Friday, July 19, 2019

Want a look at Alec Baldwin's only directorial effort? SHORTCUT TO HAPPINESS hits Blu-ray


Yes, it was made 16 years ago and took four of those years to even get a cable television release, and though Alec Baldwin, whose first and only effort as director SHORTCUT TO HAPPINESS is, had his name removed from the credits and replaced by the very occasionally used nom de plume Harry Kirkpatrick, it turns out that this oddball movie is not nearly as "train-wreck" bad as a certain New York Post critic insisted at the time of its release.

The movie is a modern-day retelling of the famous sell-your-soul-to-the-you-know-who tale, The Devil and Daniel Webster, but unfortunately the role of the Devil was given to an actress -- Jennifer Love Hewitt (at left) -- who simply did not have the charisma, versatility or talent to do it justice. She's not awful, mind you (just as this movie is not), but she is noticeably lacking enough to make you begin thinking of how much better any number of other actresses might have been in this role (Charlize Theron comes immediately to mind), even as you watch the movie unfold.

The leading role is essayed by Mr. Baldwin (above), generally an OK actor, as he is again here. As director, from what we can tell by this new Blu-ray  -- via a version of the film said to have been tampered with by others -- Baldwin proves only adequate. His pacing is a little slow, and most of the creative choices seem by-the-book. But, hey, this is certainly not damning. The original story was a good one, as it remains here, in a retelling that has a getting-nowhere novelist selling his soul for, yes, "success."

The movie's ace-in-the-hole is an Oscar-winning actor who often demonstrates that "ace" at work: Anthony Hopkins (above), playing a certain Daniel Webster, here a noted publisher to whom Baldwin's character comes for advice and gets some -- though it's not quite what he wanted.

And, yes, Shortcut to Happiness does offer, as in the original story, quite the courtroom scene late in the game, with a jury made up of literary "unforgettables."

One of the pleasures of viewing this 16-year-old film lies in its supporting cast, which includes a good Dan Aykroyd (at right), playing a sort-of friend and would-be novelist, and a typically-but-appropriately used Kim Cattrall (below, right) as high-rolling literary agent.

Also seen are a very young Amy Poehler (lovely in a non-comedic role) and Bobby Cannavale (noticeable in a single scene as a nasty-then-befuddled cop).

In all, Shortcut to Happiness offers a mildly diverting 106 minutes made up of mostly the expected, with maybe a tiny surprise or two tossed in to keep us awake. The time passes in relative enjoyment, and the result, while entertaining, was evidently enough -- click here and keep scrolling down to read more about the supposed trials and tribulations of finally getting the movie released -- to keep Mr. Baldwin away from the director's chair for what looks like the remainder of his career.

Distributed here in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group, the Blu-ray, as well as the plain-old-DVD version, hit the street this past Tuesday, July 16 -- for purchase and (I would  hope) rental, too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Marie Losier tracks the unusual once again via the gay Luchador, CASSANDRO THE EXOTICO!


If you're familiar with the documentary work of French-born filmmaker Marie Losier (The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye), you'll know that this sweet and humane woman is most attracted to the outsider, the "other" whose existence might seem, in the face of it, almost crazy, if not outright miraculous. So it is with the subject of Losier's latest documentary to find theatrical release, CASSANDRO THE EXOTICO!

This is the story of a man -- Saúl Armendáriz, born and raised in El Paso (though I believe in the film itself, he says he was born in Juarez, Mexico) -- who succeeds, against all odds, as a performer in a profession that would seem about as unwelcoming as you could imagine.

This would as a Luchador -- a wrestler in Mexico, that land of extreme macho -- who is very openly and quite obviously gay. Cassandro's rise and career were anything but easy, as we learn (rather haltingly and far from completely, given Ms Losier's non-inquiring style) during the course of the documentary.

The filmmaker, shown at right, asks few questions and seems content to simply tag along with her subject as he goes about his life and work. Fortunately this is almost enough to fill the 78-minute running time, while making sure that our time passes with reasonable entertainment and interest.

