Wednesday, September 17, 2014

‘Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World--the Tickells' PUMP Imagines a Petrol-Free Future

Note: This special guest review is written for TrustMovies 
by Beth Kelly, an environmentally-conscious journalist 
who contacted me to ask if she might write about this film,
assuring me that she had no personal nor business connection 
with the film itself nor with its creators. 
Her review seems, to my mind, on the mark and now
has me most interested in viewing this documentary.

Kicking our foreign oil habit has been a topic of conversation since at least the early 1970’s, when U.S. drivers encountered the effects of two separate oil crises when they went to fill up at the pump. In 1973, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped shipping oil to the United States and other countries backing Israel in the Yom Kippur War - shocking a generation of Americans that believed oil resources would continue to be plentiful and cheap forever. The 1973 oil shock (below), combined with growing environmental concerns, resource scarcity and rising overseas tensions, elicited a serious questioning of our relationship with oil.

While these concerns linger, the world energy market today is not what it was 40 years ago. Since the crisis in the 1970’s, every national policy we’ve tried as a way to end our oil addiction has failed. In July 2008, when oil prices hit $147 a barrel, reverberations of our dependency on carbon-based resources echoed throughout the global economy. The oil- addicted American household, as it was imagined and invented in the 20th century, was orchestrating its own decline through an unwillingness to re-examine its foundational, oil- stemming weaknesses.

But as many Americans continue to struggle to pay for the gasoline that will transport them to school, work, or elsewhere, others have begun to look for a way to live a life free from fossil fuels. Joshua Tickell, and his wife, Rebecca Harrell Tickell, are such a pair. Fuel, the husband-and-wife team’s first documentary together, was lauded by critics and instrumental in raising awareness of the viability of biofuel alternatives. But the petroleum industry also had something to say about it, launching an impressive smear campaign against the nascent biofuel industry by attesting that ethanol and other non-oil alternatives contain less energy than is required to produce them. The Tickell’s most recent film, PUMP, provides illuminating information against the pervasive Big Oil doublespeak.

Suggesting that we never needed to be addicted to oil in the first place, the film traces the convoluted history behind the crippling of the electric mass transit system, the 70’s gas shock, and the dominant role oil played and continues to play in our foreign policy strategy. Featuring candid testimony from former Shell president John Hofmeister (at right), Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk (two photos below), Internal Combustion author Edwin Black, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (just below), the Brazilian president responsible for shifting the country to biofuels, the film offers plenty of informed perspectives on the issue.

By making another film that shows replacement fuels in a positive light, Tickell endeavors to propel the biofuel resurgence. Prices at the pump have built a demand for natural gas vehicles, since larger domestic sources of that fuel source mean their availability is not as susceptible to tensions in the Middle East, Russia, or Asia. Natural gas prices and availability have fluctuated little over the past three years, while diesel and gasoline costs are comparatively volatile. PUMP advocates for two “monopoly busting fuels,” methanol and ethanol, and flex-fuel vehicles that will run on a combination of gasoline or any blend of up to 85% ethanol.

Without indicting the automobile itself, PUMP paints a picture of political leaders that are too spineless to stand up to special interests and an oil-reliant citizenry. It should be obvious that there isn’t enough oil on the planet to satisfy our immense thirst for fossil fuel forever, but to acknowledge this is only a fraction of the battle. In order to make the transition from an oil economy to an alternative plan, as a nation we will have to acknowledge some hard truths about our lifestyle, and may have to undertake some potentially uncomfortable changes to make the ultimate shift away from fossil fuels.

Peter Lehner, the Executive Director of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), calls PUMP “a must see movie that jump-starts an impor-tant conversation about the crippling costs of our oil addiction,” and there’s no doubt that the issues it explores will make you think hard about the scope of this problem for our times and for future generations - while also suggesting some possible solutions. A documentary that champions the American spirit of innovation, PUMP promises that the same inimitable embrace of progress that got us into this mess will drive us to find a better solution.

Pump, running 88 minutes, opens in theaters this Friday, September 19. Here in New York City, you can see it at AMC's Empire 25 and the Cinema Village; in Los Angeles, look for it at Laemmle's Royal. To see where the film is playing near you, click here and then follow the instructions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A fantasy documentary? Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau's KUNG FU ELLIOT qualifies

Some documentaries seem utterly fueled by the necessity to be born, to take shape, to... appear! Some of the best docs that TrustMovies has seen this year -- Code Black and The Internet's Own Boy, as well as the about-to-open 20,000 Days on Earth and Art and Craft certainly qualify for that description. They -- and their subjects -- are either so strange, important, vital or necessary that it would seem they simply must see the light of day. And so they have. On the other hand comes along a "maybe" documentary such as KUNG-FU ELLIOT, with a subject (that guy of the title) so unbelievable, if kind of creepy and phony that, you wonder, after a time, if you are not seeing another faux/mock piece of work like Exit Through the Gift Shop -- but without even half the smarts and appeal that Banksy brought to that little film.

