Monday, January 20, 2020

A timeless fellow: CUNNINGHAM, Alla Kovgan's dance doc about Merce opens in South Florida


Early on in Alla Kovgan's extraordinary documentary -- CUNNINGHAM --  about the life, times and dances of Merce Cunningham, this dancer/choreographer explains to an interviewer that his dancing "doesn't 'refer' to the music, or refer to anything at all, really. It's just dance."  Sure, but what dance it was -- and is.

Has the work of anyone else in the modern dance field aged quite so well as this man's?  Not, I think, even that of Martha Graham -- in whose company Cunningham (shown above) soloed for several years during the early 1940s. If Cunningham and his dance appeared oddball and oh-so-modern when he first exhibited it (in 1944, with his lover and music composer/collaborator, John Cage), it looks today as though it might have been only just concocted. More than merely au courant, the work seems timeless.

For those of us old enough to remember an era when screenplays and the actors who mouthed them gave us, It is I, rather than the current and incorrect It's me, hearing Cunningham speak proves an unalloyed pleasure. And filmmaker Kovgan, shown at right, lets us hear quite a lot from him.

It appears that Merce did not simply create extraordinary choreography, but he was also quite able to put into intelligent, thought-out vocabulary his ideas so that audiences and readers could better understand what he was up to. We get a lot of intelligent verbiage here -- "the surprise of the instant!" -- and it's a delight to hear Cunningham speak so very well.

Ms Kovgan gives us plenty of dance to watch, too -- both archival footage and the more current, and it is all quite wonderful. TrustMovies must admit that he is not a huge fan of dance, either ballet or modern. Yet when he is faced with either from time to time, and it is done well, he becomes, at least briefly, an aficionado. So it is here.

Watching this work, and viewing some of the lovely, subtle sets designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg to go with the Cage music and Cunningham choreography, and listening to Merce as he explains some of what went on back in the day, you will feel as much a part of things as possible in a documentary such as this one. Ms Kovgan has a gift for blending history, personality, dance, music, and art in such as way that her movie bounces merrily along.

Rauschenberg eventually stopped doing set design, but Cunningham and Cage successfully continued their collaboration (the trio is shown above: Cage, left; Cunningham, center; Rauschenberg, right). For Cunningham, the Cage connection seems to have been not only artistic and spiritual but romantic, sexual and just about everything else.

What particularly surprised me is how much silly fun some of the choreography proves to be. And while certain critics of the day found Merce's dances too cold and clockwork, the choreographer's love of the group, rather than of the individual, consistently shines through.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a sleek 93 minutes, Cunningham opens here in South Florida (in 2D, which is the version I saw) this coming Friday, January 24, at the O Cinema, South Beach, Miami. It is also opening elsewhere across the country (in 2D and 3D) this week and in the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities & theaters.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The costs of deception come clear in Kei Chikaura's quiet drama, COMPLICITY


Can a movie succeed properly when its hero and main character is very nearly passive enough for cipher status? This is a challenge, all right, but it turns out that if the character is played by an actor with enough grace, beauty, and subtle charisma, that might seal the deal.

In COMPLICITY, written, directed and co-produced by Japanese filmmaker, Kei Chikaura (pictured below), we get just such a not-quite hero, a young Chinese man who has come to Japan to live and work illegally so that he might earn more money than he is able to in his homeland to send this to his mother and grandmother back in China.

Mr. Chikaura has a fluid filming style, along with a good sense of storytelling. He keeps things mostly in the present, using flashbacks sparingly to show us how our hero, Chen Liang, has bought both a fake ID and a cell phone on the black market and is now living under the identity of a fellow named Liu Wei.

The young actor Chikaura has cast as Chen/Liu, Yulai Lu (shown below), offers remarkable presence in this role. He is as quiet as the movie itself proves to be, but within that quietude, his beautiful, subtly emotive face and graceful, adept body are so very watchable that Mr. Lu pulls us in and hold us throughout.