Cassandro (above, right, and below, on top) is a guy given to flamboyant costumes and make-up but who has learned enough tricks of the trade to become a world champion of the National Wrestling Alliance, engaging in kicks and flips that looked pretty spectacular to these maybe somewhat naive eyes. He also bravely refused to wear a mask obscuring his face, as do so many other of these Luchadores (see photo at bottom).

We meet the wrestler's siblings and father (mom is dead, and there is a most unusual scene at her graveside during which some hired musicians play a tune, as her children honor their mom), and we hear about some of the hardships Cassandro encountered along his road to fame.

There's a European tour that includes Paris and London and gives us a clue to how popular is this kind of wrestling abroad. Losier has integrated archival footage into her own filming, so we view the past almost as much as we do the present. This may very well be Cassandro's choice, as it soon becomes clear that his career is coming to an end, thanks to so many injuries -- concussions and various operations -- that are stealing away his ability to perform.

You might wish that Losier had questioned things a bit more (maybe she did, and answers were not forthcoming) as to why, after ignoring his son for decades, Cassandro's father suddenly came back into his life, or if our famous wrestler has (or had) any kind of personal life. Was there ever a love interest or partner for this guy?

Well, we do get a look at some mineral baths and mysticism, the AA and NA key rings attesting to his sobriety over years, and a wonderful-but-unsettling array of old photos of Cassandro's career mixed in with x-rays of his many injuries. Interestingly, Losier saves the best for the last: a series of poses by our boy/man in which we are finally allowed to see him looking more real, more genuine than anywhere else in the entire film. It's a lovely way to end the documentary, and an oddly memorable one, too.

From Film Movement, in mostly the English language, Cassandro the Exotico! opens this Friday, July 19, in New York City at The Metrograph, with an expansion to another 15 cities over the weeks to come. The Los Angeles area will get a look when the film opens on August 2 at Laemmle's Glendale. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here then scroll down.

Monday, July 15, 2019

I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS: Radu Jude's film hits screens


That statement in the headline above, which doubles as the title of this new Romanian movie, are the words of Marshal Ion Antonescu (shown on the TV screen in photo, bottom), Romania’s military dictator, to the Council of Ministers during the summer of 1941 that is said to have begun the ethnic cleansing on the Nazi's Eastern Front during World War II.

The movie itself tracks the fictional planning and execution of a particular outdoor theatrical celebratory event to take place in present-day Romania that is being put together by a certain talented, intelligent, and very driven young woman.

I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS is the creation of the very real and also very talented Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude (shown at left, of Aferim! & Scarred Hearts), who again shows us how unusually creative he can be while simultaneously breaking some cinematic rules that many of us probably hold quite dear. His long (two hours and 20 minutes) but never boring (for thoughtful audiences, at least) movie is jam-packed with discussions -- political, philosophical, biblical, historical -- by that young woman and her associates, her married boyfriend and especially the evidently high-level muckety-muck who formerly OKed her project but is now having second thoughts about the wisdom of it all.

If these discussions were not enough of a problem (come on, come on: where's the car chase?), the movie assumes an interest in Romanian history, of which we get quite a lot. By virtue of the fact that Romanian history is so very like so much of European history -- especially concerning the round-up, persecution and murder of the Jewish population -- that assumption turns out to be dead-on.

Our heroine is given such a fine and feisty performance by Ioana Iacob (shown above, center, and below, right) that we are almost immediately in her clutches. She's not simply smart and talented; she also cares about what she is doing to the extent that she'll risk her career, such as it is, to make sure her intentions -- showing her country its unvarnished past, genocides and all (Romania is said to have gladly exterminated more Jews than any other European country save Nazi Germany, together with Hitler's own homeland, Austria).

The movie is full of irony (atop and inside other ironies) so that even when dealing with the most awful portions of Romanian history, dark humor proliferates. And Jude films his provocative discussions in every possible place, including bedside, with his heroine and her boyfriend nude and full-frontal, even as they argue.

How the final event plays out -- we see it in all its detailed "glory" --  is also awash in irony. I won't go into specifics but will say that the movie in one big way disappoints because, if it was obvious to me (and probably will be to you) how things will turn out, this makes the expectations of both the heroine and her main detractor seem rather naive and ridiculous. If we so readily know, how could they not?

