Saturday, October 31, 2020

Blu-ray debut for a quiet delight: Peter Sellers' only effort as director, MR. TOPAZE from 1961

What a genuine surprise is the first -- and only -- movie directed by world-famous comedian, Peter Sellers. Released in 1961, MR. TOPAZE, in which Sellers also takes the leading role, is based on the popular theatrical play by Marcel Pagnol, and along with Sellers, it boasts a cast of some Britain's finest actors, as well as a story and dialog that does them all justice. Further, it offers one of Sellers' most quiet and lovely performances -- so very different from much of that over-the-top work for which the actor now seems best remembered.

Mr. Sellers, shown above and below, plays the title role of a French schoolmaster so supremely honest (and equally poor) that he seems to sabotage any and every effort to make his way in a world of hypocritical con-men (and women), in which honesty is far from the best policy. Ah, yes: the world as we've always known it (yet remain rather loathe to admit it). Sellers' performance could not be bettered -- utterly real without ever pushing a moment beyond what it needs -- and the screenplay (by Pierre Rouve, from the great Pagnol's play) proves old-fashioned in the very best sense. It is smart but not cynical, honest (in a way that neither our hero nor his adversaries can understand), and low-key-yet-compelling in a manner that very little drama these days can manage. 

Just wait for the final few lines of dialog between Topaze and his best friend Tamise (played by the wonderful Michael Gough, at left, above, in one of his rare kindly screen performances). These lines are perfection: subdued, witty, wise, exacting and infintely sad -- Pagnol at his most marvelous.

The entire supporting cast is both well-chosen and scrupulously on-point -- from Martita Hunt (above) as a wealthy Baroness who expects Topaze to alter her grandchild's grades to Leo McKern (below), as the sleazy headmaster who demands that those grades be "adjusted." The scene between these three is exquisitely written and acted.

Herbert Lom (below, left) and Romanian actress Nadia Gray (below, right) play the villains of the piece, with Lom his usual caddishly amusing self and Ms Gray offering up a great little musical number midway along all about money (she's a famous showgirl, you see) that is as smart and entertaining as it is apt. 

Billie Whitelaw
 (below) plays Topaze's conniving love interest, the headmaster's daughter, and what seems like the entire roster of A-plus British support (from John Le Mesurier to Joan Sims and John Neville) fill out the additional cast.

As a director Sellers may not be a groundbreaker but he does just what is needed to bring Mr. Topaze to fine, exacting life. And as for Sellers as an actor, you can have Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, even Being There. This is the way I prefer to remember the guy (and to remember the work of Marcel Pagnol, too).

From Film Movement Classics and running 97 minutes, Mr. Topaze hit the street this past week on Blu-ray (in a so-so transfer of a 2K restoration, but let's be grateful for what we have), on DVD and, like most of these little-seen movies with which Film Movement continues to grace us, is available via streaming, too. Extras with the Blu-ray include a 24-page booklet about the film and its restoration by BFI Curator Vic Pratt, a video essay by Kat Ellinger on Marcel Pagnol, and an interview with Leo McKern's daughter Abigail about her father's life and career. Click here for more information on how to find and view this lovely little film.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Barely-seen 2001 film -- Dennis Leroy Kangalee's AS AN ACT OF PROTEST -- gets streaming release worldwide

Beginning with a quote from German writer Goethe which I'd never heard -- "All men's failings I forgive in actors. No actor's failing will I forgive in men." -- AS AN ACT OF PROTEST comes complete with its own rather special history. Its press materials tell us that, since the film's 2001 world premiere at the American Black Film Festival, it has screened throughout Europe, but was never picked up for distribution until Speller Street Films' current worldwide release of the extended European version on October 30.

The mention of an "extended version" raises its own questions, as the version I was given to watch lasts just shy of two full hours. Yet on the film's IMDB site, its length is said to be two hours and twenty-four minutes -- which would appear to make that the "extended" version. So why are we critics being given the shorter version to view?

