Thursday, November 29, 2018

MARTYR: Mazen Khaled's fantasia of love, death, grief--and imprisoning religion/tradition

It is difficult to imagine, after viewing MARTYR -- the new movie from Lebanese filmmaker Mazen Khaled -- that the film was not hugely divisive, both in its home country of Lebanon and elsewhere. This is one of the most homoerotic movies I have ever seen, while remaining just this side of anything obviously/overtly homosexual. There are good reasons for this particular artistic stance. Writer/ director Khaled (shown below) is exploring a Muslim society in which the
highly religious adhere to a strict code that, by not allowing nearly as much interplay between male and female as does most of western society, pushes young men together into kinds of "closeness" that cannot help but move from mental, physical and spiritual into the sexual, especially when some of these men are, of course, already genetically programmed to want and need the kind of love from each other that can best be expressed sexually.

Further, while fostering homoeroticism, the restrictive nature of the Muslim religion allows for less privacy. The movie's "hero," Hassane (played with fraught intensity by a beautiful newcomer, Hamza Mekdad, below, being carried), can't even masturbate in peace while taking a shower -- thanks to his parents' constant badgering.

Khaled's film is a fantasia of visuals and themes -- imagined and real, on land and sea, impressionistic, grounded, emotional, some of these even danced and sung -- about attraction, love, employment, economics, death and grief, all sifted through the sieve of the kind of fundamentalist religion that controls all.

The bare bones of the story could hardly be simpler: a day in the life of Hassane, his family and friends. Yet within all this resides every major emotion and event you could ask for (except perhaps some humor). The movie is elliptical, however; don't expect to have everything explained in typically expository fashion.

Instead of looking for work (or simply showing up at the jobs some of them already have), Hassane and his pals take a day off at the beach, above, where the popular sport is to take a somewhat dangerous dive or jump (below) from a favored point above the water.  One particular dive changes everything, and from there the movie fills with questioning and grief, as the group begins to pine for what might have been.

Characters explore the thoughts and feelings they are unable or unwilling to vent in their actual life -- via dance (below, in the closest thing to something homosexual the movie offers) and choral keening (from Hassane's mother and her peers), even as the movie continues its immense and near-constant fascination with the human body, skin and touch.

Moving from documentary-like footage to philosophical inquiry to religious ritual to the question of what the title term actually means, Martyr balances the formal with the elliptical, finally arriving full circle back to the sea -- and the skin.

Don't expect something at all standard here, but if you approach the film in anything like the spirit in which it was conceived and executed, I think you will find yourself enmeshed and enraptured by its beauty, while saddened at the picture of male youth wasted and/or sacrificed to tradition and religion.

From Breaking Glass Pictures and running 84 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, November 30 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Glendale and then on Friday, December 14 in New York City at the Cinema Village. In between times, on Tuesday, December 4, Martyr will have its release on DVD and VOD (the latter via iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu and FandangoNOW).

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Júlia Murat's PENDULAR explores creativity and sex in a Brazilian warehouse loft

When Júlia Murat's Brazilian movie, Found Memories, opened in New York back in 2012, TrustMovies was extremely impressed -- with its enormous beauty, its quietude, and the unobtrusive formality of its mise en scène. That film took place in a lovely and quaint old country town. Ms Murat's new film, PENDULAR, is set in the midst of a major city, in a somewhat abandoned warehouse that has been converted into a loft by and for a couple of artists -- she's a dancer, he's a sculptor -- that they now use as both work space and living quarters. One must assume the two are somewhat successful, since the furnishings and accoutrements with which they've surrounded themselves are rather impressive (they've got a particularly beautiful kitchen and bath).

Ms Murat, shown at left, lets us see some of their respective work (more of hers than his) and it looks interesting enough, if nothing all that original or special.

As to their character, the filmmaker keeps that pretty much at bay. They are both mostly fixated on their work, except when they're having sex, which is somewhat frequently throughout this 108-minute movie.

The sex is hot and heavy, and while neither actor -- Raquel Karro (shown above and below, who's both a dancer and actress) and Rodrigo Bolzan (below and further below) -- is drop-dead gorgeous, both performers are certainly attractive enough of face and figure that watching them either clothed or nude proves no problem.