Still, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians proves a rich, ripe history lesson as well as a morality tale about why a country needs to know and confront its own history, including the worst of it. God knows America still has this lesson to learn, as do more and more of the world's other homelands -- even as a sleazy, stupid nationalism continues to overwhelm their thinking populaces via jingoistic demagogues.

From Big World Pictures, in Romanian with English subtitles, the movie opens this Friday, July 19, in New York City at the IFC Center, and the following Friday, July 26, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Another five cities have theatrical screenings in the weeks to come. Click here (then scroll down) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

In Netflix's POINT BLANK, Joe Lynch has smartly remade the crackerjack French thriller


Back in 2011 we were extremely impressed with a little French thriller called Point Blank, directed and co-written by Fred Cavayé. Now Netflix is releasing a very-close-to-the-original remake of this film, again titled POINT BLANK, and I am happy to say that it is almost in every way a comparable feat.

Considering the 1967 John Boorman film of the same title (but leaving out the not-so-hot Mickey Rourke bomb from 1998), it would seem that Point Blank movies are very much worth seeing.

The new film, with a screenplay adapted from M. Cavayé's original by Adam G. Simon, has been directed by one of my favorite action directors, Joe Lynch (pictured at right), a fellow about whom -- given his achievement with Everly and Mayhem -- it might be safe to say that nobody has given us a more gleeful array of over-the-top violence and anarchic bedlam.

Mr. Lynch tones down the gleeful here, if not the violence, as the story involves a very pregnant woman held hostage and even knocked around a bit more that might seem righteous or bearable.

The movie begins with a bang (several: yes, gunshots), as a figure crashes through a window and runs away pursued by others. Who's bad and who's good will not shake out for some time yet, and so much happens in the first few minutes without our quite knowing exactly what, why or even how, that we must simply take it all in and trust that an explanation is on offer.

It is, and it leads to a lot more violence, surprise and fun as a male nurse (Anthony Mackie, above, right) taking care of that initial run-away man (Frank Grillo, above left), who's now in hospital, is forced to get that man out of the hospital and away from the police before his own pregnant wife comes to harm.

To tell much more of the plot would create spoilers, so I'll just say that along the way we meet a hard-boiled policewoman (Marcia Gay Harden, above, left) and a bunch of cops, not all of them as devoted to "protect and serve" as you might prefer. The movie's most emotional performance, and the one that finally grounds it to some kind of reality is given by Christian Cooke (below), as the frightened, angry and helpful/helpless brother of the Grillo character, caught between rescuing his bro and doing the right thing.

The other crack performance comes from a character we meet only late in the movie, though we've been hearing about him -- Big D -- for most of the film. As played the very scary, funny and surprising Markice Moore (shown at bottom), Big D turns out to be a not unsophisticated movie lover sporting a jones for the work of William Friedkin. Seems to TrustMovies that Big D and his scenes are where the movie differs most from Cavayé's original. This, and the fact that the French version offered, even later in the game, a bit more welcome surprise about the identity of the good guys and the bad.

Otherwise both films are absolute delights of their hostage-thriller genre, offering plenty of action, fun, and sure, violence, betrayal and other assorted naughtiness. Lynch's pacing, as ever, proves on the mark, and he gets good performances from his professional and well-chosen cast.

Streaming as of yesterday, July 12, on Netflix, Point Blank is certainly a shoo-in for action fans smart enough to follow and stick with a plot that has more in-and-outs/ups-and-down than the spoon-fed pablum we're usually offered, or the at-least-one-hour-too-long super-hero movies audiences still seem willing to sit through and discuss as though these were remotely intelligent or worth our nearly-end-of-times time.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Blu-ray debut for Mitchell Leisen's memorable romantic melodrama, HOLD BACK THE DAWN


Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972) remains one of Hollywood's more under-appreciated directors, even though he worked consistently and very well in a number of popular genres, particularly during the 20-year period between 1934 and 1953, when he was responsible for helming such semi-classics as Easy LivingLady in the Dark,  Midnight, and To Each His Own -- among a number of others. Up there with his finest efforts is the excellent romantic melodrama, HOLD BACK THE DAWN, a film with such an unusual framework that it must have surprised and delighted movie-goers no end, when it was released in 1941.

