Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: REBELLION -- 1916 Easter Rising and three little maids

from Easter 1916 
by W. B. Yeats

 All changed, 
changed utterly:
 A terrible beauty 
is born. 

On Easter Monday 1916 with World War I raging in Europe, about 1600 Irish rebels and followers staged a rebellion against British government rule: declaring independence, seizing a few buildings in Dublin (including the General Post Office, shown in an original photo below) and clashing with British troops. It was over in six days, a blip compared to the Great War, but its symbolic value raged on, wore on. Pegged to Easter, the Rising itself took on glory and martyrdom.

At the time Irish public opinion had been rather indifferent to revolutionary fervor, but as victors do, the British overplayed their hand in carrying out revenge executions and atrocities. Courts-martial were held in secret without offer of legal defense and leaders executed; one, James Connolly (original image of him, above, reclining on pallet), faced the firing squad tied to a chair with a shattered ankle. As the executions proceeded, public outrage grew. Even folk opposed to the Rising came to its defense, and desire for independence began to spread. 

Two years after the Rising in 1918, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republic Party, won a landslide victory, formed a breakaway government, and declared independence from Britain. A treaty established the Irish Free State in 1922; it became the modern day Republic of Ireland in 1949, including 26 Southern and Western counties. Six Northern counties remained with the UK (below).

Ireland is Britain's oldest colony, under its thumb in one form or another since the late 12th century. The eventual military defeat of Gaelic Ireland by Protestant minorities occurred in the 1600's (in Scotland, the British destroyed Gaelic and Highland clan culture in 1746). Conflict simmered on in Ireland between majority Catholics and minority Protestants who controlled the bulk of the Irish economy. In 1800 an official merger created the United Kingdom in which Ireland lost its parliament and became governed through representation in London. Irish nationalists fought in British Parliament for a home rule bill that they finally won in 1914 but which was then suspended when World War I broke out. Meanwhile a secret revolutionary group began planning the Easter Rising, hoping to use wartime confusion to advance Irish independence.

While the story of the Easter Rising is legend, its 2016 Centenary led the Irish network RTE to make REBELLION which debuted in the US on Sundance last Spring and is now available on Netflix. Reviewers have quarreled with its problems; I did too, but even flawed, it was absorbing and memorable. (It falls in the category of 'not terrific but I liked it anyway'. ) The issue for American viewers, if not its Irish audience, is the lack of context to anyone unfamiliar with the Rising: English rule over Ireland, and incessant religious conflict (no wonder our founders were so adamant about religious freedom). The dramatic problem was the rapid introduction of many characters and their stories, cutting among them early in the series at dizzying, off-putting pace. You can gauge writer Colin Teevan's imperatives: represent the points of view of rich, poor, English, Irish, rebel fighters, British army, with friends and family members falling on opposite sides. There simply was not enough time to assimilate all the story lines. The problem lessened as Teevan focused on the women chosen to represent the many who participated in the action but whose stories have been ignored in prior versions of the Rising.

To that end, the five-episode drama opens on the performance of "Three Little Maids from School Are We," the famous trio from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "The Mikado," itself a satire of British bureaucracy, racism, and misogyny. From there we follow the fictional paths of the 'three little maids' as their paths cross and diverge during the Rising. Elizabeth Butler (Charlie Murphy, center) is a medical student and rich banker's daughter; May Lacy (Sarah Greene, right) is an apolitical secretary to a British bureaucrat with whom she is having an affair, and Frances O'Flaherty (Ruth Bradley, left) is a passionate member of the rebellion (all three are also show at bottom of this post).

