Thursday, February 28, 2013

THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK: Wendy Jo Cohen's mockdoc does Civil War, Gays, Blacks, Asians and women up proud

So where were all the "others" during our much-vaunted, -heralded, -written-and-filmed-about Civil War? Over the past 12 months alone, we've seen Lincoln, Saving Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies hit theaters (or in the case of that last one, DVD). Hell, these films even manage to include fantasy/horror elements like vamps & zombs before dealing with the contribution of the GLBT community, Asians, Blacks and Women Warriors to the cause of saving our great Union and thus America itself. Well, folk, this great wrong has now been righted by the new and awfully endearing mockumentary THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK, from first-time, full-length-film filmmaker Wendy Jo Cohenpictured below, who is much better known as a producer.

No less a documentary filmmaker than Ken Burns is on record as loving this movie, and it's easy to see why. Not only does it send up oh-so-sweetly and gently, the kind of documentary that Burns specializes in, it does this with the sort of skill and stealth humor that has you believing (almost) what you're hearing one minute and then suddenly guffawing the next. If you did not already know that this was a mockumentary, I am not sure you wouldn't watch most of it in a state of blithe, if a little uncertain, credulity. This is thanks to the film's writer/director and her ability to parrot so spectacularly well the kind of talking-heads-cum-historical-photographs documentary we've seen so much of over the past couple of decades (with which Mr. Burns has so often graced us).

Ms Cohen is spot-on in her use of these "talking" heads (above and below), often accompanied by heavily in-motion bodies, and in her and her cinematographers' ability to create ancient-looking photos that are probably composites and/or who knows what else.

There is quite a bit of fun to be had, too, in her decision to give us the story of all these outsiders -- star-crossed gay military men (above and a below)...

a China-man divided between the practice of military art and laundry (below)...

a simply fabulous tale of a Black man (below) totally unaware of slavery and his own state of being, who ends up bizarrely serving the cause...

and a dear female child (below) who goes, Dickens-like, from poverty to orphan to prostitute to cross-dresser to one-armed vigilante in search of her nasty pimp. Oh, the woe!

And the fun! These tales are told us by "experts" who often disagree, making the information we learn all the more enchantingly screwy. So, is there a downside to all this? Yes, but it's not a deal-breaker. The movie has even more in common with the work of Mr. Burns: It's too long. Not by all that much, but clipped judiciously of 10 minutes, it would have been absolutely aces, I suspect.

As it is, it is still a lot of good fun. Particularly for mockumentary fans, and especially for those "others" who themselves reside (or have had progenitors) in any of the aforementioned camps. It is also a prime choice for those who know and love these historical documentaries and don't mind a little fun being made at the docs' expense. God knows, if Mr. Burns can love this one, you all should be able to, as well.

The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek (running 96 minutes, in black-and-white and color) opens tomorrow -- Friday, March 1 -- in New York City exclusively at the Quad Cinema. I would hope it will play other cities soon. If so (or if not), it will certainly make its way to DVD, VOD and streaming eventually.

THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT: Dan Sallitt's remarkable movie about the "I" word opens in NYC at Anthology Film Archives

This week two excellent films open in New York that feature crackerjack performances by their leading ladies, both a little older than the characters they play, but both able to nail these characters amazingly well. Yesterday we covered Perla Haney-Jardine in Future Weather; today it's Tallie Medel, performing in her first full-length feature, THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT. And, yes, we're talking about incest here, though it's a word barely spoken (I think the brother and sister use the initial only, if that, during their conversations).

The man who made this terrifically engaging, intelligent and unusual motion picture is a fellow named Dan Sallitt. This is the first of his films I've seen, but if the others are anywhere near this level, I'm an instant convert. The first thing thing that impresses about this movie is how insistent writer/director Sallitt is in making character trump event or action. I believe in literally all movies I've seen that deal with incest (most recently Daniel & Ana Delta and No Tengas Miedo) the event turns out the be-all and end-all of the situation and film. This is understandable, as incest is such a taboo subject -- which makes it, of course, all the more transgressively alluring for some filmmakers and audiences to confront. But then it becomes all the more difficult to avoid exploitation.

Sallitt manages this avoidance extremely well. He absolutely hits his subject head on, but because he and Ms Medel (shown above) have placed us so firmly inside the mind and heart of his heroine (and to a much lesser extent, her older brother -- played by newcomer Sky Hirschkron, below), we actually come to care more about the people here than the event itself. And if your reaction is, at this point, "Well, of course we would!" then stop yourself. Achieving this reaction simply cannot be as easy as we may imagine, for human beings generally want the excitement and thrill that goes along with anything "naughty."

