Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bart Layton's AMERICAN ANIMALS: an original heist film w/charm, humor, suspense, sadness


When Bart Layton's The Imposter opened theatrically back in the summer of 2012, it caused a stir of sorts, mixing as it did both documentary and narrative tropes into a single very hybrid movie about identity theft, among other things. Despite a certain queasy-making factor, the movie mostly worked.

Now, six years later, Mr. Layton (shown below) is back again with another mix of narrative and documentary about a true-life tale -- the heist of some uber-valuable artwork/books by a quartet of naive-but-daring college kids. This one works even better.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (a name that doesn't really do full justice to the subject matter, while setting its audience up for something more violent/vicious than it should or could deliver) is a heist movie with heart, soul, sadness and lots of humor -- as well as the requisite amount of surprise and suspense. The ace up its (and Mr. Layton's) sleeve is that it very cleverly and successfully mixes the real people involved (a decade or more after the fact) with some very good actors who play these four kids in their college days.

The effect, rather than something startling or unbalancing, instead slowly gives additional credence to both the story and characters at hand. The fact that the real people here often contradict each other (sometimes even themselves) makes the story told seem somehow yet more truthful. (As we know by now, even eye-witnesses can get their facts wrong.) What the real people say, and how it jibes (or often doesn't) with what we see, adds welcome surprise and humor to the events, filling out these characters (the "acted" ones) with additional layers of reality and humanity.

Mr. Layton, as writer and director, also manages to include themes of class differences, economics and privilege into his scenario without ever belaboring his points. Overall, these add weight and sinew to characters and events so that we never lose sight of what's at stake, despite the ongoing fun and suspense of the heist itself.

There is also very little actual violence in the movie, and what there is is handled so well that it registers exceedingly strongly -- instead of hitting us like the repetitive and mindless violence-as-entertainment we're constantly confronted with via our super-hero and action movies. All this puts American Animals in a class by itself and makes it easy to forgive the film's occasional minor blunder -- such as placing a real character and his actor counterpart in a car together and then making so little or this that it seems merely a directorial stunt.

The cast of actors is first-rate -- Barry Keoghan (shown two and three photos above, of Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Evan Peters (above, and the standout here), Jared Abrhamson (shown at bottom, center) and Blake Jenner (below) -- with each individual doing a fine job of bringing to immediate life his character, sometimes with only minimal but pungent dialog.

In the supporting cast, it is Ann Dowd who (as usual) shines brightest as the unfortunate woman in charge of what is being stolen: a cache of John James Audubon's originals! Also on view and always fun to see is Udo Kier (below, right) as a possible fence for the upcoming stolen goods.

What makes the movie especially memorable is the manner in which it captures the craziness of youth in all its dumb glory, even as it offers the adventure of a good (well, maybe bad) heist, along with the sadness involved in lives gone so wrong for such silly (but understandable) reasons. Ah, kids: They just want to be special!

From The Orchard and running a long but never boring 116 minutes, American Animals --after opening on the coasts and maybe elsewhere -- hits South Florida tomorrow, June 22. In the Miami area, look for it at MDC's Tower Theater, AMC's Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, CMX's Brickell City Centre, and the O Cinema, Miami Beach. In Broward Country it will play AMC's Pompano Beach 18, Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway Theatre, and the Regal Sawgrass. In Palm Beach Country, see it at the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Movies of Lake Worth, AMC's CityPlace 20, Cobb's Downtown at the Gardens, and AMC's Indian River 24. Wherever you live across the country, to find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A great film arrives: João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa's quietly magnificent ARABY


"Stick with it, please." I've said this before, but I don't think it has ever been more necessary or appropriate than with ARABY, the new movie from the writing/directing duo of João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa: If you stay with this quiet little film -- despite its leisurely pacing, refusal to overly dramatize, and a protagonist who suddenly shifts from the expected one to an entirely different person -- by the time you reach the conclusion of this 98-minute movie, you will have experienced labor, the workplace, love, life, death and maybe as close to the whole of humanity as any single movie is able to provide.

