Thursday, December 31, 2020

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD, THE STAND (the doc, not the TV series remake), THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, THE GLORIAS top Best of 2020 list

Yes, it was a shit year for just about everything. Except movies. Herewith, TrustMovies' list of his favorites for 2020, in pretty much the order during the year in which I viewed each. As usual, eclectic doesn't begin to properly describe things. You may notice that there are almost as many documentaries as narrative films in this year's list. (The Mole Agent very nearly compresses the two into a single uber-hybrid genre.) If a lot of major, year-end movies seem to have been left off, this is either because they were not special or 

surprising enough for me, or more likely, because I have not yet seen them. So some will be added to the list once I have done so.

The single film on the list so far that I did not officially review is Dick Johnson Is Dead, which I only caught up with this week via Netflix and was blown away by. What a wonderfully funny and moving testament to family and film it is! The Stand: How One Gesture Changed the World is one of those documentaries that was barely seen or acknowledged, but its importance is huge. It  

is as timely now as the events from the 1960s that it covers so well, while showing us how much -- and how little -- has since then changed. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 offers Aaron Sorkin at his best, which is going some. It also gives us history, humor, and the chance to see past events and connect them to our present with both shame and hope. (Dateline--Saigon offers a documentary look at the Vietnam War that makes a fine companion piece to Sorkin's film.) The Glorias is far from a perfect film, but Julie Taymor's ability to 

weave Gloria Steinem's history into a fanciful, thoughtful, consistently interesting tale is hugely worth viewing (and more than once). It is feminist in the finest manner.

Paint is on my list because it handles art and the art world so amusingly and well, while Dead makes the cut for its delightful combination of the supernatural, dry humor and a certain other theme that oughtn't be given away by a reviewer.

As GLBT movies go, I warrant you have never seen one (and probably never will again) as original and amazing as Kill the Monsters: An American Allegory, which compresses an oddball gay love story into American history in a most creative manner, ending up with one of the funniest, put-him-in-his-place looks at the laughing-stock President who is about to leave office that you can imagine.

Knockout acting in a neo-noir thriller about guilt? See Blood on Her Name (above). A near-undefinable sui generis ensemble film about grace and connection? Try Change in the Air. A look at mental illness unlike just about anything else? Yes: Eternal Beauty. Capitalism as the Death Star? You've got several picks, from Capital in the Twenty-first Century to System Error and The Andorra Hustle (below) -- that last an amazing little doc about a place and an incident/situation of which you've most likely never heard. You'll remember it, however, once you've seen this film. Oh, and a musical comedy, The Prom, too delightful and self-aware not to include.

The movies are from all over the place, and the count -- at this point 35 -- is, as usual, too many. (Cutting back is not TrustMovies' forte.) For more information on each, simply click its title link. Here they are, plus this year a mention of a few worthwhile series, as well as a new streaming source:





































Streaming or Cable Series






Special Cause for Celebration

The (relatively) new streaming service OVID

* seen but not officially reviewed by TrustMovies

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Catching up with some of Netflix's holiday offerings: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, THE MIDNIGHT SKY and DEATH TO 2020

Let's start with the newest: the funny mockumentary about the year that's about to end: DEATH TO 2020. Making use of a very well-chosen cast of pros who know how to deliver, this only-70-minute movie is indeed pretty obvious in both its targets and its humor. But so was 2020 and the impossibly stupid and sleazy Trump administration -- as well as Britain's Boris Johnson and his twaddle. (The movie is pretty equally divided between British and American humor, characters and situations.) 

Everyone in the cast is aces, but in particular, hats off to Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow, Kumail Nanjiani and Diane Morgan for capturing their characters so immediately and precisely. Created by Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror), who also co-wrote, and Annabel Jones, and directed by Al Campbell and Alice Mathias, the film tackles 2020 from last January onward and is streaming now on Netflix.

Both critics and audiences seem to be saying "nay" to  the new George Clooney movie THE MIDNIGHT SKY, in which he stars and directs. We found it not only timely and moving but very much worth sticking with. Yes, it is quiet and slow, but it is also increasingly gripping, dealing as it does with an apocalyptic world event (which is never fully explained but even this is a plus in terms of the movie's subtlety) that mankind has evidently brought upon itself. 

Set in 2049 and split between an Arctic locale, the character Clooney portrays and a young girl he has rescued, and the small crew of a space transport that has been seeking out another livable planet and is now returning to earth, the movie features one knockout scene (a "first," I believe) involving a wounded crew member that is surprising, stunning and should have you on the edge of your couch. Kudos to Clooney (and his fine cast) for trying something different and achieving so much. (Even if you do question how someone can fall fully-clothed into Arctic water and so easily survive. Maybe it's another effect of global warming?)

is as good as you've heard, despite that bizarre take-down by Hilton Als of both the film and Viola Davis in a recent issue of The New Yorker

The film, directed by George C. Wolfe, actually improves upon the too-lengthy play by the late August Wilson which, among its many virtues, offers an awful and telling example of black-on-black violence, along with how and from where this comes. Ms Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman give wonderfully rich and powerful performances, with the rest of the cast not far behind. This is a "period" piece that seems all too timely still, with its leading characters as sad and multi-faceted as can be imagined.