Elizabeth's prominent family includes her parents, played by Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Ian McElhinney (GoT and Rogue One), at left, the most famous cast members. Elizabeth (Ms Murphy, the compelling young actress of The Last Kingdom) spends the Rising dressed for her wedding which she cuts out from just as the fighting begins. Her Virgin-Mary look, white silk dress and powder blue coat, grows progressively disheveled as she, bloodied, tends to injured rebels. The groom she deserts is an Irish officer in the British army, ignorant of his fiance's increasing affinity for the rebel cause and distaste for upper class privilege. But he, too, while awaiting her at church, is ordered to report for duty to put down the rebellion, putting him on the opposite side of Elizabeth; she, meanwhile, has befriended Socialist rebel, Jimmy Mahon (Brian Gleeson, son of the ubiquitous Brendon Gleeson, shown below and in cover photo at the top), whose lot she throws in with.

May Lacy's affair with Charles Hammond (Tom Turner) is heating up as the battle engages; to protect her from the fighting, he sends her to his suburban home. There mistress May is put through the wringer by Hammond's abusive upper-class wife (Perdita Weeks, below, who is the younger sister of Honeysuckle, of Foyle's War).

Frances (below) meanwhile, a trained soldier involved with leadership, fully engages in fighting and killing, at which she is dogged and accomplished.

Trapped in the middle are the poor, especially the many children caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the British army. A ten year old member of the family below goes missing and is later found dead.

The Rising is put down as animals are put down. The British assembled 16,000 troops in a few days and obtained complete surrender from the ragtag remnants. The last episode is devoted to 'the Reckoning' experienced by our three heroines, as well as the suffering of others -- there would be no mercy. The only one who salvages anything is the pregnant May, who negotiates schooling and a promotion in exchange for giving up her baby to the childless Hammonds. Elizabeth and Frances remain alive, their prospects grim.

Mr. Teevan in effect has written a passion play in which the British reprise the Romans, martyring leaders and fueling a movement to come. The series works better with the passion play construct in mind rather than as straightforward narrative about a resistance movement. The dramatic weaknesses are dwarfed by the enormity of watching freedom and self-determination ground up by an authoritarian military power and there being no happy ending for any of the characters we've come to care about. Yet these events launched the actual rising of Irish independence which arrived not long after. As Yeats memorialized, 'a terrible beauty is born'.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

LEONARD COHEN: BIRD ON A WIRE, the 1972, never-in-theaters documentary from Tony Palmer, opens at NYC's Film Forum

Could there a more timely release of a fabled documentary from decades past that was never seen theatrically than this 1972 film about the 20-city European tour by the recently-deceased Leonard Cohen (who was only 37 at the time) and his talented crew of musicians? Beginning in Dublin and ending in Jerusalem, the tour, its highlights and discontents are all captured on the fly by documentarian Tony Palmer in a film that proves intimate, inclusive and full of Cohen's music -- which, heard like this and at this point in the artist's career (he had not yet given us Hallelujah, for instance), does register as sometimes repetitive and similar, one song to another. But his lyrics: Ah, these were and are as poetic. elusive and beautiful as ever.

Over the long haul, Cohen (below and further below) and his work proved about as "evergreen" as one could want, but back in the early 70s the artist was in his heyday, and his songs -- from Suzanne to Chelsea Hotel, So Long, Marianne to that title tune -- reflect the period so very well. Mr. Palmer (shown above) tells us at the beginning that his film is "an impression of what happened during the tour." From the outset, it is clear what a quietly commanding presence Cohen is. When an interviewer asks what success means for him," he answers quickly and succinctly, "survival."

Along the way we learn that the rights to Suzanne were stolen from the artist by a "friend," and we see a probably rather typical (but still surprising in its reality) near-hook-up between the artist and one of his fans (below) after a concert in (I think) Germany. "It's hard to come on to a girl in front of the camera," Cohen explains somewhat sheepishly.

The guy is very good at interviews -- even if he may dislike doing them (and even if the interviewer, as below, forgets to press RECORD) -- and he proves generally honest, direct and thoughtful. He calls himself a combo chansonnier, Euro singer and synagogue cantor, and at one point talks about how trying it can be to lose contact with a song's emotion due to the constant repetition of having to sing it at concerts. Later in the film we'll see this seemingly happen, with the result that Cohen simply stops performing, mid-show.

