All posts by Joe Baker

writer and film enthusiast living and working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area

Review: ‘The Worst Ones’

The confluence of documentary and fiction often yields playful, insightful results. From Lionel Togosin’s On the Bowery (1957) to the more modern exercises of Abbas Kiarostami or Robert Greene, this hybrid style allows the filmmaker to bend, smother, or even break the traditional narrative rules of storytelling.

Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s Cannes prize winning The Worst Ones features some of the same twisted strands of truth and fiction. They don’t break the rules, but craft a captivating hybrid nonetheless. The ideas behind it need some unpacking and a description of their wonderful effort doesn’t quite do the film justice. Regardless of its enveloped style, The Worst Ones crumbles raw and honest emotion around the edges of a film that keeps one guessing whether it’s real or scripted.

In the hopes of casting fresh faces, filmmaker Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh) comes to an impoverished neighborhood in France. We first meet the youngsters he will eventually cast as the leads in his film through their VHS audition tapes where they’re fidgety, unsure everyday kids with lots of pimples and bad posture.

The oldest are Lily (Mallory Wanecque) and Jessy (Loic Pech). The younger are Maylis (Melanie Vanderplancke) and the volatile Ryan (Timeo Mahaut). The film follows each one as they deal with their real life troubles- absent parents, adolescent horniness, and the general slog of their rough and tumble neighborhoods- and the ones presented to them on set by the film crew.

Slowly but surely, The Worst Ones breaks from its pretend documentary style and makes the viewer realize we’re firmly in Dardennes-style low drama where the stakes of growing up eclipse any high drama of the film Gabriel is shooting. And each young performer is given their chance to shine. Focusing mostly on Lily and Ryan as things progress, we watch as Lily develops a crush on a much older production crew member. Ryan- constantly framed as if he’s a caged tiger just waiting to explode from the hard life he’s already experienced as a twelve year old- learns to coral his temper both in front and behind the camera. Maylis experiences a bolt to her burgeoning sexual person when she meets a production assistant (Esther Archambault). Her desire is explored in an astonishingly realized car drive where she becomes entranced by the wispy hair and rattling costume jewelry of the girl chauffeuring her to the set. The most broad of the group is Jessy…. all teenage bravado and tough talk until he’s placed under the microscope of filmmaking in a delicately rehearsed sex scene between himself and Lily.

Outside of this scene and a few featuring young Ryan, very little of Gabriel’s film is shown. Most of The Worst Ones power comes from life outside where the emotional stakes can never be rehearsed. It’s a film that shrewdly uses film production as a mirror to the real life of the kids involved.

Born out of the idea filmmakers Akoka and Gueret had while making a short film and their experience of casting it, The Worst Ones begins in that (assuredly) time consuming and arduous process, but ultimately shows that when a film finds the right people, it clicks into place. I’ve already name checked the Dardennes, but another name the film reminds me of is Olivier Assayas. The Worst Ones feels messy at times and strikingly resonant the next, and its lineage to the film-within-the-film is a staple of classic French cinema. The young actors (like in Assayas’ masterpiece Cold Water) stumble through life, love, and heartbreak with the same stone-faced resolve as Ryan and Lily do here. It’s a terrific film that ranks as one of the discoveries of this early movie going season. And just when one thinks the film’s documentary pose has been put to bed, the final scene forces us to reconsider the line between reality and fiction all over again.

The Worst Ones premiered in March at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous With French Cinema. It opens on Friday March 24th in New York and April 7th in Los Angeles with a wider release scheduled in the coming weeks.

Review: ‘Moving On’

After the previous Lily Tomlin/Jane Fonda effort a few weeks ago where they happily go hunting for the athletic delights of Tom Brady in 80 For Brady, Paul Weitz’s Moving On could be described as the dark flip side adventure to these iconic Hollywood starlets and their recent resurgence. Both films prove that both Fonda and Tomlin have plenty of charisma left in the tank and I don’t imagine them slowing down any time soon.

In this film, however, the stakes are much higher than a road-trip full of synchronized dance routines and mistaken cannabis consumption. As Claire, Fonda leaves her Ohio hometown and travels to California for the funeral of an old friend, where she immediately confronts the widower (Malcolm McDowell) and tells him of her plans to kill him that weekend.