All three films are streaming now on Netflix -- along with a load of forgettable Christmas movies that the behemoth always seems to "gift" us with around this time of year.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: MANK writes Citizen Kane

 This post is written by our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

To report on director David Fincher’s MANK, a star turn for actor Gary Oldman and streaming now on Netflix, one needs throw bouquets at Mank’s opus, Citizen Kane, directed and starring Orson Welles, for which the witty, erudite Herman Mankiewicz, Mank, is hired to produce a script. Mank is the anecdotal tale of its writing, set against the machinations of the moguls that harnessed Hollywood in the 1930’s and rode it like outlaws. Although who wrote what is still disputed, it is thought that Mank laid out structure and detail while Welles infused the magic that has led to Citizen Kane’s reputation as one of the best films ever made. Both men (below) got Oscars for best original screenplay, its only win. Citizen Kane’s repute has grown since. 

We find our anti-hero laid up at a secluded desert ranch with a broken leg, waited on by a nurse and a secretary, the latter played by Lily Collins (below, l). Mank was in the middle of the movie food chain —a Hollywood transplant, jaded New York critic and playwright who wrote to his NY writer cohorts: “Come at once. There are millions to be made and your only competition are idiots”. 

What Mank lacks in a story arc is filled to the brim with an insider’s view of Hollywood’s studio renowned and other notables, particularly William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s Betty Boop (Amanda Seyfried) — who is getting awards buzz for her Marion Davies, played with warm intelligence. (Below, from l, Seyfried, Oldman, and Dance).

Citizen Kane
is a 1941 vision in black and white that excoriates news mogul Hearst and the American Dream as Hearst exploited it — Rupert Murdoch’s tabloidy mantle now. (Citizen Kane streams on HBO Max thru 12/31, but is available for rent/sale on Prime, elsewhere.) The two films are intertwined — ‘Kane’ is worth a watch/re-watch, there’s not much about it in Mank, yet the texture of it infuses the entirety. Mank is a 2020 vision in black and white of Citizen Kane (below). 

’s essence is the rich vs poor story of the flamboyant, depression era heyday of MGM’s Louis B Mayer and notables like Irving Thalberg, David O Selznick, S.J. Perelman and Joe Mankiewicz, all of whom and more appear here. Mank is the outsider, the joker who stumbles around drunk with writing skills and bon mots that have kept him in demand in the writers' room and in social company. 

Mank himself, a garrulous, overweight idealist, produces the original draft of the rise and fall of news magnate Charles Foster Kane for director Welles; it disparages the living Hearst and his castle of excess San Simeon — “Our little hillside home”. Mank “shimmers with knowing artificiality”, says A.O.Scott in The New York Times, as “the low motives and compromised ideals are articles of the annals of Hollywood self-obsession”. 

Mank himself is between a rock and a hard place: his own liberalism vs the oligarchic industry that employs him. Sympathetic to the exploitation of the have nots, he manages both to pal around with Hearst and use his words to throw Hearst under the bus. Citizen Kane becomes Mank’s mea culpa for having been a Hearst hanger on and court jester, damning both Hearst and tinseltown as oligarch. Says younger brother, Joe Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey): “I hear you’re hunting dangerous game; boy [Welles] wants to go toe-to-toe with Willie Hearst, and you’re helping in the kitchen” (below, brother Joe). 

David Fincher
’s detailed script for Mank was written by his own father Jack, who uses flashbacks in the manner of Citizen Kane but here replaces the abuses of Charles Foster Kane with the abuses of the filmmaking industry and local politics. (Below, Fincher directs Oldman). 

, however, suffers from the absence of the foreboding narrative that distinguished Citizen Kane. In one vignette, Mank is disgusted with Mayer (‘If I ever go to the electric chair, I'd like him to be sitting in my lap’) who drips sincerity pandering to his employees while cutting their pay in half. Actor Arliss Howard chews Mayer’s part with relish but no drama (below, c). 

Even the annihilating despair of a colleague who produced ads for a city mayoral race smearing the Democrat as a ‘lousy Bolshevik’ is affect-starved. That political campaign of self-interested lying to the public fueled Mank’s anger, propelling his revenge. (Here, the casting of Bill Nye, The Science Guy, as Upton Sinclair, the Democrat who gets beaten, is a clever poke at 2020 repression of science.) However the vignettes don’t build momentum. They are snapshots unmoored to a strong story arc. The power of Mank is in its imagery resembling Citizen Kane and as a singular character study that rakes over a man’s soul. It is lovely for all that, with Oscar buzz aplenty. 

