Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A murder mystery from Hirokazu Kore-eda? Yes, as THE THIRD MURDER opens in theaters

Really? A murder mystery from Hirokazi Kore-eda, the fellow who has made all those wonderful Japanese films about family and relationships and philosophy and responsibility? Yes.

And THE THIRD MURDER is indeed about family and relationships and philosophy and responsibility. And also, especially, about justice, motive and character --  that last in every sense that you can imagine for this hugely encompassing word.

Mr. Hirokazu, pictured at right, whose classic Maborosi (the new Blu-ray release of which TrustMovies covered only last week) rather set the Japanese standard for films concerning all of the above themes, has now taken those themes and applied them to the murder mystery genre.

The results will most likely please his current fans a good deal more than they may satisfy those who expect anything remotely like a conventional murder mystery.

The Third Murder begins in a dark and deserted field at night in which a rather grizzly murder (followed by a cremation) takes place. Thanks to Hirokazu's skill and subtlety, sound effects jar us more than the visuals.

It seems clear from the beginning exactly who the murderer is. But who he is in terms of his character and why he has done the deed remain murky yet continually compelling. And Kôji Yakusho, above, who plays this very unusual role is equally compelling.

We learn something of the Japanese justice system, meet friends and family of the victim, as well as of that of murderer's defense attorney (Masaharu Fukuyama, above) -- who initially does not want this case but slowly grows closer and closer to the man he is defending.

What is learned about the victim will hardly ingratiate the guy to viewers, and once we've met his sleazy wife and hugely troubled daughter, this third murder begins to become as understandable as the first two, which we learn of in the course of the investigation.

Still, this is murder, and so justice must be served. But how? The defense attorney's father (above, who is himself a judge) offers one solution, but his son keeps soldiering on, hoping for a way to get his client a life sentence (or less) rather than death.

Religious motifs -- yes, that cross (seen above and below) -- figure in prominently,

as do dead birds, a thank-you note and peanut butter. Motives are mulled over and seem initially promising but then unclear, while truth, as ever, is utterly elusive.

Toward the finale, there is a scene of such supreme visual power, depth and even a weird kind of suspense as our two heroes come as close as possible to "joining."

Now, I have seen this kind of visual done previously on a number of occasions, but never as well as here. The sense of separate entities trying their best to understand each other and become one has rarely been brought to such vibrant, emotional and philosophic life.

If you are in the market for any cut-and-dried procedural or even a mystery with some sort of surprise finale, better look elsewhere. But if the ever-amazing and endlessly engaging ideas of family as both salvation and hell, justice as an elusive goal worth pursuing, and character as something that evolves rather than springs fully formed from DNA, then The Third Murder might just be your cup of chrysanthemum tea.

From Film Movement and running 124 minutes, the movie opens in New York City this Friday, July 20, at the Quad Cinema and on August 3 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, with other cities to follow in the weeks and months to come.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Lee Liberman's Monthly Sunday Corner: E. M. Forster’s HOWARDS END offers Edwardian class struggle and real estate porn

E.M. Forster (1879-1970) stopped publishing fiction at age 45 although he lived on until 91, as essayist, lecturer, librettist, and broadcaster with a post at Cambridge — esteemed in the intellectual life of Europe. Why he stopped delivering the novels that so distinguished his youth was puzzled over. An untraditional biographer, Wendy Moffat, professor of English at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, retold his story (E.M. Forster:A New Life, 2010) through the viewfinder of his homosexuality. Although other biographers had revealed his orientation years before, Moffat’s unusually provocative version (her critics object to her giving short shrift to his major novels) resulted from her having turned up a diary and other materials that had not figured in earlier discussion about Forster’s life and work. She found dozens of short stories unpublished until recently, although his one homosexual-themed novel, Maurice, debuted a year after his death in 1971.

Forster’s late-life fiction is thought not to measure up to his early novels. The early work sprang from deeply-held liberal social and political views. Forster’s great-grandfather, Henry Thornton, was an abolitionist leader who supported William Wilberforce’s activism in Parliament that ended the slave trade. Forster wrote an under-appreciated biography (1956) of his great-aunt: Marianne Thornton 1797-1887; A Domestic Biography that told the story of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect liberals, especially Marianne’s brother, Henry Thornton, as well as Forster’s own family history. (My review of Amazing Grace, the story of Wilberforce and Thornton, is here.)