As directed and "written" by a couple of Canadians -- Matthew Bauckman (at right) and Jaret Belliveau (below) -- who've worked on a number of other films, Kung Fu Elliot is one of those how-dumb-can-people-come? documentaries that beggars belief almost from the first scene, as we meet a fellow named Elliot "White Lightning" Scott who is supposedly a champion Canadian martial artist. While his martial arts moves couldn't fool even my grandkids into believing he's anything like "the real thing," our two documentarians appear to believe the guy or

at least take his word on faith. After a short while, the viewer can't help but wonder why. Is this a case of making fun of one's subject for the entertainment of the arthouse/doc film masses (not all that numerous in any case)? Or are our two Canuck moviemakers actually dumb enough that they believe Elliot? (I am told my the movie's publicist that they are definitely not.) Either way, an intelligent viewer is going to be given almost immediate pause. Yes, Elliot is kind of fun in his fairly stupid, can-anyone-be-this-dumb? manner, but we've already seen this semi-cynical stuff a number of times previously, and it doesn't take long before our laughter rings a little hollow.

Sure, Elliot, above, has a kind of reverse charisma with his so-so body, semi-attractive face and minimal understanding of martial arts. But the deeper we and the moviemakers get into the guy's "plan" -- to make a DIY martial arts thriller called Blood Fight that will set him on a course to become Canada's first movie action hero -- the less possible it all seems. While one can draw some cheap humor from this by laughing at folk not smart enough to realize their weakness, one can also begin to feel "used."

Meeting his girlfriend Linda (above), a lady who has a sour puss for the entire length of the movie (it only grows more sour, for good reason, as the months pass), and his seemingly duped co-actors, one of whom is shown below, only adds to the questionable "fun."

When, at last, the movie turns darker, wise heads will be murmuring, "Finally!", as we move into the home stretch. Once the film has arrived at its conclusion, with the expected update on what happened to the various folk we've just seen, a number of ideas will be jostling for space and importance inside your head, self-delusion chief among these.

Except there may be no self-delusion here at all. Elliot has known all along of what he's is and is not capable. Note the scene when we see him clad in just a pair of tight underwear, as he adjusts his cock and preens a bit. Later he notes that he's got the equipment to do porn films but maybe just not the interest.

There may indeed be some surprises here, but not, I think, for the seasoned film-goer. What has remained on the filmmakers' cutting-room floor may be even more interesting that what we have already seen, and it is difficult to believe that Messieurs Bauckman and Belliveau were not unaware of what kind of fellow they had in tow from pretty early on in the game. While it is eventually clear that we cannot trust our Elliot, I unfortunately have some doubt about trusting these filmmakers, too.

Kung Fu Elliot, a kind of fantasy documentary that runs 88 minutes, has been playing the festival circuit for the past year or so, and will soon play at the soon-to-begin Fantastic Fest, so take note, those of you in the Austin, Texas, area. Next comes the Raindance fest in London. To see where else this film will play (or has played), simply click here and scroll down.

Monday, September 15, 2014

An anti-hero of the art world drives Cullman, Grausman & Becker's brilliant ART AND CRAFT

Another first-class documentary arrives in theaters this week: ART AND CRAFT, the tale of a most unusual art forger that our current art world, I suspect, would rather keep under wraps. The product of a directorial trio -- Sam Cullman (below, right, and co-director of the Oscar-nominated If a Tree Falls), Jennifer Grausman (below, left) and Mark Becker (who, along with Ms Grausman, co-directed Pressure Cooker), the movie introduces us to a Virginia-born fellow named Mark Landis, a quietly self-effacing man nearing sixty years of age with a voice somewhat like that of the late Truman Capote and a skill for drawing and painting in multiple styles that is simply uncanny.

Mr. Landis pretty much tells us his own tale, with some prodding from a journalist or two hoping to get a good story out of all this. (They do, as do the moviemakers.) Such a quiet, non-threatening man is Landis, with his slight frame, large ears, bald head and near-apologetic attitude that he finally becomes one of the more endearing, if sad, narrators in the history of documentaries.

