Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christian James and Dan Palmer's witty STALLED offers fabulous fun by co-joining the contained-space and zombie genres

Surely by now it must be clear -- what with those AMC Walking Dead zombies having slo-moed their way into the mainstream and the [REC] series offering its best and also funniest of its film via number 3 -- that the zombie genre is now mainly fit for (mostly) fun. When a so-so example like World War Z is greeted with critical hosannas and big box-office, it is sadly certain that no real reinvention (other than making zombies funny) is in the cards anytime soon. All of which is to say that the British and very low-budget movie STALLED comes on like a breath of fresh air in this increasingly stale genre. (It even -- see alternate poster below -- has the audacity to make fun of the only really good effect in all of World War Z.)

As directed by Christian James and written by Dan Palmer (who also portrays the lead character), Stalled has the very smart idea of joining two genres: the zombie movie and the confined-space thriller (Brake, Devil, Buried, etc.). This combination works amazingly well -- mostly because Stalled is much more a comedy than a horror film (although the blood and gore rise to a rather high level). The title itself should bring a smile to your face, as it refers to the hero of the film, a maintenance man in a hi-rise building who gets stuck in a toilet stall in the women's lavatory during an office Christmas party, just at the moment when -- and isn't it always like this -- the zombie apocalypse breaks out.

Mr. James, shown at left, and his lovely cast have a lot of fun initially toying with the intellectual level of these zombie -- which is probably no more or less than in most other films, but here is played for some terrific, low-key laughter. There's a subplot about a tool box stuffed with money, which we realize will figure in during the course of things. Having the Christmas-party guests in costume is yet another inspired choice for some further humor. Mr. James also knows how to pace a Zombie movie very well. But mostly, it's the genuinely funny and often surprising writing from Mr. Palmer that keeps the movie rolling fast, along with his ability to fill the screen-play with numerous and pointed events, even though we're confined to a toilet. (Better yet, these events are not poop/pee-related, but rather help move the story along and keep us giggling.)

The dialog is pretty funny, too. ("Come and get it!" has perhaps never taken on such disgusting delight.) Along the way, Mr. Palmer (above and below) also dishes up one of the dirtiest jokes ever to grace a movie -- involving ear-piercing, parents, and a computer.

Around the time we get to disco dancing in the toilet -- and a cream-of-the-crop fantasy sequence that follows it -- you will have not simply suspended your disbelief but gleefully stomped all over it. The one caveat I have is that some of the dialog, with its thick British accent, got by me. (We could have used English subtitles, but the movie offers none.)

The use of Christmas carols on the soundtrack is done with utmost charm and care and there are some lovely little touches along the way that are actually rather sweet. Get ready for a couple of ace surprises here, too. And when the end credits roll, don't click off, as there's a smart post-credit sequence in store for those who wait.

Really: What can any halfway intelligent filmmaker do with the zombie genre any longer -- except play it for laughs? That said, there's unlikely to be anything much funnier for quite some time than Stalled. (The film initially appears to have been titled "Cubicle Hero," which ain't a bad name, either.)

The movie, running a brisk 85 minutes, is available now via Netflix streaming and Amazon Instant Video.

Monday, December 30, 2013

PARADISE: stream Diablo Cody's most mature (and, of course, least viewed) film so far....

With Juno, first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody had the likes of Ellen Page, Michael Cera, high-school pregnancy, naughty language and an ending that could whisk a religious fundamentalist straight to movie heaven. Her next film, Jennifer's Body, tackled the horror-comedy genre and, while critically rebuffed, still proved pretty good fun. Then it was back to star wattage with Charlize Theron in Young Adult. Now Ms Cody adds first-time director to her screenwriting credits and comes up with what is her most mature work to date, PARADISE, which consequently received barely a theatrical release a few weeks ago and is already available on Netflix Steaming. Ah, the vagaries of the movie marketplace!

Paradise follows in the footsteps of another recent film, Electrick Children, about an innocent girl, brought up in a fundamentalist religion, suddenly up against the wiles of the devil in the big city -- that city in both cases being Las Vegas. Electrick Children is by far the better movie -- more original and unusual in every way -- but that does not mean that Paradise doesn't pack a lot of enjoyment and charm, as well. The writer/director, shown at left, while tamping down her penchant for motor-mouth obscenity (which, I admit, can be very funny), still comes up with some smart dialog and trenchant observations now and again, while leading her leading lady (played a bit too confidently by the very pretty Julianne Houghshown below) through some interesting, growth-related coming-of-age paces.

