Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sandra Oh and Anne Heche enliven Onur Tukel's dark and bleakly funny CATFIGHT

Looking for a nasty, funny, guilty pleasure that also offers a social/political edge? Such a thing arrives this Friday, March 3, as CATFIGHT opens in ten cities across the USA. Written and directed by Onur Tukel (Summer of Blood, Applesauce), the movie is an allegory for a number of things: the way we live now, our predilection toward violence as problem-solving, the uses of art and politics, political/ environmental correctness, the snares endemic to success, and our nation's (hell, most of the western world's) inability to place the important stuff -- environment, sheer survival -- ahead of our need to be entertained.

This is a lot to pack in, and it must be said that Mr. Tukel, shown at left, packs it pretty heavy-handedly. (Witness the "news" program we see on TV throughout, in which immensely important topics are consistently interrupted by a farting clown, to the utter delight of the audience. It's Fox News meets Duck Dynasty meets Captain Kangaroo.) On the other hand, given Turkel's subjects and the behavior of his leading characters, that heavy hand often seems pretty appropriate. This movie is a smack-down in so many ways.

As its stars, Catfight is lucky to have two actresses willing and able to go "all the way": Sandra Oh, (above), who is a revelation here, and Anne Heche (below), who seems to grow farther and farther afield from the beautifully angelic delight she played in one of her early films, the sweetly loony Pie in the Sky. Both actresses are impressive here, but Oh proves, oh, so rich and deep, as her character goes through one transformation after another. Heche, on the other hand, is fairly two-note, but she does take bitchy nastiness to shocking new heights.

If you imagine the the titular catfight comes at the film's climax, or that we wait for it eagerly and with baited breath, think again. The fight -- and it's a knock-down, drag-out bloody wonder -- happens very early on, in fact, and then occurs again and again throughout. Hence that theme of aggression as the problem-solver. The tale takes its two characters -- the wealthy wife of a successful businessman (Oh) and struggling artist (Heche) cared for by her significant other -- and, due to the results of these several fights, has them switch places in terms of success/wealth.

Yes, this is a rather obvious plot contraption, but Tukel rings enough changes on it that we easily follow along. In the role of Heche's significant other is Alicia Silverstone (below), who, via her funny/creepy character, provides some sharp, humorous digs at the politically and environmentally correct set, as well as those folk who go gaga as the birth of a baby approaches.

What happens -- the twists, turns and reverses -- all seem to lead to the same outcome and conclusion: Human beings are in such denial, are so fucking hypocritical, and can only seem to use violence to solve problems that, hey, let's admit it: We're lost. But, yes, like the audience for that farting clown, we'll go down laughing, while enjoying ourselves immensely. If stupidly and irrevocably.

Catfight -- from MPI Media Group/Dark Sky Films and running 96 minutes -- opens Friday, March 3, in New York (Cinema Village), Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Noho 7), Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Seattle, Orlando, Phoenix, Denver and Kansas City (while simultaneously streaming via all digital platforms). 

Monday, February 27, 2017

The long road -- some of it, anyway -- to marriage equality, as documented in Eddie Rosenstein's THE FREEDOM TO MARRY

TrustMovies was going to begin his review of this new documentary by stating that gays and lesbians coming of age now and in the years to come may all too easily take for granted the right to marry whom they choose, without being fully aware of the long and arduous fight for marriage equality for the GLBT set. But now that Donald Trump, together with the vile Republican establishment, has taken control of our country, I wonder if anyone can count on much of anything anymore -- from gay rights and black lives mattering to health care, Medicare or Social Security, not to mention the environment, climate change and any kind of productive life as we've so far known or lived it.

Consequently and in light of current events, watching this not uninteresting but a bit too rah-rah documentary titled THE FREEDOM TO MARRY, directed by Eddie Rosenstein (pictured at right) and detailing the work of several of the more important personalities that finally helped bring gay and lesbian marriage into the realm of the legal and pretty much mainstream, becomes a pleasant enough but decidedly mixed-emotions experience.

