Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Feelings, responsibility and autonomy compete for attention in James C. Strouse's grown-up rom-com, PEOPLE PLACES THINGS

If at first this new rom-com-dramedy seems like the usual bill of fare -- man catches wife in flagrante delicto with another man -- just give the film a few extra minutes. That should be all it takes to allow the cast and especially the film's main character (that befuddled hubby played by the extremely versatile Jemaine Clement, shown on poster, left, and below throughout) to win you over. PEOPLE PLACES  THINGS proves the best of the three movies written and directed by James C. Strouse (the other two are Grace is Gone and The Winning Season) because it keeps character more important than situation,  thus allowing that situation to avoid much of the supposed feel-good necessities that so many other rom-coms embrace.

Filmmaker Strouse (shown at right) has here fashioned a film about a number of different and interesting subjects -- from working as a comic book artist/teacher and marital infidelity to middle-aged dating and joint parenting -- and he juggles them quite well. Further, he has devised a set of fine supporting characters, each one of whom allows us to view his main character, Clement's Will Henry, in a different and increasingly expansive light.

These include his student Kat (a sassy and winning Jessica Williams, above) and her mom (given a nice blend of sophistication, sex appeal and vulnerability by Regina Hall, shown below, left, with Mr. Clement.)

Also on hand are Will's two daughters, below, played by twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby with the kind of wise-beyond-their-years affectation that here manages to charm rather than annoy us.

Especially well-drawn and well-acted is the character of the girls' mom, played with a alternately funny and annoying combination of befuddle-ment/entitlement/confusion/anger by Stephanie Allynne, below, left.

Strouse's one big slip-up -- for me, at least -- concerns his belief that a professor of American literature who teaches at New York's Columbia University would have had over her life and career no connection to or appreciation of comic books and graphic novels. This rather beggars belief, but I would not let it stop you from viewing and appreciating what's so very good in this film -- which handles growing up, facing stuff and finally moving on about as well as I have seen in some time.

Oh, yes -- and the animation, the art for which our hero is noted, is expert, as well, including Will's explanation to his class about why what's between those comic book frames of art (and the connection that viewers make in their mind) is sometimes as important as the art itself.

From The Film Arcade and Alchemy, the movie hits DVD, VOD and early EST this coming Tuesday, October 6 -- for purchase or rental.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Discover the everlasting in Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp's doc, THE CREEPING GARDEN

One of the most information-packed documentaries imaginable -- on a subject about which most of us know next to nothing -- THE CREEPING GARDEN will introduce you to a substance/life form/entity that may indeed give you the creeps. Except that it is fascinating enough to easily outweigh that creepiness. TrustMovies has long heard that at the end of civilization as we've known it, only the cockroaches will still be alive and kicking. After seeing this particular documentary, I'll place my bet on slime mold.

The product of two born documentarians, Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp (pictured above, with Mr. Sharp on the left), the movie -- which begins and ends with a newscast from the 1970s featuring what looks like a "Blob" alert -- quickly turns into a fascinating study of both slime molds and the folk who study them.

These would include a handful of scientists, both professional and amateur. But, as one of them points out, the word amateur derives from the Latin word to love, and it's more than clear how much these scientists, whatever their rank, love the molds. Not too long into this fungus-fest, you may wonder how it is that slime molds have not taken over the world by now. Rest easy, blob-fearers, for on the basis of what we learn here, they're not particularly pro-active in that regard. 

In fact, as one scientist notes, it is not clear whether the molds are actually smart or simply "appear" that way. In any case, they can solve maze puzzles faster than most people I know, and slime mold networks actually mimic transportation patterns and road networks in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

As scientifically smart and interesting as the documentary is, it's also a treat visually, offering some splendidly creepy time-lapse photography. (The musical score by Jim O'Rourke is pretty special, too, befitting its subject quite well.)