With some difficult family history, and problems both mental (he is said to be schizophrenic) and physical, the movie offers some extra suspense in regard to whether or not this odd little man will make it to the next frame of the film. Landis may be an art forger, but he is not, we are told, a criminal because he has never profited from any of his forgeries. He creates them and then "donates" them to various museum around the country -- who have proven only too willing to accept this "largess."

Landis, it turns out, is as adept at forging Watteau as he is Walt Disney, Daumier and Picasso, and he also excels at disguise of sorts (dressing up as a man-of-god, he claims to have learned how to do all this from the British TV series Father Brown) and at creating the special "provenance" that attends each piece of art that he donates.

Forger or not, you're unlikely to find a "dearer," more soothing fellow on screen these days, and the movie-makers have surrounded him with some other very interesting characters, too. There are those journalists, a few of the museum folk he's fooled, and especially the man -- Matt Leininger (above, left), the former registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art-- who first "cottoned on" to Landis' scams back in 2008 and has become, over the ensuing years, a tad obsessive about tracking him down and making sure that he can't continue on this forgery route.

We get to know Leininger, not as well as we do Landis, but well enough to identify with and enjoy him. The filmmakers, in their unobtrusive way, have managed to capture both men quite beautifully, particularly Mr. Landis -- who will almost immediately become, in the words of that old Readers' Digest phrase, one of the most unforgettable characters you have ever met.

We get enough of Landis' family history, in addition to seeing him with doctors and social workers, to realize that he is "off the grid" in certain aspects. This serves to keep us viewers just a little off balance, as we try to piece together how far off our artist/forger actually is. Is he schizoid, bi-polar, and just "different"? And what of the all those duped curators and registrars in the museums whom our guy fooled. Is "due diligence" not worth bothering about any longer?

By the time an actual art show of Landis' work is being organized for an opening at an Ohio museum, the ironies are flying so thick and fast that you'll have to take a breath. "Do you plan on continuing to 'gift'?"the artist is asked during the opening of the show. He pauses to consider, and then: "I'll have to think about it," he answers.

Art and Craft , from Oscilloscope, is surely one of the most graceful and sweet, endearing and enduring documentaries about an outsider and his world that we have yet seen. It opens in New York theaters -- at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas -- this Friday, September 19, and will hit Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt on Friday, September 26. In the weeks and months to come, it will play another 20-odd cities and theaters. For all currently scheduled playdates, click here and scroll down.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Streaming a missed movie by Joe Swanberg: Jane Adams in ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY

He is prolific, that Joe Swanberg. Since the film under consideration here first appeared (2012), he has made three more full-lengthers, one short film and an episode for a series. All told, since his debut film just over a decade ago, he has directed (and often written) 16 full-length films, seven shorts, a couple of TV series episodes and a segment of the horror omnibus V/H/S. Some of these are even good films -- especially the last two: Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. Which now makes watching his slightly older work a bit of a strain/disappointment.

ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY, streamable now on Netflix, does have a couple of nice perks: the actors Jane Adams and Larry Fessenden. Ms Adams has long delighted us older NYC theatergoers, as well as adding immeasurably to certain not-so-hot movies (Little Children, for one). Mr. Fessenden, for his part, has long been a enjoyable actor in various genre films (I Sell the Dead), as well as a good writer/director (The Last Winter and his earlier work, Habit).

Both actors (shown above, with Larry on the left) acquit themselves well in this little trifle, but unfortunately the "script" often leaves them hanging out to dry. Swanberg (shown two photos up) is working once again in his most "mumblecorish" mode, with so little at stake or at risk that his actors are mostly stranded, having to create their "moments" practically out of whole cloth.

Adams (above, and below, right) plays a aging actress named, Marie, who is having trouble finding work. When her young niece (Sophia Takal, below, left) comes for a visit to her aunt's Malibu pad, also wanting to be an actress, the age thing bubbles up. That's about it. And it is all handled with about as much creativity and pizazz as my description above manages.

Fessenden plays Marie's Malibu neighbor who enjoys surfing with her. He may or may not be attracted to her. And that's about that, too. Marie meets a new fellow who might make a possible partner; her niece has some friends over and gets high. Conversations and a little sex ensue.

If you've sat through many of Swanberg's oeuvre, you'll know what you're in for, and there are a few good scenes here. But mostly it's same-old same old. His latest work shows infinitely more strength and power (not to mention humor and fun) -- in the scripts, situations and performances. So we'll hope that this continues apace.

