Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In Greg Barker's THE FINAL YEAR, we walk down a memory lane to which we weren't privy

The good news about THE FINAL YEAR, a new documentary by Greg Barker about, yes, a portion of the final year of the Obama administration, is that it is not, as one might have suspected, complete hagiography. Oh, it's hagiographic enough, but what it shows us of the administration, in particular what we see and learn about two important people in that administration -- Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, and former White House staff member Ben Rhodes -- is enough to make the movie worth viewing.

TrustMovies must admit that he was and is no fan of President Obama. Although I was thrilled to see a Black (well, mixed race) President elected in the USA, I was even more disappointed to see that the President-elect refused to go after Wall Street and the Banking industry, after the melt- down they caused, not to mention his refusal to prosecute the lying and venal former administration that got into into our seemingly eternal mid-east wars via outright lying, and instead went after whistle-blowers like a rabid dog. Sure, Obama-care was a small step in the right direction, but only a mere sop to real progressives.

Mr. Barker, shown above, knows how and what to film, and does this professionally, and what his documentary shows us best is the mind-set and actions of these two administration buoys: Mr. Rhodes (below) and Ms Power (shown with Obama, further below).

As we watch and listen to Rhodes and begin to understand his thinking on a number of state matters, we can also better understand what he and Obama had in common and why they agreed on so many important subjects. Rhodes, as is Obama, proves intelligent and generally perspicacious, though the movie allows us to see and hear things about only certain subjects. It would have been even more interesting to discover what and why these two have against government whistle-blowers and how this fits into Obama's claim of wanting "transparency." Well, good luck with that.

We're on much firmer ground with Ms Power, as we view her traveling around the world and trying (what certainly seem like her best) to provide real aid to the downtrodden. When she tells us how she and her President did not always agree about how and why to proceed with this, we can only shake our heads in understanding tinged with quite a bit of disappointment.

I wish that Mr. Barker had occasionally come up with better visuals instead of simply and ridiculously showing us Obama's literal words on-screen as the ex-President is speaking them. In general, however, the film moves along at a sprightly pace with enough varied and interesting situations to keep us alert and watching.

Toward the end, as the 2016 election approaches and then occurs, we see that the administration -- just as so many of the rest of us "grunts" -- was shocked and appalled at the outcome. And whatever sins for which the Obama administration must answer, I suspect they will pale absolutely against what our current and clearly mentally unstable leader will leave us. Let's just hope that Mr. Rhodes' prediction -- that we'll need to wait perhaps another 20 years before we'll see the good that has come out of all this -- proves true.  Otherwise....

From Magnolia Pictures and running 90 minutes, The Final Year, opens in a number of cities around the country this Friday, January 19. Here in South Florida, you can see it at the O Cinema Miami Beach. Wherever you may reside, click here to find the theater(s) nearest you.

Religion as the "closet" in Jennifer Gerber's interesting gay melodrama, THE REVIVIAL

The gay closet, as it turns out, can take a number of forms with which we might not immediately associate it. One of these is religion, particularly when the gay in question happens to be a preacher of it. Such a fellow is our non-hero, Eli, who has taken over his little town's church (Baptist, I think) from his late father, who was -- from all we hear -- much more popular, offering up the fire-and-brimstone kind of sermon our country's Southern folk love to hear. Eli, who is married to a wife who is soon to be a mother, prefers a more thoughtful and, well, "progressive" kind of preaching. You can imagine how well that goes down with his congregation.

As adapted (from his own stage play) by Samuel Brett Williams, shown below, and directed with intelligent, straight-ahead force by Jennifer Gerber (shown at left: This is her first full-length work), THE REVIVAL proves to be one of the better gay-themed melodramas we've seen of late. Mr. Williams, with his intelligently withholding writing that does not allow us to understand or fully know most of these characters until the finals scenes (the execution of which Ms Gerber's restraint and skill helps mightily), has concocted a very interesting melodrama
that explores the lengths to which a man will go in using his religion to better hide his sexuality.

