Sunday, November 29, 2020

November's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- BARBARIANS: The Wolf and the Eagle Teutoburg Forest, 9 AD


This post is written by our 
monthly correspondent Lee Liberman

The wolf is the earthy forest threat; the eagle emblematic of Roman power. These are the symbols (notes 3,4) of a more empathic and personal story of pillage-and-plunder than you’ve seen in other series about the ancients. BARBARIANS, now streaming on Netflix, beats many blood-and-guts epics and harnesses your emotions to its galloping close, like a beautiful poem. It has plenty of sturm & drang, ‘Mists of Avalon’ tropes, and urgent, compelling drama. But showrunners Arne Nolting and Jan Martin Scharf have higher purpose — the rescue of an historic moment from Nazi fake news (note 1). 

For story, we follow friends and poignant love triangle (above from l) Arminius (Laurence Rupp),Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud), and Folkwin, (David Schütter), from childhood into maturity and a famous battle. It’s a tale conceived around feuding local Germanic tribes (‘barbarians’ to the Romans) who join forces to throw off Roman rule. The battle of Teutoburg Forest 9AD was a singular loss and insult to Rome, ending its expansion in Germania/Germany. The Nazis used it to magnify German prowess and claim Arminius an ancestor to Hitler. 

Of the three leads, only Folkwin Wulfspeer (above) is imaginary — village swordsman of humble folk, with smarter, gruffer intensity than Brad Pitt’s Achilles. Schütter is oddly arresting as the jock who spears and thinks, even more so than Arminius, whose story this is. Folkwin is lover of Thusnelda, whose controlling father, a Cherusci elder, is priming her for sale to the Chatti chief for five horses. Meanwhile, Arminius had been taken as a child and raised to a position of authority by renowned General Varus, whom he has now joined in Germania (below, Varus, l, Arminius, r). 

According to historians (notes 1,2) the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD became an ideological rallying point for the Nazis and Arminius an inspiration for far-right extremists. Primary scriptwriter Andreas Heckmann set out to remedy this Reich-wrong, spinning suspense and a love story quite apart from battle history, which has been avoided because of its Nazification. In 1875, after the founding of the German Empire, a mighty statue of Arminius was unveiled in the forest (below). He is depicted as a colossus who saved the ‘purity’ of German blood (Barbarians ‘pure’?) from Roman conquest. (Too bad the swastica, a pagan symbol of life, is too far corrupted by the Nazis for rescue.) 

Arminius is convincingly acted here by the dark-haired Mr. Rupp, not a Nordic German ideal. As young son of the Cherusci tribal chief, he is given away in a transaction to keep the peace. Ari, renamed Arminius, is raised personally, lovingly, in Rome by Varus, governor of Gaul, to become a knight (‘Rome will be your mother and your father now’). (Below, Varus, played by Gaitano Aronica). 

It is young-adult Arminius’s struggle that gains painful traction as he re-engages with the father who had allowed him to be taken,

then endures a second betrayal that tears him apart. How do you process betrayal by someone who loves you, dreams for you and with you, and whom you love in return? Arminius steps up, but his choices (and also Folkwin and Thusnelda’s) are fraught with rage to redress grief, treachery, and the rank transactional nature of existence. You see Arminius juggle his loyalties — to his tribal origins and to the ordered Roman world in which he has been educated and ennobled (Arminius below: he is Roman armored, Cherusci painted). 

The series begins with Thusnelda being offered to Chatti chief, Hadgan, a greasy guy with bad teeth who complains her pelvis is too narrow. A bully, Hadgan is way out of his league here—Thusnelda talks to the gods and is a lethal warrior; she’ll dispose of him later. But for now, the Romans demand cows and grain — a resumption of their former depredations. Thusnelda escapes to Folkwin where they make love and plot to hunt bird — the Roman golden eagle standard— though there will be blood. The theft will prove that Rome can be beaten; the battle approaches. 

Note that the Barbarians speak German and the Romans in orderly ancient Latin. Although subtitled, the effect adds authenticity; you are time-warped to a period when motley tribes of Germania (the Cherusci, Bructuri, Marsi, Sicambri, Chauci, Chatti) chanted in circles, wearing weird get-ups and painted, convened in ‘the Thing’ (group assembly), fought each other over ‘fistfuls of wool’, but cowered before steely Rome— its brutality ruthless, arrogant, elegant. All these wild folk and authoritarian leaders feel familiar —like people you know. And their business and feuds are as compelling as our own idiot mishegas.