Meanwhile, for fans of Adams and/or Fessenden, the movie is streamable here and probably elsewhere, too.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

All about artist Nick Cave in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's film -- 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH

There are, I believe, an enormous number of "staged" scenes (waking up in the morning, a psychotherapy session, visits with friends) in 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH, the new film -- I am not certain you could call this anything like a full-out documentary, and yet it does manage to let us see and understand its main subject, the singer/songwriter/screenwriter/artist Nick Cave, about as thoroughly as any 97-minute movie could -- by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (shown below, left and right).

What Forsyth and Pollard have accomplished, however, is something grand and encompassing. Via their idea of bringing together Cave's history, his career, his "notebooks," his music, even some of his performing, the twosome, together with their subject, have created a film in which ideas bounce off each other and grow into something approaching an entire and very rich view of a special personality and talent.

Mr. Cave, above (engrossed) and below (performing), is indeed an original and someone who is multi-talented. He is also, it seems, a man who wants to understand where that talent comes from and how it connects to what he values most in life. To that end he pursues this via friends (that's his long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, at left, three photos below), family, shrink, and of course his work. The filmmakers tag along, having made their own suggestions, and then shoot and edit, wrapping their whole study into a fascinating, unconventional semi-documentary/biopic.

From his Australian roots to Brighton, that rainy, weather-beaten British beach town; from memories of his dad and his first experience with a girl to the various musical groups he's played with; in archival material (below), present-day shots, memories, diaries, and his music and the performing of it, Cave appears as a surprisingly full-bodied character. (At times he reminded me in his own way of the performance artist Marina Abramovic: Maybe it's their dark clothing and severity of appearance, coupled to their intelligence and non-mainstream art...?)

What comes through most strongly here is Cave's sheer intelligence -- along with his ability to feel strongly and put these feelings/ideas together.  And yet, is 20,000 Days on Earth simply a new kind of hagiography? Clearly the filmmakers love their subject and he them (considering the enormous access Cave gave them into his life and art), and the result is a kind of magical film in which we watch, learn and enjoy the experience quite fully.

And everything we see and hear is positive; there's hardly a negative moment in the whole shebang. Perhaps Mr. Cave is a remarkably thoughtful, even-handed and even-tempered fellow. If not, well, we've missed that part of the equation. What we get, however, is so well-conceived, -executed, -filmed and -edited (this is one gorgeous movie) that it's a constant pleasure to view, hear and think about in retrospect. So, yes, it's difficult to complain about something this involving and enjoyable.

20,000 Days on Earth is something new in the documentary/biopic field. You won't easily be able to compare it to any other film. If you know Cave's work (I'm a big fan of his raspy, craggy voice and his songs, less so of his screenwriting), you'll want to see it. But even if you're a newcomer to Nick, I suspect the movie will grab and hold you. (That's Kylie Minogue in the back seat, above.)

In their unique blending of history, personality, music, cinematography, ideas, performance and more, Forsyth and Pollard have come up with something original and accomplished. Their movie -- from Drafhouse Films -- opens this Wednesday here in New York City at Film Forum. In the weeks to follow, it will open in cities all across the country. To see where and when, simply click here and scroll down.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig enliven Craig Johnson's dram-com THE SKELETON TWINS

Suicide (the attempt, at least) has long been a good hook for a black comedy. It clearly remains so, what with today's theatrical debut of THE SKELETON TWINS -- a new dramatic comedy (or maybe comedic drama) from Craig Johnson, shown below, its director and co-writer (with Mark Heyman). What makes the movie work best is its screenplay (which won an award at Sundance), together with dialog that keeps us interested in and rooting for that titular brother and sister for whom life has been, up till now, something less than terrific. That screenplay is full of well-observed characters -- the twins and just about everyone else we meet here -- who bring the film to fine life.

Bro and sis are played by SNL alumnae Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, and both are just about as good as you could wish. While the characters may vie for pride of place, the actors -- smartly -- never do. They play off each other beautifully like the remarkable pros they are, and keep us alternately laughing and wincing at the reality of where depression and poor parenting too often leaves us. Hader and Wiig (shown above and below) are innately comic performers; their ability to make us grin or often full-out laugh, despite the dark happenings here, goes a long way in making this movie so much fun.

The Skeleton Twins opens with one twin contemplating suicide (the pills are in her hand) even as the other has already begun his task. The plot, once the film is in motion, proves nearly negligible, having to do with the pair's bonding after a decade of estrangement. This is OK, however, because the fun and the meaning here are to be found in the details. And, as screenwriters, Heyman and Johnson are nothing if not detail-oriented.

This shows up in the subsidiary characters they have created -- from the Wiig character's husband (another knock-out performance from Luke Wilson, who makes the combination of adorable, sweet and just a tad slow look like the sexiest thing in the world) to the "older man" who clearly was/is the Hader character's first and greatest love (Ty Burrell -- below, right -- doing a combination of closeted and horny that should ring bells with many would-be "straight" men).

