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.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- HIDDEN FIGURES: When computers were black and wore skirts

Producer/writer/director Theodore Melfi's (St. Vincent) film HIDDEN FIGURES, for which he has been rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for best picture, is a perfect Valentine to Black History Month. (See Melfi in 3rd photo from bottom.) Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly (below), whose father worked at NASA, it tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, at center, right), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, near right), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, far right), three of many black women instrumental in the space race of the 1960's.

Satiric, educational, and full of feel-good's, it has the makings of a long-running sit-com. It brings together the disparate worlds of early space science and Jim Crow South, beaming bright on the latter with enough good humor to shame those who play dumb to our racist past, and by inference, our intractable racist present.

Jim Crow law legislated segregation from the period of Reconstruction until President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the passage of the Civil Rights laws of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. (While segregation dominated the South by law, Northern segregation was enforced through practice -- bank lending and job discrimination, and de facto school segregation.) In the South segregation laws were posted in schools, rest rooms, water fountains, restaurants, work lunch rooms, transportation, etc.

When we meet our three protagonist human "computers" (the women who did the mathematical calculations of space flight with pencils, slide-rules, and chalk) in the 1960's, they are subject to embarrassing working conditions but thrived on the opportunity to work at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915, morphing into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958). Langley, Virginia, where the story is set, is now one of three research facilities among NASA's ten field sites.

Black women with college degrees were likely to teach, but a confluence of events led President John Kennedy to take action that would change the trajectories of some, notes Richard Paul in "Air &Space Magazine" 3/2014. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's earth orbit, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Alan Shepard's suborbital space flight, the Freedom Rides and imposition of martial law, and Kennedy's man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade speech all happened within weeks of each other in 1961. Kennedy used federal employment to speed integration at the same time NASA and its contractors were creating 200,000 jobs. Kennedy assigned Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to head both the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Thereafter and with Johnson's propulsion, NASA joined the front lines of the civil rights revolution.

In 2015, math genius Katherine Johnson received the recognition she deserved when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting her work in calculating the trajectories of our first human space flight and her figuring that got John Glenn to the moon and back. (She is now 99 years old.)

Melfi has a humorous touch and he humorously touches all types of racism -- institutional Jim Crow, polite naive racism (of which whites are all guilty at one time or another), and the insults of the nasty bigot. The film satirizes a catalogue of acts of discrimination, such as a tableful of white male heads swiveling as a black woman takes a seat. In a particularly memorable example, Katherine Johnson gets promoted from the black women computers group to the task force for space flight but finds that there's no segregated bathroom in the building. We see her dashing madly across the sprawling Langley campus to a segregated bathroom where she can relieve herself legally, though toilet paper and paper towels are in pitifully short supply.

Kirsten Dunst plays a chilly white supervisor who has no notion of her own unconscious racism; Jim Parsons (above, center left) is Paul Stafford, Head Engineer of the Space Task Group, a nasty competitive bloke at ease taking credit for work that isn't his. Boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, above, right, in another of his bland laconic good guy roles) only has eyes for the collective goal -- surpassing the Soviet launch of Yuri Gagarin into space. Harrison seizes on Johnson's genius at numbers and promotes her to the dismay of good-ole-boy engineers; also he knocks down the 'white women only' sign so his math star doesn't have to go missing running across campus to go to the bathroom. ("Here at NASA we all pee the same color.")

Meanwhile Dorothy Vaughn (Ms Spencer, below, left) is running the group of black women "computers" (in the building across campus with the segregated rest room) without the title and management pay she deserves. The IBM computer arrives and Dorothy can see the day they will all be replaced by machines -- we like how she solves this, and also Mary Jackson's creativity. Jackson (Ms Monáe, below, right) has a math and physics degree and wants to study engineering, but the schools are segregated. She sweet-talks a judge.