(Spoiler alert for the following paragraph: 
If you plan to view Barbarians, watch the series first 
and then come back to finish this article.) 

The tribes are cleverly maneuvered into a great army and humiliate Rome on the battlefield. Exactly how it is carried out is completely absorbing, despite gruesome bits best ignored. (Above: artist’s impression of the battlefield as tribesmen wear down the Roman column.) It unfolds with the beauty of a great symphony with rain and fire that thunders as affectingly as any climax in Game of Thrones — and less showoff-y. Thusnelda shouts at Varus “You are the army of the dead”. The look on the General’s face as he surveys his unimaginable loss (three legions, 15,000 men, a great river of steel) and his own trust betrayed, is devastating. He calls for the removal of his armor and dies on his sword —the eagle has fallen. (Below, archival)

Friday, November 27, 2020

FREE LUNCH EXPRESS: Lenny Britton's clueless, would-be satire of Bernie Sanders

God knows, Bernie Sanders was a political candidate ripe for satire, much of which has been made already -- from Saturday Night Live to Senator Sander's own campaigning. And while I have seen some pretty-close-to-worthless movies over the past decades, little has outdone the bottom-of-the-barrel scraping provided by FREE LUNCH EXPRESS, a new, badly-timed, would-be take-down of a candidate who is already long gone. The film's writer/director, Lenny Britton (shown below) comes off like some very low-end satirist who has all of two, maybe two-and-one-half, ideas about his subject and so beats these into submission and finally death over the course of 80 minutes.

Mr. Britton either does not know (or maybe care) that there is a big difference between Communism and Socialism and so equates the two, while making the face (and body) of the former into Joseph Stalin, a USSR dictator who has already been dead for nearly 70 years. Without a trace of wit, subtlety or even much actual humor, the filmmaker takes a few strands from Sanders' life and career and repeats them over and over and over until only a punishment-glutton would not scream "uncle!" after a very few minutes. 

Imagine a very low-rent Dinesh D'Souza making what he hoped would be an intentional comedy (rather than his usual unintentional hilarity) set loose upon one of the very few progressive candidates to have risen in the major political arena over the past century. The result: witless, charmless, worthless. And then some.

So Sanders worships Stalin and Communism. Check. He wants everyone to have a free lunch. Double check. He knows Vermont ice cream mavens Ben & Jerry (the naming of a few ice creams is actually the high point of the film's humor, followed by that of AOC doing a little bar-tending on the side).

For good measure, we get walk-ons from the likes of Eric Roberts (above) and Kevin Sorbo (below), while Britain's Malcolm McDowell (at bottom) acts as the film's narrator, trying his best to give the movie a little class and failing as hugely as does all else here. For the record, there are three Bernies included: the young kid, the young adult, and the old man (the actor in this role looks more like Ed Wynn than Bernie Sanders). 

For all its sins and stupidity, the film's worst failing is its repetitiveness. We get the same thing again and again. But I suppose for all those many right-wing nut-jobs inhabiting the USA today, this kind of movie will see like manna from that fake fundamentalist heaven they love so well.

Distributed via a company called Right and Funny Productions (a misnomer if ever there was one) and another titled Magnetbox Films, Free Lunch Express hits Video on Demand one week from this Friday, December 4th. You can learn more about the film by clicking here or here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

France, surrogacy and a pair of gay would-be parents in Jonathon Narducci's lovely doc, GHOSTS OF THE RÉPUBLIQUE

Who knew? But I supposed we ought to have been able to figure it out: France, that storied land of liberté, égalité, fraternité proves not quite that if you're gay. And god help you if you want to be a parent and perhaps use a surrogate. Initially, the title of the new film, GHOSTS OF THE RÉPUBLIQUE, sounded to me like some French political documentary, and it turns out to be exactly that. But hardly in the manner I had imagined. 

Surrogacy is illegal in France, and the film's title actually refers to the offspring of a surrogate mother, who, when that child is brought back to France by his French parents, is refused French citizenship. France is still, it would seem, far too Catholic a country. And God, as we all know, absolutely condemns surrogacy. Oy.

The movie's very able director, Jonathon Narducci (shown at right) is not making a case for the wonders of (or how wonderful is) surrogacy. In fact, he includes a hefty section of the film in which a woman fighting against this practice explains the various reasons why she feels it is not healthy. 

