Saturday, January 30, 2021

A nifty new doc about a much-loved (and maybe much misunderstood) artist: Robin Lutz's M.C. ESCHER--JOURNEY TO INFINITY

As I recall, one of the first things we learn from the new documentary about fabled artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) is that the fellow, who knew a few things about movies and animation, as well as about art and mathematics, felt that "There is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself." 

TrustMovies would like to think that Escher might actually approve of and even be rather nicely entertained by M.C. ESCHER--JOURNEY TO INFINITY, the film about him, his life and his work. This is because, as directed by Robin Lutz (shown below), it offers us Escher through almost entirely the man's own words and images: 

diary musings, excerpts from lectures and correspondence (all voiced brilliantly by that indispensible British actor/writer/ raconteur Stephen Fry), even as Escher’s woodcuts, lithographs, and other print works appear in both their original form and in some of the "altered" versions, using those day-glo colors from the psychedelic 60s, which us hippies of that time dearly loved and Escher himself dearly hated. Ironically, these color-added renditions increased his international popularity exponentially, while leaving out (or at least helping to obfuscate) much of the artist's ideas and intent.

Lutz's film moves along at a very nice clip, doling out Escher's history, desires, thoughts and ideas via his own words. Fortunately, this guy had a splendid way with words, and via Mr. Fry's succulent narration, we can savor every thoughtful, funny, sometimes sad or angry phrase. Examples: "A man may probably never be able to visualize an idea as strongly as he feels it himself"; "color is indispensable, but I don't want to color." Regarding the thing he's trying to capture in his art: "Endlessness, within a limited plane."

I don't recall ever viewing a movie about an artist in which that artist is able to explain so well just what it is he is trying to achieve. This is bracing and, I should think for fans of his work, a must to see and hear. About those fans: Musician Graham Nash is one, and what he has to say about Escher will probably raise some eyebrows and temperatures. Seems to me that he holds this artist in a little too high an esteem. As much as I can enjoy Escher's work, I don't really find it all that profound. It combines wonderful craftsmanship with a genuine attempt to join art and science. But there is a certain literalness about it that places puzzles and games ahead of depth, and so for me, it never quite transcends. Still, that unusual art remains great fun to view and consider.

Yes, Escher's work is wonderful in many ways, and so is this relatively short documentary, which entertains and charms, even as it gives us quite a fine look into Escher's history, his remaining family (two sons already in their 90s!), his art and his ideas. (At one point he notes that his interest in mathematics has become so dominant that he wonders if his work is any longer actually art.)

In addition to the unlicensed psychedelic use of Escher's art back in the day, Mr. Lutz also lets us see Escher's influence in culture and the performing arts -- movies and animation (in which the artist took quite an interest: included here is a scene from Christopher Nolan's Inception) and even dance (above). And who else but Escher would have had the chutzpah to say "no" to the likes of Mick Jagger?!

From Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, in English and running just 81 minutes, M.C. Escher--Journey to Infinity opens in virtual cinemas this coming Friday, February 5 -- in New York, Los Angeles and over 75 additional cities. For more information on the film and/or to check out its various venues, click here and scroll down.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

An original amazement to be cherished: Frank Beauvais' JUST DON'T THINK I'LL SCREAM

Not only have I never seen anything like this movie, I have also never seen a film in which the narrator seems to have so incredibly much in common with me: How I think and feel about so very many things, from politics and protest to culture and movies, life, love and death. And that's for starters. 

TrustMovies also must admit that Frank Beauvais (shown at right), the writer and director of JUST DON'T THINK I'LL SCREAM (Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle) is one hell of a lot younger, brighter and better-spoken than am I. Still, this man's sensibility seem so close to my own that I was hooked on his amazing one-off of a movie from his very first words and their accompanying images. He held me in thrall for the following 75 minutes, as well. 

These are not exactly his images, by the way. No, he's cribbed them from the 400 movies he managed to watch during the time, back in 2016, when he moved from Paris  to a tiny town in the Alsace region.  They are mostly generic-looking images that work well with his narration and move at a very fast pace, so don't even try to identify the films from which they come. 

