Sunday, June 30, 2019

John Scagliotti's new documentary, BEFORE HOMOSEXUALS, arrives on home video for GLBT month

That title, BEFORE HOMOSEXUALS, is not exactly true -- as there was no time in human history, so far as anyone can figure, that homosexuals did not exist. They simply weren't called by that term. The condition seems to have arrived with the species (and not simply our own).

This new documentary -- which has the look, sound and feel of a somewhat rushed job, in order to get it out there in time for this year's gay pride events -- takes a fairly interesting look at the earliest artistic depictions of homosexual acts between men and women, from caveman days through ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and then into later times, from the Victorians onwards until we get to, yes, Stonewall once again (that last could hardly be considered a time "before homosexuals").

As directed, co-produced and co-written by, and starring John Scagliotti (shown, right, and at bottom) as our sort-of host and guide, the documentary skips and jumps all over the place, from location to time period, as it unearths the many depictions of lesbian and gay sexual behavior down the centuries.

These are generally interesting and fun to view -- unless, of course, one is among the currently hypocritically pro-Trump evangelicals -- while the several talking heads on view have intelligent things to offer, as well.

Some of the film's editing seems a bit strange, never more so than when one person reads from Michelangelo's poetry, only to have that reading constantly cut into by new visuals and other people talking.

Along the way we are asked a pertinent question by Louis Crompton, to whom -- along with the many other LGBT historians -- the film is dedicated: Who gets to define and analyze history? We learn the answer (not, for way too many decades, the LGBT population), even as we discover some spicy details: how very naughty a city and a populace was Florence and its Florentines.

The trip is mostly engaging, and Scagliotti proves an amiable enough host, though one might question why we need to have his marriage ceremony included here, except to boost the running time to full-length status.

Overall, the documentary has a let's-get-it-finished-and-out-there quality that, for all its detail and look at various artwork and sculpture, makes it seem, although the film had in premiere in Boston back in 2017, that the main goal was to have Before Homosexuals ready in time for the June LGBT celebrations.

In any case, the film makes a decent addition to the current festivities, with a DVD, as well as digital viewing via iTunes and Amazon, available now. Distributed by First Run Features, the documentary boasts a running time of 87 minutes. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Blu-ray debut for MAZE, Stephen Burke's 1980s-set prison drama of the Irish "Troubles"

Garnering good reviews when it opened theatrically here in the USA this past March, the 2017 movie MAZE seems to have impressed most critics because of what is doesn't do -- giving us the usual "prison break," all-action razamatazz -- as much as for what it actually does, which is to offer a mostly quiet, reflective look at how this particular prison break, the largest in Europe since World War II, was planned and then executed.

As written and directed by Stephen Burke (shown at left), Maze (named for the now demolished British prison) is more much interested in the how and why of the break-out than in the actual thing itself, and -- for more demanding adult audiences, at least -- this pays off via depth of character and more believability that is usual in this genre of film

This is not to say that the prison break itself is not exciting. It most definitely is, and it is filled with the kind of you-are-there intensity, documentary-like camera work, and an absolute realism during which it seems like just about anything could happen -- which is pretty much what does, i.e.: the best laid plans, and all that.

Getting to this point is what takes up most of the movie, and while there are scenes of prisoner confrontation, with both the guards and other prisoners, the relationship that develops between one prisoner, who plans the break (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, above), and the guard he deliberately befriends (Barry Ward, below) is what provides the meat of the movie.

These prisoners planning the break, you see, are part of the Irish Republican Army -- the film takes place after the more famous "hunger strikes" that received world-wide attention at the time -- and so are doubly shunned by both the prison staff and by the British prisoners, all of which makes planning and then executing the escape all the more intriguing and difficult.

The movie looks at events that are now decades past with a kind of  "both sides now" approach that sees neither side as out-and-out villains -- even if, we must conclude, these Irishmen had legitimate grievances that were never properly addressed by the British. If only things could have been viewed more evenhandedly back in the day, peace might have come somewhat sooner. But then, legitimate grievances seldom are handled properly by the folk in power, are they?

The supporting cast is as up-to-snuff as the two leads, and technical aspects as fine, as well. The Blu-ray transfer provided by theatrical distributor Lightyear Entertainment is good, and the extras here include a director's commentary and a bonus short film -- titled 81 -- from Stephen Burke.

Distributed here in the USA via MVD Visual/MDV Entertainment Group and running just 93 minutes, Maze hit the street on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this week and is now available for purchase and (I hope) rental.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE: Denys Arcand's sweet and juicy anti-Capitalist fairy tale may be his best film yet

TrustMovies will have to wait until he's seen this film a second time before definitely calling it Denys Arcand's best (the writer/director is shown below), but it is certainly and immediately up there near the front of his pack -- which includes The Barbarian Invasions, The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal, and the woefully under-seen and under-appreciated Stardom.