The black comedy vibes are firmly entrenched from that moment on, especially as Claire meets a third old friend of the group Evelyn (Lily Tomlin) and proceeds to go gun shopping, discusses how to mix poisons, and steals the first knife she can get her hands on. Black comedy, indeed.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (or in this case, something much more triggering) , but just as soon as we think Moving On is all about buried vendettas, Weitz turns it into a somewhat melancholy and rambling tale of two women coming to terms with their past.

As Evelyn, Tomlin gives the best performance. Also holding some privileged information about their dead friend, she delivers most of her lines with that Tomlin panache we’ve come to appreciate- part slicing and part earthly. Of course, Fonda is given the flashier role, but there’s also a stop down as she connects with an old flame (a stoic and reverential Richard Roundtree) and, for a time, I wished the film were about these two and their complicated history rather than the often imperfect comedy presented by other aspects of the film.

Instead, Moving On kicks back into Fonda revenge mode, and while it does scatter through a range of inconsistent tones, it’s entertaining for the presence of Tomlin and Fonda who could do this type of thing for many more years. It’s no 9 to 5 (1980), but few films these days reach that type of cloistered rage within a deft comedy package.

Moving On opens in wide release on Friday Match 17th. Check local listings for showtimes.

Review: ‘Leave’

Alex Herron’s Leave tells the story of a woman searching for the parents who abandoned her as a newborn. It’s a film that blends up numerous horror film trinkets, from hints of Norse mythology to spirit possession and jealous insanity. Even the satanic tableaux of European ‘doom metal’ music gets a nod. But for all its horror red herrings, the film’s modest purpose is far closer to simple human fallibility than anything else.

After a tense opening where infant Hunter (Alicia von Rittberg) is found in a cemetery wrapped in a dark blanket with unusual markings, the film jumps ahead twenty years later where, thankfully, Hunter is mostly well adjusted with a loving father and beginning her college life with a road trip to school.

Except instead of proceeding to Georgetown, she hops on a flight to Norway with paper clippings and research about her real mother and father- both once popular musicians in the heavy metal scene. The stories originally reported- that her father Kristian (Morten Holst) killed her mother (Ellen Peterson) by burning her alive inside a church- certainly would fit the apocalyptic lyrics of any death metal song. Add to the fact that the devious, shadowy image of something is haunting Hunter in her dreams and eerily screaming the mantra of the film’s title, Leave establishes a thoroughly moody experience from the get-go.

However, once she lands in Norway and makes contact with her mother’s surviving family members, Leave turns into a more introspective examination of hereditary failings and evil that’s certainly more humanistic than supernatural.

Led to her grandfather Torstein (Stig Amdam) by the surviving band mates of Kristian and Cecilia who’d much rather forget their histrionic past, Hunter barely gets any answers here either. Her family history, wherein most of the females have met an untimely demise, seems secondary to the patriarchal control and manipulation exhibited by Torstein and Hunter’s cousin Stian (an especially wormy performance by Herman Tommeraas). It’s only through her exhaustive search for her mother’s diary that Hunter eventually finds any answers.

While there’s nothing remotely groundbreaking about Leave, director Herron exudes an assured control as the film shifts the dynamics from a horror movie to yet another exercise in toxic masculinity. And even if it’s a bit derivative, Leave settles in well as a film that uses the horror genre to mine some ugly truths about the desire to maintain staunch bloodlines. Like the ideas that graced the screen recently in other efforts such as the wonderfully bizarre Barbarian (2022), Leave tells a story where the actual people in front of us are ten times more scary than the figures we embellish in our imagination.

Leave is a Shudder release and begins streaming on their channel on Friday March 17th.

Review: ‘American Cherry’

Opening with a voice-over that quotes Kurt Vonnegut, Marcella Cytrynowicz’s American Cherry immediately pits us deep in teenage melancholia. It also sounds like the perfect title for an unfinished novel. The voice here is that of troubled Finn (Hart Denton) as he narrates the short period in his life actually spent in happier times after meeting fellow teenager Eliza (Sarah May Sommers). Theirs is a relationship that seems to island them together while they both deal with turbulent days. And while the Vonnegut-inspired rhetoric establishes something darkly humorous and strange in this decaying rural middle American that the film takes place within, American Cherry strives for a moody fatalism that it never achieves. The central relationship between the young couple is watchable at times, but it’s an effort that never really gels behind a narrative that takes some odd detours, tries to compensate its moodiness with a consistently heavy handed soundtrack, and plays like an attractive xerox of an early David Gordon Green film.

