Sunday, January 24, 2021

January's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM on Netflix

It’s 1927, Barnesville, GA, and Ma Rainey is holding forth in a tent packed with swaying, ecstatic fans: 

"My bell rang this morning,  I didn’t know which way to go.  I had the blues so bad I sat down on my floor. Daddy Daddy Please come home to me.  I’m on my way crazy as I can be…."

 Or in Prove It on Me Blues

"Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, Makes the wind blow all the while. Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. You sure got to prove it on me." 

 Ma says: “that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause that’s a way of understanding life.” Bawdy, butch, snaggle toothed, Ma Rainey grew her fame as mother of the blues out of the misery of Jim Crow South, says director George C. Wolfe. Blacks told their story through the blues, singing “I will not be passive... I will be defiant in my existence, I will be joyful… and I will dare you to try to stop me in my defiance.” (Below, Wolfe, c, with Viola Davis as Ma, and Chadwick Boseman, as Levee)

The uncertainties of the cotton crop and the brutality of share-cropping led to the great migration north (1915-1970) of six millions, offering wage labor in factories and the deceptive lure of a better life.

Ma Rainey helped herself to a pinch of hope—she grudgingly left her home in Columbus GA at the pinnacle of her career to record her music with her band for Paramount Records in Chicago. Born Gertrude Pridgett, She began performing as a teenager, and traveled with minstrel and vaudeville shows. Later she combined minstrelsy forms of the 1800’s with country blues that she heard on the road (archival photo below). 

“Her blues is a blues of defiance, not...of despair”, explains Wolfe. And coming from so adoring a following, Ma brought her own agency with her. Says Coleman Domingo, bandmember Cutler in the film, “she didn’t cop to the social norms of what a woman should be…she was loud...brash. She...wanted her money up front...she demanded respect…'This is my gift. This is my talent. You want me to sing, you honor it'.” Ma knew that to the white recording studio owner, her music rang the studio cash register; he would give her no deference once her songs were recorded — so she extracted what deference she could up front. 

Said Viola Davis said in the NYT: “In Ma Rainey, everybody’s fighting for their value and the thing that holds us back is being Black...I wanted that to be a part of Ma Rainey... what lay in the heart of her being. Which is: I know my worth.” Davis captured her rage and entitlement in her affect. (below, she arrives annoying late to the recording session with assorted demands).

A proud bisexual, Ma mentored a young Bessie Smith, who became much better known and easier to represent, more marketable than Ma, herself. Hence it took playright August Wilson (below, 1945-2005) to resurrect Ma Rainey from the 1920’s and give her voice in one of his cycle of plays about everyday lives, winning 3 Tony’s following its original Broadway run.

Ma arrives to even more approving social politics of the Georgia of today — the film is an awards contender for both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Wolfe described Ma’s affect as ‘Black Southern Kabuki...a kind of style and look and glamour’, drawing on the look of Apollo Theater chorus girls who used watered-down shoe polish on their faces — Ma’s cross of minstrelsy and black southern expression. 

Wilson chose a Chicago rehearsal and recording session at the peak of Ma’s career to write her into life. While she brought her long history with her, Chadwick Boseman’s character, Levee, the youngest member of the band, represents the agency of youth. Levee has his own arrangement to a Ma song, and he beats it to death to get his way until a confrontation occurs between him and the older band members, then with Ma. 

But Levee is thwarted, showing us, as we learn his history and the baggage he carries on his back, that the black experience is rarely not at the wrong end of the stick. Said Viola Davis (NYT, 12/20/20). “There was a transcendence about Chad’s performance, but there needed to be. This is a man who’s raging at God, who’s lost...his faith. So [Boseman has] got to...go to the edge of hope and death and life in order to make that character work. Of course, you look back on it and see that that’s where he was.

And so we arrive from slavery and early Black expression to the present-day of near majority minority population that has led to violent backlash — an openly racist administration (2017-2021) and resistance to the backlash by Black Lives Matter, growing demands for reparations, fixing unequal policing and justice, and presence in our politics of more black and minority leadership. For her part, Ma Rainey helped justify the rewriting of social norms for black and gay artists — I exist, I am who I am. 

Here is the NYT obit for playwright August Wilson, with discussion of his definitive and poignant contribution to the suffering of Black America

This is the final tweet from the account of Chadwick Boseman, August 2020. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is dedicated to him; it was his last time on screen. 

