Thursday, June 30, 2011

Yoav Potash's CRIME AFTER CRIME: This agenda doc has us nearly rabid with anger

Of late we've seen some terrific documentaries that seem nearly-and-pleasurably agenda free (Buck, If a Tree Falls, Battle for Brooklyn: the later may have an agenda, but the filmmakers bend over backward to keep it in check). Now comes a film that absolutely has one: CRIME AFTER CRIME by Yoav Potash. This documentary, that pursues justice above all, brought my anger, beginning in the stomach and rising slowly until I could feel it in my throat, to a point at which few movies have managed. Yet the film never screams, reflecting perhaps its leading lady, Debbie Peagler, shown on the poster above and in two of the stills below.

As Potash (left) shows and tells it, Ms Peagler, some 35 years ago, was the oft-beaten girlfriend of one, Oliver Wilson, her boyfriend who decided to pimp her out to local johns on a regular basis. Six years later, after Debbie has separated from Oliver and he and his thugs threaten to kill her family, she and her mom turn to local gang members who were to beat up Oliver but instead went a little too far in their punishment, leaving the pimp dead. Deborah is eventually arrested for the murder and remains in prison for twenty years -- until her case, which clearly involves abuse-of-women, is taken up by a couple of diverse pro-bono lawyers, Orthodox Jew Joshua Safran (below, left) and marathon-runner Nadia Costa, (below, right).

For very nearly the entire first half of Crime After Crime (which sounds like a play-on-words of a certain Cyndi Lauper song but actually involves the sleazy activity of the Los Angeles County D.A.'s office), we move along a more-or-less expected route, garnering information about our protagonist and the situation, with the full expectation that wrong will be righted.  Then a roadblock occurs, and another and another, and very soon, we are feeling, tenfold, the injustice of it all.

Because Joshua, above, saw his own mother repeatedly abused, and Nadia, below, is a former Social Worker for Children's Protective Services in Los Angeles, both are primed for the task at hand. And what a task it turns out to be. Your blood pressure should rise accordingly as the D.A.'s office stonewalls and thwart's justice at every turn (one of the reasons why TrustMovies, who grew up in Los Angeles, prefers to live elsewhere).

What Ms Peagler endures (along with her family), even as her own health deteriorates, is shameful and unnecessary. And some of L.A.s public figures like D.A. Steve Cooley and a certain Lael Rubin are shown up as some of the most disgusting examples of "the law" that you will have seen. When the powers-that-be array themselves against justice, this is what results. Little wonder that Peagler, below, turns to religion -- the hope of the disenfranchised.

But what real hope is there? You will see. Crime After Crime, from the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), opens this Friday, July 1, at the IFC Center in New York City, and on July 8 in the L.A. area (at Laemmle's Sunset 5 and Encino Town Center). Click here to see further playdates, cities and theaters around the country.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford star in Nick Tomnay's THE PERFECT HOST; a short Q&A with the filmmaker

An "original" that repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you, THE PERFECT HOST fares well to be among the most enjoyable movies of the year -- for audiences who appreciate surprise upon surprise and are willing to embrace a movie with little more on its mind than to give them a very good time. With David Hyde Pierce essaying one of those roles "he was born to play" (I suspect there are many more of these than we might realize), and the young actor Clayne Crawford (who looks like a cross between Zac Efron and a young David Hasselhoff and has so far spent most of his career doing TV and cable), this film -- from Australian writer/director Nick Tomnay -- succeeds better by its finale that you could possibly imagine from its beginning. (And that beginning, by the way, ain't bad at all.)

Mr. Tomnay, shown at right, tosses us into the middle of things -- a fellow racing from car to bike to car and then into  a convenience-store robbery gone ridiculously awry (below) -- and he doesn't track back until mid-way along. We don't know who our "hero" (Mr. Crawford, below) really is (or even if he is our hero) for quite some time; even then, our understanding keeps growing as more information is gradually revealed.

Likewise our pro- (or maybe an-) tagonist, played by the delectable Mr. Pierce, below, who certainly saw a plum role when he read this script. The actor grabs the role and runs with it, scoring a touchdown, topping that with a perfect kick and then even a field goal -- all in one.

This is the kind of movie for which the less you know will only increase your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that, along the way, you'll meet some fascinating dinner guests (below)...

take a refreshing dip in the pool...

and meet a beautiful young woman who suffers from a debilitating disease -- among other negatives.

The threat of some horrific violence hovers near, but torture-porn this ain't. Identities, as well as upper hands, keep changing; suspense builds nicely (there's a scene with our hero in a Creature from the Black Lagoon suit that is as creepy as it is funny); and if the ending -- and I mean the last, brilliant few moments --doesn't have you grinning ear to ear, I'll be very surprised.