Rosenstein concentrates especially on the work of Evan Wolfson (center, left, below), who is certainly one hero of this challenging endeavor. We learn something of Wolfson's history, his very supportive family, why he chose this particular fight and especially how he goes about planning to wage it.

We also meet and spend some time with lawyer and activist Mary Bonauto (center right, above), who teams with Wolfson and eventually argues the case for marriage equality before our Supreme Court. The third party involved, about whom we learn a good deal, is Marc Solomon (below, left), whose work and support also becomes game-changing.

The documentary begins some years prior to the Supreme Court decision and then works its way up to that climactic point. Along the way we hear a good deal from the voices against GLBT marriage equality, and this may put some viewers in mind of the recent movie, Loving, which detailed the fight for inter-racial marriage -- with those against that now-entrenched right parroting the same bigoted, faux-religious nonsense about how god is against it, so allowing it will be the destruction of the nation. (Look to crooked, cowardly, foolish and fraudulent Mr. Trump and his "Republicans" to bring us that.)

In the months leading up to the Supreme Court decision, we get California's infamous Proposition 8. Notes one activist, "We were making all this progress, then all of a sudden it was like we made a U-turn." We also learn why Texas was such an important state in the push for gay rights. After about an hour, we're at the SCOTUS moment, after which the movie begins to seem just a bit dragged out in order to bring its running time to a near 90 minutes.

We do get to see a bit of the Deboer-Rowse wedding (above) -- the pair was one of the couples whose cases the court heard -- and it's a joyous and appropriate event to help bring the documentary to a close.

From Eyepop Productions, Ro*Co Films and Argot Pictures, The Freedom to Marry opens this Friday, March 3, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and next Friday, March 10, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here.

Dark comedy: Ferne Pearlstein's documentary THE LAST LAUGH examines the limits of joking

What are the boundaries of "good taste" when it comes to making jokes? Are there any subjects absolutely "off limits"? What about he Holocaust? Or AIDS? Maybe child molestation? Death? Disease? 9/11? Religion? And, of course, the use of the word "nigger." Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein (shown below) wants to know. So to that end she and her co-writer, Robert Edwards, have queried a bunch of famous comics to learn what they have to say on this subject. The result is alternately hilarious and haunting.

The latter comes via Pearlstein's movie's through-line, provided by Holocaust/Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone (below), who, at one point along the way, grows angry and frustrated at herself for her memory lapse. "Why can't I remember?!" she wonders, and is then reminded by another survivor that, regarding the concentration camps, "People who felt too much didn't make it."

Moments like this one dot the documentary, with Ms Firestone appearing off and on throughout, along with comedians such as Mel Brooks (below, using a pocket comb in one direction as Hitler, and in another to provide a look at Joe Stalin).

Also to be seen are Sarah Silverman (below), Gilbert Gottfried (in the penultimate photo) and a bunch more -- each of whom has something perceptive, funny and/or surprising to say on the subject of just how far one can or should go in the tickling-of-the-funny-bone department.

The movie keeps threatening to be all over the place, what with the back and forth between the comedians and survivor Firestone, yet it manages to stay pretty much on track and, in any case, there are enough good jokes scattered throughout to keep us entertained in between the jolts that are also provided.

To go into much further detail would only spoil some of the humor and/or surprise, The film is thought-provoking, as well as entertaining -- with a bunch of good laughs, and some that are maybe questionable. But are still pretty funny.