Filmmakers Dumans (above, right) and  Uchôa (above, left) build their small monument to the life of 90 per cent from this statement uttered by their protagonist early on: "In the end, all we have is what we remember." From this, they have crafted a tale that concentrates on but one man (Aristides de Sousa, shown below) yet takes in much of our world, building via an aggregate of detail to a conclusion that, though in no way surprising, still suddenly seems to expand into enormous compassion and understanding.

How in hell did the filmmakers manage this feat? As best TrustMovies can tell, it comes via a kind of visual and verbal poetry that, like all else here, goes nearly unnoticed -- until it suddenly begins resonating like crazy. (I may simply be slow; all this might resonate a lot earlier with you.) Maybe it has to do with that trickly transfer of feeling for a single human being into an understanding of humanity itself.

This is a Brazilian film, after all. I've long thought that Brazil seems to treat its people about as cavalierly, if not in downright uncaring fashion, as any supposedly "democratic" South American country. We see this in a government that spends oodles to host the Olympic Games only to put its populace in ever more dire straits. And via films from Elite Squad and its follow-up (that bang you atop the head with violence against the people) to the quieter, probing films of Kleber Mendonça, the great preponderance of humanity is alway given the shaft.

In Araby, this is true all over again, and yet via its protagonist and the people he meets along his journey of laboring-just-to-survive, we enter the world of the masses in a manner subtly different from other films. Here, it's via a kind of memoir our hero has composed (when we at last learn why and where he began this memoir, it becomes ever more meaningful and humane) that tells his story as best he is able.

The lovely, heartbreaking irony here comes from the fact that our hero, Cristiano, feels that he cannot communicate or express himself very well. Yet the filmmakers provide him voice and view so that he is able to give us everything we need to understand the love he feels, the loneliness he experiences and his constant need to not simply survive but to communicate.

I would think that there must be millions of workers in China and India -- hell, even some Trump acolytes here in the USA -- who could identify with and understand this movie.  There are no "labels" attached to any view here, and yet Dumans and Uchôa offer up enormous political commentary. By the time the film has come full circle, its impact has burgeoned into such collective power and momentum that, days after I've viewed it, I am still reliving and thinking about this movie.

From Grasshopper Film, in Portuguese with English subtitles, Araby opens this Friday in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then will hit another four cities on either coast, with -- one hopes -- even more cities to follow over the weeks to come. Click here and then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on Where to Watch to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Ben Lewin's THE CATCHER WAS A SPY proves classy, old-fashioned, WWII espionage fun


Based on a real-life baseball player named Moe Berg (of whom TrustMovies had never heard but is very happy to have now made his acquaintance), THE CATCHER WAS A SPY proves a surprising and welcome throwback to the days of World War II and those exciting, old-fashioned, well-plotted espionage thrillers that we rarely see any longer.

As directed by Ben Lewin and written by Robert Rodat (from the book by Nicholas Dawidoff), the movie proves a classy, intelligent, gorgeously-mounted treat.

With a spot-on production design by Oscar-winner Luciana Arrighi in which every scene appears real and right -- from the gorgeous period interiors to the bombed-out ruins in which some exciting and suspenseful combat takes place -- the look of this film seems just about perfect without ever calling undue attention to itself: every production designer's dream, I should think.

For his part, Mr. Lewin (shown at right, who a few years back gave us that wonderful movie The Sessions) also gets it all correct. He is able to direct with a firm, fine hand everything from an exciting action sequence to a philosophical discussion of murder and patriotism; from a hot 'n heavy hetero sex scene to a quiet but deeply felt suggestion of homosexual love; from a baseball game to a blunt-force beating.

While I suppose there is nothing "award-winning" here, still, what a pleasure it is to see first-class craftsmanship in writing, directing, acting, editing, cinematography and production design come together so very well. In the starring role of Moe Berg, we have that fine actor Paul Rudd (shown above and below), at last given a role that allows him to shine in ways we've seldom seen. Rudd makes a particularly believable-looking 1930s-40s character, with a face and body that's near-perfectly "period."

