Thursday, January 30, 2020

Li Cheng's immersive movie, JOSÉ: Gay in Guatemala -- and paying for it constantly

From the outset of JOSÉ, the new, near-documentary-style narrative film from Li Cheng (shown below; this is his second full-length feature), we're immersed in the life of Cheng's protagonist, the titular José, as this young man goes about his work life, family life and sex life -- far too trudgingly, it must said, in all three areas.

José's work consists mostly of coraling cars that drive by to stop and purchase some food at a local restaurant that does not, it would seem, have a parking lot. He takes the order, runs back into the restaurant to place it, and brings that order back to the car after it has been driven around the block a few times. (Or so it seemed to the eyes of TrustMoves, at least.)

José's poor mom -- and the family is poor: behind on its rent and probably much else, too -- labors day and night, cooking food and selling it on the street (if the authorities don't come and chase her away). There is also a brother we never see who doesn't help the family with its rent or with anything else, so it falls to José  to pick up the slack.

Regarding sex, as José is gay, he makes hook-ups via cell phone on whatever Grinder-like app is used in Guatemala, where he resides. If the word Guatemala brings to mind a generally well-received movie we covered that opened theatrically just three months ago -- Temblores (Tremors) -- also set in Guatemala with startlingly similar subject matter:  that of a gay man trying to negotiate his way to come out of the closet. The difference, however (and it's a huge one), is that the protagonist of Temblores comes from an uber-wealthy family.

Still the ever-heavy hand of both religion and family expectation holds down both men. Interestingly enough, while wealth would seem to make a lot of things much easier, it also enables that family in Temblores to control both the protagonist's work and church affiliation with an iron hand. José (played by the doe-eyed and very appealing newcomer, Enrique Salanic, above), on the other hand, at least seems to have more freedom, perhaps because he is of no particular importance to society at large. His own love for his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota, below) is what binds him most to family, and he appears to have little, other than mere tradition and habit, that connects him to the Catholic church.

It is via José's sexual encounters that we come to view and understand this young man most clearly. With these, he can be honest in ways he cannot be elsewhere in this life. In the first of these, there clearly has been nothing available but get-your-rocks-off sex; in the second, with a sensitive, hot-looking immigrant, Luis (Manolo Herrera, below. right), sex coupled to caring and genuine attraction by both parties leads to the possibility of a relationship.

But here, the differences between a young man with local roots and another without them come to the fore. Later, we meet a new paramour, an attractive, seemingly decent older man who holds out the promise of some security and caring. But José still pines for Luis.

How all this plays out offers the viewer a number of rewards: A look at street-level Guatemalan society and its many challenges; yet another Latin American country mired in an unhelpful, traditional patriarchy (the situation of José's female co-worker, above, may put you in mind of Roma); and how modernity is impacting on all of this.

As director and co-writer (with George F. Roberson), Mr. Cheng manages to give us quite a lot of information and buried emotion via visuals as much as from dialog (one excellent scene that offers the reverse involves José and his grandmother, above). This is key in helping us empathize, connect to and appreciate our protagonist, as well as the rest of the characters.

From what I can gather the filmmaker has used exclusively newcomers/ unprofessional actors in all the roles. Yet due, I am guessing, to his uncanny knack for casting and his ability to draw good performances from an untutored cast, there is not an untruthful moment in the whole movie.

Cheng thankfully does not try to tie up a bunch of loose ends. While it is clear that José has grown up some during the course of the film and now has a better idea of what he wants and needs in this life, it is not nearly as clear that he will be able to achieve this. But it's a start. And the finale, taking place in the film's lushest and most verdant of locations, is simply a knockout to view.

From Outsider Pictures and running a just-right 86 minutes, José opens tomorrow, Friday, January 31, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and the following Friday, February 7, in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and Chicago (at the Gene Siskel Film Center), and then on February 14 in South Florida at Miami's Tower Theater, Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway, the AMC Aventura, the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton and at the Lake Worth Playhouse. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and  theaters, click here and scroll down.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

AFTERWARD: Ofra Bloch's doc views the Israeli/Palestine conflict from an unusual, specific and highly engaging viewpoint

Opening in limited theatrical release earlier this month and already hitting home video, AFTERWARD, another in the very necessary and always problematic documentaries -- this one by first-time/full-length filmmaker Ofra Bloch -- addressing the ongoing conflict between Israel and the still-non-existent state of Palestine, proves to be one of the better examples in a seemingly never-ending parade.

And why should the parade end? Not, at least, until some kind of solution can be reached that provides justice to both sides.

