Thursday, March 31, 2011

Joe Cross' FAT, SICK & NEARLY DEAD is a surprisingly inspirational "juicer" tract

Who's Joe Cross? Among other things, he's the co-director (with Kurt Engfehr), producer, star and subject of the new documentary FAT, SICK & NEARLY DEAD. Does this sound like a vanity production? Maybe. But how vain is it to show a gut like Mr. Cross bore, just pre-vious to beginning his 60-day, Sydney-to-New York and then cross-country, vegetable-juice "fast"?  That was some gut, and we see all of it at the beginning of this tell-all confession that comes off like a non-stop commercial for a diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans. Maybe it is that commercial. If so, TrustMovies would still like to buy in.

They say that there are none more committed than the recently converted. And at times, this film comes awfully close to a kind of religious revival -- with vegetable juice playing the role usually given to Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad. Yet so convincingly does this story -- two stories, really -- play itself out, that I think you won't mind at all being "preached to" by a fellow as funny, charming and, yes, "real" as Mr. Cross. (A propos the end of the above paragraph: the filmmaker/star does have his own company devoted to a vegetable-and-fruit juice lifestyle that anyone of the heavy-set persuasion might want to try. Called Reboot Your Life, it's accessible via the click of your mouse.)

Back to the movie itself: Cross begins in media res, buying some fresh vegetables somewhere down south. He then tells us why he (and by extension, we) are here, shows us that fat, fat belly and figure he possessed a short time ago, and also explains the particular autoimmune disease with which he has been diagnosed. (He says it's akin to having chronic hives.) Cross has come by now to the point at which so many addicts arrive: a kind of do or die. So he decides, with the help of his medical professionals, to go on this vegetable/juice fast diet, as he spends a month in one of his favorite cities, New York, and then spends the second juicy month traveling the country.

Along the way he meets a number of very obese people, whom he engages in conversations that come off so suprisingly genuine and honest that they are a pleasure to see and hear. An Australian by birth, Cross possesses that rather typical Aussie self-deprecating humor that goes a long way in endearing him to the folk he meets -- and to us viewers.

One day, at a truck stop, the filmmaker runs into an even heavier fellow (Phil Staples, above, 429 pounds) who has, in the film's biggest surprise, the same autoimmune disease as does Cross. This is a first for the filmmaker, and he bonds with the guy noticeably before taking his leave.

In the middle of the film -- just at the point at which Cross has finished his own fast and is feeling fine and fit -- something happens and Cross get a phone call.  I will say no more because what occurs from this point onwards is so unusual, moving and finally inspiring that it turns the film into something quite different than you might have expected. I think this movie might just get a large number of us Americans off our plump asses and into a healthier lifestyle. We shall see....  (I particularly hope that the subject of last year's "fat" film Lbs. gets to see Mr. Cross' film.)

Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (you've got to have one very large set of balls, have a fine sense of irony or be very dumb -- to give your movie a title like that) opens this Friday, April 1, at New York's Quad Cinema.  It will also be playing all across the country, with Mr. Cross making personal appearances at many of the scheduled venues. You can find all the playdates, cities and theaters here.

Addendum: For those interested in Mr. Cross and his crusade, here's a recent interview with the fellow via House of Fraser that also features some maybe tasty recipes....

All photographs by Daniel Marracino, 
except that of Mr. Cross, lifting a glass at top,
which is by Michele Aboud.

Loud sound and fury, signifying INSIDIOUS, the new fright fest from Wan and Whannell

For any fright fans needing the creden-tials of filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell, they're the pair who some years back gave us the exceed-ingly fresh and nasty SAW. Which, being highly successful, spawned the exceed-ingly unnecessary and ugly Saw franchise -- only the second of which TrustMovies bother-ed to see. It stunk, so further perusals -- III through... what are we up to now? VII or something? -- were not necessary. And don't babble on about the franchise's amazing philosophy of guilt and vengeance and redemption-via-death that this series presents. I don't buy it. It's about torture-porn and money-making, impure and simple. Anyway, back to the latest from this daring duo.

