Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Todd Haynes' WONDERSTRUCK may leave you (and your kids) in that special state. I hope so.


Finally: A children's movie that really is for children. And for their parents. And maybe especially for their grandparents. (WONDERSTRUCK is set back in time in both the 1920s and the 1970s.) Best of all, this is not one of those Marvel or DC "stupid-hero" films, of which we've seen far too many of late. At the press screening I attended a month back, here in Fort Lauderdale, as the end credits rolled, there was a burst of spontaneous applause the likes of which I've not heard in all my two years down here in Florida. There were only maybe a dozen of us critics at the screening, but that applause sounded like it was coming from a hundred or more.

As much as TrustMovies has enjoyed and appreciated the films of Todd Haynes (shown at left: Carol, I'm Not There, Far From Heaven), he would not have guessed this guy capable of directing a movie for children that worked this well. (But, then, he was equally surprised by the success of David Lowery in directing the Pete's Dragon remake.)

Mr. Haynes' use of everything from the terrifically talented young actors involved to some fine, collage-like animation, an amazing diorama and New York City's American Museum of Natural History, in combination with the increasingly lost art of genuinely imaginative storytelling (the screenplay is by Brian Selznick, from his book of the same title) joins to make Wonderstruck a wonderment indeed.

Haynes and Selznick have divided their film into two stories that eventually connect. One is that of the young girl, Rose, played with wondrous openness and grit by newcomer Millicent Simmons (above), who leaves her comfortable New Jersey home to journey to New York City back in the 1920s to find and meet her idol and famous actress (brought to life by Julianne Moore). The other story, set in the 1970s, follows Ben (Oakes Fegley, shown below, the fine young actor who also played Pete in that Dragon movie), who comes to New York City to find the father he has never known, after his mother (Michelle Williams) has died in an accident.

How these stories weave together so beautifully and delightfully -- using New York's American Museum of Natural History in perhaps the most thrilling and meaningful manner I've yet seen on film (one that puts those Night at the Museum movies rather in the shade) -- is as wondrous as all else in the film, and the scenes involving the children at play (and learning) are so filled with energy, believability and sheer joy that they take their place among the great "kid" scenes movies have given us.

Ms Moore (above) plays yet another dual role (as she does in the better-than-you've-heard and under-appreciated Suburbicon), and she is alternately hard and soft, caring and not-so, and of course aces at both.

How Haynes' and Selznick's movie works itself out is less surprising than it is a kind of consistently visual (while mostly non-verbal) amazement. The movie deals in large part with deafness, and the way it handles this -- via conception, execution and especially performances -- is, I think, exceptional, original and quite moving without ever needing to jerk those tears.

How Mr. Haynes achieves this, with the help of Mr. Selzlnick, of course, is what makes him such a singular and thrilling filmmaker. Do stay through the end credits, which are joyful, explosive, colorful and finally meaningful, too. A word must be said, too, for the other and already quite seasoned young actor in the film, Jaden Michael (above, right, and below, left), who plays Jamie, the kid who encounters Ben on the city's street and befriends him. Young Master Michael is certainly the equal of his two fine co-stars. Mr. Haynes has managed to encourage (or maybe simply allow) three indelible child performances to burgeon here, and great thanks are in order. This is magical movie-making.

One of the year's best films, Wonderstruck -- from Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions and running a just-right 115 minutes -- after opening last week on the coasts, will hit South Florida this Friday, November 3. In Miami, it plays the AMC's Aventura Mall and Sunset Place, the Cinepolis Grove 15, and Regal's South Beach 18; in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway 4; in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood 16, in Boynton Beach at the Cinemark 14, and at The Movies of Delray. On the following Friday, November 10, it will opens throughout the country. Click here to find the theater(s) nearest you.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Post-Holocaust retribution, Hungarian-style, in Ferenc Török's elegant, bleak view of 1945


We've seen a lot of Holocaust horror, along with post-Holocaust family films and secrets-and-lies investigations about coming to terms with it all. What we've explored least of, perhaps, is tales of Jewish homes and property taken over by non-Jews after the various round-ups and deportations that took place in Nazi-conquered countries throughout Europe. (We got just a taste of this in Sarah's Key and certain other films.) This loss of property, though certainly not as important as the lives lost, is at the heart of the new Hungarian film 1945.