And while the guy seems willing enough to offer his audience its money back when the band's sound system goes haywire, he's not so hot to do the refund thing, after he's walked out mid-concert. Well, you can't always be a mensch, right?

Palmer's doc, with its unshowy, graceful style (the filmmaker both directed and edited), captures Cohen and his band, if not warts and all, certainly not in any hagiography-seeking sort of way.  We see Cohen, as well as his producer/band-mate Bob Johnston, taking showers; one band member casually confesses to actually nodding off during a concert; and Cohen himself can sound awfully silly sometimes.

"Loneliness," he tells us, "is a political act." Well, no, it's not an action, it's a passive state. And while his lyrics can be wonderfully artful and subtle, at least one of the songs we hear -- purportedly about Abraham and Issac -- is way too tub-thumpingly obvious.

Just like most of us, Cohen, too, could be occasionally full of shit. And as he himself admits during the course of several interviews we're privy to, he was not much of a singer, either. But there's just so much poetry and yearning and caring in those lyrics. And, boy, could the guy turn out some lovely tunes!

New York City's Film Forum will play Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire for two weeks, beginning this Wednesday, January 18. Elsewhere? One would hope so. I will try to do some digging -- and post the results as soon as I can discover them.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Peter Berg's PATRIOTS DAY is a (sort of) patriotic, suspenseful look at that infamous Boston Marathon

PATRIOTS DAY, which opens nationwide today, proves a pretty good example of what a docu-drama can accomplish when it is written with some flair, filmed smartly and acted well, This one, directed and co-written (with four other writers) by Peter Berg (shown below) takes us back a few years to the 2013 Boston Marathon and the sudden bombings that rendered the event what is now referred to -- as with every act of (so often) homegrown terrorism -- as a national "tragedy." I would call the recent and rigged election of Donald Trump far more tragic for America than any of these murderous events, but the dreadful results of this election on everyone except the wealthy are only beginning to unfurl.

As is his wont -- see Deepwater HorizonLone Survivor  or his early (and still best) film, Very Bad Things -- Mr. Berg does a busy, brawny job putting together the many pieces of his docu-drama. Patriots Day is filled with all kinds of characters, and those to be major to the movie are singled out early. Most of these are based on real people, and the film has been cast (with a single exception) exceedingly well, with faces and figures that seem for the most part quite reasonable and real. The cast here does not resemble the usual ultra-buffed-and-toned, perfect-teeth people from so many of those TV, cable and movie journeys into the supposedly "real."

The one exception, unfortunately, is the movie's star, Mark Wahlberg (above and below, center), who gives a perfectly OK, if occasionally heavy-handed performance as the Boston cop who holds the movie together and becomes its focal point. This character does not even exist in reality, so basing the movie around him seems much too easy a way to earn questionable emotions via short-cut storytelling. (That's Michelle Monaghan, two photos below and at bottom, who has the thankless role of the made-up wife of this made-up character.)

So many other of the real characters, shown here in both their acting counterparts and (at the finale) as themselves, are so vital and interesting, that I believe the movie could have succeeded even better by simply using them and leaving out Wahlberg's created-out-of-whole-cloth cop. As much as his many scenes might seem to help hold the film together, they're actually unnecessary and simply add foot-tapping time to the film's very long, two-hour and seven-minute length. Tightened up, it might have zipped by and still had its cumulative emotional effect.

The movie's most suspenseful scene involves the kidnapping/car-jacking of a young chinese immigrant, the results of which will keep on edge anyone who did not follow all the ins and out of this bombing scenario (and very probably even those who did). Unfortunately the scene ends with our heroic fellow telling the cops to "Get those motherfuckers!" Even if the guy actually uttered these by-now-uber-cliched words, here, they come off as mere fodder for the mainstream.