One of the most telling segments involves an experiment in which scientists track how humans compare to slime molds in terms of their navigation and cooperation skills. We also learn about sonification -- the sound production of slime mods, that offer up differing audios when they're happy or panicked (the latter occurs when food source and humidity level drastically lessen.)

Robotics and slime molds, mushroom spores as survivors, and the hibernation process -- all this and more wend their way through this funny, informative, delightful film. And music? Well, let's just say that it may indeed have charms to soothe the (not too) savage slime.

Still, as one scientist points out toward the conclusion of the documentary, slime mold behavior is not really behavior. It consists of "mechanistic responses to environmental stimuli." In fact "If slime molds were eliminated from the planet, we might not even notice."

You can catch this wonderful little 81-minute movie -- from Cinema Iloobia and Ryan Bruce Levey Film Distribution -- at New York City's Film Forum (where else?!), beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, September 30, for a one-week run. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Kris Swanberg's UNEXPECTED explores how women (and men) experience pregnancy today

One of the strengths of UNEXPECTED is that we haven't seen so much of the ways in which women experience the "idea" of pregnancy in our current times: what it might mean to their ability to continue working and still take care of their child, how it might begin to reflect a growing schism between their men and themselves (the film doesn't address lesbian or gay parenthood, though the concerns may be quite similar). Co-writer (with Megan Mercier) and director of the film, Kris Swanberg, has quite rightly, I think, swung her pendulum toward the distaff side of things, so we learn a lot about the fears and desires of a 30-something young woman who is about to lose her teaching job because her school is closing due to cuts in the education budget.

Simultaneous to this, our co-heroine, Samantha (Cobie Smulders, above, left), also discovers that she is pregnant. Another simultaneity occurs when Sam's best student, a girl she is grooming for college, discovers that she, too, is unexpectedly pregnant. The two, somewhat bonded already, now go for it big-time. Ms Swanberg, pictured at right, has a somewhat famous and quite adorable new child of her own (he's appeared in a couple of smart and funny films already), so she knows from where she comes. She also wants to open her movie up to include new mothers of other races and classes: hence the inclusion of the student, Jasmine (played quite well by Gail Bean, shown above, right, and below) into the mix.

The filmmaker has also given us two quite different men: Sam's couldn't-be-sweeter-and-more-caring white-guy boyfriend, John (a spot-on Anders Holm, below, right, and Jasmine's more typical, not-yet-grown-up-and-doesn't-want-to, Travis, played by the also spot-on Aaron J. Nelson.

If these two men, together with the situation presented us, seem to fall into that typical "whites have it easier than blacks" scenario, well, why not? This is true, with rare exceptions, throughout our country. The point of Swanberg's movie -- in addition to its take on women and pregnancy -- is how little Sam, for all the help she tries to be and offer, really understands or appreciates Jasmine's situation and dilemma.

While this rings true enough, situation-wise, how it is expressed in some of the dialog and especially how the issue is resolved do not ring true. All this unfortunately makes the move seem skin deep when it ought to be more probing. And the inclusion of a short scene, above, of a demonstration of protesting school-teachers, just adds to this sense of surface.

All this is a shame because the movie has quite a bit going for it (including Elizabeth McGovern's interesting turn as Samantha's alternately supporting and annoying mother). So tamp down those expectations, enjoy the better parts and roll your eyes a bit at some of the rest, and you'll have a pretty good -- if pretty much expected -- time.

Unexpected, from Alchemy and running just 87 minutes, hits the streets tomorrow, Tuesday, September 29, on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and early EST -- for purchase and/or rental.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In this month's Sunday Corner, Lee Liberman assesses the PBS version of WOLF HALL

The Catholic Church met its match in Henry VIII. The Protestant Reformation was an accidental outcome of the Pope's refusal to grant Henry's annulment from Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. It took Thomas Cromwell, Henry's lawyer-fixer, to orchestrate a work-around -- Cromwell got parliament to declare Henry head of the English church and able to grant his own annulment. Although Protestant forces were already at work, Henry's willfulness led to the institutionalizing of Protestantism even though Henry himself was sentimentally attached to Catholic ritual. Reformation was not a calling to either Henry or Cromwell as much as it was political expediency; yet it changed the world.

