Monday, April 30, 2018

A family of French farmers deals with World War I in Xavier Beauvois' THE GUARDIANS

Ah, a new film from Xavier Beauvois! This is the fellow who gave us both Le Petit Lieutenant and Of Gods and Men, two films that TrustMovies enjoyed very much. And yet, when I went to further research Beauvois on the IMDB, I was shocked to discover that, while I think of this man more as a filmmaker than an actor, I had actually seen much more of his work in the latter category than the former. His acting is perfectly fine, but it's as writer/director that I most remember him -- particularly for his multi-award-winning Of Gods and Men.

M. Beauvois, shown at left, is an unhurried movie-maker. He takes his sweet time and concentrates on the details -- of character, situation, location and time period. While this can make his filmmaking slow-paced as was, even to some extent, his police procedural, Le Petit Lieutenant, his work is never for a moment uninteresting. His latest entry as director and co-adapter (with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau) of the novel by Ernest Pérochon, is THE GUARDIANS (Les gardiennes), a story of World War I set entirely on the French home front with not a scene of war-time action to be found.

Oh, the movie begins clearly and cleverly enough with a long tracking-the-landscape shot of dead bodies, some of these wearing gas masks, so we immediately know the WWI time frame. Yet, once the film's story begins we never leave that home front -- the farm and the village in which our group of main characters live and labor.

Yes, young male characters come and go (early on, one of the sons of the family comes home for a short leave, followed by the leave of a second son and a son-in-law), only to be killed, wounded or taken prisoner by the Germans. Yet we never see any of this; we only hear about it second-hand.

This means we concentrate mostly on the womenfolk who must carry on just as before, but without the help of the stronger males. The work, if you know anything about farming (and a century ago!), is difficult, often back-breaking, and near-constant, yet these women must manage it.

The film's female leads include the mother (the usually glamorous Natalie Baye, above, looking as plain and aged as we've ever seen her),

her daughter (the lovely and, as as one character calls her, "elegant" Laura Smet, above), and a young worker the family must hire as help who has only recently left the orphanage in which she was raised (the wonderful red-haired newcomer Iris Bry, shown below and on poster, top, whom we are certain to see again soon).

What happens to all these folk, women and men, is as believable, sometimes terrible and always understated as life itself. Beauvois and his co-writers have managed to include so little coincidence into their film that when a sample of that credibility-ripping stuff suddenly happens (involving an overseen kiss), it comes as quite a shock. But I think any film deserves a single instance of this, so you'll probably be able to let this one pass. (Downton Abbey this movie definitely is not.)

Performances are everything you could want them to be --  as real as the farmhouse dirt. These people are not big on a lot of talking, so we get used to the silence and visual routine of their lives and then hang on their occasional words, as events pile up and more needs to be said.

The great strength of Beauvois and his cast and crew's work is that though some terrible things happen, some out of the characters' control, others firmly within that control, we are somehow able to understand the dreadful injustice of all this -- given, especially, the time and place. That our heroine is able to accept this and move on is difficult but salutary, and the filmmaker never underscores her achievement with the usual soaring music and feel-good stance. Instead The Guardians (ironic title, that) achieves its ends in all too ordinary but appropriate ways. This is good, strong, rooted filmmaking, and I hope you will give it a viewing.

From Music Box Films, in French with English subtitles and running 135 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, May 4, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on the following Friday, May 11, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. In the weeks following, the film will hit another 15 or so cities. Click here and then click on THEATERS on the task bar half-way down the screen to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

DVDebut for Ilan Ziv's terrific television series, CAPITALISM: Get your economics lesson here!

The truism that history is written by the winners gets a kind of comeuppance in the finally-released-on-DVD-in-the-USA, six-part documentary series from 2014, CAPITALISM, by Israeli-born filmmaker Ilan Ziv (shown below) -- which, as you view and listen to this intelligent, thoughtful mix of economic theory and practice, will begin to seem more like history as written by the losers. As you might further expect, this is bracing and provocative stuff.

I don't know about you, but, like most Americans, for my entire early-into-middle-aged years, I'd been told (and pretty much bought as gospel) the tale that Capitalism was clearly the only intelligent choice for America and the world. The alternative, my god, was Communism, and we all knew how awful that was. The immense delight to be found in this Capitalism series is how smartly and succinctly it demolishes most of the would-be tenets of this theory, whether they come via Adam Smith and the "free" market, David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus, or from everybody's favorite anti-Keynesian, Friedrich Hayek.