The finale, in addition to showing us the real people involved, also demonstrates how Boston came together in a way in which citizens helped each other through the crisis. It's good to be reminded of this, though the movie does bang its point home a bit hard. (That's a thinned-down John Goodman, above, center, as the police commissioner, and Kevin Bacon, below, as the FBI guy in charge of the case.)

Still, for the most part, Patriots Day does a good job as docu-drama, moving fast and steadily toward the initial incidents, and then showing us the police/FBI work that went into discovering the identities of the perpetrators. All this does bring up an interesting point about surveillance vis-a-vis privacy. In this case, having cameras everywhere in public places was able to bring the culprits to justice and makes its case for this kind of surveillance.

On the other hand, all the private phone-tapping and email-probing did little good in this instance (the government has evidently not been able to make a case against the older Tsarnaev brother's wife). The fight for privacy of all Americans in terms of their correspondence -- spoken and visual -- still matters.

From CBS Films, Patriots Day opens wide today, Friday, January 13. To find a theater near you, simply click here and then scroll down, type your zip code into the proper slot, and press ENTER.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

DANCER: Steven Cantor's documentary about ballet bombshell Sergei Polunin hits DVD

When DANCER arrived in theaters last fall, it was greeted with appreciation by audiences and generally good reviews -- with the exception of The New York Times, Village Voice and San Diego Reader, the first of which, unfortunately, still tends to call the shots where docs, foreign films and independents are concerned.  The negative feedback concentrated mostly on the fact that we see too little of Polunin's dancing and too much of his personal angst. His dancing is spectacular enough to warrant more of it, to be sure, but what we see often so stunning that we're open-mouthed and blown away. Boy, can this boy can move. And leap. He's got a great body and face, too. And, yes, a whole lots of problems regarding family and drugs and maybe ego and discipline, as well.

TrustMovies says "maybe" because the film, directed by Steven Cantor (shown left), for all its seeming entry into Polunin's personal life, ends up leaving us high and dry regarding almost anything that's really personal about Polunin. Is he straight or gay? Did/does he have any kind of relationship, other than to his family (a heavy-duty stage mother and a father who went absentee in order to earn the money spent on his son's training), along with a few seeming "friends" whom we learn even less about?

Our entry into this guy's personality is consistently prevented by the "facts" of his upbringing, training, performing and history as "the bad boy" of dance. Newspaper headlines must stand-in for "character." I suspect that Polunin, shown above and below, actually wants to keep his audience at bay. Well, that's his right.

Fortunately, what we see of him dancing is enough to peak our interest and hold it for the movie's mere 85 minutes -- the final fourth of which is spent on the now famous online video, directed by David LaChapelle, of Polunin performing to the song, Take Me to Church. (The video, a still from which is seen below, is impressive, all right, but it strikes me as not nearly so much so as some of the snippets of his dancing in the ballets we've seen earlier in the film.)

Dancer is especially impressive as a document of Polunin's growing up. His mom -- or someone -- managed to take some remarkable footage, as we see Polunin at ages 8, 9, 11, 13, 15 and onwards, as he learns first gymnastics and then ballet, and then becomes a the youngest principal ever (only 19!) at the London's Royal Ballet.

And then he gives it all up, with the reasons, while clearly stated and obvious, barely explored here. Well, his private life remains private. It's his dancing that counts. The movie is titled Dancer, after all, and that's what comes across most strongly. What a great dancer Polunin was, and still is. I hope he continues to perform.