Crawford and Pierce make near-perfect foils: the yin and the yang, the boom and the bang. It's their movie. The other characters, with a few exceptions are mostly window dressing -- but dressed to the nines. Tomnay integrates past and present fluidly and with just the right sense of timing so that intelligent viewers can keep up -- but not ahead -- of the game.  Should you imagine that you are ahead, just wait: That rug will be pulled from beneath you soon enough.

The Perfect Host makes its theatrical debut this Friday, July 1: in New York City at the Quad Cinema; in Los Angeles at the Laemmle's Sunset 5, and in Lansdowne, PA, at Cinema 16:9.
For further playdates, cities and theaters, click here.


We’re talking to… Nick Tomnay (the filmmaker pronounces his last name with a long “o” and a long “a” -- and the accent on the first syllable). In the interview below, TrustMovies'appears in boldface, while Mr. Tomnay (shown below) is in standard type. There may be some spoilers ahead, so see the movie first and then come back to the Q&A.

Your movie is surprising – particularly because you keep threatening to drown us in horror and gore, and yet nothing happens.


Or almost nothing happens, and yet a whole lot happens. We’re constantly jerked around and having the rug pulled out from under us.  Which is great fun. And – it just keeps going, building up until the final moment when he exits with the two policewomen flanking him.  This is hilarious.  A brilliant little visual moment. I am very impressed.

Thank you.

It’s just such an enjoyable movie. And the performances are really good, too, even the performances from the people who don’t exist.  (Tomnay laughs)

Now, this was based upon a short you made earlier, right?

I had made a short verson of it called The Host, which we shot in 2000, did post production on in 2001, and then ran in festivals in 2002, here and at home. It has won some awards in Australia and here in the states, too.

How long was this short?

25 minutes.

Is this see-able?

Well, I have a copy. (He laughs.)  Perhaps Magnolia has a copy. The short is pretty similar to the full-length -- and in fact, it was invaluable in getting the film made.

Since you’ve seen the film, you know it’s a strange film. It’s eccentric, tonally. And it’s got a lot going on. The comedic, the serious. The short has the same tone. So it was a really great way to show people and explain what I was trying to do: “Look: Here it is in 25 minutes. Now I want to make it in color, in America -- and longer."

But that was ten years ago!

Yes, right. Well, you know: it’s really difficult to make a feature, and to get the money together.  I started writing the feature in 2003, when I wrote the first draft with a friend of mine, with whom I wrote the short.  Then my wife and I moved to New York City in 2004.

So you’re a New Yorker now?!

Not anymore. For five years we lived here, but now we live in San Francisco.

I sure prefer San Francisco -- to L.A., anyway.  

Funny, because San Francisco kind of reminds me of New York. They are both very small, compact, elite -- and expensive. Both are beautiful in their own way. But San Francisco is a bit more relaxed. I haven’t been back here in two years, and so this morning when I woke up early, I wandered around where we used to live.

Which was…?

The West Village. When I got back to my hotel after walking around for three hours, my ears were ringing – just from the trucks and the noise and all that. 

I found something similar when I moved Manhattan to Queens. Whenever I come back into the city, I am surprised anew at all the noise.

I think when you’re in it, you don’t notice it so much. But when you leave it and come back to it – boy!

Is your wife Australian?

Yes, she is. We came over here in 2004, and I started writing the full-length script. And it was set up with two different production companies, but both fell over. The first time it was because the production company wanted to take out all the irony and the humor.

Oh, no?!

Oh, yes! But I didn’t want to do that at all. My manager and I agreed that this was not the way to go. So it just took some time. Because also, I had not made a feature film before. And it is very difficult to convince someone to back it.  But once we decided to go out to David (Hyde Pierce), everything just fell into place.  He had seen the short and read the script and we had lunch. At the end of the lunch, he said, “OK, I want to do this.”  It was so simple – compared to all the years of toiling.

How long between the time he said yes and you began filming?

I think it was about five months. Once we got him, we got our financing.

Where did you find your other leading man, Clayne Crawford.

He is originally from Alabama but he now lives in L.A. When we saw his original reel, I really liked it.

He’s very good. And very different, in his own distinct way.

Yes, and what happened was, up to ten days before the shoot, we still did not have this role cast.  So we saw him again and had him read him a couple of times, and he really is so different from David. A very different energy. Ordinarily those two men would not be in the same room together. You just wouldn’t put them into the same environment.

And when you do, their personalities interact so oddly and it almost seems that they begin changing.  Or at least our understanding of them changes.