Sallitt offers us the family first, and if this particular family (below) seems a little odd, well, whose isn't? There's a loss of a father figure, early on, which seems to have had its effect on mom (Aundrea Fares, center, left, below) as has the departure of her eldest son, now at university. The remaining two daughters and the younger brother have adjusted pretty well -- except for this extreme closeness between the one sibling pair, which, as daughter Jackie makes clear, the other family members either choose to ignore or haven't fully noticed.

The family's house (below) is quite lovely, too; these folk live in a gorgeous, verdant community, where Jackie is doing well enough in school. When brother Matthew leaves for college, however, and the two must be apart, the girl takes a tumble.

Mom manages to get her daughter to a therapist, and, lordy lord, it's a good one. The sessions scenes are among the best I've seen on film: smart, real, and most surprising of all, these show us, without undue exposition and about as well as has yet been put on film or video, how therapy slowly works.

There's more, and all of it is about as well thought-out and presented as you could want. Sallitt takes his cues, I think, mostly from documentary film (and has been pointed out elsewhere, from the late Eric Rohmer). While this helps the reality quotient, some of the performances (never that of Ms Medel) can at times seem a bit stilted. And yet, with this particular group of people, stilted is just about what you would expect.

By the finale, you'll be amazed and heartened. The filmmaker has addressed his subject directly, and taken us and his heroine on quite a journey. The Unspeakable Act is one of the most deeply, deeply satisfying movies I have seen in a long while. It begins performances today, Thursday, February 28, at Anthology Film Archives, where it plays, in tandem with a short repertoire of Sallitt's other three films, through March 7 (his other films plays through March 8). Click here for tickets and here for directions.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kids and the environment: Jenny Deller's rich, warm & probing FUTURE WEATHER

Finally: someone who fully under-stands the threat of global warming and is prepared -- no, more than that -- to do something about it. Trouble is, she's only 13. Jenny Deller's wonderful new film, FUTURE WEATHER, success-fully combines the world's most pres-sing current problem, global warming, with one of its oldest: the parent/child relation-ship. This new film-maker (this is her first "full-lengther") gives us one of the best and most realistic looks at budding adolescence as it comes to a smart, feeling girl with problems on her plate no kid should handle alone.

Of course, Lauduree (that's her name) is not quite alone. But try to tell her that, as she negotiates the depths and shoals of life at this troubling age. In the role of her heroine, the filmmaker (pictured at left) has cast a remarkable young actress actress, Perla Haney-Jardine, who, it turns out, I have actually seen several times previously, but considering the pace at which young kids grow, I simply did not recognize her as a teenager, here.

Ms Haney-Jardine has the face, along with ability, to show us a lot going on inside via her gaze, her focus, and her quiet but strong voice. She exudes strength and intelligence, if not much patience for her lessers -- which includes most everyone around her, even those who are firmly on her side.

These include her grandmother (a wonderful job by the reliable Amy Madigan, above, right), her school teacher (a fine Lili Taylor, below) and schoolmate (a charming turn by newcomer Anubhav Jain, shown at bottom).

Not included is Lauduree's mom, for reasons you'll soon note, and were it not for the eminently believable performance from Marin Ireland (below, right), this character might seem too much. Late in the movie we (and Lauduree) learn some pretty awful information from grandma that helps explains mom's lack of caring/character.

Lauduree can be pretty self-righteous, in the way that growing children often are, and the young actress lets us see this side of her character with no punches pulled. Although this is a movie featuring predominantly women, it is no way anti-men.  Grandma's suitor, in fact (a nice job from William Sadler, below) is a help to both Lauduree and Gram.

The movie takes in only a short time period, but in that time we learn a lot abut this little group and come to care deeply for its heroine. With more people like her in our world, the movie suggests, that world might have a fighting chance.

Future Weather, after a brace of successful festival showings, is playing now in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and will open this Friday, March 1, at Brooklyn's reRun Theater and the Carlton Cinema in Toronto. From there it will hit various other cities and theaters. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Rendez-vous With French Cinema opens with a choice bit of rom-com-cum-history: Régis Roinsard's POPULAIRE

It's that time of year again, when French film takes over the Film Society of Lincoln Center, resulting in, again, the most popular foreign film program of any the FSLC offers: Rendez-vous With French Cinema. This year's annual series, presented in conjunction with Unifrance, should prove no different, and in fact, just might outdo past years (were it not for our continuing crummy economy in which disposable income, except for the wealthy, seems a thing of the past).

Still we must be grateful that Rendez-vous has grown to now inhabit four venues around the city: two at Lincoln Center, another in the West Village, and the last in Brooklyn. You can find them all by clicking here.  Further, you can view all the films in the current series, too, via a single click, followed by another on any of the movies that interest you.