Wan's and Whannell's new film, INSIDIOUS, is all about what happens after a model family -- hunky Patrick Wilson (below, left), beautiful Rose Byrne (below, right), and their two adorable kids (Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor) -- move into a new home, then promptly move out again when they discover that the house is haunted.  (Wait: That's prime horror stuff, all on its own: having to move your entire family's abode twice in quick succession?). But rather than the reality of "moving," the movie-makers (shown at left, with Whannell on the right) are interested in the unreality of... well, you'll see. And if their new film reminds you of one of the stupidest movies ever to hit theater screens -- Paranormal Activity -- the reiminscence is intentional. (The PA filmmaker Orin Peli is one of the producers listed in the Insidious credits.)

What Insidious has going for it is a lot more than had Paranormal Activity (and its rip-offs PA-2 or The Fourth Kind): a sound design (by Joe Dzuban and his crew) to die or kill for and a firm understanding of how absolutely scary are the things we almost -- but don't quite or just for a creepy, mini-second -- manage to see. The first half of the movie is full of this and should provide fans of the genre with many memorable moments.

Then, just about half way through the overlong (102-minute) proceedings, a character named Elise, who is the head of the paranormal unit (played by that very fine actress Lin Shaye, shown above, right, with Mr. Whannell, who shows up as her assistant, "Specs") is made to spout a shitload of exposition that would easily choke the largest dinosaur from the Jurassic Park series (let alone the proverbial horse).

Ms Shaye does this quite well, but the verbiage goes on and on to absolutely ridiculous proportions -- and simply stops the movie in its tracks. What were the filmmakers thinking? This kind of midway exposition, which explains in minute detail the "other world" into which Wilson and we viewers are about to travel, is deadly. We might as well be taking a course at community college: "All right, students: tell me how those astral bodies work!"

From here on in, the movie gets ridiculous, and the more special effects that come into view remind us too well how effective was the creepier, first half of the film. The ending? All too predictable. I would tell you to walk out as soon as that wad of exposition begins to unfurl, so that you can remember the movie as having given you a number of very pleasurable jolts. But of course you won't (nor would I, if I didn't already know better). So good luck.

Insidious, from the newly-formed FilmDistrict debuts all over town (and in lots of them: Click here and then on one of the three blue bars to buy your tickets) tomorrow -- Friday, April 1 -- an appropriate opening date, if ever there was one. What? You thought you were going to see a really scary movie. April Fool!

Photos above are from the film -- except for 
that of Messieurs Wan and Whannell, which comes courtesy 
of the Hollywood Movies section of

Aaron Schock's CIRCO: Tracking the days of a small Mexican circus and its performers

It's no secret that the circus -- generically and individually -- has seen better days. Despite the incursions of Cirque de Soleil and the Big Apple variations, the old-fashion circus is pretty much a thing of the past. (For us New Yorkers, rather than worrying whether the lion tamer will get eaten or the trapeze artist break his neck, we've had Spider Man of late to keep happy those audiences hoping for a fatal accident.) In Mexico it may be a different story, as traveling circuses that visit villages in the hinterlands still have a hold -- albeit lessening -- on the populace. One circus in particular provides the subject and the cast of the new documentary CIRCO.

Budding filmmaker Aaron Schock (shown at right), who spends a lot of time in Mexico, followed one of these circuses (a family-run-for-generations affair) that is still trying to mount a good show and please its audience -- even as that audience grows smaller, the debts grow larger, and the circus itself is beset with internecine struggles. (Full disclosure: I know Mr. Schock slightly, having met him a few times, due to the late-and somewhat-lamented Jackson Heights Food and Film Festival and the fact that his in-laws -- lovely people -- live two floors below our household here in Queens.) As a person, Schock strikes me as pleasant and smart, what I'd call an active-positive personality. As a filmmaker, while this comes through, too, what shines ever more strongly is his unwillingness to push things in any untoward fashion. He watches and records, and then edits for the moment and its meaning, put-ting it all together so that we get a strong sense of both the circus and its "acts," and of the cast of family members that define it.

