Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On his own: Thomas Haden Church scores big in Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais' film, WHITEWASH

What a genuinely interesting actor is Thomas Haden Church. He seems to work consistently (57 credits -- TV and film -- over 25 years). He pops up all over the place: Right now he's in the hot new Christian movie, Heaven Is for Real, as well as the film under consideration here. If smash roles like the one he had in Sideways don't come along that often, Mr. Church is never less than a pleasure to watch in just about anything. One of those really good roles is his once again, as WHITEWASH, an oddly appealing Canadian movie from co-writer (with Marc Tulin) and director, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, makes its straight-to-VOD debut this week, after winning M. Hoss-Desmarais the Best New Narrative Director award at last year's Tribeca Film Fest.

The filmmaker, shown at right, has bitten off quite a dark tale -- one of those designed to absolutely prove that no good deed shall go unpunished -- but he and M. Tulin, together with their on-screen-nearly-every-moment star, handle everything with such a light touch that, remarkably, we never feel bogged down in sorrow and depression.

You cannot in good faith call Whitewash a comedy, not even a black one, and yet it glides over some appalling stuff with such ease and near-charm that you can't call it a thriller, tragedy or even drama, either. In fact, the movie is pretty close to one-of-a-kind, anchored by Church's "everyman" performance -- if everyman were really unlucky.

The movie begins on a snow-stormy night when, almost immediately, something awful happens. What is particularly strange about this something awful is that we do not see it from  the POV we expect. Why, we wonder? Even so, we hope or maybe know that, somehow, this will eventually be revealed.

It is, along with a lot more. Little by little, as something in the present -- peeing, for instance -- induces a remembrance of things past, we learn what happened and why. The story is full of ironies, and though the character Church plays -- a forced-out-of-work snow-plow driver named Bruce -- may not be the brightest bulb on the block, even he can appreciate the irony in his current situation: a kind of man-against-the-elements and man-against-himself.

The only other character of note is the odd fellow Bruce gets involved with: Paul, played awfully well, in mystery mode, by Marc Labrèche (at left). There are some other, minor characters, but this is really all Mr. Church's movie, and he aces it. What makes him such an interesting actor is how little effort he must put out to nail an emotion, a moment, an entire scene. The actor is remarkably agile in finding the right expression, tone, stance. His role as Bruce is a particularly physical one, strenuous and deflating, and Church uses his craggy-but-handsome features and thick-but-agile body to very good purpose.

To say more of the plot would simply spoil some of the surprise of Hoss-Desmarais' movie, which succeeds in finding a smart balance of realism and deadpan, darkness and humor. If the above sounds interesting, take a chance on Whitewash. From Oscilloscope and running 90 minutes, the film hits VOD this Friday, May 2, in most major markets -- and is already available via iTunes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kren & Hessler's BLOOD GLACIER: Oooh--wanna see some surprise side effects of climate change?

Really: How can any genuine genre aficionado resist a movie with a title like BLOOD GLACIER? I couldn't, anyway, because that title immediately brought expectations of everything from gore to global warming. When I checked into the resume of the film's director, Marvin Kren and discovered he'd also directed one of my favorite zombie movies of the new decade -- the swift, smart, subtle and stylish (if-no-budget) German film, Rammbock --
the deal was sealed.

Rammbock took a hugely overworked genre and raised it a notch or two. With Blood Glacier, Kren (shown at right) and his writer, Benjamin Hessler, are working in the mode of a genre we haven't seen so often of late: the "warning" film about the hugely destructive effect of mankind upon our world. (From the original Godzilla through Tarantula, Them, and onwards, a myriad of movies underscored this theme in the decade following our use of Atomic bombs on Japan.) In addition to being one of those "warning" films, Blood Glacier is, as were most of the rest, a monster movie. Or to be absolutely correct: a monsters movie, as there are quite a few species involved.

I wouldn't put a whole lot of faith in the "science" provided by the film as a basis on which to build the scenario, but so far as these scary tales go, this one is no more or less believable than many others. The scenario simply gives the moviemakers something on which to build their scares and suspense, and they do a pretty good job of it, overall.

The story: a group of scientists working in the Austrian Alps discover that a glacier seems to be oozing a red liquid, the effect of which does some rather nasty things to the local wildlife.  How the liquid is doing this is up for grabs but what it is doing appears to meld various species together.