Director of photography, Erik Messerschmidt, made a mesmerizing contribution here, creating the atmosphere of ‘Kane,’ perhaps to such an extent it leaves the viewer even more in want of old cars and old film — rich in moody blacks and whites, continuous long shots, immaculate lighting. Below, Marion glows. 

In short, cinephiles, watch and luxuriate. For those who feel no passion for the old film industry, the look, feel, and Mank’s bon mots will please, but no meal of a story is offered. Fincher has given us, writes David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter, a “high-style piece of cinematic nostalgia that's a constant pleasure to look at but only intermittently finds a heartbeat.” Mank himself died of alcoholism at 55. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

Giuseppe Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO hits Blu-ray, DVD and 4K UHD from Arrow/MVD

A wonderful Christmas present that checks off the whole list of boxes -- nostalgia, family, friendship, love of cinema, coming-of-age films, and movies-about-movies among these -- Arrow Academy's release this holiday month of 1990's Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film, CINEMA PARADISO, is cause for celebration. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore, who has never made an uninteresting film and in fact has given us several terrific ones, the movie (which I had not seen since it's original release) holds up beautifully. 

Signore Tornatore (pictured at left), at this point in time, has offered up something doubly, maybe triply, nostalgic. The film begins as a remembrance via an aging adult male who has just been informed of someone's death in the small Sicilian village where he grew up.

As the past is relived, we're awash in marvelous old movie images from so many European and American movie classics, as we learn that the dear departed -- the projectionist at the local cinema -- was the man who helped this boy find his place in life as well as his career. 

That's right: a projectionist of film, a profession that today barely exists in our current age of digital. When was the last time you were in a theater in which a projectionist ran the film? For that matter, when was the last time you were even in a theater? Add another layer of nostalgia here. Proust would kvell.

That this projectionist/mentor is played by that late, great and amazing French actor, Philippe Noiret (above, top) is another huge plus, along with the beautiful job done by Salvatore Cascio (below with Noiret and on poster, top), who plays the adorable, energetic, funny and altogether delightful child in what is one of the truly memorable performances by children in the history of film.

Early in the movie we're made aware how the village priest rather doubles as the town's censor, making certain that any scenes involving sex or even the idea of it -- kissing in particular -- are removed from the film before his parishioners can view them. One of the strengths of the film is how the culture, politics, religion and economics of this lively little village comes to life. The scenes set in the cinema itself are among the movie's best.  

Nearly half of Cinema Paradiso involves our hero as a child. Once he transitions to young adult, the character is played by the then-gorgeous young actor Marco Leonardi, (above, left, and below, right) in whose budding love life we (and the projectionist) become involved.

If Tornatore is not a particularly subtle filmmaker, neither is he heavy-handed. Cinema Paradiso is broad in both style and performance, but all of it works and at precisely the right level. (Only the not-so-great old-age make-up seen on some of the characters toward film's end stands out as too much.) The film also grows more beautiful visually as it moves along.

"Movies are finished," one character intones toward the finale, and soon our now-aged hero is walking through the old deserted and dilapidated movie house that once brought him such joy. The film has renewed resonance today, as we watch what might be the last gasp of movie theaters worldwide, due to this ongoing pandemic. Let's hope not.

From Arrow Academy, distributed here in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group, and full of terrific extras that include a nearly hour-long recap of Tornatore and his career (up until 2000, when the documentary was made) which will make you want to go back and watch every one of his films once again; another half-hour doc about the making of this film, its sudden withdrawal from the Berlin Film Fest, its subsequent wondrous Cannes debut, and who picked it up for U.S. distribution; and finally a recap of the famous kissing sequence, with each film and actors identified. Cinema Paradiso arrived on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD earlier this month. If you're already a fan, a revisit is in order. If you've never seen this lovely, award-winning film, what delight lies ahead!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Art and the folk who make it, sell it and buy it get a good going-over in Michael Walker's terrific little indie, PAINT

The best movie about art that I have seen in a long, long time, PAINT, written and directed by Michael Walker, plays fast and fair with all its characters -- most of whom are all too hypocritically human and a little too full of  themselves -- from the Pratt students determined to make great art and their cynical professor to the older successful artist, and especially the people who sell that art, along with the wealthy public that buys it. 

Paint may be a comedy -- much of it is gleefully funny -- but it is also serious about the desire to create art, where this comes from and how it is manipulated every which way on its journey from imagination to creation to sale (or not). The beauty and surprise Mr. Walker (the filmmaker is shown at right) has in store comes from his understanding that this need to create is genuine -- even if, especially if, the creators are often so unformed and clueless that they unable, at this point in their life and career, to achieve anything resembling their best impulses and ideas.

