Friday, July 1, 2016

Alix Delaporte's THE LAST HAMMER BLOW -- another winner screens at FIAF's CinéSalon


With a single exception so far, Burning Bright -- the new series from FIAF's CinéSalon that introduces the next generation of French auteurs -- is proving to be every bit as good as is that popular yearly series from the FSLC, Rendez-vous With French Cinema. This week's film is another little gem: THE LAST HAMMER BLOW from a filmmaker, Alix Delaporte (shown below), with whom TrustMovies is only now getting acquainted.

Ms Delaporte has written for French television and co-written and directed two movies, the latest of which is this 2014 film, which tackles the tale of an adolescent boy named Victor (played by a simply terrific newcomer, Romain Paul, above and below) in the French provinces finally coming into contact with his birth father, whom he has never met.

Dad  (played by Grégory Gadebois) is a fairly famous orchestra conductor, who may not even know he has a son. Victor's mom (the always fine Clotilde Hesme), who wants nothing to do with his dad, is recovering (well, we hope she is) from what looks like a bout with cancer of some sort, and when Victor learns that his father is guest conducting the local symphony in a performance of Mahler's Sixth, he determines to meet the man, come hell or high water.

That's the set-up, which sounds interesting enough but perhaps nothing we haven't seen previously. But how Ms Delaporte chooses to tell her story -- in swift, sharply observed scenes in which the exposition is mostly buried within the actions and behavior of the characters -- is something else.

This means we have to stay quite alert for fear of missing any telling moments, of which there are plenty. But the filmmaker makes this easy to do, via her casting of the three leads, each of whom shines, and all the subsidiary characters, as well. (That's Spanish actress Candela Peña, above, left, with Ms. Hesme; also in the cast is noted Spanish actor Tristán Ulloa.)

The lead performances -- that's M.Gadebois, above, and Ms Hesme, below -- are so immediate and real, without ever being "showy," that the film often appears to be something close to a documentary. (Gadebois rather resembles a French answer to our own Peter Sarsgaard, if a little heavier, and he gives a most interesting performance here.)

While her film unfurls in logical, first-this/then-that order -- no back-and-forth flashbacks or anything super-stylish here -- Ms Delaporte instead chooses to give us scenes that may seem almost random but are actually very well chosen to further her story and build her characters, while avoiding the typical and sentimental.

Characters grow and perhaps change, but only in small increments. All this makes what happens in the course of the film seem both believable and "earned." Consequently the joy we experience at the finale comes from a place much deeper and more genuine than often happens in stories like this one.

Young Monsieur Paul is quite a find. He has one of those wonderful faces that seem to want to hide feelings yet can't. They keep seeping through, as much as he tries for disguise. The IMDB does not show any further acting work for him post this film, but I do hope we'll see more of this young man as he grows up.

Gadebois and Hesme give performances of wonderful specificity and emotion. Though we never learn specifics about what happened between their characters, this seems yet another smart choice on the filmmaker's part. And the actors bring such depth to their roles -- they make their quite different situations seem understandable -- that we don't miss, even one tiny bit, the more standard exposition many moviemakers would offer. (The scene, above, in which Dad has his son come up and watch the orchestra from the conductor's standpoint is fascinating and rich. I've never seen anything quite like it in a film before.)

Combining Mahler, soccer, cancer and parenting, The Last Hammer Blow weaves all this together with such spirit and grace that we can only sit back and marvel. And care. And enjoy.

This film really ought to have been picked up for U.S. distribution, so FIAF's bringing it to us now can only be seen as a gift. It plays this coming Tuesday, July 5, at Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, twice only at 4 and 7:30 PM. Click here to learn more and/or purchase tickets. And remember: FIAF members attend free of charge.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Taika Waititi's sweet but overpraised kids' adventure, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE


OK: It's kind of cute, for awhile. But what in the world is all this lavish praise about? Taika Waititi (shown below) -- who earlier gave us the charming and oddball movies Eagle vs Shark and Boy, as well as co-writing, co-directing and co-starring in the funniest vampire comedy ever made -- has now come up with a film which he both adapted (from Barry Crump's book) and directed that is being hailed critically as though it were some kind of second coming. It ain't -- at least not for any film goer who's been around the block a time or two.