When, in the very first scene of a film, you find yourself agreeing with every single idea and word out of a character's mouth, even though it soon becomes clear that this guy is a loser par excellence, you know you are in very good hands.

So, just sit back and enjoy the remaining two-hour ride. These will be some of the best, most ironic and enjoyable, delectable, thought-provoking 120 minutes you can imagine -- filled with robbery and loot; a gorgeous, high-class hooker (with not just a heart of gold but a very bright mind); and various and assorted subsidiary characters, each of whom will be worth your time, your possible political awakening, your chuckles, and occasionally (particularly toward the end) some surprisingly moving moments.

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE is a kind of fabulous fairy tale of how, with proper guidance, one can use some of the sleaziest tools of Capitalism in order to achieve one's goal of providing for the underclass. But who, other than writer/director Arcand, could have imagined that this trip would be quite so much fun? The journey begins with our hero, Pierre-Paul -- a naive, caring, but none-too-bright young hunk (played by the splendidly cast Alexandre Landry, above, left) -- about to lose his current girlfriend/bank employee (Florence Longpré, above, right).

From there, Pierre-Paul soon comes into contact with an enormous amount of stolen cash, and soon after with that aforementioned hooker (played with the perfect combo of looks, smarts and feeling by Maripier Morin, above), whose online professional name Aspasie, inspired via Racine or maybe Marivaux, entices our hero something fierce.

From that point on, we get everything from gangland torture (Don't worry:There a happy ending there, too) and a police investigation (by the twosome, above, Maxime Roy and Louis Morissette, left and right respectively) in which the cops are given a bit richer and more interesting characterization that we usually get) to a recently-released-from-prison former criminal trying to go straight but quickly sucked into these ever-more-interesting proceedings (Arcand semi-regular Rémy Girard, below),

and finally, perhaps the most interesting character of all, a high-level jack-of-all-trades investment entrepreneur (Pierre Curzi, at right, below) whose knowledgeable help regarding offshore workings is also required. How these folk bounce off each other personally and professionally makes for a most entertaining and thought-provoking ride.

There are also the homeless, of whom we see a certain amount (finally -- with quite an interesting jolt -- at the very conclusion) and for whom this entire caper has been set in place. As usual with M. Arcand, we are treated to ideas about morality and how to achieve it, hypocrisy and how to use it, and how Capitalism might even work -- were it Socialism that was actually calling the shots.

Sure, it's a fairy tale -- albeit a lovely, funny, adeptly-plotted one -- and so, after all, a sad little tease. But in these fraught and frightening times, what else do we have?

For its funny, sexy, highly original seduction scene alone, The Fall of the American Empire would be a don't-miss (there are a dozen other good reasons to see it, too).

Oh -- if it's the American empire that's falling here, how come the entire film takes place in Canada? Well, that's just a part of the ineffable Arcand charm.

From Sony Pictures Classics and running a surprisingly swift two hours and seven minutes, the movie opens here in South Florida this Friday, June 28, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Miami, the Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, and the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth. Wherever you live around the country, click here, then scroll down to find a theater near you.

Monday, June 24, 2019

(Step)father and son bonding gone awry in Jan Zabeil's tri-character drama, THREE PEAKS

I don't have time to go back and view the beginning of THREE PEAKS all over again, but if I'm not mistaken, this movie literally has only three characters whom we see for the duration of the film: wife and mother, Lea; her son, Tristan; and her significant other, Aaron, who is trying ever harder to be the step-father that Tristan clearly needs -- even though the boy is hanging on for dear life to his birth dad (whom we never see but are made aware of via dad's persistent phone calls to his son).

In Jan Zabeil's 2017 film, just now receiving its American theatrical debut, those titular three peaks refer to the name of the mountain top to which the couple their boy goes on a vacation which takes up the final half (or more) of the film.

Yet these three peaks could as easily refer to the three characters, each one trying to be the most significant and strongest of all. Writer/ director Zabeil (shown at left),  German born and raised, has given us a most unusual movie and a very good one -- in which family dynamics turn into a life-and-death situation without anyone actually being the villain or hero.

