Tuesday, June 30, 2020

THE TRUTH opens -- and a super-starry French film directed by Kore-Eda Hirokazu arrives

Kore-Eda Hirokazu's first film not in his own Japanese language (so far as I know), THE TRUTH -- not to be confused with the old Henri-Georges Clouzot film with Brigitte Bardot -- is spoken in mostly French with some English by actors as diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, all of whom are fine and dandy -- as is this lovely film itself.

One of the "family reunion" variety, as have been a number of Kore-Eda's movies -- granted, sometimes in rather unusual ways -- The Truth involves a grand dame of French cinema named Fabienne (Ms Deneuve), now at what may be the end of her career, and a visit from her daughter Lumir (Ms Binoche) who is a screenwriter working in the USA, from whom she has long been at least slightly estranged; her son-in-law Hank, a somewhat successful Hollywood actor played by Mr. Hawke; and her delightful little granddaughter, Charlotte (the young actress Clémentine Grenier, making her film debut, whom I hope we'll be seeing soon again).

While many of the family-inspired themes here are familiar from Kore-Eda's other work (the filmmaker is shown at left, with his young co-star, Ms Grenier) as well as from other "family" pix, his main theme most likely is that age-old question, "What is the truth?", particularly where families are concerned. His answer, which takes several twists and turns during the course of the movie, is a cautious, malleable and not particularly easy one. And this -- along with a group of performances that could hardly be bettered in terms of each one finding the "truth" at the heart of his or her character -- makes for the kind of movie-going experience that charms and entertains, even as it raises questions about family (and extended family) that are always worth considering.

There are a couple of delicious sub-plots here, too: One involves a movie currently being shot that stars Fabienne, along with a young actress who looks and acts remarkably like another long-dead actress from Fabienne's past; the other is the publication of Fabienne's memoirs, a book chock full of what daughter Lumir sees as either outright lies or those occasioned simply via omission. All this is gracefully woven together with the filmmaker's expected consummate skill. Look for some very special actors -- Ludivine Sagnier and Roger Van Hool among them -- popping up in nice supporting roles, too.
What seems especially impressive is how well Kore-Eda adjusts to both French culture and the (sort-of) intrusion of America -- via Hawke and Hollywood -- into his mix. You will probably leave The Truth feeling pleasantly sufficed without any sense of having been over-awed or knocked for a loop. Yet the ideas and characters here may linger awhile, as you think about your own family -- blood and extended -- along with the notion of what movies (even the sad, possibly quite moving little sci-fi flick within this movie) are capable of achieving. Kore-Eda's usual lesson-- consider every viewpoint --  is brought home beautifully once again.

From IFC Films, in French with English subtitles and running 106 minutes, the film opens in select theaters and via digital streaming and cable VOD this Friday, July 3. Click here for more information on how and where to find (and see) The Truth.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Feminism vs tradition and the patriarchy in Mariam Khatchvani's Georgia-set drama, DEDE

Primitive, filmed in a beautiful location, and said to be based on a real-life situation taking place in 1988, as the Georgian Civil War began, DEDE, the 2017 film directed and co-written by Mariam Khatchvani, takes a number of unexpected turns, even as it purloins themes from Romeo & Juliet, the Sabine Women, and maybe every backwoods-set, honor-above-all-else, Eastern European/Eurasian movie ever made.

The film also proves an oddball mix of the modern (that stylish red dress our heroine tries so hard to get her hubby to compliment) along with the strictured and provincial (traditions that are awfully difficult to understand, let alone countenance: an engagement -- no, not ring but bullet. How sweet!).

The theme of budding feminism going up against traditional patriarchy, Georgian-style, is given quite a workout here. Ms Khatchvani, pictured at right, is deliberately, I suspect, filming in the same primitive style of the setting of her movie, as exposition couples with somewhat stilted performances and dialog, so that we always get the sense that, despite the relatively modern year, we're still in some kind of far-off, nearly ancient locale. What keeps us going during this somewhat languorous film are two things.

First, the interesting performers: George Babluani, shown above, as our heroine's first great love, a sexy, slow-burn guy who's great at staring; Natia Vibliani as Dina (below, with child), the put-upon girl at the center of all the male wrangling; and literally all the supporting performers who seem equally adept and real.