For the first time in 20 years, Trust Movies is not attending this year's Rendez-vous, with the exception of the press screening for the opening night movie, Régis Roinsard's unusual and generally delight-ful rom-com POPULAIRE. But don't let my lack of time and inability to fit my 6'8" frame into the ridiculously designed seating area of the new Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center -- I've had to give up on that place, as have other extra-tall friends of mine -- stop you normal folk from attending this festival full of all kind of new (plus a few classic) French films.

Populaire is yet another in a long line of frothy but sophisticated French romantic comedies, brought to perky and very pleasurable life by M. Roinsard (shown at right), and if you do not get to see it during Rendez-vous, never fear. Just as with last year's opening night selection, The Intouchables, The Weinstein Company has picked up this year's movie for distribution, as well. Look for a summer opening and pretty good box-office grosses, I surmise.

What immediately sets Populaire apart from the pack is its time-frame: late-1950s Paris, when being a secretary was a huge step up for most young ladies. (Was France a very sexist country? Bet your bon-bons, honey!) And so we have a smart and pretty young woman who also happens to be able to type rather quickly (the wonderfully versatile Déborah François, above, right, of Student Services and Please, Please Me!) who goes to work for a handsome but sexist boss (Romain Duris, above, left, at his most charming and flustered).

From there we get to typing championships (above: who knew?), pretty-in-pink advertisements (below, and deliciously French), early corporate sponsorships, and the meaning of love and commitment.

One of the most interesting of the movie's touches is introducing an American character (Shaun Benson), a left-over from WWII who has married a local girl (the beauteous Bérénice Bejo, below, from The Artist, A Knight's Tale and the first OSS 117) and settled happily in France. We rarely see anything like this fellow in French film, and it adds to both the novelty and the reality of M. Roinsard's enterprise. (Mr. Benson is given one of the film's finest and final jokes, a very smart one that he carries off with the proper aplomb.)

Duris and François (below) prove aces together, creating an odd chemistry that keeps their connection bubbling with possibilities. In terms of morality, time period and situation, the filmmaker seems honest, as well, and if the movie did not set its own home box-office ablaze, as some had expected, this may be due to the inability of France's young people, not unlike our own, to understand or care about a time period before computers and cell phones, when young women had not nearly the choices available as they possess today.

For the rest of us, Populaire should prove great fun and an often dazzling walk down the memory lane of fashion, hair styles and automobiles -- not to mention typewriters -- even if most of our memories will skew American rather than French.

As I mentioned, the movie is scheduled for summer release this coming July. So, if you miss the Rendez-vous screenings, stick this one on your movies-to-see list now.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nick Love's THE SWEENEY opens, giving us a new gang that couldn't shoot straight....

The movie begins well; give it that. THE SWEENEY -- starring everyone's favorite, fat British bad boy, Ray Winstone (whatever else you do, check out his underseen-but-terrific 44 Inch Chest) and a good rest-of-the-cast -- manages about half an hour of fast fun before degenerating into standard, stupid stuff. Which is too bad, given that cast and the subject matter at hand: the tribulations of a division of London's police department that seems to exist somewhat above-the-law.

Co-written (with John Hodge, who often collaborates with Danny Boyle) and directed by Nick Love (shown at left), the movie begins with a good, slightly violent action set piece that gives way to the setting up of various relationships involving love, lust, power and the like. With dialog that's short 'n sharp -- "He's a bit of a cunt," notes one fellow; "I like him," counters another. "He's got panache" -- the plot moves to the robbery of a jewelry store in which a bystander is, it would seem, pointlessly and ruthlessly murdered.

Then we're in for the robbery of a bank just off Trafalger Square, at which point the movie completely dissolves into the ridiculous. This "Sweeney" unit, which has always managed to get its job done without undue incident or damage to civilians, is suddenly shooting it out on the street with the bad guys, as bystanders all around run for cover. Worse, none of these people -- good guys nor bad -- knows how to shoot. They make The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight look like prize-winning marksmen. (I'm not saying that every bullet must hit its target, but, really, a couple of 'em should.)

Truly, the above is one of the worst action sequences I can remember, and the movie never recovers from it (though, in time for the finale, of course, some of our guys do learn to shoot so that other of our guys can end up dead). Even worse, our "hero," Jack (played by Winstone) is mostly an asshole, whose behavior is so dumb and Neanderthalian that it grows impossible to care what happens to him -- or anyone else. Mr. Winstone is a fine actor, but, screenwriters, please: the guy needs something to work with.