I am not complaining, however, but rather considering this as a kind of unexpected/unplanned gift because -- despite its heart and mind being in what we might call "the right place" concerning the many and consistent wrongs done to the Black community throughout the history of the USA -- this film, whether looked at as either art or entertainment, has been conceived so poorly then executed in even worse fashion by writer/director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (shown at right, he also takes the role of the theater director in the film) that it stands out as near-perfect example of how not to make a movie about this particular subject. Or any subject, really.

The subject here is Black rage and how to deal with it. God knows, this is a valid and important one, and if this brings to mind our current Black Lives Matter protests and their sometimes accompanying looting and violence, this is certainly part of the reason for the film's being "rediscovered." If only it lived up in any way to the possibilities on tap here.

The initial scene (above) offers us the curtain call of a play or performance piece that the audience seems to love beyond measure, as lead performer, a young man named Cairo (played by Che Ayende, above and below) takes his bow. The character then spends the remainder of this very long movie fretting and complaining about, well, everything. And while he has plenty to complain about, he should only have waited until the current and rotten Trump administration to know how bad things can get for Blacks and Whites and everyone on the color scale in between. 

Within the first fifteen minutes this movie proves to be so repetitive, heavy-handed and amateur in every way that TrustMovies was not at all sure he would be able to ride it out. (He did, but that was mostly out of respect for the film's kindly and reliable publicist.) The filmmaker's general routine is to have his characters say something, repeat it at least twice, and then perhaps scream it once again for good measure. When one character finally tells another to "Chill," you hope against hope that he will take that advice. (He doesn't, of course.) The dialog, peppered with gems such as "God helps those who help themselves" and "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is," ranges from mediocre to appalling, and the performers, while giving it their best, can't do much to help.

There's a Rudy Giuliani-like shit-heel mayor of New York City, a corporate plot to take over the Harlem theater at which the next play is to be performed, a girlfriend who's treated very badly by our would-be hero, a fantasy in which cops are pictured as pigs, a dreadfully unbelievable look at hypocritical Black academics and the Black bourgeoisie, and finally a reliably obvious object upon which all that Black rage can concentrate. 

Nothing works, and the saddest part of this sad and really awful movie is that its subject, now and forever, demands a film that can do that subject some justice. As an Act of Protest is such an embarrassing misfire, both now and back when it was first made, that it only seems to make the situation worse. If that is even possible.

Distributed by Speller Strteet Films and running (in the cut I saw, at least) 117 minutes, the movie becomes available worldwide via Vimeo-on-Demand tomorrow, Friday, October 30. Click here to view it and/or for further information.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Humans and animals in a beautiful little village in Galicia: Oliver Laxe's FIRE WILL COME

After viewing FIRE WILL COME, the new film from French-born-but-works-all-over-the-place Oliver Laxe, I am convinced that cows are the most beautiful animals in the world (though there is a sad and glorious horse here, too, along with a quiet and noble dog). 

M. Laxe (shown below), who also made Mimosas and You Are All Captains, is an oddball filmmaker, to say the least, and his latest will do nothing to counter that opinion. 

And yet this movie is so calm and beautiful in its pacing, performances and visuals that it casts an immediate spell so strong that literally nothing that happens in the film -- from raging fire to angry fighting -- can break it.

The film begins in darkness, in a forest in which trees are suddenly falling, one after another after another. (A stray comment later in the film connects this with all that has come before and after.) Then we see paperwork and hear a man commenting on the recent release of a prisoner named Amador who was jailed for pyromania.

We meet that ex-prisoner, now come home to live with his mother in a gorgeous little village in Galicia, Spain. We also meet a few of the townspeople, some of whom try to cozy up to this fellow, while others simply make fun of him ("Hey, Amador: You got a light?"). 

There is also the local veterinarian, a handsome immigrant woman who seems to be attracted to our "hero," and he to her.

That's it, really, in terms of plot, but as the movie lasts only 86 minutes and is so stunningly beautiful to look at -- Galicia is certain to top the list of post-Covid-19 travel destinations for folk who see the film (one of the characters actually comments on this area's need for more tourism!) -- the only complaints should come from action-film aficionados.

