Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Labor and reward: Tamer El Said's IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY and Lucrecia Martel's ZAMA

Two very demanding movies are currently opening in our cultural capitals: Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel's new work, ZAMA, which hit New York City a couple of weeks ago and opens in Los Angeles this week, and Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said's debut feature, IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY, which opens in NYC this Friday and then hits L.A. on May 11.

Audiences for art films -- foreign, independent and documentaries in particular -- generally expect demands that are simply not present in
almost any mainstream movie. These two films, however, go far beyond the usual demands.

For starters, it might be a good idea for viewers expecting to see these films to brush up on their history: of Spain and its colonization of South America in the late 1700s (for Zama) and of Egypt and the middle east during the couple of years preceding what is now called Arab Spring and the ongoing Egyptian Crisis (for Last Days...).

Both films simply begin in media res and expect you to quickly center your self and catch up. Lots of movies do this, it's true -- but few give you as little orientation as here. And then there is the problem of each movie's protagonist -- the titular Diego de Zama (played by that fine Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, above) and Khalid, played by Scotland-born actor Khalid Abdalla, below -- men so oddly passive that the word "off-putting" does not begin to describe their character.

In the Last Days of the City looks like a documentary, but it's fiction, though its characters tend to all have names the same as their actors' given name. Our "hero," Khalid, is a filmmaker slowly working on a movie, and most of his friends seem to be filmmakers, too. We meet them early on, during a movie Q&A. "This is a panel of cinema," one of them notes, "but so far we are only talking politics." As these film-making friends josh and spar, their various homelands, current  residences and political views all surface, and we can't help but wonder, How safe are any of these people?

News flashes from TV referring to Marbarek dot the movie, as do the various women in Khalid's life: his ailing mother, maybe an aunt, and an ex-girlfriend -- with whom he is as passive as with all else. He is currently looking for a new apartment, yet we never get a clue from where his income arrives. Is he independently wealthy? "Watching is not living," our hero is told at one point, and when he notices below his apartment building a man attacking a woman and then films this, you'll want to jam his camera between his teeth.

Who is this guy?:  Does he represent a passive Egyptian populace? No wonder his girlfriend (Laila Samy, above) bails on him. He is a handsome devil, however, and you may notice that, though he never seems to shave, the degree of stubble on his face remain exactly the same throughout the entire movie. Among the other visual delights is maybe the sexiest set of mannequins ever captured on film. First we see them nude, then behind windows covered with newspaper to obscure their naughty parts, and then finally completely hidden via burkas. 

Initially the movie is visually riveting -- so interestingly composed and edited that I was hooked. Along the way, we get some family, some history, some tradition, some religion, some politics, and even an ancient calligrapher.  Slowly, though, In the Last Days of the City (which times out at just over two hours) loses all power and finally most of its interest. When, toward the end, Khalid's very annoyed editor says to him, "I'm fed up. I feel I'm wasting my time!" you may second those sentiments completely. It's one thing to demand a lot of your viewers; it's quite another to finally give them so little in return.


Ms Martel's Zama, while also demanding, at least pays off some dividends, though not, TrustMovies thinks, as many as have been found in her earlier films. Visually, the movie is often stunning, filled as it is with gorgeous, if often strange landscapes and vistas (there's one shot of soldiers asleep on an either sleeping or dead horse, the likes of which I've never seen). Sometimes phantasmagorical, more often simply strange but real, Martel's movie gives us an inside view of colonialism in which our "hero" -- a medium-level functionary of Spanish power in South America (Paraguay, I think) -- is both a purveyor of colonialism and its victim.

Directed and adapted by Martel (from the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto), the movie is rich in metaphor and symbolism, never more so than in its handling of a near-mythic character named Vicuña Porto, a rebel leader whom we keep hearing is dead or beheaded or "Here are his ears" but instead keeps re-surfacing, alive after all. When we finally meet him, via the very energetic and interesting performance by Matheus Nachtergaele, we begin to understand what all the fuss is about. Even if, as ever, our poor "hero" Zama has no clue.

A coward and a passive weakling, this guy is such a loser. Everyone uses him, and always to Zama's disadvantage -- from the "royal" lady for whom he lusts and pines, to the governor of the province, to the very natives whom he supposedly lords it over. This fellow is the proverbial schmuck. Even if his most appalling line of dialog -- "This noble family has suffered enough" -- will make you want to upchuck, still, what happens to the poor guy is awful indeed. By the finale of this near-two-hour movie, you'll have experienced wonderful visuals, reacted to some awful carnage, and perhaps had your brain and pre-conceptions jogged a little. It was enough for me, but despite the film's subject and wonderfully strange time and location, I would not place this among Martel's best work.

Zama, from Strand Releasing, opens in Los Angeles  this Friday, April 27, at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. Click here then scroll down to click on Screenings to view all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters.