From The Film Collaborative and running 88 minutes, The Last Laugh opens this Friday, March 3, in NewYork City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and on Thursday, March 16, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts, and on March 17 at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 and Town Center 5. A national rollout will soon follow.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

DVDebut of John Erman/David Rintels' rarely-seen 1990's TV-movie, THE LAST BEST YEAR

The recent death of television legend Mary Tyler Moore might spark renewed interest in a better-than-average TV-movie from 1990 entitled THE LAST BEST YEAR, in which Ms Moore co-stars with another fine actress, the still very much with us (see Mozart in the JungleBernadette Peters. In fact, Ms Peters gives one of her very best performances in the film, and her remarkable work alone is reason enough to seek out this little film. The story is one of a smart, pretty young woman named Jane (Peters), who holds a high-level job at a large travel agency (of the sort that existed prior to the rise of the internet) and is having a pleasant affair with a married man. Quite soon, however, she is given a medical diagnosis of terminal cancer.

We first see Jane during an assignation with her lover in London, and the movie's intelligent and economical script, written by TV veteran David W. Rintels (below) captures circumstance and character quite deftly. As directed by another television vet, John Erman (shown at right), the film bears Erman's hallmark of smart casting coupled to the ability to draw excellent, realistic performances out of entire ensembles. That is the case here, too. If it is Ms Peters who shines brightest, literally everyone in the movie glows, as well. This includes the likes of Carmen Matthews as Jane' great aunt, Dorothy McGuire
as the mother of Moore's character, Michael Hogan as the husband, Brian Bedford as Jane's medical doctor, and of course Moore herself (shown at left on poster, top, and below). Generally a reactive actress, off whom bounced the humor of the actors around her -- from Dick van Dyke to the cast of the even more famous Mary Tyler Moore Show -- here Moore plays the therapist whom Jane's medical doctor recommends to help see his patient through this very difficult time. The relationship that develops between the two women, as well as between Jane and a few of the people around her, constitutes the meat of this thoughtful, moving film.

The importance of friendship is the theme of the movie, and it is brought to life pretty damned well, with a few laughs, but mostly via involvement with Jane as a character who grows and changes, thanks to the friendship of those around her. My spouse declared the film "phony-baloney: an insult to anyone dying or living," but I couldn't disagree more.

While The Last Best Year bears the style of the TV-movie (sentimental and tear-jerking) it is done with enough skill to offset that genre stamp. It also places friendship above romantic love and/or sexuality, so in that regard it is anything but TV-movie-ish. It is full of the sort of kindness in very short supply in these Trumpish times, and for this alone, it's worth a watch. Then there is Ms Peters, whose vulnerability and sweetness has seldom been put to better use. Jane is a smart cookie -- the one scene in the travel agency involving a tour group that wants to cancel its contract makes this oh-so-clear -- but she is even more a needy one, and Peters brings you completely into her corner without ever begging for love or pushing too heavily. Jane never loses her hard-won dignity.

Another lesser-known-but-worth-discovering treat released via Olive Films, the movie -- running 96 minutes and in the old-time 1.33:1 movie and TV aspect ratio -- hit the street this past Tuesday, February 21, and is definitely worth catching up with if you've never seen it, and probably worth watching again, after all these years, if you have. The transfer, although nothing like Blu-ray quality, is still quite good. You can order your copy by clicking here. So far The Last Best Year does not seem to be available for rental via Netflix or Amazon, but perhaps that will soon change, once renewed word-of-mouth starts to build.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Blu-ray debut: PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO--Republic Pictures' penultimate serial is back

1955 must have been a troubling year for movie studios, what with television siphoning off so much of their audience. That was the year that Republic Picturesthe big little studio specializing in B movies, westerns and serials, released one in the last category that TrustMovies -- who was something of a serial fan when he was young -- had never heard of until now. TM was already fourteen at the time of PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO's release, however, so his serial days were long over. Viewing this twelve-part, 168-minute adventure today, makes for mostly a low camp experience: fun for a little while, but soon more of an effort-making bore than anything else.

Panther Girl begins with the scene of an attractive young woman riding an elephant, as a lion looks on. Before you can say crappy-old-fashioned-special-effects, she and her little band of back-lot African natives are confronted with a huge and monstrous crustacean -- on land, in the jungle? Notes our heroine, "This beast does look like an overgrown crawfish." Yes, it does, because, yes, it is -- thanks to the chemical engineering of the serial's leading villain who wants to get his hands on the diamonds in this "Kongo," and so uses his newly minted monster to scare off the local natives.