From what we see and learn here, Moe Berg was a very private man: a non-religious Jew who didn't even feel particularly "Jewish," evidently bi-sexual (in a time when this was anything but accepted), and a fellow who felt at home almost nowhere except in a library or on the baseball field. Mr. Rudd brings all of this to exceedingly quiet-but-felt life. He is on screen in (I think) literally every scene, which forces the rest of the excellent ensemble cast to take a decided back seat in the proceedings.

Yet, because that ensemble consists of terrific actors such as Jeff Daniels, Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller (above, left), Tom Wilkinson, Sanada HiroyukiGiancarlo Giannini and Pierfrancesco Favino (below, right), each of their roles comes strongly, if briefly, to life. (One does wish that Ms Miller might be given roles a little more important and demanding, but then this is definitely the kind of male-centric movie, in which women, if they appear at all, are simply "helpmeets" to the men.)

Yet the story is indeed a crackerjack one: a ball-playing civilian recruited into the OSS and asked to possibly kill one of Germany's finest and most heralded scientists. Lewin and Rodat begin at the climax then circle back to an earlier time, as we learn Moe Berg's history in both baseball and spying. It makes for a very good yarn; how true it is to the facts I can't say, but as we move along, events and characters tumble over each over with proper pacing and believability.

In the end, the question of the need to murder for your country is given a more-than-decent workout. In this age of drone murders (even of American citizens by the American government) and their endless collateral damage, this single important incident provides a very good point at which to look back and take stock.

From IFC Films and running a just-right 98 minutes, The Catcher Was a Spy, opens this Friday, June 22, in New York City (at the IFC Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5).  Simultaneously, the movie will also be available via VOD.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Mackenzie Davis shines in Christian Papierniak's offbeat knockout of a film


It should be clear by now to anyone who has seen her performance in either Tully or IZZY GETS THE FUCK ACROSS TOWN that the young actress Mackenzie Davis is quite a find. What she needs (as do so many actors), however, is a role strong enough to allow her talent and range to be properly displayed. TrustMovies must admit that, though he 'd seen Ms Davis in a number of earlier films, she'd never really stood out in his memory. Well, she's on his radar now.

Writer/director Christian Papierniak 
(shown at left), whose first full-length film this is, has given the actress a no-holds-barred role that she embraces with just about every ounce of energy and versatility that I have seen displayed in quite awhile. By turns angry, kind, caring and crazy, Ms Davis is so focused and frenetic that, were she not so believable and oddly endearing, she would tire you out within moments. But she doesn't. Nor does this strange film. Oh, it'll have you holding on for dear life at times. But pay proper attention -- the seeds that later bloom are all planted early on -- and I think you'll be very glad you went along for the ride.

Davis, above, plays the title role of Izzy, a young woman whose reputation seems to precede her at all times. At film's start she learns a bit of information about her ex-boyfriend and best girlfriend, and so must somehow -- in Los Angeles, with no car or money at hand -- get far across town to a necessary destination.

From the film's opening -- a nice dream sequence featuring Davis and Dolly Wells, above, right, in which some of those seeds first appear ("It's about a boy? It's always about a boy.") straight through to its low-key but very "earned" conclusion, the movie -- despite all its bizarre riffs and delightful detours -- knows where it's going and why.

Davis' talent and energy holds the film together without a single hitch, but it is also the lovely, surprising, and equally oddball turns from the ensemble supporting-cast that makes it such wonderful, additional fun. Players include the likes of Lakeith Stanfield (above, left) and Alia Shawkat (below, left), both of whom are as fine as always, with Ms Shawkat managing a fine philosophical scene that detonates just about perfectly.

Haley Joel Osment (below, right) and Ms Davis do wonders with another scene that's as sweet and finally funny as you could want, while Carrie Coon (further below), as Davis' sister, brings a fine ferocity, as well as a great singing voice to the proceedings.