NBC offered this tribute to his extraordinary life: A Tribute for a King 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Popular Israeli TV series -- THE NEW BLACK --and a new streaming service, ChaiFlicks, arrive

Seems like every time you turn around these days, another new streaming service has popped up. The latest -- of which TrustMovies is aware, anyway -- is called ChaiFlicks, which launched last year, is devoted to Jewish entertainment and culture, and approximates, according to The Times of Israel, "the Jewish Netflix." The service offers a lot of films and television series, both narrative and documentary, and one of its latest additions is the extremely popular Israeli TV series, THE NEW BLACK (Shababnikim), a comedy that details the travails of four Yeshiva students trying to make their way through religious life in a supposedly secular state.

The creation of Eliran Malka (below, right) and Daniel Paran (at left), The New Black was a big hit in Israel, where it won four awards from the Israeli Television Academy. 

ChaiFlicks introduces the series today, Thursday, January 21, premiering the first two episodes, with two additional episodes to follow each week. 

The streaming service offers over 300 films, documentaries, shorts, television programs, stage productions, music 

performances, dance performance artists -- including multiple award winning and classic films that played for months at top theatres throughout North America and at film festivals in Miami, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. 

Subscribers will have the opportunity to see such films as The Women’s Balcony, Gloomy Sunday, Dough, The Rape of Europa and 1945

Back to The New Black, of which TrustMovies has now watched three episodes. The series is fun and it's interesting, too, particularly for a non-Jew/non-Israeli like me to see what passes for a look at a modern Yeshiva and into the lives of a few its students. Oh, yes, and they're only male, since the Israeli orthodox community still views women as lesser in so many ways.

The series makes some fun of this, while trying to somehow have it both ways. It's a difficult balancing act, which some of us feel also defines the state of Israel itself. The New Black is very well cast, and while the four leading males begin pretty much as assholes, you'll warm up to them as the episodes progress. (Left to right, above, are Omer Perelman Striks, Ori Laizerouvich, Daniel Gad and Israel Atias.)

The plot so far also has to do with a new "guardian" in charge of this yeshiva, a nasty, stupid and ultra-conservative fellow who is determined to bring the school back to its former glory days, as well as with pairing off our four fellows with the proper young woman, one of whom we’ve clearly met already. 

What happens after episode three is up for grabs. If there were more than 24 hours in a day, I might have time to fit the remainder of The New Black into my schedule. You may well decide to do this, anyway, as I am told that the series does get better as it moves along. Find out more about ChaiFlicks and what it has to offer by clicking here, and then clicking on Browse. 
Your move...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

NQV Media bounces back with new compilation of gay shorts, THE MALE GAZE: HIDE AND SEEK

Five different countries are represented in the excellent new group of GLBT short features from NQV Media, THE MALE GAZE: HIDE AND SEEK -- in which the "closet" figures ever so strongly in all but one of the films. (In that one, it is pretty much laughed at and refused even so much as a discussion.) 

This is yet another grouping of smart, subtle shorts in which NQV seems to specialze, and it's a nice comeback from the last grouping, which was "all American" and as obvious and one-note as you might expect from that location.

The first of these short films is actually spoken in English (it's a German/Brazilian co-production), and it's both charming and refreshing. LOLO, directed by Leandro Goddinho and Paulo Menezes, tackles the idea of too-gay vs heteroflexible, in its tale of rather young schoolkids coming to terms with coming out. This 14-minute charmer ends just at the moment that a further story is about to unfold, but it seems the perfect ending for this short, nonetheless.

is among the darkest of the NQV shorts I've so far seen, as its Italian director Lorenzo Caproni details in just 15 minutes what happens when old flames Luca and Christian meet again after some years have passed. Bondage, S&M, and graphic sex pile up, and the film proves as ugly and sad as Lolo was appealing and sweet. Unfortunately it is probably a bit more believable, as well.

In Portuguese from Brazilian director Paulo Roberto, the titular character STANLEY is one we never see. What we do view are two hunky young men and their closet/beard female who take off on a motorcycle for a lakeside trip during which she falls asleep and the two guys have hot sex. TrustMovies must admit that the early scenes of plucking fowl did not fully integrate for him with the rest of the film. Still, the use of suggestion, the mix of memory and present moment and the realistic performances go far in making this 20-minute movie work surprisingly well.

Slovakia represents Eastern Europe in this compilation, but director David Benedek's IF ONLY YOU WERE MINE seems to me to be the least of this lot. Beautifully shot and well acted, its story, however, has been told so many times already that there's not much new to explore here, as a young man's first love turns out to a player and a user. Soap opera-like, the film also reduces the poor, smitten young woman who clearly cares about our hero to, as usual in far too many gay films, near-nothing status.  