The initial episode ends with Panther Girl in the clutches of the monster's giant claw (above), and on we go. So far so funny. But things begin to go downhill fast. Trying to binge-watch one of these old-time serials is probably not a good idea because each new episode -- the first lasts around 20 minutes, the following eleven are 13-14 minutes -- begins with the same credits roll plus a recap of the preceding episode, which quickly bores the hell out of you.  It may help if you try to remember that these serials were made for Saturday afternoon youth audiences, the average age of which was probably between five and eight years old. (Since this dovetails with the intelligence level of the average American Trump voter, these old serials may be in for a comeback!)

In any case, almost every one of the episodes features a good-old-fashioned fist fight, almost always between the same three people: Panther Girl's male co-star (Myron Healey) and the serial's two villainous henchmen. These go from fun to funny to tiresome fairly quickly. Meanwhile our heroine is menaced by everything from that earlier lion to the crayfish monster to naughty natives and a man in a monkey suit, above. (It's a virtual Perils of Pauline in jungle setting.)

The trick photography is pretty awful, not nearly as good as that in those early dinosaur movies, in which gussied-up lizards took the roles of the dinos. This poor crayfish hardly seems capable of moving even as fast as the old-fashioned Mummy, let alone doing much damage to anyone or anything.

The dialog is never more than standard boilerplate that shoves the predictable plot from one scene into the next, and the repetition is appalling and monotonous (but remember that we kids had to wait a full week to see the next installment, so for us, back then, there was at least a modicum of suspense generated). Actress Phyllis Coates (the earliest of TV Superman's Lois Lanes) does a creditable job as Panther Girl, while the supporting actors all contribute bread-and-butter jobs as either the good guys or bad.

Released to DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films, the serial hit the street this past Tuesday, February 21. A word must be said about the Blu-ray transfer here, which is simply impeccable: as sharp and clear as if it were filmed yesterday. (Don't judge by some of the photos above, which were all I could find on the internet to use for now.) This excellent transfer made me dearly wish that certain much-better old movies I've recently viewed on Blu-ray could have emerged looking half as good as does this silly serial.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

At NYC's AFA, GIMME SHELTER: HOLLYWOOD NORTH offers a few choice Canadian canapés

We don't expect to see movies that fit the term "blockbuster" coming out of Canada. The current and surprisingly popular/divisive Arrival might be the closest thing to a huge mainstream success to come from our northern neighbor in quite some time, yet it's the movie quiet intelligence and ability to draw us into its philosophical/spiritual dimension that proves its most effective weapon. Instead, Canada has long been noted for its smaller films, either art or genre items, many of which were subsidized from the 1960s through the 1980s first by the state-run Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) and later by the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA) -- the former paid for via tax-payers, the latter by tax-sheltered investments.

The results were iffy, as is usually the case with any programs like these, and a dozen of the films out of the many produced over two decades can be seen in New York City in the current Anthology Film Archives series, GIMME SHELTER: HOLLYWOOD NORTH -- beginning tomorrow, February 24, and running through March 8. On view is everything from Louis Malle's generally-acclaimed-a-classic Atlantic City and Canadian genre king Bob Clark's (Porkys and Black Christmas, the latter of which is part of this round-up) to Claude Chabrol's under-seen (and rightly so) BLOOD RELATIVES, his first film in the English language and very probably his worst, as well.

Because TrustMovies will take Chabrol's work over that of many other filmmakers, this is the film he chose to watch, having seen most of the others already. In addition to Atlantic City, the series features what may be the very best of David Cronenberg's dark and bizarre oeuvre, The Brood, as well as some pretty good genre movies like the youth-quake Class of 1984, the sort-of mystery The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and the early what-to-do-about-cults movie, Ticket to Heaven.

