Monday, September 1, 2014

Signe Baumane's ROCKS IN MY POCKETS: dark tales animated with colorful, ironic joie de vivre


A rather bizarre surprise, given its subject and themes -- women, education, suicide, depression, insanity and possible coping mechanisms -- ROCKS IN MY POCKET, the new animated film (her first full-length) from award-winning filmmaker Signe Baumane, proves a genuinely interesting and different kind of animated movie. This one is very time-and place-specific: Latvia in the early and later part of the century past. It is also a movie that is almost completely narrated by its protagonist: a young woman trying to ferret out her own identity and place in the world, even as she investigates the history and place of her grandmother in that same, stifling, what-will-the-neighbors-say? culture in which she has come of age.

Ms Baumane (shown at left) uses, I believe, her own heavily-accented Latvian voice to narrate her movie, and it is quite a winning one, bringing a sometimes wicked sense of humor, tartness and irony to the sound track. That voice is also sheerly enjoyable to hear, making what could be a rather heavy-going narration more of a pleasure than you might expect, had a typically American voice narrated the proceedings.

The animation, too, while made of fairly simple line drawings in various media, is so colorfully shaded and vividly imagined -- characters morphing into animal versions of themselves, a chicken wearing high heels -- that much of it gives extraordinary viewing pleasure.

The movie concentrates most on Signe herself (above, right), though it gives ample time to her grandmother (below, left) and to a number of other characters, mostly female but occasionally male.

There's cousin Linda (below, as a would-be bridal bird), the smart, beautiful and successful girl who grows into an utterly crazy young woman,

along with little Irbe (below) who hears voices intent on giving her perhaps not the best advice.

Craziness does seem to run in this family, and Baumane tracks it as best she can. She comes down hard on a society that favors conformism, laziness, the male prerogative, and the politically correct attitude -- which of course changes as one country after another conquers little Latvia.

The movie is "adult" in the best sense -- not overly sexual, though desire and need do figure in -- and more about sheer survival and making progress in a society in which women were supposed to be male "help-meets" and baby producers above all else.

If the lessons our heroine finally learns turn out to be less than profound -- friendship is a fine outlet by which to share life's pain; follow your dream and do what you most need to; take your drugs to help stave off their highs and lows of the bi-polar personality -- at least our girl seems to have come by these lessons honestly and via some hard work. Plus, the animation gives us all this in a most fertile and imaginative manner.

Rocks in My Pockets -- the title refers to what you'll need if you plan to drown yourself properly -- from Zeitgeist Films and running 89 minutes, opens this Wednesday, September 3, here in New York City at the IFC Center, and the following Friday, September 12, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal theater. To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, simply click here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Zachary Donohue's THE DEN: a movie that on-the-run video and found-footage were made for


If ever an idea and its execution -- via today's anyone-can-make-a-cheap-video philosophy -- resulted in the perfect marriage, it's THE DEN: a genuinely involving, horrendously creepy and all-too-believable horror film that profits hugely from its on-the-run look. So involving, in fact, is this little movie, directed and co-written (with Lauren Thompson) by newcomer Zachary Donohue, that yours truly forgot to take a single note during its unfurling and so must rely on his fading memory of the evening several months back when he and his spouse watched it.

Now available via Netflix streaming, the film should not be passed up by anyone interested in this genre nor by any young filmmakers looking to learn just what can be accomplished inexpensively and very well via sharp writing and editing, committed performances, and direction and pacing (by Mr. Donohue, shown at right) that is almost always on the mark. I cannot tell you how many movies of this ilk, beginning with the grossly over-rated Blair Witch Project, I've had to sit through, angry and bored, to finally discover one that works this well, while using all the usual stuff -- computers, cameras (hand-held, security and computer-embedded), the Internet, sex and slashing -- but using it with speed and smarts.

The basic plot has to do with a young woman named Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia, above and below), who wants to tackle -- as her graduate project, I believe -- a study of the habits of webcam chat users. Well, why not? We're in the modern age, and so we need to know what kind of world all this "Internet distancing" is producing.