When we first meet Finn, he’s an obviously troubled individual. He wails at the sky. He collapses in front of his house to the casual attention of his parents. He loves punching concrete walls. The ‘meet-cute’ is even dramatically contrived when Eliza comes to his rescue as he’s lying in the street and hoping to be run over by a car. Like the endless malaise of all small-town romances, she still falls for the bad boy. If these warning signs weren’t enough, things escalate after Finn attacks a substitute teacher and gets kicked out of school.

While the first part of the film deals with Finn’s dark whirlwinds, much more patient and compelling is the character of Eliza. Giving the strongest performance of the bunch, Sommers embodies her role as a teenager scarred and eternally bitter by the separation of her step father and artist/drunkard mother (Leonor Varela). It’s no surprise that she falls hard for the dark bad boy who could give her a reprise from her shattered home life.

However, as American Cherry progresses, it becomes clear that neither one will escape their rural ennui (filmed in the beautifully lush woods of Arkansas). And while Eliza’s friends are obsessed with school dances and drinking beneath the bleachers, Finn and Eliza float about their dilapidated landscape as moody lovers, camcorder in hand to document their nocturnal conversations and the effervescent way Eliza glides in front of the lens for him.

Essentially a woozy, low-budget teen mood piece by heart, there are flashes of brilliance beneath American Cherry and there’s a strong talent buried somewhere within Cytrynowicz’s effort, but it’s often sidetracked by some odd casting choices and overwrought emotions- especially when it comes to the adults in the film. The subplot between Eliza’s mother and step family comes off as comical at times, evidenced by one of the most strained and uncomfortably filmed dinner scenes in a while…. as if everyone has watched a Cassavetes film and are desperately trying to encapsulate the weird emotions that fueled his off-kilter masterpieces of strained communication and imbalanced personalities.

And the home life of Finn isn’t any better as his parents (a miscast pairing of Matty Cardarople and Hanna Griffiths) have force fed him pills since a young age and seem to be completely oblivious to the psychopath he’s become. All of this is shown in camcorder footage (recorded images as the ultimate truth teller I suppose) that highlights the biggest problem with the film. Its best intentions are laid in the innocent relationship between Finn and Eliza as the film’s lackadaisical tempo matches the swooning intermingling of people discovering love for the first time. When American Cherry tries to dig deeper and really understand these teens, it becomes amateurish and overwrought, especially as it barrels towards its dark denouement. It’s a shame American Cherry doesn’t have more to say about small town melancholia. Instead, it becomes fixated on the very boring Finn and his switchblade fatalism. As a complex young character, Eliza deserves better.

American Cherry begins streaming on Amazon, Vudu and Comcast VOD on March 17th.

Review: ‘Close’

The life of a teenager is already fraught with misunderstood emotions and anxiety. In Lukas Dhont’s quietly affecting Close, those simmering feelings are further exposed in the relationship of thirteen year old Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) . Both young actors give tremendous performances, made all the more heartbreaking by the narrative beats of filmmaker Dhont who seems to understand that less is certainly more.

We first meet the pair as inseparable friends in the Belgian countryside. Content to spend their days riding bikes, chasing each other through the fields, and using each other as a body pillow to relax in the warm sun, things drastically change when, one day at school, a fellow student asks if they’re a couple. The simple question elicits sharp reactions from both Leo and Remi. From that slight interaction, Close examines the immovable wedge placed between the boys as they attempt to deal with the dramatic fallout that occurs from their dwindling friendship.