Dialog is also pretty minimal, as is any real character development. Yet so strong is Laxe's sense of who these people are, and so true seems each of the performances, it's as though the filmmaker plucked his cast from the town itself and simply used them all as they were (which, for all TrustMovies knows, he actually did). 

By the finale, we are left with the question: Did Amador start this recent fire, together with the former one? I suppose so, and yet it almost seems that the filmmaker does not care. Oddly enough, maybe neither do we. And it is not that this does not matter; it's more that perhaps there are other, more important things to consider. Laxe does not tell us, but I think he has certainly shown us, what these are.

Distributed by KimStim, this really lovely movie has its U.S theatrical premiere this Friday, October 30, in New York City at the Metrograph Virtual Cinema, then on Friday, November 6, it will open in Los Angeles at the Acropolis Virtual Cinema. To view all upcoming playdates, simply click here

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Utter-Crap-Award of the year goes to Sacha Baron Cohen's new BORAT bore

Oh, dear: What has the marriage of Candid Camera and Punk'd wrought?  Another piece of complete ordure from shitmeister Sacha Baron Cohen -- following his only-slightly-better original Borat movie and his recent overlong and overdone Who Is America cable series. His new BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM is as stupid and tiring as anything he's done so far but even more simple-minded and -- god, no! -- syrupy/sentimental (or maybe faux syrupy/sentimental, so its creator can, if necessary, get off the hook). 

must admit to enjoying Mr. Cohen, (shown on poster, top, in mask-wear) during his early British Ali G. days, which were fresher and a lot more fun. I also bow to the man's fine acting skills. He's terrific as Abbie Hoffman in Neflix's new THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (which is one of 2020's best films with some of its best performances, by the way. Do not miss it), and Cohen has been excellent in any number of roles so far. But his misanthropy and repetitiveness reek and wreak so heavily in and on his recent filmmaking work that I would imagine only those who share his anger and way-too-ugly sense of humor will find much amusing here.

I admit to laughing a few times but was much more often bored and confused as to what the hell Cohen's real point might be. Making fun of us all is just fine but the right-wing, racist bigots he tries to show us (including the deranged Rudy Giuliani) come off as among the nicer and kinder folk this Borat offers up. Stupid they may be, but they're certainly polite and sometimes seem even rather pleasant. Cohen's impersonations, too, by the way, are growing ever more tired and tiresome.

Well, by all means try this one is you're a fan. Running 95 minutes, it's available now via Amazon Prime Video, -- which if you've already paid for this service anyway, remember that you are not required to actually finish watching the film.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

October Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman--THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE: For Election Day, a Timely Parable


The below is written by our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

Having missed THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE in both novel (1960) and film form (1969), now streaming on HBO max, I find that it chimes perfectly with the ascent of the authoritarian. Miss Brodie does not loom over a stage that signifies at large, she’s one of those locals who simply must rule the roost. 

Miss Brodie cultivates followers as a tiny cult, a squad of elites — both an object of their worship and an adoring acolyte herself, swooning over foreign strongmen. 

Author Muriel Spark’s small tome was designated (2015) one of the 100 top novels in English. Miss Brodie was her ‘milch’ cow, she said — it kept giving back in fame and remuneration. It has also generated scholarship — one interest niche being the topic of religion, especially stern Calvinism vs a kinder Catholicism. 

Spark herself (above) was half-Jewish and the family attended synagogue; as an adult she went to protestant services and converted to Catholicism in 1954. Calvinism is particular in its holding to predestination; people are fallen, then saved, not through their own merits but through election by a higher power— this aspect attracting leaders who are authoritarian or cultist (see Sister Alice in HBO’s Perry Mason). Catholicism espouses free will and redemption through choice (and shock — the Pope just endorsed same sex civil union). Miss Brodie, thought to be Calvinist, anointed herself a power able to confer merit on her girls. BUT NEVER MIND RELIGION and how Muriel Spark’s conversion to Catholicism may have led her to doom Miss Brodie to fall from polite society. More recent social analysis pegs Miss Brodie as a plain old authoritarian and/or malignant narcissist, the sort who requires a stage, a podium, and worship. Miss Brodie’s paramour, married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, for instance, was her supplicant. Everybody Mr.Lloyd paints, even his family, look like Miss Brodie, says one of her brood—“if you were to paint the Brodie girls we’d all look like one big Brodie…”.