Once Elizabeth gets the go-ahead, she either stumbles upon (or is set up to do this) a site called DenChat.com and then to a murder seen on video, and when she attempts to alert the authorities, the killer targets not just her but her lover and friends. Nasty.

Soon we realize that Elizabeth (along with her computer and her home) has been thoroughly compromised, and as the net tightens around her, the suspense and chills maximize.

In just 81 minutes (the same length of Blair Witch), the filmmaker keeps us glued with hardly a frame that is not used wisely and well.  By the finale, you'll have been put in mind of a number of other movies (especially, I think, Demonlover), yet The Den should prove memorable in its own right.

From IFC Films and available on DVD, the movie can also be streamed now via Netflix and elsewhere.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eric Merola is back with another must-see doc SECOND OPINION: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering


Eric Merola -- the filmmaker who gave us the stunning, shocking and anger-provoking documentary, BURZYNSKI (from 2010), and its follow-up doc in 2013 -- is back this week with a new film, SECOND OPINION: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering, which is every bit as surprising and anger-producing as his first couple of movies. Viewers of Burzynski will recall that New York City's (in)famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center appeared prominently and anything-but-decently in that film. Now it is popping up again, front and center, in Merola's new one (the filmmaker is shown below), and the behavior of the cancer center's upper echelon is once again utterly disgusting. Granted, this behavior took place back in the 1970s, when the war on cancer was coming to full-bloom.

The Burzynski contretemps took place much more recently. If we had a government at all concerned with medical malpractice (this can take many forms, dear reader) rather than constantly kowtowing to corporations, Big Pharma and the medical establishment, who knows what greater strides cancer research and treatment might now have taken?

SECOND OPINION: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering deals with events that took place in the 1970s involving a then-young science writer named Ralph W. Moss (shown below in his older incarnation), who was at the time married with two young children, and who goes to work in the public relations department of the famous cancer center and soon finds himself interviewing and then befriending and writing about the center's leading research scientist, Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura (shown above).

The good doctor had been studying the effects on mice of something called Laetrile, a supposed "quack" cancer cure. Dr. Sugiura's research, however, indicated that Laetrile was anything but "quack." While it seemed not to cure cancer, it could slow its growth and deliver other positives, too. And while, the heads of Sloan Kettering were all for the disclosure of this -- suddenly, after a closed meeting with government officials and perhaps others, they were all against it, and went on record with lies -- yes, they lied -- about Laetrile's ineffectiveness.

What happens next -- and next and next -- makes up the meat of the movie, and will pretty much blow your brain. It will bring to mind the cigarette industry, among other lying corporations, and it will also offer up a wonderful example of the "common man" who finds himself in an intolerable situation when he must betray the public trust to keep his job.

All this happened prior to any laws and help for whistleblowers (not that they are all that effective, even today), and so Mr. Moss, along with his wife and son (both of whom we hear from) must find a way around this bad situation. What happens is both alarming and very funny (or would be if it didn't hold up such a mirror to our rotten health care providers).

Like his other two documentaries, this one is made up mainly of talking heads, some archival footage, and the kind of written evidence (records, research notes and papers) that back up quite well Merola's and Moss' viewpoints.

The plentiful ironies here are often astounding and finally funny/disgusting, as the Sloan Kettering of today tries to "honor" the Mr. Moss of yesteryear. Hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds. Someday, I suspect, a documentary will be made about the rush of the medical establishment toward curing the nation's "high cholesterol" via expensive statin drugs. Maybe Mr. Merola is already working on this one. I hope so.

Meanwhile, don't miss his current film, and watch his earlier ones, too, while you're at it. Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering, running 75 minutes, opened yesterday in New York City at the Cinema Village, and will hit the Los Angeles area next Friday, September 5 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. To see all currently scheduled playdates, click here and then scroll down. If you're not near any of the cities for a theat-rical screening, never fear. Click here to purchase the"extras"-filled DVD.

