Monday, May 22, 2017

Saffire & Schlesinger's RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN goes inside a legendary ballet dancer facing age, pain and retirement

A great ballerina coming to terms with aging, a possibly career-ending hip operation, necessary change and the eventual need to do something other than dance -- all this and more is covered in one of the best ballet-dancer-biographies yet brought to the screen. RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN, the new documentary from Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, is right up there with Nancy Buirski's Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and much better than the recent Misty Copeland bio-doc, A  Ballerina's Tale.

Saffire and Schlesinger (shown at right) appear to have had remarkable access to Ms Whelan -- at rehearsal, in actual performance, at home with her husband (photographer, David Michalek), and with her New York City Ballet "boss" Peter Martins (who, as always, comes across as someone you can trust about as far as you can toss), and with many of her ballet partners, past and present. The result is a multi-faceted look at Whelan that makes the ballerina seems remarkably consistent: a huge talent who is simultaneously a good person. As one of her contemporaries points out far into the movie, Whelan's behavior to everyone in the company -- from security guard to dresser to other dancers -- changed for the better the way that the dance company operated.

Restless Creature (which doubles as the name of the dance project Whelan came up with as a route to her post-NYC Ballet career), though it does not spend all that much time on her past and childhood history, opens in media res, as the dancer is faced with an upcoming hip operation that could end her dancing career. How she handles this, with courage and difficulty, is as exemplary as so much else that we see.

And yet, because the filmmakers zero in so finely and consistently on this woman, we can easily believe what we see and hear.  Whelan does indeed seem beloved of so many of her co-workers and choreographers, and as we see her dance (at first just in snippets, then longer and more involved as the documentary proceeds), we actually get some understanding of how difficult all this is and why dance careers, so like sports careers, are usually quite circumscribed, if not downright short. (At age 47 -- when the movie was shot -- Whelan has had an unusually long and successful run of 30 years.)

We hear from her choreographers, too, and learn something of how they work with their dancers to create the beauty and magic we view from the audience. Though the idea -- first of the operation and what its result might be, and then of the actual retirement that looms  -- seem to have our dancer often on the verge of tears, she never (or the filmmaker have chosen not to let us see this) gives in to them.

The post-operation ups and down are shown us, too, and at times the movie seems almost like a suspense thriller: So the career is over? Wait: Maybe not! "When am I gonna know that I'm safe again?"  the  dancer asks at one point.

Overall, bits from some 20 different ballets are shown us, and at the conclusion, we realize what all this has been building toward: a final dance that is so sensational that you'll fully appreciate and understand both why ballet is such a beloved art form and what Whelan has done to enrich it. Then all the applause and the flowers and the love arrive. What a moment. What a movie!

From Abramorama, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens in New York City this Wednesday, May 24, at Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. It hits Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal on Friday, June 9, and will play a number of other cities around the country, as well. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Shakespeare, love, and a lot more mix in Matías Piñeiro's latest, HERMIA & HELENA

When I first saw Matías Piñeiro's charming, unusual and short (just 61 minutes) film, Viola, back in 2013, I was very taken with the work of this Argentine filmmaker. Since then Señor Piñeiro has made The Princess of France (all of 67 minutes) and now his latest film, HERMIA & HELENA, which lasts a nearly-normal 88 minutes. Unfortu-nately, he is not quite ready for full-length.

While his themes and concerns -- everything from Shakespeare to theater productions to love relationships of all sorts -- are on display, as usual, the movie runs downhill as it expands to include other Shakespearean devices such as the discovery of parentage.

As usual, the writer/director (shown at left) has again cast as his leading character, Camila, with the alluring and talented Augustina Muñoz (shown below), who provides beauty, appeal and some surprise as the young woman -- a theater grad student (or maybe already professional) working in New York City on a new Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- at the center of a whole bunch of ongoing and/or would-be relationships. Ms Muñoz, is always a pleasure to watch, but the actress cannot easily carry as much baggage as Piñeiro has given her here. All the relationships and characters we meet end up with so little weight or importance that they seem to disappear into thin air even as we're watching them. (Shakespeare could get away with this because he had such gorgeous, literate, amazing verbiage to offer. Piñeiro's dialog, while sometime clever, hardly comes close.)

