Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tracking the plight of Chinese migrant workers: Lixin Fan's LAST TRAIN HOME

"Teeming hordes," as shown in the photograph above, have seldom taken on more meaning than they do in the new documentary LAST TRAIN HOME, which explores, via one particular family, the situation of migrant workers in China. These are Chinese workers, by the way -- not foreigners -- so if you want to observe yet another example of how the country with the world's largest population treats its own people, step right up.

Annually, for the Chinese New Year, these workers -- 130,000,000 of them scattered throughout the country in big-city factories -- make the long trek home, usually to the poorer rural villages, to spend the holiday with their families. (This is the only time in the entire year that they are able to be together.)  The film's director Lixin Fan (shown below) also worked on the award-winning documentary Up the Yangtze, which gave us yet another unpleasant slice of the Chinese pie. That 2008 film dealt with a different set of migrant workers and the population rendered homeless by the Three Gorges Dam, and Mr.Fan -- a documentarian with a clear and focused agenda -- is back again taking another look at Chinese social issues.

The family in the focus of Fan's lens is made up of a grandmother and two grandchildren, left behind in the countryside (below) when mom and pop went to work, years back, at a factory one very long train trip away. The daughter, by now angry and rebellious, is at an age at which she can decide between remaining in school or going to work in a factory, too. You will not be surprised at her choice, or that her younger brother remains behind with granny. The once-a-year reunions are becoming, from what we see here, increasingly fraught with buried anger that bubbles up often and is growing ever more difficult to hold down.

Fan's camera is relatively unobtrusive, and he manages to show us a number of significant scenes along the way. One of the surprising things about Last Train Home is how much it resembles a narrative film in its breadth, sweep and entry into the lives on display. Watching it, in fact, I occasionally wondered if perhaps it was a narrative that simply made excellent use of the documentary style. But, no.

The filmmaker captures character with a depth that is unusual in a documentary, particularly one in which those characters seem constantly at work or on the run. Mom is a nag (however much she tries not to be), and dad is quietly stoic -- until daughter uses the "f" word in a scene so raw you want to excuse yourself and leave the room.  Here is a family reunion movie that puts to shame many others because that reunion is so brief, sorrowful and full of recrimination, spoken and/or not. Work so completely commands the lives of these people, allowing them little of what we leisured like to call "quality time," that the film cannot help but point up the vast differences between west and east.

Other differences are apparent, too, as workers comment on the very large waist size of the pants shipped off to America.  Yet, as the movie continues, it begins to seem all too universal in its display of the generation gap and how, eventually, children will turn into their parents. Fan contrasts the drab, unappealing look of the cities and factories with some gorgeous shots of the countryside and several more beauties of the train traveling through snowy terrain. Most impressive (and disturbing) are his shots of those teeming hordes waiting for the next train home -- simply procuring a ticket for which can become a trial-by-fire.

Above all, however, the director has captured the fractured lives of China's migrants -- and the abject loneliness of the long-distance worker. In a country where labor is ultra-cheap and expendable, so, too, become the lives of the laborers.

Last Train Home, from Zeitgeist Films, begins its theatrical run this Friday, September 3, at the IFC Center in New York City.  For a foreign-language documentary, the film is receiving, deservedly, a surprisingly wide release. You can find the other playdates, cities and theatrical venues here.

(All photos are courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fierlingers' MY DOG TULIP brings J.R. Ackerley to the screen -- and some new-fangled touches to old-fashioned animation

The Queen and her Corgis, Churchill and his bulldog, J.R. Ackerley and Tulip.  If that last one doesn't ring the bell, no matter: a gong may sound in perpetuity, once you've seen the new animated film MY DOG TULIP.  A gift  from the husband-wife filmmaking team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (the pair is pictured below), the movie is about to have its world theatrical premiere here at Film Forum. Mr. Ackerley, a British literary editor and writer, had his book of the same title (a reminiscence about the relationship between him and his dog) published in 1956 in England and later here in America. Reissued by New York Review Books in its Classic Series, "Tulip" is currently that series' best-seller.

While all this may sound a bit like the Brit version of Marley and Me, be assured that it is not.  For one thing, "Tulip" is not a film for children. One of the first things to greet us on-screen are Mr. Ackerley's words: "Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs."  Sad, ironic, rather nastily funny -- and definitely not for kids. The story that unfolds thereafter tells of a quiet, highly intelligent and lonely man who has never had a committed relationship with another person.  Into his life comes the dog Tulip.