Jumping around consistently from past to present day, and from one country and one economist/historian/anthropologist to another, the series is a bit challenging in this regard, yet what it has to say challenges conventional wisdom in such intelligent and sprightly fashion, and with enough facts at its disposal to gut much of Capitalism's vaunted success.

The series begins with a very interesting history of the long (and still ongoing) search for how the economy really works. By the time the series is finished with Adam Smith and his famed tome, as one of our experts points out, "The elephant in The Wealth of Nations room is slavery."

The myths of the free market, free trade and the supposed total benefits of division of labor -- they're all laid to rest here. (The section on free trade and The Opium War, is particularly germane.) By the time we get to Karl Marx (above), his life and contribution, the series has included a good deal of humor, too. Funniest of all is a hilarious cartoon depicting Captain Capitalism fighting a Karl Marx disguised as Santa Claus, who has the kids on his lap ask for "world peace and an end to poverty." Oh, the shame of it! Another section includes the duel of lectures between Keynes & Hayek turned into a rap number (shown at bottom)

Along the way we learn the why and how "fictitious capital" is now referred to as "finance capital," as well as why the ideas of Hayek and his fervent disciple Milton Friedman have failed time and again to produce anything like a sustainable economy. We also hear from some of the usual suspects:  Thomas Piketty, Yanis Varoufakis (as we see and hear of the continuing Greek crisis), Ha-Joon Chang (shown below), Noam Chomsky and one fellow I found especially worth hearing for his quiet voice, measured tone, and perspicacious conclusions -- Abraham Rotstein (shown above).

Forget the nonsense of novelist Ayn Rand's economic theories: What I'd never noticed before is how incredibly shifty-eyed was Ms Rand. Watching her eye movements in the clips shown here is both telling and amazing.

Finally in Part Six, we learn of Karl Polanyi, via his daughter, Kari Polanyi Levitt (above) -- the ideas of whom regarding labor, money, land and particularly debt prove a fine way to finish these lectures. Boy, do I wish I could have seen an informative, thought-provoking series like this when I was in college, rather than being forced to read that crappy and boring Samuelson economics textbook we were given at the time. I would hope that today's students will be more fortunate. The way the world seems headed now, it's either change or perish.

From Icarus Home Video and running 320 minutes (divided into six 53-minute episodes), Capitalism becomes available to home video via DVD and VOD (via Amazon Instant Video and VHX) this Tuesday, May 1.

Update Note:
Ilan Ziv's CAPITALISM -- the complete six-part series -- will also be shown in New York City at Anthology Film Archives, as part of its Karl Marx on Film program, on Sunday, May 20 at 3:45pm, with a 45-minute intermission from 6:30-7:15.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

DVDebut for one of the year's best films: Maysaloun Hamoud's IN BETWEEN

Below is TrustMovies' original review of a film 
that arrives on DVD this coming week. 
If you didn't catch it in theaters, 
now's your chance. It's a winner.

A terrific melodrama all about the evolving place of women in the Muslim world -- particularly that special Muslim world that exists within the state of Israel -- IN BETWEEN, the first full-length film from Budapest-born Maysaloun Hamoud -- is an impressive piece of work in several ways. It offers a look at three very different Muslim young women, each coming to grips with her own needs and desires that conflict with those of her parents, religion, and "tradition." Yet in Israel, for all the other problems that state presents for Muslims, these women are allowed to dress as they wish, become successful in careers usually reserved for men, and choose their significant other out of love, lust or just plain compatibility, rather than the more traditional, "arranged" manner.

Ms Hamoud, shown at left, wrote and directed her movie, and she succeeds equally well in both endeavors. Her dialog is smart and on-target while visually, she and her attractive, talented performers, in addition to the well-chosen locations, camera-work and editing, keep us not merely engrossed but pretty much swept along in all of the growing and mostly fraught goings-on. The filmmaker not only brings to fruition her story and characters, she also leaves them (and us) at an almost perfect moment of ironic, double-edged success: "in between," indeed. The movie's final frame is as memorable as any I've seen in a long while.

