Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Adieu to Bertrand Tavernier; bonjour to the home video debut of his splendid follow-up series, JOURNEYS THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA


Copyright: Jean Luc Mège Collection Institut Lumiere

Viewing JOURNEYS THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA -- the eight-hour/eight-part series that acts as a kind of follow-up to Bertrand Tavernier's wondrous documentary, My Journey Through French Cinema from 2016 -- and having that viewing interrupted by the news of M. Tavernier's death turned the experience into something else entirely. Knowing that we will have no more from this fellow who proved himself a fine filmmaker and film historian who, over his long career, managed everything from publicity to criticism to on occasion even making certain a film received distribution, I should think that cineasts worldwide are in mourning.

On the other hand, surely this is also a time of rejoicing and celebrating all that Tavernier has given us, from films such as Safe Conduct and Captain Conan to this latest and (I am guessing) last major effort that covers all the things he left out of his original, three-hour-and-21-minute-long documentary. 

As in the former film, the new series proves just as much a very personal trip that highlights Tavernier's own preferences and judgments. And yet, so inclusive, honest yet rigorous is this man that, even as he points out some faults in various filmmakers, he is also able to show us their special strengths, along with why certain films -- or scenes from them -- still act as important landmarks along the path.

The series -- on two discs -- is divided into eight episodes, each one just a minute or two under a full hour.  Episode One covers three of Tavernier's favorite filmmakers: Jean Grémillon, Max Ophuls and Henri Decoin, and his assessment will have you seeking out the work of Grémillon, while Decoin's, as he explains, proves a good deal more than merely commercial. (You'll certainly already know the films of Ophuls.)

Episode Two includes two more of his favorites: Sacha Guitry and Marcel Pagnol -- mine, too! -- both of whom have been out of favor critically for far too long, along with Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson, who have not. No matter where you stand on the work of these guys, Tavernier's visuals and commentary will enrich your understanding. This section also includes a lovely shout-out to the importance of a good producer.

 Julien Duvivier
and music in cinema are the subjects of Episode Three, and our narrator offers a wonderful appreciation of what music can and has done for French film, as well as a fine and surprisingly full look at much of the work of this under-appreciated filmmaker. (There's an interesting comparison of the French and American versions of the Pépé le Moko story (aka Algiers here in the USA.) 

One of the fascinating sections is Episode Four, which deals with pre-World War II foreign directors in France (and how the French film industry was so very set against them:  The "French resistance" takes on a whole new meaning here), cinema during the period of Nazi occupation, and finally the postwar period. One of the funniest of Tavernier's many charming anecdotes involves Jack Valenti, the quota for American films shown in France during this time, and how a portion of ticket sales from these went to support the French film industry.

From Occupation to The New Wave (Episode Five) covers filmmakers such as Claude Autant-Lara, René Clément and Henri Georges Clouzot. The final and beautiful monologue about the filmmaking profession ends with a description of the director that is as poetic, succinct and brilliant as anything you'll have heard.

Forgotten Filmmakers (Episode Six) includes the work of Raymond Bernard (you'll want to see Wooden Crosses after this!), Maurice Tourneur (get a load of Maurice Chevalier in With a Smile) and Anatole Litvak (whose films made both in France and America are ripe for rediscovery).

Episode Seven, Underrated Directors, offers up filmmakers like Jean Vallée (who, according to Tavernier, gave us the first French film in color!), Pierre Chenal (he directed Native Son!) and Henri Calef, (whose The Hour of Truth does something original and powerful with The Holocaust), none of whom TrustMovies was familiar with, so this section, too, proved unmissable. However, the rather paltry section on French female filmmakers is no fault of Tavernier, who points out that, no matter how small the amount of woman filmmakers had been prior to Agnès Varda -- only five! -- this was still more women directors in film than there were high-level women in French politics at this same time.

The finale Episode, number eight, deals with Tavernier himself and his various jobs within the film industry. Some of this we've seen and heard previously, but his work as press agent under Pierre Rissient makes for some delightful remembrances, including how the pair worked with directors such as Jacques Deray, José Giovanni and Yves Boisset. The film ends with a lovely appreciation of Alain Resnais and then, surprise!, Christian-Jaque. I wish there were more.

