Thursday, March 22, 2018

Armando Iannucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN: Russian history as both tragedy AND farce

They say that history plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. British filmmaker Armando Ianucci has come up with the brilliant idea of playing both simultaneously and then executed that idea in exactly the manner it needs to work best. THE DEATH OF STALIN is at once horrifying and hilarious, ridiculous and rueful and best of all somehow true to the history that we (we older folk, at least) remember hearing -- if not, thankfully, experiencing.

Americans may have to wait for the full-out Donald Trump dictatorship to get a taste of that -- the difference being that Trump and his flunkies don't possess one whit of the intelligence of those Russians, back then or, for that matter, now, particularly that of the putrid Putin. Trump and crew have got the entitlement, vanity and avarice down pat, but more will be needed.

Mr. Iannucci, pictured at right, has shown us what he's capable of many times before -- from Alan Partridge to In the Loop to Veep (the last of which I still have not seen). The Death of Stalin may be his masterwork, something unlike anything I've previously witnessed at the movies.

After giving us just a smidgen of historical facts about the time and place we're about to enter, he tosses us into it -- at a radio concert overseen by Paddy Considine (below) to which Comrade Stalin now wants the recording. Problem is, there has been no recording made.

The uproar, the all-out fear this causes, together with how the situation is handled, proves a master-stroke in bringing out the humor and horror, and the movie simply continue in this vein -- growing more so as events pile up.

One of the more unusual choices Iannucci has made is to have each of his actors use his or her own accent through the film. Consequently, rather than having all the actors ape faux Russian accents (as in the recent Red Sparrow), each simply uses his native one. Since most of the cast is British, most of the accents are, too -- from Stalin's (mouthed by Adrian McLoughlin) to his sexy son's (Rupert Friend) to Lavrentiy Beria, the miscreant who hopes to assume power once Stalin is gone (played by the great Simon Russell Beale, below, left).

But wait, Olga Kurylenko, who plays the concert pianist who helps sets this all in motion, is Ukranian by birth and so uses her own very eastern European accent. And then we have the likes of Steve Buscemi who plays Khrushchev (shown at far right, below)...

...and Jeffrey Tambor (below, as Malenkov), both of whom speak with their own very American accents. While this is initially shocking, given how movies so often handle "foreign-sounding speech," even more shocking is how damned well this works. Our ear gets used to it all in a flash, and the actors can then simply continue with their spot-on performances, which mix smiles and shocks that blend beautifully with the humor and horror on hand. In its entirety, the movie works its magic like little else you will have seen.

The Death of Stalin also brings us a look at the lives of those Russian apparatchiks in ways that other films have not. How they can spin on a dime from yes to no, right to wrong, good to bad -- all the while exhibiting the kind of craven fear, occasionally bolstered by cold fury, that working under the thumb of insane dictator like Stalin could produce. The result looks something like what Mel Brooks might have come up with, had he lived his entire life in abject terror.

While most of the cast is male, and first-rate, we also get a couple of nice turns from the distaff side: Ms Kurylenko and the so-versatile-that-she-is-often-unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough (below) as Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Still, as in Stalin's time, this was a man's game and the various ways he could play it seem as numerous as the characters on view. And while one might win for a time, there was always another schemer waiting in the wings with claws held back but at the ready -- as Iannucci's final pre-end-credits note/visual makes cleverly clear.

In the crack cast, literally everyone manages to stand out at one time or another -- Michael Palin giving the subtlest performance and Jason Isaacs (below), along with Rupert Friend, offering the most over-the-top (all three work perfectly, by the way). I have to acknowledge Misters Buscemi, Tambor and Beale as the standouts here. For sheer versatility and delight, consider Beale's performances in this film, together with those in The Deep Blue Sea and the cable television' series Penny Dreadful to recall how no-limits incredible this actor can be.

Final credit, however, must go to Iannucci and his co-writers. What a brilliant job this humorist/filmmaker and crew have done in not simply combining but also perfectly balancing history, humor, horror and character into something vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and just a little fear-inducing, too. It's happening in today's Russia all over again. Could that kind of terror happen here? If our country grows any dumber and less alert, yes, absolutely.