We meet their friends and co-workers, briefly, off-and-on, and we're privy to snatches of this twosome's conversation -- though not all that much. Even then, most of it deals in some respect with their art. He needs more work space for his (maybe) massive sculptures; she gives in, if somewhat grudgingly. When they fight, each uses the other's art as his or her weapon.

Once again. Ms Murat's visual sense and formal composition is a consistent pleasure to view (the cinematographer is Soledad Rodríguez). Whether her heroine is trying to track the path of a odd cable wire that ends within the warehouse (but where does it begin?) or dancing or even fucking, the design is just fine.

Eventually, though, you may want more. I know I did. Late in the film, the man expresses a major personal need (I'll let you discover what this is), and conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on your viewpoint), the woman suddenly finds herself able to provide this  That leads to the movie's major drama and climax.

This might be enough, if only we knew more fully just who these characters are. Despite decent performances, using what little Murat and her co-writer Matias Mariani provide, the two actors are unable to manage this, and we have to content ourselves with some minor ruminations on work and art, watching Ms Karro in action, and the viewing of a good deal of pleasurable sex. Hey, that may be more than enough for a lot of you out there.

From Big World Pictures, Pendular -- which could as easily refer to some of our heroine's dance moves as to our hero's heavy-hung sexual equipment -- opens this Friday, November 30, in Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque. In December it will also play the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Time and Space, Ltd. in Hudson, New York. Click here (and scroll down) to keep abreast of all currently scheduled (and possibly more upcoming) playdates, cities and venues. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Same sleaze, different decade: Choi Kook-hee's riveting, provocative DEFAULT is like a South Korean Big Short -- and very nearly as good!

According the DEFAULT -- the rip-snortingly good financial thriller than opens theatrically this coming week -- during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, South Korea was about to go bankrupt due (as usual) to the rotten and/or incompetent men in charge of both the banks and the government and the near-complete lack of (or merely the ignoring of) regulations.

As directed by Choi Kook-hee (shown at right) and written by Eom Seong-min, the movie is not nearly as detailed nor full of so many different characters as was The Big Short, yet the two films have much in common -- from the kind of sleaze and stupidity on view to the character in Default (played to a fare-thee-well by Yoo Ah-in, shown above, center right, and below) who is able to predict quite well the coming collapse and also knows how to profit from it, with barely a thought given to the havoc this will bring to his homeland. (This is similar the character in The Big Short played by Christian Bale.)

Yet even he pales in comparison to the movie's real villain, the vice-minister of finance (played by Jo Woo-jin (center left on poster at top, and at left, below). Against that vice-minister (against the whole rotten legion of avarice and incompetence) is a lone woman, Ms Han, the monetary policy manager at the Bank of Korea (Kim Hye-soo, at right on poster, top) and her helpful team. Ms Han is smart and steadfast, but the power arrayed against her is formidable indeed. And the filmmakers allow us to see how that power makes itself felt in so many ways, subtle and not so.

Choi and Eom also elect to tell the tale via a quartet of of people, who together give us a well-chosen array that makes this whole financial melt-down both understandable and moving. In addition to the protagonist, Ms Han; her nemesis, the vice-minister; and the young upstart who will reaps million in profit, we also see the typical "little person" -- in the form of ceramic producer and family man Gap-su (Huh Joon-ho, below), who in order to make a major sale to a large department store, agrees to accept a promissory note rather than the usual cash payment.

How all this plays out proves fast-paced and very smartly done. Though Ms Kim makes a fine feminist heroine, and the movie is a model of important progressive ideas and actions, things nonetheless grow progressively worse for the good guys, as the bad ones bring in the IMF and its "negotiating" power (in the form of French actor supreme, Vincent Cassel, below, right) to bully its way to what is best for both government and corporate power, leaving the general populace to suffer the consequences (and pick up the tab). It is particularly good to see the IMF pilloried for its former actions. Has it, together with The World Bank really changed so much, as both organization tell us? TrustMovies hopes so, but perhaps he can be forgiven for having some doubts.