The filmmakers dole out exposition cleverly and believably so that we come to know past history well enough to better understand the twins. Further, the events that lead to the finale are not nearly as melodramatic as they might be in other hands. If, instead of the usual last-minute race to the airport, we get one instead to the scuba-diving center, never mind.

Loose ends are not so much tied up as left gently hanging. Yet a door has been opened, and it appears that some kind of entry is possible. Considering what has happened to our twins up till now, this must be construed as something of a happy ending -- if not an all-out feel-good humdinger.

The Skeleton Twins -- a joint release of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions and running 93 minutes -- opened today, Friday, September 12, in New York City (at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Angelika, and City Cinemas 123) and in Los Angeles (at Arclight theaters in Hollywood, Pasadena and Sherman Oaks, and at The Landmark). Elsewhere, too. Click here and then install your own zip code and see what happens....

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Male sexuality, via the penis, gets a look-see in Brian Fender's new DICK: THE DOCUMENTARY

More than five years in the making (the filmmaker evidently began work on this documentary back in 2008 when he took an ad out on CraigsList, asking if there were men out there willing to show and talk about their sexual apparatus), DICK: THE DOCUMENTARY arrives tomorrow on VOD and DVD (pre-order, anyway) in a not-quite-hour-long parade of male members, in the flesh, accompanied by verbal explanations from the bearers of what their penis means to them, how they first became aware of it and what it could do, as well as how it has affected their lives -- for good or not so. And if you don't already know that bigger is probably better, you certainly will once you've seen and heard from these guys.

Our fellows were promised by their director -- filmmaker Brian Fender (shown at right) -- anonymity both visually (although the penis is on full parade, nothing above the neck is ever visible) and ID-wise (the names have been changed to protect the, well, innocent). Each man shows, up, strips and stands in front of the camera, cock front and center, as he answers question from the filmmaker and then, sometimes, begins to elaborate on his own. After spending an initial time with each, Fender begins inter-cutting back and forth between his men, building up a kind of testament to what the penis really means. After all the symbolism and penile stand-ins that we've experienced in our culture -- from skyscrapers and automobiles to bananas and zucchinis -- it's rather a pleasure to have the real thing in front of us to view and talk about and finally, maybe, begin to understand.

Mr. Fender and his producer/sidekick Chiemi Karasawa (shown at left) have chosen a nice variety here, too. The men range in age from 20s through the 70s and they're straight, gay and bi, while their dicks run the gamut -- small, large, thick, thin, circumcised,  uncut, white, black, Latin (but no Asian cock that I could see, which seems a pity the movie wasn't a tad more inclusive).

Conversational topics range from that first ejaculation (usually quite a surprise) to the part religion plays in the use, abuse and care of the cock, and whether or not size matters. Clearly, it does. The biggest dick of them all tell us, "For a time I resented my penis because I never knew if it was me or my big cock that the person really cared about." Still, and as expected, this guy eventually came around to accepting and delighting in his huge member.

Not so the fellow with the smallest dick on display here. That has been a problems his entire life, and it's one that shows little signs of abating with old age.

We hear about that first sexual experience, of pedophiles and horny teen-agers, of styles of lovemaking, how to keep the uncut dick clean and odor-free, and how best to masturbate (when you're circumcised, it helps im-mensely if the doctor or mohel didn't cut off too much flesh. These profes-sionals should know by now to leave enough skin to properly play with.)

The downside is not neglected, either. We hear about erectile dysfunction, prostate cancer and its effect on the libido and penis. We even learn the ins and outs of penile implants. One fit fellow, straight all his earlier life, explains how has now enjoys having sex with men. "Its good," he says, "because they don't expect anything afterward."

The movie's piece de resistance, however, has got to be the section midway along, when we simply see, in profile, a nice-sized dick slowly harden up until it reaches full erection. No explanation necessary. Why men so prize (and worry and wonder about) their cocks, and how and why the penis is seen to be that "tower of power" is on full display here.

Dick: the Doc is a film that ought to be shown to all youngsters during adolescence, to give them the full explanation of things that their father probably won't (none of the men shown here got a proper sex education from Dad). Fender and Karasawa have done a real service for us guys, de-mythologizing the penis while celebrating it, too. Theirs is a smart and -- depending on your sexual preferences and POV -- a pretty hot doc. You can view it exclusively online beginning tomorrow, September 12. For more information go to IndiePix Films by clicking here.