From IFC Films and running 107 minutes, The Death of Stalin, after opening in some major cities a week or so back, hits South Florida (and elsewhere) tomorrow, Friday. March 23 in Miami at the Landmark at Merrick Park, Regal South Beach 18 and AMC Sunset Place. Beginning the following Friday, March 30, the film will open in Miami at the O Cinema Miami Beach and the AMC Aventura; in Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway Theatre, in Coral Springs at the Regal Magnolia Place 16, in Hollywood at the Regal Oakwood 18, in Pembroke Pines at the Regal Westfork 13, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood, and in Palm Beach Gardens at Cobb's Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In Cédric Klapisch's BACK TO BURGUNDY, vintner siblings harvest, fight and reunite

Oenophiles (both real and would-be: who can afford good wines these days?) will probably be drawn to (and with good reason) BACK TO BURGUNDY, the new French film by Cédric Klapisch, one of our favorite, consistently-on-target filmmakers. Whether he is dealing with family (Un air de famille), a group of young, free-spirited students (L'Auberge Espanole and its couple of continuations, as these kids grow up), his lovely/funny/moving ode to the city of Paris, or his look at the French "haves" and "have-nots" (My Piece of the Pie), his films are alert, stylish and eminently watchable. With this new endeavor, M. Klapisch (shown below) returns to the theme of family, this time with a slightly narrower canvas than that of his early work, and the result is a film that resonates ever more strongly as it moves along, uncovering character, growth, humor and immense beauty -- in both its good-looking cast and its gorgeous vineyard locale.

Back to Burgundy (its French title, Ce qui nous lie translates as "That Which Binds Us") begins with a little boy looking out on the vineyard his family owns and describing his feelings about it. It's a lovely scene that immediately engulfs us in the environment of a vintner. This kid will appear now and again throughout the film, especially toward its finale when, in a couple of scenes handled with simplicity and great feeling, the past and present are beautifully united.

Our kid will grow up into a character played by Pio Marmaï (shown below), an actor TrustMovies has enjoyed since seeing him in Living on Love Alone, back in 2010. Marmaï, as Jean, had left his home in France after a falling out with his father, leaving his two siblings to run the family vineyard. He has traveled the world until settling down and starting a vineyard in Australia, where he has formed a strong relationship with a woman and fathered his own son. Now, news of his father's approaching death has brought him back home.

The strong bond between brothers and sister remains, even if it has been frayed a bit, and the movie's major concern has to do with how the three will handle their estate, which, thanks to government taxes, presents some major problems. His sister, played by Ana Girardot (below) is the only one of the three to be presently unattached to some romantic relationship.

Brother Jérémie (François Civil, below) is married to the daughter of a local and competing vintner who is both powerful and controlling. How the three will solve their problem--  which seems to have a number possible solutions -- by joining forces or perhaps with more certainty by remaining apart becomes the thrust of the story. Along the way, we meet various employees, see a harvest or two underway, and get to know subsidiary characters with surprising finesse by Klapisch, who seems to have tamped down somewhat his usual improvisational style to meet the needs of this particular and more formally-told tale.

The film is filled with mostly decent people, doing the best they can while trying to stay out of their own way. Smartly co-written by Kalpisch and Santiago Amigorena with collaboration from supporting actor Jean-Marc Roulot, Back to Burgundy is especially clever in the manner it acknowledges how so many of us prove to be our own worst enemies. On the other hand, these folk's specific problems can also be offset by their specific gifts.

The screenplay also allows us to see those differences in male and female characteristics and how these can be made to work to the advantage of both, to be amused once again by generational differences, and eventually to meet Jean's partner (Maria Valverde, below, right) and the couple's son and begin to understand the vagaries of this relationship, as well. Finally, and despite maybe one coincidence too many, the question of who -- and what -- constitutes family is addressed with emotion and skill enough to make this movie even more moving and encouraging than you may expect.

A film for anyone who loves family, France and wine -- from Music Box Films and running 113 minutes -- Back to Burgundy (in French with English subtitles) opens this Friday, March 23, in New York City (Angelika Film Center), San Francisco (Vogue Theater) and Seattle (SIFF Cinema Uptown) and then on March 30 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 theaters -- as well as elsewhere across the country, where it will play some 50 locations. Here in South Florida it will open on April 13 at the Savor Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, and the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Click here (then scroll down to click on THEATERS) to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In Steven Soderbergh's UNSANE, nitwittery hits a ripe new height

You've got to hand it to Steven Soderbergh. When he's good (as in last year's Logan Lucky), he's very good, and when he fails, he does it big-time: no halfway-there for this guy! His new movie, UNSANE, is as ripe a piece of unintentional camp silliness that we've seen in, well, let's just say it makes that recent Halle Berry thriller Kidnap look like a classic of the genre. Word has it that Unsane was filmed entirely via cell phone (see shot of the director, below).