Into this suddenly discovered mess arrives a government minister (nicely played with strength and sass by Brigitte Kren -- above, center: any relation to the director, I wonder?) and her entourage, which includes the former girlfriend (Edita Malovcic, below right) of the guy who comes closest to being to "hero" of the film (Gerhard Liebmann, below, left), just as the shit hits full-blast. Soon it is every man and woman for him/herself, with a number of those quickly lost to the "newcomers."

The special effects department must have had a field day creating some of these odd, derivative species, and the filmmaker uses them for maximum thrills and suspense. And if the suspense sometimes nearly topples into camp, that's OK, too, because that's part of the fun of films like this one.

Among the main characters, your favorite might be the sweet mascot dog at the campsite, whose role in the proceedings just keeps growing. The plotting may look by rote, but pay attention, seeds planted along the way bloom later, and the finale is a lollapalooza -- simultaneously heart-warming and horrific.

Performances are adequate to the matter at hand -- scaring the pants off you/making you giggle. Overall, there is enough fright, laughs, surprises and irony here to please a lot of genre fans. As to the climate change/global warming warning, what we see here should only happen to Republicans. And if the movie doesn't turn them into raging environmentalists, it will at least get them on board with abortion.

Blood Glacier -- distributed by IFC Films' Midnight division, running 98 minutes, and dubbed into English pretty well -- opens in theaters this Friday, May 2, simultaneously with its appearance on VOD. In New York City it'll open at the IFC Center. Elsewhere? Who knows -- but its VOD appearance ensures that genre fans across the country can take a look.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dan Wechsler's MORE THAN THE RAINBOW: NYC photography and photographers come to fine life

Ostensibly all about the hugely talented New York City street photographer Matt Weber -- and indeed there is plenty of Mr. Weber and his fine work on display here -- MORE THAN A RAINBOW, the documentary made in 2012 by first-time filmmaker Dan Wechsler grows into a truly interesting discussion of photo-graphy and its discon-tents via a half dozen or more other photo-graphers, several of whom I believe make their home, too, in one or another borough of New York City.

Mr. Wechsler, shown at right, along with his cinematographer Arlene Muller and editor John Rosenberg, does a crack job of putting together a movie full of energy, pizzazz and found art (rather like the city it covers). Its photographers are not at all shy about communicating, and as they seem extremely intelligent and well-spoken, it's a pleasure to hear most of them spout, just as it is to see their quite varied work. Only one of them seems something of an asshole, a fellow named Eric Kroll who seems to actively dislike Mr Weber's work and has no qualms about telling us this. Kroll's own work, involved solely in sex and Kroll, seems not nearly as interesting (and if you're familiar with TrustMovies, you'll also know he has nothing against sex of almost any kind).

Other photographers include Dave BeckermanBoogie, Ralph Gibson, the Philadelphia-based Zoe Strauss, Jeff Mermelstein, the late Ben Lifson and more, and while the subjects discussed begin with and bounce off Matt Weber (shown above, center, and below), we're soon into subjects that range from color versus back-and-white and how steam seems endlessly attractive for New York City shutterbugs to love relationships, how day jobs impact on photography (Weber drove a cab for twelve years to earn his keep) Capitalism, and photographs of 9/11.

Regarding that last subject, one of the interviewees here maintains that a particular shot of Weber's from 9/11 is the best photo taken on that day -- and one of the most poignant  pictures in the history of photography. You'll just have to see the film to see the photo, and yes, I'd pretty much agree with that assessment.

Some of Weber's other works are shown here, and -- damn -- they're good, taking us back to the heyday of street photography and demonstrating why New York City's vitality seems a constantly burgeoning thing. We've got 3 Sailors, Times Square (above, from 1989) and Van Gogh, below, also from 1989.

There's an Ecstatic Obama Girl from election night, 2008 and one of those must-snap-it steam shots, titled Homeless Heat (1990), further below.

We watch wonder boy Todd Oldham putting together a book on Weber's photography (Did that particular book ever see publication?)

Finally, if the movie seems to run down a bit prior to its close, this may be due to filmmaker Wechsler's not quite knowing where to go or how to end his piece. Even so, there is plenty of art and life on the screen,
and plenty to think about when it's all over.

More Than the Rainbow, from First Run Features and running 82 minutes, opens this Friday, May 2, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema from May 24 thru May 26.