Still, this worked well enough in Viola, where the themes were simply love and theater, and where the movie ended before it had time to curdle or bore. Here -- even with the added use of a little "magic" (à la that Midsummer Night's Dream) -- it all adds up to less than the sum of its many parts.

The scene involving the connection of Camila with the father she's never met proves so slight and bizarrely ungrounded by anything other than mere plot contrivance that what might be pivotal in most movies proves no more important nor deeply felt than anything else in the film.

The cast includes some of Piñeiro' usual Argentine actors, along with some new American and international actors (and filmmakers) from the indie scene such as Keith PoulsonDan SallittDustin Guy Defa and Mati Diop. Everyone comes through nicely. But the movie -- for all its charm, smart performances and lovely visuals -- simply floats away.

From Kino Lorber, in English and Spanish (with English subtitles), Hermia & Helena opens this coming Friday, May 26, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Metrograph. Elsewhere? We'll have to wait and see. You can update the currently scheduled playdates by clicking here and then scrolling down.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A sort-of re-release for the Flesher/Mack/ Ordynans indie rom-com, BURNING ANNIE

Would that the movie -- BURNING ANNIE -- were half as fraught and fascinating as its own history, which you can read all about here in an article that appeared recently in Moviemaker magazine. The film itself is not awful by any means. It has quite a few chuckles and, depending on your sense of humor, some outright guffaws. But it is mostly "of its time," and that time, unfortunately, has pretty much passed. Begun in 1999 but only semi-finished in 2004, it finally made its theatrical debut at a single Manhattan theaters in 2007.

One month after theatrical release, its DVD hits the street, and since then, the film has been in limbo. The brain child of writers Randy Mack and Zack Ordynans (shown above, with Mack on the left) and directed by Van Flesher, Burning Annie offers a main character, Max (Gary Lundy, below), who is besotted with Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He watches this film constantly and appears to try to live and love by its "rules." This is particularly odd, since Max seems not to understand the film in the least.

The Allen character (in Annie Hall and in nearly every other of Woody's many movies) is intent on trying to fit into the the normal world and in the process get laid, while young Max does precisely the opposite. He rejects that world and pushes away literally everyone, especially all the women around him. (When he finally does get laid, the moviemakers conveniently leave out what led up to this momentous moment.)

The mostly non-stop dialog is often fun, though now -- some 15 or so years later -- it can also feel rather forced and too of-its-time, while the acting ranges from OK to good. Lundy seems like a somewhat cuter and sexier Jesse Eisenberg (who burst upon the scene during the years that Burning Annie was being made), but perhaps lacking the latter's extraordinary acting chops. (TrustMovies would not be surprised if some of the roles that might have gone to Lundy went to Eisenberg instead.)

The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate, but the Annie Hall thing hangs over the movie something fierce and finally weighs it down enough to make it difficult for this would-be rom-com soufflé to rise.

From Armak Productions and The Sundance Institue Creative Distribution Initiative, Burning Annie will get its worldwide HD re-release this coming Monday, May 15, on every major HD platform, including Vimeo On Demand, Netflix, iTunes, Vudu and Amazon

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Andrzej Wajda's final film, AFTERIMAGE, opens in theaters from Film Movement

Multi-award-winning (including an honorary "Oscar") Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, who died this past year, directed some 56 movie and television projects and wrote, co-wrote or supplied the idea for 36 of them. Seldom out of the spotlight for long, his work, beginning in the 1950s with classics like Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, continued through the decades and included his famous "Men" movies (Marble and Iron), Danton, his well-received Katyn (2007), and now finally AFTERIMAGE -- his latest and last film.

Wajda, shown at left, has moved, over the decades, from a somewhat experimental and challenging filmmaker to a more conventional one, albeit with a very good understanding of film technique, storytelling and visual smarts. If this final film -- that details the downward spiral of the career of the Polish artist Władysław Strzemiński, once Poland had come, post- World War II, under the thumb of the idiotic Russian Communist rule --

is something less than much of Wajda's oeuvre, it is still worth seeing, as a goodbye to this talented, innovative filmmaker, as well as introducing many of us to the life and work of this renowned Polish modern artist. As portrayed by Bogusław Linda (above), Strzemiński is seen as both a talented artist and teacher, obsessed with art to the dereliction of his duty as husband and parent. His wife, as best I can recall, has already died when the film begins, but his daughter -- sadly but beautifully portrayed as child forced to grow up too soon by Bronislawa Zamachowska (below) -- is in desperate need of a loving and providing parent.

