Writer/director Todd Solondz offers no conventional optimism in his films centering on human interaction. Emphatically unique and quirky, Solondz resists any temptation he might feel to brighten his pessimistic view of contemporary society, as he proves yet again in Wiener-Dog. Sometimes his unsettling stories prompt amusement or reluctant acknowledgement of his perspective, but not this time. 

I find little to recommend Wiener-Dog beyond the great cinematographer Ed Lachman's outstanding work in this joyless, even cruel, series of episodes linked together by Wiener, a lovely dachshund, moving from one owner to another. Her first owners get Wiener as a present for their young son Remi, a cancer survivor. After Remi feeds Wiener granola bars and Solondz spends minutes surveying the resulting feces, the dog gets the boot. 

Vet tech Dawn Weiner, called "Wiener Dog" herself in Solondz's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse, rescues Wiener who goes on a boring road trip with her and a former friend and drug addict. After the only amusing interlude in the film -- an intermission with Wiener walking across multiple computer generated landscapes, Wiener ends up with Dave Schmerz, a condescending film scriptwriting professor and would-be author of his own screenplays. And in her fourth iteration, Wiener lands with a blind, caustic older woman. 

If any of that sounds like entertainment or insightful observation, I couldn't find it, though the cast does a fine job with what they're given. They include, in appearance order: Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. In addition, this idea of following the fortunes of an animal as she moves through a challenging life has pedigree, most famously for film fans French director Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, focused on a donkey's fate. 

In episodic films, a nonjudgmental distance often works well, but indifference to pain and suffering of the central character leaves me cold. And the ending here is incredibly pitiless, leading me to warn this is absolutely not for children. Solondz has said he made Wiener-Dog because "I've never made a dog movie." I wish he'd left it at that. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre

 

Director Morgan Neville's documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble exuberantly celebrates global music. In so doing, it recognizes tragedies past and present of members from, for example, Syria, Iran, and China, while showcasing music's ability to bridge cultural divides. As Yo-Yo Ma says, "The intersection of cultures is where new things emerge."

The idea for this international artists' group came in 2000 from Yo-Yo Ma's fertile imagination as he wondered about his place in the world, torn, as he says, between believing in the power of the human spirit and dreading that power. Both ends of this spectrum come through in interviews, archival film, and performance footage of musicians from, Spain, the U.S., Africa, Jordan, and many more countries. Some of the individual stories and musical instruments are familiar, some unfamiliar. 

Yo-Yo Ma anchors the ensemble which features, among others, China's Wu Man playing the pipa; Syria's Kinan Azmeh, a composer, soloist, and improviser; Kayhan Kalhor who has popularized Persian music; and the effervescent Christina Pato, a Galician bagpiper. Visits to artists' home countries add rich insight into the unique musical traditions so vibrantly and entertainingly united. In fairness, Ma acknowledges that there have been naysayers and critics but he asserts that you must have conviction in the genuineness and power of your own ideas. Ma certainly does as becomes clear in his candid commentary about this project. As Mike Block says of Ma, "He wants to change the world and happens to have a cello with him." 

Director Neville demonstrated his love of music and his talent for presenting it in several films, the latest his 20 Feet from Stardom, which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Neville captures his and all the participants' joy in these extraordinary musicians' glorious collaboration. It's equally uplifting and enchanting. With a smattering of English subtitles when needed, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

The opening scenes of Our Kind of Traitor set an ominous tone, beginning at a Moscow performance of the Bolshoi Ballet and ending in starkly presented disaster. No spoilers here; but for fans of cloak-and-dagger stories, succeeding events are less ingeniously plotted, a surprise in a John le Carré story, adapted by Hossein Amini, directed by Susanna White.

The intrigue intertwines Perry, a naïve but good-hearted British professor of poetics at the University of London; Gail, his savvy lawyer wife; and Dima, the top money launderer for the Russian Mafia, with MI6 operatives at odds with each other as they so often are. But taken as a whole, developments feel cobbled together with a violent action choice from column A, friendship from column B, hostility and treachery--all set amidst stunning locations, including Marrakech, Bern, the Alps and London. Rather than offer a tightly knit, international crime dramaOur Kind of Traitor globe-hops along and unfolds predictably, even as the narrative showcases accomplished acting, cinematography, and sound.