Secondly, the visuals here, thanks to the gorgeous locations, can often be breathtaking: There's one scene in which villagers carry lanterns/torches in the night on one side of the screen, even as the salmon-colored sunset hits the peaks of the mountains on the other. One question, however: Is Dede, the movie's title, somehow short for the name Dina, our main character? If not, what is its connectuon to this film?

From Corinth Films, in the Georgian language and running 97 minutes, Dede hits home video on DVD and digital streaming (via Amazon and iTunes) this coming Tuesday, June 30 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Update on "freedom" in China: Hu Jie's SPARK and Rita Andreetti's THE OBSERVER

The eponymously titled documentary SPARK details the simultaneous emergence and repression of the Chinese underground publication that appeared in 1960 for the purpose of exposing the horrors of China's Great Leap Forward, a "leap" which resulted in a kind of state-sanctioned famine that is estimated to have killed between 30 and 55 million people. Made back in 2013 by an equally underground Chinese filmmaker, Hu Jie, the movie (seemingly in a longer, two-hour version than the original 100-minute cut listed on the IMDB), Spark, along with a newer documentary about Mr. Hu (shown below), THE OBSERVER by Italian filmmaker Rita Andreetti, is about to be released together in a package entitled SPARK with THE OBSERVER via DVD and VOD from Icarus Home Video.

Interestingly enough and despite Spark being a most necessary and important documentation of those horrible/ despicable times, it is The Observer, detailing the unusual passion for film, truth and art Mr. Hue possesses, that proves the better of the two films -- at least in terms of film-making skill and audience appeal.

Spark takes us on a visit to the execution ground (shown below, I believe) where some protesters of this famine met their fate,

and we hear from a surprising amount of people who remained alive at the time of the making of this documentary, as well as seeing archival photos of them (as below) in their younger days of protest and writing for Spark, the publication. The testimony we hear is varied and, as expected, truly awful. How they managed to survive seems as much a matter of happenstance as anything over which they themselves had control.

Yet the constant jumping around from person to person, place to place, and especially the jumble of ideas, politics, philosophy, reminiscences, poetry (along with current and past events) makes this movie less accessible to Americans and maybe anyone except the Chinese themselves who probably have a better sense of their own history so that what is said and shown here will resonate more strongly. For TrustMovies, the documentary seemed all over the place, even somewhat repetitive, with an occasional memorable statement hitting home. As one old gentleman says now about the Chinese Communist Party's utter misunderstanding of true Marxism and about its lunatic fealty to Chairman Mao: "A real Marxist doesn't worship anyone or anything absolutely!"

And while the names, atrocities and deaths pile up, occasionally one or another story seems to hit home and stand apart. "The party killed its best son," we're told of one man's end. Close to the finale, we hear an all-too-appropriate phrase regarding this huge and populous country and its past and present rulers, regarding Tibet, Hong Kong and so much more: "China, alas!"

If Mr. Hu is less engaging as a filmmaker, despite the absolute necessity of this tale being told, he proves a wonderful subject for the documentary that Ms Andreetti (shown below) provides us. Hu is as photogenic-yet-natural as seems possible: handsome, alert, quick with a smile, humble, thoughtful and consistently present. And while Andreetti may follow Hu's own film-making style in terms of crowding in as much as possible and jumping around from person to place, her style is also more graceful, compelling and easy to watch.

The Observer begins with footage of hand-held cameras documenting the sudden closing of the 2019 Beijing Independent Film Festival, with the entire archive of the festival seized and its founder and artistic director being taken into custody. It was the showing of Hu's Spark that had this festival canceled. It turns out, we learn, that Hu's films are just about as "underground" and hidden from any mainstream viewing as was the Spark publication in its day. How this man has managed to find any place on the film-making map is something of a miracle. And he seems to have learned to live and work within this situation better than you could possibly imagine.

Andreetti talks at length to Hu himself (he clearly trusts her), to friends (one of whom is shown below) and to his wife, who gives us enough personal information that we understand why and how this very driven fellow conducts his life and relationships. It can't have been easy to have lived with and put up with him, but for someone who understands and appreciates his dedication and goal, this was clearly worthwhile, if difficult.