Instead, attempts at closeness and caring -- thanks to small, incremental mistakes by an adult, along with the kind of major foolishness from a child that suddenly endangers him and his caretaker -- result in the possibility of utter destruction. The filmmaker is particularly wise in setting up the situation carefully, so that

we only slowly and unsurely realize the extent of how troubled is young Tristan, played with a combination of fierceness, fear and caring by the fine young actor, Arian Montgomery (shown above, left, and below, right). His imagined nemesis and actual hope, Aaron, is played with wonderful mesh of clarity, strength and insecurity by Alexander Fehling (above, right, and below, left), of Young Goethe in Love and Labyrinth of Lies).

The third wheel -- unfortunately, by virtue of how the movie is set up and executed, she is just that -- is the wife and mother, played as well as her circumscribed role allows, by Bérénice Bejo. Ms Bejo (below, right) is a fine actress, as she has often shown us, and she does a good job again here, though she is confined to the first half of the film, during which her character demonstrates a love for both her man and her son, as well as perhaps a little too much connection to that ex-husband which abets, without meaning to, some of what happens plot-wise.

Three Peaks is packed with the kind of offbeat, careful behavior found when a family divides and then opens to include someone new. Everyone is just a little on-guard, trying to do the right thing but screwing up now and then. As the film progresses and the situation becomes ever more dire, it takes on the feeling of a thriller, even as it remains a kind of character study of both Tristan and Aaron, and to a lesser extent, of Lea.

Herr Zabeil manages to keep us holding our breath, hoping for the best, even as our sympathies move back and forth between boy and stepfather. We understand how a child can lash out in unjust anger, but we can't help wishing this were happening somewhere/anywhere less fraught than here. Overall, Zabeil's move proves quite an accomplishment, mashing genres into something both provocative and new.

From Greenwich Entertainment and running a slowly engulfing 90 minutes, Three Peaks is currently set for screening in ten cities across the country, opening this Friday, June 28, in New York City at the IFC Center, and then on Friday, July 12 in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt. Click here and then scroll down to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Lila Avilés' pitch-perfect THE CHAMBERMAID gives Oscar-winner Roma a run for its money

It's not simply that both films are from Mexico, nor that their leading ladies seem to have an awfully lot in common, nor that Alfonso Cuarón's Roma and Lila Avilés' THE CHAMBERMAID tackle class, race, and the dominant culture so very well. It's all this and more. Specifically, both movies offer up the plight of maids/caretakers in Mexico. Though Roma's works for a somewhat wealthy bourgeois family several decades in the past, while Ms Avilés' labors in a present-day, high-class hotel, not a whole lot appears to have changed for the country's indigenous underclass. Even more astonishing, The Chambermaid proves Roma's artistic equal in many ways.

Granted, we don't have that gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to salivate over, but the excellent color work by Carlos Rossini brings a crisp documentary-like sheen to all we see -- from the mammoth laundry room and maintenance quarters to the exquisitely designed hotel rooms that would seem to have genuinely earned this establishment its five stars.

Even more surprising is the fact that Ms Avilés, shown at right, who both directed and co-wrote (with Juan Carlos Marquéz) has kept us viewers in a single location through her entire film. Yet so full of fascinating life and detail are the (very long) days our heroine must put in at her place of employment that each scene we observe holds us enthralled.

When, at last, in the film's final shot, we see the street outside, TrustMovies was suddenly jolted into the awareness that he'd been kept inside the hotel for the entire duration. And he had not minded at all. This is thanks in equal measure to Avilés, her crack technical staff, and especially her exceptional leading lady, the wonderful Gabriela Cartol, shown above and below. Ms Cartol may initially appear, as her character Evelia, rather mousy and unprepossessing, but by the finale, I suspect you will find her, as did I, beautiful, intelligent, enterprising, sexy and as full of life as you could ever want any woman to be.

Along the way, we discover many different aspects of Evelia's existence -- how she works (and what a very good worker she is), her life outside the hotel (even though we only hear and/or hear about this), her co-workers, and even to an extent (in a very surprising scene) her "love" life. We get a feeling for how things "work" at this hotel -- politically and otherwise -- even we meet a few of the hotel's guests. And, yes, they're just as wealthy and entitled as you might imagine. But they're also not -- some of them, at least -- total creeps.

There's a GED class on premises, too, as well as a possible promotion in store for our girl, and maybe even a lovely red dress she has found and placed "dibs" on, should it not be claimed by the guest who left it. There's a child (the infant of a guest) for whom she is suddenly caring during her busy day, along with her own child, whom it is clear she seldom sees. And there's a funny, slightly strange co-worker (played with great verve and humor by Teresa Sánchez, above and below, right) who bonds with Evelia, even as she uses her.