Ms Bloch, shown at left and born in Israel to parents who escaped the Holocaust, tells us early on that she originally wanted to be a filmmaker but instead became a psychologist living and working in New York City. With Afterward, she uses -- and very well, too -- both skill sets to create a documentary that is smartly filmed and filled with intelligent people wrestling with seemingly insoluble problems.

Bloch speaks with an ex-Neo-Nazi German skinhead who calls the experience 'unreal' -- this conversation with an Israeli Jew. She asks the right questions and chooses choice moments to zero in and make the most of them, sometimes by exploring further, other times by simply leaving them alone.

As an Israeli Jew, she also understands that she must give more than equal time to the Palestinians to help balance out the wrongs Israel continues to heap upon them. "I grew up hating the Germans," she explains, "but we knew that when the next Holocaust came, it would be at the hands of the Arabs."  With this kind of history drummed into children, little wonder so many adult Israelis think, feel and behave the way they do.

Early in the doc and again toward the end, we hear this: Whenever Palestinians want to discuss the occupation, the history of the Holocaust is brought up to silence them. TrustMovies himself has heard this very "argument" raised where lives in South Florida in a predominantly Jewish community, and he has to admit it drives him a little crazy each time it is used as a kind of end-of-conversation excuse. But Bloch goes deeper into the question whenever possible in her interviews with both adult Germans (for instance, the woman, above, whose father was a young officer in the Nazi SS)

and the psychologist (above) and the photographer (below), two of the several Palestinians with whom the filmmaker has lengthy and insightful conversations. Among the surprising, provocative things we hear is that Palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists (pick your favored description) are choosing their current targets more humanely: soldiers rather than civilians. Yet soldiers, as Bloch points out along the way, are human beings, too.

Bloch's expertise is in the area of trauma, and she offers some interesting information in this arena, too. But for all the intelligence and humanity on display, the documentary may make you feel even more strongly that the situation is only growing worse and that no solution is possible. Jews born in Israel, notes Bloch, are the new Jews: those who would never submit to the enemy and would instead kill. Still, an one interviewee says late in the film, "Somehow, meaning must be gleaned from all this." Amen to that.

From 1091 and running 95 minutes, Afterward, in English, German, Arabic and Hebrew (with English subtitles as needed), hits Digital and On-Demand today, Tuesday, January 28 -- for purchase and/or rental. Note: The film is currently playing here in Boca Raton, Florida, at the Living Room Theaters for a week-long run.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Blu-ray debut for BLACK ANGEL, a neglected noir from 1946 via Neill, Chanslor and Woolrich

TrustMovies had never even heard of BLACK ANGEL prior to receiving a notice of its imminent release via Arrow Video, purveyor of old, sometimes oddball and often overlooked cinema. But how could any move that stars Dan DuryeaPeter Lorre and an excellent supporting cast not be worth at least a try?

Turns out the film is worth a lot more than that. While it is not some undiscovered classic, I think you could rightfully call it a rediscovered gem: a lovely piece of B-movie film noir that holds attention throughout via its fascinating storyline, surprisingly quiet and dark mood, excellent screenplay and dialog, good direction (by B-movie journeyman Roy William Neill, shown at right), and most of all from that cast of excellent actors, each in fine form.

As we learn from one of the terrific Special Features on the disc -- an interview with film historian Neil Sinyard entitled A Fitting End -- no less a critic than James Agee noted in his positive review of Black Angel at the time of its release that all the actors here were working at their best.

The story unfolds piecemeal, making it much more fun, since we must figure things out as they move along. Following a marvelous visual as the camera suddenly climbs a city high-rise, we're in the apartment of a gorgeous but rather nasty dame named Mavis Marlowe, played by luscious Constance Dowling, above. The actress has but a single scene, but, boy, does she make it count!

We're soon entangled in a murder mystery involving the men who were connected with Mavis: one who loves her still (Mr. Duryea, above, right) and who wrote the song she recorded that made her semi-famous, along with others like a night club entrepreneur (Mr. Lorre, below) and a poor schlub named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), the latter of whose very attractive wife (June Vincent. above, left) spends the remainder of the movie trying to get her hubby off death row.

How these very different characters bounce around and off each other makes for consistently interesting and entertaining viewing. None of these people are single-note clichés; they unfurl to reveal more than we expect. The expertise of director Neill and screenwriter Roy Chanslor (working from a novel by popular novelist Cornell Woolrich) combine to offer something more unusual than do many noirs: There is an overall sadness and sense of loss and unrequited love here that hovers over all the characters, including those that seem to possess some same-sex passion (like Lorre, and Duryea's best friend, played very well by Wallace Ford, below, right).

Mr. Duryea is superb, as always, here playing one of his rare good guy roles; Lorre is his usual magnetic self, and Ms Vincent straddles the film-noir line quite nicely indeed. (In his assessment of the actors, critic Agee was absolutely on the mark.)

You may think you've figured out the who-dunnit aspect, but don't be too sure. And if the resolution seems at first a tad disappointing, on reflection, it plays quite well into the film's overall theme and tone. Black Angel is probably a must for Duryea fans and certainly one for noir completists, and it will please just about any fans of 1940s films looking for a nice surprise they haven't yet seen.

From Arrow Academy (distributed here in the USA via MVD Visual/MVD Entertainment Group) and running 81 minutes, the movie hits the street on Blu-ray (in a transfer that is spectacularly good) this Tuesday, January 28 -- for purchase and I hope, somewhere, for rental, too. (That's supporting actor Broderick Crawford, at left, above, as the police captain involved.)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Don't miss the year's first great streaming series, Netflix's BBC-produced GIRI/HAJI (Duty/Shame)

Created and written by Joe Barton (of the Humans series and the Brit indie Ritual), the BBC-produced GIRI/HAJI (Duty/Shame), now streaming via Netflix, is so different and so exceptional in so many ways that TrustMovies won't even begin to try to cover them all here.

Mr. Barton (shown at left), however, has gifted us with something so unusual that I am going to try to communicate his accomplishment without indulging in spoilers.

Just know that if you appreciate fine writing, solid storytelling, and the ability to not simply conceive something original but bring it to pulsating life, to bite off enormous chunks (and chew them all), and take the kind of chances that Hollywood and network tv has either long forgotten how to affect (or simply doesn't care to try), then here is the show for you.

Set simultaneously in Japan and London, Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame), hereafter to be referred to as GHDS, tracks the activities of both the Japanese Yakuza criminal gangs and one of London police divisions: specifically Japanese brothers, the policeman Kenzo and the criminal Yuto (played respectively by Takehiro Hira, above, and Yôsuke Kubozuka, below)

and, in London, disgraced (for snitching on a fellow officer) a detective named Sarah (the always great Kelly Macdonald, below), who happened to be in love with the officer she snitched on, who was two-timing her with a new girl in the office. Yes, you're beginning to understand the mixed motives on display and perhaps how the title of this series comes into consideration.

That title, by the way, is also redolent of Japanese culture and mores, some of which we begin to understand as the series progresses. In fact, when a would-be Brit crime lord (played with a near-perfect combination of wit, idiocy and hilarity by Charlie Creed-Miles, below) is told rather pompously by the head of one Yakuza family that he cannot come to Japan because he does not understand Japanese culture and so would not fit in, we also get a good dose of Japanese holier-than-thou insularity.

Stylistically, the series -- directed by Ben Chessell (four episodes) and Julian Farino (the other four) -- jumps around back and forth in time. Initially flashbacks seem to be shown in widescreen, and then we get scenes that change to black-and-white (as below) and which seem to represent not flashbacks but perhaps what the characters would have liked to have seen or done. All this is not merely effective; it also keeps you on your toes.

And in the final episode, when we move to black-and-white, it is to achieve something I have never seen done in any series (or maybe even in a movie). Here, one art form of storytelling gradually morphs into another, totally different art form and knocks your socks off in the process -- so surprising-but-effective, not to mention hugely moving and utterly beautiful, is the amazing transition and result.

I don't know if this particular scene was Barton's idea of that of the director. Either way, it is one of the more memorable you'll have seen. The various plot strands, all of them quite appealing and pertinent to the themes at hand, coalesce nicely, and the supporting characters -- each one written and acted to a fare-thee-well -- deserve mention and applause. There's Kenzo's beautiful coming-of-age daughter Taki (newcomer Aoi Okuyama, above) and British-Japanese rent-boy, Rodney (the amazing Will Sharpe, below), who is by turns delightful, annoying, wise and self-destructive.

Also a surprise among the supporting cast is that fine and versatile American actor Justin Long, here playing the sadly incompetent son of a criminal scion who can't live up to his daddy's wishes. His character, initially annoying as hell, has one marvellous scene in which he finally tries to come to terms with himself -- and almost makes it. All of the characters here are in some kind of crisis/transit, and all exhibit as many negative and positive aspects, and yet we come to love them and identify with them full on.

All, that is, except the Yakuza crime lords. Barton understands that, like the Mafia, the Yakuza are despicable leeches upon every society they touch, and not to be "glamorized" in any way. Sure, they wear nice suits: big fucking deal. (That's Masahiro Motoko, above, as one of those "lords.")  The violence, too, while necessary is never paramount nor overly gory and gratuitous. Instead it often comes as a shock, jolting us into the awareness of how precious life is.