The movie is full of fun, surprise and idiosyncrasy as it builds toward its real theme: modern love/relationships and the necessaity of growing up to accept what, yes, we already know and understand but maybe do not want to admit.

It's clear from the outset that Izzy knows exactly who and what her would-be boyfriend (played with just the right amount of sex appeal and emptiness by Alex Russell, below) really is. But it takes some maturation (and repetition) on her part to own up to this.

Annie Potts gets a lovely scene midway along that adds to the both the sweetness and the depth of the film, and for those of us who know L.A. and its environs, Izzy's journey will take on added familiarity and zest.

Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie, but for those of you who appreciate something different, alive and hugely kicking, this one's a must-see. From Shout! Studios  and running 86 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, June 22, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center and the Playhouse 7.                                   

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The difficulty of making that doctor's appt -- Jon Weinberg/Kris Elgstrand's FUNERAL DAY


An oddball and dark (but not black) comedy about a neurotic, narcissistic hypochondriac named Scott who seems bent on missing the funeral of one of his best friends (who has died from cancer) because poor Scott has just found what appears to be a lump on one of his testicles, as well as maybe a melanoma on his shoulder, FUNERAL DAY results in quite a few good laughs. As directed by and starring Jon Weinberg (shown at left, center, and below), this enjoyable little romp is a kind of road trip around Los Angeles as our nut-case hero fends off old friends trying to get him to that funeral and instead makes some new ones who have some very interesting ideas and suggestions for him.

Mr. Weinberg manages to direct competently enough and to perform the leading role in such as way that he makes Scott somehow bearable, as well as funny, so that his journey -- mostly on foot and running around town since has does not have a car--  pulls us into the film and keeps us pretty much glued.

The movie's fine ensemble cast adds a lot to the fun, as well, with Tyler Labine (above, left), as the friend who has the perfect solution to our hero's nut problem, and Dominic Rains (below, right), as another would-be friend who is more than ready to involve his pal in a less-than-upfront real estate transaction.

The screenplay, by Kris Elgstrand, races along nicely and also features some racy, funny dialog and situations -- the most bizarre of which involves a couple of doctors Scott meets in the park (Kristin Carey (below, center) and Jed Rees (below, left, and at bottom) who simply can't wait to take our hero home and "milk" his prostate. Ah, the meeting of modern medicine and modern romance!

As it rambles humorously along, the movie also sends up everything from materialism to creativity, friendship and much else. By the time Scott visits a sexy waitress (Sarah Adina) sporting a very nice tattoo, and then tries to break into a local hospice, you'll either be having a fine old time (as was I) or maybe have given up on this oddball movie.

I'd say stick with it and have yourself some good laughs and silly fun, even as you're treated to a raft of nice performances -- including those of Suzy Nakamura (above) and Tygh Runyan -- as little Scott is eventually made to realize that, yes, he really should grow up a bit and schedule that necessary MD appointment.

From Random Media and running a zippy 79 minutes, the movie hit DVD, digital and VOD last week -- for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

DVD/digital debut for Philippe Van Leeuw's family-under-siege drama, IN SYRIA


We hear about Syria almost daily: the bombings, the gassings, the snipers, the deaths, the destruction, the emigration (not to mention the problems Syrians have as immigrants to new countries). So the arrival of a narrative film about a Syrian family and their neighbors in crisis mode as they endure bombings that grow ever closer, sniper fire, lack of water and much else is... well, "welcome" may not be quite the right word, but IN SYRIA, written and directed by Phillipe Van Leeuw, is certainly a worthwhile addition to cinema about the middle east today.

Whoops.... TrustMovies has just managed to somehow delete his entire post, other than the initial paragraph above, just as he was about to publish it. Technology. Fuck! And he simply does not have the time or energy to reconstruct it all over again, with the photos and editorial content. So he will simply say that this very well-written, -directed and -acted movie will give you a believable and gripping account of a family and their friends and neighbors under siege and trying to survive.