Spark sets her novel between the two great wars as fascism was rising in Europe, leading to states emulating Hitler like Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. Miss Jean, in her self-designated “prime” is an unmarried teacher in her 30’s and simply full of herself — a self she sought to confer on certain students at a private girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland. She says: “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders and all of my pupils are the creme de la creme.” In fact she wants them to be her. Ignoring the school’s curriculum, she waxes on with imperious histrionics about art, politics, and love, as though her singular vision were worthy of worship. She exudes the Trumpian “warm glow” of self-congratulation. 

As Miss Brodie’s girls move on to higher grades, their personal connection with her remains; several have spied on her romances — her attraction to the married art teacher, Mr. Lloyd ( below) then later as she turns to a more achievable prospect, the music director, Mr. Lowther, a landed gent with an estate (a candidate for marriage). 

One of the girls, the jealous one, ultimately offers ammunition the headmistress can use to fire the annoying disrupter. Miss Brodie is canned not because of the drama involving sticky relationships with two male teachers, but more documentable political incorrectness — her classroom espousal of fascism in a growing anti-Hitler environment. The girl who gave her away was not driven by Miss Brodie’s politics, per say, but by her cult-like hold over her young pets. It led one of them to run off to Spain and die fighting for strongman Franco. “I didn’t betray you — I simply put a stop to you,” the betrayer tells Miss Brodie, having seen the lethal effects her hold had on her acolytes. It’s now down to US voters to take down our own false prophet. 

Miss Brodie was writ large by Maggie Smith in the 1969 film that won her an academy award (she was designated ‘dame’ by the Queen in 1990). It was a sharply funny tour de force, ironic, satiric, a marvel of perfect timing and glorious acting, a stunning portrayal of ‘malignant narcissism’. Dame Maggie’s acting chops are evident in her Downton Abbey role as the indomitable Dowager Duchess of Grantham, played lately in her mid-80’s, except that provocateur Violet was repeatedly a force for conciliation and reconciliation, quite unlike Miss Brodie. 

In the 1960’s, Smith was a classic beauty just right to flaunt Miss Brodie’s (and her own) perfection. Her girls, the “Brodie set”, were her fascisti. “...the fascist Jean Brodie steals her students’ lives, predicting and trying to control their life trajectory...a sorry record of stolen lives into which she inserts her own personal drama.” * 

Says Miss Brodie: “I will show you some more slides of my last holiday in Italy — Rome: This slide, (above) is a large formation of Il Duce’s fascisti. They are following him in noble destiny. I myself mingled with such a crowd. I wore my silk dress with red poppies, which is right for my coloring. Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, Italy's leader supreme, a Roman worthy of his heritage, is the greatest Roman of them all.” 

Narcissist cult leaders have in common charisma that disturbs, bad effects on followers, and unpredictability. They create chaos to stay in control. Watching Maggie Smith’s histrionic, unselfaware Miss Brodie, you feel like you’ve seen that — an inflated form of it — every day for the last 5 years. It calls for our duce, like other high flying despots, to have his fall, and also to savor that a great story can signify more today than it did yesterday. (Below, l, Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin). 

quote by Richard Rankin Russell (2019); Calvinism, Catholicism, and Fascism in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, Studies in Scottish Literature: Vol 45: Iss. 2.

Note: During the making of Miss Brodie, Maggie Smith was married to Robert Stephens, who played art teacher Mr. Lloyd, in real life fathering her two movie-actor sons, Toby Stephens (Black Sails) and Chris Larkin (Outlander).  