Because things are revealed about them. One of the things I was trying to do when I was writing the script was to present a hero and a villain whose identities would completely swap by the end of the film.

You also do a little back-and-forth swapping during the film.

Yes, your allegiances change.

In this day and age of torture porn, it is so pleasant to see something like your film -- that plays with you and threatens but then delivers something much more clever and better, instead.

I am not into the torture porn thing at all. One of the production companies wanted to push the film into that direction by removing all the humor.  I did not want this film to be sadistic; I wanted it to be entertaining.

And it is!

The tone of the movie is meant to have a lot of humor. Even the violence – the threat of it -- has a different vibration going on. 

Yes, it’s remarkable, really, what you’ve managed to do. Where are you from in Australia?


I like SydneyMelbourne, too. I’ve been to Austalia a few times, and it seem to be the country most like American of any I’ve been to.  More even than Canada.

We are, in some ways. And I think we are becoming even more American, too. Lately, my mother will sit on the bus and listen to school girls speaking with virtual American accents now!

I think Australia and America appear to be very similar in lots of ways, but I think at our core we are very different. Americans are quite reverent, and Australians are really irreverent. Musically, America loves a ballad before anything else -- a low, rounding song. If you go to iTunes and you look at what’s coming out, the most popular songs here are always ballads. 

Cast members, left to right, Nathaniel Parker, 
David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford

That’s interesting. I always thought that Australians were like us because they make the best Capitalists. Also, they did to their Aborigines what we did to our Indians.  We have so much in common.  The first time I was over there I spent quite awhile there. It was the mid-to-late 70s -- just at the time when women’s lib was coming to Australia.  Petersen was the big film, and Jack Thompson was the big thing then. Hearing the Aussie populace talk about all this was so interesting. Is the word “ocker” still used there?

Oh, yes. I think at that point -- the late 70s early 80s -- Australia was facing a kind of identity crisis. There was the notion that the country didn't really have an identity -- a notion that we were ockers, throwbacks to what we had always been seen as. Another part of Australia was saying, “No we are not. We’re sophisticated, middle class, intelligent and  literate people."

And both were true?

Yes, and both still are true.

Interesting. You have such an interesting country.  Do you think you’ll continue living over here. San Francisco?

Maybe.  Or Los Angeles.

Ah! Has good stuff started happening from this movie?  Or is it too soon yet to tell?

Well, it has been playing on VOD for a couple of weeks, and it is supposed to be doing quite well there.

Really? That’s great! VOD looks to be an increasing part of how we watch movies.

Yes, and really -- you can now see something in HD on VOD on a big screen with a good sound system and pay only ten bucks.  No restaurant, no baby sitter, no evening out for 80 bucks. And nobody talking behind you in the theater and ruining the experience. I always loved the cinema experience, but I can see now how people are turning to something different.

Yes, I think they are.  I really hope for the best for your film.  If I liked it there have got to be others who do too.

I’ve been looking at some of the web sites. Because once you make a movie, you’re in a kind of a vacuum, so it’s good to hear feed-back.  And people seem to be saying, "This is really entertaining!"

And it is! And the biggest reason for this is because your film is original – in content, form and style.  I see maybe 15-20 movies over a week's time, and this one really is one of the most original I’ve seen in awhile now.

 Thank you!

(We get the time-is-up sign from the publicist, so we say "So long.")

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Azazel Jacobs hits his stride with 'outsider' movie TERRI; ensemble cast a knockout

When I interviewed filmmaker Azazel Jacobs for GreenCine a few years ago, around the time his then-new film Mama's Man made its theatrical debut, even though I was not over-awed with the movie, I found Jacobs an absolutely terrific, insightful, energetic and enjoyable young man (that interview is here). And I couldn't help but wonder where his career might go and what he would do next. With TERRI, we now know: This is his best, most accessible and vital work yet.

Terri is an outsider movie, about, in this case, a hugely overweight high school student, the uncle he lives with and cares for, the vice-principal who takes an interest in him, and a couple of his peers whom he must work with.  Jacobs, pictured at left, is no newcomer to outsider movies. He seems the quintessential outsider himself -- not that he was necessarily put-upon in high school, or anything that obvious -- but his films seem made by and for outsiders with subject matter that's about outsiders. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he consider everyone -- in some way -- an outsider, and I'd have to agree with him. Goodness knows his family life (he's the son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs) could be called "outsider," yet Azazel seems, as a filmmaker and a man, about as comfortable in his skin and shoes as anyone could possibly be.