Adoption by gay or lesbian parents
, though not illegal in France, has certainly not been made easy, and what happens when a gay couple would like one member's sperm to be involved in the birth? So, yes, surrogacy. And that's the journey -- from France to Las Vegas and back again several times -- on which Mr. Narducci and his several heroes and heroines take us.

cannot imagine any better subjects than the gay couple -- Nicolas and Aurelien (shown above and below) -- together with their quite lovely egg donor (Diana, above, right) and surrogate (Crystal, below, right). One of the things we learn from the film is why it is less problematic to have the egg donor and surrogate as separate women. When so many things, from the state itself to the rigors and risks involved in pregnancy (let alone surrogacy), seem to conspire against the best outcome, the road ahead is pretty fraught.

Since every last publicity photo available (include even the poster image) doubles as a spoiler, I must apologize in advance. Still, the journey is a fascinating and very moving one. These are people you'll come to know and love every bit as much as you would in any lengthy narrative movie. 

As a bisexual man who was lucky enough have had a child with his first wife, and who grew up in a time when the very idea of gay marriage seemed utterly impossible -- prison and/or shock treatments were the "remedies" for homosexuality in my coming-of-age era -- I would have found the idea of gay marriage, let alone parenting and surrogacy, ridiculously far-fetched. 

Yet Ghosts of the République makes it all seem not simply real but pretty damned wonderful. It would be salutary to learn, in a few years' time, how all of the parties involved feel then about the whole process. In the meantime, we, as they, can exult in the glories of the here and now. The world, including France, has a long way to go toward real liberté, égalité and fraternité. But it is worth acknowledging that we seem to have come quite a distance already.

From Gravitas Ventures and running just 81 minutes, the documentary arrived on VOD and streaming venues last week and is available for purchase and/or rental nearly everywhere now. Click here and scroll down to see many of the current venues. (This documentary, by the way is both narrated and executive-produced by gay activist and writer Dan Savage.)

Monday, November 23, 2020

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: Matthew Rankin's skewed-up romp of Canadian history arrives

There really was a Mackenzie King (actually named William Lyon Mackenzie King), and once I'd seen the truly bizarre new "spoof," THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, a Canadian film written and directed by Matthew Rankin, my fingers raced across the keyboard and onto Wikipedia to find out more. That "more" bears little resemblance to anything I saw in Rankin's movie -- except perhaps the most important lesson the world seems to have to relearn with every new administration elected to office: Politicians are mostly sleazebag pieces of shit. 

Mr. Rankin, shown at left, has been compared to another Canadian filmmaker, Guy Maddin, and that comparison seems to TrustMovies both apt and inapt. 

Rankin and Maddin love to tell fanciful tales using all sorts of stylistic devices, but I'd call Maddin's work -- well, there is much more of it to explore; this is Rankin's first full-lengther, after a slew of shorts -- both deeper and wider ranging. I wish I knew more about Canada and Canadian history, in any case, because I am sure that would only increase the pleasure I found from watching the film.

A bizarre compilation of live action, animated sets, and wonderfully politically-incorrect  moments -- the movie begins with a scene taking place in a "Home for Defective Children" -- Rankin proceeds from tuberculosis and sudden love to an orgasmic cactus, beaucoup gay references, class, cross-dressing, onanism, and a heavy-duty foot fetish. Have I left something out? Very probably.

Rankin has assembled a fine cast (none of whom I immediately recognized) to bring to, well, "life" is not quite the right word, his oddball tale of how Mackenzie King rose to prominence and finally to Minister-ship, with a wonderfully devious and utter-twat-like performance by Dan Beirne (above, enjoying one of his character's greatest pleasures) in the leading role. You'll keep rooting for this guy to finally come through as simply a terribly flawed human being, but Mr. Beirne's performance manages to smartly elude even that. 

Supporting roles -- from Kee Chan (above) as a "yellow peril" doctor to Louis Negin as King's scenery-chewing mother -- are all handled with proper if oddball elan, and if Rankin's dialog is often rather flat, his visual and stylistic choices carry things along. (Yes, many of the female roles are played by men and the male ones by women. It's that kind of film)

In its way, the movie may be awfully anti-Canada (as Rankin perceives it, at least). Early on, one of the in-charge personages offers this prayer: "May disappointments keep us safe from unreasonable longings and foolish aspirations." Soon after we hear: "Do more than is your duty. Expect less than is your right." Hmmm... Words that more and more western countries seem to be living by, Canadian and otherwise. (Or, more probably, have always lived by.) 