By the finale, you'll be as firmly in the shoes and soul of Evelia as would seem possible in the space of just 102 minutes in this graceful, lean-yet-packed look at the Mexican workplace that offers up class, economics and culture without ever jamming its ideas down our throats or creating typical hiss-worthy villains. Oh, everything's there, all right, but the great strength of the movie is how Evelia can, by virtue of character, rise above it.
Well, almost.

From Kino Lorber, in Spanish with English subtitles, The Chambermaid has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, June 26, in New York City at Film Forum. The following Friday, July 5, it opens in San Francisco (at the Roxie) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) before venturing out to a few more cities. Click here to view all currently scheduled playdates and theaters.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Arrow Video's Blu-ray debut for Carol Reed's 1963 almost thriller, THE RUNNING MAN

OK: Carol Reed, shown below, may have been working at less-than-full-throttle during his filming of the 1963 movie, THE RUNNING MAN. (This idea is borne out -- by one of the people who assisted Reed -- on the Bonus Features section of Arrow Video's new Blu-ray edition.) Still, second-rate Reed is as good if not better than the first-rate work of many other lesser directors. Further, although a number of people associated with the film seem to have found the novel on which the film was based not so hot, filming went ahead as planned.

Fortunately, the movie has three very attractive and talented stars in the leading roles -- Laurence Harvey (below, left), Lee Remick (below, right) and Alan Bates (below, center) -- and so performance-wise, the movie holds up nicely, as well. The good screenplay by John Mortimer, from the novel by Shelley Smith, tells the tale of a clever enough insurance scam -- one that could hardly be managed today, thanks to the ever-presence of those blasted security cameras and the inability to keep one's face even remotely secret -- in which a fellow (Harvey) and his recently wed wife (Remick) seem to be pursued throughout Europe (mostly Spain) by a wily insurance investigator (Bates).

The suspense here, such as it is, stems from the seeming ability of our not-very-heroic hero to keep his identity a secret, and yet, fortunately, things are not always as they seem -- which is all for the best here, since the bare-bones story does not have a whole lot of surprise in store. Harvey was always best at playing a rotter (which according to a couple of the folk interviewed here, he was in real life, too), and he's just fine in that role once again. Remick was probably as fine an actress as mid-20th-Century film gave us -- every bit as classy, talented and beautiful as Grace Kelly, but without any of that accompanying stiffness (except when needed) -- as natural and graceful a performer as you could want. Bates, who was barely at the beginning of his long and prosperous acting career, makes a fine foil for Harvey and an even better near-romantic lead.

The wonderful location photography makes one want to visit Spain, even if many of the brunette supporting actresses here seems to be trying their best to look like Liz Taylor (this was the year of Cleopatra, remember). All in all, you could do a lot worse than watch The Running Man for its starry cast and yummy scenery alone.  From Arrow Academy (distributed in the USA via MVD Visual) and running 103 minutes, the movie, in its Blu-ray debut, hit the street this week -- for purchase and (I would hope) rental. As usual with Arrow, the Bonus features are well worth viewing/hearing, too -- especially if you want to learn more about the habits of the late Mr. Harvey.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A second go-round for Moe Berg -- in Aviva Kempner's doc, THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE

That erstwhile documentarian Aviva Kempner (pictured below) is making her second foray (after her excellent The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) into baseball documentaries with her newest work, THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE, which explores the life and times of Moe Berg, another Jewish baseball player -- who also doubled as a surprising multi-field savant speaking several languages fluently and then tripled as an American spy during the Second World War.

Unfortunately, the documentary follows fairly hard on the heels of last year's excellent narrative movie about the same character and time period, The Catcher Was a Spy, which proved one of those increasingly rare American independent films that actually found somewhat of an audience. Its starrier cast (with Paul Rudd playing Berg), bigger budget and intrinsically fascinating story no doubt helped.

Interestingly enough, the folk who enjoyed The Catcher Was a Spy will probably want to see this new film, too, because, in many cases, it probes Berg's life (the catcher/ spy is shown on poster, top, and below, left) in much closer detail.

While the more elusive narrative version suggested and alluded, this documentary lays in it all out in spades: what Berg most likely did on his many trips abroad (for both "goodwill" baseball purposes and for spying), how his intelligence excelled so famously on a popular radio show of the time, and how he took care to help encourage the rookie baseball players (as above) -- as well as getting to know and pal around with the "greats" like Babe Ruth (I believe that's the "Babe" at left, below, with Berg at right, on a trip to Japan).

What the documentary does not go into at all is Berg's bi-sexuality, which the narrative version covered quite beautifully and, again, allusively. All four of Ms Kempner's documentaries that TrustMovies has seen (which include Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg! and, her best work so far, Rosenwald) are primarily meant to create Jewish heroes, which indeed they do. To this end, much that might be considered as "negative" is left out. You have only to read the relatively brief Wikipedia description of Moe Berg to find some of less appealing aspects of his character.