Ms Hough is wonderfully abetted by her two co-stars, the ever-long-and-greasy-haired Russell Brand (here calmer and more accessible than usual) and the increasingly versatile and Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer, who gets to look younger and more adorable than we've heretofore witnessed, while proving just as adept at drawing laughs here as she is at jerking tears in the current Fruitvale Station.

For fans of Brand (below) and Spencer (above), this movie will be a must-see for their work alone, but it can certainly be recommended as passable entertainment to anyone remotely interested in religious growth, Las Vegas life and odd-but-kindly friendships.

Paradise, running just 86 minutes, can be streamed now via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and is also available on DVD.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fredrik Gertten's BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* is a vitally important documentary in so many ways

The abuses of corporate power worldwide -- but especially here in the USA -- have seldom been seen so clearly and powerfully as in this 2012 documentary, BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*, by Swedish filmmaker and journalist Fredrik Gertten, a kind of follow-up to his equally strong doc titled simply Bananas!*, which was released (or at least tried to be released) in 2009. That most of America has barely heard of the earlier film -- and why -- is the subject of Gertten's latest, which doubles as an indictment of Dole, in my estimation one of the sleaziest corporations in the world (but, gheesh, there's so much competition!).

I was lucky enough to seek out the earlier film -- a poster of which is shown at right -- a couple of years ago, through, I believe Greencine, though neither Greencine nor Netflix now seem to stock it for rental (you can purchase it for just $12 at the site of its U.S. distributor, Oscilloscope Films), and it is very much worth seeing for two reasons: It tells the story of Dole workers in Nicaragua who were poisoned, made sterile and in some cases killed by chemical pesticides Dole used. The documentary shows that the corporation knew of this and did nothing about it.

In the new film, Mr. Gertten, shown at left, details the ways in which Dole tried to stop Bananas!* from ever reaching movie theaters (or any other venues), beginning with its really disgusting use of its money and power to cow the L.A. Film Festival from showing the film, and The Los Angeles Times (as well as so many other media outlets) from covering it in any kind ofa positive light. Learning how all this came to be is fascinating indeed, rather like watching a serpent stalk, terrify and finally strike its victim. Calling Gertten's doc a "fabrication: and a "lie" (without, of course, having actually viewed it) and then beginning a campaign to render it perceived by all as worthless, Dole does its job with remarkable ease -- and tons of help from our supposedly unbiased, "watchdog" media.

Notes one interested party along the way, "There isn't as much investment by the media in investigative journalism now as in the past." Indeed. Instead corporate press releases are simply accepted and used as "news."

Then we get to the Astroturfing experience, in which much money is spent to start a supposedly "grass roots" movement against Gertten and his film. This includes the "paid" muddying of reputations (and conversely, restoring genuinely muddy reputations) by the purchase of anonymous folk who will post on Google whatever their "employer" wants them to say.

As another of these shining examples of corporate sleaze posts on his web site as a selling point: "It's easier to cope with a bad conscience than a bad reputation."  That might go down as the "watchphrase" of our time.

Interestingly enough, it is not anything or anyone in America who comes to rescue this battered filmmaker. (Although he does have a very fine and decent lawyer -- above, right -- on tap in America.) Instead the help comes from his home country of Sweden. Why and how will lift your spirits and prove that even a small country like Sweden can fight for freedom of speech and art and culture (that's one of the country's bloggers, below).

Why, you might wonder, is Dole so insistent on stopping the Bananas!* documentary? Because, notes that lawyer, Dole is frightened to death of the lawsuits that could stem from what is shown and stirred up in the original film.

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is a vital documentary for several reasons. It offers a look at how our current corporations are running not just their own business but film festivals (above),  communities, cities, states and entire countries and, of course, us. It demonstrates the continuing creep of globalization. It shows us how the internet can be used for lies and defamation, and how difficult -- but not impossible -- it is to challenge this. And it, together with the original Bananas!* doc, underscores yet again how important to all of us, save the very wealthy, are the ever-declining rights of workers around the globe.

And, yes, even if you mumble, "Sure, sure, but we know all this already," trust me: You won't have seen anything quite like this little movie, in which you can observe step by step how a corporation rides roughshod over something it wants to stop/destroy. You owe it to yourself to seek out both films. The later of the two can now be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video or purchased on DVD. (You can also purchase the original film at Amazon.) On Netflix (I don't know about the other sources), the streaming includes introductory and closing remarks by lauded documentarian, Alex Gibney, plus an interview with the film's director, Fredrik Gertten.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Good, raucous fun (for awhile) -- Preston & Overbey's femme-fest, THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID

The new movie, THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID, directed by crack actress Carrie Preston and written (her first) by another actress, Kellie Overbey, gets off to a great start with some increasingly funny, ribald dialog from the mouths of a couple of excellent performers, Anne Heche and Marcia Debonis, soon to be joined by a third, the very funny and here quite piquant, Alia Shawkat. As the opening credits roll, we see a montage of NYC women, coupled to the dialog between Heche and Debonis. The talk is crass, very funny and very sexual. And the visuals are all women, all the time. The men, when they appear, are seen from the rear, in slight or partial profile, or if frontal, then very piecemeal.