Howards End, the novel (1910), expressed both Forster’s (the writer is shown at left) socio-political views and his belief in the need ‘to connect’, a head-vs-heart story reveling in industry and technology’s effect on everyday Edwardian life. The acclaimed Merchant-Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala film of 1992 on Netflix is now joined by the 2017 BBC mini-series adapted by Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea, Margaret) and directed by Hettie Macdonald on Starz for your comparison. Three families represent three social classes whose views represent the tensions in the story. The Wilcoxes are nouveau richer-than-rich, their fortune made in the (exploitative) rubber industry in the colonies; the young Schlegel siblings are comfortable enough to live off their inheritances (most like Forster’s own history). The Basts are poor, their windows rattle from trains thundering by. Leonard Bast, who seeks self-improvement, meets Helen Schlegel at a comically pretentious Ethical Society ‘Music and Meaning’ lecture-demonstration of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (1992). The Schlegel’s do-gooding brings about tragedy for him in the end—Forster’s lessons being that good intentions only go so far, liberalism itself has its own pretensions, and plutocrats can be mindlessly cruel.

Henry Wilcox is a master of efficiency and ignores the poor except as a source of exploitation. His wife Ruth (above, Vanessa Redgrave, the Wilcox matriarch,1992), lacking interest in women’s rights and the arts, is nevertheless deeply attached to nature through her inherited ancestral home, Howards End, (just one of several glorious dwellings in the real estate aspect of this story). The Wilcoxes and the Schlegels have met in Europe and taken a fancy to each other. The upper-class bohemian sisters Margaret and Helen and their brother Tibby (below, Margaret and Helen, 1992) are literate, intellectual, and consumed with the arts and the causes of the day such as suffrage and the plight of the poor. They remind us (blue staters) of our liberal guilt. They prize connection, truthfulness, kindness. The Wilcoxes on the other hand, practice self-repression and lack intuition or empathy — their wealth is their pleasure; they talk only of business and sports. Son Charles Wilcox, James Wilby (1992), says: …"those Schlegels...putting on airs with their ghastly artistic beastliness."   These two families intrigue each other at first—they are titilated and unnerved by their differences. Helen tells Meg of her visit to the Wilcoxes at Howards End (2017): "When I said I believed in the equality of the sexes, he [Mr. Wilcox] gave me such a sitting down as I have never had! And like all really strong people he did it without hurting me... he says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage -- nicely."

Forster has set up the social mismatch in the name of rising above differences ‘to connect’; a comic-tragic drawing-room imbroglio follows involving the disposition of Howards End (below, 1992). For after all, the one thing they do have in common is their preoccupation with real estate — they either dream of it, seek to acquire it, or have just moved in or out of it.

Ruth Wilcox and Margaret bond over the pastoral beauty and earthiness of Howards End. Their mutual fondness leads Ruth to handwrite a note on her deathbed requesting that Howards End be given to Margaret, knowing its rustic simplicity would be truly cherished. Widower Henry brushes off his wife’s dying wish, and despite none of the Wilcoxes’ having affection for the sprawling country house (son Charles calls it ‘a measly little place that never really suited us’), Ruth’s handwritten note is tossed in the fire. However, the newly bereaved Henry Wilcox courts Margaret.

Margaret says to querulous Helen about her engagement to Henry (2017): "I don’t intend him…to be all my life…more and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it….I don’t intend to correct him or to reform him, only connect. I’ve not undertaken to fashion a husband to suit myself using Henry’s soul as raw material." Margaret sees the good in Henry and admires him (although their differences almost break them).

Doleful complications ensue with the Basts in which Leonard (Joseph Quinn, above, 2017) becomes much more than a pet project to Helen Schlegel, alienating Margaret, who seeks to protect Henry from ‘unpleasantness’. For his part, the poor are the way of the world. The guilt-ridden ones, the Schlegels, turn out to lack the material position to help the couple and Henry Wilcox recoils indignantly when he discovers Bast’s wife to have been a youthful indiscretion of his own years ago. Hence the couple suffers, the victims of bourgeois do-gooding gone awry. Actually the story is a gently tragic comedy of errors supplying hypocrisy and denial in large portions. Both film and mini-series offers up a very sharp portrait of class pretension.

As for which of the productions does it better, the Merchant-Ivory film versus the 4-part mini-series, need one choose? The former is too special for words, Emma Thompson winning an Academy Award for her fresh, original Margaret, is truly one of the most engaging heroines in cinema. Helena Bonham Carter is entirely magnetic as Helen— her face all storm-clouds over her impossible brother-in-law Henry (Anthony Hopkins).

Ailing Ruth Wilcox is classic Redgrave — oh how you believe and feel for the grande-dame and wonder that son Charles, the terrific Mr. Wilby (doing a prescient Trump Jr. imitation) and daughter Evie, Jemma Redgrave (niece of Vanessa), have so little of their mother’s generous spirit about them. Although just over two hours, the film packs in Forster’s spritely essence, warm heart, and pointed social satire. (Click here for TrustMovies review of the new boxed set released in 2016 which captures the magic of the Merchant-Ivory.)