Much of what we see hereafter could easily be interpreted as the usual dog-bonds-with-owner shtick. It is, and yet it isn't. Being a British story, by an intelligent man given to self-analysis and a keen consideration of the world around him, each event casts its own odd spell: the visit to an old military buddy, the trip(s) to the vet, dealing with the dog's urge to mate, procreate and -- the more oft-encountered necessity to defecate.

This last gives the film its oddest cast.  There were no "pooper-scoopers" a half century ago, let alone any "laws" demanding the clean-up of animal excrement, so all must rely on the the British sense of propriety and reserve. English "class" distinctions also present themselves in one scene involving Ackerley, Tulip poop, and a pair of angry shopkeepers.  The lengthy scenes given to finding an acceptable mate for Tulip provide some of the funnier, sadder and darker segments of the film, as Ackerley faces handling a situation for his pet that he has never (it would seem, at least) managed to do for himself.

The choice of using animation to bring Tulips's story to life was a wise one on several counts. The sexual and excremental aspects of the tale can be -- and are -- told candidly but with flair and a humor that never seems gross.  The animation itself is hand-drawn and relatively simple-looking by companion to most of the animation we see these days.  (I don't imply that this was "simple" work, by any means.  According to the filmmakers, some 60,000 drawings make up the 83-minute movie.)

The Fierlingers use several styles, as well --  the most graphic and colorful of which seems to stand for the "realistic" moments. (Even these are not so terribly graphic and colorful: Instead they fit nicely into the sense of "British reserve.") At other times -- memories and imaginings, for instance -- the palette is drained of most color. But the oddest and, in their way, most endearing are the sort of doodling drawings that, for me, represent Ackerley's imaginings concerning subjects such as sex and other, perhaps troubling, matters. Within this seemingly simple, hand-drawn movie, there's a wealth of thought and originality.

Particularly funny and pointed is Ackerley's comparison of Tulip's canine suitors to the paparazzi that buzz about celebrities  (Having recently viewed that Ron Gallela movie, I find the comparison most apt.) At the finale, the Fierlingers quote generously from Mr. Ackerley, and hearing such intelligent, vibrant and profound thoughts (beautifully spoken by Christopher Plummer) is such a treat that I should think this splendid little film will send many viewers back to the source. After seeing so many films that attempt either far too little, or whose objectives are nowhere matched by the necessary skills of execution, what a pleasure it is to view a movie whose reach and grasp are firmly at one.

My Dog Tulip, the first release from the newly reanimated New Yorker Films (Welcome back, oh venerated one!) opens Wednesday, September 1, in New York City at Film Forum for a two-week run. Attention, animation aficionados: The filmmaking team, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, will appear at Film Forum in-person, at the 8 pm shows on Wednesday, September 1 & Thursday, September 2. Click here for Film Forum showtimes and ticket information, and click here to see where else the film will be playing throughout the upcoming fall season.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

David Rothmiller's FOR MY WIFE: timely, educational & a good commercial for GLAAD

How timely is FOR MY WIFE, the one-hour documentary -- made in 2008 -- written, directed and edited by David Rothmiller and produced by LD Thompson? Ask how often the subject of gay and lesbian marriage is in the news these days, and you'll quickly get the picture. This 73-minute film (made even shorter now, for its DVD release, probably to better fit into 60-minute educational television time-slots) begins with an unexpected event that turns into a horrible situation that then delivers an outcome that is not only tragic but smacks of unnecessary -- and discriminatory -- actions.

Rothmiller (shown at left) and his "star" Charlene Strong -- one of the two women involved in the situation that begins the film, and who, by the end of it, certainly deserves that appellation -- recreate the event skillfully with a combination of remembered verisimilitude and pick-up photography.  By the end of their recreation, we're aghast, angry and ready to go to battle, just as Charlene does, for marriage equality in her home state of Washington. We follow this woman in her learning curve, as she takes her own awful situation, meets with and learns to educate not just the populace but perhaps some of state's politicians -- a few of whom are themselves gay or lesbian -- and allows her-and-her-partner's tragedy to make her home state into a place closer to real equality.