A few years back I was lucky enough to see Schock's early film (not even mentioned on the IMDB), a small, maybe 15-minute look at a family of immigrants who collect recycling material from the trash put out by many of the apartment buildings and homes in the Jackson Heights area. This, too, was a wonderful, quiet, honest look at a particular group of people. Since seeing it, I have never noticed any recycling collectors here in the area without thinking again about that film. While I am unlikely to do the same regarding Circo -- only because I won't be seeing many Mexican family circuses -- the new film has a similar, memorable effect.

Without any sense of undue prying, you get to know these people and their work and even learn a good deal about their problems: the shaky marriage of Tino Ponce and his wife Ivonne; their four kids; Tino's angry/distant dad, and assorted other relatives. Just how bad is the strain on this mariage? Is Gramps making maybe too much money off the work of his son and grandkids? And the circus animals!  Even religion rears its head.

Schock's ability to probe without prying is one of the wonderful pluses of the film, which may remind you of the recently-released Bill Cunningham New York in its gentlemanly refusal to insist while allowing us to piece together the puzzle at hand. If we don't finally get all of the pieces, there is enough to give us a remarkable picture of a family, a circus, a place and the particular time in which all of this comes together.

You'll have a number of questions by the film's end, some of which maybe answered in the end title cards, or even by the director himself, as Schock is making some pit stops during the film's release and will be glad to bring you up to date on the family, the circus and what's currently happening with them both (he remains in good touch with the little group). The cinematography (by the filmmaker himself) is mostly aces, and the music is, as well. It's by a group called Calexico, and Schock promises that this music will eventually make its way to CD or download capability.

Circo, from First Run Features, opens this Friday, April 1, in New York at the IFC Center, and in the weeks to come in some 20 cities around the country.  Click here for cities, dates and theaters.  This weekend Mr. Schock will appear in person at the IFC Center at the 7:50 and 9:40 shows on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday at 4:10.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Deron Albright's THE DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS to screen at the 2011 ND/NF

One of the treats of the yearly series New Directors/New Films (co-presented by MoMA and the FSLC) is the chance to see films from around the world, including some from smaller countries, the film-making output of which you may never before have partaken. Ghana is one such country for yours truly, and THE DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS, which screens this weekend (Friday and Saturday) at MoMA and the FSLC, is just such a film: small, interesting, exotic and surprising -- in ways both good and not so.  (This was, in fact, the only film in the series I was able to get to this year.)

Directed by Deron Albright, pictured at right, and written by its star Yao B. Nunoo, the film begins with a fingerprint in the colors, I presume, of the Ghanian flag. This is appropriate for several reasons. The film is a kind of mystery involving a passport (both forged and stolen!) and a series of violent crimes in which our sort-of hero,  Inspector Boniface Koomsin (played by Mr. Nunoo, shown below) becomes more and more deeply involved.

Corruption, from the mild to the major, seems rampant throughout Ghana, and clearly Boniface is part of that corruption, though of the more benign type. A once-illegal immigrant in the U.S., he was deported and now can't go back without that fake passport. As he probes the mystery of who robbed him of it, he meets a wise old, fount-of-wisdom fisherman (below, left), who explains the meaning of the film's title; a non-corruptible police chief from another precinct and his wife; a hot young hooker and her not-so-hot boyfriend, and most especially a sad-eyed young girl who seems to either follow Boniface everywhere or turn up at very odd times.

The underlying theme here is home and homeland -- and what, if anything, we owe the latter. Will our semi-hero leave Ghana or stick around and help make it a better place? In terms of  film-making technique, director Albright initially seem to have a pretty good handle on things. His film is crisp and efficient storytelling, for awhile. But as the platitudes pile up and more violence and murder occur (why our exceptionally naive hero even remains alive provides the movie's biggest mystery), much of the sense and logic goes by the wayside and sentimentality takes over.