Note: Director Merola and his subject Ralph W. Moss 
will be appearing in person at many of the theatrical venues. 
Click here and scroll down to see at which and when.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Streaming guilty pleasure (& what a pleasure!), the smart 'n spicy Spanish series GRAND HOTEL


Sure, it's a soap opera. Yes, it's a tele-novela. But there are times in one's life that sinking into a sleek, sure-footed piece of glamour like the Spanish television series GRAND HOTEL can be just the ticket to out-and-out pleasure. Think of it as the Spanish answer to Downton Abbey, with all the upstairs/downstairs goings-on, the coincidences and overheard conversations -- only a lot more fun.

TrustMovies is now finished with the first season of this very enjoyable show (it's streamable via Netflix) and will definitely be watching the rest of the episodes. (Netflix offers the first two seasons in a total of 14 episodes.) It's also a chance to see some fine Spanish actors strut their stuff -- from some old-timers like Concha Velasco and Adriana Ozores (below) to some hot, young newcomers such as Amaia Salamanca and Yon González, (above) who play the not-quite lovers kept apart by circumstance and class.

The cast (major players are seen below) is extraordinarily well-chosen, and each actor delivers the role in spades. The performances are juicy, all right, but they are all so on-target and specific that the series never tumbles over into camp. It may come close now and again, but these steadfast actors, together with scripts that keep the pacing fast and the characterizations smart, save the day.

The story?  Well, a young man named Julio (González, below) comes to the fine, titular establishment looking for his sister, who was employed there as a chambermaid but who has now disappeared. He manages to get a job at the hotel while looking for clues as to what happened to sis -- often with the help of the daughter (Ms Salamanca) of the hotel's dragon-lady owner (Ms Ozores, above, second from left).

Along the way Julio befriends the dragon lady's son (below, right, who proves a nasty, unfeeling shit), along with another of the serving staff, whose mother (Ms Velasco) is in charge of the chambermaid staff. All the while, class and economic differences are made plain, and we see what the one per cent against the 99 looked like a century ago.

At least one murder occurs, and a high-level detective is sent from the big city to investigate; financial problems pile up, and both the dragon lady's daughters find themselves in a troubling romantic situation: one from a husband who now wants out of his marriage, the other from a suitor who doubles as the hotel's manager (at left in the photo at bottom) and is one supremely nasty piece of work.

All this is deftly juggled for terrific entertainment. And the look of the series is spectacular. From the opening credits, using archival photos, to the sets, costumes and antique cars--everything proves a visual knockout.

So, if you want to spend some time (14 episodes with each one around 45 minutes in length) in this glamorous venue with characters you'll come to care for (or hate), take a chance on Grand Hotel. Stream it now on Netflix, and you'll be hooked by the time you've hit episode three.... 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A balletomaine streaming "must": Nancy Buirski's doc re Tanaquil LeClercq AFTERNOON OF A FAUN


TrustMovies is no balletomaine, but he still would not have wanted to miss the recent documentary AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ. Many of us older folk (maybe some younger, too) have heard Ms LeClercq's name bandied about in the dance world over the years, so it is good to now know just why that name, the rather amazing dancer/woman to whom it belonged, and her immense reputation remain so securely fixed in American ballet history. Part of the American Masters series via PBS, and one of the better of those films, the documentary received a critically-acclaimed theatrical release some time back and can now be streamed on Netflix, Amazon and elsewhere, or caught on DVD.

As written and directed by Nancy Buirski, the film grabs us from the outset, as we enter the world of ballet and George Balanchine (shown at bottom, left, with LeClercq), the name still most firmly associated with that art here in the USA. Jerome Robbins makes quite an appearance, as well, and as nasty and unpleasant a person as he is often said to have been, he comes across here as a man who was enchanted enough with Tanaquil to be able to actually be a genuine friend (with a little extra prodding now and then)..

There is a wealth of archival footage here (much of it less than hi-def, coming from the 1940s, 50s and 60s as it does), of ballet and New York City and even Europe and Scandinavia (reaching for international acclaim, American ballet traveled frequently back then).

We see and hear from those dancers still around today -- Arthur Mitchell and Jacques D'Amboise (below) -- plus old friends of Tanaquil. Together they (with the help of the filmmaker) weave a fine portrait of this dancer who captivated audiences worldwide until... something very bad happened.