Though short by most documentary standards, the film occasionally repeats itself: Washington's smart and sympathic governor Chris Gregoire, above, tells us what we've already heard twice or more -- although she does mention a telling bit about a credit card that's both new and nastily appropriate. Probably the most interesting portion of the film is devoted to the debate on the floor of state senate, where we hear some marvelous (and some stupid) things said about the subject of marriage equality.  The opposition, as is its wont, brings up bestiality and necrophilia -- and is promptly told to keep to the subject at hand, please.

Most moving and important, perhaps, is the testimony of Democratic state senator Rosa Franklin, above, who tells us how she has seen the complexion of this Senate change so noticeably over the decades. She speaks of her own marriage and how she even supported DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) -- and yet she cannot abide something as unfair and unequal as what has happened to Charlene. The back-and-forth speeches, pro and con, wonderfully capture American government at work for its people. All of them.

In the second half of the film we see how GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) trains Charlene -- and how she proves such a splendid spokesperson for the cause of our equality. We visit other couples (or the partner who remains) that demonstrate quite well how, without the right to marry, there is simply no legal next-of-kin relationship. Later, Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry talks about the actual vocabulary of marriage -- love, contentment, sacrifice, respect -- and how important having all this is to gays and lesbians.  Well, he left out a few other words like acrimony, separation and divorce.  And since the divorce rate still hovers around 50 per cent in the country, it might occasionally be worth noting the down side.

Yet that's not the point.  Real equality would give the GLBT population the chance to screw up, too. And, as the GLAAD rep explains: "When dealing the the media, you've got to stay on-point." (Like a good Republican?) Toward the end of the film, no less than Gloria Steinem reminds us how much all social justice movements have in common.  Then she gives Charlene (shown above, and on poster at top) some good advice: "Follow an intelligent progression."  It appears that Charlene has done just that.  Becoming an activist for social justice seems a very good fit for her -- just as For My Wife is a fitting and active memorial for her late partner, Kate Fleming.

The documentary, from the invaluable Cinema Libre Studio, hits the street this Tuesday, August 31, available for sale or rental

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Not the most among movies: Mark Young's family/faith-based THE LEAST AMONG YOU

OK: Let's say right up front that TrustMovies, given his rabidly anti-relgious stance, might not be the most welcoming reviewer for a faith-based movie that proclaims its family-approved status on the cover of the DVD box. Check. But since the PR people handling the film asked if he would like to cover it, TM promptly said yes and, when the DVD arrived, sat down in front of his TV to view it. "It" being THE LEAST AMONG YOU (the title is taken from one of Jesus' admonitions, via Luke's gospel, that "whosoever is the least among you, he is also the greatest."  (TM knows his bible, somewhat, as he had a rather heavy-duty religious upbringing.)

"Least" turns out to be a relatively painless 97 minutes of pablum in which -- surprise! -- faith conquers all. "Inspired" as the descriptive press material explains, by a true story, the film is set in mid-1960s Los Angeles and begins with the Watts riots, as our hero Richard (played well enough by Cedric Sanders, shown above, left, with Cory Hardrict), falsely arrested, must then (in one of several rather convenient complications) give up his new job and instead serve probation at an all-white seminary.  This religious school has a President -- played with his usual simplicity and skill (and a believable combination of genuineness and control) by William Devane, shown below -- who intends to use this new young student to help integrate the school.

At the seminary, Richard makes friends (and enemies) of the students, faculty and staff -- among them, Lou Gossett, Jr. (shown below), as the smart, kindly gardener who becomes the boy's surrogate father figure and all-round good-guy helper.

As written and directed by first-timer Mark Young (shown at right), the movie covers everything from the ghetto (bad family life, drugs and crime) to the religious school  (racist, white-bread kids) with a been-there/seen-that flatness that is easy to understand and digest but offers little originality or surprise.  A bit of the latter is provided by Lauren Holly, playing the school's chain-smoking, tippling teacher, who's lived in Africa, has some heavy-duty problems and does not take an immediate liking to the Sanders character. (This interesting actress has a lovely moment -- shown below -- on a rooftop late in the movie, as she explains what it was that god "told" her. )

Much that we see and hear, however, is laid out before us, as though from a textbook -- which is a pretty good description of the movie itself. Some of the more interesting scenes -- they have at least immediacy and action -- occur between Sanders and his classmates (one of these is shown at bottom), as he defends himself or attempts to persuade them of the good of integration and how it might fit in with their religious teaching. A later scene or two with Devane, as the not-quite-so pristine President attempts to back pedal, also registers with some force.