Only a single of these images immediately stood out to me, one from the 1953 horror movie in 3D, The Maze (above), by which I was greatly charmed and scared as a twelve-year-old kid. Otherwise, the images speed past in very nearly a blur, due unfortunately to my not being able to understand French, and so my eye remained on the almost constant English subtitles which (excellently, I suspect) translate M. Beauvais' lovely, graceful, sad and angry words. (No movie I've ever seen has more made me wish that I could speak and understand the French language.)

Just Don't Think I'll Scream
details our hero's life (and this guy is indeed a hero, so far as I'm concerned), after his current relationship is severed and he moves to a town so cut off from just about everything that Beauvais, who does not drive, effectively becomes a kind of house-bound hermit, keeping up with world news, watching his movies, and tackling a few other projects. 

Early on he explains to us that as he continues watching all these movies, "the films are no longer windows; they're mirrors." We learn something of his mom, who lives in a nearby village and whom he dearly loves, and of his late father, from whom he was estranged. Among the thoughtful and precise little gems of information he drops along the way is how one's possessions can so easily becomes a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. 

What seems particularly strange and prescient is how this little film, the events of which took place back in 2016, was cobbled together long before the entry of Covid19 into our world. Yet in its exploration of isolation and the need for digital entertainment, it seems in some ways the perfect reflection of our current time. (The end credits, by the way, list every single film from which a still has been used.)

Perhaps I am dead wrong about my having so much in common with M. Beauvais. Instead, it may be that his stunning combination of narration and "found" film visuals is merely one of the best explorations of "character" I have yet encountered. In any case, as "partial" autobiographies go, this movie is nonpareil, as the French might say.

From KimStim, in French with English subtitles and running just 75 minutes, Just Don't Think I'll Scream opens virtually at Film Forum in New York City and at 15 other virtual theaters across the country tomorrow, Friday, January 29. To learn where and how you can view, click here and scroll down. Clearly, the film is not meant for all tastes. But if you possess anything near to Beauvais' particular sensibility, I'd suggest that you're probably a shoo-in viewer.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Blu-ray debut for Park Chan-wook's early South Korean hit, JSA--JOINT SECURITY AREA

What a treasure is this movie from 2000 -- a huge success in its home country of South Korea but not even seen in the USA until June of 2005 (in a very limited number of art houses, followed by a DVD release the next month). 

I first caught up with it on DVD maybe 15 years ago, when my knowledge of South Korea and its cinema was a great deal more limited. Seeing it again now is even further eye-, mind- and heart-opening. JSA--JOINT SECURITY AREA is certainly one of the most moving South Korean films so far, especially for anyone who cares about Korea's heritage as a single and probably-should-never-have-been-divided nation.

Directed and co-written (based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon) by noted Korean director Park Chan-wook (shown at left), the film takes off from an incident -- bullets whiz, bodies fall -- that happens in a North Korean military house located in that titular JSA, a kind of demilitarized zone that marks the border between the Koreas of the north and south. 

Exactly what happened, and more importantly why, form the meat of the movie, which takes us back in time to a point at which the main characters -- a couple of soldiers from North Korea meet one (Lee Byung-hun, below, left) and then two of their military "brothers" from the south.

In order to somehow "play fair" toward both north and south, special investigators -- one of whom is a Swiss woman born of a Korean father (Lee Yeong-ae, above, right) are called in to determine what happened, and this beautifully crafted (as are all of Mr. Park's films that TrustMovies has seen) piece of filmmaking then toggles between the current investigation and back to, piece by piece, what actually occurred in that bullet-ridden house. 

It is little wonder that the film took South Korea by storm, since for decades the north and the south had been considering each other as practically alien life forms. The bond that forms between these four soldiers, along with how this happens, is so believable and moving, filled with detail that both Koreans and outsiders can appreciate, that JSA takes its place among the great anti-war (and anti-division) films without even including any actual "war," save the one single shooting incident and its immediate aftermath.