Friday, October 23, 2020

Streaming premiere for GLBT festival favorite, Jonah Greenstein's visually compelling puzzle, DEDALUS (aka DADDY)

Can a movie be interesting enough merely for its attractive visuals (not to mention its many sex scenes), even if the manner in which its three sections (barely) hang together is more than a tad confusing? On the basis of the 2018 movie DEDALUS (aka DADDY), it can. But at a cost. The press materials offer one explanation: The triptych portrays community, love and loss. Uh-huh, but you could say almost the same thing about maybe half the movies -- single, dip- or triptych -- currently making the rounds, and audiences might nod their assent, followed by: So what?

In any case, Dedalus is indeed a triptych, the writer/director/editor/co-cinematopher/colorist of which is Jonah Greenstein (shown at right). The first part of his film deals with a young woman in Iowa who is gang-raped, and the offspring she produces out of this situation. Part two finds an attractive male hustler -- who might or might not be the young-man version of that boy in part one -- and the older tricks he turns in order to get through winter in New York City. The final segment follows an old man in Los Angeles coming to terms with aging and failing.

(which for some of us can't help but bring to mind the myth of Daedalus and Icarus) is, from the outset, visually enticing as it moves in all-over-the-place fashion from a jogger to a quiet man in his study to fireworks to bedtime. The first section contains little dialog, the second (by far the longest) offers much more, with the third somewhere between the first two, while the visuals -- color, composition and framing -- remain impressive in each.

The acting impresses, as well. Greenstein evidently used a combination of professionals and amateurs and has managed to nicely blur the line between them. (He also unfortnately declines to list which actor played which character in the credits, so attribution is rather difficult.) Most famous of these would be Thomas Jay Ryan (of Henry Fool, shown above, left), here playing one of our Part Two hero's sugar daddies who, much as he may want to, cannot commit to this young man who seems to love him so much. Mr. Ryan is, as always, fully commited to whatever performance he is giving and riveting to watch. The film's original Daddy title is certainly appropriate, as our young hustler does have plenty of daddy issues, just as the johns who hire him have their own themselves-as-daddy issues. 

The sex scenes are hot and graphic (one is full-frontal), and it pretty clear that, via its length and the interest that Greenstein shows in his subject and characters, this hustler-in-New-York section is the reason for the film's existence. Consequently the first and the third divisions/tales appear somewhat tacked-on. 

In addition to the aforementioned themes of  "community, love and loss," the movie might as easily be said to be built around childhood, young manhood and old age (or any number of other ideas tossed into the mix by th filmmaker).

So what is Dedalus, really? Thanks to its crisp and interesting visuals, not to mention the sex involved, those of us who appreciate these will be hooked. But what is this movie trying to say? I either haven't a clue or, thanks to the director's dropping so damned many of these, choosing among them seems arbitrary enough not to even matter all that much.

From First Run Features and lasting 92 minutes, the movie premiered earlier this week on streaming platforms including Apple TV, Amazon Prime, & Kanopy. Click here to link to some of those streaming options.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Wayne Wang's COMING HOME AGAIN: Life and death in the Korean-American community

For those of us who've wondered why the career of Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, The Joy Luck Club) has never taken off the way we imagined it might (his two films preceding this one were never released theatrically here in the USA), look no further than his latest and, for my money, one of his worst, a tiresome downer entitled COMING HOME AGAIN. If that moniker sounds a tad generic, it's part and parcel of this slow-moving and obvious "art" film. 

Wang is said to prefer quiet films (hey, TrustMovies does, too!) but that is hardly an excuse for making one that seems to revel in the predictable, giving us a tale taking place in the Korean-American community of San Francisco that deals with biggies such as family dynamics, death, religion and, yes, food and cooking.