But the scenes between Sanders and Gossett are heavy-handed, and sometimes plain ignorant. Gossett's little sermon regarding the mistake Sanders made in punching out his father registered as utter BS to this particular viewer. (That father, shown in the flashback above, had a history of stealing money from his wife and beating bloody his own child. So, sure: Deck him, for Christ's sake.) Further, a last-minute "saving" of our hero from the bad guys is simply ridiculous: far too convenient and coincidental.  Buy this, and they'll be after you to buy that bridge in Brooklyn.

The Least Among You -- distributed by Lionsgate, it's out this week on DVD, available now for purchase or rental -- proclaims a sentimental faith, though perhaps that's what all faith is, if it must finally be found in the unknowable (or the self-created). The movie pushes this at the expense of reason, intelligence and choice, but if that's your cup of kool-aid, go for it.

CZECH PEACE, from the duo who gave us Czech Dream, debuts at Traverse City Fest

TrustMovies is breaking one of his almost cardinal rules (call it a bishop rule) by reviewing a new documentary that recently made its American debut at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival but might never be seen in this country again. As the film is very good -- and very important -- TM wants to beat the drum a bit and maybe get some further interest going.

A few years back a pair of Czech filmmakers Vít Klusák (below, left) and Filip Remunda (below, right) made a funny and fascinating documentary called Czech Dream (my GreenCine review of it appears here). This concerned a hoax perpetrated upon the poor (in spirit and intelligence, among other things) Czech consumers, informing them of the grand opening of an important new store that never did or would exist.  How this happens, why, and what everyone involved made of it, is the subject of the film -- which skewers consumerism, capitalism and a number of other "isms" along the way.

The duo's new documentary CZECH PEACE (ČESKÝ MÍR) stars George W. Bush and Barak Obama, among others (Condoleezza Rice has a walk-on or two) and tells the apparently true story of how the American government wants to locate a radar base, manned by American military, on Czech soil. While the "radar" capabilities turn out to be nearly as fake as the fabulous new consumer store of the earlier documentary, the base itself is all too real, and Czech citizens (70% percent or more of them) resolutely oppose its location on Czech soil, as everything from street demonstrations to town meetings (that's the mayor -- center right, below -- of a small town located near the base) to government sponsored programs (Let-us-teach-you-how-wonder-
ful-this-base-will-be-for-the-Czech-Republic) make perfectly clear.

The Czech government, you see, is as every bit behind the whole program as is the American government -- despite the opinions and wishes of the vast majority of its own citizens.  As the protests build ("A foreign army has no business being in a sovereign country," notes one fellow with intelligent certainty), we meet many of the principals involved, and also see some of the other side -- Czechs who want the base on Czech soil.

This is where the movie comes closest to problematic, as Klusák and Remunda show us much less of these people than they do the anti-base groups. Further, they choose what looks like the town drunk (above) to lead off the "pro" display. Still, with finally only 30 percent of the population "for" or "undecided," they seem to have weighted their movie in similar -- or close to it -- fashion.

One Czech government official even writes (or maybe she adapts) a popular song (performed above in,  I think, an ironic fashion) to celebrate this wonderful Czech/American connection (another example of which is shown below). Some scenes shot in the US may remind you -- visually, not verbally -- of In the Loop.  Soon we see the most peaceable-looking and sounding American military commander possible, and later we watch a well-endowed toy soldier (below) masturbate atop the miniature White House, and a live bird sit in (and shit in) on one of those Czech-government-sponsored "educational" pro-radar-base meetings.

A "green" group of protesters declares the radar area as "Peaceland," a state separate from the Czech Republic.  When one of these greens refuses to leave, Czech soldiers evict him. Later we learn that the whole radar thing is unworkable. Yet when Obama makes a visit here, he seems to indicate that the base itself will remain. Later he seem to indicate otherwise.  Government "indication," whether Czech or American, consistently trumps plain-speaking, truth and reality.  

By the end of Czech Peace--a movie that seems absolutely all over the place and yet never leaves its subject matter for a moment--we are left to marvel (that's not quite the right word) at how small countries are forever co-opted by large, and governments exist to trash even the most reasonable will of their people. We learn how some Czechs, just as some Americans, consistently elect and follow politicians who clearly do not have the best interests of those people in mind or heart.

