Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Mafia offshoots, teen variety, in Claudio Giovannesi's Italian melodrama, PIRANHAS

We get so few Italian movies opening theatrically here in the USA of late that TrustMovies tends to be thankful for just about any new movie from Italy that comes our way. (He greatly misses being in New York City for the yearly Open Roads series of new Italian cinema that turns up each June.)

Consequently, he was pleased to hear about and then view PIRANHAS (Italian title La paranza dei bambini, which translates, I believe, to something like a netful of children), a film directed by Claudio Giovannesi from the novel by Gomorrah scribe, Roberto Saviano, with a screenplay co-written by Saviano, Giovannesi and Maurizio Braucci.

As with Gomorrah, the new Piranhas deals with the mafia/cammora as so integral and longstanding a part of Italian society as to be practically inseparable from what we might call "life itself." Taking place in the streets, clubs and homes of Naples, Italy (some of those homes are impressive indeed), the film begins as a gang of Naples teenagers steals a huge Christmas tree from a public place, while warding off an attack by a rival gang.

Giovannesi, pictured at right, has staged this, along with a number of other "action" scenes quite well, initially pulling us in via a single character then expanding to more and more, until his movie opens up in surprising, often impressive, ways.

If Piranhas tells us little that is new, as this small gang of willful, mischief-making but rather sweet boys (above) turns into a batch of profiteering murderers, it tells its tale in smart, swift, gorgeously photographed scenes (by Daniele Cipri, who directed and shot It Was the Son and handled cinematography on several of the recent films of Marco Bellocchio).

Piranhas also thrusts into prominence a young man appropriately named Francesco de Napoli (above, right, and below, left) who, at 15 years of age, gives a star-making debut performance in the leading role of Nicola, the boy who leads this gang of newbies. Signore Di Napoli, has a face that the camera eats right up and then asks for more. He's beautiful (he may remind you in certain scene of the young Alain Delon), but he's also full of energy and specificity in terms of his performance. He's not content to simply look good (though at all times he certainly does).

As Nicola turns from a somewhat tender, intelligent, hopeful young man (who wants to protect his mom and her dry cleaning establishment from camorra predators) into a killer, Di Napoli charts the course with plenty of energy and character-defining detail. His attraction to and maybe love for the young girl (Viviana Aprea, below) from a neighboring community is handled with the kind of youthful bravado and carelessness rife among youth in just about all western cultures.

The film also offers yet another object lesson in the danger to society of kids with guns, as consequences -- intended and unintended -- come to pass with a finality that these youthful idiots simply cannot or will not appreciate. Though the end results here will clearly go against our protagonists eventually -- as newer, smarter, younger folk come into power --  filmmaker Giovanese (who also gave us the sweet and unusual prison love story, Fiore) spares us the sadness, pain and bloodshed by simply ending on the road to an oncoming act of vengeance.

If this seems too easy, it is also somehow appropriate. Younger audiences can revel in the immediate thrill, while us older folk shake our heads and murmur, "Sure, kids: just wait...."

From Music Box Films, in Italian with English subtitles and running 112 minutes, Piranhas opens in New York City this Friday, August 2, at Film at Lincoln Center, and then expands to another 17 cities -- including Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt on August 9 -- over the coming weeks. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down to click on Theatrical Engagements.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Hey, look!" Stephen Wilkes' new documentary -- JAY MYSELF -- highlights the life, work and philosophy of photographer Jay Maisel

There have been a number of documentaries about famous American photographers over the past few years, and many of these have had their American theatrical debut at Film Forum. Here is yet another in the batch -- JAY MYSELF, about photography great Jay Maisel -- and it turns out to be one of the best yet: entertaining, thoughtful, wise, often pretty funny and occasionally even moving.

Ostensibly all about the major move Masiel and his family must make from the landmark bank building (on poster, left) the photographer bought for $102,000 back in 1966 (and sold for $55 million in 2014), the movie -- in just 78 minutes -- manages to capture a lot more.

As directed by Stephen Wilkes (shown at right) and written by Josh Alexander, the documentary bounces along mostly merrily, giving us somewhat of a history of Maisel, showing us quite a range of his very good photography, both commercial and artistic (Maisel himself would insist that one mode does not necessarily contradict the other), and offering up a portion of the man's philosophy of work and art.

