Monday, April 19, 2021

An original look at the meaning of "family" via Bettina Oberli's MY WONDERFUL WANDA

What a strange and interesting film is MY WONDERFUL WANDA (Wanda, mein Wunder) co-written, with Cookie Ziesche, and directed by Bettina Oberli. It appears to begin as one thing, then morphs into another and another until it somehow quite gracefully combines all those 'morphings' to arrive back where it began, with almost all the things we originally thought and felt turned on their head. At least twice.

Ms. Oberli (the filmmaker is pictured below) is dealing with "class" here: the 

wealthy and those who must work (and work and work) to earn their living. And while many of the expected tropes do show up, the movie's richer and more inclusive than you'll expect. Characters expand, and the very change they resist also allows them to grow. 

The plot kicks off with the arrival at the local bus station of the eponymous care-giver, Wanda, a Polish woman who is returning to the lakeside home of a wealthy Swiss family to care for the aging father who has suffered a stroke. Why Wanda left in the first place is never baldly stated  (the care-giver who replaced her did not work out) but once we get a load of the family itself -- elitist father, cheapskate mother, nasty sister and weakling brother -- it's not difficult to imagine myriad reasons for her departure.

The smart and serious Wanda is played by Polish actress Agnieszka Grochowska (above, right, with her charge, played by André Jung), and this character is both active and reactive in terms of setting the plot in motion. What happens involves and is due to the actions of all the characters, so much so that any blame you're ready to portion out soon becomes beside the point.

Marvelous Marthe Keller (above) handles the role of the mother with expected aplomb, and the weak son is given a careful, caring reading by Jacob Matschenz (below, left). The standout performance, however, comes from the actress who plays the sister: Birgit Minichmayr (center left, below), whom you may remember from the terrific film, Everyone Else. Ms Minichmayr runs the gamut here, and she takes us with her all the way home.

By its finale, My Wonderful Wanda might even qualify as a feel-good film, but as my spouse pointed out, there's an awful lot of sadness here, too. It is also the kind of movie that Hollywood -- even American independent cinema – rarely gives us. In so many ways, it's simply more adult, offering an idea of life in all its messiness, rather than pre-digested pablum. Films like this are the reason why TrustMovies began seeking out foreign-language movies back in the 1960s. And why he's still doing that.

From Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, the movie -- in German with English subtitles and running 111 minutes -- opens in a limited run nationwide in theaters (both virtual and real) this Friday, April 23. Click here then scroll down to see all listed cinemas, along with more information on the film.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Father & son bond over the loss of their women in Robert Jan Westdijk's charming WATERBOYS

Yet another fine European movie rescued-from-obscurity (so far as American audiences are concerned) by Corinth Films, WATERBOYS takes its title from the renowned (in Scotland, anyway) British-Irish folk rock band formed in Edinburgh in 1983, The Waterboys, whose sound has gone through various iterations during the nearly forty years that the band (with a severn-year hiatus during the 1990s) has been making music.

Music, in fact, play a major part in this alternately funny, charming and moving tale about two men -- father and son -- whose behavior has gotten them tossed out of the homes of both their women: the father's wife and the son's girlfriend.

As written and directed by the Dutch filmmaker Robert Jan Westdijk (shown, right), the movie offers parents who've long been smitten with The Waterboys' music, while their son, not especially a fan, makes music of his own via the cello, which, we eventually see and hear, he plays quite beautifully. 

The father, Victor, is essayed by a noted Netherlands-born actor Leopold Witte (below, right), while son Zack is brought to slowly resonating life by the younger Dutch actor Tim Linde (below, left). 

Initially, we're not terribly taken with either of these guys, nor do they seem to be with each other. But as we get to know them, we begin to understand both what is going on between them and how and why each man continues to struggle with his own individual problems. Which are certainly noticeable -- particularly Dad's.

While we meet the very pretty (and very angry) girlfriend of Zack, we never even see Victor's wife, Elsbeth. Yet so well-written and -conceived is Westdijk's screenplay that Elsbeth comes quite marvelously to life in any case. She's always there, somehow working behind the scenes, and her importance to both her husband and son comes ever clearer as the film moves on.

With suddenly having nowhere to live, Zack must accompany his dad -- who's a successful crime fiction writer -- to a book-signing in Edinburgh, where Dad is confronted by a woman from that branch of his publisher who refuses to put up with even an ounce of his bullshit (the very fine Helen Belbin, shown above, with her back to us) even as Zack meets and bonds with a lovely young hotel worker, played by Julie McLellan, below. 