As co-written (with Gábor T. Szántó) and directed by Ferenc Török, shown at right, 1945 takes place in that particular year, after World War II had ended and, for the first time since the deportation,  Jews -- just two of them, actually: an old man and a young one (shown below) -- arrive by train to this sleepy little Hungarian town. Why have they come, and what do they want?

From the outset, it is clear that, however quietly and subtly the townspeople take this all in, they are, to a man and woman, hugely disturbed by the Jews' appearance. Yet it is also clear that they've been aware that, someday down  the road, this would most likely happen.

As the movie progresses, and the two Jews make their way slowly toward the town, the townspeople -- from the powerful town clerk (Péter Rudolf, below, left) down to the town drunk and some lowly housewives -- fret and finger-point, give in to guilt, hide their ill-gotten valuables and/or try to decide their best course of action.

Russia is already controlling Hungary, though the iron hand of its insane Communist dictator has not yet made its power fully felt, yet it is clear that the citizens are already taking sides. And today happens also to mark the wedding of the town clerk's son (Bence Tasnádi, above, right) to a pretty local girl (Dóra Sztarenki, below, right), of whom the groom's mom (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, below, left) heartily disapproves -- for reasons that will soon (and then later, too) become clear.

The journey toward town of the Jews, together with all the tsuris this causes the townspeople and even their priest, brings out the rather shocking inhumanity of man toward his fellow men, while setting the stage for a showdown of sorts.

And yet, throughout, 1945 is resolutely un-melodramatic. as it unfolds slowly and gracefully, if consistently fraught with fear and anguish. The elegant cinematography (by Elemér Ragályi) is often stunningly beautiful, with its final image as Holocaust-redolent as you could wish. I admit that the film moves slowly at times, and it sometimes scores its points a bit too obviously, as well.

Overall, though, 1945 proves a strong enough indictment of Hungary (and also of nearly all the Nazi-conquered countries) in its treatment of the Jews to warrant a viewing and the accompanying discussion that will surely arise.

From Menemsha Films and running 91 minutes, the movie opens in New York City at both Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema this Wednesday, November 1. On November 24, it will hit the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal and Town Center, and then on December 1 in Philadelphia at Landmark's Ritz at the Bourse, followed by a limited nationwide release.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A soldier's story and a would-be movie are at the core of Erik Nelson's doc, A GRAY STATE


Unless I missed it embedded somewhere in the soundtrack of the new documentary, A GRAY STATE, I heard no mention made of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder during the film, and yet everything about the later life and untimely death of David Crowley -- the Iraq/ Afghanistan war vet whose body was found, along with those of his wife and four-year-old daughter, shot to death in their Minnesota home (the three are shown below, with their dog, who survived the slaughter) -- fairly screams out PTSD! And the more this movie uncovers about the character and mental state of Mr. Crowley, the crazier he appearing to be becoming.

TrustMovies knew little to nothing about Crowley prior to seeing this film, so he had no preconceived ideas regarding this fellow, who apparently was some sort of hero of the alt-right movement (which I abhor). And while the man seemed happy enough to join the U.S. Armed Forces post 9/11 to fight in Iraq, after being told he could come home once that deployment finished, only to learn he had been redeployed in Afghanistan, this betrayal, as he saw it, simply added to what he already felt during the Iraq deployment regarding the ways in which our government had betrayed its soldiers fighting there, as well as the people we were said to be "democratizing" in the mid-east.