From Cohen Media Group and Kino Lorber, Journeys Through French Cinema is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Digital streaming? Yes: Click here for more info. It's a bit expensive to see the entire series ($20), but it's worth the price. This is too good a trip to pass up.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

March Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman AMEND: The Story of the 14th

This post written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

This is the tale of the 14th Amendment, a Netflix show-and-tell by public figures — actors, scholars, journalists, activists. The 14th is about the workplace, the voting booth, and behind the bedroom door, making personal and intimate one’s being an American citizen. It takes us through slavery, segregation, a woman’s control of her person, rights of sex and love, and the uproar following each advance by ultra-traditionalists and racists. 

A pair of eminent filmmakers have assembled this primer for us — part graphic teleplay (full of colorful animation sequences), part history lesson, part Ted Talk, that itemizes the rocky road to a more perfect union. The first drive toward parity incited the Civil War; the second the civil rights era of the 60’s, and now the third: a crazed reprieve of our racist Jim Crow past and what must be our drive to repel it. (Watch the trailer here.)

By the numbers white numbers are waning and blood is on the boil. Racism is out of the closet. That our minorities are about to outnumber white folk is whipping loathing and panic on the far right. AMEND: The Fight for America is both familiar and useful, laying out the facts as armor for the next battle. 

The author-showrunners are Robe Imbriano and Tom Yellin, both writers, producers, directors in long careers of documentary-making (disclosure:Mr. Yellin is an acquaintance of mine). What this team has given us, together with its roster of distinguished presenters, offers a formidable, lively display of infotainment, akin to if more didactic than Hamilton, that belongs on everyone’s plate, even with explicit content. Will Smith, America’s Fresh Prince, is the affable narrator of Amend (and executive producer, along with Larry Wilmore, both below) and does not rule out going into politics himself. 

So much of our litigation involves the 14th yet most of us barely know it exists, Smith tells us. The free speech and gun rights amendments are bandied about, but it’s the 14th that really affects our daily lives. “When I learned about it, I had to tell you,” says Smith; “this is why we are here —to tell our story, to tell its story.” 

“If you are born in the US, you are a citizen. And under the law, everyone in America gets this thing called EQUAL PROTECTION. That means we all have the same rights...; no one can take those away without due process (your day in court).....” 

We presume that ‘freedom’ is embedded in the Constitution, but it isn’t; it is implied. Only the IDEA of freedom is in the Constitution — freedom for white men. The majority of the first 16 presidents were slave-owners; their slave property did not figure. Hence it was the abolitionists among us who politicked for all to be named ‘citizen’ —to publicly insist on it because of the rights that attend to the appellation ‘citizen.’

Amend begins the lesson with Frederick Douglass, the slave who created a movement around ‘Why am I slave and you are not?’ Mahershala Ali speaks Douglass’s words (below), supported by other distinguished narrators of his road to citizen. His campaign led Lincoln to the Emancipation Proclamation; the amendment that ended slavery followed — the 13th. 

Lincoln’s prompt assassination brought Andrew Johnson to the presidency, a racist, who instituted Jim Crow laws imposing virtual slavery on the freed black population. Enter John Bingham (below), a white Ohio Congressman and abolitionist, a man of prolific credentials and character: 

“Those who set their feet upon the necks of defenseless fellow men...these man stealers, though their skins be as white as the driven snow, are the real niggers.” Bingham fathered the 14th in 1868 giving citizenship to every person born or naturalized in America. That is the second and perhaps real founding of the nation, moving us from ‘white male’ to melting pot. 

As soon as it was passed, the 14th was attacked in the streets, in the courts, in the press and is followed by the 15th—the right to vote. 

In retaliation, the old white male Supremes delivered ‘Plessey v Fergeson’ or ‘separate but equal’. The Court wrote that individuals are controlled by state not federal laws, ripping the guts out of the two new amendments and giving us a half-century of Jim Crow segregation. The South became a field of home-grown terrorists with lynching its arch-weopon. 

Martin Luther King (Samuel L. Jackson, below) launched the Civil Rights movement: “Only the negro can understand the social leprosy that segregation inflicts...emotional battle in a never-ending war…”. 

It has been a cage — segregated water fountains, bathrooms, pools, crumbling schools, fewer loans, homes and with scarce good jobs available, blacks have not been able to build intergenerational wealth. The 14th was a fraud; it was ignored. 

Shouted Alabama Governor George Wallace: “The South was set upon by the vulturous carpetbagger and federal troops so that the infamous illegal 14th Amendment might be passed... I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”..... 

In May 1963 Martin Luther King, helped by the new age of television, created a crisis that impelled President John Kennedy to act. The spectacle of nonviolent black youth prevented by police from entering (segregated) schools put Wallace on display. Kennedy sent troops and Wallace stood down. His collapse restored hope and sanity to the promise of the 14th. 

Women used the playbook of the civil rights struggle to lobby for the 14th to apply to them. “We want what men have had all these years.” 

“You can be somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s lover, somebody’s anything, but not SOMEBODY.” Women didn’t own their bodies, labor, or property until 1920 when they got the vote. The Equal Rights Amendment was written near 100 years ago in 1923, and Congress did not pass it until 1972. But wait, wait. The 38th state, VA, ratified it only last year in 2020. Arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly (below c), the deadly debater, had mounted a backlash. To make good on the ERA, Congress must now extend the period of years in which ratification can take place.

The ‘love’ chapter will bring you to tears. Marriage and the 14th have a long history. By the time gay marriage hit the courts, intones Will Smith, “it’s not just about love. It’s about being seen and accepted by the government as full and equal citizens.” 

Cases overturning bans on interratial marriage and sodomy preceded the case for gay marriage. But in 2015, Obergefell v Hodges finally arrived from Cincinnati, the most gay-mean city in America. Says Civil Rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein, “How can this be legal in America? When we founded our government a second time [the 14th]...we said that all persons are entitled to equal protection under the law.” Gerhardstein ushered the case to the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 2015 decision on the right to marry: 

 “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedoms in all of its dimensions and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals... In forming a marital union two people become something greater than once they were...they ask for equal dignity under the law...the Constitution grants them that right.” Said Jim Obergefell: that was the first time in my life as a gay man...that I felt like an equal American. (below l, Obergefell; r, Gerhardstein) 

The last chapter of Amend addresses immigration and its attendant issues. Orphaned following the emotional prior chapter, its impact does not measure up, but the whole is not lessened and immigration is about to have its day. In short, we move through generations of to-ing and fro-ing — thrilled, frustrated, horrified as we re-experience exactly how fraught ‘citizen’ is. Today’s intransigence and flagrant racism of the Trumpists may mean a violent relitigation of the right to vote. Amend authors Imbriano and Yellin have struck while the iron is hot. Whether George Wallace copycats will connive to rule over the coming minority-majority is now the boulder we must shoulder up the hill. January 6 was their opening salvo. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Issac Cherem's LEONA holds over for a third week at Boca Raton's Living Room Theaters

If you're looking for a love story or a family drama or a Romeo & Juliet-type tale in which the obstacle to love in not simply a squabble between families but one between religion and "community," then LEONA -- the 2018 Mexican movie that is finally getting a limited nationwide release here in the USA -- just might both be and not quite be your cup of tea. The reason for this duality is that these Leonas -- both the film and its title character (who doesn't acquire that name until the very end) -- refuse to conform to the expectations of the above genres.

The movie's writer/ director, Mexican-born-and-bred Isaac Cherem (shown at right), smartly gives us what we might expect to be the usual routine and then has his heroine, Ariela, sabotage most of what's promising in her family-and-religion-controlled life, as well as in her love life. 

That family is part of the relatively small and apparently very closed community of Syrian Jews residing in Mexico. When Ariela (Naian González Norvind, below, left) meets and then falls in love with a Christian young man, she risks expulsion from both family and community. For whatever reason, though she is honest with her family regarding this relationship, she refuses to tell her boyfriend, Iván (played by the appropriately named Christian Vazquez, below, right) the truth of why he cannot meet her family, or even why she has suddenly moved away from that family and into her own apartment.

Why does Ariela refuse to confide in the fellow she loves? Is it from fear, sheer embarrassment, a combo of both, and/or something more? This is not exactly clear, nor does it need to be, since both her family and her community are portrayed as closed-minded and unreasonable enough to be the major villains of the film. 

These people are haute bourgeois in every negative sense of the phrase: striving, materialistic, better-than, and placing their religion and community above that of even the country in which they live. Most telling, perhaps, is the scene in which one of the high-level players in that community meets with Ariela in order to convince her of the horrors that await if she marries out of the faith. She pleads for assimilation, while her adversary pretty much says, "Never."

Still, we hope for the best for our girl because, after all, Iván and his family (all working in the artistic community, of which Ariela, as a mural-maker, is herself a part) are portrayed as just about the perfect choice to marry into. If the movie comes close to cliche, it is in this no-warts-at-all viewpoint. Even when Iván grows angry, that anger easily bests Ariela's continuing refusal to level with the guy.