Most organized religions, particularly in the Southern USA, do not accept homosexuality as something natural and good, but there are all kinds of ways around this -- as so many of our Southern "preachers" and their past scandals have shown us -- from out-and-out lying and hypocrisy to burying this "sin" so deeply within that even the sinner can sometimes ignore it.

Nothing works forever, of course, and truth, as they say, will out.

When a good-looking young drifter (Zachary Booth, above) appears at church one day -- not for the sermon but for the pot-luck lunch held afterward -- our "kindly" minister (David Rysdahl, below) of course wants to help. First offering that meal and then later a temporary roof over the fellow's head, before you can say, "But I'm not gay," this new twosome is locking lips and then other parts of the anatomy.

Now, if this part of the tale were all that's on offer, we could yawn and say been there/done that. We also meet and spend time with some interesting subsidiary characters, too, such as Trevor (nice job by Raymond McAnally, below), the good-'ol-boy pal who consistently tries to get Eli to preach what the congregation wants. Trevor is , in fact, raising money for a big "revival" style meeting at the church -- which Eli is dead set against.

Eli's put-upon wife -- a low-key but very smart performance from Lucy Faust, below -- comes into her own during the course of the film, as well. It is her character of whom we learn perhaps the most about by film's end.

There is even one member of the congregation -- played with off-key charm by Stephen Ellis, below -- who is desperately in love with his first cousin. While this situation might initially seem merely a bit of comic relief, it serves a deeper purpose in showing us how poor (uncaring, really) a minister our anti-hero actually is.

By the time the "gay love" situation has worked itself out -- and not probably in either of the ways you will expect -- several other situations and characters have come heavily and surprisingly into play. The Revival is a much stronger and more forceful piece of gay-themed film-making than TrustMovies expected. Take a chance on it.

From Breaking Glass Pictures and running just 85 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, January 19, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. The DVD will be released the following week on Tuesday, January 23.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Wanna get REALLY angry? Watch the new Aussie doc, KANGAROO: A LOVE-HATE STORY

It's from Australia -- where else? And if you've ever been there (TrustMovies has, a couple of times) and watched with delight all those kangaroos and wallabies in the wild, you've probably been left with an indelible impression and love for this remarkable species. And trust me: You won't get anything like the same result from visiting a zoo. The first time I journeyed down under -- this was back in the 70s -- I heard from some people about what horrible pests kangaroos really were. But then, when I asked around a bit, I was told by others that this was all bullshit, coming from the industries and government officials that wanted to "harvest them," and that, when dealt with properly, the kangaroo population posed little real problem at all.

That was over 40 years ago, and the situation has apparently only grown worse since then -- with kangaroo meat (eaten by both humans and our pets) becoming more popular and the industries that cater to this growing larger and more powerful. No film I've watched in a long while -- including anything, even, about America's current and unspeakably racist and venal sleazebag President -- has made me angrier and more disgusted than the new documentary by Kate McIntyre Clere (above, right) and Michael McIntyre (above, left), entitled quite properly KANGAROO: A LOVE-HATE STORY. I admit that you probably have to be an animal lover to get this worked up, but the filmmakers do a bang-up job of showing you what is going on (along with why), how awful it truly is, and what might be done to halt this -- if enough citizens finally speak up and hold their elected politicians' feet to the fire.

Those feet, by the way, belong mostly, as expected, to Australian politicians (and corporations), but they also include many others internationally, since Kangaroo meat and skin/hide is sold worldwide. What we learn here about how the industry and their lobbyists tried to subvert our own state of California to their needs will open many eyes and also show us, thankfully, that the USA still has some politicians willing to fight for what's right.

Kangaroo approaches its tale and goal using everything from history to statistics to a lot talking heads (here with their bodes shown as well, since we're so often in the wilds of Australia) who follow our kangaroos as they hop and play and are killed -- in the most awful of ways that allow them to die slowly and horribly by hunters who just don't give a damn. Their joey, too (the term for kangaroo young) are affected just as terribly. There is a scene here of one injured joey trying so hard to hop away that it will likely break your heart.