His movies bear this quality, too. Whatever else you might think of them, they seem comfortable within their own framework. No stretching or over-extending, their reach and grasp are relatively equal. They're simply there. But Terri is somehow there in spades.

Outsider movies are nothing new. From last year's best film (so far as TM is concerned) Never Let Me Go to something as innocuous and fun as Mean Girls, the genre is by now a staple of our movie-going life. In Terri, Jacobs takes all the clichés of the genre but, rather than simply gussying them up, pares thme down to the bone and, along with his splendid cast and a fine and simple screenplay by newcomer Patrick Dewitt, reimagines them with immense feeling, wit and the specificity of the odd.

From the big boy in a bathtub opening, with sidelong shots of his infirm Uncle James (a fine job by Creed Bratton, above) to the old, falling down and-secluded-in-the-forest house that the pair inhabit to that near-enchanted forest itself, through which Terri must travel to get to school -- everything here has been arranged by the filmmaker to seem both very strange and absolutely real: an odd but wonderfully workable combination. Mice, an enormous hawk, schoolmates who tease and hurt, and a vice principal (played with gruff/tender strength by John C. Reilly, below, right) intent on reaching this problemed young man -- they all have their part in the movie's quietly entrancing plan.

This is Mr. Reilly's second film, after last year's Cyrus, in which he plays opposite an overweight boy. As good as was Cyrus, Terri is even better. Despite its weirdness, it is less manipulative, effecting its gradual, one might even say, minimal changes with honor and difficulty. This is not one of those movies in which the fellow we root for goes from zero to hero. We understand, even when Terri does not, that he is a long way from the former, and while he may never reach the latter, he's got a lot of living and learning left to do.

Two of the students who are prove the biggest help to Terri (and he to them) have also been extremely well-imagined and played by Bridger Zadina (as Chad, at right) and Olivia Crocicchia (as Heather, below). The friendship that develops among these three is full of inventive incident, surprise and (thankfully) a sensible dose of self-interest so that it remains truthful to the end. It also goes into difficult places -- drugs and sex, for instance -- in a way in which few other teens movies even get near, and certainly not in a manner this embarras-singly honest.

In the title role, the performance of Jacob Wysocki (below, and in several of the photos above) is memorable. If you see this film, and I hope you do, when you think again of big boys, it's probably Jacob (and his Terri) who will first come to mind. So well do we get under his skin that we begin identifying rather miraculously. This is Jacob's and Mr. Jacobs' most wonderful gift: we are Terri, Terri is us. There is no more "other."

The movie, from ATO Pictures, opens this Friday, July 1, in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center and in California (Los Angeles, Pasadena, Irvine and Encino). Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Jill Andresevic's LOVE ETC tracks the NY love life of three couples and two singles

How cool is it to witness a diverse set of love stories -- in a documentary yet -- set in your very own city, in several of its boroughs and spanning ages that range from teen to octogenarian? Very cool. Part of the charm (there's a lot of it) as well as the reality that imbues Jill Andresevic's consistently involving film, LOVE ETC., comes from the fact that it is set here in New York City and captures everything from the glamour of Broadway to family life in Queens and senior citizens in Brooklyn. We see different races, straights and gays, and -- as NYC is the great melting pot -- folk from as far afield as Brazil and the sub-continent of India.

Ms Andresevic, shown at right, has chosen her subjects quite well, I think, to bring home some valuable points about this thing called love: how many forms it can take, how long (or how short) can be its life span, and the work and commitment involved in turning romantic love into a long-term relation-ship. Thankfully, she doesn't preach. She simply lets the stories, with their memorable charac-ters, spin out. This is plenty, for each tale proves full and fascinating enough to provide its own set of hard questions by the finale, some of these answered, others left hanging in the air to taunt us upon reflection. For all its charm and feel-good moments, Love Etc. does not make long-term "love" look easy.

Yet viewing this movie is very easy. You'll be hooked when you meet the octogenarian couple, Albert and Marion (above, in their youth, and below, more currently): a pair of songwriters still looking for that first "hit." Together for more than 50 years, and now plagued by the failure of body and mind, theirs is indeed a long-term relationship -- one that get a delightful little goosing toward movie's end.

Early on in the film (it may be at the very beginning: It's been more than a month since I've seen the movie), an alarm clock rings, and a young East Indian woman attempts to rouse her boyfriend. It's not easy. This seems cute as we watch, but watch out: the behavior here continues throughout, as the couple -- Chitra and Mahendra -- prepares for its traditional Indian wedding (below), during which we meet both families, and watch as the marriage begins, and then begins to flounder.