This directorial touch makes its point lightly and rather charmingly, without hammering it home: We're in for a chick flick of sorts, so hang on. We do, but the results overall prove a little less than we expected, considering the film's first half hour, which is both written and directed with smarts and style, as it sets up the current situation, while giving us some history of the two women. Heche (rough, gruff and ready) is helping Debonis (a good-hearted, plus-sized sweetie) prepare for an important date. Ms Preston (shown at right) directs with energy and pizzazz and the first big scene, set inside a coffee/latte haven, is terrific -- cleverly paced and wittily, foul-mouthedly written by Ms Overbey (shown below).

When Heche's back is momentarily turned, Debonis, in her standard "helper" mode, picks up a sad and sobbing young woman (Shawkat) with man trouble. Shawkat's real affliction, however, is something else entirely, which leads to some over-the-top, funny (but not quite funny enough) further business. What cast and crew here seem to be going for is a modern-day, all-women, screwball comedy, with a higher sex quotient than we're used to seeing/hearing. For a time this work pretty well, but once the complications and coincidences start piling up, the humor doesn't quite reach the same level, and the seams start to show.

Too bad, because the actresses -- both leads and supporting players -- are talented and very game (that's Heche, below left; Debonis, below right; and Shawkat above), but the screenplay seems to run down even as it proceeds. The finale, however, with five femmes in a bar, sitting around a table talking, manages to be sweet and, yes, a little moving, considering all that's come before.

That's What She Said, a Phase 4 film release running just 84 minutes, is available to stream now on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and to rent or purchase on DVD.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's C.O.G., w/Jonathan Groff, brings David Sedaris' story smartly to the screen

Another well-executed, intelligent, and very well-acted American indie film that met with lukewarm reception and quickly disap-peared from theater screens, C.O.G. is only the second work from a talented newcomer named Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who, with his first film Easier With Practice, and now this one, has given us two unusual, well-crafted movies that challenge the viewer in ways quite different from how critics and audiences alike respond to most American indies.

Sexuality is one of the major themes in both movies, but Mr. Alvarez, shown at left, approaches this obliquely. In Easier With Practice, his hero is drawn to a woman he meets via telephone. Only slowly -- then finally suddenly -- does he take the full measure of this person, as well as coming to terms with who he is (or might be). In C.O.G. (I guessed the meaning of this acronym pretty quickly, mostly likely because of my religious upbringing), our hero -- one of the most initially unlikable to be found in recent film -- is struggling with his sexuality, though he does not seem to be anything close to fully aware of this.

Alvarez based his screenplay on the story by David Sedaris (unread by me) and which is probably somewhat autobiographical. It follows a young man, David (played by the very good Jonathan Groff, shown above, on poster top, and below) from the east coast, distanced from his parents in both location and feelings, who takes a job picking apples in Oregon. An rather entitled little twat, he doesn't fit in with the rest of the migrant workers, nor does he even try, though he desperately wants, it eventually becomes clear, to somehow fit in somewhere.

David's fear keeps him from initiating much, though he follows along when others around him call the shots. These include an interesting co-worker, Curly (House of Cards' Corey Stoll, above, left), at the apple factory where he ends up working when the orchard proves too much...

...and an even more interesting Christian proselytizer named Jon (the always terrific Denis O'Hare, above, right), who takes David in, teaches him a skill, and expects some religious payback for his trouble. Also on view is the "perfect" nuclear family with whom Jon resides, which includes a lovely and helpful mom (played by Casey Wilson, below, in mirror)

Mr. Alvarez's handling of everything from the migrants to the apple factory workers (that's Dale Dickey, as the funniest of the bunch, below, right) to fundamentalism is thoughtful, truthful and specific. Class, sex and religion all figure in here, but instead of the usual knee-jerk stuff, we come away with some understanding of all the people involved, how they affect our 'hero" and what they expect from him.

Trouble is, David is simply unable at this point to open up to any of them, and especially not to himself. A movie that featured a hero more certain about who he is might have easily gone in any number of typical and probably satisfying directions. Our boy, nowhere near autonomous as yet, can't take any of these paths, and this is one of the things that makes C.O.G. so unusual and believable.

