Sunday, February 28, 2021

February Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman THE DIG: Lighting the Dark Ages

This post is written by our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

An especially illuminating archaeological find on the grounds of Sutton Hoo House, Suffolk, England in 1939 is the inspiration behind this peaceful film on Netflix, THE DIG, starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn and fine others supporting, especially young Archie Barnes who is compelling as the son of Mulligan’s character. Below Fiennes is juxtaposed with museum experts and young Archie at the site of the dig, a burial boat, described as ‘Like a time machine’. 

The film is based on John Preston’s 2008 novel The Dig in which the rich cache of a cosmopolitan, seventh century Anglo-Saxon king is unearthed in a burial boat. (Note that the adventurers in Michael Hirst’s Vikings and Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom novels and tv series overlap with the world of the notable buried on the Sutton Hoo estate.) 

Mrs. Pretty’s dig commences just as WWII is about to begin — a second German invasion. In the ancient first migration from Europe, foreigners from Scandinavia and Germany came to Britain after Rome abandoned the Isles in 410. Little survived of cosmopolitan Roman urban and Christian life in centuries following to give us a picture of the wealth and lives of those immigrants. But it is worth noting that while much of Britain returned to rusticity and paganism absent Rome, some folk were worldly, minus the means to brag about it on twitter. Thus the Sutton Hoo find in 1939 was destined for attention for its worldliness, if hidden away in an underground tunnel during the war and not displayed until years later. 

This, however, is a quiet, contemplative film rather than one to shout about — altogether a nerve-soother from the anxiety of our times. The story here is about competition among bureaucrats to take charge of the dig and its yield, a little romance, the sadness of impending death, and the rattlings of impending war. However the find itself was exceptional, real, and now long at home in the British Museum (below). 

The film’s quietness is fostered by the mood set by director Simon Stone and the lovely Suffolk countryside. Mulligan and Fiennes are each iron-willed, humble, and thoughtful, as widow Edith Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo, and Basil Brown, her hired, self-taught archeologist. Brown was scorned by museum experts as a mere excavator, while Edith was subject to their flattery, leading the two principals to operate with sympathy for each other as the laborious project advanced.

So little has survived from the Anglo-saxons that the Sutton Hoo discovery, in the end gifted by Mrs. Pretty to the British Museum, is particularly compelling. The burial chamber at the center of the ship contained lavish goods of the man lying in state, according to Martin Carver, professor emeritus at the University of York and an expert on Sutton Hoo. The occupant had personal things— a buckle woven from pure gold, shoulder clasps, his warrior sword, axe-hammer, shield, coat of mail and spears; also material for hosting a feast in the afterlife such as cooking equipment, a cauldron, a lyre, and parade gear and regalia.

According to BBC’s and Britannica, a king of East Anglia, Raedwald, is thought to have been buried in the oval mound, a convert to Christianity who retained his paganism. Northumbrian monk Bede, his work completed in 731, is the most certain source about Raedwald, who was born 560-80 and ruled 599 until his death in 624. ( Note 1.) He is not the only candidate for the occupant of the mound; there are others, though he is favored. 

The rites of ship burial and grave goods have parallels in Sweden, suggesting a Swedish origin for this particular royal. A quantity of silverware and 41 solid gold pieces were found— (Frankish) coins to pay the boatmen for transport to eternity, date to the early 7th century. A silver dish dates from the Byzantian Anastasius (491-518), a bowl comes from Egypt. The conclusion, loudly proclaimed by the British Museum archeologist in our film, is that at least this dark age East Anglican did not live in the dark. Some were world-wide travelers and traders or had the wealth and knowledge to benefit from it. The film offers next to nothing about specific burial goods. War broke out so suddenly that scholars did not know all that they had until the cache was examined after the war. Below is an archival photo of the original dig. 

To drum up appeal the screenplay gives us a relationship between Edith Pretty’s invented cousin Rory who is photographing the site (Mr. Flynn, below, l) and archeologist on site, Peggy Piggott (Ms James, below, r) whose husband (Ben Chaplin) prefers men. Note 2 offers a feminist view of this flaw. Two women actually photographed the goods (see them in the second note), and Peggy Piggott was a twice degreed archeologist, not the awkwardly insecure young woman that James is given to portray. It’s true that the Piggotts divorced 15 years later, but whether he was gay is unknown and the trumped up romance was a lazy plot device. 