In any case, The Twentieth Century manages to be foolish-but-pointed, thoughtful-while-ridiculous and always a lot of fun, especially for those of a sexual/gender-bending mind-set that revels in making fun of everything from heterosexual patriarchy to -- my, oh, my -- French-Canadian separatism.

From Oscilloscope Films and running just 90 minutes, the movie opened this past weekend and is currently playing across the country -- either virtually or via actual walk-in venues. Click here then scroll down to see all current playdates, cities and theaters.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

EMBATTLED: Nick Sarkisov & David McKenna's ode to abuse -- whether via family or MMA

Fans of Mixed martial arts (MMA) are likely to be most interested in the new film EMBATTLED, even though the movie also concerns itself with everything from family, feuding, abuse, raising a "special needs" child, betrayal, blackmail, and oh gosh, a lot more, too. But it's the abuse -- in the ring and out of it -- that quickly becomes the movie's main theme, driving it ever forward.

As directed by Nick Sarkisov (shown below), from a screenplay by David McKenna, the film traces the history of two MMA fighters, hunky and nasty current world champion (in one of those lesser-weight categories) Cash Boykins and his even hunkier (but much nicer) son, Jett, who is just now coming into his own as a fighter.

main reason for even viewing the movie (he is no fan of MMA) is two of its stars: Stephen Dorff, who plays Cash, and Elizabeth Reaser, who takes the role of Cash's very put-upon ex-wife. 

Both actors never disappoint: Dorff, shown below, excels at playing assholes (he's got one hell of role here) and he's also fine at managing the beleaguered hero (see Brake, if you need any proof), while Reaser, though rarely getting the kind of starring role she deserves, is one of those empathetic actresses you simply go with, hook, line and sinker.

But since this is, first to last, a man's movie, the female roles are relegated to second class, if that, and Ms Reaser, shown two photos down, does what she can within the limitations given her.

The movie's "rising star" would be the young man who play's Cash's son, Darren Mann (two photos below), who acquits himself well as the sweet kid who cares for his handicapped brother, while trying to look out for his mom, get passing grades in school, and train to finally beat down his shitty dad who, even in the eyes of his current wife, is a real horror.

For an MMA movie, Embattled doesn't overly revel in the violence and blood -- though what's there is certainly plenty.  The fight scenes are staged well, and even the final showdown, which does go on for a lengthy while, spares us some of the usual in-your-face gore (oddly, the fighters throughout the film seem to recover a bit too quickly from facial injuries).

Embattled skips along and over its family problems a little too easily (the fights are the point here), though director Sarkisov does toss in a scene of remarkable power midway through the film, as dad's abuse and son's memory of it collide in some very well constructed moments that combine remembering and experiencing in a manner that hits home just about perfectly.

Performances are good all around (supporting characters are nicely drawn), the dialog is adequate and sometimes smart, and the direction is never less than serviceable and often more than that.  But while the film tries to makes its characters full-bodied, by trying to have things both ways -- dad's abusive, yes, but he also cares -- it mostly succeeds at watering down the important stuff to the level of cliché. Watch it, if you're so inclined, for the fight scenes.

From IFC Films and running a lengthy 117 minutes, Embattled opened in theaters and virtually yesterday, Friday, November 20. Click here for more information.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

THE ADVENTURERS OF MODERN ART: the 2015 style- and genre-melding French TV series

As co-directed by Amélie Harrault, Pauline Gaillard and Valérie Loiseleux, with writing credited to Dan Franck, this unusual French television series from 2015-- six epiosdes, each one around 52 minutes in length -- tells the stories of some of the most famous figures of modern art, more from the angle of their lives (expecially their love lives) rather than via their art -- though that art is present and clearly important. In THE ADVENTURERS OF MODERN ART (Les aventuriers de l'art moderne), we meet everyone from Matisse, Picasso and Braque to Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob (that last name perhaps the least know but among the most interesting characters in the series). 

What's most unusual about this series is that it is -- to a surprising extent, at least -- animated. And though that seems to be what most sets it apart from other film and television about art and artists, that animation -- unless TrustMovies' calculations are way off base -- is much less seen than is the footage devoted to the use of archival film documentary (and narrative film, too!). Occasionally the animation is even placed atop this archival footage.

This is probably a good thing, since that animation, though perfectly acceptable, seems to my eyes nothing all that special. It simply recreates scenes that, in other hybrid documentaries these days, would have been "enacted," using a cast of assembled performers to play the various roles. Further, the archival footage is particularly well chosen: often pointed, amusing, and seeming almost perfectly of its time and place.