Sure, the film is biased. It wants to preserve a species, for Christ sake. But it allows the "other side" to have its say, and then pretty much pulls the rug out from under it, whether the speaker is a politician or a farmer who insists that the kangaroo cannot be stopped except by hunting them down. We see the ongoing results (over quite some time) of a public relations campaign to denounce these animals as "pests" and how, when done skillfully and long enough, this can turn a population against its own "national" animal.

Wildlife experts and preservationists have their say, too, and it is equally intelligent and anger-making, as we perceive yet another example of how the wealthy, corporate and "elected" are growing richer even as they destroy our planet and the life upon it. Kangaroo is a documentary you'll want to share with everyone you know, but you'll also have to warn them that it is not an easy watch. It is a salutary one, however. This is a movie that will put you on the alert and maybe drive you to action.

From Abramorama and running 99 minutes, Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story opens this Friday, January 19 in New York City (at the Village East Cinema) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Music Hall 3) and will then, over the coming weeks, open in another 15 or more cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Andres Veiel's BEUYS explores an oddly famous-yet-far-too-unknown post-WWII German artist

Joseph Beuys (pronounced boys, but with an "s" sound at the end, rather than a "z"), who lived from 1921 through 1986, was a kind of contemporary of Andy Warhol. Both men expanded culture's idea of what art could be, though Warhol -- in TrustMovies' estimation -- did this mostly for purposes of marketing, wealth and fame, while Beuys, whose vast interests and deep understanding ranged from politics, economics and history to the environment, culture, and education (he was, among all else, a very popular teacher), worked more from his desire to better humanity. And just maybe from a certain sense of guilt and reparation: Our boy flew planes for the Nazis during World War II.

In BEUYS, his new documentary about this artist/ philosopher/even (sort of) statesman, filmmaker Andres Veiel, shown at left, doesn't connect all the dots or hammer home a lot of theories. He simply lays out many of the facts of this unusual man's life and work and lets us do the connecting ourselves. It is a fascinating, strange and sometimes sad and moving journey Veiel takes us on, but it will, I think, make Joseph Beuys an art figure you will not easily forget.

Unlike Warhol, who usually said the least he could get away about almost everything (he knew enough to shut up and thus be "mysterious"), Beuys -- much more intellectual -- was not merely willing to but usually insistent upon talking about his work, along with politics, society and just about all else. ("What's the point of art if nothing comes of it?" we hear him ask.)

I don't know that the two artists ever actually met, but at one point rather late in the documentary, we're at some art event/party, at which Beuys (shown above and below) is supposed to appear, and we're told that Warhol was there, too, and was in fact looking to meet his German contemporary.

Making fine use of much archival footage, Veiel shows us Beuys as artist, teacher, leader and even idol, though he does not appear to have wanted much of that last one. He -- and his art -- were also challenging, in a manner that Warhol's never was. Beuys never produced room decor for modern sensibilites, and so was not marketable in the way that Warhol was, which is why he was never, then nor now, embraced by the ludicrous/sleazy art establishment so that his works might finally fetch millions.

And while Beuys was quite funny, always smart, and often charming, he also lacked that smug layer of irony and bad-boy persona possessed by someone like Maurizio Cattelan. Veiel gives us some of the artist's history and his estrangement from his parents, who wanted him to work in a local margarine factory. Still it comes a shock to suddenly see him in Nazi Youth uniform, and then flying for Germany in WWII. (A plane crash ended that segment of his life.)

We're with Beuys during his very depressed period post-art school, when he lived with and was cared for by his mentors, and then at his kind of rebirth as a performance artist, garnering fame and even an American tour. (The coyote moment here is a keeper.) Our boy even ran for election via The Green Party, and when you hear about the bizarre diversity of that party during its initial days and just whom it allowed into it, you will better understand its continuing dysfunction and uselessness.

The film ends with a reminder of what is probably -- no, certainly -- Beuys' greatest and most lasting work of environmental art. This is something that must have seemed then, for it does even now, way ahead of its time. After finishing this fine documentary, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Herr Veiel and his crew. I'm very happy to have seen and learned so much about Joseph Beuys, and I suspect that -- unless you already knew it all -- you will be, too.