The leading characters here are Leila (Mouna Hawa (above), a successful, high-powered lawyer who'd like to meet the right man; Salma (Sana Jammelieh, below), an artist supporting herself as best she can, with an arranged marriage in store, even though her sexual preference is otherwise;

and Noor (Shaden Kanboura, below), a chubby, sweet, and highly traditional young woman about to marry an even more traditional jerk. When Noor moves to Tel Aviv in order to be closer to her school where she studies, and then in with the other two women, change begins to occur.

How this change happens and our characters evolve is particularly believable -- well conceived and executed, via the work of Hamoud and her actresses. Each of the women's stories is brought to fine life, and how they are interwoven is exemplary.

We see and empathize with the interplay of the desire for greater freedom, the needs of family, the demands of the workplace, and the place of men -- lovers (that's the very sexy Mahmud Shalaby, above), fiances, and fathers -- in all this.

The look we get at Arab night life in Israel may surprise you, but I don't doubt that's it's relatively authentic. Ditto the family scenes with both Salma and Noor. (There's a scene near the finale involving Noor, her father and her fiance that is quite surprising and moving.)

By the time we get to that final, wonderful moment of what is perhaps -- no, absolutely -- a victory, I wouldn't go so far as to call it Pyrrhic, but Ms Hamoud makes it clear that this is anything but complete. In Between is must-see for film-goers interested in the changing roles of women, particularly those in the Middle East.

From Film Movement, running 103 minutes and in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles, the movie opened theatrically in the USA in early January and hits the street on DVD this coming Tuesday, May 1 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Friday, April 27, 2018

More Republican party ugliness and destruction, as Reuben Atlas and Samuel D. Pollard's ACORN AND THE FIRESTORM hits DVD

I suspect most of us will remember one of the big news stories of 2009, in which the nationwide community organizing group, ACORN, was beset by a major scandal involving an "undercover" operation in which a young man and woman, purporting to be a pimp and his whore, went into an ACORN office and talked its workers into supposedly helping the pair get a loan on a house they would then use as a brothel.

Yes, this seemed on the face of it to be utterly ludicrous, but there it was, captured on videotape for the whole country to see. See it, we did. Fox News, of course, made an ongoing meal of it, and much of the mainstream media did, too -- without doing a lick of the required investigation into the video's veracity.

One of the great strengths of the new documentary, ACORN AND THE FIRESTORM, by filmmakers Reuben Atlas shown at right) and Samuel D. Pollard (below), is that, after introducing us to a
few ACORN workers and giving a short history of the organization -- designed to help the working class and poor by helping them help themselves -- as well showing us the pair of shysters determined to "expose" ACORN, the movie tells its tale of a sham and scam that somehow looks "real" in pretty much the same manner that this story originally unfolded. The filmmakers refuse to give away their hand too early. This allows the viewer to better understand how something so unfair and dishonest could have taken place here in "democratic" America. Sure enough, as the documentary rolls along, we're caught up once again in how stupid and thoughtless these ACORN workers seemed -- before at last we are shown and told, with all the requisite proof, what really happened.

By the end of the film, sadness and disappointment have turned to shock and anger. Yes, the head of ACORN made some mistakes regarding family, transparency, and moving the power structure of the organization from local to national. But these pale in significance to the shoddy and actually unlawful scam perpetrated against ACORN.

We meet the perpetrators, abetted by that late, anything-but-great sleazebag Andrew Breitbart (what a shame his heart attack did not take place a few years earlier), and watch our anti-heroine, Hannah Giles (above) practicing self-defense in a video that looks every bit as unbelievable and unconvincing (with those very slow moves against an assailant, she'll be dead in no time) as does her later and more famous video (the unedited version I mean) with co-conspirator James O'Keefe.

TrustMovies does not want to spoil the surprise and more delivered by the twists and turns this documentary takes as its tale unfolds. You'll come away from it with enormous respect and appreciation for the film's true heroine, a woman named Bertha Lewis, below, who led ACORN during its latter days. The filmmakers arrange a meeting between Ms Lewis and Ms Giles to end their film, and the restraint Lewis shows toward the not merely naive but really stupid Giles is exemplary. When Giles, who behaves like an entitled piece of trash, declares, "I don't ____!" as though this were a badge of honor (you'll have to view the doc to learn what it is she does not do), you'll suddenly realize what jaw-droppingly dumb actually looks like.