In the London-set NO STRINGS, another theme we've seen quite a bit in both straight and gay romances -- the hook-up that just might turn into something more --  is given a most interesting workout via the pertinent and sometimes succulent details we learn about the two men involved, one from Wales, the other from Ireland. Director Eoin Maher draws wonderful performances from his two leads, and visually his 23-minute film is consistently alive and a pleasure to view.

The Male Gaze: Hide and Seek
makes its debut from NQV Media this Friday, January 22 -- available worldwide on Amazon Prime Video and Vimeo. Click here to view the trailer, and here to learn more information.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Best of Year (so far): Regina King's superlative could-have-happened ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

For all the good things you've heard about ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, the movie turns out to be even better. It starts well, builds consistently into something richer and more meaningful than you could have imagined, even given the subject matter --  the night spent together by four black icons (Cassius Clay Jr., Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X), all of whom had at least a nodding acquaintance with each  other and actually attended the world heavyweight boxing match that Clay had won earlier that evening -- and ends reaching the highest level of thought and emotion of which movies may be capable. How? Best I can figure is simply via an extraordinary intelligence and simplicity.

This is thanks to the film's writer Kemp Powers (adapted from his play of the same name), its director, Regina King (shown at right), and its amazing cast, especially the four leading actors. How Mr. Powers manages to encapsulate so much of Black American history, philosophy and ideas in such a natural, off-the-cuff manner is exemplary. His dialog grabs you and holds you, first to last, and best of all, he does right by each of his characters.

As director, Ms King, who has over and over again proven herself a very fine actress, comes at this material in the most naturalistic manner. She, along with her cinematographer (Tami Rekier) and editor (Tariq Anwar) have the knack of understanding where to place the camera and seize the moment without ever appearing to do so. The direction of this movie never calls attention to itself, and that is Ms King's great achievement. 

Unfortunately work like this rarely wins awards. It should, for it is quietly extraordinary. Even when King moves from the movie's main location -- a simple hotel room -- to the outside and even to past events, all this unfolds so gracefully and naturally that no underscoring is ever needed.

As to that cast, these four amazing actors could not be bettered, TrustMovies believes. No one grandstands or is in any way better than his co-stars. Each achieves his character's major and minor qualities in the most natural, direct manner. The performances themselves keep you riveted. As Malcolm X, Kingsley Ben-Adir (three photos up) brings the man's intelligence, passion and paranoia (that last quite justified) to full bloom, while Eli Goree (two photo above) makes Clay's braggadocio, as well as his talent, not merely believable but hugely entertaining.

Leslie Odom, Jr.
 (two photos up) lets Cooke's layers of intelligence and enormous feeling emerge ever so slowly, and in so doing makes them resonate all the more, while the quiet strength and power in Aldis Hodge's performance as Jim Brown (above) commands both the screen and the movie via its stillness and subtlety. Sure, these guys were all legends. What we have here are the humans behind those legends.

What the movie has to say about the Black experience -- then and now -- is paramount, of course. Powers and King don't preach. They simply show and tell. I can't imagine that audiences who genuinely care about this fractured country of ours, where it has been and where it is going, will not hang on every word and every beautiful, eye-, mind- and heart-opening performance on view. For me, so far, this is the year's best film.

From Amazon Studios and running 114 minutes, the movie is in theaters now, as well as streaming on Prime Video. Miss it and you will not be doing yourself any favor.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Lynne Sachs' FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO breaks new ground in the "family" documentary department

Every year there seem to be a couple (if not more) of new docs that, in telling their strange and troubling stories -- often about a family that the movie-maker is exploring (sometimes his or her own) -- practically cry out, Can you top this?!  2021, which has barely even begun, offers one that pretty much tops them all: FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO

The filmmaker here is Lynne Sachs (shown above), who has spent 35 years -- 1984 through 2019 -- researching, compiling her information and finally turning her film and video into a very compact 74 minutes of footage. That's barely over two minutes per year, yet the result is something for which running-time seems quite beside the point. (Before you start to feel too badly for Ms Sachs, know that she has completed a number of other films over that same time period: Click on her IMDB profile, at the link above). 

All of us, TrustMovies would guess, are at some point in our lives, interested in our parents and their history, however checkered it might be. As Ms Sachs explores this regarding her father Ira Sachs, Sr., shown above and below (her sibling, Jr., is himself a noted filmmaker: Leave the Lights On, Love Is Strange), she learns more and more that becomes so increasingly jaw-dropping that you will eventually have to pick that body part up from the floor. Ms Sachs also explores, to a lesser extent, the history of her mother and grandmother. But it's Dad who's key here. 