Bonus: Because this film is being distributed by First Run Features, we're pretty much assured of a DVD release eventually (one photographer friend of mine wants to own it ASAP) and probably some streaming venues, as well.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Del Shores' SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES: a very funny, moving, filmed play about growing up gay

One of the characters in SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES -- a new work from perhaps America's best and funniest writer/filmmaker to tackle the gay issue, Del Shores -- notes in passing that this is all preaching to the con-verted. Maybe so. But, Jesus Christ, what a sermon! TrustMovies admits that, going into this two-hour-and-18-minute movie, it did seem initially like been-there/done-that. But very quickly the story and characters take on the particularities of lives lived. If you're gay, or if you're close to anyone who is, I suspect that Southern Baptist Sissies will very quickly become irresistible.

Shores, shown at left, has literally filmed his play, which was done some time back theatrically at the Zephyr Theater in Southern California. But like a smart filmmaker, he uses the camera gracefully and cleverly, coming in for close-ups and moving it wisely to take us from scene to scene, location to location. We see, and in fact become part of, the theater audience, and yet the end result is more of a movie than anything else. But it's a movie that features live acting. And what acting!

Southern Baptist Sissies tells the story of four boys -- above, left to right: Benny (William Belli), Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure), and Mark, our narrator and more-or-less lead character (Emerson Collins) -- beginning at age twelve and taking them through their teenage into their young-adult years. They are gay, and they are part of the Southern Baptist Church, and how each boy handles his situation -- with irony/anger, pretense that it doesn't exist, constant and worthless prayer, or full-out embrace of his homosexuality -- becomes the full tale we experience.

Along with our boys, we meet their parents (what's left of them -- mostly women seem the care-givers here), their pastor (played well by Newell Alexander, above), whose church takes literally center stage, and also a couple of hilarious denizens -- below, left, Dale Dickey, and right, Leslie Jordan -- of a local gay bar where one of our quartet ends up working/singing as a female impersonator.

All this is woven more and more expertly as the play moves on. Via comic repetition, storytelling, history and depth of characterization, we come to care so much about all these people. Even those deluded church folk. Mr. Shores strips away the cant and nonsense from those who must take the Bible word-for-word, and yet I think he still maintains some caring for these folk as human beings. There's plenty of anger here but not, I think, much hatred.

What there is plenty of in Southern Baptist Sissies is entertainment and feeling. Every single actor is terrific in capturing the specifics of his or her character. Best of all is the young Mr. Belli, who may never again in his career get a role (roles, really) as good as he's found here. Few actors do. Mr. Belli plays the adorable blond Benny (left, in third photo from top), as well as the chanteuse (above and below, right) that he morphs into as an adult. He is simply wonderful in both roles, singing and acting up a storm with not a moment that rings false. And yet he never seems to be stealing the scene. He fits right into the ensemble.

It is difficult to explain exactly how Mr. Shores manages to keeps us glued for so long and so tightly. But he certainly understands, as the best dramatists do, how to deepen character via situation and event, until we're hanging on every word and deed.

I am a bit loathe to recommend this one as highly as I have clearly already done. As I say, we're preaching, I guess, to the choir. But if we take what Jesus himself actually preached as any kind of guide -- love and forgiveness first: the Beatitudes were all about blessings for what one is and does, as opposed to the Commandments, which were all about Don't -- one imagines that, were our pal J.C. able to view Southern Baptist Sissies, he would heartily approve.

The filmed play/musical has been touring the country for some time now, playing various cities coast to coast. Next up are Sioux Falls, SD, at the Club David on May 4th; Sedona, NM, at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre on May 8th; and an extended run in Raleigh, NC, at The Rialto, beginning July 18th. As more dates appear, I'll post them here.

There will also be a DVD coming eventually -- as well as, I hope, stream-ing via various links. Keep watch here, and I'll try to update as new information arrives.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hi-Def Restoration of THE STRANGE WOMAN: Edgar G. Ulmer directs Hedy Lamarr in 1946 film

The reputation of Edgar G. Ulmer -- the noted B-movie director and sometimes writer who worked consistently from the 1930s (beginning in Germany with People on Sunday) through the early 60s  (The Amazing Transparent Man) and built up a resume of more than 50 films -- seems to keeping growing from year to year. I'm not sure, however, what the release-to-DVD in newly restored high-definition version of his 1946 film, THE STRANGE WOMAN, will do for that reputation. I'm guessing it will neither add nor detract much, keeping the man, his hit-and-miss movies, and his very interesting career pretty much as they already are. But it's good to have the movie back with us in this looks-pretty-terrific version.