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE tells the tale of an overweight but quite charming adolescent boy who has been moved from foster home to foster home until he has one final chance at success and family by living with an older couple in the wilds of New Zealand. Fair enough. And as played by Julian Dennison (below) with so much talent and charm that the actor almost immediately counters the wretched reputation that this boy supposedly has. No matter. Young Mr. Dennison is enjoyable enough to watch that you'll initially give in to this rather silly conceit.

Unfortunately, filmmaker Waititi doubles down on the cutesiness and charm, as well as telling his tale in the most obvious manner so that we know everything important that is going to happen almost from the get-go.

If a character mentions a final resting place, we know that character's gonna get there soon enough. And if another character happens to be a crusty, unpleasant old codger (the fine Sam Neill, above, plays this role), you can be sure he'll warm up to our boy just fine.

Nothing is ever in the slightest doubt here (which I suppose makes for easy viewing for the kids -- although even children do enjoy something scary and/or different now and again), while the would-be villains of the piece alternate between silly and stupid. Never are any of them -- from the social worker or the police (above) to the "vigilantes" hunting our two runaways (below) -- remotely believable.

What surprised me most was Waititi's use of the most obvious choices, which I would not have expected from this guy. Maybe this was built into the original book by Crump. But the tale, as told here -- with boy and codger going on the run for what seems like ages -- just meanders and meanders until we're ready to cry uncle. Ten or fifteen minutes could easily have been cut from this movie with no loss whatsoever.

And finally, when we're more than ready to end all this all, instead we have to put up with a tiresome extended car chase which, at this point, seems like undue torture. Still, the New Zealand scenery is often gorgeous (when is it not?), the use of haiku provides some fun, and a few of the performances rise above the silliness -- especially Dennison's, Neill's, and that of Rima Te Wiata, as the good wife, Bella.

Distributed by The Orchard and running 101 minutes, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, after opening in New York (and maybe elsewhere) last weekend, will hit Florida tomorrow, Friday, July 1, in Orlando at the Enzian Theater and over the next few weeks.at the following venues: on July 15 in Miami at the Regal South Beach 18 and the Classic Gateway, in Hollywood at the Cinema Paradiso, and in Tampa at the Tampa Theater; on July 22 in Fort Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso and St. Petersburg's Muvico Sundial 19; on July 29 in Vero Beach at the AMC Indian River, and in Fort Myers/Naples at Merchants Crossing & Silverspot Cinema; and on August 5 in Jacksonville at the Sun Ray Theater. (By the way, someone ought to suggest to The Orchard that it update its web site. This movie is not "Coming Soon." It's already here.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Daniels' -- Kwan & Scheinert -- SWISS ARMY MAN: great title, problematic movie


If you value originality above all else, SWISS ARMY MAN, might just be your cup of poop, piss or regurgitated liquids. Yes, it's gross, all right, and I suspect it wins hands-down the current movie record for the near-constant use of farting. But at least, unlike so many of those would-be comedies meant for the eight-year-old minds of stunted adults, the farts here are, yep, original. They're also amazing and usually amusing -- used as they are for bizarre plot devices, visual effects and finally as an all-encompassing symbol of what civilized society deems crass.

Beginning with its spot-on title -- yes, one of our two "heroes" is very much like that famous uber-functional knife with which many of us grew up: packed with so many pull-outs it seemed an all-purpose life-saver -- the movie is clever and shocking but also very astute psychologically and cinematically. As written and directed by a pair of first-time/full-length filmmakers -- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert -- who bill themselves as "Daniels" (as in "a film by Daniels"), Swiss Army Man was said to be the strangest movie ever to screen at Sundance. Now that we've seen it, TrustMovies feels it's safe to say that it may also be the strangest ever to screen in a mainstream movie house. (Those are the filmmakers, above, with Mr. Kwan shown center, Mr. Scheinert, center, right, flanked by stars Paul Dano, right, Daniel Radcliffe center, left, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, left.)

The story here, as you may have by now heard, involves a young man named Hank (Mr. Dano) somehow stranded on an island in the middle of the sea who, having given up on any rescue, is about to "off" himself when he notices a body (Mr. Radcliff's) that seems to have washed up onshore. From there, perhaps the most bizarre of buddy movies begins to unfold.

Where and how the tale maneuvers is so strange and unsettling; funny, sad and unnerving; occasionally believable but more often the stuff of fantasy that you will find yourself trying to figure out just what the filmmaker' intentions really are. Is this a tale of desperation so severe and encompassing that the desperate man will of course invent/imagine whatever he must in order to survive? Sure looks that way.