It's not a total loss: performances are appealing, the scenery of course is exotic and new (unless you know Ghana very well), and there are historical reference points -- Kwame Nkrumah is one such -- around which some of us can wrap our memories. By the finale, the film seems to have changed its stripes completely -- from mystery thriller to feel-good fantasy. The Destiny of Lesser Animals indeed!

The film will screen Friday, April 1, at 9:00 pm at MoMA and again Saturday, April 2, at 6:30 pm at the FSLC. Follow the proper link to obtain tickets at either venue. As of now no further theatrical exposure is guaranteed for this film, so if it sounds appealing, better make plans to see it now.

Note: For those who couldn't catch this film three years ago, 
I have just been told that The Destiny of Lesser Animals 
is now streaming worldwide here at

WRETCHES & JABBERERS, Gerardine Wurzburg's film on autism, opens in NYC

The second film on autism to appear this week alone -- TrustMovies covered Loving Lampposts just this past Sunday -- WRETCHES & JABBERERS, the new documentary from Gerardine Wurzburg, appears with the help of the partnership of the Autism Society for its theatrical release April 1: the day that begins National Autism Awareness month. Ms Wurzberg (pictured below), as well as her subjects, deserve thanks and praise for putting the autism-affected at the center of this sometimes difficult film because watching these people in action is not an easy nor a particularly pleasant task. Yet it has its rewards.

The task at hand is finally a salutary one, for it brings us up-close and personal, in a way we seldom see, with the disconnect between how the autistic feel and think, and how unable they often are to communicate these feelings and thoughts. In Lovings Lampposts, filmmaker Todd Drezner does this, as well, but he gives us only short snaps, as he moves from character to character. We understand what is going on, and the difficulties the autistic have in communicating, but not in the same way we do in Wretches & Jabberers -- which spends much more of its time watching its two main autistic characters and a few subsidiary ones, constantly trying and trying and trying to communicate. They achieve some real success, it must be said, but at a price. The movie pays a price for this, as well.

It's a double-edged sword, this concentration on character that the documentary provides. We see and hear (more often read via the computer screens that Ms Wurzburg photographs) what Larry Bissonnette (above, right) and Tracy Thresher (above, left), are thinking and feeling. But this results in an awful lot of time spent on the effort, with less on the result, and this also makes for a certain amount of repetition in the film. Thanks to various breakthroughs in the understanding of what the autistic actually experience, we now know that they are often more initially reachable via visuals than by the sounds of words. Consequently, the more vocally challenged among them input and output using their computer screens more than their mouths.

Showing everything in this manner also helps drag the movie down, depending on the viewer's ability to proces all this communication via reading and/or hearing. Sometimes, particularly when we're dealing with characters in Japan (below) or Finland (above), the verbiage is sometimes translated into spoken English so that we can skip the reading process.

During the course of the film, we travel around the world with Tracy and Larry -- to Dubai, Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland -- before coming back to Vermont (where Tracy lives and works: he's a spokesperson/agitator for the rights of the autistic). Larry, we learn, is an artist who exhibits and sells his work -- shown below in the penultimate photo -- locally, nationally and internationally.

We visit tem-ples in Sri Lanka, attend autism con-ferences in Tokyo and Finland, and meet others who are autistic in both coun-tries and elsewhere. The most moving moment comes as the Japanese mother of an autistic son bids the Americans good-bye; you want to hold her close and assure her things will get better.

Despite the repetitions, musical selections that comment unneces-sarily on what we're already seeing, and the difficulty you may find in watching Larry, Tracy and their new friends for any length of time, pay close attention to the verbal and written information you see. There are gems buried here: "We are the perfect example of intelligence working itself out in a much different way."

Wretches & Jabberers will open Friday, April 1, in New York at the AMC Empire 25 for a week's run.  You can access all the past and upcoming playdates here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Worth the wait: Sandrine Bonnaire & Kevin Kline in Caroline Bottaro's QUEEN TO PLAY

A shoo-in to attract foreign film buffs who enjoy arthouse movies of the more mainstream variety, QUEEN TO PLAY  (Joueuse, in the original French), which will open this Friday after making its American debut two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a smart, small but intensely enjoyable movie -- one that I think would draw the kind of satisfied, word-of-mouth audience that made The Grocer's Son a surprise arthouse hit. 