If so, congratulations --  though the film is nowhere as good as either King Kelly or Tangerine, both of which were "cell-phone" precursors of this overlong, let's-toss-believability-out-the-window mess.

The mess is less due to Mr. Soderbergh, who at least knows how to move things along, than to its writers -- Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer -- who take a smart, timely idea (a rehab center that entraps its clients and then won't let them go until their insurance payments have expired) and then fills it with such stupid and nitwit details (male and female patients sleep in the same room?) and ridiculous coincidence that all credibility is soon left for dead.

The film stars Claire Foy (above), who is onscreen for practically the entire movie and does a yeoman job of "trying." But her character is so thoroughly manufacturer-to-fit-the-bill that, again, any credence or caring is lost to behavior that is rather unlike any seen either on screen or in the world as we know it. (The character is repeatedly warned what her violent behavior will bring her, and so she engages in it like there's no tomorrow.)

This makes her rather the equal of the film's villain, played with enough relish to fill three movies (and a whole lot of hot dogs) by Joshua Leonard, above, who has been quite good elsewhere (Humpday), and I'm sure will rise again.

For a short while (this is the most believable section of the film), we are meant to wonder if our girl is sane or not so, but it soon becomes clear that she's the victim. Subsidiary characters are the equal, in terms of believability, of the leads: There's the unhelpful matron, played by Polly McKie (above, left) and another patient, limned by the always-fun Juno Temple (below), who exists simply and only to annoy our heroine.

The most interesting character, a patient who is really an investigative reporter planning to "out" this rehab center, is played by Jay Pharoah (below, right), but what this fellow can so easily accomplish (rather obviously yet without anyone noticing) just adds to the film's foolishness.

Yes, we also get that scene of running down totally unpopulated hallways (this is yet another "thriller" in which a medical facility seems to have lost its entire staff), and a heroine who can stab the bad guy but then forgets to do it again so he is incapacitated. And on and on it goes.

In retrospect, I think this may be the perfect movie for our Trump era -- in which everybody (on both sides of the screen) is either sleazy or stupid. Good luck to us all.

From Bleecker Street and running a too-long 97 minutes the movie opens (pretty much nationwide, I believe) this Friday, March 23. Click here then scroll down to find the theater(s) nearest you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cantet/Campillo's THE WORKSHOP is rich, encompassing cinema -- both broad and deep

TrustMovies often speaks of French cinema (and the French themselves) as perverse. I mean this as a kind of complement because they and their films so often go in a different direction than expected. Whether this is done for humorous, ironic or sometimes, yes, simply transgressive reasons, the result can be bracing, abrasive and thought-provoking. So it is with THE WORKSHOP, a new film directed by Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South and The Class) and his co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Came Back, and the recent BPM).

Messieurs Cantet (shown at left) and Campillo (below) have worked together often enough now that I suspect their wavelengths must be close enough to nearly run as one. Either that or their strengths and weaknesses so balance each other out that the result is, at this point, just about seamless. 

With The Workshop, the pair addresses a host of themes and ideas, both super-timely and, well, ageless. These would include everything from immigration and terrorism (the home-
grown variety) to the impact and importance of art on the general public. Oh, yes -- and, as my spouse pointed out after viewing the film, it is also, maybe most of all, an unusual coming-of-age tale.

In the film, a young man named Antoine (played by the excellent newcomer Matthieu Lucci, shown below, left) from a local port city in France joins a summer school workshop led by a smart and attractive teacher from the "big city" (the always interesting Marina Fois, below, center).

As the class progresses, it becomes clear that Antoine is both very talented and very problemed. How this is revealed to us demonstrates anew Cantet/Campillo's excellent grasp of storytelling techniques, dialog, and the mysteries of human character and motive.

The filmmakers excel at something I'd call not mis-direction (intentionally bringing you to think or expect the wrong thing) but rather a refusal to satisfy your expectations too easily or simple-mindedly. Cantet and Campillo actually demonstrate Chekov's famous "gun" concept and then stand it on its head by making that second-act usage less (and at the same time more) than a mainstream audience may want or care to wrestle with.

The entire class (above) is peopled by a fine assortment of young characters, each of whom is drawn and acted quite well, and who together represent a smart but not-too-tidy look at today's France. Their reactions to each other, and especially to Antoine, are spot-on and help push the plot, such as it is, onwards. I say "such as it is" because Cantet and Campillo have always been more interested in character and theme than in heavily dramatic plotting.