But the mini-series is also fine; conversations are deeper, more revealing of E.M. Forster’s social commentary, although the episodes lack the glowy effervescence and pungent satire of the film and sometimes plod. The casting of Alex Lawther [for a look at this young actor's versatility, see him in Goodbye Christopher Robin, Ghost Stories and the ace Netflix series, The End of the F***ing World) as Tibby, the youngest Schlegel and a slightly snobbish Oxford student and droll bookworm, and Tracey Ullman as Aunt Julie are perfect additions to the main cast: Haley Atwell and Matthew Macfayden as Margaret and Henry, (above), Philippa Coulthard, Mr. Quinn, and Julia Ormond. (Lonergan reduced Ormond’s role as Ruth Wilcox so jarringly that the matriarch’s importance to the story is hurt.)

It would seem no one could measure up to a character as unforgettable and charismatic as Bonham-Carter’s Helen, and even though she takes the prize, you will still be charmed and attracted to the winsome Coultard (shown above, with the outcome of the ‘unpleasantness’ she caused Margaret and Henry because of her friendship with Leonard Bast).  Also Ms Atwell, whose intelligent, expressive Margaret holds her own against Emma Thompson’s magnificence, still is not Thompson’s Academy Award winner.

On balance the mini-series is lovely if leisurely Edwardian pieces set in a milieu of social change (the pragmatic and imperialist vs the cosmopolitan and intellectual) are your cup of tea and the original if you simply want to know the story of Forster’s beloved work and are up for a completely faithful, joyous, and beautiful film. The Merchant-Ivory is a work of art, but I would not have missed the mini-series (and Tibby and Aunt Julie, below). A Forster fan should know both.

We are left with the question of the effect of Forster’s sexuality on plot and theme. For one, the drama in both film and series is sexless — its romanticism lacking in romance or sexual tension. The tension is class-related. Wendy Moffat’s revelations help here, as well as common sense. Forster did not have his first sexual experience until his late 30’s, years after writing the novel. Underneath his project to demonstrate ‘human connection’ must have lurked his own unrealized desire for the perfection of love-and-sex melded; stories of heterosexual love were incongruous with his own being. But over-analyzing the topic sells short Forster’s profound humanity. There is value in human connection between opposites as among all, sex having nothing to do with it. (During the seasons of this very political era, however, one is predisposed not to seek connections with opposites.)

At any rate, Moffat writes that after Forster became sexually active and had a series of romances, the marriage plot fiction became a masquerade. His growing personal contentment led him to avoid publishing fiction in favor of social and literary criticism. He kept his homosexual-themed writings private. (He is shown below, in later life, with friends).

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

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Among the year's best (so far): Debra Granik's living-off-the-grid drama, LEAVE NO TRACE

Though I was an admirer of Debra Granik's first narrative film, Down to the Bone, TrustMovies found her second film, Winter's Bone somewhat over-rated. So he is more than pleased now to get behind her latest movie, LEAVE NO TRACE, which seems to him to be a just-about perfect marriage of subject matter and style.

Tracking the tale of a veteran of our ongoing Middle-East wars, who, together with his teenage daughter, is living completely off the grid in the middle of a Pacific Northwest national park, Granik's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) will bring to mind last year's wonderful Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen's single-dad character led his large family in a similarly themed adventure, much more comic and encompassing of people, places and things. As lovely and generous as that film was, Leave No Trace is by far the stronger movie. In its narrower view -- it is mostly a two-hander with an occasional supporting character popping up as necessary -- it also probes much deeper the relationship between father and daughter, discovering how the needs of the latter must finally and necessarily supersede those of the former. 

In the leading roles, you could not ask for better performances than from the always fine Ben Foster (above, as dad) and Thomasin McKenzie (below, as daughter Tom). The two of them make each moment between them as real as you could want, and the sense of their being long-time "family" is so strong that it makes the movie's final scene among the most honest -- and wrenching  -- that movies have given us in a long while.

The story is told in a seamless, event-filled manner in which those events are perfectly believable. There's never a question of doubting what happens here. Best of all, there are no real villains, either. The state does what it must -- but with as much decency and care as can be mustered. And the few people encountered along the journey taken by the pair are brought to lovely life by very well-cast actors doing the expected and exacting job. 

Time restraints, along with a suddenly moved-ahead release date down here in South Florida, mean that I cannot spend the  time I would like discussing the film. So I'll just say, see it as soon as you can, and don't read too much more about it beforehand. 

