Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Is Russell T. Davies' BANANA: EPISODE 2 TV's high point of compact beauty & enchantment?

I've seen this amazing little episode twice now (the BANANA series streams here in the USA via Amazon Prime), and I will probably watch it many times more over the years ahead. In just 23-1/2 minutes, it comes as close to perfection as I can recall -- in writing, directing, performance and particularly in its ability to tell such an all-encompassing tale so succinctly and well.

Banana, for those who don't know, is the very oddball addition to the Cucumber series, also penned by the great writer Russell T. Davies (he's done everything from Queer as Folk to Doctor Who, Torchwood, and A Very English Scandal), in which subsidiary characters from Cucumber are given their own short little tale, via which we get to know them better, as they shine quite brightly.

This is a lovely idea, and Mr. Davies, shown at right, brings it home with such joy, surprise, passion and delight that I should think you'll be immediately hooked. Best of all, you do not need to have seen Cucumber first. If you have, this will add to your enjoyment, but it is absolutely not necessary.

Cucumber, as it tracks the lives of some middle-aged gay men, as well as some much younger gays, proves funny, dark, moving and altogether special. It's like little else you'll have seen in the GLBT genre.

And while sex is the driving force at work in Cucumber, Banana concentrates on the need for connection.
Connections of many sorts are made here, some sexual, others not, yet all prove of equal importance.

The series offers eight episodes in all, with numbers two, six and seven TrustMovies' favorites (all are wonderful and very much worth seeing). That second episode stars two remarkable actresses -- Letitia Wright (above, left) and Rosie Cavaliero (above, right) -- and is a tale of love at first sight, in which both the huge and the tiny changes that occur prove absolutely understandable and believable.

How good to see Ms Cavaliero, who has been around now for decades and is always terrific, in a role this special, while Ms Wright (above and below), who has been around for a much shorter time (she's a nominee in this year's BAFTA Awards for Best "Rising Star") proves extraordinary in a role that should mark her in your memory for life. Here she gives "innocence" the kind of depth and glory you'll not have heretofore experienced.  Possessing a face you cannot help but fall in love with, Wright also offers in her roles -- so far, at least (Black Panther, Black Mirror and The Commuter, to name but three) -- versatility & maximum acting chops.

In those remarkable 23 minutes (directed very well by Lewis Arnold), Davies probes attraction, marriage, relationships, trust, the workplace and more with such specificity, nuance, charm and sheer fun and surprise that you'll keep alert and alive for every second. Don't miss Banana, and then maybe explore some of this wonderful writer's other work.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Claus Räfle's moving combo of narrative and documentary, THE INVISIBLES, tracks WWII Jews hiding out -- in Berlin!

What -- yet another World War II Holocaust survival drama? Indeed, and another very good one, too. THE INVISIBLES, co-written (with Alejandra López) and directed by Claus Räfle, tells of four young Jews (out of some 1,700) who elected to go into hiding in order to remain in Berlin, Germany, during WWII, rather than joining their parents and/or other relatives deported to concentration camps and near-certain death.

Using a well-calibrated combination of documentary interviews with the four survivors (some of whom have since died), well-chosen archival footage, and a majority of dramatic narrative of these characters during their war-ridden youth, Herr Räfle (shown below) and Ms López have created a movie that grows in interest and power as it moves along.

Toggling between the two young men and two young women, as they hide with one family and then another and another, finding work, food and shelter wherever they can (at one point Ruth, played by Ruby O. Fee, shown below, and her friend are employed by a Nazi officer and his family -- who treat the girls well and never betray them) the film shows us how -- by wit, luck and the kindness of others (often decent Germans) -- they managed to survive.

This can't have been easy, and the film, though somewhat sanitized, as these tales often are, proves compelling, suspenseful, surprising and moving. Best of all, The Invisibles is full of so many little details that, as pieced together here, make these stories both believable and different enough that TrustMovies suspects the film may stick with you longer than many others of its genre, whether narrative or documentary.

In addition to young Ruth, the movie tracks the fortunes of Hanni, the pretty Jewess (played by Alice Dwyer, below) who, via a bleach job, turns visually into the perfect German dream girl and thus makes her fraught way through this wartime maze;

Cioama, a talented artist (Max Mauff, below) who uses his skills wisely and well, yet still barely escapes the tentacles of the police to the SS to even the beautiful Jewish girl who works as an informant for the Gestapo but who grasps a moment of decency regarding Cioama;

and finally Eugen (Aaron Altaras, below, the good-looking young fellow who seems to have the easiest time in hiding, becoming romantically involved with the daughter of his host family. But even this must come to a halt, eventually. Virulently anti-German Jews may have some trouble with the movie, which shows us time and again at least some of the German populace doing the decent thing. 