Mr. Leisen, shown at left, not only directed this one, but he acts in it, too -- playing, yes, a movie director at Paramount Studios (the company that released Hold Back the Dawn), whom the lead character, played by Charles Boyer, seeks out for help during the section that begins and finally frames the movie.

Mr. Boyer (below, left) plays a European immigrant of somewhat shady background who is trying to get into the United States legally -- but via any means necessary.  Gosh: Trade European for Latin American, and how very timely the movie becomes!

After re-connecting with an old dance partner/good-time girl (played by Paulette Goddard, below, right) and hearing from her about how easy the whole thing could be if he simply married an American woman, Boyer realizes that he has just met one -- though under not the best of circumstances.

That would, of course, be co-star Olivia de Havilland (below), whom Boyer then quickly re-meets, while making certain he is using all that fine French charm for which the actor was duly famous. Was there ever a French-born-and-raised actor so popular with the American public in Hollywood films? I don't think so. Maurice Chevalier managed a degree of it (never more so than in his later years) and Alain Delon certainly tried. But Boyer nailed it. TrustMovies suspects this was as much due to his excellent command of English, without too heavy an accent, as to his being very good looking.

Ms de Havilland -- playing one of her many variations on the prim and proper (while romantic and passionate underneath) heroine -- and M. Boyer are terrific together, quickly pulling the audience in to their initially charming affection and finally into something much deeper. The very good screenplay, from a story by Ketti Frings, balances smart repartee with genuine feeling and is credited to multi-Oscar winners Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

Ms Goddard is her usual wise and sexy self, while the entire supporting cast (including a lovely turn by Rosemary DeCamp) does the movie proud. Leisen, ever the professional, does an expert job as both director and supporting actor. He calibrates every scene in exactly the manner needed, and helps bring superlative performances from both his leading players and those in even the smallest roles.

The filmmaker is as good with sly (and more obvious) humor as he is with the large romantic gesture, and the result is one of the most satisfying Hollywood romances on record. You end up, rightly so, rooting for everyone here. And they absolutely deserve it.

The new Blu-ray transfer, via Arrow Academy and distributed in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group, is a treat, as are the several bonus features, including a newly filmed video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew. The Blu-ray will hit the street this coming Tuesday, July 16 -- for purchase and (I would hope somewhere) rental, too.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dripping with sleaze, the creeps and barely-veiled aggression: Benjamin Naishtat's ROJO


When every scene, moment, action (even the non-action) in a movie is loaded with negative possibilities that seem ready to (but never quite do) burst, the build-up can be extraordinary, even if the final result is sometimes a let-down.

In Benjamin Naishtat's new Argentine film ROJO -- actually a co-production of Argentina, Brazil, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland: It take a lot to get a movie produced these days -- the build-up in the very first scene alone is pretty staggering. There is, finally, at the end of this scene, real action, though it is kind that both surprises and then results in ever more weirdly threatening possibilities. It must also be said that the final result of Rojo, if not exactly staggering, is anything but a let-down.

Señor Naishstat, shown at right and born in 1986, has set his film in 1975, the year before the famous military coup that resulted in iron-fisted rule and some 30,000 Argentine citizens -- often young people who protested the military government -- being killed or "disappeared." The look of the film seems spot-on (though how would TrustMovies even know this, not having been in Argentina during this time), but more importantly, equally spot-on seems the increasingly creepy behavior of the citizens, beginning with our sort-of hero, family-man and lawyer, Claudio, played with a fine flair for undercurrent by ace Argentine actor Dario Grandinetti, below.

The opening scene takes place in a restaurant (below) between Claudio, a very strange and angry younger man, and the waiter. From there we move to various sections of Argentine society, culture, business and government -- including law, real estate, religion, art, education and the press -- and in each of these instances we witness the citizenry up to either no good, very little good, or perhaps in rare cases trying just a bit to circumvent the oncoming barrage.