Without saying more as Close is a film rife with spoiler opportunities, it’s a film that hinges on the face of Dambrine- someone spotted by chance on the street by Dhont- and while the film takes a very Dardenne Brothers like approach to its fly on the wall aesthetic, it never loses track of the anchor supplied by Dambrine. While the fragile tragedies mount, Dambrine navigates each scene with an assured quality that puts most young actors to shame. There’s a moment towards the end between Leo and Remi’s mother (Emilie Dequenne) that feels like the sort of melodramatic meeting that sinks so many films exploring heightened sensations. Here, it works brilliantly and sums up the entire ethos of the film, which is life is hard and messy and unexpected. It’s how we move forward that really matters.

Winner of the Grand Prix award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Close is the second film from Dhont after Girl (2018), another effort that explored the tumultuous feelings of a young person. He definitely has found his niche. If Close is the better of his two films to date, Dhont has established himself as a purveyor of adolescent emotions. Avoiding heady manipulation, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

A24’s Close opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday February 17th at the following theaters: AMC Northpark, Dallas Angelika, and Cinemark West Plano. Check local listings for further showtimes.

Review: ‘Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin’

Years ago- after running through all the typical horror films I could get my hands on- I turned my attention to the lesser known tentacles of the genre and sought out the more obscure European fare. My journey took me to the blind dead series from Spain’s Amando de Ossorio , the stream of Italian “giallos” that have imprinted the genre for decades, and even the perverse journeys of Jess Franco. And then I watched Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death, (1978) or “Les Raisins de la Morte” as everything sounds better in French.

Here was a gore-fest wherein pesticides were turning French farm folk into ravenous zombies. It looked incredible. It employed a dream logic that sinks most horror films, but only elevated its rural ambiance here. And it began my fascination with the filmmaker Jean Rollin whose trove of French nightmares has given us endless celluloid images of zombies, twin vampires, bloodletting, half naked scythe wielders, and beautifully desolate castles. As directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger show in their new documentary Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin, I’m certainly not the only one immediately drawn into the filmmaker’s unique vision upon first laying eyes on his work.

A micro effort that rolls through Rollin’s life (both personal and professional) with a fine tooth comb, the documentary also gathers a nice mixture of talking heads. There are collaborators (such as actresses Brigitte Lahaie and Francois Pascal), personal friends, and lots of cultist researchers and film writers who all talk reverently about Rollin. If this seems non-confrontational, it is. Rollin appears to have been one of the nicest guys out there, despite the savage beauty presented on screen.

Borne out of the French New Wave and rubbing shoulders with just about everyone who crawled from its Gallic ashes, Orchestrator of Dreams has access to so much Rollin footage that not even his early student films are missing. Directors Ballin and Ellinger work with a robust spate of images…. something that’s nice to see since my early days of exploring Rollin’s films were challenging and thanks must go to Salvation Films and their efforts to procure and release so many of his films on DVD. From his early days sitting in Henri Langois’ theater to the continual financial struggle he faced with each new film, Ballin and Ellinger tromp through his cinematic life that was both blessed and hard earned. It’s not a secret he often worked in hardcore pornography to support himself. He borrowed and schemed with partners. He took on assignments deserted by other filmmakers (Jess Franco multiple times) and then used his ingenuity in splicing several strands into one (semi) cohesive trip. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and the kids of the 90’s eat your heart out. As actress Pascal comments in the film, “If Jean had a lot of money behind him, he would have made the most incredible films.”

Besides all that, what makes this celebration of Rollin’s life so special is the eventual outpouring of fandom that would emerge around the world for Rollin and his films. There’s a great story about the surprise emitted from Rollin when a retrospective of his work drew sold out crowds in London. For a filmmaker who helped to spearhead one specific genre of ‘Eurosleaze”, Orchestrator of Storms makes sure to emphasize the lasting legacy of such a frowned upon genre to impact the larger cinematic world.

Though his output dwindled in the 80’s and 90’s due to health issues, he was still working right up to the weeks before his death, often directing a scene and then returning to a stretcher for rest. Orchestrator of Storms spends just as much time on his enduring legacy as it does his formative years and it’s a terrific documentary whether you’re invested in horror films or not. This is a study in hard nosed movie crafting. And even if Rollin had millions of francs to produce each of his films, I wouldn’t change one thing about his mesmerizing, adventurous, and deathdreamy oeuvre.

Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin debuts on Arrow Video’s streaming service beginning February 14th.