 300 years of Scandinavian pirate raiding notorious for brazen killing/thieving and ships engineered to slice through the sea. Then the Vikings quietly assimilated into countries where they had landed.

THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS are two versions of the same era — one told from the Saxon view in England and the other by the Scandinavian perpetrators. Vikings entered written history in 793 when a raid along the coast of Northumbria menaced the monastery, Lindisfarne, in which servants of God were murdered or captured as slaves and the abbey emptied of its treasures. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 ended the period of their notoriety.

Vikings is in Season 5 on the History Channel and also on Amazon Prime Video; its events are based on Viking-age Norse poetry and sagas, in particular legends of Ragnar Lothbrok (above) and his sons who raided Francia (France) and Anglo-Saxon England during the 800’s. Ragnar is not documented outside of myth (Vikings traditions being more oral than written), although his sons are. But the sagas offer fertile ground for imaginists like Michael Hirst (below, writer of The Tudors and Elizabeth, the Golden Age) who has authored every episode of the series (season six is filming) calling it “… a rich and wonderful culture…I just fell in love with their paganism and how democratic they were compared to other societies.”

Better documented than Ragnar in history is Rollo, (Ragnar’s older brother in Vikings but unrelated in fact) who first besieged Paris in 885-6, later defended it against Vikings, married a French princess (Rollo and Gisla below), converted to Catholicism, and fathered a line of kings including William the Conqueror.

His descendants became the Normans of (French) Normandy who conquered England in 1066, Rollo becoming an ancestor of today’s royal family.

Hirst mixes and matches Ragnar and Rollo timelines to immerse us in Viking culture, its violent history and religious ritual (human sacrifice on the menu) wrapped in imagined rivalries, battles, and affairs.

In Seasons four and five its world-wide trading and assimilation have begun with Rollo (Clive Standen) settling in Francia and Ragnor’s oldest son, Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig), venturing as far away as North Africa (below). Bjorn later gained repute as a Swedish king.

Australian actor, Travis Fimmel (second photo from top, above), runs away with Ragnar Lothbrok, a man of few words, glowing eyes and annoying grimaces, though the tics slacken as the seasons progress and Fimmel/Ragnar grows into the roles of leader/king.

In Season one Ragnar is a farmer with two children and warrior wife, Lagertha, played by Canadian Katheryn Winnick, an actress with life-long martial arts training and blond tresses twisted into complex braids. Lagertha is a modern woman’s fantasy — she and her fellow shield maidens fight and lead. She gets put down but she has rights, she rebounds, she takes revenge, she kills. By the third season, their son Bjorn Ironside is grown, they each have different partners, Ragnar gaining many sons with his wife Aslaug, and Rollo, portrayed in Ragnar’s shadow, comes into his own, later to surpass all in reputation. (Below, Ragnar with two wives, Aslaug, l, and Lagertha.)

Vikings organized themselves democratically, and their ‘middle class’ fought for their leaders, mostly about land and resources, routinely procuring human slaves. The harsh landscape and climate led Ragnar to obsess about golden lands rumored west across the sea where living was easier, earth more fertile; he commissioned eccentric boat builder, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård of the famed acting family, below) to build a craft to brave the unknown. Floki split wood along seams making his boats uniquely strong and flexible; a shallow bottom made access easy to shores.

Hirst puts Ragnar, Rollo, and Floki at the Lindisfarne assault of 793. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says: In this year fierce foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those that same year [on June 8] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

There, Ragnar captures young monk Athelstan (George Blagden, star of Versailles) and takes him home, where they begin to grapple with each other’s gods and beliefs — Hirst using their bromance to foreshadow the eventual blending of Vikings with Christian culture.

Initially the Christian god was a harmless addition to the Northmen’s pagan stable, but Scandinavian culture itself turned Christian by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (Heaven offered salvation to both women and men, whereas Valhalla only welcomed male warriors. Too bad women lost ground in Christianity.) Years later, harboring rage at King Ecbert of Wessex (a terrific Linus Roache) for his destruction of a Viking farming community that he had invited, a burned out, aging Ragnar plans his own death to take revenge on Ecbert. Returning to Wessex with his crippled son Ivar (charismatic Dane, Alex Høgh Andersen), Ragnar invites capture and Ivar is sent home to rally his brothers to revenge his death. Ragnar tells King Ecbert: ‘A man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. It was my idea to come here to die — me’ (see bottom photo for Ragnar’s grisly end, reported in the Sagas).