In the Last Days of the City, from Big World Pictures, opens this Friday, April 27, in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art and on May 4 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, and then elsewhere, too. Click here then scroll down to see all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters. The filmmaker, Tamer El Said, will appears in Los Angeles and New York at certain screenings. Consult the individual theaters for date and time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Let's hear it for the (end of the) SAT, as Michael Arlen Davis' new doc, THE TEST AND THE ART OF THINKING, opens theatrically

Doing pretty much what The Smartest Guys in the Room did for ENRON and  the more recent China Hustle does for the sleaze inhabiting Wall Street, the banking system and China itself, the new documentary, THE TEST AND THE ART OF THINKING lays bare the rather worthless, appalling and incredibly time-wasting and trouble-making "standardized" test known as the SAT, along with its adjunct organization, The College Board -- the latter of which back in 2014 took in more than 840 million dollars in revenue. Hmmm...

As directed by newcomer -- this appears to be his first film --  Michael Arlen Davis, the doc is quite home-made and all over the place, bouncing back and forth between an enormous range of participating interviewees.

These include a good number of students,  together with a few parents; higher education professors, administrators, deans of admissions and Presidents; writers specializing in the field of education; tech prep specialists and professional SAT tutors, the likes of which you will not have seen and heard anywhere else (unless, of course, you yourself recently studied for the SAT/ACT college admissions exams).

Initially you may imagine that the movie is somewhat balanced, as we do hear from some folk that seem to be pro these "standardized" tests. Soon enough, however, you'll find yourself -- and rightly, it seems to TrustMovies -- coming down foursquare on the side of those who oppose these tests as pretty much not worth the paper on which they are printed.

Why? That is what the movie explains in many ways and from various angles, including how and why the SAT does not really test the intelligence of its takers, at least not "intelligence" as many of us understand the word. Instead it seems to be more and more rigged so that, as we see demonstrated over and over here, students can, in a very real sense, be taught to "scam" it. "You can break the test's code," insists one tutor, "without ever even looking at its actual questions."

What we learn from the film's plethora of tutors and "tech preppers" (Chris Ajemian, above, is one such) is both eye-opening and mind-boggling. Little wonder some schools are now opting to make this test optional. Along with the ways students can "overcome" the SAT, we also learn a good deal about the test's history, along with the suggestion that each time the test has been changed and/or its participants have been expanded, the question was always asked: "You're going to let in those people?"

During one section, black and other minority students (and tutors, like Akil Bello, above) talk about their responses to the test, and in the film's funniest scene, one fellow provides proof that, regarding the "essay" section of the test, longer always ends up better. He shows us one essay, which received the highest score possible, which is filled with complete fabrications (Barack Obama was a Basque revolutionary working with Winston Churchill to depose Francisco Franco!) but this essay is so "well-written" -- using so many 75-cent words and nicely varied grammatical construction -- that facts and content simply go by the wayside.

Little wonder so many professionals here remain incredulous that despite the fact the the emperor has been shown, time and again, to have no clothes, the SAT just keeps going on and on and on. As one person points out, if the top-rated schools simply said no, this nonsense would cease. The film's most sustained argument comes from Dr. Richard C. Atkinson, shown above, the former President and Regent of the University of California system. What he says and why packs quite the punch.

The biggest villain here is clearly The College Board -- that keeps making would-be au courant changes, while demanding that all this continue. Worse, it seems that now there is a movement afoot to change the SAT/ACT so that the tests look more like the high school curriculum. Or will it be the reverse -- using the test as a kind of high school accountability measurement? Either way, it's topping disaster with more disaster.

Funny, appalling, bleak and well-documented, The Test and the Art of Thinking is a must for parents of high-schoolers, or for that matter kids who'll be there anytime over the next few years. As the movie closes, we're asked if perhaps these tests paint a picture of what the United States of America has now become. Or maybe only what it wants to be. Either way, as they say: Yikes.

From Abramorama and running a swift 85 minutes, the documentary opens this Friday, April 27, in New York City at the new Landmark 57 West, and then the following Friday, May 4, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall. From there it will expand across the country. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Punk rock and Buckminster Fuller join forces in Peter Livolsi's THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW

You won't find much odder combinations that those that come together in THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW, the first full-length film from Sundance alumnus Peter Livolsi. The two families that slowly begin to meld here could hardly be more different -- one whose father embraces religion as a kind of escape, the other pure-science-oriented who lives in one of those geodesic domes designed by architect/ environmentalist/ inventor Buckminster Fuller. The son in each family seems like the proverbial oil/water mix, as well.