As for that Chabrol, Blood Relatives -- adapted from an Ed McBain novel by the filmmaker and Sydney Banks -- probably ought to have been made in French rather than English. Chabrol is said to have thought English worked better because McBain had written the original in that language, But the dialog is often stilted and always so prosaic that is is soon clear that Chabrol had little facility for working in English.

It is clear almost from the first scene what is going on and just who the murderer might be, so we spend the rest of the film catching up with what we already know/suspect. Along the way, we get some nice cameos from the likes of Donald Pleasance and David Hemmings, though that fine French actress Stéphane Audran (above, center right, and Mme Chabrol, for a time) is utterly wasted here.

The theme of the movie would appear to be the varied uses of sexuality and lust -- from pedophilia to near-incest to age-inappropriate couplings, but the filmmaker's usual interest in the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie seem somewhat misplaced here. as there is no real depth to anything or anyone. Both theme and character seem paper-thin. Though never what you would call a master of the visual, Chabrol's work here seems unusually drab.

The police-procedural plot has to do with the murder of a teenage girl, with the investigation probing her somewhat odd family life and her workplace. The first half of the movie couples event with investigation; the second half, once the murder victim's diary is discovered, is told mostly in flashbacks pushing us toward the big "event."

In the leading role of the investing policeman, Donald Sutherland (above and above) hovers and is one-note, while the remaining performers range from alert to hardly memorable. Though first released in 1978, Blood Relatives didn't make it to the USA -- and then only barely -- until 1981. You'll understand why when you see the film.

To view the entire schedule for AFA's Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North, click here and then scroll down to click on each individual film for details.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

PARAGUAY REMEMBERED: Dominique Dubosc's poetic, moving memory piece about South American politics, love, art, torture and death

A moviemaker (Dominique Dubosc, shown above) returns, after 40 years, to the Paraguayan city -- Asunción -- in which he spent what turns out to be a most important and formative time, and the result is PARAGUAY REMEMBERED (Memoria desmemoriada) one of the more beautiful, poetic, sad and moving chronicles to time past, love lost and history's most enduring struggle. That struggle is first seen early on, as our filmmaker visits an art show in the city, MalaVision, in which he views a group of haunted/haunting photographs and notices, as he tells us, "a naive painting meant to represent the guerilla that the rich see everywhere -- like they did Communism." What volumes that small sentence speaks to the unending battle here in the USA, in South America, everywhere, between progressive forces and entrenched wealth/power.

M. Dubosc's lovely, moving and quietly angry documentary is getting a very necessary run at New York's Anthology Film Archives this week (co-presented by Cinema Tropical), beginning Friday, February 24 -- click here to view screening dates times -- along with other of his work. Seeing this 89 minute documentary makes me wonder why the filmmaker is not better known. Forty years ago General Alfredo Stroessner was in power in Paraguay, and the little country was experiencing similar horrors to those we may know more about that occurred under military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. Dubosc managed to emerge from Paraguay with life and limb intact, but, clearly, what happened there to him, his friends, co-workers and in particular a paramour, have left an indelible mark on the man.

Written with exquisite attention to detail, meaning and even cadence, the movie's narration is poetic and beautiful, and spoken in French, which is certainly among if not the world's most beautiful language. When, midway, the movie 's narration changes to Spanish via another voice, the result seems jarring. Featuring mostly black-and-white cinematography which is often breath-taking in its composition, as well as its lights, darks and glorious greys, the movie is a visual treat. (The oddly inserted and only very occasional color photography simply underscores how much better is that elegant black and white.)

We hear about Stroessner and see one of the airplanes used to toss into the sea the sleeping bodies of literally thousands between the years of 1976 and 1983 -- carried out, as Dubosc tells us, "in the name of Western, Christian, neo-liberal civilization." We meet and view his friend, Hernan, below, and learn via a charming anecdote how the man became a successful sculptor.