This is clearly beyond the scope of our artist's understanding or ability, and the movie does not try to sugar-coat his failings. It is much more interested, however, in Strzemiński's work as artist and professor at the art school he helped to found and run.

We see how, once Russia controls Poland, Communist philosophy and politics rule all, and how the career and indeed the entire life of someone who opposes this in the name and spirit of art, is all too easily destroyed. In this case, the artist -- unlike so many others in so many places throughout the world -- refuses to kowtow to the power of the new state and so pays for it by having his art destroyed, his opportunity for any employment taken from him, and finally by being unable to eat and eventually to live.

This downward spiral is beautifully filmed, however, with some exquisite compositions and, amidst the drab Eastern European surrounding, an occasional popping of color (via that modern art), and some lush outdoor landscapes (the cinematographer is Pawel Edelman).

We also meet the artist's students (above), who clearly love and cherish him and his ideas, a few of which we hear over the course of the film. I wish the movie has given us more of these, however, as the primary one would seem to be: Be true to yourself in your art. Even if, as appears the case with some of these students, you have not a lick of talent.

The look the movie gives us into "state-sanctioned art" (above) proves fun and interesting, too. Ah, those paintings of "workers" and posters depicting the Communist leaders that keep popping up -- particularly in the factory where Strzemiński finally finds work (until the state gets wind that he's employed once again and immediately has him fired).

Overall, the tale told here is so unrelentingly bleak and obvious, with nary a surprise in store, that we know exactly where we're going from scene two onward. (The movie's opening scene, taking place in the lush outdoors, is gorgeous and funny. Hang on to it.) Granted, the lessons to be learned from the history of dictator-led Communism (none of them benign) bear repeating, lest we forget. And now, with Donald Trump at our helm, together with a large percentage of our populace that appears neither to know history nor care about it, I suppose we'll have to learn that "dictator" lesson all over again. And it really does not matter whether the political philosophy behind the dictator is Communism, Capitalism, or -- as in the case of Trump -- just make money and garner fame. The result is the same: Toe the line or else.

So, Mr. Wajda's final film, then, is a warning, as well as a history lesson and a look at a famous artist whom many of us will not know. It's worth seeing, even if we may choose to remember other of Wajda's movies more fondly and/or find them more memorable.

From Film Movement, in Polish with English subtitles and running just 98 minutes, Afterimage opens tomorrow, Friday, May 19, in New York City at n NYC at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th and in LA at Laemmle's Royal andPlayhouse 7 on May 26th. A national release will follow.
Click here (then scroll down) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Philippe Falardeau's CHUCK: an under-the-radar movie that will knock your socks off

French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau ought to be a lot better known that he is. With seven full-length films behind him -- four of which TrustMovies has seen and found exceptional, each in its own way -- this fellow has the knack of directing a movie (and sometimes writing it, too) with exactly the tone, style, pacing and all the rest that the subject requires. That the four films I've seen are wildly divergent in subject, tone and style, makes Falardeau's work all the more impressive.

There's no way you could watch one of these films and pronounce, "Ah, yes: a typical Philippe Falardeau movie!" (The filmmaker is pictured at right.) They're simply too different, one from another. Congorama (2006) is like little seen before or since: a search-for-family movie that goes from real to surreal and beyond without missing a beat. It's Not Me, I Swear! (2008) is all about a oddball ten-year-old with growing pains, and it's as good a film, in its own way, as is The 400 Blows. His next movie, Monsieur Lazhar (2011) was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and might easily have won. It's that good, as it takes in everything from education to immigration, suicide to sacrifice. Based on a one-man theater piece, the manner in which Falardeau opens it up to include a whole world is in itself stunning. (You can read my earlier interview with M. Falardeau here.)

Now comes CHUCK, another "little" movie that turns out to be big in every important way. Here, the filmmaker is working with his starriest cast yet -- the likes of Liev Schreiber (above and below), Elizabeth Moss, Naomi Watts and Ron Perlman -- as he tells (with the help of a four-man writing team, including Mr. Schreiber) the tale of the boxer, Chuck Wepner, whose life story appears to have inspired a certain Oscar-winning movie named Rocky.