Considering how utterly passive the filmmaker has made his main character, Lu's performance seems even more of an accomplishment. Chen/Liu falls so easily into whatever is asked of him that when he very occasionally decides not to do something, we breathe one hell of a sigh of relief.

From the movie's initial scene, which finds Chen and a partner burglarizing water heaters, to those further on as he adopts his new identity and goes to work for a soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji, above), meets and falls in puppy love with an older and much more sophisticated art student (Sayo Akasaka, below), you'll so often want to goose this guy into action that you may finally have to sit on your thumb.

The reason for this passivity, however, is a necessary one. Chen must keep his "Liu" identity going and his illegality a secret, and this constant deception soon becomes a kind of betrayal of all those decent people who are helping him and growing close to him. The toll this takes is major, and it is also the motor that drives the movie ever onward.

While I enjoyed the lovely look of the film, its generally unhurried pace, and its finely detailed, realistic performances, the biggest problem for Complicity is one of sheer believability. While Japan may not have the glut of illegals as has the USA (although, percentage-of-population-wise, it very well may), Chinese illegals are certainly not a rarity here. So why, when Chen/Liu acts so very oddly, sometimes downright suspiciously, does nobody around him ever question his legal status?

Granted, the soba restaurant's locale may not be Tokyo, but neither is it the Nippon equivalent of Podunk. Eventually the actions (or non-actions and non-questions) of some major characters begin to defy credibility. Or maybe all this can be chalked up to cultural differences.

In any case, the film's finale proves more than a little moving, simultaneously making funny, charming, pointed use of one of Japan's recent movie blockbusters. "What's in a name?" indeed!

From Film Movement, in Japanese and Chinese with English subtitles and running 116 minutes, Complicity hits home video this coming Tuesday, January 21 -- on DVD and digital, for purchase and/or rental.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

On Jack Henry Robbins' original-in-concept but mediocre-in-execution movie, VHYES, and the ubiquity of "spoilers"


"Spoilers" are everywhere these days -- in reviews, trailers, and even press information on the films themselves. Case in point is a new and quite unusual movie entitled VHYES (think the old video format VHS but in a very positive way), directed and co-written (with Nunzio Randazzo) by Jack Henry Robbins (shown below). What the movie does is to seemingly combine a whole bunch of disparate footage, video-recorded by 12-year-old-Ralphie, of his favorite TV shows, his family and his fat friend Josh, and even, finally, the exploration of a supposedly haunted house nearby.

Unfortunately, Ralphie has recorded over his parents' original wedding tape. Therefore we see occasional bits and pieces of the ceremony, followed by very intermittent moments of Ralph with mom and, less often, with dad, as the film moves on to other crucial times and events.

Between these brief and seemingly random clips, we get a ton of supposedly late 1980s television crap -- from one of those dreadful shopping channels (below) to a mock-hilarious sit-com involving cloned offspring, an in-prison interview about a horrible event that

occurred in town some years back, and even a pretty funny satire on a grade-Z, Scandinavian-accented, aliens-from-outer-space movie (below). Some of these have their charm and a certain degree of humor, and one would-be porno film that combines sex and climate change has an oddballn zing. But some are just not credible as TV programs a 12-year-old would want to watch and tape. A shopping channel? Particularly one that offers products like those we see above?

We soon realize that this is an excuse for Mr. Robbins to try his hand at satire. And while that hand is at least off-and-on successful, all of this takes too much time and interest away from the (very partial but more important) story at hand -- which is about Ralph and his parents. Would a 12-year-old be that interested a commercial for a baldness cure (below)? Again, the chance for a bit of satire takes the place of believability.

There's another oddball show that seems amusing a for a bit -- featuring a supposedly "kindly" cowboy (below) who is anything but -- yet this whole idea seems more redolent of the 1950s and Hopalong Cassidy than of the 1980s. And so it goes.

The best of all this would-be TV are the snippets from a series entitled Painting With Joan, in which Kerri Kenney (below) is priceless as the artist showing her audience how to paint. Plus, her crazy/funny introduction of sex into her work might indeed be enough to entice a budding 12-year-old to her fold.