That restaurant scene comes back to haunt our hero in strange ways but proves maybe the least of things, over all. People, when they are not acting outright sleazy (as in the case of the best friend, below, who involves Claudio in an "iffy" real estate deal), seem willing to remain silent, or very nearly. When they do speak out, as in the case of an inquiring reporter questioning a government official, you'll think you know what will happen. But even that can take longer, or work out differently, than you might have imagined

Who is complicit and how is called constantly into question. And nobody gets off the hook. It has been awhile since I've seen a movie that seemed quite as creepy and off-kilter as this one, while almost never arriving -- except at the end of that initial scene -- at anything remotely definitive.

And nothing is sacred -- not family, friendship, the workplace or the church. When a supposedly crack detective -- from Chile, yet! -- arrives on the scene (played by the excellent Alfredo Castro, below), the fact that he is/was a real detective, now plays one on television, and yet is still used for solving crimes, seems somehow ridiculously fitting.

I suspect it will help your enjoyment of the film if you know something of the history of Argentina (or something of South and Central American history in general). Either way, it should not take too much of a leap for American viewers to realize that the allowing -- or is it really perhaps the welcoming -- of a dictatorship can arrive all too easily and quickly. And, no, wearing a wig won't help.

From 1844 Entertainment and Distrib Films US, in Spanish with English subtitles, and running 109 minutes, Rojo opens this Friday, July 12, in New York City at Film at Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema, and on Friday, July 19 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, followed by a rollout to other cities over the weeks to come.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Sex, family, betrayal, and very poor policing in Muayad Alayan's melodrama, THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM


"Let not make this more than it is," snaps Israeli cafe owner Sarah to the Palestinian man, Saleem, who delivers her bread and is also fucking the daylights out of her, to their mutual satisfaction, in the new Palestine/ Germany/Netherlands co-production, THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM. But what exactly is "this"? It's not Romeo and Juliet by a long shot, and in fact, it's not much more than any other typical sexual dalliance you'd encounter between consenting adulterers.

Ah, location, location, location -- right?  And because our adulterers are here, in the Israel/Palestine conundrum, the affair takes on all kinds of unwanted, unpleasant attachments that eventually involve each of the lovers' spouses, their children (one as yet unborn) and the "authorities" who control both locations.

The Palestinian filmmaker, Muayad Alayan (shown at left), working from a screenplay by his brother, Rami Musa Alayan, has concocted a very interesting, mostly engrossing situation (said to be based on fact) in which his two protagonists are neither very intelligent nor even particularly likable. In fact, the character we end up most rooting for is Saleem's wife. (Sarah's husband, a high-level policeman, turns out to be an asshole.)

What happens here, what the authorities "make" of the situation, and how this affects not only the title characters -- Saleem played by Adeeb Safadi, above, left, and below; Sarah by Sivane Kretchner, above, right, and at bottom -- but also their families and friends, turns a hot, sexual tryst into something impossibly severe and nasty.

As you might expect, the Israelis possess the lion's share of the power and use it to their own ends, while the the Palestinians do the same, with the lesser amount they have to muster garnering less results. None of it works well for the protagonists and finally begins to dirty those around them, too. (That's Maisa Abd Elhadi, below, as Saleen's wife.)

TrustMoviesproblems with The Reports on Sarah and Saleem has less to do with the set-up, which is a fine one, than with its execution, which is given over too much to coincidence -- a child conveniently breaking some glass allows for an important escape-- and a little too much ignorance or stupidity on the part of everyone from Sarah and Saleem to the authorities on both sides of the fence. Those Israelis appear awfully slow on the uptake until, all of a sudden -- would they take that long to track some phone calls? -- they smarten up. (Ishai Golan, below, portrays Sarah's husband.)

The movie does give new, if actually untrue in this case, meaning to the idea that the personal is political. Well, not unless the powers-that-be want to make it so. Toward the conclusion the ironies grow a little heavy-handed and suddenly things descend into high melodrama and near camp before concluding on a note of feel-good female bonding. I had trouble buying into the latter half of the film, but you might manage it a bit better. On the technical side, all aspects -- from cinematography to set design to editing --  are impressive.

Released by DADA Films, running 127 minutes, in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles (a little English is spoken now and again), the movie opens here in South Florida this Friday, July 12: in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, in Fort Lauderdale at the Classic Gateway 4, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theatres, and at the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.