Audiences and critics alike these days seem to want their movies well-chewed and practically pre-digested. Something a little rough and raw they don't know what to do with or how to handle. A shame, really. This is why Alvarez's little film slipped so easily through the cracks. But in its quiet, unprepossessing manner, it speaks clearly to us -- about the mirror images of religion and hypocrisy, of the value of work and friendship, intimacy and sex, and of families real and arranged.

This is a lovely little movie, certainly no great mover or shaker, but something to watch, enjoy and learn from. I can't wait to see what Mr. Alvarez tackles next. Meanwhile, you can view C.O.G. now via Netflix streaming, on Amazon Instant Video and on DVD. (That's Dean Stockwell, at right in the photo above, giving another quietly fine performance as the apple orchard's kind-but-no-nonsense owner.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A most unlikely-but-likable hero is the subject of Dan Hunt's marvelous, moving doc, MR. ANGEL

Not much of a porn viewer, TrustMovies knew nothing about the subject of Dan Hunt's excellent documentary, MR. ANGEL, that tracks the career of one, Buck Angel, an exceedingly muscular, butch-looking fellow with a high-pitched voice, a successful career in the porn business, and a vagina -- which he displays and evidently uses for both fun and profit. Not a hermaphrodite (he has no penis) and born a girl, Buck is set on sharing his "being" and his experience with as much of the world as will have him.

After seeing this fine documentary in which Mr. Hunt (shown at right) tracks Angel's history, family and career, I suspect that -- against all odds -- he's going to convert a lot of people. And I don't mean convert them to doing or being what he himself is doing and being, but rather converting them to a kind of understanding and appreciation of just how "other" a person can be and still be a person you might like to meet, get to know, learn from, and, yes, even get intimate with.  What is most surprising about Mr. Angel -- the man and the movie -- is how they both manage to appear absolutely one-of-a-kind and yet utterly approachable and comprehensible.

The filmmaker lets us into the history of this girl/guy (that's she, above, as a cute, freckle-faced kid), meet his family (mom and dad are shown below) and even wrestle, as his parents do, with who and what their daughter has become -- and why. The relationship between Buck and his father seems the most tenuous -- "Dad did hit us; I think he crossed a line there," Buck relates in passing -- yet both men are in there pitching, trying hard for some kind of intimacy.

We meet Buck's significant other, Elayne (below, left), and when she tells us how and why she fell in love with the guy, it all seems more than a little possible. And when we finally experience Buck's need for and receipt of a hysterectomy due to all that testosterone ("They never told me that the walls of my uterus could atrophy...."), there is no longer any room for doubt about his commitment.

We also go to Adult Entertainment Expos, watch Buck interact with other porn stars (below), learn that he's been nominated for both Transsexual of the Year and for the most outrageous sex scenes (he wins the former). For all the film's "honesty," I wish it had gone a little deeper into Buck's sex life. Since he has a vagina, one might assume he can climax by being sucked, fucked or fingered. Does it matter whether the perp is a woman wearing a dildo or a man using his own penis? But we don't go there, and that's a shame, really. (Buck does tell us that he quickly rejected the idea of having any kind of penis "installed," as this would have given him something unreal.)

One of the most fascinating sections of the film involves Buck's time as a high-paid, high-fashion model when he was still in his feminine form. She was quite exotic and beautiful, so it is little wonder friends and family expected her to easily settle for that glamorous life. (Why didn't s/he? Drugs and alcohol abuse, for starters.) The photo below offers an interim young man, post-modeling but prior to losing her breasts.

When living in the U.S. became too tricky (he and Elayne were formerly located in New Orleans), the couple relocated to Mexico. Now the guy has joined the "lecture circuit," making public appearances across the U.S. and internationally. "My mission, and I know it sounds cheesy," he explains, "is to change the world."

And yet, on some small level, that is exactly what Mr. Angel is doing, and what he is doing is definitely worthwhile. Stretching boundaries, forcing us to understand "the other" a little better, Buck is certainly some kind of hero, and Mr. Angel is one of the best documentaries about that "other" that I have seen in quite some time. It probes, explores, and takes in other people's views (one of the highlights is Dan Savage's remarks on how our society handles pornography). It's a fine place to start for any folk who feel "different," as well as for their families, friends and co-workers.

Shot over a period of six years, Mr. Angel, from Breaking Glass Pictures and running just 68 minutes, made its premier at this year's SXSW film festival and is available on DVD now. Click here to order. (I hope it will also be available soon on various streaming sites.)