GHDS is full of not simply smart but truly wise dialog that pulls us up short and makes us think again. But don't expect the series to provide any answers to life's conundrum. Its ending is quite as it should be, leaving those of its characters remaining alive still in their individual predicaments. And yet they have indeed accomplished so much. They're heroes of sorts, but, boy, do they (and we) have a long way still to go.

A sequel? Not necessary, but if the series is as huge a hit as it deserves to be -- it won't be, though, because it is simply too good and too intelligent and too risky for that -- of course a sequel will come along. Meanwhile, catch GHDS while you can. Streaming now on Netflix, it represents everything to which popular entertainment can, but so rarely does, aspire.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

QUEZON'S GAME: Matthew Rosen's film is a welcome addition to Jewish Holocaust heritage

TrustMovies will wager that not too many of us, old folk or young, know that much about the work done by the Philippines during the late 1930s toward saving Europeans Jewry from the Nazis' savage grasp. Manuel Quezon, the title character of the film at hand, served as president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines from 1935 to 1944. In his day, this handsome man cut quite the figure, even adorning the cover of Time Magazine back in 1935.

Now comes a movie, QUEZON'S GAME, produced in and by the Philippines, that concentrates on Quezon and his very worthwhile efforts to provide a place for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's horrors.

Nicely acted by its able cast, and well-directed and photographed by Matthew E. Rosen, on probably a rather small budget that still manages to look pretty big, with beautiful production values, sets, costumes and all the rest, where the movie misses somewhat is in its too-standard screenplay and some questionable casting choices.

That screenplay, credited to Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen (shown below, who also acts in the film), is too paint-by-numbers and offers some fairly thudding exposition, as when Quezon tells his fellow politicians how he can help the country, "...Just like four years ago, when I secured our independence." Quezon is played by the very handsome Philippines-born actor Raymond Bagatsing (above), who has more than 100 credits on his IMDB page and turns in a credible, serious performance.

The movie posits that Quezon, aware that is dying of tuberculosis, determines to do what he and the Philippines can to help rescue the Jews from Hitler's grasp, and so sets about circumventing the USA -- from whom the Philippines has not quite yet become totally independent -- and our way-too-tight immigration policies regarding Jews in order to bring a good amount of these refugees to settle in the Philippines. (Quezon had hoped to rescue 10,000, but the final number proves a good deal less.)

The movie's main villain -- other than the nasty Nazi head of security for the German Embassy in the Philippines (played in wiley/sleazy fashion by Kevin Kraemer, above, left) is a character named Consul General Jonathan Cartwright, whom I suspect to be a compilation of various anti-semites who have labored in our government down the decades and were particularly abrasive and hurtful during the period leading up to and including World War II. When one of Quezon's associates informs Cartwright of this mass immigration plan, the shocked bigot responds with, "Jews? Really? They're worse than niggers." The anti-Semitic/anti-Negro stance here is both startling and all-too-believable -- for its time and, more unfortunately, for our own.

The movie gets bogged down in cliché regarding Quezon's tuberculosis and his wife's (Rachel Alejandro, above) response to it, with the music soaring and the melodrama rather boring. Douglas Sirk, I think, would blush at some of this.

The very oddball casting of a young actor -- David Bianco (above, left), who looks to be maybe just out of college -- to play Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was in his 40s at the time, seems rather crazy. Mr. Bianco is a perfectly good actor, as is his (I'm guessing here) wife, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, who plays Mamie Eisenhower. But Bianco looks way too young, and his wife looks more like a Filipino than an American Mamie, so these casting choices are more than a little questionable.

Still, it will be difficult not to find yourself hugely engaged in the climatic scene involving government officials, Eisenhower and Quezon, as all of them battle out immigration policy, during which a number of choice morsels are offered up. The best of these comes as the racist Cartwright character exclaims, "There is a difference between an American who believes in segregation and a Nazi!" To this Quezon replies, "Not to a Filipino."

The finale, too, is quite moving, as the refugees begin arriving on shore via small boats -- even if the movie's denouement smacks of the worst moment  ("Oooooh, I should have saved more!") from Schindler's List. Overall, though, the film's message of Philippine history and its great caring and service to the Jews is very much worth sharing and celebrating.

Quezon's Game, in English and Tagalog, with English subtitles, opens theatrically this Friday, January 24, in nearly 40 theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire 25 in New York City, and then in nearly an equal amount the following week. Click here to view the roster of theaters and cities across the USA in which the film will be playing.

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.