From IFC Films, the DVD hits the street this coming Tuesday, January 17 -- for purchase and/or rental -- and includes the movie's trailer and some deleted scenes as Bonus Extras. While balletomanes will rightly kvell at what they see here, Polunin is sexy, charismatic and gorgeous enough to build a huge fan base from merely that, whether or not his career in ballet moves onwards.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Guillaume Gallienne's ME. MYSELF AND MUM returns to FIAF for its current comedy series

When the César-winning Best Film of the Year, ME. MYSELF AND MUM, first appeared at FIAF back in 2014, TrustMovies suggested a look-see at this stylish, funny and oddly ground-breaking-yet-cliched look at the perception of being gay in France today (or, at least, fairly recently). The multi-award-winning movie is back again this year as part of FIAF's  new CinéSalon series, Comedy on Film: What makes the French laugh?

If you did not take a gander at the film first time around (or if you did, you might just want to take another look), please do so, because it has probably aged well and may prove even better on repeated viewings. M. Gallienne (shown above), who not only directed the film and adapted it (with a couple of co-scribes) from his successful stage play, also stars in it, playing both himself (as everything from schoolboy, below, left, to adult, above) and his very bizarre mother (shown at bottom, left).

I covered the film at length when it made its FIAF debut three years ago, so I won't take up too much more space now (you can read that original review by clicking here). But what Gallienne accomplishes proves not just very funny but bracing and thought-provoking regarding how our perceptions, true or not, so often limit and/or change the lives of those around us.

Me, Myself and Mum (its much better French title is Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!) will play FIAF's CinéSalon this coming Tuesday, January 17, at both 4pm and 7:30, with pleasant conversation and free wine and beer after both screenings. To see about venue and/or ticket availability, click here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In Howell and Robinson's new "disappearing husband" movie, CLAIRE IN MOTION, the mystery is all about intimacy

Who are we? That's the question finally posed by the quiet-but-compelling little indie movie, CLAIRE IN MOTION, in which a mother and her young son try to come to terms with the sudden but continuing disappearance of dad. The movie has some of the earmarks of both a thriller and the "wronged wife" genres, but it won't take long before you realize that everything from its tone and pacing to its deepest concerns involve ideas that simply go contrary to other movies with plots at all similar to this.

Yes, there is a mystery here: What happened to husband Paul Hunger (surely the choice of last name here is intentional) after he goes into the woods for a few-days trip and is never seen again. Only his empty car is soon discovered. From the outset, writer/directors Annie J. Howell (shown at left) and Lisa Robinson (below) offer up an odd little "good morning" moment between husband and wife involving mention of a dream and something that's "never going to happen," and then hubby is off -- and gone.
The filmmakers keep their story small, honest and quite believable: the police do what they can but, for various reasons that make good enough sense, must finally stop their search. Mom, however (the titular Claire), can't let things go. From the outset, she seems disturbed -- and not simply because of the disappearance. Her memories dredge up moments that show us and finally her that she was not there for her husband in certain important ways. Of course, who of us is, some of the time, at least. Don't we all disappoint our spouses?

Still, what rankles Claire (a very composed and thoughtful performance from Betsy Brandt) goes deeper, and as the movie does, too, we're made aware of this woman's problems with intimacy. This shows up not only in her relationship with her husband (the little-seen but effective Chris Beetum), but also with her son, played with quiet, still-waters-run-deep control by Zev Haworth, shown below. And when a younger art student turns up (the wonderfully enigmatic Anna Margaret Hollyman) with whom Paul -- surreptitiously, as it turns out -- was working on a wildlife art project, offering what could be some help, Claire rebuffs her, too.

It's good to see a piece of American independent cinema that avoids easy melodrama in favor of a more thoughtful analysis of a quietly fraught situation. The movie treads a fine but consistent line between the mystery at hand (that disappearance) and the other, deeper mystery that involves character and motive.

Things do finally connect and evolve regarding both mysteries, though perhaps not firmly nor conclusively enough for some viewers. The movie held my attention perfectly well, however, and I was pleased with the minor but telling resolutions provided.