As usual with so many new South Korean films, the production values are as classy and impressive as the casting, plotting and all else. Default, in just under two hours, tells its cautionary tale about as well as seems possible. It will leave you angry and ever-mindful of why government, the banks and financial sector, as well as the uber-wealthy, must be kept in check by regulations and vigilant watchdogs. The movie ends with a surprise relationship reveal that, while maybe moving, seemed unnecessary to me. Much better is the epilogue that leaves us with a smattering of hope for the future, as it simultaneously takes us 20 years forward to 2017 and brings us back to the film's beginnings. Default is a must-see for anyone who appreciates films about politics, finance, economics and chicanery on a national level.

From CJ Entertainment and running 114 minutes, the film opens this Thursday, November 29 at CGV Cinemas Los Angeles and Buena Park, and in many other cities across the U.S. on November 30 and in then in Canada on December 7. To see all U.S. playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here, and then click on Theaters on the second line of the task bar atop the screen.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Walking/discovering New York City in Jeremy Workman's THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET

The very interesting documentary filmmaker, Jeremy Workman, who back in 2014 brought us that year's finest doc (of those TrustMovies managed to see, at least) -- Magical Universe -- has a new one that just opened in New York City and Los Angeles. It's titled THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET and, so far as subject matter is concerned, proves highly reminiscent of Workman's contribution to another documentary, True New York, he produced two years ago. That would be the episode entitled One Track Mind, all about a fellow who has devoted his entire free time over the past 30 years to cataloging and archiving information on every last station in the New York City subway system.

Mr. Workman's new film tracks another, younger fellow, Matt Green (shown above, left, with the filmmaker), who has spent all of the past seven years walking the maybe 8,000 miles of roads and paths that make up New York City's five boroughs. Green gave up employment as a civil engineer (what most of us would call a very good job, particularly in these terrible times) to pursue his unusual dream. Why? Even he doesn't quite know. "People tell me I could be doing something more useful with my life," he explains "They ask me what is the point of it all. I'm kind of learning that as I go along."

And so do we. One of Workman's great gifts is to take us inside the folk he films, well enough and far enough so that we really do understand how they think and feel. We begin to experience life through their eyes. And Mr. Green's new lifestyle is a fascinating one: He tells us he is able to live on $15 per day. Homeless now, he depends on the kindness of former friends but mostly on that of the strangers he meets who often invite him in for a meal, a shower, even a place to sleep. He also cat-sits (and sometime dog-sits) as a means of providing himself shelter. The guy is a charmer, all right, pleasant looking, intelligent and affable. And his "trek" really does seem to interest many of the New Yorkers he meets.

Along the way, Workman lets us meet and hear from other New York "walkers": a sociology professor, a real estate agent and a writer, the latter of whom also happens to be black and explains to Green and to us some of the differences in dress, attitude and actions that he must employ, due to, yes, the race card. The filmmaker also allows us to meet two of Green's former girlfriends, one of whom he very nearly married. His obsessions (I would call them that) and lack of interest in more "normal" patterns of behavior and relaxation (he has zero interest in ever going out to a movie) seem to have rendered any long-term love relationship impossible.
For now at least.

We visit Green's home town of Ashland,Virginia (blink and you'll miss what's playing at the local movie house: a screening of Workman's Magical Universe) and meet his parents who, as you might imagine, kind of wish that their son had some real employment again (he has never asked them for money, they tell us). We see snippets of his earlier across-the-USA walk, during which he stopped at the home of his brother in Chicago, and we learn of past trauma that happened to both siblings that might help account for Matt's more-or-less uber-carpe diem philosophy.

Lasting only 95 minutes, the documentary is still surprisingly rich in the ways it brings us into Matt's world and viewpoint: the objects he sees, the people he meets, the history he discovers and especially all he notices and begins putting together and writing about via his blog -- the many "churchagogues" (ex-synagogues that have become other-denominational), all the hair-cutting establishments that have replaced the letter's "c" and "s" with those of "k" and "z" (note especially his honorable mention that caps all those kutzes), the "puddle that never goes away" (in Staten Island, I think), the ingenious vegetable gardens of Queens, real redwood trees in New York City, 9/11 memorials, cemeteries, and the oldest tree in all of NYC (along with a notebook left in its hollow by a class of kids who visited it once upon a time), and a young woman who, thanks to Matt, here tastes her first fig! This is New York City like you have never experienced it.