We get a bit of Chinese film history: for decades there were no documentary films in China, just propaganda films. Even now, anything truthful must remain underground. Via scenes from six of Hu's short documentaries, we learn of various people and events, most importantly, the story of Lin Zhao, a woman who protested in life and later even in prison, so that authorities covered her face with a mask so she could not speak. Murdered at age 33, her tale has now been told, and even if it is mostly unseen by the Chinese, still, it exists.

Finally we witness Hu's return to painting (he first began his creative life as a fine artist), and we see a show of his work depicting famine (what else?!) at a local gallery -- which the authorities manage to allow only a three-day run, instead of the longer one that was originally planned. Still, Hu persists. How fine it is that Ms Andreetti has managed to capture him, along with his life and work and purpose, so very well.

The dual set (on a single disc) of Spark with The Observer hits home video via DVD and VOD this coming Tuesday, June 30 -- from dGenerate Films, a leading distributor of independent Chinese film and movies, distributed in the USA via Icarus Home Video. As of June 30, both films will also be available digitally via the relatively new streaming servic, OVID.

Note: for more information of Hu Jie, 
read the interesting article in The New York Times 
that appeared this past Sunday, 6/28/20.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

DVDebut for DARK FORTUNE, Stefan Haupt's quiet, psychologically astute drama of family, trauma, repression and loss

A very dear friend of mine, a psychologist whose life ended abruptly and far too soon, once told me that the children of psychologists are some of the most screwed-up people on earth. The doctor/parent may minister quite well to patients, yet for whatever reason(s), his/her own children are often in certain ways left at the starting gate. Why this should be -- the age-old choice of placing job ahead of family or maybe simple hypocrisy/denial -- may not matter as much as the fact that, all too often, this cliche proves true.

TrustMovies thought about his old friend and that theory while viewing the very fine, almost-new (2016) Swiss film, DARK FORTUNE, directed and adapted by Stefan Haupt from Finsteres Glück by Lukas Hartmann.

Herr Haupt (pictured at right), who gave us the unusual documentary/ narrative combo, The Circle, back in 2014, here offers up a film full of events -- seen or remembered and some of these truly awful -- in such a quiet, considered manner that he, along with his excellent cast, manages to preclude melodrama while still giving us the necessary drama, allowing us to feel all of the emotion that goes along with it.

Events include a horrendous car accident that destroys a family and leaves one orphaned child, a fight between relatives over the care of that child, an excellent psychologist who is given temporary care of the orphan, and her own family that is going through -- yep -- its own "children issues."

Dark Fortune covers a lot of ground, but its near-two-hour running time allows that ground to be explored properly. If you appreciate stories of family, trauma, astute psychology and believable resolution, you won't be bored and will finish the film is a state of pleasurable relief.

The role of the child is taken by the appealing and talented young newcomer, Noé Ricklin (above), who combines vulnerability, fear and anger into quite a personality. His psychologist and helper, Eliane, is played by Eleni Haupt (above and below) with such a strong sense of conviction and understanding that she'll win you over just as she does her young patient.

Slowly, carefully we learn more about the boy's departed family members, as well as his remaining aunt and grandmother, and simultaneously we meet Eleni's two daughters and her estranged second husband (a very good job by Martin Hug, below, right).

Together, these quiet, beautifully observed scenes build up quite a head of steam and emotion, mostly by not allowing the characters to do so. The tightly constrained script, direction and performances combine to create a tale of trauma, loss and family secrets. Most interesting of all is how the film's center of interest moves from one family to the other -- and then brings it all together via a kind of off-the-cuff, spontaneous psychology and therapy that not only seem believable but also work. This is an all-around lovely, moving job of movie-making.