From Kino Lorber, in German with English subtitles (along with some English spoken occasionally) and running 111 minutes, Beuys opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, January 17, at Film Forum in New York City. As of now there are only a few more playdates scheduled around the country (click here then scroll down to view cities and venues), but since the film is coming via Kino Lorber, there will certainly and eventually be a DVD release.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Our January Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: THE CROWN -- Season Two

As intriguing story and stately pageant, Netflix’s streaming series, The Crown, continues to gleam. Peter Morgan, writer (below left, pictured with director, Stephen Daldry), treats the eyes and mind to the beauty and absurdity of the institution that we are at once possessive of, ga-ga over, and feel superior to — the British monarchy being our own origin story, the authoritarian regime that led us to create a democracy for ourselves. 

Right about now that constitutional monarchy is looking benign and not so absurd, compared to U.S. constitution fuzzies that have permitted exactly what we fought against in the 1700’s — authoritarian rule by an erratic, narcissistic, if not mentally ill leader. The British have since created their own democracy, walling off the Crown from Parliament, so that today it functions primarily as a large PR firm headquartered behind palace walls. Imbued with a deep sense of responsibility at home, Crown royalty work hard, some of them nearly 24/7, supporting charities and civic work that helps make Britain well-meaning, if not great.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (at right), held to the ‘divine right’ view of monarchy. She is said to have told Elizabeth: Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards…..

Of course, that was then. Elizabeth (the spectacular and very hard-working actress, Claire Foy) replies that her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith) believes that church and state should be separate, that if God has servants, they are priests, not kings. Parliament steers its own track now, while the Crown’s adjustment to 21st century mores creeps forward. It offers a tone of caring and civic-mindedness — humanity absent in the U.S. of late.

In fact King George V (above, left), Elizabeth’s grandfather, broke with tradition to affirm that the House of Windsor owed its loyalty to the British people above all, and to establish the precedent of personal outreach and public service that the royals practice now. (A Netflix documentary, The Royal House of Windsor gives a full account of the history of the 100 year old dynasty.) Her parents, George VI and Elizabeth, outdid themselves bucking up the Brits during the blitz, remaining a presence in London (below).

Having been trained dutifully to serve, Elizabeth addressed the nation by radio on her 21st birthday: “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Ms Foy portrays the model public servant. Every thought, every worry, every struggle appears on her face and in her eyes; the Queen’s earnestness is palpable.

Crown 2 offers another elegantly, expensively wrought 10 episodes each of which demonstrates, sometimes satirically, the clash between tradition and progress. There is threat to the royal marriage, education trauma for young Prince Charles, parliamentary crisis as England’s colonial domination slips, and for Elizabeth, learning on the job how to “be” with her subjects.

Take the episode, ‘Marionettes,’ in which the Queen delivers a staff-written, unknowingly condescending speech at a Jaguar auto plant that is promptly rebuked by a peer, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan, above left, a character actor with a talent for satire and irony, shown with the real Altrincham, right). He calls her old-fashioned, priggish, and tone-deaf in the new age of republics replacing monarchies — his words ricocheting across British tabloids. Humble Elizabeth meets him in secret, where he offers suggestions, most involving her being more open and approachable, nearly all implemented in a year. Her first TV holiday greeting was a warm homily delivered in 1958 (below). The palace later conceded that Lord Altrincham did as much as anyone in the 20th century to help the monarchy.

Elizabeth’s flamboyant sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, below, right), gets two tabloid-ready chapters in her love-life following the debacle of her broken relationship with her father’s divorced equerry, Peter Townsend (the church still rigidly denying royal marriage to a divorce with a living spouse). Her next love is avant garde photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later titled Lord Snowden. The versatile Matthew Goode (below, left) plays him as controlling and enormously sexy. Armstrong-Jones ran with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals. He had several lovers while also romancing Margaret, including a married couple both of whom he had sex with, the wife pregnant with Tony’s child at Tony and Margaret’s wedding. The narrative suggests that his desire for her was partly fostered by his own mother’s disregard of him as the lesser of her sons and his need for her approval.