In one of their final conversations, Ecbert and Ragnar verbally spar with respectful hostility. Ragnar says: what if our gods, yours and mine, do not exist? Egbert replies: nothing would have purpose or meaning. Ragnar counters: Everything would have meaning. (It is tantalizing of Hirst to inject atheism and free will into this superstitious era.) In Hirst’s narrative, Athelstan falls in love with Egbert’s daughter-in-law; she gives birth to an ethereal child, Alfred, who will become Alfred the Great, teeing up a move over to Netflix for The Last Kingdom (TLK).

Based on a beloved book series by Bernard Cornwell, TLK is set later than Vikings and includes Ragnar’s reported grown warrior sons, especially Ubbe, plus the mature Alfred, a particularly pious and scholarly leader, jibing with Hirst’s version of Alfred’s paternity by monk Athelstan.

Cornwell (cameo’d as a Viking, above, in episode 7 of TLK’s new season, above), invented warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who is a provocative upstart in screenwriter Steven Butchard’s hands.The war between God and Gods, Christianity and paganism, plays out within Uhtred, who is born to a Northumbrian Saxon nobleman but captured and raised by Danes. Uhtred is always at odds, pulled between his Saxon birthright and pagan upbringing. He and captive Brida (Emily Cox), adapt easily into their Dane household until the adults are murdered, uprooting them and beginning their trials to avenge the murders along with their Danish brother.

But Uhtred’s Saxon pull drives him to recover his ancestral estate, Bebbanburg, lost to his usurping uncle when the Danes defeated and killed his father, Uhtred, and took the boy captive. Uhtred sees Alfred (a quietly marvelous David Dawson, below, left), as the means to eventually recover his land, coinciding with Alfred’s ambition to rid England of the Danes and needing Uhtred’s warrior genius to do it. Uhtred’s service is grudging but effective and loyal. Alfred’s ambition is to unite all the kingdoms into one; he becomes “the Great” because he made the template of an England, building civil governing institutions (dying before his dream was realized). Alfred and Uhtred’s is the essential emotional conflict that ends with Alfred’s death and Uhtred’s commitment to help Edward, Alfred’s son, grow into kingship. (Netflix now funds the series, produced by the Downton team; more seasons are likely. See a 2015 BBC posting about the show by clicking here.)

Both TLK and Vikings offer smash bang adventure, the former being more emotions driven, the latter excelling in the sweep of the Viking saga itself. Hirst short-changes by not giving us more of Lagertha and Ragnar, their bond outlives their marriage but we are kept on the fringe of their love and regrets. Not one spousal relationship is worked through emotionally — intimacy does not seem to be Hirst’s thing. But you’ll like Vikings for its far-flung adventure and the charisma of Ragnar the curious; Floki, the eccentric gods-freak; and Ragertha, commanding Queen. Add devious King Ecbert of Wessex; crippled Ivar, the magnetic, psychopathic son of Ragnar who slithers and rolls like an alligator; Athelstan the sensitive; and warrior monk Heahmund, presaging Templar knights (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, reprising his ‘Tudors’ association with writer Hirst). But most of the lesser players are screen not heart-fillers. (Rollo’s bride, played by Morgane Polanski -- yes, daughter of, and she resembles Roman -- is immature and mechanical as Princess Gisla.)

Stephen Butchard makes you invest personally (just as he did in his BBC/PBS film A Child in Time, revealing the qualities of strength that emerge in those who have endured loss). Butchard’s aim is to create empathy; he says if people can’t identify with the characters, a story becomes just a series of events. Uhtred loves many women beginning with Brida; below they grieve a miscarriage. He is a bit of a brat, defiant, dismissive of Alfred’s government protocols, scholarship, and religiosity (he should be on his horse not his knees) and feels unappreciated for his warrior deeds. Alfred, sickly and pale, brilliant and ruthless, manipulates him into service but stews at his pagan ways and questions his loyalty. Uhtred kills a thief and Alfred is furious the case was not brought before the witan (court) — the public should see the laws at work. They go through too many cycles of anger and grudging forgiveness after Uhtred pulls off one miraculous win after another. You feel the depth of their bond of quiet rage. Alfred’s wisdom is palpable; you watch the King force young Edward to shoulder the burden of decision-making and the prince become kingly before your eyes. Alfred’s final meeting with Uhtred before dying is magnetic and all heartbreak.

My own preference for TLK hangs on writer Butchard’s skill at making his characters’ struggles your own and in truly enjoying their company including many idiosyncratic support characters, while Vikings satisfies with its sweep of story-telling and its poignant reveal of cosmic themes that stun when they appear intermittently.

Either or both will serve as appetite quickeners for next year’s finale of Game of Thrones.