By the gentle, moving finale, no major bridges have been crossed, nor tons of growth achieved. But a small change can be even more believable and certainly important, and so it is here. "We are who we are," this movie seems to say, but even who we are can be tinkered with and perhaps improved a bit.

From Corinth Films, in Dutch (with English subtitles) and English, and running just 93 minutes, Waterboys hits home video this coming Tuesday, April 20, on DVD, and is available via digital streaming on Prime Video (members can view it free).

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Black experience--from slavery onwards--is captured rather amazingly by Jeffrey Wolf's unusual documentary about an outsider artist, BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS

 Bill Traylor, the subject of the new documentary BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS, was already 86 years old back in 1941, the year that TrustMovies, the fellow who is writing this review, was born. Mr. Traylor himself was born in Alabama as a slave in 1853 (that's how far back this doc goes), and yet his art -- however you might describe it: "outsider" "folk" or "primitive" -- also resonates as surprisingly contemporary, if also somewhat befuddling. Traylor's story, however -- his history, his life and his art career -- resonates without a bit of that befuddlement.

The film's director, Jeffrey Wolf (shown at left), and its writer, Fred Barron, have put together in a mere 75 minutes, a movie that offers us as fine an example, via the life and work of a single individual, of the Black experience here in the USA as any I've seen. 

Whether this was the original goal of the film or not, I've no idea. But the achievement is certainly there. Of course, no single individual can truly act as a stand-in for an entire race. But, boy, does Mr. Traylor come close, thanks to the splendid archival footage, including interviews with folk long dead and some still alive -- especially, eventually, generations of the progeny of Mr. Traylor.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts
is primarily about this man's art, which has, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, been recognized by the art establishment as significant. (MOMA, ever the sleazy institution, actually tried, via its then director, to purchase a chunk of  Traylor's art in the early 1940s at a ridiculously low price.) 

We view plenty of this art (shown above and below) during the course of the film -- enough, actually, to be able to form our own conclusions about it. For me, the art is fascinating in its simplicity, even if its meaning proves more elusive than anything else. Instead, it is the life of this man -- as a slave who was greatly appreciated by his original "owner," so much so that that owner, the head of the "white" Traylor family, made certain that the further care of the black Traylor family was provided for in his will -- that resonates most strongly.

As one of the many highly intelligent and thoughtful narrators points out early on, as horrible as slavery was, "it had plenty of 'gray' areas, rather than always being, no pun intended, something black and white." These black and white Traylors were one such instance, as Bill Traylor and his family continued to work for the white Traylors for 40 years after slavery had been abolished -- and only left, once the white family was taken over by a particularly unjust Traylor offspring.

We see how Traylor's art came about, and how the man (shown above and below) -- quite the womanizer -- came to sire perhaps 20 offspring, all of whom he managed to care for as well as he could, while living and working during slavery, reconstruction, the Jim Crow south and beyond. 
Talk about a "survivor"! 

Once we meet the generations that came after him, while seeing and understanding how his art slowly accrued its reputation, we're simply amazed and ever more appreciative of his accomplishments. Bill Traylor: Casing Ghosts turns out to be a wonderful memorial to a man, his art and to a time long gone that has now been returned to us via this unusual and remarkable movie.

From Kino Lorber and running 75 minutes, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, April 16, in New York City at Film Forum, and the in Los Angeles area at Laemmle theaters, as well as elsewhere around the country. Click here and scroll down to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theatres (virtual or otherwise).                                                                          

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Twins in trouble: Stéphanie Chuat/Véronique Reymond's remarkably fluid and alive family drama, MY LITTLE SISTER, hits home video

The death of a sibling is difficult enough, I should imagine (being myself an only child), but the death of a twin at an untimely age must be one of the most difficult losses to endure. That is the tale told in Switzerland's entry into this year's Best International Film "Oscar" race, MY LITTLE SISTER, which opened in virtual cinemas earlier this year and this week hits home video. But if  you are now expecting some dreary slough through pain and distress, relax a bit. Oh, the pain and distress are certainly there, but also present is one of the most lively, dramatic, vital and thoughtful films of this past year.

Written and directed by Stéphanie Chuat (at right, above) and Véronique Reymond (above, left), the movie insists upon liveliness over all, despite its somber theme which is shown us at the outset. This liveliness is certainly due in great part to the family in question being a highly theatrical one. The self-involved and perhaps now slightly demented mom (the wonderful Marthe Keller, below) was a noted actress and her late husband an evidently famous theater director. 