So, this time Falardeau is dealing with a bio-pic coupled to a period piece (most of the film is set in the 1970s), and -- surprise! not. -- the filmmaker gets everything right.  Performances are stunning without ever once calling attention to themselves by offering us "great acting" in quotes. Every actor simply lives his/her role and is utterly convincing at every moment. And the sets, hairstyles, cars, clothes and all the other "period" details? Perfect, again without calling undue attention to this fact. In addition to being period, everything looks quite "lived in."

Mr. Wepner's tale is also a warts-and-all kind of story, in which Chuck hardly comes off as any great guy. But this, too, makes the movie seems all the more real. This fellow cheats on his wife (Ms Moss, above right, makes her so much deeper and more "felt" than the usual wronged woman), takes dive after dive into booze and dope, and -- when he finally get the chance at a small role in Rocky 2 -- he can't even manage to arrive on time or sober for the audition.

Yet so real and so deeply does Mr. Schreiber probe into character and need that his performance -- were Chuck the kind of movie that Academy members made sure they saw -- would be a shoo-in for a nomination. This actor is as good here as he has ever been. And that is saying a lot.

Perlman (above, right) is just fine as Chuck's trainer/manager, and Ms Watts (at left below and further below) excels, as usual, at disappearing into a role so thoroughly that you may not even recognize her at first. She is as good here as she was in Mulholland Drive, though the role itself is not nearly as major.

As appears to be the constant case, M. Falardeau has again given us one terrific movie that seems to be disappearing without a trace -- despite mostly excellent reviews and a "look" and a cast to die for. This is the kind of film that will find its audience over time, probably on cable to streaming, and will have people saying/asking, "This was a great little film. Why haven't we heard more about it?" Indeed.

From IFC Films and running a solid, entrancing 98 minutes, Chuck hit the cultural centers a couple of weeks back (in Los Angeles, look for it at Laemmle theaters; in New York City, you can view it at the AMC Lincoln Square 13), and it will open here in South Florida this Friday, May 19, in the Miami area at the AMC Aventura 24, Regal South Beach 18, and AMC Sunset Place 24. On May 26 it will open in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood 16 and in West Palm Beach at the AMC CityPlace 20.

Prosecuting those "big" banks? Yeah, right. Steve James' invigorating, infuriating doc, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

Those of us who lived in the New York City area back in 2012 may remember a news story about a small community bank located in Manhattan's Chinatown, the heads of which were arrested and taken off in handcuffs as they kept their faces from being seen -- to major media coverage, of course -- due to their supposedly falsifying loan applications for mortgages. This sort of thing was what nearly brought the world economy to its knees, right? So, hey: finally law enforcement is going after the bad guys? Yeah, sure.

Steve James, shown at left, who has over the years given us some pretty impressive documentaries (Hoop Dreams and Life Itself come immediately to mind), now offers up a doc -- ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL -- that practically defines the word injustice, showing it masquerading as its very opposite while simultaneously taking in other American preoccupations such as racism, bullying and toadying to wealth and power. All of this is shown so clearly, quietly and therefore all the more shockingly by Mr. James -- via the Chinese-American family that owns the bank and who had to endure years of prosecution and its accompanying trauma and stress -- that the viewer's response at the end of this 90-minute documentary is likely to be one of relief coupled to immense anger.

How Mr. James weaves his tale of how and why and what happened next is exemplary, letting us watch and learn how this bank, that had served its community so well over decades, came into being and continued to operate. We meet the bank's founder Thomas Sung (above), his wife Hwei Lin (below) and and their daughters. shown further below -- one of whom worked for the very justice department that prosecuted the bank.

We also learn how the bank handled -- in the kind of exemplary fashion that, had the bigger banks done the same, might have prevented the financial crisis -- the loan officer who it discovered was arranging fraudulent loans. The trial itself, that we see via courtroom drawings, is handled with verve and suspense. Thanks to the media coverage, which as usual is very big on initial arrest and less so regarding further results, you may not know or remember how things turned out.

We get to know the family somewhat, too -- from Mr. and Mrs Sung's loved of everyone's favorite "banking" movie (It's a Wonderful Life) to their eating habits and how the kids must care for their dad -- as the film wends its way to completion.