This post is written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Big-time Oscar bait: THE FAVOURITE, Yorgos Lanthimos' most entertaining and accessible film so far, opens in South Florida

We've already seen as number of films this year with a terrific lead performance from a woman -- Kelly MacDonald in Puzzle, Julianne Moore in Bel Canto, Glenn Close in The Wife, to name a few of the best -- but here comes a movie that sports three major, spot-on and Oscar-worthy performances from its leading actresses. Plus, it proves such a fascinating, oddball entertainment for so many reasons that TrustMovies predicts it will be land Oscar nominations in quite a few categories.

THE FAVOURITE (British spelling, folks) is the fifth film from Greek movie-maker Yorgos Lanthimos (shown at right) to garner a theatrical release here in the USA, and it is by light years his most accessible and entertaining. Splendidly cast, top to bottom, it is also his first to concentrate so fully on women. The result has so far proven both mainstream-arthouse box-office and critical gold.

As usual with Lanthimos' work, the actual time frame is somewhat bizarre. If it seems like the present (Dogtooth or The Killing of Sacred Deer), the human behavior on view is from elsewhere -- in the case of the latter film, somewhere in the land of myth. In The Lobster, both time frame and behavior are completely elsewhere. (Alps comes closest to medling period and behavior into a cogent whole.)

The Favourite pulls a reverse twist: Set in England of the early 1700s, during the reign of Anne, Queen of Great Britain, the period details of the sets and costumes look both sumptuous and correct. Yet the dialog -- classy, witty and very smart -- is thoroughly of today, and it is delivered by the entire cast with such panache that it works with nary a hitch. (The screenplay comes via Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis.)

Note, too, the scene of dancing in the court (above) that begins as rather your standard sort before morphing into something closer to the kind of jitterbug/swing moves that were seen during World War II. Yet, instead of jarring us, thanks to the skill of Lanthimos, his cast and crew, this odd duality seems to somehow achieve precisely the correct tone.

The tale told is of Queen Anne (a brilliant job by Olivia Colman, above, of Broadchurch, Tyrannosaur and The Night Manager), a woman of unsteady mind, physical health and emotional state,

and the vying of two of her underlings (Rachel Weisz, above, and Emma Stone, below) for the place at the Queen's side as her favourite.

A war against France is currently raging, which provides some political backdrop and a chance for the lesser males in the story -- particularly the warring politicians Nicholas Hoult (below, center) and James Smith to strut their marginal stuff. Don't mistake my meaning here: The actors are just fine, but their roles are clearly subsidiary to those of the much stronger women.

Who holds the upper hand changes and then changes again, and the feint-and-parry antics of this crew proves consistently surprising and lots of dark fun. (Dark is ever-present in Lanthimos' world, as it seems to be in Greece.)

Interestingly, the most completely sympathetic character in the film is that of Masham, the decent young man played by Joe Alwyn (above, left) who simply has the hots for Ms Stone's character and is used as a disposable stepping stone throughout.

Lanthimos keeps a pretty firm hand and eye on things, but occasionally he can't resist a too-cute camera angle (as two photos up) or the use of something I believe is called a fish-eye lens, above, to produce an odd visual that calls attention to itself but says nothing. Still, this is overall a small price to pay for enjoying such good, dark fun.

History, bunnies (lots of them), poisoned tea and a runaway horse all come into play and help make this two hour movie pretty much fly by. That, and the work of its three very fine actresses, each of whom consistently commands your attention and respect, even sometimes convincing you that her character might just be the caring, humane person she so wants her Queen to admire.

But since this is a warts-and-all (maybe warts-and-little-else) affair in which power must be held so tightly, these strong, smart and heartless women must ever jockey for that power. The three actresses are a wonder to watch. As Ms Stone's character answers, when asked what side she is on concerning a particular dispute, "I am on my side." Well, aren't we all? And don't we end up in prisons mostly of our own making?

From Fox Searchlight and running 119 minutes, The Favourite, after opening on the coasts and elsewhere around the country, hits South Florida today, and is playing pretty much all over Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach County areas. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Ron Diamond-curated 20TH ANNUAL ANIMATION SHOWS OF SHOWS hits theaters

Based upon the fifteen animated shorts seen in this year's (the 20th) rendition of the annual ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS, the past 12 months or so (since last year's version made its debut) have perhaps not been the most creative or spectacular for the animation industry, particularly when compared to the general excellence of last year's batch.

Not that there is much wrong with this 20th edition: As curated by Ron Diamond, the films -- 15 of 'em which range in length from one minute to 16 -- are enjoyable, sometimes funny, often charming, and even now and then dark and/or moving, and only occasionally shrug-worthy. Too often, though, too many of them rely on the tried, the true and the sentimental. Here, below, is a brief critical description of each film, from the first on the program to the last.