Their son (played by Lars Eidlinger, below, right), now ill with leukemia, is a well-known actor, while his "little" sister (born a couple of minutes after him) is an equally famous writer (played by noted German actress Nina Hoss, below, left) -- who appears to have given up her career to act as her brother's ever more full-time nurse.

Sis, however already has a loving husband (Jens Albinus, below, right) and two children -- all of whom demand her time and energy. In fact, her hubby's own career is currently taking off, and -- as helpful and caring for her brother as he already is -- he needs his wife's attention even more just now.

All this is communicated in near fast-and-furious fashion that somehow never detracts from the imminent pain and sorrow with which these characters are constantly dealing.  The very vigor and energy of the film makes these people and their situation all the more believable and important. Clearly the filmmakers understand how life and its constant, immediate demands vie for attention -- no matter how awful the surrounding circumstances might be. 

Ms.Hoss and Herr Eidlinger could hardly be better (I can't think of an actor who's portrayed the pain of cancer any more convincingly), and supporting performances are aces right down the line. My Little Sister lasts but 100 minutes, yet by its conclusion, you'll have lived through what may seem like a  lifetime or two -- and have been entertained and learned a hell of a lot in the meantime.

From Film Movement, in German and French (and a bit of English) with English subtitles, the movie -- after a theatrical release early this year -- is now available via DVD and streaming. Click here for more details on how and where to view.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Maria Sødahl's autobiographical movie, HOPE, tracks a woman's life once cancer returns

Written and directed by Maria Sødahl (shown below) -- whose story about an artist struck with cancer this movie actually is -- HOPE might initially seem an odd moniker for the tale of someone who, once her cancer returns, is told that she is both terminal and inoperable. 

Yet hope turns out to be just right, as this exceptional film explores, among many other things, what hope is, when it's appropriate and when it might be misplaced. 

Though Ms Sødahl is a filmmaker -- whose career was cut off for a decade due to her bouts with cancer -- her main character here is a just-now-growing-quite-successful choreographer (played by the fine actress Andrea Bræin Hovig, below, left), whose older partner (Scandinavian stalwart Stellan Skarsgård, below, right) appears to have been more interested in his own career than in anything else. 

Art, career, family, friends, relationships, love, sickness and upcoming death: Just in the first quarter hour of the film, all this is handled with speed, smarts and feeling, without any sentimentality or melodrama, so that Hope proves immediately both bracing and involving. 

The caregivers here -- from doctora to the local pharmacist -- are so concerned and genuinely caring that TrustMovies should think American viewers (those who can read subtitles, at least) will quickly, if they have not already, embrace both socialism and Scandinavian life and culture.

Rather than rely on the usual cliched situations, Sødahl chooses the more oddball and unusual to fill her film and thus makes most of the scenes seem new and refreshing. Neither her heroine nor hero (which Skarsgård's character certainly becomes over time) are depicted as anything approaching perfect. At one point, he calls her "ruthless," and indeed she has become so. But why not? This is her life -- what is left of it, at least.

The three generations on view here are depicted extremely well, and supporting roles are cast and played beautifully by all concerned. Technical aspects of the film are first-rate, too. Regarding everything from its understanding of psychology and personality, family dynamics, and medicine itself, the film excels. Hope is a rich, surprising and moving experience.

In the lead role, Ms Hovig is revelatory, nailing every emotion and nuance so totally and believably that we're with her first to last, while Mr. Skarsgård again proves himself an utter master of the small gesture and expression. He is, as usual and all on his own, a class in the skills of fine acting.

From KimStim, in Norwegian and Swedish with English subtitles, and running 125 minutes, the movie opens this coming Friday, April 16, in theaters all across the country, and will eventually, sooner than later I hope, be available via digital and DVD. For more information on how and where to view the film, click here then scroll down.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Blu-ray debut for would-be camp classic from 1961, HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN

Is there anything better than a good bad sword-sandal-and-sorcery epic to cleanse one's film-going palate? Not really. There's just something (well, many things) about these campy, goofy, usually-pretty-ridiculous musclebound-beefcake movies from the 1960s -- think any film that had the name Hercules in the title -- that puts the rest of the world, not to mention all other movies, into perspective. While you can't watch these things one after another without totally losing your mind, a viewing every few years can be oddly entertaining, maybe even productive.

The latest addition to the understandably slowly-growing Blu-ray "collectible" trove comes via The Film Detective and is titled HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (first released in Italy in 1961 under the moniker Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide), and if it is perhaps not quite the hoot-and-a-half that you'll hope it will be, for this genre it easily passes muster. 