But, as the now-elderly survivors insist, they would not be alive except for the kindness and help of those Germans. (The real Ruth Arndt, now departed, is shown below.)

The film's slow but solid accretion of detail and character helps us get to know both these elderly survivors and their younger, "acted" selves, building eventually to a surprising and very moving conclusion.

From Greenwich Entertainment and running 110 minutes, The Invisibles opens this Friday, January 25 in New York (at Landmark 57 West and the Quad Cinema) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and will expand to cities across the country in the weeks to come. Here in South Florida, look for it at the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton beginning, Friday, February 8. Click here to check if there is an upcoming city/theater near you where the film will be playing.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Netflix no-no from Spain: Gonzalo Bendala's nitwit thriller, WHEN ANGELS SLEEP

That world-famous (and now seeming to exist just about everywhere in the world) streaming site Netflix has gifted us with lots of worthwhile movies to view, including more and more of which the company has itself distributed. Every so often, though, a real clunker appears in the mix, one that's dumb enough to make a warning worthwhile. Such a film is the new WHEN ANGELS SLEEP, written and directed by Gonzalo Bendala.

The original Spanish poster for the movie, shown below, asks the question: Cuando los angeles duermen, quien nos protege? which translates, TrustMovies believes, to When angels sleep, who protects us?  Here's a better and more useful question the movie-maker might have asked: When every decision made by every character in your film is completely stupid, how can your audience be expected to give a shit?

By the end of this 91-minute would-be dramatic thriller, I found myself talking back aloud to the screen so often, usually saying "For god's sake, don't do that!" that I had pretty much gone hoarse. This is particularly too bad because the film's cast deserves much better.

Lead actor Julián Villagrán (shown below, of Extraterrestrial) plays one of the heads of a Spanish insurance company who is trying to get home in time for his young daughter's birthday party. He is several hours' drive away, however, and so he makes just about every dumb decision possible in order -- or so it begins to appear -- not to get there.

Then we're introduced to a teenage girl who apparently has parent problems. She hates 'em, but from what we're allowed to see, they're merely typically clueless-about-teens, while she seems angry/ugly enough for hospitalization. As played by Ester Expósito (shown at top and below, of the recent and much better Netflix series, Elite), the young lady quickly tries your patience to the point where you're dismayed to realize that you'd be more than happy to see her dead.

And then we have our anti-hero's wife (Marian Álvarez, below), who -- in accepting her hubby's nonsensical excuses while also accepting the advances of next-door neighbor who's helping with that birthday party in lieu of dad --  seems to alternate between dumb and dumber. And if you imagine that the supporting characters are any better, give it up. They're not only just as dumb -- but a whole lot nastier.

Except the police. They're stupider than everyone else put together. Please: Tell me that Spain's cops, including the one in charge of the others here, are smarter than this?! Somebody? Anybody? Guess not. The really weird thing about this movie is that its ending is simply terrific. Or would be, if what preceded it had a trace of actual truth and did not seem instead to have been manipulated within an inch of its life.

This denouement could hardly be darker -- or more directly contradicting one's hopeful idea of any justice existing in our world. There's zero to be found here, which is a difficult, but sometimes salutary thing to accept. Unfortunately, instead of giving us reason/evidence to have to deal with this thesis, we get an uber crappy movie to precede this wonderfully dank and existential ending, one that is worthy, yes, of Beckett and/or Céline.

Streaming now via Netflix, When Angels Sleep, won't put you to sleep. But it will probably make you plenty angry -- and for more bad reasons than good ones.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

In EGG, Marianna Palka/Risa Mickenberg delve into motherhood, womanhood, career and men

Marianna Palka is at it again. After gracing us with the fine, thoughtful and very sexual rom-com, Good Dick, back in 2008, she went on to give us the little-seen but one of 2017's best films, Bitch. Palka wrote and directed those two groundbreakers. With her latest, EGG, she has directed a screenplay by Risa Mickenberg (her first) that seems a very good fit for Ms Palka's interests and skills.

Bitch is streaming now via Netflix. If you haven't seen it, do. It's a difficult movie that goes places I don't think any other film quite has. It turns itself -- and will likely turn you -- inside out, moving from the most intense and difficult anger into, well, you'll see. Ms Palka consistently challenges us, and her gauntlet is worth running.

In her new film, she and Ms Mickenberg explore what "motherhood" means to three very different women (and of course to us, her audience) along with some ideas about feminism, career, male entitlement and, yes, much of the rest of the usual baggage. Yet in the hands of the these two filmmakers (Ms Palka is shown at left), nothing is quite as simple nor as obvious as it may first appear.