This last can be summed up by the first two words of the headline copy, above, and Maisel makes a very good case for these words as a philosophy for any would-be photographer to live by.

Why so late in life is this major move necessary for Maisel? (The photographer, shown at left, tells us that he had planned to live in the bank building until he died.) But unless I misunderstood what I heard on the soundtrack, this very large structure costs around $300,000 per year to maintain. Enough said.

Still, a move like this, at Maisel's age, is no easy one -- not to mention all the "stuff" the photographer has collected down the decades (he has lived there for over 50 years!). And if the man is not defined as a "hoarder," this is only because there is so much room in his huge building that he can spread out his hoarding to the point at which his living quarters seem more like an oddball museum (see below and further below).

We hear from a number of photographers, mostly his friends and contemporaries, but what makes the documentary particularly special, TrustMovies thinks, is that the filmmaker has known Maisel intimately over such a long period of time. Wilkes was an intern for Maisel at the beginning of Wilkes' career, thanks to a portfolio that pleased his mentor, and the two have remained close ever since.

It's a delight to see so much of Maisel's work, while simultaneously hearing his ideas about "seeing." Art is trying to make others see what you see, he tells us, which is certainly one way to define an artist's objective. Regarding commercial art: You approach the job as an artist. And then you make as much money as you can. Interestingly, Maisel accords one of his teachers, Josef Albers, credit for helping him understand the uses and importance of color in art.

The documentary's musical score (by Jay Goodman) adds a lot of fun and bounce to the proceedings, all technical aspects of the film are first-rate, and its relatively short running time means that nothing and no one outstays their welcome.

From Oscilloscope Laboratories, Jay Myself opens this coming Wednesday, July 31, at New York City's Film Forum for a two-week run, before hitting another dozen or so cities across the country -- including Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) on August 16 and here in Boca Raton at our Living Room Theaters on August 30. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Responsibility, PTSD and culture clash fuel Benjamin Gilmour's unusual Aussie film, JIRGA

Australia’s pick for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Oscars and winner of the Best Independent Film Award from AACTA, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, JIRGA, the new film by Benjamin Gilmour (shown below), despite its production history being about as fraught as they come, turns out to be -- if you can forgive one whopping bit of coincidence and unbelievability -- a remarkably unusual, thoughtful and finally very moving experience.

Why so fraught? Here's what the writer/director tells us in the press notes for his film:

I was approached by a Pakistani producer who had found a Pashtun financier ready to put up $100K for the production of my script in Pakistan. My film was set in Afghanistan, but to benefit from the finance we'd need to shoot in Pakistan's Khyber Paktunkwha province. I approached Sam Smith, a talented actor from Sydney (not the singer) who was up for the adventure. We flew to Islamabad, only to discover the financier did not have permission to shoot from the ISI -- the Pakistan secret service -- who actively blocked the production after reading the script, considering it too politically sensitive. The Pashtun financier pulled his money out. Sam Smith and I were stranded in Pakistan with no team and no money and were now being tailed and harassed by the secret service. We could have flown back home then, but instead decided to shift the whole shoot to Afghanistan, risking our lives and investing some crowd funding and personal savings to make it…

The result certainly proves worth everyone's time and finances (including ours, at least in terms of 78 minutes spent, together with the price of a movie ticket). This tale tells of an ex-soldier who committed an act somewhere between accident and war crime, and who has been hugely troubled by it ever since. He has determined to return to Afghanistan and the village/community where the event took place and offer himself up to "justice."

Fortunately the actor chosen to essay the role of ex-soldier, the generically-monikered Sam Smith (shown above and below), makes a most attractive and believe protagonist. Graced with handsome face and lean, lithe body, Smith is onscreen almost constantly, and he slowly pulls us in to his odd, difficult and sad quest. There are varied ways soldiers and ex-soldiers handle their individual Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder -- from group therapy or out-of-control anger to murder and suicide.

Smith's character Mike Wheeler's choice is certainly one of the more unusual ones, but the filmmaker and actor have collaborated well and made this choice strange but believable, thanks to a generally good script that shows both the difficulty of communication via language and the help that money (taped to our protagonist's body, above) can provide.