But as the movie moves forward, there seems to be more at stake here. What kind of a fellow is our Hank? And is Manny (the name Hank gives to that washed-up body) entirely a whole-cloth creation of Hank's? What transpires includes everything from sex education to cross-dressing to the appearance of some very large and obstinate hard-ons from Manny, brought on by an old girlie magazine and a photo of Ms Winstead that occasionally appears on a cell phone.

How all this is possible on an island in the middle of the sea is one of the question that arise, as our buddies grow closer, while managing to avoid anything sexual between them. (Although an apology of sorts, using that old stand-by "I was really drunk last night!", does surface along the way.)

Above all else, it's the relationship between these two young men that matters most, except that the relationship is completely one-sided and serves mainly to build what we finally learn about Hank's character -- who he actually is and what has really happened. To this end, Mr. Dano proves yet again to be the sort of remarkable young actor who can handle whatever role comes his way. (And this may be the strangest and most difficult he'll ever have.)

For his part, Mr. Radcliffe seems bent on doing all in his power to counteract his Harry Potter image, and he's doing a fine job of it. From diverse Broadway roles to the most oddball movies (and they don't get more oddball than this), he is stretching himself and proving quite adept at the stretch. If here, he must play the "best pal" role as it has never been played before, he gives it his all -- which is more than enough.

In the home stretch, however, it must be said that the movie does fall apart (and then falls apart all over again). Things have been withheld from us that make all the difference, and while this might be perfectly OK for some movies, here it rather wrecks things. I cannot elaborate because that would result in a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that, of all things, the Daniels appear to want to offer up something as mainstream as "feel-good" -- after all they've done to work around that usual bill of fare. So Swiss Army Man becomes a movie by two very smart guys who don't quite know when to stop and consequently get a little too close to what you might call "smarty pants."

Their movie, distributed by A24 and running 95 minutes, opened in New York and Los Angeles over the past weekend, and hits a lot of other cities this week. On Friday, July 1, it opens here South Florida all over the place -- from Regal's Shadowood, Cypress Creek and Sawgrass to AMC's Aventura and Sunset Place, Muvico's Broward and Parisian, Delray's Frank Theaters Cinebowl, Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway, Coconut Grove's Cinepolis USA, and Miami's O Cinema Wynwood. Elsewhere? Absolutely. Click here and all the theaters near you should pop right up....

The photo of the actors and filmmakers, 
second from top, is by Jeff Vespa
courtesy of Getty Images.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Todd Solondz is back with WIENER-DOG, his own brand of sequel to Welcome/Dollhouse


I'm not at all sure I agree with so many critics who claim that the movies of Todd Solondz are misanthropic. The guy has a dark view of humanity, all right, and of life as it's lived by so many of us on this maybe-soon-to-be-uninhabitable earth. Yet the feeling I am left with, time and again after viewing his films, is one of sadness more than anger or hatred at our "miserable selves." (That his films are leavened with a lot of humor, black as it often is, also adds to their enjoyment level.) I'd call Solondz an angry humanist.

The filmmaker's latest outing into the land of the lousy is WIENER-DOG, which doubles as a kind of sequel to his first real indie hit, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which, among other things, put actress Heather Matarazzo on the map. But Solondz being Solondz (the filmmaker is shown at right), the film is very different from almost any sequel you'll have seen because its star, and the "link" that joins each of its segments, is an adorable little dachshund, the wiener-dog of the title. Functioning as a kind of all-purpose object upon which the humans that surround it can heap whatever nonsense they like (think maybe Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar, but -- heresy, I know -- Wiener-dog is the better movie), this little dog is something else.

Yes, we do encounter a grown-up version of Dawn Wiener (the character played in the original by Ms Matarazzo), and here she is performed by none other than the new indie queen (though now somewhat mainstream), Greta Gerwig, who becomes, as Ms Gerwig always manages to do with each new role, this character to an absolute T.

But we only spend a little time with the new Dawn, as in fact we do with all the characters that act as satellites to our Wiener-dog, who moves from owner to owner -- the first of which we is Solondz's typical suburban family ripe for rot. In this case that includes mom (Julie Delpy, below), dad (Tracy Letts) and little son (a lovely job by Keaton Nigel Cooke, above). Entitled, self-serving, lying, hypocritical and seriously deluded, mom and dad manage to just about decimate their sickly son's little dog.