There are three women involved in the "motherhood" here, two of which are played by Alysia Reiner, below, left, and Christina Hendricks, right, who were "best friends" in art school a decade or more ago but have not kept up with each other much since.

Reiner, a relatively successful conceptual artist, is having a go at motherhood via a surrogate, while Hendricks, who gave up art but married "well," is very much pregnant and seemingly quite proud of it. Initially these two, along with their husbands, seem like the kind of hypocritical cliche-spouters who you're going to love to hate. But wait. As usual with Palka, things proves not quite so easy.

The movie is divided into sections: first Reiner's, then Reiner's and Hendricks', and finally one devoted to these two plus the beautiful blond surrogate, delightfully played by Anna Camp, above. Everyone's views -- both their pretense and their actual wants and needs -- are aired and given their due, and you will eventually find yourself having to deal with these characters as complex and very problematic people deserving of more than any easy dismissal.

The women, at least. The two men -- nicely played to reveal depths of needy narcissism and male entitlement, by Gbenga Akinnagbe (as Reiner's hubby, shown above, left) and David Alan Basche, as Hendricks', shown above, second from right) -- are mostly poster boys for, yes, narcissism and male entitlement. But both actors make the most of their duplicitous naughtiness, so that they remain fun to smirk at and enjoy.

The movie rightly belongs to Reiner, Hendricks and Camp, and all three come through quite beautifully, though in the last analysis, the film belong to Ms Reiner. A striking presence (as she was as well in Orange Is the New Black and Equity), here, she is given the chance to open up, reveal more layers of feeling, and actually touch us.

Hendricks, in the slightly smaller role, does the same and with lovely subtlety and ease, while Ms Camp, playing a lady with less on the ball, proves able to hold her own shakier ground quite well. There's a nice sense of theatricality here -- the movie is mostly shot on a single set, so the dialog counts for more than usual -- and there is also a kind of genuine modesty at work.

Egg knows what it's about and what it needs to accomplish, and it manages all this with -- along with some anger -- surprising empathy and grace. From Gravitas Ventures and running just 84 minutes, the film opens theatrically this Friday, January 18, in Los Angeles at the AMC Universal Cinema at Citywalk Hollywood, and in New York City at the Roxy Cinema Tribeca. Simultaneously, Egg will be available nationwide via VOD.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The year's best love story: Jon S. Baird's elegiac and beautiful STAN & OLLIE

Don't worry: It's nothing sexual. Yet in STAN & OLLIE -- screenwriter Jeff Pope's and director Jon S. Baird's lovingly recreated tale of the final live-performance tour of that great motion picture comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- the filmmakers have managed to come up with the kind of full-fledged, comic, moving love story that we seldom see anymore.

Early on you may notice how very quiet the movie is. It never insists. Instead, it takes you into the world of Laurel & Hardy gently, and you soon begin to realize how actually gentle were so many of the team's most memorable moments. That, as much as anything, accounted for its popularity and fame.

Sure, the pair did slapstick and schtick, but at their core was a kind of sweetness, together with a perseverance, that stood them -- and their audience -- in very good stead.

And that is what director Baird (shown above) and screenwriter Pope (below),
along with their two gifted and versatile leading actors -- John C. Reilly (as Hardy) and Steve Coogan (as Laurel) allow us to discover in this wonderful new film.

Although (very wisely), the filmmakers let us see enough of the pair's comedy routines to understand why they were so popular in their day, the tone here is more elegiac than anything else.

Via the unusual quietude of the script and direction, Pope and Baird capture the beauty of a relationship that was so oddly close that at least one of these two could simply not perform without the other.

And while actors Coogan (above) and Reilly (below) have clearly done their homework as to the look, sound and "feel" of the men they are essaying, this is no mere "impersonation." The actors seem to inhabit not just the bodies of Laurel and Hardy but their very souls. Mr. Coogan, especially, has that soul down pat. This wondrously versatile actor (you must see his performance in The Dinner, if you haven't already, and in any or all of his "Trip" movies) show us here yet another side -- quiet and infinitely subtle -- we've not yet seen, and he is remarkable.

Mr. Reilly, on the other hand, is reliably funny and often just this side of over-the-top, as was Oliver Hardy. The two actors are as good at bringing to fine life these icons of our movie past as they are in bringing to to even better life the inner lives of the two men. You'll come away from Stan & Ollie with as much of a sense of the characters of these men -- their thoughts, hopes, annoyances -- as of their performing lives.