An agism offense is not having cast an older actress to play Edith who was fifty-six, forgivable because 35-year-old Mulligan is perfection as the ailing Mrs. Pretty, frightened by her failing health and the prospect of orphaning her son. Mulligan is no show horse — less is more is how she works, as she continues to burnish her reputation of excellence. (Below Mulligan and the real Mrs. Pretty.)

She and excavator Basil’s quiet simpatico and his with her son Robert are relationships that don't scintillate but wear well in this tranquil tale. (Edith died in 1942 at 59 of a blood clot. Robert was just 12; he died of cancer like his father in 1988 at 57, leaving 3 children.) Taken together for its discovery of ‘Britain’s Tutankhamun’, to increased knowledge of the ‘dark-age’ early centuries, to the calming pleasure of its beauty, this lovely film is a pleasure. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

With IT'S A SIN, Russell T. Davies scores another all-round smash via his moving and joyous AIDS-hits-the-Brits series


Of course you'll expect to be greatly moved and saddened by any film or series exploring the effects of AIDS on the characters with whom you've come to be involved. What you may not initially expect from IT'S A SIN -- the latest first-rate entertainment and thought-provoker created and written by Russell T. Davies (Years and Years, A Very English Scandal, Banana, Torchwood, Doctor Who, and Queer as Folk, among so many others) -- is the out-and-out joy and delight you'll experience from being in the company of these lovely, funny, full-bodied folk.

Mr. Davies -- pictured center left, with his leading cast members, left to right, Lydia West, Olly Alexander, Nathaniel Curtis, Omari Douglas and series standout Callum Scott-Howells as Colin, whose character is the quietest, saddest (because he only just beginning to form) and whose halting, hopeful performance is very close to perfection --  has again done what he does so well: come up with a concept and characters who grab us from the outset and, for all their change, growth and bad decisions, never let us go and, in the process, give us not merely entertainment (in spades yet!) but the glorious and profound sense of life as it was and is.

No secret nor surprise that Davies' interests lie with the LGBT crowd, yet how he captures parents, straight friends, doctors, hospital workers, police and society at large is as filled with caring, anger and understanding -- as are his assessments of the gay community.  (That's Keeley Hawes, above, right, playing Alexander's character's mom, in a fraught scene toward the series' finale.)

Davies sees his people as never fully formed but still growing, learning and changing, even as they stumble, fall and rise again. Or sometimes not. In the large and splendid cast are luminaries such as Neil Patrick Harris (above, playing a mentor to young Colin) and the great Stephen Fry (below, left) as one in the country's subservient, bent-but-closeted, right-wing political class.

never imagined he would care to return to those awful years of AIDS deaths, yet films like the recent French César winner, Beats Per Minute, and now this British series, have thoroughly disabused him of that notion. God damn, but these characters can sure have a grand old time! And Davies, with the help of his sterling cast, makes sure that we -- despite all our caring and crying and recalling -- have a grand and memorable one, too. 

Now streaming via HBO Max in five episodes that you can view one after another, no waiting period between them, It's a Sin will certainly end up on a lot of Best-of-Year lists, I should think. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In HAPPY TIMES, Michael Mayer gleefully excoriates haute-bourgeois Israeli emigres

I've often thought that no one else in the world holds up a mirror to the negative aspects of the Israeli character more than do Israeli filmmakers themselves. Granted these are generally left-leaning artists whose subjects more often than not are the self-satisfied, successful and quite well-off. In the new Israeli film HAPPY TIMES, writer/ director Michael Mayer (Out in the Dark), along with co-writer Guy Ayal, applies those adjectives to as entitled and nasty a group of Israeli emigres as you could find, living in Los Angeles and invited to a dinner party at a Beverly Hills mansion, the hosts of which have clearly obtained their fortune in criminal fashion. It will not take long for you to realize that, whatever happens to these creeps and how really awful this is, you're not going to mind one whit.

Mr. Mayer (shown at left) starts things off somewhat slowly but nastily/ naughtily. Soon enough things heat up and the bizarre bloodletting begins. This is a comedy, albeit one about hypocrites and sleazebags (some obvious, others not so), and as our cast gets "offed," one after another in ways increasingly intricate and sometimes surprising, your laughter won't curdle quite as much as you might expect. (Don't worry -- bit of a spoiler ahead -- if you're anything like TrustMovies, the one character you'll be rooting for the most manages to avoid the crunch.)

The dinner party is made up of the host family (fortunately the kid, below, is soon carted off elsewhere), its relatives and in-laws, plus a friend or two. It takes awhile to decipher just who is who and what this might mean, but stick with it (if you're a fan of this kind of thing) and you'll be rewarded.

Most of the cast members seem new to my purview, but I did immediately recognize the gorgeous Stéfi Celma (below, right) of the delightful Netflix series Call My Agent), as well as Michael Aloni (of Out in the Dark). However, the entire cast seems well-chosen and each delivers the necessary and not-so-nice performance required.

Once the extent of the sleaze and hypocrisy of these folk have been established (for a few of the characters, this takes longer than for others), their comeuppance soon comes up. At 92 minutes, the movie doesn't outstay its "charm," although, according to the IMDB, the original length was 102 minutes, so perhaps the film was shortened a bit for American distribution. 

Whatever: If you're the type of audience who enjoys black humor and creative killings, this is probably a movie for you, especially since the demises grow more clever and inventive, right up to and including the final double whammy. 

From Artsploitation Films and in English and Hebrew, with English subtitles as necessary, the movie hit streaming venues earlier this month and is available to view now. Click here for more information and here for streaming choices.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Another of 2020's bests--also Chloé Zhao's & Frances McDormand's best yet--NOMADLAND

So much has already been written about the glories of NOMADLAND, in particular the fine leading performance by Frances McDormand, that TrustMovies will simply provide a short addition to it all. As directed and adapted (from Jessica Bruder's book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) by Chloé Zhao (shown below), this is by far the best work Ms Zhao (The Rider, Songs My Brothers Taught Me) has given us because her continuing use of the hybrid documentary/narrative form grows richer and more assured with each new film.

This time, the coupling of non-actors playing pretty much themselves with top-notch actors like McDormand and, in a major supporting role, David Strathairn, doing the heavy-duty lifting via their utterly truthful and realistic performances results in a movie that is close to seamless when it comes to any division between fiction and documentary. The strength of the film comes not only from the performances of McDormand (below, center) and Strathairn (further below) but from the fine screenplay and smart, generally sparse, dialog. Zhao's visuals are likewise both called for and unshowy. 

My spouse reflected, once the film's end credits had passed, that he expected Nomadland to be both "depressing and all about victims. But it was neither." That has been true of all of Zhao's films. What happens to her characters is a combination of what society inflicts and their own decisions. Which is pretty much true of most of our lives, I think. (The rich are, as ever, exempt from the first of that duo, and you'll find few to none of them in the Zhao world.)

There's a scene toward the end of Nomadland in which McDormand's character, Fern, sits on the stairs watching the Strathairn character and his son playing the piano together. Watch Fern's eyes closely and you'll witness -- about as quietly and subtly as anything you've seen -- a major decision suddenly reached, as well as character revealed. It's just one of so many moments in this terrific movie that seems to effortlessly resonate like crazy.

From Searchlight Pictures (Do we miss Fox? At least Disney hasn't shut down the independent arm just yet) and running 108 minutes, the movie is playing now in theaters, as well as streaming digitally on Hulu. See it.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Changing times: Gorgeous, tradition-bound, coastal Sicily in the 1960s is the locale for Paolo Licata's ALONE WITH HER DREAMS

Yet another "find" from the increasingly indispensable Corinth Films, ALONE WITH HER DREAMS (the Italian title is the even lengthier Picciridda - Con i piedi nella sabbia) is the first feature film from director Paolo Licata, co-adapted from the novel by Catena Fiorello by Signore Licata, Ms Fiorello and Ugo Chiti. This is yet another small, independent, foreign film not picked up for theatrical release here in the USA that is very much worth seeing and savoring.

Filmmaker Licata (shown at right) hasn't merely found  some breathtaking locations in which to film this coming-of-age tale of a young girl separated from her parents, who must go abroad to earn a living to support the family, taking with them their younger child and leaving a very lonely Lucia (newcomer Marta Castiglia, above and below) in the care of her seemingly cold and domineering grandmother. No, he has used  these marvelkous locations to maximum effect.  

Granny is played by a wonderful Sicilian actress (TrustMovies has seen her a few times already, but this, he suspects, 

may be one of her best performances), Lucia Sardo (shown below, right, of The 100 Steps and The Sicilian Girl). Ms Sardo allows us to slowly understand the reasons for the grandmother's reticence and anger, as well as the great love she feels for her granddaughter and why she feels that she must keep this hidden.