Filled with shoot-outs, car chases, killings and nasty Eastern Europeans (as always, of late, the villains du jour), and all, finally, as boring as they sound, the film grows noisier and more nonsensical, making use -- badly -- of every last-minute cliche in the book. Given some of the shots we see at the beginning and end of the movie, it begins to look like we're watching product-placement for the world's biggest, baddest banks. Who knows? They probably helped finance the film.

Lost in this dismal cause are generally fine actors like Hayley Atwell (above: playing hard n' sexy), Steven Mackintosh (below, left: cold n' creepy) and Damian Lewis (wasted here as Winstone's boss). The last line on my page of scribbled screening notes asks, in a nod, I guess, to the Bard, "What fresh crap is this?" Unfortunately, it's not even that fresh.

The Sweeney, from eOne and running 112 long minutes, gets a brief theatrical play here in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, beginning this Friday, March 1, while making its simultaneous VOD debut, too.

At Cinequest Film Fest: ONE SMALL HITCH from John Burgess and Dode B. Levenson

I've never been to the Cinequest Film Festival -- it's in San Jose, California, and its 23rd annual edition begins today -- but as I've been asked to check out a movie premiering there, I thought I'd look into the fest. Here's what its web site has to say:

Cinequest (CQFF) remains one of the last big festival bastions 
for the discovery of new and emerging film artists. 
CQFF presents a dynamic, 13-day event of 200 international 
films with over 600+ film artists, technologists, and professionals  
from 44 countries in attendance. 
Over 10,000 artists have attended CQFF to date.
(This year's Maverick Spirit is Salman Rushdie, below)

Sounds promising, no? And a look at this year's film schedule makes it seem even more so. But where to begin? With a roster of films divided into various "feeling" groups (how very California!) -- celebration, innovation, inspiration, thrills, laughs, life and love -- there's plenty to choose from and no way that any one person could manage to see 'em all.

The film I'd been sent -- a smart little rom-com  titled ONE SMALL HITCH -- turned out to be a pleasant and quite enjoyable movie, well-written, very well-acted and directed, and with technical polish to spare. If you're a rom-com fan, this one should sate your appetite nicely.

Directed by John Burgess (at right) from a screenplay by Dode Levenson that begins with a smart premise and opens up gamely from that point on, the movie packs in lots of funny, sweet, romantic moments that jump off from believable reality -- but never jump too far. Thanks to its attractive, energetic cast, the film sails along to exactly the point we expected to reach. But getting there -- which is what makes rom-coms work (or not) -- proves both fun and, on occasion, surprising.

Arranged marriages are said to work as well as not (just ask India!), and though most rom-coms wouldn't get near anything so "unloveable" as that, still, they often create scenarios in which two seemingly very different people are somehow forced into a situation of togetherness and end up "in love." If that's doesn't reek of arranged marriage, Hollywood screenwriter-style, what does?

So it is with One Small Hitch, which actually begins with an event -- a woman's betrayal by a man -- almost identical to that of a movie we covered just the other day, Girls Against Boys. Yet how very different is the outcome (that's what separates slasher/horror films from rom-coms).

In addition to the oil-and-water mix provided by our "couple," there's also the families' religious differences that date back entertainment-wise to Abie's Irish Rose (probably even further back than that). All this makes for some good chuckles, with nothing taken any farther than reality and sensible comedy might allow.

The fine cast is topped by Aubrey Dollar and Shane McRae (three photos above) as the odd couple, and Janet Ulrich Brooks (above, second from left, and two photos above), Daniel J. Travanti, Ron Dean (far left, above) and Mary Jo Faraci (second from right, above) as their parents, with good work also coming from Heid Johanningmeier (below, as the sexy "other woman" who is also pretty wise), and Robert Belishi (shown at bottom) and Rebecca Spence (far right, above) as brother and sister-in-law.

Burgess' film, if not cliche-free, is at least not ham-fisted in the use of the tried-and-true. But please, filmmakers: Can we have a moratorium on the scene which our heroine (and maybe her friend) try on various outfits, one after another, accompanied by fast editing, cutesy movements and bouncy music. This was clever and original nearly a quarter century ago in Pretty Woman but has lost some luster with each use since.

One Small Hitch, via Principle Entertainment, will play the CQFF this Friday, March 1, at 6:45 at the Camera 12 Cinema; again Sunday March 3 at 10:30 am (think of it as church) at the San Jose Rep Theatre; and finally on Thursday, March 7, at 4:15pm, back at the Camera 12 Cinema. If not picked up for theatrical distribution, TrustMovies expects that this one will, at the very least, make a deal for VOD, streaming and DVD release.