When I note in my post headline above that the execution here can be mediocre, I am not referring to how fuzzy these clips all look. That's simply the effect of VHS (and, to a lesser extent, Betamax), via which all these segments were actually filmed -- or so we're told. This achievement, at least, should be charming and nostalgic for those of us who remember this "breakthrough" technology.

Instead, it's the cumulative effect of hit-and-miss humor that eventually does the movie in, while taking away precious time from the more important story at hand. And when I talk about press "spoilers" above, I am referring to critics' quotes and press verbiage mentioning laughter and tears, total sincerity, and a whole lot of heart -- all of which clue us into and set us up for what we get. Yet what we get seems like small potatoes indeed. Make no mistake, this movie is an original, and I'm glad I saw it. I just wish it had taken its smart concept and done this better justice.

From Oscilloscope Films, running only 71 minutes (including padded credits), and featuring a nearly unrecognizable Tim Robbins in one large role, and a very recognizable Susan Sarandon in a tiny one (the filmmaker is their offspring), VHYes opens tomorrow, Friday, January 18, in more than 20 cities/theaters around the country. Click here, and then click on GET TICKETS, to learn if one of these is near you.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

CINEMATTERS: NY SOCIAL JUSTICE FILM FEST opens and Adam Zucker's AMERICAN MUSLIM screens at the JCC Manhattan


Presenting "impactful films that engage the community toward a more democratic, inclusive, and just society," as its press release states, the new CINEMATTERS: NY SOCIAL JUSTICE FILM FESTIVAL opens this Thursday, January 16, in New York City at Manhattan's JCC, and runs through January 20. The line-up here looks quite promising, with one after another film that TrustMovies, had he a lot more time, would want to see. (You can peruse the entire festival schedule by clicking here.)

The one film I was able to view is a very necessary documentary entitled AMERICAN MUSLIM, which is directed, produced, filmed and edited by Adam Zucker. Given all that Mr. Zucker, pictured at right, is responsible for, I must say that his documentary has turned out quite well, in just about every department.

The impetus for this movie was the election to the Presidency of Donald Trump, along with our new era of, as Zucker calls it, "sanctioned bigotry."

While we've always had and always will have bigotry, this newly sanctioned idea comes from the vile and disgusting Mr. Trump and his accompanying, noxiously goose-stepping Republican Party.

You will not be surprised to learn that Zucker's doc is determined to show us American Muslims in some of their many other, much more numerous forms, rather than what our current right-wing nationalists are determined to make us imagine -- that all are terrorists.

To this end, he offers up five different American Muslims, originally from places as far afield as Palestine, Indonesia, Algeria, Yemen and Bengali/Bangladesh, and now all -- unless I misunderstood something -- have become American citizens. (Among the facts we learn here is that the majority of Arab-American Muslims are not Muslim but Christian. I had this sort of backward in an earlier version of this post.)

We view these people at work and with their families, and at the many political demonstrations as they try to raise support against Trump's infamous Muslim ban. As we watch them doing everything from condemning the terrorists who took down the World Trade Center (thereby giving the lie to the question so often heard, Why don't we ever see Muslims rallying against terrorism?) to helping other immigrant families in need of support, they will seem exactly what they are: not simply good citizens, but pretty damned exemplary ones. Were we all as helpful and caring as the folk we meet here, our unnecessarily divided country would be a better place.

Zucker moves his doc along at a good clip; there's not a lot of repetition or unnecessary rah-rahing. He has chosen his subjects well, so that each one offers a different look at Muslims, their religion and their primary concerns. We learn from and like all of these subjects. They're enjoyable to be around, and their movie is encouraging, upbeat, positive -- often joyous -- until we reach the point at which our Supreme Court votes (by a margin of one) to uphold Trump's Muslim ban.