Who stood up for ACORN and its proud, 40-year history or demanded a real investigation of what went on here? Nobody. Not even our crass and cowardly Democrats like Chuck Schumer, Al Franken or even a certain President Obama, who gladly signed the bill into law that defunded the organization. And, as ever, the post-event and more truthful news took a decided back-seat to the fake "event" news that preceded it. ACORN and the Firestorm is a sad, anger-making commentary on truth and fact in the USA -- which of course has only grown worse over the past two years of Trumpiana.

Pictured above is the fellow who opens the documentary by unfurling a Confederate Flag and then telling us, "This is 'heritage not hate'," even as he also explains how he came to connect with ACORN and how the organization helped save his and his wife's home from foreclosure during the 2008 financial crisis. He's a most interesting choice to provide entryway into this fine documentary, which I suspect will be on my list of "best films," come the end of the year.

From First Run Features, via iTVS, the documentary, running a swift 83 minutes, opened in a very limited theatrical run the beginning of this month and will hit DVD come Tuesday, May 15. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The "mother" of psychology? Cordula Kablitz-Post's bio-pic, LOU ANDREAS-SALOME: THE AUDACITY TO BE FREE, opens in theaters

The name Lou Andreas-Salomé, if it has any associations at all for most Americans, may bring cursorily to mind Freud and late 19th/early 20th Century mitteleuropa. That's what popped into TrustMovies' purview, at least, when he first heard about this new film. LOU ANDREAS-SALOME: THE AUDACITY TO BE FREE, co-written (with Susanne Hertel) and directed by Cordula Kablitz-Post, shown below, is quite a marquee mouthful, as well as an eyeful visually. It's a beautifully produced movie, full of color, costumes, lovely locations and the marvelous use -- for both creative and budgetary reasons, I would guess -- of old-fashioned picture-postcard views of historic locations which the characters seem to suddenly occupy and even move through. This is at once enchanting, humorous and smart.

Ms Kablitz-Post offers us quite a mouthful of intelligent dialog, too -- and because subsidiary characters include the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Rée, the dialog is for the most part intelligent and occasionally thought-provoking. Lou (as we'll call her from this point on) was a feminist before the term was coined. Perhaps, as seems to be the case in the filmmaker's view, she was also less interested in the rights of women than in the rights of Lou Andreas-Salomé. One of the strengths of the movie is that it does provide a warts-and-all picture of our heroine, who was highly unconventional in her own time and might very well seem so in the minds of many today.

Lou is played -- as child, teenager, adult and senior -- by four different actresses, with concentration on the latter two categories, with Katharina Lorenz (above, as adult) and especially Nicole Heesters (below, as the senior version) very good in bringing Lou to life.

As for the men who flock 'round her, as storied as some of their reputations may be, the manner in which they're represented here make these "boys" seem not simply callow but also none too bright. Well, golly, that's what love can do, I guess. (Below is Alexander Scheer as Nietzsche, and further below is Philipp Hauß as pudgy poet Paul Rée. At bottom is Julius Feldmeier as the youthful Rilke, whom, as told here, Lou had a hand in renaming to something that sounds more masculine.)

I wish that Kablitz-Post has concentrated a bit more on her heroine's ideas and less on her love life, which, while maybe unusual, has the film leaning a little too much toward soap opera for its own good. Still, I knew so little about Lou going into the movie that I certainly learned something overall.

A student of Sigmund Freud, and it would seem a particularly challenging one, Lou became the first female psychoanalyst. As demonstrated by Ms Heester's fierce intelligence and strength, it appears that she was a very good one, too.

While, Lou Andreas-Salome, The Audacity to Be Free may not be the last word, cinematically, on this unusual woman, it is certainly not a bad place to begin one's exploration. Performances are fine all 'round, and visually the movie's a treat -- even if it promises more than it delivers.

From Cinema Libre Studio, in German, Italian and Russian with English subtitles and running 113 minutes, the movies opened in New York City last week at the Village East Cinema (its last day is today) and hits Los Angeles tomorrow, April 27, at Laemmle's Royal, with additional cities and playdates expected to follow.

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.