From Bleecker Street and running 109 minutes, Leave No Trace opens locally tomorrow, Friday, July 13 -- in the Miami area at the Regal South Beach, AMC Sunset Place, AMC Aventura, Silverspot Miami at Met Square, and the Tropic Cinema Key West; in  Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway; and in Palm Beach County at the Regal Shadowood, Cobb's Downtown at the Mall Gardens, AMC Indian River 24, Cinemark Boynton Beach, and Frank's Cinebowl and Grille in Delray Marketplace. The film is also playing at theaters all across the country. To find those near you, simply click here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Jake Meginsky's documentary, MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS, opens in theaters

The new documentary about evidently-famous percussionist Milford Graves entitled MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS begins with the following quote from Mr. Graves: "Look at the room downstairs. Look at the garden outside. Don't try to analyze it. Just take it in." Hang on to that statement because it is probably the most intelligent and interesting thing you'll hear for the next 91 minutes. Halfway through the doc, I became so frustrated and angry that I had to stop and refer to the press materials that accompanied the film. (I rarely do this, as I prefer to see a film knowing as little about it going in as possible.)

What I learned via those press materials was that the film's director, Jake Meginsky (shown at left), is evidently an enormous fan of the work of Milford Graves and so one day presented himself as an acolyte/student of the master, who over time seems to have become a kind of mentor to Meginsky, who clearly wanted to memorialize his idol via this film.

Instead he has allowed Graves (shown below) to ramble on throughout the documentary, sharing with us his thoughts on just about everything and anything to the point that the man begins to look like a complete narcissist who must, along with his "ideas," always be the absolute center of attention.

The apotheosis of this (and the nadir of the film) is reached during a lengthy, rambling remembrance from Graves about the time his teenage son appeared to be in the midst of being murdered downstairs on the sidewalk in front of the family's Brooklyn home. How this tale of terror turns into yet another example of narcissistic nonsense in which Mr. Graves becomes the center of attention is remarkable indeed. And unless I missed it somewhere, we never do find out what happened to the son!

The filmmaker seems to have tried, in his way, to turn his movie into a kind of visual equivalent of jazz -- combining interviews past and present with "musical" sections and polarizations/solarizations that maybe indicate that we (or his subject) are on some kind of acid trip. It is all too much -- yet not nearly enough.

Along the way, we get some of Graves' history, his theories -- animal, mineral and medical -- his martial arts/mantis training (which I suspect, to an actual martial artist, will look pretty amateur), and his work in medical laboratories which leads to his recording of and theories about the sound of heartbeats.

Graves' drumming solos (as above) have a kind of spastic spontaneity, but the too-lengthy musical interludes, including one percussion'dance number (below), do not make much of a case for his or their artistry. Nor is his explanation of how a plant moves anything close to the profound. There's some talk about the cosmos, if you're a fan of that sort of thing, but TrustMovies will take an actual scientific documentary such as Particle Fever for his "cosmos" experience.

Finally, the director's attempt at "stylish" touches -- from garden florals (which I admit are pretty) to stop-motion photos (below) -- simply call attention to themselves, as well as to the lack of content here. Clearly I am not the right audience for this documentary, as I found it one of the least persuasive and most embarrassingly amateur endeavors I have seen. But since it did win the Independent Vision Jury Prize at the Sarasota Film Festival, perhaps there is an audience out there.

Viewers will have the opportunity to find out, when Milford Graves Full Mantis, from The Cinema Guild, opens theatrically in New York City (at the The Metrograph) this Friday, July 13, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 on Friday, July 27, to be followed by a limited nationwide release. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

DVDebut: Denis Dercourt's low-key but lovely and moving comeback tale, IN HARMONY

A dozen years ago French actors Cécile De France and Albert Dupontel delighted international audiences with their special chemistry and charm in Danièle Thompson's wonderful ensemble piece, Avenue Montaigne. How very nice to see these two fine actors together again in the leading roles of Denis Dercourt's 2015 film (just now getting a U.S. DVD release), IN HARMONY (En équilibre). This is one of those quiet, low-key movies about us humans that the French do so very well.

As directed and with a screenplay adapted (from the memoir of his career by stuntman/equestrian Bernard Sachse and Véronique Pellerin) by M. Dercourt (shown at right), the movie unfolds with an easy, graceful flow that never pounds home any point or moral, even as it keeps us wondering exactly where it might be going.

The same year that Avenue Montaigne appeared, M: Dercourt gave us a splendid and low-key psychological thriller about career and revenge entitled The Page Turner. That film, as does this one, also kept us guessing about outcome and motive -- though in a completely different genre.