How the prosecution, led by District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and his staff, built its case (out of very little and yet cost taxpayers 10 million dollars and five years of time) adds to the anger that arises and should make those of us who voted for Vance very sorry for our misplaced trust. How the prosecution reacts to its failure proves even more sour and troubling.

What rankles most, however, is the constant sense of injustice that hovers over this entire movie. Why this bank -- when its record concerning solid loans that were paid off was among the very best? Why this bank -- which, when it first learned of the irregular practices of its loan officer, fired the man and immediately reported the incident to compliance? Why this bank -- which served its community's needs for so long and so well?

See the documentary, arrive at your own conclusions, and start seething. From PBS Distribution, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens this Friday, May 19, in New York City at the IFC Center, in Los Angeles on June 9 at Landmark's NuArt, and will then have a limited release nationwide.
Click here to find the theater nearest you.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

So much more than it might initially appear: Rama Burshtein's THE WEDDING PLAN

When, a month or so back, we caught a trailer for THE WEDDING PLAN at a local movie house, this new film from Rama Burshtein looked for all the word like some silly Israeli sitcom/rom-com in which a bride-to-be is dumped by her man but decides to go ahead with a wedding anyhow -- in hopes of finding a new groom in time for the deadline. Oy! Right? But hold on. Burshtein, a born-in-New-York-City filmmaker (shown below) who works in Israel and who gave us the interesting Fill the Void a few years back, has more on her fervid mind that mere laughs and romance.

Ms Burshtein is interested in everything from the Jewish religion (Orthodox-style) to faith, psychology (she's quite astute in this department), love and limerence. And her heroine, Michal -- beautifully played by newcomer Noa Koler (above and below) with a ripe combo of intelligence, desperation and genuine appeal -- is no typical ditz, even though she does do a number of ditsy things in the course of this funny, surprising, and finally somewhat unsettling film. Burshtein and her leading character question an awful lots of the things that the Jewish orthodox religion would prefer that we take for granted and then shut up about.

Chief among these is -- as usual with any fundamentalist religion -- the male prerogative. But more than merely bashing us menfolk, Burshtein points the finger of guilt just as squarely at the gals and how they react to the idea of marriage and men and being saved and sheltered. Not that this is all so wrong, mind you, but it's more about how this attitude can come to control one's life choices.

What makes the movie most enjoyable and penetrating, however, is the way in which the filmmaker treats all her characters: She lets us see them as they are, and not simply via her heroine's perspective. Consequently, they're richer and more interesting people -- from the unusual matchmaker, a visit to whom begins the movie, to Michal's friends and relatives (above), and especially the prospective "grooms" (a date or two with each that the movie treats us to).

From the initial no-can-do bridegroom (above) to the unusually alert and empathetic fellow Michal meets on her trip to the Ukraine (below), these guys are not the nitwit why-bother "dates" with which so many rom-coms regale us. The movie also makes it clear that this woman's self-image is not all that it might be (note how Michal manages to somehow reject what is being offered to her again and again).

As D-Day approaches and the possibilities seem to lessen, Ms Burshtein would appear to be painting her heroine into a corner from which she can't escape. But not quite. The filmmaker's insistence on addressing faith, religion and a woman's place in all this pays off -- but not at all in the way you will expect.

TrustMovies  could be way off-base here, but it seems to me that the filmmaker is indicting orthodox Jewish religion as offering its women far too little too late, thus forcing them into the kind of servitude (to god, or so the religion says, but funny how it's really to men) that renders them second-class. But how to get out of this?

Burshtein offers more questions than answers. But her questions are intelligent ones, and her movie is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining and smart. Just like her heroine.

From Roadside Attractions and running 110 minutes, The Wedding Plan opened last weekend in New York City and hits a number of other cities this Friday, May 19. Here in South Florida, it will play the Miami area at the AMC Aventura Mall 24, Regal's South Beach 18 and The Classic Gateway in Fort Lauderdale. In Palm Beach County look for it at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theaters, Cinemark Palace 20 and Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth the latter on May 26), and the AMC City Place 20. Elsewhere around the country? I'm sure so, but I have not been able to locate a link to the locations in other areas. Good luck, as this movie is worth seeking out.