From its nuclear (holocaust) family through Dawn and a traveling Mariachi Band (shown at bottom), then to a pair of young marrieds with Down Syndrome, our Wiener moves from person to person, place to place. Solondz doesn't always let us see or even learn how these folk are connected, nor does he need to. By now we've seen enough movies to know the "connection" ropes. And he is a skilled enough filmmaker to have each scene grab us with immediacy, force and often fun.

The filmmaker even provides his 90-minute movie with its own short but smart intermission, during which there's not enough time to go get popcorn but at least we hear a terrific little song during the break. And then we're back to business as our Weenie rests in the hands of a NY film school professor and would-be screenwriter (played with delightful manic perseverance but noticeably declining gusto by Danny DeVito). Solondz uses this section to make sweet and nasty fun of independent film, auteurs, education, Hollywood and more -- and for the one sublimely hilarious scene alone, in which DeVito and the school's head interview a prospective student, this movie is worth seeing.

Then our dog is whisked away to the lap of Ellen Burstyn (above), doing another of her recently fine round-ups of aging matriarchs (House of Cards, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You), on whom her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet, below) pays a call with her artist boyfriend (Michael Shaw) in tow. From each new owner, Wiener gets a new name but soldiers on, as ever. How our doggie becomes immortalized is, as they say, one for the books. But not, I think, for PETA people.

The movie is dark, ugly, sad, hugely comic and full of wonderful performances -- as you'd expect from a cast this good. Crowd-pleasing it ain't, but Mr. Solondz knows exactly what he is doing. Long may he grow angry, hold up that mirror to our foibles, and keep on filming them.

From IFC Films and Amazon Studios, Wiener-dog hit theaters last weekend in New York and L.A. and will opens here and there around the country this coming Friday, July 1. In South Florida, you can see it in Miami at the Bill Cosford Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque. Then on Friday, July 8, it opens in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The movie of the year? Anne Fontaine's amazing THE INNOCENTS might very well be it.


Feminist in a whole new way, Anne Fontaine's latest triumph, THE INNOCENTS, is also her finest, most important and most encompassing movie so far, not least because it takes that feminism, for which this movie-maker has long been noted (in my book, anyway) so far beyond the usual or typical that it expands into a grand and embracing humanism.

Said to be based on real events, the movie will make clear to any thinking person who knows history and the aftermath of World War II, that what happened at the convent here in Poland probably happened at many other convents around the world -- during wartime and afterward. But so horrifying are these events that "civilized" folk like us would prefer not to imagine such things.

One of the great strengths of Ms Fontaine (shown at left) as a director and often adaptor is that -- from Dry Cleaning through Nathalie...The Girl from Monaco to Adore -- whether she is working in comic or dramatic mode (sometime both simultaneously), she insists on putting us in touch with feelings and actions we'd prefer to keep buried. (Sometimes she does this with a light comic touch, as in last year's delightful Gemma Bovery.)

With The Innocents (post-viewing, you may want to consider to whom that title refers), Fontaine is working in firmly dramatic mode. There's little humor here. What surfaces is provided by an ironic, been-through-hell-and-back doctor (very well played by Vincent Macaigne, below, left, of 2 Autumns 3 Winters) who works with our heroine (the lovely Lou de Laâge, below, right, of L'Attesa and Breathe) for the French Red Cross in post-war Poland.

Initially, once we learn what has happened at the convent, the movie seems to be mostly about rape and its awful consequences. Fontaine, her co-writers and her cast bring this home with a ferocity and reality that is striking. Yet we have not seen the original horror but instead experience it via the condition of the nuns, as we meet and grow to know them.

And then the filmmaker serves up a double whammy, as our heroine experiences her own introduction into the condition of these nuns. And we're with her during every step of this, the movie's single violent scene.

But then, slowly, The Innocents turns its attention to the idea and experience of faith -- how it works and what it can or can't accomplish. I have no idea whether Ms Fontaine is a person of faith (I would guess she is not, as I am not) but she certainly gives faith its due here. She is able to see events and personalities from angles that allow us viewers to enter the lives and minds of these nuns, each of whom is differentiated surprisingly well, so that we understand and feel their viewpoints.

Soon, however, Fontaine's film becomes less about rape or faith and more about life (and death) and parenting and what all this might mean to a group of nuns -- of whom, by now, we have grown hugely fond and protective -- just as has the character played by Ms de Laâge.