To even try to explain what we learn in this film would be to give away the entire store, as it were. Really: once the film gets going, a new spoiler crops up literally every few minutes. Eventually you will find yourself asking, Who the fuck is this man?, and it's clear that his offspring have all asked themselves the same question plenty of times over the years. In terms of film-making technique, Sachs has assembled her footage -- archival to near-present-day, with interviews conducted all along the way -- pretty much in the necessary manner to allow that "mystery of identity" to reveal itself, play out as it needs to, and still, yes, remain something of a mystery. 

According to her IMDB resume, Sachs explores "the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics and layered sound design," and she is "strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice."  In Film About A Father Who, she gets what I would call a little too creative and artsy once or twice, which, in the context of all we see and hear, simply calls attention to itself and not much more. Fortunately she and her editor Rebecca Shapass concentrate mostly on the faces, words and thoughts of the people we meet, and this is more than enough to keep us in tow.

As the movie came to a close (spoiler ahead: See the film before reading the rest of this paragraph), I found myself thinking that Ira Sachs, Sr., is the absolute and perfect poster boy for vasectomy. Though that, of course, would rob us of his progeny -- all of whom seem like decent enough folk. And, to his credit, the man at least monetarily cared for his offspring. I also would have liked to know, since DNA does count for quite a bit of our heritage, much more about the man named Harry Richman (I believe that's the spelling of the fellow who was our titular father's actual father). But perhaps there was simply no further information available on this guy.

In any case, Film About a Father Who takes its place as a whopping good exploration of family, parentage and parenting, secrets and -- if not outright lies, then some pretty heavy withholding of information. From The Cinema Guild and running 74 minutes, the documentary opens in virtual cinemas nationwide today, Friday, January 15. Click here for more information and venues.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI further exposes yet another shameful episode in our nation's history of law enforcement

Back in 2017 producer/director/editor Sam Pollard (shown below) co-directed one of the year's best documentaries, Acorn and the Firestorm. He's back this week with the new doc, MLK/FBI, the acronym-titled movie all about the connection between and harassment and illegal surveillance by our Federal Bureau of Investigation of Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader at this mid-20th-Century time of America's black population and the chief organizer of the non-violent protests for racial equality going on throughout the USA.

As one of the film's interviewees, James Comey, points out, this lengthy episode is one of the most shameful in the FBI's off-and-on shameful history. And Mr. Comey should know, being himself no stranger to shame,  having later headed the FBI and served briefly under that icon of Presidential shame, Donald Trump. 

Many of us have long heard about this FBI harassment of King, as well as of others such as actress Jean Seberg and just about any black man or woman -- Fred Hampton to Angela Davis -- who rose to prominence in the movement for black equality. What MLK/FBI gives us is a broader, deeper look into the whole sleazy mess of FBI wire tapping and audio taping than has heretofore been seen.

Pollard and his writers (Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli) bring the history of the tapping and taping of MLK on the phone, in hotel rooms and elsewhere, along with many important details of what went on at this time. In the process it also gives a richer, somewhat clearer portrait of Dr. King, shown above. As one of the several narrators points out early on, "Whatever comes out on these tapes" -- the tapes themselves will not be released until 2027, though official FBI memos exist and are shown here, explaining some of what is heard on those tapes -- "will help us better understand him (MLK) as a human being. And that's our duty: to understand."

To that end, we learn of the FBI memo which says that King must be destroyed because he is the most dangerous Negro in America. Why? Due to his supposed ties to Communism, of course. To that end,  we learn about lawyer Stanley D. Levison, one of King's best friends, and himself a former Communist. Yet, after much investigation, the FBI knew that there was no evidence linking Levison to any Communist  plot. Still the agency proceeded with its sleazy and unnecessary surveillance, taping King's hotel-room sexual trysts.

The documentary makes no excuses for Dr. King's sexual needs nor the way in which he fulfilled them outside of his marriage. It also makes clear that King was dishonest in telling the FBI he no longer had contact with his good friend Levison. To help pictorialize the history, Pollard uses clips from old movies -- The FBI Story, Walk a Crooked Mile, I Was a Communist for the FBI -- but fortunately these are limited in both number and the time spent on each.