First love is usually hopeful, exciting, amusing and sad. We get all this and more from high-schoolers Gabriel (whose family hails from Brazil) and Danielle, who seems a fairly typical bourgeois, street smart Manhattan girl. These kids are young, gorgeous (I could imagine a movie career for Gabriel), intelligent and in love. What could go wrong? At this tender age, so very much.

The film is particularly smart,  I think, to offer us two single guys, one straight, one gay -- the latter of whom I used to know, so it was a bit of a shock to see him up there on-screen. Back when I knew Scott Ellis (shown below, in baseball cap, and who is now a leading director on Broadway and in TV), he was to be cast in one of the roles in a play I had written. A fine actor, he would have been terrific, too, had he not broken his ankle while auditioning for the musical Starlight Express -- which put him out of commission for quite some time. In fact, this may even have had a part in pushing him from actor into the role of a director. We lost touch after the accident, but now, here he is up on screen, looking for Mr. Right -- and deciding to "have" a child via the in vitro fertilization of a woman who will give birth for him.

Scott's story is fascinating, if a bit scary (you'll learn why when you see the film), and also the most glamorous of the five tales here. One delightful scene is a party to celebrate his new fatherhood that features a raft of wonderful Broadway lights, all good friends of his -- from Debra Monk and Julie White to Susan Stroman -- who salute him with a song.

Oddly enough, it was not the gay man with whom TrustMovies most identified. Instead it was Ethan (above, left, and below), the divorced dad of two teens (also shown above), who rather desperately wants a love relationship -- one towards which his kids consistently encourage him. Ethan would appear to be a real catch: handsome, gainfully employed, kind, caring, a good father and all the rest. And then what seems the right woman appears, and he's off and running. His story -- rich, deep and yet told as glancingly as all the others -- should resonate with us men of all ages, particularly when he admits, sadly but not without some hope, that he needs to grow up.

Love Etc. compares -- and well -- to a number of narrative films we've seen over the years, including of course Love Actually. In the genre of documentary, however, it seems pretty much one-of-a-kind: a joy and a treasure that can also pull you up short. The movie opens this Friday, July 1, here in New York (at City Cinema East 86th Street and Landmark's Sunshine) and July 15 in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Sunset Five).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

DVDebut: Eric Mendelsohn's 3 BACKYARDS offers one day & three stories in suburbia

I can understand why some people might not be particularly taken with 3 BACKYARDS, the latest film from Eric Mendelsohn, who, a dozen years back, gave us Judy Berlin and 18 years ago directed his first short, Through an Open Window. This is not, shall we say, Woody Allen-level output (more like Terrence Malick), but it is enough to have added Mr Mendelsohn, in the eyes of many critics, to the roster of interesting independent movie-makers. Deservedly, I think. His two full-length films are what you might call character-study mood-pieces: quiet, unhurried, of and about the moment, whether it be plangent, embarrassing, frightening or just plain odd.

Mendelsohn, shown at right, has chosen to unite his three separate tales by having them take place in the same town. While we do see -- momentarily, glimpsingly -- the backyard of each of the three families, that word, for me, stands more for the baggage, emotional and otherwise, attached to each of our characters.  There's a lot of it, too, though almost all of it is shown via word and deed, rather than exposition.

One of these backyards -- there are five of them, actually, if you count those of two other characters -- belong to Peggy (Edie Falco, above), a gabby, insecure housewife, who is suddenly asked by her neighbor, an unnamed movie star (Embeth Davidtz, below) who has sublet a house on the block, for a drive to the nearby ferry.

A little girl (Rachel Resheff, below) somewhere else in town, is surreptitiously trying on her mom's charm bracelet when she misses her bus and must then cut across various yards and properties to get to school. Adventures ensue.

Husband/father John (Elias Koteas, below) on the extreme "outs" with his wife, leaves on a business trip, but  hangs around in town, in his own yard, in a hotel and finally in a local diner, making cell phone calls to home as though he were really out of state.

Into his faux life appears a young immigrant woman (Danai Gurira, below) looking desperately for work, though she hides this desperation behind a sunny smile and sweet, chipper delivery. Events, major and minor, happen to all these people, and they handle them as best they can. We watch, grow alternately annoyed, amused, saddened and fearful. And that's it.

Obviously, this sort of movie is not for the Transformers crowd. It's an art film -- full of lifelike behavior that could easily go in an alternative direction at any moment -- and it is artfully made. Running just 88 minutes, it packs a lot into that short time. What does it "say"? I detected no message, other than "Here's a slice of life in our town," to which I'd suggest you give a nibble.

3 Backyards comes to DVD this Tuesday, June 28, via Screen Media Films. You can purchase or rent it form the usual outlets.