The marriage was happy for some years but eventually broke down, each of them willful and needing the spotlight, though they successfully raised two talented, artistic children and remained friends till Margaret’s death in 2002. Armstrong-Jones was the first commoner to marry into the royal family in 400 years, theirs was the first royal wedding televised (below), and their divorce the first since Henry VIII. (Prince Charles’s marriage to a divorcee has paved the way for Harry’s uncontroversial impending nuptials.)

One episode, Vergangenheit, (means ‘past’ or ‘past history’), was especially provocative and reverberates now—here. Peter Morgan’s narrative bobbed and weaved, so please watch Edward VIII, the Nazi King, also on Netflix, to get the full picture. According to this short documentary, the Brits were lucky to have the “divorcee” excuse to deny Elizabeth’s uncle David, new playboy King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings, below, left), his bride of choice, which led him to abdicate in favor of his brother, Elizabeth’s father, a man of responsible character. Our FBI had been watching David’s paramour, American Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams, below, right) because of her Nazi sympathies. President Roosevelt was fielding American anti-war sentiment on his way to war — he could not afford the glamorous duo rallying that sentiment into a movement.

David too was pro-German, seduced by Hitler’s charisma and power. He wanted to reconnect with his German ancestral roots decisively severed by his father because of anti-German sentiment in England during World War I. George V dropped the German family name in 1917, inventing ‘House of Windsor’ (named after one of their palaces) for the sake of "Englishness."

David’s attraction to power played out in his love for Wallis: she was the dominatrix; he the submissive. His admiration for Hitler was narcissistic and naïve; his public statements argued against Britain’s call for war with Germany in the name of “peace.” Meanwhile, Hitler feted and cultivated the couple for future use (as Putin has done with Trump). Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, Joachim Ribbentrop, had an affair with Wallis while she and David were courting; she remained Ribbentrop’s confidante for years, passing him British secrets. FBI and (literally dug up) German war files reveal that David was being groomed as Hitler’s puppet king, if/when Germany conquered Britain. David believed the continued bombing of London would lead his brother, King George VI, to surrender — a revelation that horrified his family. To David, Nazism was a self-evident good; he was mystified, angered at his family’s rejection (in the face of) his “peaceful” and “noble” ambitions. (In the first season of The Crown, the family disdain of David and Wallis seemed overly cruel; only in Crown 2, do we find out why.)

Because loose-lipped David had already hurt the war effort, especially tipping Germany to choose the least defended route to invade France, Churchill contrived to keep the couple as distant as possible. They were kept out of England and shunned by the royals, even by his mother, Queen Mary. In the end Parliament leadership was grateful that Wallis’s divorces kept David from the throne and the crisis his rule might have provoked. Fortunately he was too passive and shallow to overcome the constraints placed on him — but what if he had been strong and manipulative?

Given that both our nations have verged on authoritarianism in the modern era, one is left to ponder whether either system has more to offer than the other in so far as protecting our inalienable rights.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Short take: Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller, THE COMMUTER, offers Liam Neeson and foolish fun

If you're anything like me and find Liam Neeson the kind of actor who almost never disappoints, even if the occasional movie he inhabits may, little could keep you away from his latest, titled THE COMMUTER and once again directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (of Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night), the trailer for which has been screening in theaters for what seems like at least the past six months. That trailer, as usual, gives away far too much and lays out practically the whole plot.

Even so, there are enough surprises up the sleeves of its three credited screenwriters to keep us interested, while Collet-Serra (below) directs with enough panache that we enjoy even some of the more nonsensical portions.

Our beleaguered hero (Neeson) has so much happen to him in the course of a single day, even before he steps onto the commuter train -- whose route appears to begin as part of the NYC subway system and then change somehow to that of Metro-North (though maybe things have drastically changed since I left the city three years ago) -- that the poor guy will immediately have your complete sympathy. In any case, before you can say Vera Farmiga (who plays the poor guy's antagonist), he is knee-to-neck deep in big-time trouble. One of the things that makes the movie so much fun is the terrific casting of every last one of the roles.