In technical terms the movie is beautifully shot and edited, with production values quite high, and performances all at quality level. Leona does offers some other unanswered questions, however: How is Ariela managing to live so well? Does her family continue to support her through all this? (It seems doubtful she could be living this well off of only the income from her art.) Finally, though, choices that have been made cannot be unmade, and while some growth is evident here, and a kind of freedom may be on the horizon, the damage that fundamentalist religion (of any kind) can do to the lives of those involved continues to register as appalling and awful.

From Menemsha Films and running a relatively succinct 96 minutes, Leona opened here in South Florida at our Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton two weeks ago, and has proven popular enough to hold over for a third week starting today, Friday, March 26, while playing elsewhere in the area, too. Click here and scroll down to see all current playdates, cities and theaters.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Movies and their industry -- Taiwanese-style -- in Midi Z/Ke-Xi Wu's based-on-life NINA WU

The casting couch evidently has its own peculiar incarnation just about everywhere, east and west, so long as a country has an "entertainment industry." In NINA WU, the new film from the prolific (14 films over the past 11 years) Myanmar-born/Taiwan-trained filmmaker known as Midi Z (shown below), that couch turns out to be the floor -- not merely degrading but fucking uncomfortable. With its story co-written by Mr. Z and his star (on whose life this tale is said to be based), Wu Ke-Xiu, the story is deliberately and extremely fractured so  

that viewers, just when we think we've got our bearings, must rearrange all over again, separating fantasy from reality, life from the movies, not to mention figuring who is who and what in hell they might have to do with this or that.

It's a challenge, all right, but whether or not it is worth all the work was a question I had to ask myself as Nina Wu concluded with a pivotal scene that very well could have begun the movie but instead brings it to a close with one of those ah-hah moments in which you'll murmur,  "So this is what it was all about!"

Because the movie is so constantly in flow -- back and forth, real and unreal -- I took many less notes than usual, not wanting to miss a thing by looking even briefly away from the screen. The odd notes I did jot and now refer to read something like: full-frontal sex scene, The Little Prince, movie-about-a-movie, the audition process, family debt, catfight and dog murder. And that's barely the half of it.

The story involves our heroine, Wu's Ke-Xi and the titular Nina (above and further above), being initially shamed/guilted/enticed by her agent (above, left) into taking a leading role in a movie that will require a full-frontal sex scene. Since she already has an online site in which she evidently does plenty of naughty stuff semi-publicly, anyway, I am not sure just how big a deal this scene would be. Yet it clearly somehow is.

Nina Wu
certainly addresses our current Me Too times, as well as the usual industry sleaze, the ego-idiocy of film directors, the vulnerability of young (or not so) actresses, the alternately stupid and would-be-caring attitude of mainstream media, and lots more, but the film's fractured style barely gives us a chance to identify and hold on to something before we're whisked on to something new/else.

Ms Wu is striking and alternately appealing and confused in her role, but only a couple of supporting characters are given enough weight to actually involve us (one of which is another auditioning actress, played by Kimi Hsia. above, right). Recommending the movie means also warning your audience to expect a whole lot of jimmying to what is basically, in so many ways, a rather standard plot. But if you're a style-over-substance connoisseur, Nina Wu may be just your thing. (The visuals in this one are often impressive indeed!)

From Film Movement, in Mandarin with English subtitles, and running 103 minutes, Nina Wu hits theaters this Friday, March 26, (click here and scroll down for venues) while also making a special debut as part of a retrospective of the work of Midi Z taking place at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, beginning March 26 and running through April 11. Click the retrospective link above to see the entire program and for information on how to purchase tickets to this -- and to the other five films of the celebrated Mr. Z.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Erez Perey's THE INTERROGATION, a landmark film, finally arrives in the USA via home video


Made back in 2016, THE INTERROGATION -- the Israeli film co-written (with Sari Turgeman) and directed by Erez Perey (shown below) -- has taken five years to find release here in the USA, thanks to the estimable and risk-taking distributor, Corinth Films. This half-decade delay is due less, TrustMovies opines, to the film's subject matter than to the manner in which that content is handled and the resulting landmark achievement. (Though the film played at various festivals, it never, so far as I can see, found any theatrical or home video release till now.)