From Corinth Films, in German with English subtitles and running 116 minutes, the film hit the street on DVD -- for rental or purchase -- this past Tuesday, June 23, and can also be seen via Amazon Prime Video.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Karin Viard stuns in Lucie Borleteau's based-on-real-life, parents'-worst-nightmare tale, THE PERFECT NANNY

Over her nearly 35-years as an actress, French-born Karin Viard (shown at right and below) has taken on almost 100 roles at this point in her prolific, multi-César-winning career. If this star is not that well-known to American audiences, it's only because she's not Catherine Deneuve or Juliette Binoche. (Regarding foreign-born actresses, we tend to stick solely with the biggest names.) TrustMovies barely noticed her in her earliest films, Tatie Danielle and Delicatessen (those films far overpowered their supporting performances), but as the star of the small, funny, incisive movie The New Eve, Ms Viard certainly came into her own, and she has remained there ever since, gracing such films as Time Out, The Role of Her Life, Polisse and My Piece of the Pie with her versatility and expertise.

Now with the new (to the USA, at least) film, THE PERFECT NANNY (Chanson douce), Viard gets one of of those roles so good -- simultaneously horrible, entrancing and powerful -- that this actress simply takes hold of and runs off with the movie. And she does it without benefit of the script giving her the usual psychologically explanatory back-story. What we learn of that, in any case, may be completely fabricated. Instead, Viard -- by virtue of her ability to draw us in to the mystery of what she may be thinking and feeling and still keep us guessing (and hoping) -- is able to create a full-bodied, hugely imposing character who is strange, sad, funny, almost hopeful, even sexy (her full-frontal nude scenes are among the most special and appealing/disturbing I've scene in a long while).

As directed and co-written and adapted (with Jérémie Elkaïm, from the novel by Leïla Slimani) by Lucie Borleteau, shown at right, the movie gives leading lady Viard the wherewithal to create her amazing character, the nanny Louise, out of perhaps the least obvious of tools. Instead of the usual information-filled and often heavy-handed backstory, it is the details we get of the day-to-day interaction Louise has with the two children she cares for, their parents -- well-played by Leïla Bekhti and Antoine Reinartz, shown left and center, respectively, below -- as well as the few other characters, mostly nannies and shopkeepers, the film allows us to meet.

Some of these people, in fact, are as impressed with Louise and how she relates to her two charges (shown below), as are the parents and we in the audience. If only the US distributor had kept something closer to the film's original title (which translates into English as either Sweet Song or Lullaby), rather than The Perfect Nanny, which will alert any vaguely intelligent adult that, hey, this nanny is going to be anything but perfect. Oh, well. Considering how dumbed-down so many audiences seem currently to be, I guess you've got to spell out fucking everything. Thank goodness the movie itself refuses to do this.

The other quite special thing about this film is how slow-burn/quiet-build it proves to be. Folk more used to the standard and probably expected approaching-horror-movie style will get antsy, of course, but those who appreciate character over fast-paced plotting will rejoice, as the film consistently gives its characters room to breathe, if not, unfortunately, the ability to grow.

Finally, if objections are raised such as "How could those parents relegate the care of their kids to this woman?", well, come on now: Working parents, which more and more people must be these days (or, as in this case, choose to be), have to use child care-givers, and the movie, the novel on which it is based, and in fact the true-life tale that began the ball rolling brings to life every working parent's worst nightmare. How the film so naturally, cleverly and effectively taps into this is a huge part of its strength. That, and the marvelous Ms Viard. The monster she creates here is as memorable as any you'll have seen.

From Distrib Films US and distributed via Icarus Home Video, in French with English subtitles and running just 99 minutes, The Perfect Nanny makes its American DVD debut today, Tuesday, June 23 -- for purchase (and eventually, I'm sure, for rental).

Sunday, June 21, 2020

June's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- WORLD ON FIRE in Puzzle Pieces

This post is written by our
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

A blizzard of WWII films keeps pace with pandemia; our own world on fire resurrects the last one — conflagration, white supremacy, strutting dictator. WORLD ON FIRE (WOF), a seven-episode series now on PBS Passport is a pastiche of all the memes, dozens of them, we associate with early WWII. It’s a giant puzzle to parse bit by bit, filling in sections with events and folk all jumbled together on the tabletop — an international melting pot vs the German master-race machine.

Writer *Peter Bowker, below, picks up and puts down (over and over) every piece of the WWII puzzle as Hitler clamped his vice on Europe starting 1939. We are in on the ruin/submission of Poland, the blitzkrieg through Holland, Belgium, France, and exodus from Dunkirk. The reason this big paint-by-numbers thing works is that some characters and intertwining predicaments are so quirky and well-written they jump off the screen; you keep watch to find out how the people-in-chief are faring in the jumble of puzzle. The relentless jerks between scenes are near fatal annoyance but not quite. 