There is also some lovely and stirring music, thanks mostly to Carly Comando and Tom Rosenthal (among other contributors). Mostly though, this is Green's and Workman's baby (the latter produced, directed, filmed and edited it). And it is very much worth seeing. From Greenwich Entertainment, The World Before Your Feet opened in New York City at the Quad Cinema this past Wednesday, and will hit Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt today, Friday, November 23. It will also play Washington DC at the Avalon Cinema on Thursday December 13. Elsewhere? Sure hope so. I'll add playdates, cities and theaters here, as I learn of them.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

BECOMING ASTRID: Pernille Fischer Christensen's smart, lively, moving bio-pic of the early years of a famous Swedish writer

The name Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) will probably be less recognizable to many literate Americans than is that of one of her heroines, Pippi Longstocking. Pippi, together with other of Lindgren's protagonists, fueled some of the most popular children's books in the history of print. (The author, whose combined works have now sold more than 165,000,000 copies, is also said to be the fourth most translated writer of children's books in the world.)

Interestingly enough, BECOMING ASTRID, the new film about the late-teenage/early-adult years of Ms Lindgren directed and co-written by Pernille Fischer Christensen, is anything but a "children's story" -- even though a child figures very heavily into things.

Ms Christensen (pictured at right) tells a tale, which sticks somewhat closely to factual accounts, of the young girl from a highly religious family/community who clearly has a talent for writing, as well as a need to be independent, even though the means to that state is anything but easy.

The movie is a quite fascinating blend of the dark and sad, and yet it is at the same time relatively easy to enjoy, thanks to the well-rounded characters on view -- no real villains (unless you count organized religion itself), nor even a pristine heroine to be found here -- and to the excellent performance of literally every actor on view.

Front and center is the exceptional young actress Alba August, above (the daughter of director Bille August and actress Pernilla August), who plays Astrid and who easily moves from naive teen to fledgling reporter to worldy-wise mother in the course of this two-hour film.

How and why she chooses this difficult road is told with urgency and understanding by Ms Christensen and her co-writer Kim Fupz Aakeson, as the story moves from Sweden to Denmark and back again, involving the editor of the local newspaper (a fine job from Henrik Rafaelsen, above, left) and his family, Astrid's life in the big-city workplace (that's her boss, played with sly intelligence and humor by Björn Gustafsson, below), and finally a surrogate mom (the wonderful Trine Dyrholm, seen only recently as Nico).

The choice to concentrate on these early years, rather than on how Lindgren achieved her initial success, was a smart one, and the movie also chooses a pleasing but subtle introduction and finale (below), during which the now famous and aging author, on her birthday, listens to tapes and reads letters from her young fans.

This quickly and firmly establishes who she is and why she's important. When one of the youngsters asks how she is able to so completely understand the sometimes fraught and frightening world of childhood, the movie moves immediately to enmesh us in her own earlier years.

Young Ms August brings to the role enormous vitality, as well as an understanding of the pitfalls that go hand in hand with brash youth and teenage rebellion. Consequently, though we always wish her well, we do cringe and wonder at a few of her choices. This gives the movie more reality, together with a certain surprising frisson -- both of which many other conventional bio-pics lack.

When at last we meet the little boy who will prove so pivotal to Astrid's life and who takes his place as increasingly all-important, the movie reaches its emotional height -- and stays there through the conclusion. Fans of this super-popular author will certainly be hooked. But so, too, TrustMovies suspects, will be even those who know little about Ms Lindgren. The film is that compelling and well-executed.

From Music Box Films and running 123 minutes, Becoming Astrid opens in New York City (at Film Forum), Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and Minneapolis (at Landmark's Lagoon Cinema) tomorrow, Friday, November 22, and will then spread across the country in the weeks to come. Here in South Florida, look for it on Friday, November 30, at the MDC Tower Theater in Miami. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here then scroll down and click on Theatrical Engagements.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In Ventura Pons' MISS DALÍ, we see that infamous artist from his sister's viewpoint

I have long enjoyed the oddball movies of Catalonia filmmaker Ventura Pons, who used to be something of a staple at the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now. It has been several years since I've had the opportunity to see one, but the drought is now broken by the very limited release of his latest, ever-oddball work -- MISS DALÍ -- about narcissist nutcase and semi-talent, Salvador Dalí and his family and "friends." I use that last word loosely, as I am not at all sure if the artist's treatment of those people closest to him could qualify as anything approaching real friendship. I once knew briefly one of the handsome young men the artist used and abused (both emotionally and physically, I suspect), and the result was not a happy camper.