Considering the subject matter, the film is relatively low on heavy-duty violence -- a sniper incident early on and then later a nasty, graphic rape --  but the threat of violence is ever-present, and the cast members, led by Israeli actress Hiam Abbass (above and below) as the mother-in-charge, deliver first-rate performances throughout. If you want to experience Syria, second-hand at least, the movie is definitely worth seeing.

From Film Movement, in Arabic with English subtitles and running a relatively swift 87 minutes, In Syria arrives on DVD and digital this coming Tuesday, June 19 -- for purchase and/or rental. As usual with Film Movement titles, the disc includes a short film, as well: this one written and directed by In Syria star Ms Abbass back in 2000. Titled Le Pain (The Bread), it takes place in a French provincial town and involves a family of newcomers, lunch, and the need to go out to buy some bread. It's nicely done and worth seeing, too. Though the combination of the short and the film itself adds up to an awfully bleak watch. Gird up your loins.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The printing press lives again in Erin Beckloff/ Andrew P. Quinn's charming, thoughtful and informative documentary, PRESSING ON: THE LETTERPRESS FILM


"Why hasn't letterpress died? It's a good question, but I don't have an answer for it," notes one interviewee early on a propos the subject of the new documentary, PRESSING ON: THE LETTERPRESS FILMThe form of printing from the time of Gutenberg through the 20th century -- until offset printing mostly took its place (only to find itself being replaced in the 21st century via the computer and the internet) -- letterpress was and is something special.

TrustMovies' interest in this form of printing began early in his career, when he worked during the late 1960s for Prentice-Hall Publishing in New Jersey, where he wrote and designed advertising brochures and interacted with printers as the brochures came to completion.

Even then, letterpress was on the wane, yet it was always something of a surprise and a joy to be able to feel that extra dimension of raised ink on paper rather than only being able to see it, as with offset printing, where the ink is absorbed into the paper. Now, I fully understand if most laymen who have had no experience in or connection with the printing industry might imagine that they would not be interested in this new documentary.

Well, wait a minute. As directed, written and co-produced by Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn, shown above with Ms Beckloff on the right, the documentary is absolutely interesting enough -- from angles historical, artistic and human -- to fully engage, amuse and move any intelligent fan of documentary films. You may come into the movie wondering why, but you'll leave it with renewed appreciation for printing art and the folk who make it.

The movie begins with a little nostalgia and history before introducing us to a raft of intelligent, well-spoken, often funny and always cogent interviewees who, together, give us quite an education on the printing process(es). Chief among these is a wonderful fellow named Dave Churchman (above), whose words are well worth hearing and mulling over. (If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Churchman has also, during the course of his life, collected over 2,000 complete metal typefaces.)

By the time we've met and spent some time with the adorable Iowa couple who collects printing presses (above), the Illinois retiree who opened up a Museum of Printing, and a number of other fascinating and fun folk, we're more than hooked. Watching that Iowa couple move a mammoth printing press out of a basement with the help of a tow truck and driver provides more suspense than a number of would-be thrillers I've seen.

Beautifully photographed -- crisp, clean, colorful and composed -- by Joseph Vella, above -- the documentary is a consistent pleasure to view. And when, some time along the way, one of our interviewees suddenly dies, and we see and hear from his son, below, the scene is particularly  moving. We feel the loss.

As we watch Hatch Show prints come off a letterpress, below, and see its owner 's enthusiasm, it's easy to feel just as enthused, for we realize that these people are often printers, artists and designers. Whatever you call them, what they produce is worthwhile. As one of them tells us, "It's history!" Says another, "I'll keep printing until the hearse shows up." From the cinematography to the music to the ideas to the talk, this is one classy, informative documentary.

From Bayonet Media and running 101 minutes, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film hits VOD and DVD this coming Tuesday, June 19 -- for purchase and/or rental.