If Mr. Livolsi's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) has the whiff of manipulation -- his adapted screenplay is based upon the novel by Peter Bognanni -- the performances by the film's six leading actors are spot-on, alternately funny and moving, while the writing and direction allow those performances to carry the weight of the somewhat too telescoped story.

The result is a film that lives and breathes vitally as it unfurls before you, even if you might find yourself picking it apart once it's over and you've recovered from being in-the-moment with these terrific actors.

Sebastian (Asa Butterfield, above, seated) and his Nana (Ellen Burstyn, above, hair-cutting) live and work (as caretaker/guides) in the geodesic dome/home designed by the late, great Mr. Fuller. On a tour one day comes a church group led by a dad (Nick Offerman, below, left), his two kids, Jared (Alex Wolff, below, center) and Meredith (Maude Apatow, below, right), and some other young church members. The very small but vital interplay that occurs between Sebastian, Meredith and Jared -- just a little conversation, touching and then a boner -- leads to these kids' increasing connection with and reliance on each other.

Teen-age rebellion, planned and otherwise, is something movies have always served up, from the Rebel Without a Cause of my own teen years until now. This film, however, with its hugely different philosophies at work, as well as its two families suffering each in its own way from great loss and neither quite able to properly cope, offers an odd but enticing tale that grows wilder as it moves along.

That the movie does not spin out of control is due mostly to those wonderful performances and to Livolsi's ability to keep us hanging on in hopes that the film will not finally betray itself and its ideas/ideals. It doesn't, but due to that telescoping, a little too much goes on for its own good. Still, there are a number of lovely high points along the way. Why people sometimes act as they do, in a manner that doesn't seem to help themselves or those they love, is brought home quite beautifully in a scene between Sebastian and Meredith in a hospital waiting room, above.

How we can imprison ourselves, even in a remarkable, environmentally friendly house full of light that brings the outside in, is demonstrated very nicely, too, as is some punk rock music that, for the first time in my movie-going experience, actually made some sense -- musically and philosophically -- while advancing the plot-line along.

If you can accept a little manipulation in service to some thoughtful ideas and wonderful acting, I suspect you'll be happy to have seen The House of Tomorrow, a title that becomes more and more ironic -- and yet absolutely truthful, too -- as the movie moves along.

I wonder what Buckminster Fuller would think of the film. I 'd hope that, as surprised as he might initially be, he would also enjoy and approve. From Shout! Studios and running just 85 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, April 27, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Noho 7 and Playhouse 7, and here in South Florida at the AMC Aventura 24, Miami.  To see the listing of all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Modern-day Corsica comes to life (and death) in Thierry de Peretti's dark A VIOLENT LIFE

A VIOLENT LIFE, the new film from actor-turned-director Thierry de Peretti (shown below, who also directed and co-wrote Apaches), is, as was M. de Peretti's previous movie, all about the Mediterranean island of Corsica (located just above Sardinia and pretty much midway between Italy and France) -- a very short history of which is given us via the film's opening title cards.

This history tells us that the island was purchased by France (but not from whom: the Republic of Genoa) in 1768.

While France still owns and "rules" the island today, as a territorial collectivity, Corsica supposedly enjoys greater autonomy than some other French-controlled regions. This remains colonialism nonetheless, and so the island has been plagued or (depending on one's viewpoint) enriched ever since by it own nationalist movements which rise to the surface every so often, encouraged, as the title cards also inform us, by Corsica's young people -- mostly, as we shall see, by its young male population. With a single exception, these young men are heavy-duty macho numbskulls who then grow, as adults, into even more violent and stupid versions of their younger selves.

That "exception" would be the film's hero and main character, a young man named Stéphane (Jean Michelangeli, above), who seems initially intelligent and thoughtful but also clearly in thrall to many of his friends and relatives, younger and older. The movie is filled with conversations, philosophical and political, and while this is interesting enough, it soon begins to seem that for all these Corsicans' efforts toward would-be independence, no one knows what the fuck he (or anybody else involved) is actually doing or achieving.

Part of the problem with the movie is that it will very difficult for most audiences, even as it is for the characters themselves, to know what is going on and why. For whatever reason, the main character seems to be OK with this. (Perhaps he is so used to this being the case that nothing any longer surprises him.)

We watch and listen as the film moves back and forth in time and characters kill and/or are murdered, bombs are planted (some go off, others -- intentionally -- do not), and nothing at all is achieved. One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps French rule isn't so terrible after all. (And this, from someone who professes to hate colonialism!)

Along the way  subjects are raised that are always worth thinking about -- "moral limits," for instance. And the film's cast of (for TrustMovies, at least) unknown newcomers is, to a man and woman, talented and believable. Toward the end, there a wonderful scene between what my spouse called "The Real Housewives of Corsica," in which the women finally get their chance to spout ideas and beliefs. The result is eye-opening, funny, and almost as disturbing (but not quite) as what we've seen and heard from the men.