Still, our subjects vow to continue their fight to help Americans better understand and appreciate their Muslim brethren. Consider this documentary an important part of that fight. American Muslim, running 82 minutes, plays the Manhattan JCC this Friday evening, January 17, at 7pm. To view the entire program for Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival, simply click here.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

January's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN: the Jewel Box Effect


What pleasure to see LITTLE WOMEN (LW) at Brooklyn’s famed Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a multi- venue cultural center first founded in 1861, seven years before LW was published, with a multi-generational group of 15 including some men dragged by sisters and wives to the winter season’s chick flick. Ecstasy promptly broke out, amped by Q & A that followed with the writer/director herself.

Beyond the exposition below, the result in chief was a completely exuberant experience in front of any screen, large or small. And a unique and smart one: an emotionally and intellectually provocative version of the girls epic that Greta Gerwig (above) artfully, ingeniously kaleidoscoped with bits of Louisa May Alcott’s own life and with Jo March’s own novel. The writer/director plunges you into the golden youth of the March sisters who pile on one another like puppies snarled in a heap of play, rambunctious furies, set against their young adult selves who in cooler light and with mature restraint, bear poverty, suffer loss. Rich neighbor, Laurie, lacking parents and family warmth of his own, is the fifth sister — Timothée Chalamet as his nattily-dressed, tousled, whimsical self. It’s not traditional linear story-telling of LW but you’ve been there/done that. You just have to go and see what Gerwig has accomplished (HERE, the film trailer.)

As Gerwig explained in an interview for Indiewire.com, for her, the novel is the golden snow globe of childhood and memory, and she wanted the film to feel heightened, as though you were opening a jewel box you’d want to live inside of because there was magic to it -- like the world was right in its coziness. Gerwig invests nostalgia with a modern edge in this lively 2h 15m of pure entertainment.

HERE for your comparison are the major earlier films of LW. The 1994 version with Winona Ryder, following the women’s movement, was the first to take Jo seriously as an ink-fingered scribbler underwriting her own independence writing fiction and prose, and Susan Sarandon’s Marmee as a woke woman. Gerwig unpacks empowerment even further — Saoirse Ronan’s Jo makes it plain that money is freedom; the film is threaded with her negotiations over the price and value of her writing. Amy, the family brat (brilliant Florence Pugh: “I got to...be this most delicious naughty hungry little flirt”), declares later as a young adult her practical intention to take control of her life by marrying well — her femininity is her currency in a world where women and children are property.

Gerwig mixes up the time frames — the story flashes back and forth between the March sisters’ charmed if genteel poor childhood and their twenties with the sobering of maturity. Even lesser players are eye-candy here: handsome Brit James Norton as sister Meg’s (Emma Watson) suitor, John Brooks, and French heart throb, Louis Garrel, as Professor Bhaer — the husband Alcott reluctantly coughed up for Jo to marry in order to satisfy her readers (who clamored for Laurie as groom).

A particular Gerwig contribution was for us to see the March’s as part of their own civil war era but in slight offset to its social conventions — essentially a hippie family. (Credit to Amanda Hess, NYT, for her illuminating interview with Gerwig ) The director filmed sunny golden youth using for reference the art of 19th century painters. The young adult Amy, in the company of old Aunt March (a crusty Meryl Streep on par with Maggie Smith‘s Countess Grantham) falls in love with Laurie in the Paris of Leslie Caron’s Gigi (below).

My own homework was to re-read the best-selling original (1868), that as an adult, felt something like a dreary dinner of tiresome moralizings. The truest emotion in the novel was evoked by sister Beth’s decline, Alcott’s paean to the demise of her own sibling. This emotionally rich story line was skimmed rather lightly, surprisingly, as otherwise Gerwig pinged your memories of LW over and over.

Alcott herself was unhappy with the novel, she called it “moral pap for the young”, marrying off Jo at her editor’s insistence that women in stories must end up married or dead and writing ‘‘at record speed for money’’. Her preferred gothic romances (she called them her “blood and thunder tales”) temperamentally opposite her idealistic father, didn’t pay. She went for the money, writing stories for girls; at 40, ‘Little Women‘ made Louisa comparatively rich, family debts paid and money leftover for good carpets and a ‘modern’ kitchen now on view in the famed New England colonial in Concord, MA (below). Louisa became the sole support of the Alcott household. She had produced near 300 works by her death at 56 in 1888, 2 days following her father. In real life it was Louisa who went to war (as a civil war nurse) not Bronson; her death was likely brought forward by her having contracted typhoid pneumonia and treated with a formula containing mercury.