So have things gotten better in present-day Paraguay? This looks questionable, as we see a more recent and quite violent expulsion of landless peasants.  All this is a very personal look at everything from Paraguay's politics and history to anecdotal evidence, along with archival photos coupled to present-day narration and cinematography.

When Dubosc first came to this country, it was to make a film about a typical peasant/farmer family and its experiences. Finally, toward the end of Paraguay Remembered, we watch that family now as they and their offspring view that old documentary, and smile, sometimes laugh at what they see. We see parts of that film, too, even as we also learn that the current family of General Stroessner is pushing to have the man's ashes returned to the country for a commemoration complete with political speeches. Hmmm...

We also learn that a certain U.S. President, Lord of the Drones, met with Paraguay's then-President, and all was well. Hmmm, again. Finally, we get a tiny history of the relationship between Dubosc and the woman he loved and cared about while in Paraguay, and whom he betrayed, at least emotionally, if not perhaps in other ways. This is a memorable, intriguing, unsettling documentary: part memory piece, part guilt trip, part poetry -- all of it unusual and special. Click here for further information on AFA and all screening dates and times. (The filmmaker himself will appear in person on Friday, February 24, for the film's AFA premiere.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Dark-horse pick for Best Animated Feature: Claude Barras' MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Once in awhile, amidst the Oscar-nominated. blockbuster animation movies from the big studios, can be found a small, foreign gem. So it is again this year, with the nomination of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI, the Swiss film directed by Claude Barras, with a screenplay co-written by that wonderful French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. The unusual thing this year, regarding the nominations for Best Animated Feature Film, is that three of the five movies are of this smaller variety: what you might call animated "art" films.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a simply gorgeous, rapturous piece of animation, in which, unfortunately, the vivid style is undercut by the film's somewhat meagre and occasionally clichéd content. I have not seen the other smaller film, The Red Turtle, nor have I watched Disney's nod to feminism, Moana, but I found its Zootopia one of the wittiest and non-stop enjoyable mainstream animation endeavors I've yet viewed -- with a much-needed message about equality and opportunity to impart to this dreadful Trump time, as well.

But back to that Zucchini:  M. Barras' fine accomplishment (the filmmaker is shown above) in this little delight of claymation animation is to turn the usual clichés of the tale of the orphans' life on their head so that we see things in quite a different manner.  Instead of an uncaring bureaucracy that shovels those "wards of the state" into dreary, unpleasant circumstances, here it is the caretakers of the orphans who care the most -- from the head of the orphanage and its workers to the kindly policeman (below, right) who is the first responder on the scene of the accident that renders our little hero, known as Zucchini, an orphan.

Indeed, it is an actual blood relative of another of the orphans who proves the film's major villainess. Oliver Twist (in any of its many incarnations), this ain't. As seems more and more true with each passing year, the wonders that can be done with animated characters to make them emotionally galvanizing are put to amazing use here. Barras' claymation effects are alternately moving and quite funny -- and always richly rendered.

The story tacks our hero's life once his alcoholic mother dies and he is placed in the care of that orphanage, among a small group of children, each of whom is rendered with fine specificity and individuality. Zucchini himself (above) is a lovely creation, as is the young orphan girl, Camille (below, left), who soon joins the crew.

But is is the not-so-typical bully, Simon (below), who quietly and gently takes over as the most special and interesting character. Here, too, Barras and Sciamma upend the usual clichés to create a young boy who will move you beyond expectation.

Kindness and generosity seem in such short supply these days that My Life as a Zucchini immediately takes its place as an arbiter of what might occur, should government begin to wisely and kindly care for its citizens. As seen here, Switzerland seems like some sort of heaven. And the USA? Well, we can dream, can't we?

The movie, distributed by GKIDS in both its original French language with English subtitles and a new (and very good) dubbed-in-English version, runs just 67 minutes. It opens this Friday, February 24, in New York City and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and in Vancouver at the Vancity Theater. In the weeks to come it will hit cities all across the country. To view the many currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down.