It stars a fine actress -- one who is consistently popular with this particular audience -- Sandrine Bonnaire (Angel of MineIntimate Strangers, Vagabond, Her Name is Sabine) and our own Kevin Kline (doing his first full-out French-language role), with help from Jennifer Beals (looking gorgeous in a small but pivotal role) and French hunk Francis Renaud (The Code, Chrysalis), who brings great warmth and humanity to Bonnaire's confused husband. Written and directed by Caroline Bottaro (above, right), a newcomer who has previously directed only one 15-minute short, the movie deftly juggles intelligence and emotion, plot and theme, bringing everything home to rest in thoroughly winning fashion without, thankfully, overplaying anything.

Ms. Bonnaire, above, essays the role of Hélène, a cleaning lady capable of a good deal more than washing and wiping. (Another under-used cleaning woman named Seraphine walked away with that same year's Cesar for best film and best actress: Has France an untapped resource in its femmes de ménage?) One day, as Hélène cleans a room, the inhabitants of which are out on the terrace, she becomes fascinated while watching through windblown curtains as the pair plays chess. This fascination grows even more in the home of another of her clients (Professor Kröger, played by Kline) who also enjoys the game.

Chess has had a long, if checkered, history in cinema -- from a classic like The Seventh Seal to one of the worst movies ever to win a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar (Dangerous Moves) to the somewhat obvious and disappointing Searching for Bobby Fischer and that pivotal scene in the original (and quite pretentious: the remake was so much more fun) Thomas Crown Affair. In the annals of chess-on-film, Queen to Play may be among the best, due to Ms Bottaro's ability to suggest an idea rather than bat us over the head with it. What draws Hélène to this game? It probably has to do with the way in which she, as a woman, can relate to her male partner while playing. This will come to effect her relationship with her husband, her client (Mr. Kline's professor) and finally some other important men. As I say, all of this is merely suggested, as is so much else in the movie. But mulling over Bottaro's many "suggestions" adds immensely to our pleasure.

Also at work here is an idea similar to what riveted audiences to that great movie Babe. Rather than watching a pig being told that he cannot do something for which he is clearly talented but lacks the canine qualifications, we see a woman begin to excel at a man's game -- and then pay for it. This, of course, sends out all sorts of feminist feelers (not to mention the issue of class: the couple's daughter brings this to the fore), but fortunately Ms Bottaro allows nothing to go too far. Her discretion graces everything from sex to terminal illness. She possesses a remarkable ability to give us just enough information and/or visuals; this, coupled to the European sensibility not to pry, allows certain moments to skirt sentimentality but quickly settle back into sense and strength.

Ms Bonnaire is just splendid: Her ability to hold so much inside (while making us aware of every scrap of it) is a joy to observe. She manages great acting with as few flourishes as anyone else performing today. Kline (shown two photos above) is gruff, bearded, and still as sexy and intelligent as ever. He ought to have had a better film career, but perhaps he will start working in French (or Italian? Spanish? Why not!). Beals (above) continues to enchant -- more now than back in those Flashdance days -- and I will look forward with great anticipation to seeing M. Renaud (shown below) again soon.

Until last evening, when I watched the film again, it had been two full years since I first saw it and wrote about it (that review, pretty much in its entirety, appears above).  I am happy to say that I feel as strongly now as I did then that this is an exceptional film.  The only things I should have mention earlier are the simply gorgeous scenery on view (the film takes place at seacoast/cliffside town that should get a lot of American tourists, post-viewing), with cinematography is by Jean-Claude Larrieu, and the lovely, never-intrusive musical score by Nicola Piovani.