Hiding and silence is the Sicilian answer to many problems, and it is to the film's great credit that it finally and thoroughly shows us how and why this simply adds to those problems. Setting the novel and film in the late 1960s, when change was quietly, slowly appearing -- even in Sicily -- allows us to see the tip of several icebergs that took their time before coming to the surface, from feminism to GLBT concerns to emigration/immigration.

Though the tale eventually encompasses some very heavy-duty events, Licati's style manages to avoid melodrama, while the excellent performances, beautiful landscapes and emotional, often-heart-tugging family dynamics will keep you more than glued to your screen.

From Corinth Films, in Italian with English subtitles and running just 95 minutes, Alone With Her Dreams is a movie to seek out and enjoy on a number of levels. It makes its DVD and digital debut this Tuesday, February 23 -- for purchase and/or rental. (I believe it will be available for Amazon Prime members to view at no charge.)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In John Balazs' RAGE, rape, murder and vengeance all add up to boredom

Despite its relatively early scene of maximum violence (a murder, then a rape, then a beating and attempted murder), the new Australian movie RAGE really ought have been entitled Enervation, so slow-moving and unnecessarily lengthy is the road to would-be vengeance that this surprisingly tiresome film then takes. 

As directed by John Balazs from a screenplay by Michael J. Kospiah, the filmmaker wastes way too much time on "establishing shots" that, once established, just go on and on and on. The filmmaker likes to linger -- which, in this kind of movie, proves deadly. It occurred to TrustMovies, as he was watching, that Mr. Balazs should have perhaps chosen a better editor. But then, as the end credits rolled, he discovered that Balazs himself had edited the movie.

The filmmaker, shown at right, keeps us waiting an awfully long time to learn stuff we ought to have already known -- and then he informs us via a scene of sudden, lengthy exposition. More than one and one-half hours into things, the husband says to his wife, "I can't believe this is happening to us." You will likely echo that sentiment once you realize that you still have another 50 or so minutes left to go.

Then, after so little has happened for so long, convenient coincidences start piling up. At a snail's pace, of course. 

The movie is full of wretched policemen, wretched police work, and, I'm afraid, not very good filmmaking. All of which, it turns out, is supposedly based around poor communication between spouses. Hmmm.

Performances are as good as can be expected under these circumstances, with the three leading actors -- Matt Theo (above) as the husband, Hayley Beveridge (below) as the wife, and Richard Norton (two photos below) as the chief investigating officer -- carrying us along as best they can.

Technical credits, outside of the direction and editing, are very good, as well, and the ideas the film presents are worth considering. Yet the manner in which they're presented leaves so much to be desired that when the movie's biggest "surprise" turns out to be the linchpin of an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV episode, you'll find yourself ready to cry "uncle."

From Gravitas Ventures and running two hours and 24 minutes (yes!), Rage opens digitally on all major VOD platforms in North America, with a Vimeo On Demand release in Australia, this coming Tuesday, Feb. 23rd.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Shaka King's JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH shines a necessary light on 50-year-old history

Hot on the heels of several other important -- as well as hugely entertaining and necessary -- films about the Black experience in America comes one of the best: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, directed by Shaka King, with a screenplay by Mr. King and Will Berson. Their movie details the shameful and unlawful treatment by Chicago police and the FBI of Fred Hampton (along with the entire Black Panther movement during the mid-to-late 1960s). 

The title itself comes from the fear expressed by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover of Mr. Hampton's becoming the new Black Messiah, once Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. Judas refers to the Biblical betrayer -- here a low-life, con-man/thief named William O'Neal, blackmailed into infiltrating and spying on Hampton and the Panthers

While the actions of Hoover and the police are digusting and thoroughly racist, King (pictured at left) and Berson don't try to sugar-coat the fact that the Panthers had to do some bad shit, too. Yet the amount of this the Panthers perpetrated, together with their reasons for doing it, do not even begin to approach that of "law enforcement." 

In telling their awful (and seemingly, from what TrustMovies remembers, of that time itself, barely fictionalized) tale, the filmmakers take what seems like pretty much a direct route: This happened, followed by this and this and this. 