Things happen and build to a kind of crescendo of dramatic possibilities, and then they simply ebb as naturally as the tide that rises and falls around the port town. This may disappoint those who demand melodrama and major confrontation, but it will surely satisfy others who prefer a more realistic slice-of-life that refuses to solve all problems within the framework of a less-than-two-hour movie. Some change does occur here -- and to all the characters -- though we cannot be sure, I think, in which direction that change is headed or how it will turn out.

It has been enough to confront politics, economics, unemployment, immigration, the making of art and the confusion of youth so very well as do Cantet and Campillo. I can't wait to see what this duo comes up with next. From Strand Releasing, in French with English subtitles and running 108 minutes, The Workshop opens this Friday, March 23, in New York City at the IFC Center and then on April 6 in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt, and here in South Florida at the Tower Theater, in Miami, and the Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, as well as elsewhere across the country. Click here (then scroll down to click on Screenings on the task bar) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A joyous, moving, surprising gift, Pablo Solarz's THE LAST SUIT enchants and delights

There's no way to know, I think, as THE LAST SUIT (El último traje) begins, and an old and infirm grandfather gets into a very funny and bizarre conversation with his favorite grand-daughter, just where in hell this movie could possibly be heading. Before long it turns into a road trip, peopled with a host of wonderful characters brought to life by a splendid cast. At heart, though, it is a family saga/memory piece, by the finale of which, you may find yourself, as did I, in a puddle of quiet tears that have been absolutely earned by every moment that has come before.

Made by Pablo Solarz (shown at left), the movie boasts a filmmaker who has had quite an interesting history so far --  from the lovely little surprise, Intimate Stories (which he wrote), to A Husband for My Wife, a script that has been made into a film three times already, in three different languages: Spanish, Italian and Korean.

With The Last Suit, which works beautifully in every one of its many aspects, and which Solarz both wrote and directed, I suspect that this relatively young filmmaker may have a hard time topping himself. If he does, TrustMovies dearly hopes he will still be around to see the result.

What makes this movie work so well is how filled it is with empathy and compassion. This is neither overdone nor all that apparent for awhile, however, because its main character, Abraham Bursztein, played by that crack Argentine actor Miguel Ángel Solá, above and below, who is so damned perfect in the role of the nasty-but-needy grandpa that, were this an American movie, he'd be an immediate shoo-in for an Oscar nomination (and probably the award itself).

If Solá alone were all the film had to offer, it might be enough, so thoroughly has the actor nailed the infirmities and obscenities of old age, rolling them into a performance that -- via its combination of wit, humor and glum reality -- keeps you at bay even as it forces you to enter and finally empathize with the life of this man.

Fortunately, Abraham either meets or is surrounded by character after character who may initially seem gruff and unpleasant (and who would not be when confronted by a guy like this?) but who, once some understanding of the man and his need kicks in, warms up and comes to his aid. This would include the young fellow (Martín Piroyansky, at left, above) unlucky enough to be seated next to Abraham on a plane,

and the hôtelière (Ángela Molina, above, left) from whom he tries to con a "reduced rate" on his hotel room. What a pleasure it is to see one of Spain's great actresses on view here -- and singing, too! Best of all maybe are two characters our not-quite-hero meets along the way who come to his aid in ways both expected and quite not.

The lovely Julia Beerhold plays a German woman of the post-WWII generation who tries with all her might to both heal and make up for the sins of the past. (See the wonderful documentary Germans & Jews for a further and deeper exploration of this.) How Ms Beerhold's character honors Abraham's wishes proves memorable indeed. His last helper, a hospital nurse played beautifully by Olga Boladz, above, is the final enabler in bringing to a close Abraham's journey.

Along that journey, memory plays a major role, and Solarz's ability to infuse his images (as above) with the same beauty and compassion he feels for all his characters is rather extraordinary. Is The Last Suit sentimental? You bet. But the sentiment here is so earned and welcome, and the tale told so filled with humor, surprise and deep feeling that the result is a road trip very much worth taking, while Mr. Solá's performance is an absolute don't-miss.

From Outsider Pictures , in Spanish with English subtitles, and running a near-perfect 86 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 23, here in the South Florida area. In Miami, look for it at the AMC Aventura and Tower Theater; in Palm Beach County at the Living Room Theaters, Boca Raton; the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth; and Cobb Theaters' Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens. Will thisw onderful movie play elsewhere around the country. God, I hope so. I'll try to find information on or a link to further screenings, as this becomes available.