Along his journey, Mike encounters a kind and caring taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, above), who bonds with our hero via music and a strange boat trip on a pink swan raft, before the two must separate suddenly when the Taliban appears.

This "escape" scene, below,  proves the movie's low point, as it is more than a tad unbelievable, as is the wandering in the desert that follows before Mike has somehow been found/rescued by a band of what seemed to me Taliban soldiers but perhaps were just a group of unattached "freedom fighters."

The leader of this group eventually bonds with Mike (thanks to the one fellow in the group who speaks enough English to communicate).

One wonders why the filmmaker did not dispense with the foolish "escape" and simply have the armed men at the road block be the group who captures Mike, keeping him in its underground lair until it eventually understands his mission and helps guide him toward it.

That said, the remainder of the film slowly coalesces into a very believable and moving conclusion involving that titular Jirga (below), as well as the family member (at bottom) of the dead Afghan man who unknowingly set Mike on his crazy but somehow understandable mission.

Though most of the supporting cast are untutored amateurs, they play their various roles well enough to pull us in, and Mr. Smith, via face and subtle acting skill, does the heavy lifting gracefully and well. Gilmour's film highlights the kind of trauma that has bedeviled so many of the soldiers who fought in the seemingly unending and certainly pointless middle-eastern wars -- both Americans and, in this case, Australians who fought in Operation Slipper.

From Lightyear Entertainment, in English and Pashto (with English subtitles), Jirga opens this Friday, July 26, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and in the Los Angeles area on August 2, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. More playdates should be coming soon. Click here to view the most current schedule of cities and theaters.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Netflix streaming tip: Karl Mueller's creepy (and timely) REBIRTH is worth a watch

Initially, REBIRTH looks like one of those would-be thrillers in which a character (often a male) is sucked into a cult-like organization that demands his body, soul and finances. And, yes, this movie turns out to be pretty much that. But how it sucks our guy in is very well done. Very.

That the guy is played by one of TrustMovies' favorite actors -- Fran Kranz -- helps inordinately, too. Mr. Kranz, shown below, as usual, gives himself over to the role wholeheartedly and turns in an excellent performance.

The film's writer/director -- Karl Mueller (shown below)-- proves as adept at pacing as he is at dialog and much else. For all the would-be clichés the movie offers, it must be said that Mueller is able to bring those clichés to resonating life.

The "cult," which of course denies it could ever be conceived as anything so awful as a cult, turns out to be something akin to a combo of Scientology and Amway -- and twice as toxic as either.

How it entraps our hero seems amazingly on-target and will be difficult for any intelligent viewer, I suspect, to easily discount -- using, as it does, everything from sexual longing to male entitlement and just-plain fear and confusion to pull the lead character into its web. Sure, this guy works for a bank and is involved in social media, but it is clear from the outset that he is also simply walking through his days -- as both worker and family man -- and so is ripe for the pickings.

As usual, I would prefer not to get into spoilers here, and there are plenty ahead for intrepid viewers to encounter. Leave it to say that Kyle (Mr. Kranz's character) is, from the beginning, a problemed fellow -- zombie-fied by everything from his job to his home life -- and that Rebirth, the company involved as well as the title of the movie, does indeed offer him a certain kind of seemingly necessary "outlet."

But at what cost? You will find out. That is, if you stick with this unusual and very necessary movie for our current times. The supporting cast -- which includes a fine array of actors, from Harry Hamlin and Nicky Whelan (above) to Andrew J. West (at bottom), Adam Goldberg (as Kyle's old friend and new nemesis) and Sheryl Lee (below) -- makes the movie even more enjoyable (in its uber-creepy way).

I suspect that Rebirth's receiving an only 5-point rating on IMDB has to do more with its (depending on how you look at it) negative outcome than with anything else. Audiences today want feel-good, and they get it from almost every outlet they view. They won't find it here, and righteous hosannas are due for that.

Available to stream now via Netflix, Rebirth runs just 100 minutes and is well worth your time and trouble -- if you are in the market for something thought-provoking and unsettling.                                             

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


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.