The upbeat joy in the stories of the three women's race to the moon is propelled by a lively, happy score guided by hip hop artist Pharrell Williams (below, left, with director Melfi), gaining him two Oscar nominations for songs, "Running" and "I See a Victory". (Williams wore two hats, also serving as a producer on the film.) He contributed 8 original tunes. Says A.D. Amarosi, Philadelphia Inquirer, "...Williams rises high; not just with sweet R&B appropriate to the Motown era and the optimism of the space race but with his usual sunny pop-hop, this time tinged with strains of gentle folk and sacred song."

Yes, "Hidden Figures" rises high as history-telling and message-making. By implication it speaks to Southern activist Dr. William Barber's call for "The Third Reconstruction" -- new advocacy and peaceful disobedience to stop voter suppression, housing, debt, employment, environmental, and sexual minority discrimination, not to mention cabs that drive by and hands that clutch purses in the presence of a black man. After every step forward in the march to equality, elites push back, providing workarounds to existing anti-discrimination laws; thus "Hidden Figures" is a call both for more scientific journeys into space and more genuine racial equality.

In April, Netflix will launch a new series "Dear White People" based on Justin Simien's 2014 movie of the same title about a group of black students dealing with polite racism at a mostly white ivy league college -- another small step in 'the third reconstruction'.

Hidden Figures, from 20th Century Fox and running 127 minutes, is playing nationwide now. To find the theaters nearest you, click here.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

LOVESONG: So-young Kim's friendship/love story opens (and deepens and surprises)

If you're already familiar with the work of South Korean-born/Los Angeles-raised filmmaker So-yong Kim -- In Between Days, Treeless Mountain, For Ellen and now LOVESONG --  you'll probably make a bee line for her newest movie, which bears many of the hallmarks of her earlier work: life unfurling naturally with little to no melodrama, relationships that change and grow organically, and especially some fine work with and around young children. All these are here, plus something else: Lovesong marks Kim's most accessible and nearly-mainstream movie thus far.

The filmmaker, pictured at left, here tackles the tale of two young women, longtime friends -- one of them (Riley Keough) married to a rather unavailable man and mother to a young daughter, the other (Jena Malone) still seemingly sewing her wild oats -- who are so very close that during a long weekend suddenly spent together take that friendship to another level. If this sounds anything like your usual lesbian rom-com-drama, it both is and isn't, for Kim spends much less time on the sex and/or lovemaking than on the feelings these two young women have for each other, as well as on the relationship that has built up between them over the years.

The two have a special place in each other's mind and heart, and Ms Keough (at left on poster, top and above) and Ms Malone (at right on poster, top, and above) bring all this to fine life, with the help of Ms Kim's screenplay (co-written with Bradley Rust Gray), which never over-explicates but allows us to see this relationship via its small moments of closeness -- and distance. When Malone's character flirts with a rodeo cowboy during the road trip, we see Keough's jealousy quietly surface.

Along on that trip is Keough's and her husband's (whom we see only via conversations on the computer) three-year-old daughter, played to near-perfection (as has been true with the various children in all of Kim's movies) by a delightful newcomer Jessie Ok Gray (above. right).

That early trip ends suddenly, and then it's several years later, as Malone is about to be married, and Keough and her daughter (now played by, I am guessing, Gray's older sister, Sky OK Gray, who is also as natural and believable as can be) arrive to join the wedding party. The filmmaker allows her child actors to simply behave and then captures their behavior extremely well.

The passing years seem to have only deepened the feelings of the two women, yet that wedding proceeds as planned, if in fits and starts. Lovesong actually grows and deepens as it moves along, even though the relationship between the two women is so halting and unsure. It's there and it's strong, despite all else.

Is it societal control that is forcing the Malone character toward heterosexuality over homosexuality? Clearly, she does have an attraction toward the opposite sex, yet that shown to her female friend seems strongest of all. Ever the character's mother (the usual nice job from Rosanna Arquette) questions her daughter's choice here, and what the poor groom (smartly and charmingly profiled by Ryan Eggold, below with Ms Malone), knows about all this is also unclear.