Now, it doesn't take an alt-right believer to find all of the above quite true. But, hell, what western democracy, save perhaps those of some Scandinavian countries, has not by now completely sold out its citizens to the interests of the wealthy, the corporations, Wall Street and the banks? But Crowley, post wartime, decided to become a filmmaker and shoot a movie that would show a USA taken over by a government bent on destroying the lives and the "rights" of its citizens. As directed by Erik Nelson, shown at left, the documentary is certainly interesting enough, as we follow Crowley's would-be "career" and the never-made film, to be titled Gray State, that was the non-existent centerpiece of that career..

From what Mr. Nelson has cobbled together for his documentary -- lots of archival images and footage, interviews with family and friends  (Mr. Crowley's father and Crowley's wife's business-partner and friend are both quite intelligent, appealing and moving in their statements) -- what we can ascertain from all this is that Crowley himself talked a great game and did not in the least live up to all his blather.

From the snippets we're shown of the would-be director's Gray State movie, as well as the cart-before-the-horse trailer he made for it, his movie offers little more than random acts of violence inflicted upon American citizens. Despite Crowley's ability to fill a wall with "signifiers," as above, having to do with the movie and/or maybe America's betrayal (à la the usual CSI investigation), the man seems to have accomplished nothing approaching a real movie.

One can certainly understand why the alt-right, in its blinkered stupidity, has come up with various conspiracy theories regarding the family's death, a couple of which we are briefly shown here. Yet as to the motive for what happened to the family -- by the police investigation, by much of what we are shown in the doc, as well as by even Crowley's own father -- it seems to me that the younger Crowley's inability to produce what he promised his backers and fans (which can also be seen, by the way, as part and parcel of his PSTD behavior) resulted in his taking the easiest, as well as the most awful, way out.

So, yes, this story is about as depressing as it gets, but still I wished for more insight to be provided by this documentary. Instead we seem to glide over the surface of just about everything here. How and where did David and his Muslim wife, Komel, meet and bond? That would be good to know. Showing us more of that much-talked about "trailer" for his film might also have provided Crowley with more credibility. Perhaps the most striking scene of all comes as Crowley's two Hollywood backers listen, astonished, to a recording of what their "wonder boy" really thought about them and the manner in which he felt he had to "con" them.

Along the way we witness the idiocy of so much social media (and that irredeemable asshole Alex Jones), and we hear and view a David Crowley who seems, almost from the get-go, to be a little bit nuts. And then increasingly so. Still, the fellow did get a Gray State movie made, after all. It's just one that offers a very different viewpoint from his own and has been directed by someone else.

From A&E Documentaries and First Run Features, A Gray State opens in theaters this Friday, November 3, in New York City at the Cinema Village, and on Friday, November 24, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. Otherwise, wait for it on DVD, streaming and most likely the A&E Network one of these days.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

1864: Danish television (remember the Borgen series?) hits it out of the park once again


Lovers of Danish television need hear but one word -- Borgen -- to have that love erupt all over again. (You could also add the words The Bridge or The Killing for further effect.) I may be speaking too soon here, since I've only seen two of the eight episodes in this nearly eight-hour series, but those two hours are good enough to have me add the Danish TV series 1864 to my list of Best Television Ever.

"I am the times that have disappeared," explains our narrator, a lovely young woman named Inga (shown three photos below), near the series' beginning. Almost immediately those times appear in all their beauty, glory and finally horror.

1864 is a year that will resonate with any remaining Americans who know or care about history, due to our own Civil War, which was in full flower that year. In the Denmark of 1864 occurred what is said to be the bloodiest battle in Danish history. How and why this came about, along with what happened to the series' three main characters -- Inga and the two brothers she loves, Peter and Laust -- because of this, comprise a good portion of the series, created by Ole Bornedal (shown at right and maybe best remembered over here for the original Nightwatch movie). Interestingly, 1864 moves back and forth between that titular year and present day, as we meet a young student and her drug-addled boyfriend (below) in a history class during which those earlier times are being studied.

