Saturday, June 23, 2018

Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED: an unintentional remake of Beatriz at Dinner

Style- and character-wise, FIRST REFORMED, the new film written and directed by Paul Schrader, has almost nothing in common with last year's movie, Beatriz at Dinner, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta. Theme- and content-wise, however, the two films are close enough to seem like two sides of the same coin.

Consider: both films present a "religious" protagonist who, in suffering through a spiritual crisis, comes upon a person of wealth and power who is doing indelible harm to the environment, both locally and globally. Our protagonist sees the opportunity to rid the world of this man, and then must decide if and how to act on this.

Granted, Mr. Schrader (the writer/director is shown at right) has a sensibility and style that could hardly be more different from those of the Arteta/White combo. The latters' film is as entertaining and full of life as the former's is bleak and dour: think Bresson by way of Bergman.

Further, though in Schrader's film, his leading character -- a priest in the titular Protestant First Reformed Church (played as well as possible under the circumstances, by Ethan Hawke, shown above and below) --  is an alcoholic in danger of losing the sparse congregation he barely has, the Beatriz character is equally religious, a masseuse and healer who has no "church," yet from all we see and hear about her and her history, has enabled patient after patient to embrace a better life.

Do you find it as odd-yet-telling as do I that so many of our critics so easily embrace the "angsty" and by-now thoroughly done-to-death spiritual crisis of a male priest in a brick-and-mortar church, while pretty much ignoring something just as vital and important experienced by a woman who is simply what you might call "spiritual" but who has no edifice/congregation? (Salma Hayek in the role of Beatriz gives an even deeper and infinitely more varied performance than does the highly constrained Mr. Hawke.)

Both films leave their protagonist, as well as their audience, up in the air, yet Beatriz does this in a manner that is absolutely understandable and acceptable because the question of commiting a murder in order to stop something hugely evil shakes its heroine's individual morality to its core. In both films, the increasingly timely and vital question is asked, What action can we/must we take to help stop the destruction of our world? The answer is right in front of us in both films, but can that road be taken by a supposedly moral person?

Arteta and White cannot answer because they know that there is no answer in terms of a single person being able to change what must come from an entire country/government. Schrader's answer is almost shockingly melodramatic and predictable. Without, I hope, giving away spoilers, what we have here goes something like this: I must do this -- sacrifice myself along with many others, some of them innocent -- in order for good to triumph over evil. And then: Oh, my god, I can't do this because everything has suddenly changed.

How it changes and why makes the damning difference to this pristine-yet-overwrought and very over-rated film. Unfortunately for intelligent audiences who've seen a few movies over their lifetime, the film's climax and denouement are handled so predictably and obviously that viewers will figure out just about every step before it happens. And then be frustrated by the simple-minded silliness of it all. But because this is such serious stuff, folk, we ask that you try not to laugh.

That First Reformed has received near-unanimously good reviews boggles my mind because the movie spells literally everything out and leaves so little room for wiggle. It is also relentlessly dour and slow-paced. On the plus side is the excellent performance from Cedric the Entertainer (as Cedric Kyles), shown above, in the role of the minister of the town's mega-church. Just as he did in the little seen but terrific Grassroots, Cedric brings his keen intelligence and his especially engaging quality to a role that could easily descend into cliche.

In the distaff lead, Amanda Seyfried (above) can do little more than fill out what is a standard female role. Victoria Hill does better playing the church-woman with the hots for Hawke who simply cannot take 'no' for an answer.

TrustMovies rushed out to see First Reformed once it opened down here in South Florida because he is a long-time fan of Schrader's work as both writer and director. As other critics have pointed out, this movie would seem to encapsulate so many of the themes and idea that have been important to the filmmaker throughout his life and career. So true. But, gosh, I wish these ideas had come to better fruition.

From A24 and running 113 minutes, the movie may still be playing in a few theaters. To find one near you, click here.

Friday, June 22, 2018

An Indonesian cinema artifact: Mouly Surya's pretty, silly, would-be feminist fable, MARLINA THE MURDERER IN FOUR ACTS

OK: TrustMovies admits that he's hardly any kind of expert on Indonesian film, or for that matter Indonesian culture in general. Given that, he's at a loss to find much more than very pretty cinematography and a weird kind of ersatz feminism in the just-released-here-theatrically road trip/slasher movie from Indonesia, MARLINA THE MURDERER IN FOUR ACTS. Directed and co-written by a filmmaker new to me named Mouly Surya (shown below), the cinematography is sometimes ravishingly beautiful, both interior
and ex, while the film's titular leading lady, played by an actress named Marsha Timothy (shown above and below), who is also very attractive but keeps her performance so close to the vest that, whether by design or talent level, very few emotions are allowed to be seen. In the film's beginning a man arrives on motorcycle to the little shack and farm owned by our heroine to inform her that six of his pals will soon be arriving on scene to steal all her livestock and then rape her. But she should not feel at all bad about this because: Imagine the fun and delight of begin able to have sex with seven different guys!

They arrive, Marlina is asked to prepare chicken soup for dinner, two of the younger men leave with the livestock, and the rest remain to dine on the soup and Marlina. Only one of them -- the gang's leader -- gets to have sex, however, for reasons you will soon observe.

From there the movie and Marlina hit the road to go to the local police station (quite far away) and report all this. Ms Surya's film is divided, as its title explains, into four acts: The Robbery, The Journey, The Confession and The Birth.

Yes, one of Marlina's friends (above), whom she meets along the way, is pregnant, and this allows us to partake of some interesting-if-oddball cultural assumptions about things like breech birth and adultery. To a fault, the males pictured here -- from the gang of robbers to a nasty husband to the single policeman (below) whom we meet -- are stupid, entitled assholes, reflecting, I 'm sure, Indonesia's brand of patriarchy as observed by the filmmaker.

But Ms Surya's attempt at plot machinations -- involving everything from beheadings to a psychologically-inspired ghost to a sweet little girl who misses her mother -- seem so alternately grotesque or sentimental that the movie hardly registers as much more than a silly-but-pretty little fable. 

Still, when it's pretty, it is quite something, so your eye will not mind the lovely scenery; nor, if you're a slasher fan, will you tire of the slice-and-dice swordplay. For me, however, the molasses-like pacing made the movie's 93 minutes seem like three full hours. The moral, I guess: Choose something other than chicken soup off the menu of a woman you're about to rob. Oh, and by the way, whatever happened to all that stolen livestock? Doesn't Marlina need it back in order for her farm to survive? Oh, well: I am probably just being picky....

An Icarus Films and KimStim release, in Indonesian with English subtitles, the movie opens today, Friday, June 22, in New York City at the IFC Center and on Friday, July 6, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. It is also said to be coming during a couple of days in August to Brooklyn's Nighthawk Cinema.

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).  Here in South Florida, the film is playing now at the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. 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.