Though the "Miss" in the title refers to Dalí's younger sister Anna Maria, it could as easily apply to the artist himself, as campy and gay -- but closeted -- as they probably ever came. (Think John Waters -- but without the closet, or a lick of the honesty and moral clarity Mr. Waters possesses.) Writer/director Pons, shown at right, has based his film, I am guessing, upon the written works of Anna Maria about her brother, her family and their life. His framework consists of a daylong-into-evening conversation between the aged Anna Maria (played with vigor and great feeling by Siân Phillips, on poster, above, and below, left) and her long-time friend Maggie (played by Claire Bloom, below, right). This conversation covers much of a lifetime, allowing incident after incident to be recounted, as we move back and forth in time from present talk to past happenings.

The conversation comes at quite an artistic cost, however, as the exposition here is so bald-faced as to be near shocking. And while Ms Phillips is quite marvelous, having been given the better selection of dialog, Ms Bloom is utterly wasted, having to sit quietly by murmuring little more than the likes of "Ah, yes, I remember" throughout.

The movie is saved in part by the energetic and very well-acted flashbacks, often shot in black-and-white (sometimes sepia-esque), with but a single color very subtly on display: the blue of the sea, a bit of green in the shrubbery, or maybe the rust shade of a dress. In these past-time scenes, Anna Maria is played by another wonderful actress, who seems to be making her full-length film debut here, Eulàlia Ballart, above and below, center.

Ms Ballart beautifully communicates the longing of unrequited love (for playwright/poet Federico García Lorca), as well as the gnawing, if quiet pain that builds when one is considered the lesser light in the family (first, a female; second, a non-artist). Lorca, who, as shown here, was in love with the unable-to-respond Salvador, is played by the lovely and graceful young actor José Carmona (above, right, and below, left), who captures Lorca's yearning and passion, as well as, in his recitations, a fine understanding of the poet's work.

The film's liveliest performance is given by Joan Carreras, as Salvador (above, right, and below). Carreras captures Dalí's zeal for notoriety and fame above all else (with money not far behind), and the actor's energy, wit and, yes, charm, go a long way in reminding us how much fun the artist could be. In small doses and for while.

The other actor who shines brightest here is Senor Pons' long-time performance collaborator, Josef Maria Pou (below, right), who plays Dali's stern-but-way-too-forgiving-and-enabling father. Pou proves alternately angry, funny, caring and shocked, and he is, as always, marvelously entertaining.

Most of the drama here comes via the flashbacks. The exposition, which makes those flashbacks possible, is also somewhat draining (Miss Dalí lasts over two-and-three-quarter hours). TrustMovies was never bored, however. The lives and situations, as depicted here, are just too interesting, provocative and annoyingly enjoyable to look away from. And the locations, with their visual splendor, provide a most enjoyable, affordable vacation.

We also get glimpses of Salvador's wife, Gala (played by Rachel Lascar, above, left, and below, right) -- a woman who, according to what we see here, almost no one liked -- except, of course, Salvador and Gala herself.

I wish we'd seen some of the artist's work. We don't, so I suspect that the permissions and copyrights must be locked up tighter than a drum. Or they're way too expensive for a Ventura Pons budget. While I often found the artist's work a lot of fun, certainly original, full of symbols and Freudian-as-hell, I also feel they are about as deep/profound as that puddle left by yesterday's brief rain shower. If only for his wretched treatment of Lorca (an artist whose work was deep and profound), both before and after the poet was murdered by Franco's minions, Salvador deserves this film as his memorial.

From ELS Films de la Rambla and running 168 minutes, Miss Dalí opened this past weekend in New York City (at the Cinema Village) and will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center this Friday, November 23.