As the two most important women on the scene, both Shirley Henderson (above, left, as Ollie's wife, Lucille) and Nina Arianda (above, right, as Stan's wife, Ida) are entertaining, compelling -- and funny, too.

The film's story takes in the final British tour the comedy duo did in order to impress the man whom Laurel hoped would bankroll their comeback film. The imaginary scenes we see from this would-be film prove both memorably comic (we get to see and hear one of Hardy's most famous retorts) and infinitely sad.

As Stan & Ollie moves quietly along, it builds surprising emotional force via the accumulation of tiny details and small incidents.

Baird's and Pope's refusal to go for the big scenes and most obvious choices results in a little gem of a film -- one of the year's best -- in which repressed feelings somehow land with more meaning and resonance than does the usual Hollywood grandstanding.

From Sony Pictures Classics and running a just-right 97 minutes, after hitting New York and L.A. a few weeks back, Stan & Ollie opens here in South Florida this Friday, January 18, at the AMC Aventura 24, Aventura; Living Room Theaters, Boca Raton; Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton; Regal Shadowood 16, Boca Raton; Cinemark 14, Boynton Beach; Cinepolis Coconut Grove, Landmark Merrick Park, Coral Gables; Cinemark Paradise 24, Davie; The Movies of Delray and The Movies of Lake Worth; The Classic Gateway, Fort Lauderdale; Cinepolis 14, Jupiter; CMX Brickell City Center, Miami; Regal South Beach 18, Miami Beach; Cobbs Downtown at the Gardens 16, Palm Beach Gardens. Wherever you live across the USA, simply click here -- and then click on GET TICKETS on the task bar atop the screen to find a theater near you.

Monday, January 14, 2019

From Paraguay, THE HEIRESSES: Marcelo Martinessi's first full-length film is a rich and moving character/situation study

It is unusual enough to view a movie from Paraguay, but when that movie is also a first full-length film from an unknown director that turns out to be not only thoroughly involving but first-class in every respect, this is grounds for rejoicing. So it is with THE HEIRESSES (Las herederas), written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi.

Señor Martinessi (shown at right) has managed to combine themes involving class, change, entitlement, old money vs new, relationships, power, control and prison (of various sorts), all the while providing a study of character and situation that is really quite close to perfection. It has been a long while since I've seen a first film this well done in all areas -- on both sides of the camera.

The tale told is of two women -- Chela and Chiquita -- each from a wealthy (formerly, at least) family who have been lovers/partners for decades but have come upon hard times, due to which they are now forced to sell many of their most precious belongings.

As essayed by Margarita Irun (shown above, who plays Chiquita) and especially Ana Brun (below, left, as Chela), who has the more important role, these women resonate hugely. Ms Brun, in what is apparently her debut role, could hardly be better, as she slowly and quietly wraps us in her at first stand-offish but finally almost warm and completely understandable near embrace.

We get to know the two women, as well as their circle of friends and neighbors, especially once Chiquita has been "removed" to some extent from Chela's immediate life. How and why provides one of the film's many interesting plot devices, leading to some very quietly surprising changes along the way.

We get a look a Paraguay's prison system (women's variety, above), as well as a number of glimpses at the elderly, card-playing old-money wealthy (below) and their gossipy, judgmental habits,

and in particular one younger woman, Angy (very well-played by Ana Ivanova, below,  right), to whom Chela has clearly taken a shine. What happens between these two provides a good deal of the small but irrevocable changes that occur throughout the film, many of which involve those that Chela must make in order to grow and survive.

The manner in which Martinessi has laid out this growth and change is calibrated in such a way -- never too obvious but with enough information provided to keep up interested and on our toes -- that his movie proves consistently compelling and finally moving and even, yes, uplifting. Yet in a very minor key.

What we first perceive as a kind of love is eventually understood to be control. How Chela learns to circumvent some of this makes for one of the great, low-key pleasures of this just-beginning movie-going year.

From Distrib Films US and running 97 minutes, The Heiresses opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, January 16, in New York City at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Well, it's scheduled to play Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal in early March, but I can't find any other currently scheduled playdates. But it is difficult to imagine that a foreign film this good won't eventually hit major cities around the USA. Keep watch.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: Lee Liberman's Sunday Corner takes a second look at the Guadagnino/Acimen/Ivory collaboration

The pleasure of this lovely film (streaming on STARZ), in which a peach takes a star turn, lies in the viewer’s willing absorption into a bucolic summer affair that unfolds tentatively, awkwardly, as one remembers first love. The ‘plot’ is the arc of falling in love, aided by one’s own bittersweet recollections of what the hormone avalanche is like — the craving, the hurt, the giddy madness. The film’s title refers to the pair merging with each other, seeing themselves in each other’s eyes — they will call each other by their own names.