Mr. Ulmer -- shown at right from his early days in a sloe-eyed/pretty-boy mode and later (below) with his older/lived-in look -- was a kind of "natural" as a director. He could film fast and smart and come up with movies that "worked."

Some of them -- Detour and The Black Cat -- worked so consistently and so well that they've become genuine classics. Even when the movies were so-so overall, they still worked pretty well. I think it is a rare -- maybe non-existent -- Ulmer film that's unwatchable. (I say that having not nearly seen them all; Ulmer made some 52 movies.)

The Strange Woman, I am guessing,  probably falls right in the middle of his oeuvre, for both time-line and quality.  He was working here -- unusual for him -- with a fairly big-name cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward and Hillary Brooke, among others, with a budget (though probably small by normal Hollywood standards) that was, for Ulmer, large indeed.

The result is a film more typically "Hollywood" than the usual Ulmer: a somewhat heavy-handed melodrama about Jenny (played by Ms Lamarr, below) who goes from being a power-hungry and deceitful little girl into pretty much the same kind of woman. As an adult, she's learned how to perform good deeds -- the kind that help others, sure, but that always at the same time prove a big help to her.

Some have tossed around the term film noir to describe this movie, but it is hardly that. Rather, it's a straight-ahead story of ambition, success, sleazy behavior, and of course--this is Hollywood in the 40s--comeuppance.

The characters include Jenny's drunken father (there's an interesting scene of a whipping that substitutes for incest), the town of Bangor's richest citizen (Gene Lockhart, above, left) and his weak-willed son (Mr. Hayward, above, center), the stalwart foreman of his lumber company (Mr. Sanders, below, right) and his fiancee who doubles as Jenny's best friend (Ms Brooke).

Our gal uses them all, and quite well, too. And as often happens in Ulmer's films, the bad folk have their good points and are at least intelligent while the good ones suffer from a certain lack of willpower and/or moral fiber.

The filmmaker uses a heavier hand here than he often did, and the movie occasionally veers into near-camp. Yet it generally remains enjoyable to watch, and among its several surprises is the chance to see Mr. Sanders in a good guy role (he was most often cast as villain), and to see Ms Brooke again, a popular star of B-movies in the 40s whose career moved easily to television in the 50s.

Lamarr, never a tip-top actress but certainly a beautiful one, acquits herself as well as can be expected, and Lockhart and Hayward as unhappy father and son add some luster to the performance end.

Film Chest Media Group, which has a pretty good record of restoring some lesser-known chestnuts, has done a good job with this one. Most of the footage is crisp and clear and the black-and-white cinematography (by Lucien N. Andriot) comes across quite well.

The Strange Woman (terrible title!), running 99 minutes, hits the street this Tuesday, April 29, for sale, and one hopes rental or maybe streaming soon.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Paul Middleditch/Chris Matheson's RAPTURE-PALOOZA: at last, a rapture movie for atheists!

TrustMovies is not absolutely sure why this funny, charming, raunchy-as-hell and irreverent (in the best way) movie about what happens after the rapture didn't get more notice when it arrived in a few theaters (June 2013, the same month as that other, bigger rapture movie, This Is the End, appeared). Perhaps because this is actually the better film. Unlike This Is the End -- which wants to have it both ways, making fun of The Rapture but of course believing in it, too, by having its characters try to get raptured themselves -- RAPTURE-PALOOZA, casts a dry eye on the whole Christian religion thing and comes up with its own smart, funny method of handling fundamentalism. I can understand why this film was undoubtedly not released in the USA's southern regions. Angry audiences might have burned down the theaters that dared to screen it.

But now -- because the film is available via Netflix streaming -- you can laugh your socks off, even as you are just a tad amazed at what the movie-makers get away with. Yikes! Writer Chris Matheson and director Paul Middleditch (shown at right) have done such clever stuff here -- some of it silly, foolish but awfully funny, other of it surprisingly flat-out raunchy -- that those of us who dearly wish that the great majority of the world's population did not insist on worshiping some wish-fulfillment deity can only bow our heads in gratitude to the smart and smart-assed pair.

The fun begins at once, as The Rapture, as seen here, uses the smallest of special effects, and manages to make all other movies on the subject seem like pikers (even with the vast special effects of This Is the End, what these two do beats all). The movie is narrated and stars one of Hollywood's quietest and least "showy" young actresses, Anna Kendrick, above, who doubles as a kind of stealth missle here. She has the aspect and affect of a valley girl, Seattle style, underneath which resides a depth of pure smarts.