Early on, when one character notes, "They'll come down heavy on us!" you may ask yourself, Who the fuck are they? By the end, you are still asking this question because the groups and sub-groups involved in all this seem beyond understanding -- at least in any manner useful to the "cause."

As sad and depressing as A Violent Life is, I'm still glad I saw it -- if only to be able to try to understand (and then fail at it) just a bit more about the Corsican "situation." The movie ends with our hero finally talking to a journalist, insisting that his real name be used, and then accepting the inevitable, whatever might occur. Of course, he and we know very well what this will likely be.

From Distrib Films US and being released to DVD via Icarus Films Home Video, the movie -- in French (and maybe some Corsican dialect) with English subtitles and running 107 minutes, hits the street this coming Tuesday, April 24 -- for purchase or rental.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Love musicals? Try John Howarth and Michael Fields' MARYJANE: A MUSICAL POTUMENTARY

Where did this very enjoyable and surprisingly encompassing movie -- MARYJANE: A Musical Potumentary -- come from, and why isn't it receiving a more major release? To answer that first question, the film is based on a stage musical put together by Michael Fields (shown below), first produced by Dell'Arte International (where Fields is part of the staff), a theater and school located in Humboldt Country, California (and yes, Humboldt is probably best-known as the "pot" capital of the USA, if not the entire world).

Why isn't the film getting the kind of release that it deserves? Probably for a number of not-so-good reasons, beginning with the fact that it's pro pot (Bill Maher would certainly approve), which is still a no-no in certain circles, despite marijuana's ever-increasing legality. Although the film won a Best Musical award at the Oregon International Film Festival (OK: it's not Cannes), there are no "names" attached to the movie save that of Ed Asner, who
has but a very small role in the film and does not appear until nearly the finale. Despite this lack of names there are some immensely talented folk involved in the musical -- from the several people who wrote its songs, to the performers themselves, to the director/  cinematographer/editor and co-screenwriter, John Howarth, shown at right). The theater production is said to have been the most successful ever produced by this company, and it's easy enough to understand why: Its subject matter could hardly be more "right" for the location nor more topical, too, for the entire nation.

To make the transfer from stage to film, Mr. Howarth has done some very clever stuff: inserting timely documentary-type interviews with police and fire department personnel (as below) who talk about the specific pot-produced problems that marijuana growing increases regarding the necessary protection of the community at large. Not to mention what weed production has done to the local ecology. Not good.

While the musical is definitely more pro pot than not, it also manages -- quite well, too -- to let us see the whole picture of a community whose very livelihood (not only for the growers and sellers but for so many other local businesses that thrive on the pot economy) has come to depend almost entirely on this product.

And yet the movie's never preachy nor finger-wagging. Instead, via one highly enjoyable musical number after another (there are said to be 16 in all), the ideas here come to wonderful fruition in the charming and funny lyrics that are also sometimes surprisingly smart and dark. (The music is good, too: often bouncy and buoyant, occasionally emotional and moving.)

Maryjane: A Musical Potumentary makes wonderful fun of its subject, as well as recognizing its many benefits. It addresses what will doubtless arrive once pot is completely legal and big business begins to put these small businesses out of business. A song such as I Am the Industry pleads in its own nasty way to keep pot illegal, while I Just Wanna Get High asks why liquor is legal but pot is not.

The adorable Humboldt Honey satirizes the hippie ladies of the town; The Rasta Tea Party offers up pot's "spiritual" side with its own side dish of satire; the beautiful What Have I Done, My Son and Child are hugely moving numbers sung with great passion and feeling.

Maybe the best of all is the spectacular song and dance set to an Hispanic style addressing the "trimmigrants": those workers, visitors and locals, who trim the marijuana and make pretty good money doing it. This particular number is a knockout.

Toward the end, as someone sings, "I'd like to teach the world to smoke in perfect harmony," you'll suddenly become aware, not just of satirizing that old Coke pop-song jingle, but also of how beautifully some of these numbers are being rendered -- in perfect harmony.

The cast could hardly be bettered -- many of them hail from the Dell'Arte alma matter -- as does the leading lady, Joan Schirle (near left and below), who is simply terrific whether acting, singing, dancing, whatever.

TrustMovies admits that he was not expecting much from this unknown-to-him little movie when he sat down to view it, and this may account in some part for his huge enthusiasm.
But only in some part.

Maryjane: A Musical Potumentary ought to have received a much wider release. Fortunately, it hit VOD just yesterday, April 20, from Green Apple Entertainment. Presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 16×9 (1.78) and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, it is now available on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, DISH/ Sling TV, DirecTV, FandangoNow, Xbox, VUDU -- with more venues coming shortly. The movie's very good soundtrack is available now, too.