What, how and why is brought to us with shock and sadness, yet the dancer's life went on for quite some time -- but without dance. It's a great tale, beautifully told and one that will bring you up close and personal with a woman who, until now, has been but a name and kind of distant legend for many of us.

Here's your chance to meet her about as intimately as one can imagine doing in a 91-minute film -- which, as I say, you can view now via Netflix streaming and elsewhere, and on DVD.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

World War II and survival via learning: János Szász's uber-bleak tale of THE NOTEBOOK


A pair of attractive young twin boys graces THE NOTE BOOK, but anyone who mistakes this film with the movie crafted from the sentimental, sodden Nicholas Sparks novel will probably go running from the theater within a very few minutes. This newer Hungarian film traces the lives of these twins, once they have been sent off to the country to live with Grandma, after Hitler's troops have entered Hungary and begun despoiling it.

Using twins as its main characters to bring the point of the novel and film home was a fine idea because of the nature of twins: to be so firmly rooted one to the other that no other character could in any way exist to pull the pair apart. Had the "hero" of the tale been a singular character, he (or she) might have looked to another, older, wiser person for guidance here.

The twins (above) have each other, and together they determine to learn how to survive by watching and aping their "masters" -- who are in this case their truly horrible grandmother (below) and the Nazis who overrun the country. (That's the fine Danish actor, Ulrich Thomsen, shown two photos below as the leading German officer.)

If you are imagining that this scenario would result in one of the bleakest, ugliest portraits of WWII to so far make it to the screen, you'd be on the mark. One of  the pair writes what they have learned in that "notebook" of the title (the film even uses the French title of the international best-seller on which it was based, Le Grand Cahier, as a kind of recognizable subtitle), which we see from time to time.

Mostly we see the horrors of wartime brought home in a somewhat different manner, as our twins stand up to their oppressors by hardening their bodies, minds and hearts. This leads to perhaps the most shocking, deadening finale you will have encountered -- even in the overrun realm of WWII and Holocaust films.

While I refer to the Holocaust, The Notebook is not really a Holocaust movie, as the twins are not Jewish, and neither are most of the characters we see and meet here. The one scene of Jews being rounded up, and a young girl the twins become involved with (above and below) ratting out a local shoemaker as Jewish, is well done but somewhat peripheral. (Later we see smoke rising from the camp chimneys.) And because the movie jumps so often and so quickly from incident to incident, we get no real sense of what the shoemaker meant to the twins. We are told, but we don't see.

This jumping from incident to incident seems a hallmark of the film's director, János Szász (shown below), and it was probably a wise one in terms of cramming into the film's very cut-down 104-minute running time as many bits and pieces as possible.

These incidents do not necessarily grow more horrible as they go along (they're dreadful from the get-go), and yet in terms of wartime humiliation, they cannot help but finally appear that way.

How war dehumanizes a population is the major theme here, as shown us via the twins. Not that certain members of that population were not already plenty dehumanized (Grandma, for one). But how our boys lose all shred of humanity until their final shocking act -- which, not incidentally, I think, allows them to "grow" in a certain way that they have, until now, denied themselves.

What kind of growth this is, however, you will have to decide for yourself. Becoming autonomous has rarely been shown us in quite this kind of manner.

Whether or not you'll want to put yourself through the toils of this particular Notebook is an interesting question. The film is certainly well-done of its kind, yet what it adds to our history of World War II, I am not certain. The twins (newcomers László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) give as good a performance (for untutored actors) as you could wish, even if their expressions seldom vary, and they never seem to outgrow their matching sweaters over the course of the war.

Supporting performances are on the mark, as well, with Granny (Piroska Molnár) especially good, while the twins' mom (Gyöngyvér Bognár, shown above and below) and dad (Ulrich Matthes) are in fine form to show us the before and after of  that particular generation during WWII.

From Sony Pictures Classics, The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) opens this Friday, August 29, in New York (at the Quad Cinema) and Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. The following Friday it will expand in  the L.A. area to Laemmle's Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7.