In addition to Neeson and Farmiga (above), we have Sam Neill, (below), Patrick Wilson (further below), and Elizabeth McGovern -- all of whom are rather wasted, as their roles don't amount to much at all. Yet it's always enjoyable to see them on screen, so this remain a plus. Even better are the many more unsung performers who plays the other folk traveling on this bound-for-hell train.

The plot takes a multitude of twists and turns, half of which are smart and half nonsense -- but all turn out to be rather fun. Toward the finale the movie even delivers its own "I am Spartacus" moment, which is so embarrassingly stolen that seniors in the audience will wince. But even this ends with a good laugh.

The Commuter may turn out to be this year's Kidnap, that Halle Berry movie that was by turns utterly ridiculous and slam-bang fun. Any way you look at it, as mindless entertainment goes, you could do a hell of a lot worse than boarding this particular train.

From Lionsgate and running 104 minutes,. the movie opens wide today. To find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The artist as user: Laurie Simmons' sometimes funny/often pretty MY ART opens in theaters

Film-goers who saw and recall Tiny Furniture may remember that its writer/director/star Lena Dunham's mom, Laurie Simmons, made a nice appearance in that film. Ms Dunham returns the favor in Simmons' first full-length endeavor -- opening tomorrow in New York City and entitled MY ART -- though she plays not Simmons' daughter but a former student who has now become a lot more famous than her teacher.

That this character also complains about her difficult success may clue in the viewer as to the ironic and just a little nasty nature of this sometimes funny but more often realistic "take" on the artist's pursuit of her art and success.

That this semi-fledgling (even though she's 68 years old) filmmaker, shown at right, has a nice sense of humor is evident from the opening credits, during which elevator doors close in on the very title of her film, crushing it in the process. Along the way, and with literally every artist we meet (including our heroine, Ellie) there is a sense of the single-minded ("my art above all else"), entitlement and the necessity to "use" everyone around her -- albeit with a lot of seductive charm, of course. How the artist must keep herself separate and "alone" so that she can properly create is also given its due.

When the opportunity arises for Ellie to get away from New York City and complete a new project in the large, lovely and very elegant home and studio of a friend upstate, she goes (along with her beloved dog, Bingham, below) and is soon surrounded by a new group of people who slowly but significantly becomes a part of her "art."

That art, evidently similar in ways to the art Ms Simmons is best-known for, has to do with taking her beloved "old movies" -- from Morocco and Bell, Book and Candle (below) to A Clockwork Orange and Some Like It Hot -- and recreating small scenes using herself and the new friends in the leading roles. I didn't buy the fact that this kind of thing would turn the head of an important art gallery owner and becomes a huge success. But within the framework of the plot Ms Simmons has contrived, it works well enough.

More important, it also gives the viewer the chance to see an artist's ambition on relatively naked (and, yes, but quite charming) display, and should bring to mind the rule that a number of people I've known throughout my life live by: Never get involved with an artist. The movie, by the way, is also often stunningly photographed, with colors so alive and gorgeous that they nearly vibrate (the cinematographer is Tom Richmond).

Fortunately the little satellite of new friends who help Ellie with her work include three male actors (from two generations) who are very good indeed. These would be Josh Safdie, (above, left), John Rothman (above, right, and especially Robert Clohessy (center, left), each of whom brings to life his interesting character as well as possible -- at least to the extent that Simmons has enabled him. (The usually fine Parker Posey, who has a small but silly role in the film, is not that lucky.)

How everything works out may not be quite what you expect or want, especially for the character portrayed so very well by Mr. Clohessy. (TrustMovies has seen this particular actor countless times already but he has only, with this film, suddenly become memorable to me: Clohessy is that moment-to-moment perfect here, creating a full-blown and wonderfully real character in about as small an amount of screen time as seems possible.) All this is part of the oddball strength of My Art, which is funny and charming at times but in which the artist's personality and needs simply mow down everything in their path, poor Bingham included. Be warned.

From Film Movement and running a just-long-enough-not-to-wear-out-its-welcome 86 minutes, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, January 12, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and then the following Friday, January 19, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts