Loveless [Nelyubov]

(Russia 2017)

With his 2014 film Leviathan [Leviafan] [Левиафан] (https://moviebloke.com/2015/01/18/leviathan-leviafan/), director Andrey Zvyagintsev presented a glum picture of a city in decline. He continues on that trajectory with Loveless [Nelyubov] [Нелюбовь], a glum picture of a family falling apart.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Still winding down their marriage, both have moved on: Zhenya spends nights with her boyfriend (Andris Keišs) and Boris is expecting a baby with his girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva). The problem of their introverted and sad 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their only child, prevents them from turning the page. Neither wants custody, and they bicker over it. Constantly. He hears it all.

One morning when she gets home, Zhenya gets a call from Alexey’s teacher: he hasn’t been to school in two days. No one has seen him. He seems to have vanished. The police aren’t helpful, dismissing the matter as a case of a runaway who will be back in a few days. Frankly, Zhenya and Boris have been absobed by their own affairs and haven’t noticed Alexey much lately. They hire a group of volunteers to trace his steps and find him.

Loveless is an improvement over Leviathan, which was also a good film. Partnering again with Oleg Negin on the screenplay, the pace here is better and the story is a lot more engaging. No love is to be found here, and the adults are why. Shallow and selfish, they’re incapable or maybe just uninterested in seeing how their own toxicity adds to a bad situation. I have the impression that nothing changes at the end of the ordeal.

Spivak’s coldheartedness is chilling, and it’s hard to listen to her admit in one scene that having Alexey was a mistake and she should’ve had an abortion. Her mother (Natalya Potapova) — Alexey’s grandmother — is even worse. Novikov is another standout, bawling quietly behind a bathroom door or letting a tear stream down his cheek as he doesn’t eat his breakfast. Cinematograpger Mikhail Krichman, who gave Leviathan its crisp gloomy grey, does the same here, but somehow makes the whole thing look even bleaker.

With Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Dvoinikov, Artyom Zhigulin, Evgeniya Dmitrieva, Natalia Vinokurova, Djan Badmaev, Yanina Hope, Maksim Stoyanov, Denis Tkachev, Yuriy Mirontsev, Oleg Grisevich, Aleksandr Sergeev, Varvara Shmykova

Production: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Fetisoff Illusion, Senator Film Produktion, Les Films du Fleuve, Arte France Cinéma, Eurimages, ARTE France, Canal+, Cine+, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Wild Bunch

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Altitude Film Entertainment (UK), Pyramide Distribution (France), Academy Two (Italy), Golem Distribución (Spain), Alpenrepublik Filmverleih (Germany), Wild Bunch (Germany), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Against Gravity (Poland), Albatros Film (Japan), The Klockworx (Japan), Star Channel Movies (Japan)

127 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/loveless/

Mudbound

(USA 2017)

Netflix surprised me last year with a pair of impressive original films, Okja (https://moviebloke.com/2017/06/22/okja/) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/09/the-death-and-life-of-marsha-p-johnson/). The streak of merit continues with Mudbound, director Dee Reese’s film adaptaion of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.

A Southern Gothic soap opera with a bit of social commentary, Mudbound is an interesting story. Written by Reese and Virgil Williams, the screenplay, told in flashback, follows two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, from the Depression until just after World War II.

Fate and circumstance bring them together on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllans have the upper hand — they own the land — but they rely on the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers, for more than farming. Mother Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) bears the brunt of it through sickness, injury, death, and disrespect.

The plot elements are familiar — poverty, church, white only areas, the KKK — but the whole thing is fresh. Maybe its Reese’s objective approach. Her pace is deliberate and slow; frankly, it almost lost me. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because the momentum picks up after one boy from each family — Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) — goes off to war. A romance that develops between Ronsel and a German woman enlightens him; it serves as a marked contrast to life at home.

Jamie and Ronsel both face challenges assimilating back into Southern civilian life when they return. They become friends, much to the dismay of Pap McAllan (Jonathan Banks) and, like, the whole town. When Jamie refuses to stop associating with Ronsel, things get brutal. While not on the epic scale of something like Roots, Mudbound got to me nonetheless.

With Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Samantha Hoefer, Henry Frost, Kennedy Derosin, Frankie Smith, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Windley, Piper Blair, Joshua J. Williams, Claudio Laniado, Charley Vance

Production: Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media

Distribution: Netflix (USA), Diamond Films (Mexico / Argentina), TOBIS Film (Germany), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece)

134 minutes
Rated R

(Netflix) B

https://www.facebook.com/MudBound/

The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://www.3b-productions.com/tessalit/linsulte/

http://cohenmedia.net/films/theinsult

Lady Bird

(USA 2017)

“You should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.”

— Marion McPherson

“Lady Bird always says that she lives in on the wrong side of the tracks, but I always thought that that was like a metaphor, but there are actual train tracks.”

— Danny

“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

— Kyle

Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig’s first time directing; she codirected an earlier film, Nights and Weekends, in 2008. I never heard of that one. However, Lady Bird is her first solo gig, as well as her first hit. I wanted to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was impossible to get tickets.