French and running seven minutes, THE GREEN BIRD offers up an oddly humanistic green fowl that tries to protect its lone little egg -- with colorful and amusing results. It may bring to mind those old Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons. But classier.

From the USA and running eight minutes, ONE SMALL STEP tracks a young girl and her helpful dad (or is it grandad?) as she tries to become an astronaut. Full of hope, joy, disappointment, anger and grief, it's pretty but also fairly standard stuff.

TrustMovies once had a friend and co-worker who told him of the epiphany she had when she realized one day that every single thing ever manufactured first had to have been designed. This came to mind while viewing the French short GRANDS CANONS that begins with the drawing of a pencil and then quickly moves on to just about every useful object you can imagine. Driven along by a jazzy and propulsive musical score, this is one of the more creative and unusual of this year's offerings.

In BARRY (from the USA), the theme of everyone's favorite pig movie, Babe, has been distilled down to four minutes of cute and relatively simple animation that goes by so fast it may barely register as more than a blip.

Faster still is SUPER GIRL (also from the USA), a one-minute-long endeavor about a child's hope and dream that is here and then gone before you even know quite what to make of it.

Germany is represented by one of the more unusual of the shorts -- LOVE ME, FEAR ME (seven minutes) -- using some marvelous claymation (in which the clay seems still moist and ever evolving) and some well choreographed dance, first by a man, then a woman, a warrior and a bird. The animation here is not simply interesting; it's alternately sexual, creepy, and very creative.

What the hell is BUSINESS MEETING (from Brazil and running 2 minutes) even about? Maybe the nonsense of Capitalism? The power/ridiculousness of words? Copycatting?  Your guess is as good as mine. This one also features the simplest black-and-white line drawings of all the shorts.

The Netherlands' example, FLOWER FOUND!, offers some very cute animation in which a mouse teams up with a bird, rabbit, pig, stag and owl (and maybe more) to find a missing flower. Moving from cute quest to horrific mistaken identity, this bit of brightly colored animation turns out to be exceedingly dark.

In BULLETS (from the USA and running maybe 90 seconds), a child's voice over some beautifully colored and conceived animation tells us, "Relax, world!" and commands our attention with a message that's short, sweet/sad and quite timely.

Argentina's A TABLE GAME proves another head-scratcher. It may (or may not) be about the idiocy of sports of all kinds, as viewed by the world's population today, and how we give these way too much attention and importance.

Difference and "the other" get a good and very unusual working out in one of the stronger shorts, CARLOTTA'S FACE (Germany, five minutes). How do you manage when you cannot differentiate faces? You'll find out in this fascinating and often darkly beautiful tale.

At twelve minutes, AGE OF SAIL (USA) is the second lengthiest on the current program. It's a kind of ode to a drunken sailor as he ages and sees his life and work upended and replaced. When he rescues an overboard damsel, everything changes. This one is nicely animated and has a strong narrative pull.

The five-minute-long POLARIS (USA) offers polars bears and penguins and involves a young polar bear who has decided to set off on his own and leave family behind. Pretty animation, sure, and sweetly saccharine as all get out.

MY MOON (USA, 9 minutes) gives us some of the more impressionistic animation of this go-round, as it takes us on a romantic tour of our current world and a way maybe around and/or through it via imagination and fantasy. The widescreen anime is different and often quite lovely but finally perhaps a little too sentimental to soar.

The final (and longest: 16 minutes) selection, WEEKENDS, is also the best of the bunch. Set to Erik Satie's music, a mom bids good-bye to her son, as he leaves in the car with his dad. Clearly, the parents are separated or divorced, and the boy is negotiating his way, via reality, fantasy and dreams, through this difficult passage, as first mom, and then dad, gets a new lover. The usual male activities -- violent games and bad eating habits -- are set against mom's more solicitous leanings, and the animation is beautifully conceived and executed to bring all this to alternately jarring, sad and hopeful life. This one manages to avoid the usual sentimental cliches and is all the stronger for it.

With eight out of the 15 shorts coming from the USA, one wonders why more from abroad were not included. Surely, worldwide, there were some better examples than are seen here via a few of the more ordinary American submissions? Nonetheless, this year's compilation is certainly worth viewing, some of them more than once.

The 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows will open in Los Angeles this Thursday, December 13, at Laemmle's Monica Film Center and then at Laemmle's new Glendale on Friday, December 14, and simultaneously in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. New York City will see it open at the Quad Cinema on Friday,December 28. To view all current and upcoming playdaytes, cities and theaters, simply click here and scroll down.