So these three art students/friends, played by (above, left to right) Olivia LuccardiJosh Caras and Paul Cooper, bumble along in art, life, love, sex, theft, marketing and much else, and that bumbling is often so much fun that anyone genuinely interested in art and/or creativity will want to come along for the ride. 

The filmmaker mixes in young and old artists (the wonderful David Patrick Kelly plays the funniest and maybe smartest character in the film), students and teachers (Austin Pendleton, above, gets a lovely rant early on in the film), parents and children, buyers and sellers -- and all to great effect. His plotting and pacing are as much fun as his people, so that the 95 minutes whiz by in no time.

As one of our main character notes early on, "Is it my fault I haven't suffered? I just think there's more to life that that!" But what? And so he comes up with an idea -- oh, my! --  that is indeed something rather new, and then he gets his best buddy to help him. Which leads to a lot more fun and games at the same time that the female in this crew is finding her own success via a road not so often taken, at least not via the very amusing route we have here.

Along the way filmmaker Walker fills us in on all kinds of art theft, even as he gives us a group of characters who, for all their insecurities, occasional nastiness and naivete, are rather sweet, fun and almost always funny. 

The third wheel in this group finds his own way of connecting to the art world and its wonders (including sex), and the film's finale could hardly be bettered, giving us not just a sudden and surprising look at another kind of  "real" art, but also showing us the unintended consequences that creativity can sometimes bring. 

From Gravitas Ventures (though I dare you to try to find it on the firm's web site), Paint was released via VOD on most major platforms last week. It is definitely worth a watch, as it introduces quite a raft of talent -- in front of and behind the camera. Click here and/or here for more information.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Khrushchev-era bureaucrats do their worst in Russia's entry into this year's Oscar sweeps: Andrei Konchalovsky’s DEAR COMRADES!

Russian-born writer/director Andrei Konchalovsky (shown below) has had quite a genre-jumping career both in English-language films (Runaway Train, Duet for One, Tango & Cash) and in his own language (including 1979's Siberiade through 2016's Paradise) and now, at age 83 he is offering up his latest, a pitch-black satire/drama of Khrushchev-era Russia entitled DEAR COMRADES! The result is a movie that moves from initially rather funny (albeit in a very dark manner) to ugly and finally unexpectedly moving, given that our main character Lyuda -- an attractive middle-aged mother who is also a Stalin-worshiping apparatchik -- has proven such as irredeemable creep for most of the proceedings.

As portrayed by the excellent actress Julia Vysotskaya (shown below, right, and further below), who is often Konchalovsky's leading lady, Lyuda undergoes one of those "dark nights of the soul" that, in the hands of a lesser actress and filmmaker, might prove anything from merely condescending to outright schlocky. 

Ms Vysotskaya keeps her character so on-track, truthful, angry and increasingly anguished that she carries us along moment to moment without missing a beat, as she's dragged kicking and screaming to confront who she is and what she has done. 

The small-minded hypocrisy embedded in all of the apparatchiks we see in the movie, though first used for humor, satire and dark fun, pretty quickly becomes so nasty and self-serving that only, TrustMovies suspects, the very thick-skinned and nearly unfeeling among us will be able for long to continue viewing Dear Comrades! as black comedy. Or even as satire. It moves well beyond either. 

The plot involves workers at a large factory going on strike and then demonstrating against the state. Which is of course ludicrous, as Russian workers under the Communist regime were always, according to the state, incredibly happy with their place in the overall scheme of things. (Just as the majority of Russian citizens today, as per their glorious current leader, are supremely blessed and content with Russia's brand of Capitalism.) How both the local powers-that-be, as well as the higher-ups in Moscow, handle this protest situation could hardly be worse.

The generation gap is also present and accounted for via Lyuda's daughter, whose disappearance during the protest sparks the remaining action of the film. Under whatever label you want to use -- political, religious, cultural -- how the elite and entitled evade, as they always do, in every country, the rules and restrictions that impede the rest of us, is brought to pulsating life (and death) in Dear Comrades! 

One might accuse the filmmaker of sentimentality due to the ending of his film, which some audiences may interpret as a scene of hope but which just might be the darkest would-be joke in the entire movie. This is 1962, remember, and look what has happened in and to Russia since then. Hope may spring eternal. Unfortunately, so does despair.

Dear Comrade!
is Russia's entry into this year's Best International Film "Oscar" race, but what its chances are, given our (one hopes) soon departing President's treasonous, term-long fellatio-flirtation with Vladimir Putin, this may not be the most popular of countries just now. Whatever happens, awards-wise, it's good to see Konchalovsky working so close to his optimal once again.

Distributed via Neon and running 121 minutes, the movie opens for an Oscar consideration week-long virtual run at New York City's Film Forum this Friday, December 25. Catch it now, or maybe later, when it reopens for a normal (what the hell does that mean, these days?) theatrical run.