Ms Kim refuses to tie up loose ends (or almost any ends) yet this does not, finally, matter much. So well and so strongly has she captured the central relationship, despite much that we in the audience still do not know, that the movie manages to be both deeply sad and deeply joyful, as our two characters move on with their respective lives.

Lovesong is a most unusual film, but it's one that perceptive, demanding audiences should find worthwhile.

The movie -- from Strand Releasing and running just 84 minutes -- opens tomorrow, Friday, February 17, in New York City at the City Cinemas' Village East and in Los Angeles on March 3 at AMC's Sundance Sunset Cinema and Laemmle's Playhouse 7. To view all currently scheduled playdates and theaters in some 15 cities across the country, click here and then click on Screenings on the task bar midway down your screen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

With FANNY'S JOURNEY, Lou Doillon delivers a worthwhile Holocaust movie for young adults

Holocaust-lite is a tricky sub-genre, producing everything from execrable schlock like Life Is Beautiful to more thoughtful, reasonable work like the new film, FANNY'S JOURNEY (Le voyage de Fanny), which opens this week. Basically, a movie for young adults, it treats the Holocaust in France seriously, not letting its audience view the horrors its victims endured but instead centering on the based-on-a-true story of one young girl, a thirteen-year-old named Fanny, who luckily managed to survive the ordeal, thanks to a number of decent folk who took care of her and other children, once their own families were no longer able.

As directed and co-adapted (with Anne Peyrègne) by Lola Doillon (shown at left), from the novel by Fanny Ben-Ami, the movie plays out like a very good escape thriller, but one that is made for an age range similar to that of the Fanny character and/or her older cohorts. Fanny's Journey is beautifully filmed (on some stunningly verdant locations in the French countryside) with period costumes, cars and the like all taking us back to the days of World War II Europe. The writing may be directed to the teen-age level, but it's a smart level -- with enough sass and wit to make the movie an easy watch for adults.

The story takes Fanny (newcomer Léonie Souchaud, above, center, who is excellent in the role!) and the other children, for whom she reluctantly becomes the necessary caretaker, almost immediately from one ersatz home to a new one, in which the stern by loving woman in charge (the wonderful Cécile de France, below) teaches Fanny some important lessons in strength, courage and endurance, which she will of course put to use later on.

Via some plot twists and turns, Fanny eventually has the responsibility of leading this group of children -- most younger than she but one several years older -- to safety. How all this occurs, along with how the children themselves work into the mix, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering, makes for an always engaging, often pretty thrilling experience.

As a filmmaker, Ms Doillon keeps the pacing swift and full of incident, and each of the actors brings his/her role to life well enough to create characters that are easily differentiated, one from the other, as well as memorable enough for this sort of genre. Train travel turns to walking and hiking, with a stop or two along the way, while trying to avoid the German soldiers and/or the not-so helpful French police.

Because the film is based on Fanny's own memoir/novel, we can rest assured that our girl remains alive and kicking. The film provides a good entryway into the Holocaust for newcomers and younger children who, as they grow, can enter the darker side via great adult works of art on the subject such as Lajos Koltai's amazing, one-of-a-kind Fateless.

Meanwhile, Fanny's Journey -- from Menemsha Films, in French with English subtitles and running just 94 minutes -- makes its U.S. theatrical debut here in South Florida this coming Friday, February 17 at The Movies of Delray and Lake Worth, The Last Picture Show in Tamarac, and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters and the Regal Shadowood.  The 86-year-old Fanny Bel-Ami will be making personal appearances over the weekend at all these theaters. Click here and scroll down to view time and place. Will the film play elsewhere across the country? Hope so. Click here periodically to see if new playdates have been added.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

VOD debut: Present-day politics fuel Nicolas Pariser's political thriller, THE GREAT GAME

Filled with fairly interesting political scheming, lots of philosophizing (of course: It's French!) but damned few thrills, the new would-be political thriller, THE GREAT GAME (Le grand jeu) certainly boasts a first-class cast doing its best with second-rate material. Writer/director Nicolas Pariser (shown below) appears to be trying for something slow-burning and even elegant but instead comes up with merely slow and occasionally sloppy. "What's going on here and who is really pulling the strings?" are the most-asked questions as the story unfurls.