As Perry, Ewan McGregor embodies an everyman caught up in deception beyond his comprehension. As wife Gail, yet another underused female character, Naomie Harris conveys intelligence and conviction, even as she and Perry face a crossroads in their marriage. Stellan Skarsgård makes Dima come alive as the larger than life manipulator who sets the gears in motion. And Damian Lewis, MI6 agent Hector, holds his own, along with Khalid Abdalla as MI6 agent Luke. 

Our Kind of Traitor is a beautiful film to watch. Through lighting and architectural design, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives each location a distinctive personality, appropriately glamorous or sinister while costume designer Julian Day makes each character's choice of clothes express his or her personality. In addition, the themes resonate since, as screenplay writer Amini observes in press notes, as British power has diminished in a global context, "morality has turned into something far more like compromise." Therefore, while this isn't the best of John le Carré and the good/bad differentiation is heavy handed, Our Kind of Traitor invites some thought-provoking afterthoughts. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre, the Hi-Pointe, and select Wehrenberg theatres.

 

French writer Thomas Bidegain has shown an interest in individuals outside society's mainstream in A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan. In Les Cowboys, his directing debut, also written by him, Bidegain presents an equally atypical story: a father's frantic search for his 16-year-old daughter Kelly, who disappears along with her 18-year-old Muslim boyfriend Ahmed.  

Beginning in 1994, Kelly is last seen at a rural French fair with an American cowboy theme, a nod to John Ford's iconic film The Searchers which provided Bidegain inspiration for pursuing cultural conflicts embedded here. As in that film, the plot also draws on an archetypal motif of confronting oneself while pursing another. Over years, as father Alain and later brother Georges travel to diverse locations, their pursuit leads from France to Belgium, Yemen and Pakistan. The European Muslim intersections along with the title Les Cowboys and frequent, early use of Patti Page's song "Tennessee Waltz" invite serious reflection on cultural beliefs and the consequences of alienation.

In that regard, the Islamic content allows for a wealth of contemporary allusions, with brief reminders of tragic terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and North London. This multilayered, global mix presents a challenge for the film to navigate clearly and coherently, especially with the opening country fair followed later by shots of line dancers' feet and legs in cowboy boots and attire, plus a bow and arrow tutorial. No spoilers here, but unexpected and not always convincing twists and turns in this complicated quest soon involve human trafficking and financial exploitation, against a backdrop of enduring love. 

It's a lot to process, though never dull. Some of the credit goes to Arnaud Potier's cinematography that beautifully frames sweeping landscapes and snow-capped mountains as effectively as cramped quarters. Quality acting contributes as well, with John C. Reilly an American presence in a small role. Les Cowboys asks tough questions. In English and in French with English subtitles at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Swiss Army Man is unlike any movie ever made. Ever. It is the movie-theater of the absurd, not a new genre but a barely plumbed one. The film involves two men, one dead and one suicidal and lost, some dream women in magazines and suburbs, forests, swamps and gas, oh, my!

Let's tackle the flatulence first. See, Hank (aka Hanker Wanker) needs to find a way off an island. He picks suicide until he sees another human being on the beach. He discovers that humans emit excess gases post-mortem and uses the man called Manny as a Jetski to bubble blast through the waters. Trust me: it's funny in the way that flatulence always is. 

The two men, each awakening in his own way, begin the struggle to survive in the woods, discovering the litter left behind and turning it into fantasies. Hank also uses the items as teaching tools to remind Manny of what life is like. That includes sex life when they gaze upon a bikini-clad woman in a magazine advertisement. Here's a teaching moment, too: Hank tries to explain to Manny why it's better not to discuss masturbation in polite society. Again, funny. Again, trust me. But then, the funny stops in this short, and the fantasies take over, and you begin to wonder, again, if the whole thing is made up.

Paul Dano works Hank's angles well, especially in the physical and vocal asides. Daniel Radcliffe, known unto his epigraph as Harry Potter, turns in a fine -- maybe the finest since Weekend at Bernie's --  portrayal of a dead man slowly returning to life -- or not. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the woman well.

The film is credited to the Daniels, that is, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They do not fear showing oddballyness in all its states, even in cheese balls. They created song lyrics here like, "Rescued. I thought I was rescued, but you're just a dead dude." Sing along. Swiss Army Man is solidly unpredictable.

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