Made by a collaboration of notables (at right, James Ivory of the famed Merchant-Ivory team), novelist André Acimen (below, left), and director, Luca Guadagnino (further below, right), the project came together after years of stops and starts, on a low (3.5 million) budget, and was shot in and near picturesque Crema in Northern Italy, the director’s home town, set in the early 80’s when everyone was still smoking and had not disappeared into their cell phones. The source material belongs to novelist Acimen (professor in the graduate school at City
University of New York), who is reportedly writing a sequel. Ivory, the script writer, won an Academy Award last year for best adapted screenplay (the film and lead actor received many nominations and accolades). Director Guadagnino calls this the third film in his trilogy about desire, the prior two being I Am Love and A Bigger Splash (both with Tilda Swinton). This third is particularly universal and beloved because of the mind-meld the director achieves between his material and the audience.
Guadagnino describes this work as a search for the blending of the personality of the actor with the character, and believability of the characters’ finding themselves in each other. Some disagreement developed about the filming of sex and nudity. Ivory’s script was more explicit than Guadagnino’s final cut, but the director was deliberate in taking a minimalist approach, explaining that he’d been there/done that in earlier films. A Bigger Splash was a virtual riot of provocation, nudity, sex. In this story, however, the experiential unfolding of the lovers emotions and their parting grief at summer’s end is intoxicating; explicit sex would call attention to itself rather than the exploration of their feelings. And does he ever succeed — the universality of the emotions possesses one completely as though you are experiencing them yourself.

The story unfolds through the eyes of a beautiful, coltish, 17-year-old, played by the winsome Timothée Chalamet (above, left) whose star just keeps glittering. Elio is bookish, his spare moments devoted to reading, writing, and music. His American father (Michael Stuhlbarg, below, second from left) is a professor of Greco-Roman antiquity, and his lovely mother (Amira Casar) is French. The family chatters back and forth easily in Italian, French, and English with affectionate closeness – an atmosphere both intimate and cosmopolitan — a very inclusive wide wide world.

Elio has a girlfriend from childhood, Marzia, (Esther Garrel, below, sister to French movie idol Louis, daughter of famed film director, Philippe Garrel).

Elio’s father hires a graduate student to join them at their lived-in sprawling villa to assist with his research over the summer. Enter Armie Hammer as blond god Oliver, handsome and self-contained, like the sculptural ancients that Mr. Perlman studies, cool, self-assured. He is both chilly to Elio’s show of desire — and interested — attracted to Elio’s unself-conscious brightness (says Elio: If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter). Elio is plain smitten, not knowing how to behave. The two young men circle around each other nonchalantly, Elio becoming irked at Oliver’s casualness and his own obsession. He has sex for the first time with Marzia, acting out his defiance and frustration.

Oliver tells Elio he doesn’t want to mess things up or cause Elio to have regrets. (We’ve been good, he says, we haven’t done anything to be ashamed of — I want to be good.) Elio, so nurtured and accepted by his parents, boyishly, shamelessly prods and pushes Oliver until he drops his guard, gives in to his own feelings, and they pour themselves into each other.

At summer’s tearful end, Elio’s ‘dream dad’ father offers words of comfort and wisdom, in the conversation much noted and treasured by viewers and reviewers (and reminding me of a 6-year-old who once told me she wished that Mister Rogers were her daddy.) Below the image of Stuhlbarg is André Acimen’s text with the gist of the advice to his grieving son.

It appears that dealing with attraction to men has been an issue for Oliver, who would expect his father to humiliate or reject him. Some months after Oliver’s return home, he calls the family to tell them he is engaged to be married. To Elio, though, Oliver says: I remember everything. Elio confesses that his parents know about them. Oliver replies he had felt like a family member, like a son-in-law. “You are so lucky — my father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” In these exchanges are seeds of a new chapter — what happens to the boy who has always had permission from loving parents to be himself versus the one who scrupulously avoids rejection by conforming to expectations.

James Ivory has expressed disinterest in participating in a sequel, while Acimen and Guadagnino look forward to what comes next for Oliver and Elio. Their views suggest different ways to think about the story — one is to imagine the issues that may surface in the lives of two people who have been raised with different expectations. Would Elio find love with a woman or choose a man, having felt entirely free in his choice? Will Oliver be happy in his marriage of expectation, have other partners, or take control of his heart and leave? The other view, and where James Ivory’s beautiful script leaves us, is, at least for now, to contemplate the breathless perfection of a magical love that timed-out naturally because it happened between two people traveling different paths. And that provides our bittersweet ending: Elio smiling through a wash of tears into a crackling winter fire.

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