As a director, Mr. Wang (shown at left) has usually proven serviceable enough, though one might occasionally question, as here, his use choice of long shots, medium shots and close-ups. It's as a writer (with Chang-rae Lee, based on Mr. Lee's article for The New Yorker magazine) that Wang stumbles badly, offering up little more than a series of cliched incidents with dialog to match that give us the usual -- over and over again: distanced and angry mother, son, and daughter; barely-there father; and the usual death-and-dying routine (complete with vomiting, of course) that we've experienced on film time and again. The fact that these are Korean-Americans does not add much to the overall deal. Worst of all is the incredibly ridiculous exposition consistently ladled into the dialog.

Really: Would this son only now, at death's doorstep for his mom, be questioning her Korean history. Give us a break. Even given that the son was absent from the family for schooling, would he never have seen nor asked about those basketball trophies? Everything here seems too easy, too "planned." There is practically no character, let alone character development. After being with this "family" awhile, you really feel you need to introduce these people to each other. All is artsy/fartsy long takes with much staring sadly/angrily/meaningfully into the distance (by both the characters and the camera), until you just want to goose this movie into something, anything. 

The single surprising scene arrives as a kind of climax, and it is creepy, crazy and near-hilarious. It certainly gives, at last, an outlet for what seems to be the unending, everlasting guilt with which these folk are evidently dealing. I am certain I am being way too hard on this little film which, given its depressing subject matter, won't be packing in the crowds (even virtually). But as a near-perfect example of a bad movie trying for some kind of art, Coming Home Again shines. 

From Outsider Pictures, in English and Korean with English subtitles, and running 86 minutes, the movie premieres October 23 through Virtual Cinema and theater bookings in the U.S. and Canada, in partnership with Strand Releasing. Coming Home Again will not be on other streaming platforms until 2021.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The breakdown of a problemed man in Peter Mackie Burns and Mark O'Halloran's RIALTO

One's forties is a difficult time to come out of the closet. This is hardly your coming-of-age period, after all, particularly when you've already got a life, a wife, kids, career, house and all the rest. In the case of a fellow named Colm, the leading character in RIALTO, we don't even know if he has ever realized until now that he had strong homosexual leanings. 

Colm's angry, abusive and controlling dad has recently died, leaving him maybe grief-stricken, more likely just hugely confused. His mom's bereft and needy, and Colm has now gone so far into himself that he can barely communicate with his wife or with his nearly-grown son. Only his daughter seems still close to the guy.

As well directed by Peter Mackie Burns (shown at right) with a very fine screenplay by Mark O'Halloran (Viva), Rialto places you inside the falling-apart life of Colm in such a strong and true manner that, as much as you might want him to make other choices along the way, nothing he does registers as unbelievable. Stupid maybe, but so clearly caused by anger, uncertainty and fear that you cannot help but empathize, even as you cringe. Oh, and did I mention that our "hero" is about to face unemployment, having been made redundant to his job?

As played exceedingly well by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (above, of Maze), Colm has recently found himself semi-stalking a pretty young man named Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney, shown above and below, right, of Tolkien). Though their first assignation is rather a disaster, Colm is smitten, while Jay appears to see something perhaps kinder and needier than he has found in some other clients (Jay's a part-time prostitute, you see, raising money to help take care of his girlfriend and newborn baby).

Jay offers Colm what he wants and needs -- jacking off and undressing for him, and finally giving him a good, hard ass-fucking -- yet it's clear that he cannot and will not be able to commit to Colm. (The sex scenes are graphic but not full-frontal, and there's a lovely, tender scene of Jay caring for his infant baby midway along.) Meanwhile, Colm's behavior grows more unhinged until we wonder what could finally be in store.

Because we really don't know much about Colm's background, other than dad, his death, and Colm's distancing from his wife and son, we're not in any position to figure him out on much of a psychological level. 

For some this might detract from the film's enjoyment, and god knows filmmakers Burns and O'Halloran are clearly folk who do not believe in happy endings, nor maybe even happy middles. 

Yet in terms to providing a look at a grown man's breakdown -- mental, emotional, sexual -- Rialto works quite well. From Breaking Glass Pictures and running 90 minutes, the film had its Virtual Theatrical Release last month and will hit VOD & DVD today, Tuesday, October 20 -- available via Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Fandango, Xbox and InDemand.