Because the filmmaking and the writing is so direct and real -- as well as pointed and very political (I did not realize nor remember how anti-Capitalism Hampton was), the movie plows ahead with a speed and energy that belies its two-hour-plus running time. It has taken more than a half century for even a portion of the American populace to catch up with Hampton's ideas, thanks to the continued racist behavior of the police and FBI, along with the continual anti-Socialist message put out by our ever-more corporate controlled mainstream media. Now, finally, this is being fought against via the Black Lives Matter and "Occupy" movements, minimal media (subscribe to The Baffler) and a handful of progressive politicians. 

King's movie tells its story via extremely strong performances from its leading actors: Daniel Kaluuya (above) as Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield (at left, two photos below) as O'Neal, and Dominique Fishback (below) as Hampton's poet, guiding light and eventual lover -- with Jesse Plemons (at right, two photos below) doing his usual excellent work as the blackmailing FBI Agent, and Martin Sheen as certainly the nastiest, deservedly so, J. Edgar we've so far seen.

Considering what the USA was fed by its mainstream media and powers-that-were back in the day, how salutary and necessarily disturbing it is to finally have Hampton's story told this close to truly -- and this well. Judas and the Black Messiah is also the first must-see of the so-far much-vaunted Warner Brothers movies to be released theatrically and via HBO Max

The Witches
 is a lot of fun, but Wonder Woman 1984 is utter crap, The Little Things perhaps the stupidest would-be thriller/serial killer movie ever foisted on the public, and Locked Down much better in its first hour than its second. Let's hope that the up-next Tom and Jerry offers some good, entertaining fun.

Meanwhile, however you can view it, make a bee-line for Judas and the Black Messiah, which hit streaming this past week and will remain in theaters for some time to come, I hope.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Anne Fontaine is back -- with another terrific, timely and important film -- NIGHT SHIFT

If I had to pick one of the most under-rated filmmakers currently working, I would suggest, at the top my list, the Belgian-born, César-winning writer/ director Anne Fontaine (shown below), who, over her nearly 30-year career, has given us a wonderful variety of fascinating and varied movies of differing genres (often mashing genres together to unsettling and unusual effect) that are as thought-provoking as they are entertaining. 
From Dry Cleaning (which was the first of her films that I saw) and How I Killed My Father through The Girl From Monaco, Coco Before Chanel, My Worst Nightmare, Adore, Gemma Bovary, The Innocents and now NIGHT SHIFT (Police was the film's original French title), Ms Fontaine consistently upends our expectations while sucking us into stories that entertain, surprise and unsettle.

How, at this particular point in time, might a filmmaker induce her audience to feel sympathy for, of all things, the police? Yet by the finale of Night Shift, TrustMovies felt as though no movie he could remember had enabled him to empathize more fully with the three members of the Paris police force -- two men and one woman -- whom we meet here.

Who these three are, their relationship to each other and to the man (Payman Maadi, above) they must escort to the airport (he is a political prisoner seeking refuge who is now being sent back to his home country to face possible torture and death) is all that we learn during the film, but the details of character and background, as well the events we witness, keep us glued as well as constantly adjusting our perspective, just as do these very human and even humane police.

The three officers are played by the excellent actors Virginie Efira (above, left, and most recently seen here in Sibyl), Grégory Gadebois (below, right, whom I've seen previously in smaller roles; he's the standout here), and Omar Sy (above, right, and currently turning heads and hearts as the star of the Netflix series Lupin). All three are quite wonderful in their roles, as they slowly and very surely reveal their lives and their complexity via mostly quiet scenes of work life and home life -- the latter affecting the former despite each officer's attempts to prevent this.

It's that work life, however, that nails it for the audience, as our three "heroes" meet the prisoner they are about to escort and have to piece together the "facts" of the situation. Yes, he could be a terrorist, but he is most likely not. So what next? By this time, we know enough about these three "workers" to fully understand and appreciate the conundrum in which they find themselves. 

How all this plays out also plays to Ms Fontaine's particular filmmaking strengths. Her movie is remarkably satisfying in the manner that it refuses to make anything too easy. It leaves open so many doors and yet allows us to use our own imagination in ways both broad and small so that what might happen and what does may not be impossibly far apart. This is a consistently engrossing, surprisingly humane view of a situation horrendously difficult, despite its being increasingly commonplace.

From Distrib Films US and distributed on DVD via Icarus Home Video, the movie hit the street this past week -- for purchase (and eventually, I hope, for rental, too).