A narrative (done in documentary style) based upon the autobiography of Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, the longest-serving commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the movie deals with the interrogation of Höss (played by Romanus Fuhrmann, below) by Albert Piotrowski (Maciej Marczewski, two photos below) the  younger Polish investigative judge, chosen in part because of his command of the German language and his ability to better communicate with Höss. 

What the film achieves so well -- better than anything I've so far seen -- is finally helping us understand how "civilized" Germans in the military could have done what they did to the victims in these camps. Yes, it humanizes the perpetrators -- but without in any way lessening the horror of their despicable deeds. 

As The Interrogation progresses, you will finally be able to understand something of what those in charge of the genocide were thinking, feeling and experiencing. This is important in coming to terms with both how The Holocaust happened and how this kind of all-out atrocity might be prevented. 

Mr. Perey's style as both writer and director is to stick as closely to the facts and record as possible, with little dialog given to either the interrogator's own history (we know he is married, with a child who is very ill) or the defendant's personal history -- except in  terms of how that history affected his later acts as camp commander.

All this -- along with the excellent, close-to-the-vest performances from the two leading actors -- forces us to stay on track, our minds primarily concerned with how Herr Höss could have acted as he did. Perey is a subtle filmmaker, allowing minimal amounts of information to carry maximum weight and small changes of facial expression to stand in for what, in other hands, might be reams of dialog.

Visually, the film is a pleasure to view, color- and composition-wise. Even the near-silent visit of a woman (is this his wife, or a prostitute?), below, to the interrogator's hotel room offers the opportunity to imagine how very restrained -- in so many ways -- is this fellow's sad life.

In a mere 83 minutes, the movie manages to move and surprise us, open our eyes and minds, and maybe leaving us murmuring that oft-heard, if seemingly ever-less-hopeful mantra, Never Again!

From Corinth Films, in German and Polish with English subtitles, The Interrogation finally hits home video on DVD and digital streaming (Amazon Prime members can watch as part of their subscription) this Tuesday, March 23 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The artist bio-doc--handled just about perfectly--in Chris McKim's WOJNAROWICZ: F**K YOU F*GGOT F**KER

That this new documentary, WOJNAROWICZ: F**K YOU F*GGOT F**KER, about the late activist/artist David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voh-nah-ROH-vitch), seems so rich and complete, so deep and direct that you finish it with the feeling that you know this man (I certainly wished that I had) is due as much to the help that Wojnarowicz himself unwittingly gave the director, Chris McKim, by making and leaving behind, nearly from childhood onward, a visual record of his difficult and fascinating life. 

Thanks to Wojnarowicz's own record and to the superb way in which McKim (shown at right) and his editor Dave Stanke have woven this into the rest of the narrative, we understand the artist better and better, as well as further appreciating his work -- much of which is seen here -- as the documentary moves on. 

How the life affected the work (and vice versa) is also demonstrated exceedingly well; the film is practically a model for how to put together a bio-doc about an artist. But of course most docs about artists are not lucky enough to have the first-person record of a life that Mr. Wojnarowicz  left us.

From a singularly drunken and abusive father to living life on the street as a very young teenage hustler to the final years of AIDS that ended his too-short life, Wojnarowicz (shown above and below via his art) seemed to move from crisis to crisis. 

We learn of his relationship with his sister and (eventually estranged) brother, the fine photographer Peter Hujar (who was his lover for a time and his longtime mentor and best friend), and we hear from various friends -- primarily Fran Lebowitz, who, as usual, provides terrific commentary, including how Wojnarowicz even became involved with The Mob!

Once art critic Grace Gluek of The New York Times comes upon the work of David and other East Village artists, major success arrives, and Wojnarowicz begins to draw the attention of "collectors," some of whom hire him to produce installations for them. The wealthy Mnuchin family is one of these, and what our artist creates for them will raise some eyebrows and provoke some laughs. ("David didn't really like rich people," one of the doc's commentators quietly notes.)

The more we learn, the more we come to care about this guy, and so well-done, rich and comprehensive is the entire documentary that, by its end, you may feel that you'ved lived through several decades, while getting to know -- and appreciate -- an amazing artist, activist, writer and man. And without a trace of any cheapjack sentimentality included, I suspect you'll be greatly moved, as well.

From Kino Lorber and running a just-about-perfectly-timed 105 minutes, Wojnarowicz: F**K You F*ggot F**ker (the title is named after one of the artist's works, above, that we view during the film) opens in virtual cinemas today, Friday, March 19, at Film Forum in New York City and elsewhere. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down.