From our English homebase in Manchester, there’s well-to-do young Harry — dimpled pretty-boy (Jonah Hauer-King) who has mushy intention and not much charisma. His mother, Robina, is a major player, her caustic tongue having reduced the bon mots of Violet, Duchess of Grantham, to ciphers. Robina, played by the accomplished Lesley Manville, social-climbs her way through life with a case of the nasties, disinterested in politics except for her crush on the swaggering Oswald Mosley (real), far-right heretic of the 30’s (and Tommy Shelby’s obsession in Peaky Blinders). We watch a smidgen of kindness leak through Robina’s elitist pronouncements as time goes on (Harry is top photo, center; Robina, five photos below). 

Douglas (Sean Bean), playing against heroic type, is working-class bus-conductor, Douglas Bennett, a shambling pacifist still suffering from WWI (above). His daughter Lois, factory-worker-cum-singer is Harry’s girlfriend (Julia Brown), much to Harry’s striver-mother’s annoyance; Douglas’s son is ne’er do well (‘bloody nuisance’) Tom, played by charmer, scene-stealer Ewan Mitchell

This player and this part are the perfect blend of actor and writing; Mitchell shines as a scrappy sailor (above) full of sea adventures, scrapes, near misses. We last see him fleeing occupied France to Spain on foot and hope for more mischief as the war rolls on. 

Back to the front, Harry is sent to Warsaw as a translator for the British embassy and there romances lovely waitress girl-next-door Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz) above, whom he marries on urgent advice: It’s not about which girl he loves most, but saving this girl’s life as Nazis rage across Poland. Kasia takes her little brother Jan to the train (below) and shoves him on board into Harry’s arms, begging Harry to save him not her.

Kasia joins the Polish resistance, partnering with one of WOF’s incidental Jews, Tomasz, to seduce Germans (preferably officers) one by one into a dark alley and shoot them — a lethal tag team until their luck runs out. In Manchester, little brother Jan is now living with Robina who hates mothering (below) adding a war-orphan story and immigrant bullying to the tabletop puzzle. 

Lois meanwhile is entertaining the troops (Ms Brown, below, does her own singing), pregnant by Harry (losing her virginity was a piece of life business— now she’s done with him), and being pursued by ace pilot, Vernon, who loves her, even ‘up the duff’ with Harry’s baby.

Our mellifluous-voiced, conscientious radio-caster is Edward-R-Murrow-esque correspondent, Nancy Campbell — token American (Helen Hunt, third from left, cover photo). She narrates Hitler’s stealth build-up on Poland and the blitzkrieg across Europe. Nancy is the glue among major characters and some lesser ones such as a gay black jazz musician (on the Nazi hit list for being all three) and his white American doctor lover, Nancy’s nephew. This couple (below) dares a moment too long. 

Nancy’s Berlin neighbors, whom she is drawn to help, fatally, are a ‘good’ German family with an epileptic child who must be hidden from the sorry Nazi scheme of purifying the race by killing the disabled. And to belabor the shell-shock narrative a lot more, we accompany Harry as he minds a truck load of mentally-damaged soldiers on the road to Dunkirk. Back home in Manchester, Douglas takes little Jan to the local mental hospital to reunite with his (and Kasia’s) brother Grzegorz, who, having joined a troop of English soldiers and escaped to England via Dunkirk, is hospitalized, suffering the same mistreatment for PTSD that afflicted Douglas at the Somme. 

The strange entanglement of Douglas and Robina (below) is something to watch— grandparenting a bastard baby from opposite ends of the social divide (her McMansion/his worker row house). Robina is still minding Polish Jan. (Robina tells Lois: "If I had known Harry was going to marry a Polish waitress, I’d have thought you more of a prospect.") Douglas quietly becomes uncle-grandpa to Jan — playing ball and chess with him. Since Harry loves both Lois and Kasia, the messiness between these two families is sure to get messier. I’m rooting for Kasia, but Douglas and Robina?