Queen to Play, for which we owe a thank-you to its distributor Zeitgeist Films, opens this Friday, April 1, in New York City (Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center) and in Los Angeles area (at various sites), with a nationwide roll-out to follow. Click here for all playdates -- cities, dates and theaters -- across the country.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Take what you can, or will, from Signore Frammartino's spare LE QUATTRO VOLTE

Another in the growing catalog of films that, intention-ally or not, blur the line between documentary and narrative,   LE QUATTRO VOLTE (The Four Times -- which does sound a bit classier in Italian, right?) looks, feels and acts just like a documentary but is a narrative film, with a cast made up of the actual people who live in the actual mountain town -- a rough gem of isolated, near-timeless beauty -- where it was filmed.  It shows us things we never have seen (and probably never will) in a manner which -- even if we have seen them -- will likely seem unique.

TrustMovies does not read any press material handed out at screenings or with DVD screeners until he has first seen the film at hand.  He makes his critical judgments based on whatever he can garner from what's he's seen, rather than from what he will later read that the filmmaker (in this case, writer/
director Michelangelo Frammartino, shown at right) and his distributor (Lorber Films) might want him to know. This may be unfair to the movie people, but it is fairer, I think, to my readers, who will be plopping their tushies down into $10 to $12 dollar seats without benefit of this "additional information." Regarding Le Quattro Volte, I don't think I've ever read a press kit, post-screening, more filled with surprise information about what I had just seen. Perusing it, I found myself murmuring time and again, "So that's what that scene was meant to convey!" or "That's what that moment was about!"

If the above sounds off-putting, I absolutely do not mean it to be.  Le Quattro Volte is in many ways a wonderful piece of "art" film-making. Consistently beautiful to view, it sets you down in the middle of a place (a small mountain village in Calabria, Italy, above) and of lives (the townspeople, in particular an old shepherd and his herd of goats, below) that you would likely never get near in your own lifetime.

Because there is no audible dialog -- other than ambient sounds of townspeople occasionally talking (that you cannot quite understand, and for which no subtitles are supplied) -- and not a lick of narration by anyone, you simply have to keep your eyes and mind constantly on alert to figure out what is happening and why. This is challenging, and if you go to see this film with a companion, I wager you'll spend time immediately afterward, asking each other questions and exchanging viewpoints.

The movie opens on a gray/white screen, which, after a few moments, we determine is a kind of mist. This is coming up from ... ovens in the ground? So it seems. At first Frammartino's camera remains stationery from place to place, and we think we may be in for something Ozu-like. But no. Soon, he is moving that camera when necessary, taking us to church, to bed, to pasture and elsewhere

We're involved in all this, but often as much by the kind of game the director is playing with us, as by the film itself, which, though not officially a mystery, is still downright mysterious. And sometimes very amusing. A truck arrives in town and from it come what looks like extras in a Roman sword-and-sandal epic. But no, it's some sort of ceremony/pageant (above) for which the townspeople and their priest then leave. A young woman, arriving late for this event, is met by a barking dog which scares her and at which she tosses a stick. This leads, step by step, to one of the funniest movie scenes in recent memory and from there to the famous shot you see below (and on poster, top).

Ah, yes: those goats. You may be put in mind, as was I, of the documentary Sweetgrass, but as movie actors, these goats surpass those sheep by miles. They're as funny and versatile as they are fun to watch, and even their bleating sounds more interesting, individual and resonant than does that of the sheep. We actually witness the birth of one goat, below, and follow its progress until, well, you'll see...

So little do we get to know the humans in this film (including our leading man, that shepherd) and so little happens on one level (on another there's everything here from birth to death to car wreck to lumber-jacking, seen below) that the movie could easily be classified as an "experimental film."  Yet I wager that it will linger longer than a lot of other things you'll view this year.

Le Quattro Volte, from Lorber Films, opens this Wednesday, March 30, at Film Forum in New York City. You can learn of dates, screening times and even buy tickets by clicking here.  To see cities, dates and theaters, where the film will be playing across the country -- including Hawaii! -- click here, and scroll down.


As a courtesy to my readers (via the courtesy of Lorber Films, of course), I am giving you the link to that exceptional press kit for the film.  But I urge you to see this movie first, challenge yourself to make the necessary connections, and then read the press materials to expand your understanding -- and probably enjoy some interesting surprises.