Both Ms Lee and Mr. Lee (not related) are first-rate, but the third important actor in the film is also one of the best in the world right now: the great Song Kang-ho (shown center, above, and atop the poster image at the start of this post), who at this point in his career had yet to appear in Memories of Murder, The Host, Secret Sunshine, Snowpiercer and last year's Oscar champ, Parasite. Mr Song so nails his conflicted-but-caring character that he, as usual, walks away with the movie without even trying.

Among the Bonus Features is a splendid 35-minute assessment by writer/critic Jasper Sharp of JSA and the career of Mr. Park (which has these days been eclipsed by that of Bong Joon-ho's), while the Blu-ray transfer of this beautiful -- in so many ways -- film is quite good. If you have never seen JSA, now's your chance. After 21 years, it already has stood (and I believe it will continue to stand) the test of time quite well. Maybe even until the two Koreas are again united -- if the world lasts long enough.

From Arrow Video (distributed here in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group), in Korean and some English, with English subtitles, and running 109 minutes, JSA--Joint Security Area became available last week on Blu-ray -- for purchase and I hope also somewhere for rental, too. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Kourosh Ahari's THE NIGHT: You can take Iranians out of Iran, but... can't take Iran out of Iranians. That's one of the several take-aways the viewer might glean from the new, would-be scary movie rather generically titled THE NIGHT, from writer/director/producer Kourosh Ahari (shown below), an Iranian émigré who moved with his family to Palo Alto, California, when he was 18 years old. 

Before TrustMovies gets into why this movie bored the pants off him, let me say how well-photographed it is (by Maz Makhani). Quite classily done, really. And also that it is interesting (for a short while, at least) to see a film about Iranians residing in the USA. That's something different from our usual view of the citizens of Iran. 

Content-wise, however, there is maybe, if we're very lucky, a bare half-hour of story here. The movie itself is stretched out to 105 minutes. Ouch. Or more à propos, snore. The plot, such as it is, involves a family -- dad, mom, infant -- who have left the home of their friends after a late-evening dinner, and decide (it's actually Dad who makes the decision) that it is too late to drive home so they must stay in a hotel instead.

The remainder of the movie has them menaced, it would seem, by the hotel itself . Yes, all the usual signifiers are present: a naughty, malfunctioning GPS; the very odd hotel (where the family is the only guest); a black cat; a sudden nosebleed; a mirror that doesn't quite reflect the image facing it; people who, out of the blue, appear and then disappear; and on and on. And on.

To call The Night a slow-burn horror/thriller is to severely understate things. For younger critics, who have not yet spent most of their life -- from The Shining onward (and backward) -- viewing stuff like this over and over, there may be something that seems half-assedly original. But not for most of the rest of us.

For quite some time, the dialog we hear most often is of the "Sleep, my love. Go to sleep" variety (Mom to babe, Dad to Mom). As the movie progresses, there is a sudden scare or two, but much of what we experience is firmly in the been-there/seen-that mode. As things grow crazier, Dad and Mom grow more witless and make ever stupider decisions -- knocking on every room of the hotel after being told that they are its only guests and yelling "Stay here; I'll be right back!" even though the first general rule of movies in the scary genre is, when things get this creepy, Don't Leave Each Other Alone!

Eventually we get nitwit bromides such as the truth will set you free, along with suggestions that maybe guilt and expiation are really behind all the machinations. Whatever. I should add that, in addition to its being boring and obvious, The Night is also downright reactionary in its view of men, women and their place in society. As I say, you can take Iranians out of Iran, but.... (Maybe this is not actually the filmmaker's view. More likely, he's hoping to get the film released in his home country, too.)

From IFC Midnight, in Persian (and very occasional English) with English subtitles, The Night opens this Friday, January 29, in theaters virtual (and maybe actual), and via streaming/VOD. Click here for more information.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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

This post is written by our monthly 
Lee Liberman

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. 

Viola Davis quoted 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.