Bronson Alcott, a founder of the Transcendental movement, is a story of his own, so modern a school teacher he couldn’t keep a job; parents withdrew their children because he opposed corporal punishment, enrolled an African-American child, and fostered classroom dialogue and argument. The transcendentalists, at their height in the 1830’s, emphasized the inherent goodness of nature and humanity leading to Louisa’s inclusion of such churchy homilies in LW as “Be comforted,dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds;” or “hope and keep busy, that’s the motto for us”.

Bronson Alcott’s compatriots were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; their ideas of simple food/simple living have come forward to this day in their writings, radical in their support of abolition and women’s and labor rights. The Alcott’s and their associates were early day Woodstock generation types and the fictional March’s basked in their glow.

A provocative piece of Louisa May’s own story is whether she was gay. Gerwig talks about it in an interview HERE. Louisa herself wrote: “I believe I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body...because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.”

In contrast to Gentleman Jack's Anne Lister, denoted as the first English Lesbian some decades earlier (1791-1840), Louisa (above) is adored by girls today foremost as an author who supported herself as a writer; available readings don’t hint she acted on her predisposition. She and alter-ego Jo March are gay icons today, but they are also iconic to every young person who dreamt of supporting her/himself with pen, typewriter, or computer.

On its release Christmas Day 2019 Little Women became an instant film classic because of the magic in Greta Gerwig’s jewel box. When you finally see it you will surely enjoy if you are a woman or have a woman in your life. (Below, Laura Dern’s Marmee with the four March daughters)


The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent Lee Liberman

Friday, January 10, 2020

Alex Gibney's back with CITIZEN K, his look at Russian ex-oligarch and current political dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky


For any documentary fans lucky enough to have seen the 2011 KHODORKOVSKY -- German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi's movie about the then-imprisoned Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- the new film, CITIZEN K, by prodigious documentarian Alex Gibney (90 producing credits and 47 for directing), which brings the Khodorkovsky story pretty much up to date, will be a must-see. Even, I suspect, for doc fans who may not know much about the life and career of this very unusual fellow who went from being one of the wealthiest people in the world to a Russian political prisoner in Siberia for ten years and has now become the Kremlin's most famous critic-in-exile, from his these-days home in London.

Given the murderous yen of current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for doing away with his political nay-sayers, both in Russia and abroad, your biggest question while viewing either of these Khodorkovsky-themed docs will probably be: How come this guy is still alive?

Best guess, since neither director goes into this question head on, is that making a martyr out of this man might do more harm than good to Putin and his hold on power. Either way, Mr. Gibney, shown at right, does his usual job of intelligent, professional movie-making that pulls us in, gives us plenty of information and ideas to keep us involved, and does not settle for simple hagiography in offering up Khodorkovsky (shown above and below) as a possible hero. Sure, what this man has done -- some of this certainly odd but also oddly heroic -- was in many ways good for Russia and its populace, even while making him a very rich fellow.

Gibney lets Khodorkovsky's great intelligence, discipline and bravery shine through, never more so than when he accepts his arrest and prison term (on utterly jacked-up and ridiculous charges that are shown to be even more stupid via his subsequent "trials"), rather than fleeing the country, as other Russian oligarchs immediately did when Putin revealed his true, power-hungry colors.

One of Gibney's smartest moves is to offer some fairly recent Russian history, along with the country's change from Communism (via Gorbachev and then Yeltsin) to a form of Capitalism, Russian-style, complete with beaucoup bloodshed that soon morphed into another under-the-thumb dictatorship (thanks to Putin), which has proven less crazy and murderous than that of Joe Stalin but nonetheless is a nasty, nationalisitic white/male/heterosoexual dictatorship all the same -- unfortunately one that seems to have the approval of far too many Russians.