We are left with a major cliff-hanger: Handsome Harry has parachuted back into Poland on a spy mission; he makes his way to a safe house of Polish fighters where amazingly Kasia turns up (having fled the scene of her hanging as bombs fell). The Polish resistors are found by the Germans at that moment; Harry and Kasia are on the run, heading into the second year of the war (1940) and the second series, already scheduled. There are doubtless dozens more WWII memes to overwork —trains, camps, slave labor, battles, etc. — all of which we will watch to find out whether Harry outgrows callow youth and/or bumbles his way to Kasia or Lois.

I see Peter Bowker’s bind — he can’t show every Nazi trope in the war and develop interesting characters without all those leaps among scenes. But other series manage smoother transitions, and scoring memes feels like a vanity project. Maybe he could edit the scope — his characters deserve it and his audience already knows what the Nazi’s did.

*Note: See a BBC interview with Peter Bowker
in which he notes his own issues with structure.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Want the real story on Johnny Cash? Try Matt Riddlehoover's new doc, MY DARLING VIVIAN

A wonderful, much-needed corrective to the overblown, over-rated, cliche-ridden 2005 bio-pic Walk the Line (that very nearly suggested sainthood for June Carter Cash, the second and hugely hungry-for-media-attention wife of country-western singer Johnny Cash), the new documentary MY DARLING VIVIAN, making its virtual theater debut this week, is a must-see for anyone who cares about something approaching the "real story."

Yes, Reese Witherspoon won a Best Actress Oscar for her work in the earlier film, and that movie had the usual Hollywood bio-pic gloss, but it is this little documentary that grabs you from its first frames, as one of Mr. Cash's four daughters by his first wife, Vivian Liberto, explains that, in a way, each daughter had a "different" mother, due to all the events/trauma going on as these girls grew up.

And while Ginnifer Goodwin, who took the role of Vivian in the bio-pic, is certainly attractive and talented, her beauty is no match for that of the real Vivian (shown on poster, top, and below), who more realistically might have been played by the likes of Angelina Jolie. Director Matt Riddlehoover, shown above, has brought together a wealth of archival materials -- photos and film -- of the early days of Johnny, Vivian and their girls, and what we see, coupled with what we hear from each of the daughters (now grown to adulthood), combines to make the documentary as full of pertinent information as it is riveting and moving.

While it is clear that the daughters certainly cared about and for their father (shown above, right), it is their mom and her mistreatment by Mr. Cash and his second wife, that is called to attention here. (You may be tempted to refer to this guy as Johnny Trash.) As we learn of Vivian's own family history and how this played into her fears and foibles, along with how her husband consistently put his own desires ahead of what might be best for the family, a not terribly untypical tale of mid-20th-Century male entitlement -- celebrity version -- unfurls.

To go into much detail will spoil the many surprises in store, so TrustMovies will just say that each of the four daughters proves a different yet equally interesting guide into the family history, with eldest daughter Roseanne Cash, herself a noted singer and musician, giving us the most time and information.

And yet it is all the fascinating specifics of this marriage (along with Vivian's second one) that make this movie so peculiar and so sadly believable. How June Carter Cash used every media opportunity to make it seem as though she had raised and mothered the four girls; how that Walk the Line movie distorted fact with easy fiction, and most disgustingly what happened to a song dedicated to Vivian at the special tribute to Johnny Cash and its TV broadcast. How the record of an entire life can be eradicated via those in power has rarely been so effectively demonstrated.

Although the film gives us all this, it never raises its voice or appears to demonize any of its subjects. In fact, Vivian herself is shown to be a very problemed person, greatly loved though she was by her family.

And if Johnny Cash seems pretty awful for much of the movie's length, by its finale, he has at least partially redeemed himself. How fortunate it is that Vivian was the kind of woman who saved so much of the memorabilia concerning the fellow she very much loved. And that her daughters were willing to speak so genuinely and tellingly about their rather special family.

From The Film Collaborative and running a perfect-length 90 minutes, My Darling Vivian opens today, Friday, June 19, in New York City at Film Forum and elsewhere around the country. Click here for more information about Film Forum's virtual cinema, and here for more info on how, wherever you live, you can watch the film at home.