I’ve now seen it in its commercial release. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, an angsty, unpopular, and rather nerdy but self-assured Catholic high school senior who’s christened herself “Lady Bird.” She lives in a modest home literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her parents, her underachiever older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who graduated from a “good” university but still works as a cashier in a grocery store, and his wife (Marielle Scott).

Christine wants a bigger life than the one she has in Sacramento, and she plans to get it by going away to college. Her perpetually crabby mother (Laurie Metcalf) is not exactly supportive, and her disposition gets worse when her father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Set in 2002, Lady Bird is a string of funny and touching episodes about growing up in a lower middle class Catholic home: sex, fitting in, rebellion, and of course Catholicism. I laughed out loud, and did so a lot. Gerwig wrote and directed it, and it’s a solid film even it rings a little familiar. She’s more observant of her characters’ behavior than creating some big dramatic experience. Lady Bird is structured like a lot of teen comedies I’ve seen before, but the acting is good enough to elevate it to a higher level and make it a bit more interesting. More adult, too.

As some friends have pointed out, the main character — Christine — is a refreshing break from the Hollywood archetype of a teenage girl we’ve all seen for more than 30 years now: she’s not a mean girl, a witch, or a slut. This is true, and a big plus here. Still, as much as I enjoyed Lady Bird, I don’t get the awards buzz over it.

With Danny O’Neill, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, John Karna, Jake McDorman, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano, Fr. Paul Keller, Myra Turley, Bob Stephenson, Joan Patricia O’Neill, Carla Valentine, Roman Arabia

Production: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Elevation Pictures (Canada), United International Pictures (UIP) (international), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://ladybird.movie

I, Tonya

(USA 2017)

As crazy at it was, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just before the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the resulting shit show that plagued her teammate Tonya Harding never occurred to me again after the media frenzy over it died down — like, by spring. Then one day this past autumn, I caught the trailer for I, Tonya. Oh, Lord!

I must confess, Craig Gillespie’s biopic ended the year on a high note — much higher than my expectations. Framed as a documentary with interviews interspersed throughout the story, I misjudged I, Tonya as mere fluff. It’s not. For all its lurid, sensationalist absurdity, it packs some jarring moments that hit…well, like a club.

While not a vital undertaking, I, Tonya is a very well done film. The screenplay by Steven Rogers is sharp, while Gillespie’s pace — cuts and jumps and all — moves nicely. What makes the whole thing fly, though, is the cast. Sebastian Stan as Harding’s sadistic twerp of a husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her caustic mother LaVona Golden give performances worthy of gold medals. But the real showstopper is Margot Robbie, who makes Harding something she never was in real life: sympathetic. It’s no small feat.

I’ve heard some grumble that I, Tonya is a mean-spirited film that condescends to its subjects and gets laughs by making them look like fools. I don’t see it that way. Without absolving her, the film presents nasty circumstances that no doubt fueled Harding’s desire to win. The story and characters are culled from actual sources. Harding’s ultimate punishment was harsh. You can’t help but understand and feel for her, just a teeny tiny bit.

With Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Davin Allen Grindstaff, Daniel Thomas May, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert, Miles Mussenden, Jan Harrelson, Luray Cooper, Dan Triandiflou, Kelly O’Neal, Alphie Hyorth

Production: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment

Distribution: 30West (USA), Neon (USA), VVS Films (Canada), Cinemex Films S.A. de C.V. (Mexico), California Filmes (Latin America), Mars Distribution (France), Lucky Red (Italy), DCM Film Distribution (Germany), Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (Switzerland), Nos Lusomundo Audiovisuais (Portugal), The Searchers (Belgium / Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Myndform (Iceland), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Fabula Films (Turkey), Gakhal Entertainment (India), Lots Home Entertainment (Taiwan), M Pictures (Thailand), Noori Pictures (South Korea), Shaw Organisation (Singapore), Showgate (Japan), Solar Pictures (Philippines), UA films (Hong Kong), Roadshow Films (Australia / New Zealand), Ster-Kinekor Pictures (South Africa)

120 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

https://www.itonyamovie.com

What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

The Last American Virgin

(USA 1982)

“Are you here to interview me or to fuck me?”

— Ruby

It was decades ago — probably the ‘80s — the last time I saw low budget ’80s cable classic The Last American Virgin. I recently noticed it in the “free movies” queue on…where else, cable. I had to know whether it was as good as I remembered.

An odd mix of other teen movies from its day — think of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Losin’ It and Valley Girl all rolled into one — it isn’t something I imagine being made today, not even as a remake. The Last American Virgin starts out all fun and games — centered on sex, of course — but abruptly takes a dark turn about halfway through. Subject matter aside, it ends on a brutally cynical note that leaves one pondering: what exactly is writer and director Boaz Davidson saying here?

None of this is a gripe; on the contrary, it’s an asset that puts The Last American Virgin in a class of its own. Kudos for that.

Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is a Los Angeles high school student. When he’s not delivering pizzas in a ridiculous pink Grand Prix (or similar late ‘70s car), he and his hornball friends Rick (Steve Antin), the cute one, and David (Joe Rubbo), the fat one, are constantly trying to get laid.

Their antics are pretty funny. They pick up three duds at a hamburger joint and snort Sweet ‘N’ Low with them when a party they promise doesn’t happen and the girls want drugs. They wind up together in the apartment of a horny Mexican woman of a certain age (Louisa Moritz) whose sailor boyfriend (Roberto Rodriquez) is away, and she wants all three of them. Later, they get crabs from a bossy Hollywood hooker (Nancy Brock). A dick measuring contest in the school locker room is, well, uncomfortably hot. Somehow, sex happens easily for Rick and David. Not Gary, though: he’s either too nice or too scared.

At school, Gary meets a new girl, Karen (Diane Franklin). He crushes on her, hard. Too bad she’s into Rick, which causes friction: a bizarre love triangle develops, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it reaches a boiling point by winter break.

I never knew The Last American Virgin is a remake of Davidson’s 1978 Israeli film Eskimo Limon. He fucking nails it with his depiction of jealousy — better than most films do. It’s hard to watch Gary’s hatred for Rick grow stronger while they’re running around getting into trouble together. Monoson’s acting is good, and so is Franklin’s. Their scenes together are the best this movie has to offer. I would be remiss to mention that for such a minor role, Kimmy Robertson really shines as Karen’s wacky friend Rose, who seems like Katy Perry’s secret inspiration.

The Last American Virgin has its unimpressive moments, but it’s hardly a write-off. Overall, it’s held up well. Sure, it falls into nostalgia, but beyond its soundtrack it’s more memorable for its characters, its plot, and its unexpected turn. It certainly isn’t what it appears to be.

With Brian Peck, Tessa Richarde, Winifred Freedman, Gerri Idol, Sandy Sprung, Paul Keith, Harry Bugin, Phil Rubenstein, Julianna McCarthy, Mel Welles

Production: Golan-Globus Productions

Distribution: Cannon Film Distributors (USA), Citadel Films (Canada)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) B

Wonder Wheel

(USA 2017)

For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.

Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.

About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home  — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.

Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.

Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.

I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.

With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern

Production: Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions

Distribution: Amazon Studios

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.wonderwheelmovie.com/home/

The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher]

(Israel / Germany 2017)

During a post screening Q and A, writer and director Ofir Raul Graizer said he “love[s] question marks in cinema.” Well, that shows: with his first feature film The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher], he excels in raising questions that he lets his audience answer. Many people don’t appreciate this approach. I’m not one of them.

Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a thirty-something baker who runs his own one-man pastry shop in Berlin. Oren (Roy Miller), a married Israeli man, comes in one morning — maybe he’s really there for breakfast, or maybe he’s cruising.

Turns out, Oren is in Berlin on business, a lot. They begin an affair. Tomas knows about Oren’s wife and son in Jerusalem. Oren has a habit of bringing Tomas’s cinnamon cookies home to his wife as a kind of souvenir. It’s weird.

WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead!

After an unsettling visit, all communication with Oren stops. Confused and upset, Tomas tries to reach him at his company’s office in Berlin. A perplexed receptionist (Tagel Eliyahu) informs him that Oren died in a car crash.

Tomas does what any sensible red-blooded German gay guy would do: he closes shop and heads to Jerusalem to find out what happened — and maybe spy on Oren’s family to get an idea of what his life there was like.

He starts by tracking down Oren’s wife, Anet (Sarah Adler), who’s struggling to get a kosher café up and running. More by omission that outright lies, Tomas slowly works his way into her life, getting closer and more entangled without ever letting on that he knew her husband. Anet’s brother-in-law (Zohar Strauss) is dismayed, particularly when Anet hires Tomas, a gentile, as a baker. Things get complicated when his pastries attract a steady clientele to her café.

The Cakemaker isn’t exactly a thriller, but it’s suspenseful. A clear dread hovers over the whole story because it’s apparent that it’s not going to end well. It can’t, not with Tomas’s deceptions. Graizer’s pacing, slow and deliberate, steadily builds to an effective climax that might not be surprising itself but is still more intense than I expected. This is a quiet movie with some real nailbiter moments.

Graizer does a fine job enshrouding Oren in mystery — or maybe it’s shadiness. Anet reveals a zinger or two about their relationship. Sandra Sadeh as Oren’s mother, Hanna, steals each scene she’s in, a total of three. She subtly lets on that she’s wise to her dead gay son — and Tomas.

With Tamir Ben Yehuda, Stephanie Stremler, Iyad Msalma, David Koren, Gal Gonen, Eliezer Shimon, Sagi Shemesh

Production: Film Base Berlin, Laila Films

Distribution: Films Boutique

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ofir Raul Graizer

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://filmsboutique.com/movies/the-cakemaker/