Via archival footage and current interviews with journalists, politicians, and the man himself, we learn how Khodorkovsky dealt with his time in prison, and how, after it, he became even more of the political dissident than before. On the debit side, the man maybe has a lot to answer for, including his possible involvement in the murder of the mayor of a town near one of his oil fields. We learn about this in degrees, but I wish Gibney had asked Khodorkovsky directly whether he had any involvement. Not that we would learn the definitive answer, but it might have been interesting to watch and listen to him and what he has to say.

Otherwise, by the time we reach the conclusion of this 126-minute movie, we've seen and heard enough to place us pretty firmly in Khodorkovsky's corner. The earlier and shorter by-15-minutes documentary gave us quite a bit more of K's family/childhood history. As I stated in my review of that film and stand by after seeing this second one, the man seems to me to be a genuine Russian patriot -- not in the vile, nationalistic sense but in a manner that cries out for something approaching a more real democracy, available to all. Which these days, come to think of it, we could use here in the USA, too.

Distributed theatrically via Greenwich Entertainment, in English and Russian with English subtitles, Citizen K is said  to have opened in Los Angeles this week and will hit New York City on Wednesday, January 15, for a two-week run at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Click here to learn more about where and when. As you can see from the poster, top, the film is billed as an "Amazon original," so if you can't view in a theater, you can probably catch it eventually via Prime.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

GENÉSE: Philippe Lesage's first-love film makes U.S. home video debut


Were the first hour and a half of Canadian filmmaker Philippe Lesage's movie, GENÉSE, not so very fine, I am not sure we'd forgive or even put up with his near-shocking switch at that point from the story and character's we've been viewing to something completely other. Yes, the theme remains the same: how fraught first-love (hell, any love, really) can be. But the switch baffles us and certainly takes some time to get used to and sort out.

If this is a spoiler, so be it. But I suspect you'll appreciate the warning so that you won't waste much time worrying over this confusing switch. Up until this 90-minutes-or-so point, we've been involved with a group of high-schoolers and their difficult love lives. M. Lesage, shown at right, who both wrote and directed the film, has also cast it quite well.

It's easy to watch and enjoy both the appearances and the performances of the young, attractive cast, each of whom brings something special to his/her role.

And if Lesage is some-times a tad slow-paced, even repetitive, in his visuals, what we're looking at is usually pleasant, while giving us enough to think about, that we go along.

The longer and first-seen tale features a brother Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin, above, left) and sister Charlotte (the beauteous Noée Abita, above, right), each of whom has a first-love problem. His will work itself into being and acceptance as the film moves along; hers stems from the kind of male rejection via boyfriend (Pier-Luc Funk, below), shown early on, that leads to an all too typical and saddening response.

We view and come to feel and empathize with these two characters hugely, thanks to Lesage's own empathy and ability to engage us via fully-rounded characters who open their layers to us in degrees. Charlotte repeats and repeats her negative response, while Guillaume tries to come to terms honestly with his. The result is a declaration of his love, in the classroom, that is the first such I've seen in movies and is so very well done that the scene becomes a kind of instant classic.

When we switch to the second part -- involving even younger children toward the end of their season at a summer camp (above) -- the time spent is shorter and the involvement less. Yet because the theme is the same, there's enough intelligence here to hold the movie together, while performances are again, in this second story, quite good. Lesage always tosses us into the middle of things, using his documentary style, which makes what happens seem real, even "normal" -- including those singular actions on display, together with the enormous emotions aroused in the various characters.

This in media res style forces us to figure things out for ourselves. The result may take some time, but the effort is edifying so that Genèse proves an unusual but worthwhile movie experience. From Film Movement, in French and English with English subtitles, and running 129 minutes, the film hit the street earlier this week on DVD, Blu-ray and digital. (That's Paul Ahmarani, above, center left, who plays Guillaume's very smart, egotistical and nasty instructor.)