From Breaking Glass Pictures and running a just-right 74 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, January 13, in a dozen theaters across the country. In New York it will play the Cinema Village, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall, and here in the Miami area you can find it at the Cinema Paradiso. Elsewhere: Atlanta - Plaza Theater, Philadelphia - The Roxy Theater, Cleveland - Tower, City Cinemas, Denver - SIE Film Center, Chicago - Facets Cinema, San Francisco - The Roxie, Portland - Clinton Street Theater, Toronto - Kingsway Theater, and in Seattle (with the theater still pending). If you are not near any of these locations, the movie can be simultaneously seen via VOD.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Emiliano Rocha Minter's WE ARE THE FLESH further pushes the sex-and-violence envelope

Were it not for the use of the same time- and place-setting word -- twice -- in the press material describing this new movie from Mexican filmmaker Emiliano Rocha Minter, viewers like me might not be so easily taken in by WE ARE THE FLESH. God knows, the filmmaker himself never uses this highly descriptive phrase. He proves much too canny for that. He simply shows us a very grungy, dirty, crazy-looking enclosed space, then lets our imagination do the rest. Into this space an even crazier-looking man unloads his heavy cardboard burden and then begins preparing what might be the least appetizing meal ever captured on film.

Señor Rocha Minter, shown at right, would have us wondering "Where the hell are we?" And were it not for that all-purpose/oft-seen-and-heard phrase which we reviewers were sent and that quite dutifully and immediately fills in all the blanks, we might still be wondering. I will not use that phrase in my review and will hope that you don't get wind of it elsewhere, because it simply makes things way too easy. Despite its use, the filmmaker does provide some clues that indicate that something other may be happening. For instance, where in hell do those eggs come from? Wouldn't their continuing existence indicate chickens, too?

Into the environment of our weird but rather sexy little hermit (nice job by Noé Hernández, bearded above then post-corpse clean-shaven below) comes a pair of siblings who explain that they have been wandering the city for days and are very hungry. (The duo is played by María Evoli, at right, two photos below, and Diego Gamaliel, at left). Our oddball host feeds them and almost simultaneously begins feeding them a line of bullshit about all barriers having now been broken so we can give in to our darkest impulses, especially those involving sex or violence.

Before you can say incest, sis is sucking on bro and bro is fucking sis. And yes, this is all viewed hard-core style. (I did mention envelope-pushing in my headline, right?)  And, as our hermit watches all this while jacking off, we get a nice dose of double voyeurism, to boot.

Further, our host appears to have a heart attack while climaxing (the "little death" leads to the big one: shades of John Garfield!), but before long he is back again and weirder than ever, taking the threesome into murder, cannibalism and goodness knows what else.

The film's pivotal scene -- and maybe its best: it's as oddly moving as it is grizzly -- involves a military man, kidnapped and sacrificed for his blood and body. This leads to an orgy and the appearance of many more people than we've so far seen, and then to an ending that changes everything.

Rocha Minter's clever sleight-of-hand is the most impressive thing about the film. Though it is full of darkness and occasional bright shards of light (as below), it also offers some visual oddities like the major sex scene (done via rather needless and artsy posterization effect), plus a moment or two that capture our "heroine's" face in a singular manner (above), and unusual shots of a vagina and penis/scrotum, all at rest.

The orgy finale, which looks something like a particularly bad night at the old Studio 54, is followed by that game-changing denouement. And if this is not quite enough to lift We Are the Flesh into horny-porn greatness, it will at least leave those viewers who've stuck around for the duration a few things to mull over. And, yes, you could call this a "mixed review."

Being released in a dozen or so cities across the U.S. via Arrow Films -- unrated, I would images, due to its hard-core scenes -- the movie opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Arhya Fine Arts this Friday, January 13, and in New York City on January 20 at the Cinema Village. Elsewhere? Yes: It will also open for weeklong runs in Texas (in Laredo and San Antonio) on January 13, in Denver and New Orleans on January 20, and in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Columbus on January 27. Special screenings throughout January and February include El Paso, Houston, Phoenix, Cleveland, Portland (Oregon) and Albuquerque.