From its opening moments (after a bit of scenery, the movie begins with a Czech newscast of maybe five or six years past, in which the radar project is officially announced) to its conclusion (which I'll let you discover -- and I hope you finally get the opportunity, should this film have some sort of U.S. release), Czech Peace covers several full years. During this time we see some very ugly and dangerous barbed wire placed around the "radar" base, even as elected Czech government officials leave office and then go to work for the very lobbyists and/or companies with which they were doing business, or move on to cushy job in the media -- which in Eastern Euope seems to serve a similar function as does media here in America.

Klusák and Remunda have given us a thoroughly depressing look at our world, even if the look is almost consistently filled with very funny moments that skewer the hypocrisy and denial of everyone from Presidents downward (or maybe I should say "upward," given the sleaze quotient displayed by both Bush and Obama).  I hope you'll have the chance to view this documentary treat. For myself, as soon as I post, I will try to Google any late-breaking information on that American military base in the Czech Republic -- which I should think might prove an interesting topic for WikiLeaks....

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sibling sex: DANIEL & ANA from Michel Franco, makes NYC debut at Quad Cinema

Breaking a taboo is one thing. Being forced to break it -- at gunpoint with your and your family's lives threatened --  is quite another, the result of which we see played out in DANIEL & ANA, the Cannes' Directors Fortnight selection now making its theatrical debut. Written and directed by Michel Franco (shown below: a Mexican movie-maker whose first full-length film this is) this short work (only 90 minutes including rather lengthy end credits) is disturbing, all right. How could it not be, given the central event, which is, we are told, based on a true story in which only the names have been changed?

Mexico, certainly one of the kidnap capitals of the world, plays host to this story and its lead characters: the contented and close-knit brother and sister of the title.  Daniel's a high school student, on the cusp of young manhood, while Ana is several years older and about to be married.  Their family is part of Mexico's haute bourgeiosie -- those "haves" who have the most -- and Ana is about to marry into more of the same. Señor Franco lays all this out non-judgmentally. In fact, the siblings' kidnappers, shown below, don't look too shabby, either, and so the rather enormous "class differences" we often see and hear about in Mexico are certainly not being hammered home in undue fashion. What happens here is all just "business," dontcha know.

TrustMovies apologizes for giving away more of the plot than he usually profers. All of the above, in any case, is on view within the first 20 minutes. And while the signal event of the film is certainly vital, how the characters react to it -- and why -- is key to our coming to terms with the movie. It's here that Franco stumbles rather severely.

The filmmaker allows us to watch the entire sex scene, which is handled about as chastely as possible, considering the nature of the "crime."  (Perhaps a little too chastely, where our pivotal view of Daniel is concerned.)   You won't accuse Franco of pandering, necessarily, but then you wait -- post-sex, and then post-release of the victims -- for that all-important scene of their pair's first connection/conversation after the fact.  It never happens.  So very much would spring from the way in which the older of the two handles (or is unable to handle) her younger brother in this terribly fraught time that the audience deserves to be a part of this. But Franco, being I guess a very untutored filmmaker, doesn't bother with this pivotal scene at all.

Sure, we see later reactions -- from the siblings, her fiancé, his girlfriend, their parents -- but everything from here on in, even a surprise or two, seems a little too rote because the most important moments in the movie have been left out. (Even if no communication happened immediately post-release, we need to see that in order to better understand.)

The performances are as good as the script and direction allow. Marimar Vega (shown above, with Chema Torre, who plays her soon-to-be husband) exhibits poise and the necessary maturity to handle not only the event itself, but its terrible follow-up, while Darío Yazbek Bernal (shown below, who is Gabriel Garcia's half-brother), bearing more than a passing resemblance to a younger James Franco, is a basket case of depession and fear as the younger participant who cannot get out from under his guilt. (Does he realize that what happened might be, on some level, exactly what he wanted?)

There are other problems with the film. The music, with its beautiful, dirge-like score, begins to be quite unhelpful -- used, as it is, in place of more fitting dialog or better visuals in order to up the movie's sadness quotient. Someone must have realized that this was not working properly, however, because after the first few uses, music pretty much disappears for the remainder of the film.

I can't write off the movie completely, though. There is enough strength in the situation and performances to make it worth the time of anyone who has in any way been connected to this vile experience or who is concerned with the sale of forced pornography (the end title cards give some information on this), or for therapists who may end up treating those who've been involved in this kind of situation.

Daniel & Ana, from Strand Releasing, opens Friday, August 27, at New York City's Quad Cinema.