Eventually, however, you are more likely to decide, "What the hell: I don't care." Oh, there are some surprises along the way, and one would-be lulu at the very end. But so what? When the outcome is clearly predicated on the by-now rather tiresome (if true) idea that we can never really know what side people are on nor their motive for being there and consequently we must trust no one, our response is likely to be simply a shrug. Couple this to a filmic style that mistakes turtle-like pacing for sophistication, and you have the recipe for a great big yawn.

That fine, if wasted, cast includes leading man Melville Poupard (above) slipping ever more sexily and casually into middle age, and that grand old man of French cinema, André Dussollier (below, right), who once again proves expert at making us imagine we're onto something major when, in fact, his role turns out to be more minor than we'd have liked.

In the distaff side, we have two fine actresses: Sophie Cattani (of I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive), as the Poupard character's still-friendly ex, who brings wonderful immediacy and specificity to her role, and Clémence Poésy (below), as the new love interest that wife introduces to her ex.

The political philosophizing may be pertinent but it's not particularly succulent nor original -- action vs inaction, the past vs the present -- while the filmmaker fudges so many details in his attempt to make things mysterious that there is very few specifics onto which we can lay hold. Motive, in particular, has little place or weight.

All this makes the movie pretty disappointing, but at least it offers a relatively short running time (99 minutes). From Distrib Films US, The Great Game hits all major VOD platforms in the United States -- including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Comcast, Charter, and Vudu -- this coming Tuesday, February 14. I would not, however, call it much of a choice for Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 10, 2017

FIAF's comedy series takes off with the U.S. premiere of Jean-Christophe Meurisse's APNEE

Fascinating, annoying -- even sometimes actually funny -- but always interesting, this first film by French theater director Jean-Christophe Meurisse is determined to knock the socks off its audience. Indeed, we remain barefoot just about throughout. Beginning with a threesome -- two men and a woman -- who arrive at city hall in bridal gowns and insist that they be married to each other, after which the civil servant who tries to reason with them is driven 'round the bend, we then get the movie's opening credits, during which the three ice skate -- and quite professionally, too -- in the nude. (This may be not actually be our three actors, since each is hidden behind a facial mask.)

Yes, these are ground-breaking scenes, of a sort, as is what follows: the three, as shown above, taking a bath in a showroom window. Our little group are clearly troublemakers, transgressors who, more than anything else, simply want to flip our declining civilization the bird. M. Meurisse, shown at left, who both wrote and directed APNEE, is nothing if not determined. And that determination begins to wear one down long before the movie finds its finale. Yet, so different is it in its dead-set dedication from almost any other movie you'll have encountered, that it proves very hard, even for a moment, to avert your gaze.

And so, along the kind of road trip the threesome takes, we tackle everything sacrosanct from religion and family to art and consumerism, marriage and sex (though, as concerns the latter, neither our two guys nor their woman seem all that interested or able to even enjoy sex. Or. come to think of it, much of anything else, save making trouble.

What all this accomplishes is to turn our threesome into something symbolic rather than real or human. They exist to make a point, and damned it they don't make it -- over and over again. The three lead performers -- above, left to right: Céline Fuhrer, Maxence Tual and Thomas Scimeca -- are attractive and sometime funny, but they exist in the vacuum that Meurisse has created, so it's difficult to breathe or grow.

Still, that vacuum is an original, all right, and it's an interesting one. Highlights include a visit to a "typical" empty-nest family, in which the trio questions the elders about their family life, and to a gorgeous village-by-the-sea in which we meet a tubby postman (above, right) who turns into a kind of muse for our boys.