Interestingly, Berg's remaining living family members -- as well as other talking heads (there's one above) -- speak of him here only with seeming huge respect and admiration. Yet, according to Wikipedia, Berg's brother, with whom he lived during his later years, actually evicted Moe from his home, after which Moe lived with his sister. And although, for the final 20 years of his life, Berg was unable to find any employment, you won't hear that mentioned in this documentary, either.

Via the use of archival photos and film, Kempner also offers us a nice recreation of the WWII time period as seen in America. I do wish, however, that she had not used quite so many clips from old narrative movies as stand-ins for what is being talked about on-screen.

As interesting and enjoyable -- if a tad too lopsided toward the positive -- as is this new Berg exploration, I'd still recommend you view The Catcher Was a Spy first (you can find it on home video/digital), for its rich, allusive view of this very interesting -- and very elusive -- character, before honing in on the much more detailed but standardized look that The Spy Behind Home Plate provides.

The documentary, arriving via The Ciesla Foundation and running 101 minutes, opens this Friday, June 21, in the South Florida area: in Miami at the AMC Aventura 24, in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show, In Fort Lauderdale in The Classic Gateway, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters, and at The Movies of Delray and The Movies of Lake Worth.

Monday, June 17, 2019

ENDZEIT: EVER AFTER -- Carolina Hellsgård & Olivia Vieweg's lovely zombie collaboration

If the term lovely seems misplaced in describing a zombie movie, well, you've just got to see ENDZEIT: EVER AFTER to fully appreciate how oddly appealing and attractive is this new film directed by Carolina Hellsgård with a screenplay by Olivia Vieweg, from her own graphic novel.

Oh, sure, there are the requisite zombies running around, attacking the living and eating their flesh, but there's relatively little of this, compared with the usual genre movies -- and what there is is handled smartly, with some graphic subtlety and enough suspense and surprise to pass muster.

Ms Hellsgård (shown at right) and Ms Vieweg have certainly given the film a feminist slant, with its three main characters all women, the main two of which (Gro Swantje Kohlhof and Maja Lehrer, shown below, left and right, respectively) make an odd couple who must finally bond and help each other through some very trying times. Both the two characters and the actresses who play them seem nicely in sync with the movie's themes and arc. They play off each other very well and end up growing close to each other, just as they bind the audience firmly to their spirit and plight.

In addition to its feminism, the film offers a strong humanist slant -- even as it condemns humanity for the destruction of the earth. (Just as in the current South Korean Netflix series, Kingdom, think of these zombies as a kind of appropriate revenge upon the callous, unfeeling politicians and power brokers of our world, even though we never meet the bad guys up close, as we do in Kingdom.)

The story here is fairly simple and minimal. All of Germany (perhaps the entire world) has been destroyed by the zombie plague -- except for two cities evidently smart and fast enough to fortify themselves. From one of these -- in which anyone infected is immediately killed -- the two girls hope to escape to the other, in which a cure is still sought so that at least some of the infected may be spared.

During the girl's travels we get occasional zombie interference, brief but pleasing respites, some lovely and verdant scenery, and a good amount of time spent in the local forest, during which we meet the third important character. She is played by that crackling good Danish actress Trine Dyrholm (above, right, of Becoming Astrid, Nico 1988 and The Commune), and her character -- about which I will say little -- has to do with nature and the earth's ability to maybe care for itself in a way that may remind you a bit of last year's dour waste, Annihilation, but with little of that film's pomposity, ridiculous/endless special effects and millions-of-dollars budget.

Much of Endzeit's charm, I suspect, is due to its humble stance. The production design -- interiors and exteriors -- is terrific, clearly on quite a low budget, while the rest of the technical aspects are handled just as well.

I do wish that the final appearance of one of our three characters showed a bit more in the way of wear-and-tear, given what we only recently saw the poor girl have to endure. I know a happy ending is usually a help, but please. Perhaps the finale is meant to be like waking from a bad dream?

From Juno Films, running just 90 minutes and in German with English subtitles, Endzeit: Ever After opens this Friday, June 21, in New York City at the IFC Center. In Los Angeles, look for it at Laemmle theaters: on June 27 at the Ahrya Fine Arts, on June 28 at the Royal and Glendale, and on June 30 at the Playhouse 7. Other playdates? Can't find any listed. But even if you're not on our two coastal movie capitals, eventually this one ought to find its way onto home video/digital.