Pollard doesn't much explore J. Edgar Hoover's rumored sexual proclivities, either, though he does note how Hoover's FBI seemed to be made of mostly hunky, young white men of the sort that the Director keenly appreciated.

What's best about MLK/FBI is the deeper look it gives us of King himself, via his ideas, speeches, interviews and the like. Details such as the plane flight on which he picked up a number of current magazines to read and was so moved and chastened by the photo essay in Ramparts magazine that showed the results of our military's napalm bombing on Vietnamese children that he immediately went back to heavily criticizing our role in Vietnam. This resulted in the worst press coverage he had yet received, as well as anger from not only his enemies but many of his black friends and supporters.

Watching interviews by the press of some of those folk who hated King and their talk of how the man had "attended Communist Training School" will put you in mind of today's QAnon conspiracy nuts and how so little in some ways -- given even the Internet -- seems to have changed over more than half a century. Learning of black FBI informants among King's closest allies and workers (the fine photographer Ernest Withers was one of these) will also give you proper pause.

From IFC Films and running 105 minutes, MLK/FBI opens in select theaters, digitally and on cable VOD this Friday, January 15. It is definitely worth a watch -- even if it's not quite yet the definitive version of history. Click here for more information on the film and how to view it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

ACASĂ, MY HOME: Radu Ciorniciuc's beautiful, provocative doc opens in virtual theaters


The theme of individual freedom against the power of the state only recently received an amusing, thoughtful and emotional workout via the Netflix movie from Italy, Rose Island, and now here it is back again, even more powerfully and movingly explored in the new Romanian documentary, ACASĂ, MY HOME, directed by Radu Ciorniciuc (shown below) who also produced the film and, along with Mircea Topoleanu, handled its often ravishing cinematography.

This "individual vs the state" idea also cropped up rather hugely and nastily here in the USA last week, as those protesters (or, depending on your viewpoint, domestic terrorists) attacked Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. TrustMovies' view of this individual vs state thing often rests on whether those individuals offer a live-and-let-live attitude rather than the inflict-damage-overturn-a-democratic-election-and-maybe-end-some-lives kind of clashing that these deplorable, brainwashed Trump & Fox "News" followers exhibited.

In Acasă, My Home, Mr. Ciorniciuc offers a situation in which a large Romanian family, having lived for years (the kids were born there) in a wild area that will soon become an official nature preserve -- "the largest urban nature park in the European Union!" as one official puts it -- is soon to be "relocated." From the start, as we follow the oldest brother and his young siblings as they fish (by mouth!) and glide over the water, playing with the local wildlife in a near-idyllic, gorgeously photographed paradise, it is clear that this is probably to be a losing battle for the family.

And yet, for the most part, the State seems to be trying to act at least somewhat justly toward the family, and the filmmaker lets us see and understand this -- even though we also know that bureaucracy almost never takes in the individual situation with the nuance and caring that it deserves. And yet, the family's head, a very set-in-his-ways father, is also shown to be too intransigent (there's a brief but devastating scene of "book-burning" midway along that will bring you up short). 

Ciorniciuc allows us to consider both the pros and the cons of "civilization" and, once the family is moved into its new quarters inside the city, we experience these ups and downs with them as their lives move ahead. All this is handled with such finesse and understanding that you might imagine the filmmaker had spent his life doing documentaries, yet this is but his first attempt. He plays fair, it seems to me, with everyone. Clearly, he managed to gain the trust of this family, as well as of the various bureaucrats with whom he and the family had to deal, and they, too, appear to have been fairly considered.

Early on we get one of those breath-taking surprise shots that shows, with a shock, nature and civilization, side by side, while at the nature preserve, we meet the Prime Minister, a female government minister, and even England's own Prince Charles. Later, in town, we get a little local prejudice and some police brutality. "Someone call the police!" is screamed out at one point, followed by (and spoken by the brutalizers) "We are the police!" Oh, right. Finally and just barely, the filmmaker takes us, with only a little kicking and screaming via the eldest brother, into the next generation.

Toward the end of this "family moves from the country to the city" saga, I was put in mind of Visconti's great narrative melodrama Rocco and His BrothersAcasă, My Home is that powerful and meaningful. What it might lack in narrative plot, drive and force, it makes up in breadth, scope and good old-fashioned documentary realism. And it is so very beautiful -- in its generous images of people and place -- as to be both exemplary and memorable. 

From Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, in Romanian with English subtitles, and running just 86 minutes, the documentary hits virtual  theaters this Friday, January 15. Click here and scroll down for more information on the film and the venues in which you can view it.