Picasso (above), whatever you might think of his art, is presented as pretty much the asshole of a human being that he was. Many, if not most, males were exactly that back then (oh, right -- now, as well), but this guy managed to outdo them all. (The filmmakers seem particularly taken with the artist's eyes -- which we view in close up, animated or archival, over and over again.) 

While the series can be repetitive, it is also filled with so many little-known facts and/or speculations that one's interest rarely flags. And if Picasso earns little empathy, other folk like Apollinaire and Jacob (the also-ran among these artists, poets and cultural figures) earn our appreciation and caring in surprising ways.

The three episodes I've finished so far -- Bohemia: 1900-1906, Picasso and His Gang: 1906-1916, and Paris Capital of the World: 1916-1920 -- take us historically, artistically, culturally and especially love-life-wise into the lives of these artists and the places (from France to Spain to Germany and back) where they lived and worked. 

The series has a very nice build. It may take you some time to warm up to the animation (not so much to the archival stuff) and to these artists themselves, but once you're hooked, I suspect you'll stick with it and warm to it even more. We get Modigliani and Braque and poor, poor Soutine; World War I, the Spanish Flu, and Kiki of Montparnasse; and events of which I've only just now learned, such as Parade, the artistic collaboration of Erik Satie, Cocteau and Picasso -- which was not well-received upon its premiere but, still, must have been quite something to see and hear.  

As I say, I've only finished three of the six episodes but I'll be back for more. From Icarus Home Video, the series hit the street on DVD and streaming last week and is available now for purchase and/or rental).

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A not-so-nice piece of Dutch history arrives on-screen in Dan Friedkin's THE LAST VERMEER

The Netherlands, that country from which (some of) TrustMovies' forebears arrived, may be best known world-wide for trying (unsuccessfully) to protect Anne Frank, so it's probably more than a little healthy and salutary to learn about a less mainstream chapter of Dutch history occurring just post-World War II. 

At this point in time, we've already been given a number of movies -- narrative and documentary -- about how Nazi Germany trafficked in stolen art treasures, yet the tale told in the new film, THE LAST VERMEER, in certain ways at least, bests them all. It's amazing -- and then some. And if you don't already know about a man named Han van Meergeren, do not click on the link above until after viewing this film. Otherwise, you'll spoil half the fun of this based-on-true-events movie.

Written by a trio of screenwriters (including John Orloff, who wrote the book on which the film is based) and directed by first-time filmmaker Dan Friedkin (shown at right), the movie is unfortunately very slow-going for the first of its two hours (other than one smart prison-escape scene). I encourage you to stick it out, however, because the second half, including a crackerjack courtroom trial and some fascinating post-trial information, is much more swiftly paced and a lot more fun. 

Part of this is due to the need to pack in a lot of exposition and introduce a box-car full of characters, of which -- no big surprise -- the males register more strongly than do the females. 

Leading roles are taken by Guy Pearce (above), who plays the beleaguered van Meegeren and gives one of his best performances in a long while. As his adversary and then helper is that always interesting actor Claes Bang (below), who plays Joseph Piller, a Jew who fought in the Dutch resistance and is now given the job of investigating van Meegeren and his art dealings during the Nazi occupation. The two actors play off each other very nicely indeed, with Pearce the witty aesthete and Bang the too-serious military man.

Each of the men have a couple of women who scurry around them, adding a little beauty to the proceedings but only as much depth of character as the screenplay allows. Among these, Vicky Krieps (below) is the sweet helper to Piller, while Olivia Grant (two photos below) plays van Meegeren's showy but not terribly intelligent girlfriend.

As I say, the latter half of the film much outdoes the former, with surprise coming upon surprise, the result offering a sad and cynical finale in which few characters come out looking all that good. And though the general population of The Netherlands appear to have had their hearts and minds in the right place back then, you will probably not feel so positive about the country's police, politicians or judiciary.

A word or two must also be said for the movie's best supporting performance -- that of Roland Møller (below) in the role of  Dekker, Piller's second-in-command, who offers occasional but much-needed brawn. Mr. Møller provides everything from wit, versatility and even sex appeal to what could easily have been "just another performance," and the film is much the better for his sterling work. 

Distributed by TriStar Pictures/Sony and running 118 minutes, The Last Vermeer opens this Friday, November 20, more or less nationwide, I believe. Here in South Florida, you can find it at the following AMC threaters: Aventura Mall, Sunset Place, Pompano Beach, Hialeah 12 and Tamiami