How these two centuries come together, thematically and dramatically, provide much of the series' wonder and charm, but the real kicker -- the consistent pièce de résistance -- is how each and every scene I've viewed so far has been been expertly chosen for meaning and resonance, and then written, directed and acted to near-perfection.

This would be breath-taking, except for the fact that we're so glued to things like plot and incident, not to mention the enormous beauty of the sets and cinematography, that we hardly have time to oooh and ahhhh to the degree that we ought (and normally would).

Initially, at least, the series seems utterly and devastatingly anti-nationalistic, and this could hardly come at a better or more necessary time to perhaps stall the western world's devolution. Bornedal is giving us a wonderful history lesson here, from which we have much to learn.

Whether we're seeing/hearing the patriotic stupidity being taught in the classroom of the time, or hearing the same -- but via so much more intelligent-sounding blather -- come from the lips of the politicians of the day or their mouthpiece, here being put in touch with his emotions via a famous actress of the time  (Borgen's own Sidse Babett Knudsen, above), we're privy to quite a bundle of words and ideas.

1864's great cast includes another Borgen stalwart, Pilou Asbæk (shown at bottom, right), playing here the son of the wealthy landowner in whose employ the family of those two brothers (above) works. Inga is herself the daughter of his estate manager.

Along the way we get some Shakespeare (Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream), plus scene after scene that is, by turns, enchanting, shocking, funny and always rich. By the end of episode two, we're nowhere near war, but if 1864 keeps up its pace and amazements, it is sure to make Danes of us all.

Available via MHz Choice, the series, all by itself, ought to make worthwhile the cost of an entire year of this unusual streaming service -- which is dedicated to the best in international television. For more information on 1864, click here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

MANSFIELD 66/67: P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' snarky ode to that blond bombshell


Part camp, part history, part gossip/rumor, part archival treasure trove, part animation, MANSFIELD 66/67 purports to give us the inside story of not-quite super-star Jayne Mansfield, her relatively short life, thirteen-year career and grizzly death. Certainly as much mockumentary as documentary, the movie joins the ever-growing ranks of what are now termed hybrid docs. Whatever you might have thought of Ms Mansfield -- if you're even old enough to remember her -- chances are you'll leave this semi-sleazy little movie feeling that the star somehow been cheated out of any kind of genuine bio-pic.

To be fair, the film's press release describes the doc as "a true story based on rumor and hearsay, where classic documentary interviews and archival materials are blended with dance numbers, performance art, and animation." That's an on-the-mark description, and the film's lengthy "disclaimer," which is the very first thing you'll see on screen, seems to underscore this idea.

As directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (shown above, with Ebersole on the right), the movie is almost consistently hit and miss, beginning with a post-disclaimer choral group singing a kind of ode of Ms Mansfield that's campy and cute. But when the group comes back again, below, as patrons of a hair salon, its routine is mostly obvious and unfunny.

Over and over during this mock/doc, you may find yourself asking, Why are they showing us this? And so damned much of it, too? Mostly, TrustMovies suspects, this is simply "filler," so that the film will last the requisite full-length running time.

Information-wise, the doc's ace-in-the-hole would seem to be Mansfield's relationship with Satanist Anton LaVey (above), but even this is babbled about for far too long without giving us much of anything ether definitive or all that important. The movie includes interviews with everyone from John Waters (in tackier mode than usual) to Kenneth Anger, Mary Woronov and gossip monger A.J. Benza, plus some would-be historians, culture mavens and assorted drag performers (one of whom is shown below).

The worst thing about the film is the blond would-be Mansfield look-alike (who looks almost nothing like the star, save for some blond tresses) and may be a female impersonator, in any case. This person takes up far too much screen time, dancing and carrying on and dragging out this too-long movie by maybe ten or fifteen minutes too many. Is she/he the director's girlfriend/boyfriend or son/daughter, perhaps? Who knows? Who cares -- except that s/he brings the movie down considerably.