Her antagonist in the film is played by Craig Robinson (yes, the same actor also starred in This Is the End: Careful, Craig, you're going to become the go-to guy for Rapture movies), who is hilarious holding up the raunchy end of the film. His piano/sex serenade to Ms Kendrick is one for the books. Robinson plays the AntiChrist come to big, Black life, and he is wonderful --funny, smarmy and double-dense in the role. People have cried racism here, but as Robinson also Executive-Produced the movie, I don't think so. "The Beast," the name that this character insists on calling himself, is a terrific role, and Robinson runs with it and scores big.

Ms Kendrick's boyfriend, Ben, is played by a fellow named John Francis Daley, above, right, who is fine, but the movie belongs to Kendrick and Robinson. In the supporting cast are the likes of Rob Corddry (at left, below) and Ana Gasteyer, playing parents of our hero and heroine, and both are their usually excellent selves. Ms Gasteyer, as a mother who was raptured and then sent back (finding out why provides yet another funny scene) is particularly hilarious.

You may think you'll know where the movie is going, so let me warn you: You don't.  It simply keeps growing more irreverent and funny, and when Kendrick finally announces, "No one is in charge, so let's act like adults," the irreligious among us will be whooping out a cheer.

Don't let this one get by you. You can view Rapture-Palooza -- from Lionsgate and running 85 minutes --  now via Netflix Streaming, Amazon Instant Video and on DVD.

The latest movie in a confined space, a large one: Omid Nooshin's LAST PASSENGER, a good one

You might not think of a speeding train as a confined-space film; after all, there are lots of cars you can move between, including a dining- and/or bar-car where you can eat and drink. Still, if that train is speeding along wildly, and there's no safe way to get off, then it is definitely a confined space. Such is the case for the few remaining passengers in a new film called LAST PASSENGER that opens today in Manhattan. When TrustMovies went just now to get his page of notes that he scribbles as he is watching each new film, he found that page completely blank -- except for the film's title at the top. What happened? So immediately swept up with the story and its execution was he, that he simply forgot to jot down a single sentence. Can there be a better recommendation for a genre movie than that?

Probably not, but in the spirit of good sportsmanship, I'll use my fading memory to tell you a bit about why the film works as well as it does -- without giving away spoilers. First off, Last Passenger is not a great film, for sure, and runaway trains are not anything we haven't seen previously. But that's perfectly OK because the movie doesn't need to be great -- just smart, fast and believable. So the co-writer (with Andrew Love and Kas Graham) and director, Omid Nooshin, manages just that, hooking us with some interesting characters with whom we're happy to travel.

These would include dad, a surgeon (played by Dougray Scott, shown below) and his cute son (Joshua Kaynama); a very attractive woman who has just boarded the train (Kara Tointon, at right); the conductor (Samuel Geker-Kawle); a busy businessman (David Schofield, two photos, below); an older woman (Lindsay Duncan), returning home with gifts for her grandkids; and a fellow with a foreign accent who may be up to no good (Iddo Goldberg, the stand-out performance in this very good cast).

That's pretty much it -- a few extras come and go -- and we're soon down to just half a dozen people for the remainder of the ride. Mr Nooshin does a fine job of handing us small talk and humor, while achieving a slight sense of uneasiness and eventually full-out dread. Suspense is built in two ways: first, what's happening; then second, why?

In stories like this one, some characters must be sacrificed, and Nooshin does a nice job of surprising us with the why and when. The film's most moving scene happens as there's a chance, due to his smaller size, for the young boy only to escape, which would mean his leaving his father. For reasons you will have already learned, this is more than problematic, and the movie manages these moments quite beautifully and surprisingly.

The cast is a very good one, with everyone in fine form, working together initially as adversaries but finally as friends. That we come to care for these people as much as we do, adds to both the suspense and our identification with the film. Nooshin keeps events tumbling over one another so there's little time to look for logic loopholes, and the actors are especially good at creating what looks like quite real behavior under circumstances that range from normal to not at all.

As I say, this is no great film, but if you're in the mood for a thriller these days, you could hardly do better than this. Last Passenger -- another good genre movie from Cohen Media Group (remember The Prey?) and running 97 minutes -- debuts today, Friday, April 25, in New York City at the Regal E-Walk theater.

Will the film play elsewhere theatrically? I've no idea, but it will most likely appear soon on DVD and maybe even via Netflix streaming. (You can stream The Prey there now, as a matter of fact, and if you haven't seen that little genre wonder, you should!)