Along the way we meet Jesus, too, and eventually the trio gets its wedding, complete with a bacchanale that features opera and wrestling. Ah, but is our little threesome happy at last? Take a guess.

So far as TrustMovies knows, Apnée has never been seen here in the U.S., which makes this FIAF premiere an especially notable one. The film -- part of the FIAF CinéSalon continuing series, Comedy on Film: What Makes the French Laugh -- will show this coming Tuesday, February 14 (how appropriate: for Valentine's Day!) at 4pm and 7:30pm at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street, New York City.

To learn more information and/or to procure tickets, simply click here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ceyda Torun's delightful doc, KEDI -- Cat lovers: the movie of your life has arrived!

And not only cat lovers: Movie lovers in general might just might want to stick this new documentary on their must-see list. No film I've viewed so far has made me want to visit the country of Turkey (along with its city of Istanbul) more than this one. The reasons are three-fold: those titular cats, of course (I'm told that Kedi means cat in Turkish); the people we meet who care for those cats (thoughtful, humane, and with plenty of smart stuff to tell us); and finally this: Though little is overtly made of religion in the film -- save one sweet anecdote about the Muslim faith, Christianity and burials with crosses -- you come away from Kedi with the notion that Muslim-must-equal-terrorism pushed about as far back in your brain as possible. These days in particular, that is no small achievement.

The film's director, Ceyda Torun (shown at left), grew up in Istanbul till she reached eleven years, with the city's cats her constant companions. TrustMovies did not know this about Istanbul: Hundreds of thousands of cats roam the city freely, just as the species has done for thousands of years, wandering in and out of people's home and lives, and making (or so the movie posits) those lives infinitely richer.

KEDI lets us into the world of some of those cats (quite a diverse bunch, both visually and personality-wise), along with the people who are their semi-caretakers, and whom the cats seems to have adopted -- rather than the other way around. As charming and delightful as these cats are, it is those people -- their thoughts, feelings and ideas -- that make this movie as rich as it is.

One of these folk reminds us that, while dogs may see humans as god, cats understand that we are merely the middlemen in the equation.

Another fellow, who appears to work in a bakery (maybe it's a bakery/restaurant) notes that all the tips taked in here are used to care for the cats. We watch in wonder as yet another man carries around his plastic bag full of food that he offers the felines, while explaining why and how the cats have saved his life.

As "modernity" encroaches and high-rises replace whole neighborhoods, the cats' habitat diminishes. Torun and her cast/cats and crew gives us some wonderful aerial views of the city (the cinematography is by Alp Korfali and Charlie Wupperman), as well as an up-close-and-personal look into homes and offices and various cat quarters around the town.

No mention is made of "animal control." Perhaps there simply is none. We hear reference only once to an animal being "fixed," If the cat population continues to grow, even as its habitat diminishes, something will surely have to be done. Meanwhile, we get quite a dose of a culture very different from our own -- different from all of Europe and even that of other Muslim countries.

Turkey has long endeavored to be a secular, rather than a religious, state, though this may be changing. Fundamentalism appears to be on the rise everywhere. The single "political" statement made in the film is a bit of stenciled graffiti shown in the background that says Erdo-gone. Yes, Turkish President Erdoğan, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, has pushed for a secular over a religions state. But he has also, like all power-hungry dictators, left a trail of blood in his wake.

To be sure, this documentary is nothing like the whole story of Turkey, nor even of Istanbul. Yet one comes away from it most impressed with the kindness of these caretakers and the myriad ways that these cats have enriched and changed their lives.

Kedi -- from Oscilloscope Films, in Turkish with English subtitles and running a just-right 79 minutes -- opens this Friday in New York City at the new Metrograph. The following Friday, February 17, it hits the Los Angels area at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. The following weeks will see the film open all across the country. Here in South Florida it will debut on March 3 and will play the Bill Cosford Cinema and the O Cinema Wnnwood in Miami, the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, and at the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and  theaters, click here and then click on SCREENINGS on the task bar at top.