The doc is not a dead loss. There are some fun and/or funny moments along the way, and recapping this sex goddess' career may spark some interest in her oeuvre from the younger set.

Overall, however, this is the case of a possibly good idea gone south or maybe just a bad one given a few good laughs before being done to death. Ms Mansfield, who made some fun films during her short stay, deserves better. And so perhaps does even the bizarre Mr. LaVey (above).

From filmbuff and running 84 minutes, the movie opens today, Friday, October 27, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts in conjunction with a couple of Ms Mansfield's better-known movies. You can check the theater's daily schedule here. Otherwise, the film will plays at a number of cities around the country. Click here to view them all.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

THE DIVINE ORDER: Switzerland's tardy response to women's rights in Petra Volpe's hugely enjoyable adult coming-of-age movie


I had forgotten just how very late in the western-civilization game that the country of Switzerland finally recognized women's right to vote: 1971. That's a jaw-dropper. (You can find the year in which each of the world's countries recognized women's suffrage here.) Swiss filmmaker Petra Volpe has made a tasty little delight centered around that landmark Swiss year and what happened in one particular small town that helped change things. Unlike 2015's much darker Suffragette, THE DIVINE ORDER proves a lighthearted but also smart and genuinely "felt" film about this fraught time -- when the rest of the western world was experiencing everything from the sexual revolution to anti-war protests but Switzerland was still back in the dark ages concerning certain subjects.

As both writer and director, Ms Volpe (shown at right) trusts her subject to make its own importance clear, and she doesn't paint her little town as any hotbed of anti-woman feelings. It's simply patriarchal and old-fashioned -- with all that goes along with those conditions. Old habits die hard, as they say, and Switzerland proves not much different from other locales -- just later in coming to terms with change.

The group of women Volpe creates is given fine life by the set of actresses chosen for the roles, beginning with the film's wonderful star, Marie Leuenberger (of Amnesia and The Circle), who won the Tribeca Film Fest's Best Actress award for her work here.

Ms Leuenberger, above, plays Nora, a mousy little Swiss hausfrau with a decent, hunky husband (Maximilian Simonischek, below, right), a couple of cute kids, and a nasty, lazy father-in-law and brother-in-law in tow. When an interesting, random and quite believable confluence of events forces a crack in Nora's sense of identity and justice, that crack keep opening slowly into, well, a whole new world of change.

Helping that change occur are a number of local women, each with her own special problem to solve, but each also open to aiding the others in solving theirs. So this is a "solidarity" movie, yes, but it's one with a large, open heart and a mind sharp enough to recognize that the "other" -- men, and even some of the town's women who refuse to understand what suffrage and justice could bring -- are not the enemy per se but rather "family" that must be made to embrace progress.

How all this comes about proves alternately funny, moving and very specific -- bringing together several generations of women (and men) into a time of change in which most do not always behave in an admirable way, yet still manage to learn from their mistakes.

Featuring a plethora of juicy scenes, the movie's best of all is the one (below) in which the sexual revolution suddenly enters these women's lives as they learn for the first time about the look, as well as the uses, of their own vagina.

Sure, The Divine Order is a feel-good movie, but it offers enough irony, human foibles and satire (of religion and hypocrisy, among other subjects) to ensure that the feeling good is fully deserved. Performances are fine down the line, with Ms Leuenberger absolutely memorable as a country mouse who becomes a "tiger" without losing a trace of her humanity or generosity.

From Zeitgeist Films -- in German and a bit of Italian with English subtitles, and running a just-about-perfect 96 minutes -- the movie is Switzerland's entry into the Best Foreign Language Film "Oscar" race. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find it placed on the shortlist. The film opens tomorrow, Friday, October 27, in New York City (at Film Forum) and Santa Barbara (the Riviera) and on November 17 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. Here in Boca Raton it will open at The Living Room Theater on December 1. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.