After equestrian/stuntman Marc Guermont (played by Dupontel, above and below) is involved in an accident on a movie set, he is left in a wheelchair, with his stuntman career suddenly cut short. (Names have been changed here, either to protect certain reputations or to better make this a fictionalized account)

A visit from the woman from the insurance company (Ms De France, below) that represents the movie studio sets in motion a tale that encompasses everything from accepting responsibility to past and future career choices to making the best of a not-so-hot situation.

How the filmmaker weaves all this together -- loosely but lovingly, without pushing any moment or any moral too hard -- turns the film into a particularly quiet and thoughtful meditation on how our lives and careers, from generation to generation, find their way to fulfillment. It is also an odd kind of love story -- consummated only briefly and then left as memory.

The love of horses is deeply felt here, and those who feel the same should embrace the movie thoroughly. Ms De France has a lovely scene in which her character mounts a horse for the first time, and the actress is, as always, spot-on from moment to moment.

Dupontel, as ever the consummate man's man, brings his whole arsenal of feelings to the fore, even as music and piano playing enter the picture and help bring the movie's themes to fruition.

This is not a great film by any means, but it is a good, solid one -- providing 87 minutes well spent. From Distrib Films US with its DVD arriving via Icarus Films Home Video, In Harmony hits the street today, Tuesday, July 10 -- for purchase or rental.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A CIAMBRA: Blu-ray/DVD debut for Jonas Campignano's docu-like tale of Romani in Italy

Laden with awards and nominations -- from international festivals and in its own country of Italy via the David Di Donatellos, the Italian version of our "Oscars" -- and also greeted with enthusiasm when it opened theatrically here in the USA earlier this year, A CIAMBRA (so named for an unfinished housing development and neighborhood, shown two photos below, occupied for some years now by a community of Romani people in the Calabria region of Southern Italy) is a hybrid documentary-style narrative film in which an enormous (and real) Romani family, all playing themselves, help tell the tale of one of its younger members, a teenager named Pio, who wants more than anything to become a criminal just like his weirdly adored older asshole brother.

As written and directed by Jonas Campignano (shown at right, of Mediterranea), the movie fairly reeks of reality. You could not ask for anything more "honest" -- from the performances (not simply "warts and all" but "warts and more warts") to the screenplay and dialog (which is noticeably sparse and seems quite believable) and direction and camera-work (by Tim Curtin) that could hardly be more immersive and on-the-mark.

The movie shows us the plight of the Romani in Italy as third-class (if that) citizens, barely a cut above -- in the eyes of the "real" Italians -- those black African immigrants who also flood the area. A Ciambra neither glamorizes nor in any way idealizes its protagonists; in fact, it shows them to be, in many cases, their own worst enemy -- dreaming of a more "romantic," on-the-move past, while doing little (except theft) to address the needs of the present, let alone the future.

And yet the movie itself is paced so slowly, with a plot as obvious and predictable in its own way as any Hollywood sit-com, that it quickly becomes a slough and a real ordeal to have to sit through, given that most viewers with any experience in watching either documentaries or narratives about the "downtrodden" will know exactly where it's going and pretty much how it will get there, too.

Fortunately, the film has as its leading actor a young name named Pio Amato (above), who has at least enough charisma to help carry the film along. We experience all that happens through his eyes and mind, and he does make an interesting and very problemed companion for much of the time. He has no interest in anything except becoming a criminal like his brother (Damiano Amato, below), which as he sees it, is the only viable way to help support his hugely extended family.

Along the way, he (sort of) befriends one of the more helpful Africans (Koudous Seihon, below) and a kind of bond is eventually created, tested, and -- in the film's most moving scene -- broken between them.

"Family first," a mantra too often heard in the world, from culture to culture, rears its ugly head and, via a particularly ugly betrayal, our non-hero sees his fondest wish come true. Surprise? Hardly. And at just two minutes short of two full hours, the movie -- with little plot machination other than that of my description above -- often seems endless.

No hope or even possibility of change is offered -- which is most likely on a par with reality, so far as the Romani are concerned. (Their links to the Mafiosi do not help matters.) And while the film takes place in Italy, one suspects the rest of Europe is quite similar -- as would the U.S. be, too, were the Romani to make any real inroads here.

In fact, one wonders if Signore Campignano would not be the right man to visit America, explore the innermost regions of poor, white, racist Trump country, and then make a movie about how these people, via their beliefs and behavior, are sealing their own -- as well as their country's -- death warrant.

From IFC Films and running 118 minutes, A Ciambra arrives on Blu-ray (the transfer is a decent one, and the bonus features plentiful) and DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, July 10 -- for purchase and/or rental.