Directed by Vittorio Cottafavi (shown at right; I'd never heard of him, either, even though he helmed, according to the IMDB, over 80 films), this movie is mostly mediocre rather than an outright camp fest, with a screenplay full of reams of exposition, punctuated with action scenes in between. 

The movie's main special effect is the gorgeous body of cute-but-goofy-faced Reg Park (shown at left and below), to whom the mantle of Hercules was evidently passed, once Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott got tired of wearing it. 

Not much of an actor (none of these body-beautiful guys were) -- some of Park's oddball facial expressions will put a smile on your face -- all he really has to do to win us over is to flex those mammoth muscles. Which he does pretty consistently throughout. And mouth the silly exposition without stumbling over the words. Which he also does as gracefully as that big, brawny body will allow.

The plot? Oh, something to do with the destruction of all mankind via the evil Queen of  Atlantis (yes, that place, when it was still above the water line), which Herc, his best pal Androcles, a comic little-person, and Herc's stowaway son all set out to sea in order to prevent.

Around one half-hour in, the movie does indeed grow campy, as our boy gets to fight with probably the silliest looking giant lizard in movie history. Further along, we get the usual "dancing-girl" sequence that features, I kid you not, a male ballet dancer strutting his stuff.

Priceless lines such as "Today is dedicated to Uranus" crop up (Uranus is the god these folk worship most), and the crowd scenes --- remember: these are real extras; no CGI effects back then! -- look like Land of the Pharoahs on a shoestring or two.

The finale is full of stock "lava" footage, with that evil queen getting her comeuppance and Atlantis sinking you-know-where, amidst terror, tears, and quite a bit of laughter, as Hercules continues to show off that ample chest and arms. 

From The Film Detective, in a so-so but supposedly 4K Blu-ray transfer from 35mm archival elements, and running 95 minutes (the film is also available in standard DVD format), the disc also features a number of bonus extra, including a very informative and fun 20-minute documentary, Hercules and the Conquest of Cinema, and a really unnecessary complete Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the film, which, if you can take more than a few minutes of this overdone and long-past-its-sell-date nonsense, you've a stronger constitution than I.  (Really: You or I can talk back at the screen at least as well as those MST 3000 guys manage it.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Cody Calahan/Peter Genoway's tale-within-a-tale, THE OAK ROOM, hits theaters and VOD

If you're a fan of smart storytelling, especially of  a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, THE OAK ROOM, the new Canadian film from director Cody Calahan and writer Peter Genoway, might do a lot more than merely float your boat.

Beginning with a bar and a bit of a heard-but-not-seen rumpus, then a late-night appearance, the past, money owed, and a tale about a tale, we're maybe already one-third through the new film when all this is beginning to look a lot like mere vamping. Yet this is being handled

well enough -- in the writing, directing and acting -- that we're more than willing to go along. 

Director Calahan (shown at left) and writer Genoway fill their film with enough clever visual and verbal clues and repetitions -- everything from that bar and a beer bottle to a wrist watch, wet shoes, cold feet and even class difference -- that the stories grow deeper and more serious as they move along. 

Simultaneously, the movie fills with slowly accumulating menace, leading to an outburst that  arrives as a penultimate event, rather than a finale. 

In retrospect, TrustMovies suspects you'll find  the storytelling here pretty remarkable and The Oak Room itself a surprisingly interesting and engaging piece of filmmaking.

The small cast is made up of a half-dozen men, with each character particularly well-drawn and -acted, and three of these six guys offering change and surprise along the way.

I'll not go into the "who, what and why"  to avoid the usual spoilers, but I will list these fine actors: Ari Millen (three photos up), RJ Mitte (two photos above) and Peter Outerbridge (just above) take the lead roles with utter panache, 

while super support arrives via Nicholas Campbell (above), Martin Roach (below), and David Ferry. Who these characters are and what they want is revealed slowly and cleverly, keeping us ever on our toes and thinking that we've now got things all figured out. Not quite.

Even as the final credits roll, you'll still be mulling it all around in your mind, piecing together the fragments still missing. For those who enjoy story-telling, puzzles, mysteries and the kind of suspense and uneasiness that build ever so gradually, The Oak Room should satisfy in a myriad of ways.

From Gravitas Ventures and running just 89 minutes, the movie hit a few theaters along with VOD just last weekend, Friday, April 2. Click here to see the various digital venues on which you can view the film.