Granted, this is one humdinger of a tale to begin with, but I can't credit too highly the manner in which Fontaine has told it so that we encounter viewpoints that conflict enormously and yet we are made to fully understand and appreciate them all. As my spouse said, while the end credits rolled, "What a tolerant movie this is!" Indeed. For us to understand the shocking actions of certain characters here, we must enter into ideas quite foreign to what we would ordinarily encounter.

The filmmaker's great accomplishment is that she helps us do this with no lecturing or hectoring, simply by allowing us entry to as many viewpoints as necessary to make the leap. In the remarkably varied and equally talented cast, those with the most screen time are two Agatas: Agata Buzek (above), who plays the nun who initially translates and then becomes the most helpful to our heroine, and Agata Kulesza (below), as the convent's Abbess, whom foreign film fans will remember as the title character's helpful but depressed aunt in the Oscar-winning Ida of two years back.

Dramatically, Fontaine's film is aces all the way. From the initial scenes that are a mystery (and clearly an urgent one) to a finale that, in terms of how this movie began, is rather like moving from hell to heaven, the filmmaker keeps us glued both intellectually and emotionally. And the feel-good we experience at the end of this film seems utterly "earned," bringing us back to the movie's opening scenes in a manner most surprising and genuine. If a better film than The Innocents hits theaters this year, I'll be surprised -- but grateful. (Below is the lovely Katarzyna Dabrowska, as one of the nuns.)

From Music Box Films and running just under two hours, the movie opens this Friday, July 1, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. In South Florida, look for it on July 8 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Miami, and on July 15 at The Classic Gateway, Fort Lauderdale, and The Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton. Over the weeks and months to come, The Innocents will open in across the nation in some 60 cities and theaters. Click here and then click on THEATERS on the task bar midway down to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Blu-ray/DVD: Iceland's Foreign Language Film submission, Grímur Hákonarson's RAMS


Though lauded with critical hosannas (95% critic-positive on Rotten Tomatoes), RAMS, the supposed "deadpan comedy" that was Iceland's entry into the BFLF Oscar race, didn't make even the Academy's shortlist this past year. It's an odd film, all right, and although he realizes that comedy, especially, is a matter of taste, TrustMovies must admit that he laughed only once during the course of the entire movie -- at a scene involving a very heavy piece of farming machinery depositing its current load at the entrance to the local hospital.

The rest of the time, TM just sat there, not uninterested, but waiting for something, anything, perhaps that other shoe, to finally drop. As written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, shown at left, what surprised me most about Rams was how obvious the film is as to where it is going and what it will expect of its audience -- all of which is very nearly assured from the opening couple of scenes. Very quickly we learn how important sheep farming is to this little country, and also that some of said sheep are sick unto death, probably via a greatly-feared infection called "scrapie." We also meet the two brothers -- old men who've not spoken in 40 years and yet farm sheep on large plots of land immediately adjacent to each other.

This is dead serious subject matter, and as written and directed by Mr. Hákonarson it is played more seriously than humorously. And not only by the two actors who plays the brothers -- Sigurður Sigurjónsson, as Gummi, and Theodór Júlíusson as Kiddi , shown above, with Kiddi on the left -- but by all the other performers who essay townspeople, farmers, veterinarians, police and so forth.

The tone here is very dry, however, as befits deadpan, but the incidents that pile up are not particularly believable and grow less so as the movie moves along (sheep illegally hidden away in the basement, bleating their hearts out and being overheard by a newcomer who is told -- and buys this -- that the sounds are being made by cats).

On the plus side are some lovely landscapes (verdant in summer and snowy in winter), perfectly valid performances, and the very idea of sheep farming and what it means to the local community -- which is brought home quite well, whether you perceive all this as comic or no.

By the finale we've gone through the entire expected scenario -- from the deadpan/barely-existing/would-be laughs to the farcical elements to the inevitable moments expected to move us. I might have been moved, but this film has such an utterly "manufactured" quality about it that I couldn't rise to the occasion. Perhaps you will; god knows, most of our critical establishment have.

From Cohen Media Group and running a mere 93 minutes, the movie makes its Blu-ray and DVDebut this coming Tuesday, June 28 -- for purchase or rental. Better than the film, I felt, were the DVD extras, in which the filmmaker give a very short interview in which he explains that he really wanted to credit all the individual sheep because they were that good (they are!).  Also included is a choice little short film that Hákonarson made back in 2007 entitled Wrestling, which features an odd Icelandic combination of wrestling plus dance moves and involves a love story between the two major wrestlers that plays out, again, in deadpan style. It's worth seeing.