Wed. March 21, 7:00pm 
Latin America, Jews and Historical Memory: A Panel Discussion 
The panel will look at the Jewish communities south of Miami, the differences among generations there, and the relationship between historical memory and constructing the future.
Panelists (in addition to writer/director of THE LAST SUIT Pablo Solarz) include: Valeria Cababié- Schindler, Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University and a native of Argentina; Silvio Frydman of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, a photographer whose work has documented the March of the Living, and who was born and raised in Argentina; Miriam Klein Kassenoff, Director of Holocaust Teacher Institute, University of Miami, and Education Specialist, Miami-Dade County Public Schools;  Panel moderator is Jenni Person, Founder of the pioneering Jewish cultural organization Next@19th and Managing Producer of MDC Live Arts
 Location: MDC Live Arts Lab, 300 NE 2nd Avenue, on the ground floor of Miami Dade College Building 1, entrance at the NE 1st Avenue plaza. Parking is free in MDC Building 7 Parking Garage A at 500 NE 2nd Avenue, or for a fee in other adjacent parking garages and on the street
Thursday, March 22, 7:00pm Film Introduction and Post Screening Q&A  MDC’s Tower Theater, 1508 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33135
Friday, March 23, 7:30pm Film Introduction and Post Screening Q&A Where: Movies of Delray, 7421 W Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach, FL 33446
Saturday, March 24, 12:30pm & 3:00pm shows Film Introduction and Post Screening Q&As  Movies of Delray, 7421 W Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach, FL 33446
Saturday, March 24, Evening shows Film Introduction and Post Screening Q&As  Living Room Theaters on FAU Campus, 777 Glades Rd, Boca Raton, FL 33431

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Blu-ray debut for Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 30-year-old semi-classic, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE

TrustMovies came fairly late to the oeuvre of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It wasn't until Café Lumière (2003) that I fully appreciated a Hou movie. Since then, I've come to like his work more and more, and now, the opportunity to see one of his earlier films -- DAUGHTER OF THE NILE, from 1987 --  seemed some-thing too good to pass up.

It is, though it is not, I think, quite up to the level of some of his later work. The movie's plot does clunk a bit (one shoot-out duly follows another and another), and Mr. Hou, shown at right, has certainly grown more subtle and graceful in his story-telling over the years. Here fact, fantasy, memory and odd objects -- from a red Walkman to a playful puppy all merge as we enter the life of a young woman and her very problemed family in the Taiwan of 30 years ago where local Chinese eateries are suddenly co-existing with a new KFC. What is most refreshing about the film is how little it seems to have dated (except for certain references to Madonna and/or the size of the early cell phones). In terms of both theme and human behavior, it remains timely.

Our heroine, Lin (above, played by Yang Lin), is constantly contending with that off-track family: a brother (two photos below) who seems only attracted to the criminal life, a lazy younger sister (below), an absentee dad (maybe he simply works too hard and too long), and a grandfather with a minor gambling problem (mom, it seems, has been dead for awhile now).

Little wonder our girl's mind often wanders into reveries about pharaohs and Egyptian princesses, hence the movie's title. Along the way, we visit Lin's classroom and watch a teacher trying so hard to communicate to his students some necessary lesson on morality and philosophy -- to little avail, of course.

Mr. Hou's gorgeous visuals are on full display here, and his gift for verbal description, followed by a single shot that encapsulates all that's been said comes to the fore, as well -- as when a young woman is said to have married for money to a man who is connected to the criminal Triads. When we see her face, from a discreet distance, everything we've heard is brought home in one quiet, breathtaking moment.

Like grand-pa/like grandson comes home to roost, as do a number of fart jokes (Mr. Hou was clearly ahead of his time in regard to the latter). Mostly, though, we get a good look at Taiwan, inside-out and from the ground up. Forget Babylon: this was already, 30 years ago, a sad, desolate, running-on-empty society.

Among the excellent Bonus Features on the new Blu-ray disc are a fine interview with Tony Rayns regarding Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Daughter of the Nile, and a commentary track by Richard Suchenski. The Blu-ray transfer here is often magnificent (there's a scene around a bonfire at the beach that's a veritable feast for the eyes).

From the Cohen Film Collection and running 93 minutes, the movie will hit the street this coming Tuesday, March 20, on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms -- for purchase and/or rental.