I was not excited about yet another saga of Henry (Damien Lewis, above center) and his wives, but BBC2's version based on Hilary Mantel's prizewinning books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, turns out to deserve its heaps of praise. An Atlantic reviewer called Wolf Hall one of the rare series to deserve PBS's title of "Masterpiece". Debuting on PBS last spring, the 6-episode drama is subdued yet more interesting than recent Tudor outings such as The Tudors, The White Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl -- swashbuckling bodice-ripper versions of Tudor mayhem. In contrast, wrote Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic (4/4/15), Mantel's version (the author is shown below) has given us "quieter more authoritative manipulation of power". Mantel herself was quoted as impressed with screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky's skill at distilling her heavily researched books, retaining both the essence and considerable nuance.

This version has enough feeling of truth to it to transport one back to the 1500's as witness to the minutia of daily life at Henry's court. Mantel says she seeks to "pin the moment to the page" -- every-day conversation, personality quirks, and small physical gestures make you feel like you are in the room in the moment. Anxiety and stress must have filled the air around this monarch, yet life-threatening was just how things were. Mantel's title: "Wolf Hall" is a bit odd, as it names the Seymour estate, home of Jane Seymour, Henry's next queen. But the title serves to emphasize the blunt 15 minutes of fame that Anne will be allowed in her own time to satisfy Henry's relentless drive to produce a son.

After devoted service, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce, below, right) was cast off because he had failed to obtain an annulment for Henry from the Pope; Thomas More (Anton Lesser) was beheaded for his uncompromising opposition to reformation. Cromwell was to lose his own head over similar inconvenience to Henry, but that part of the story will take place in a sequel, if one follows.

Wolf Hall is told through the eyes of Cromwell (Mark Rylance,shown below), a commoner who ran away from violence at home in his teens to soldier in Europe, learn banking in Italy and the law in London, later to become a steely survivor and fixer for Henry. He appears up close as a doting father and husband while back stage he stealthily orchestrates the machinations required to satisfy Henry's demands and fill his coffers. To those ends Cromwell first collaborated with Anne (Claire Foy) to contrive her succession to Katherine (Joanne Whalley) and then turned face rapidly, framing courtiers as Anne's lovers in order to depose her. Further, he conducted anti-Catholic purges, disposing of Catholic clerics, institutions, libraries -- depredations as ugly as present day terrorist destruction of Middle-Eastern ancient structures and relics.

But the story of Cromwell and his peer Thomas More reflects the Reformation according to who is doing the telling. Here, Protestant Mantel seeks to counter the prevailing reputation of Thomas More as humane, saintly, and intellectual and the sinister image of Cromwell (shown below at around age 48 in a portrait by Hans Holbein the younger) as a depraved Machiavellian fanatic. In Mantel's version, More is impugned for demeaning his family members and his torture of Protestant heretics while Cromwell is both humane and business oriented, punishing the excesses and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church and redirecting sources of church income to Henry's depleted treasury. Mantel does not let Cromwell off the hook, but her version does provide more balance to his character compared to older versions of Tudor history. (Before Henry VIII, his father, Henry Tudor/Henry VII, defeated and deposed Richard III at Bosworth, ending the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare, child of the Tudor era, gave us Richard III, the 'poisonous bunchback'd toad' we have loved to hate until lately. Historians have begun to right his reputation as a man of integrity who modernized the English legal system.)

The entire cast is extraordinary. Rylance, known very well across the pond, is finally visible here in a vehicle that displays his subtle and self-effacing brilliance. David Hinckley, NYDaily News, wrote that Rylance plays Cromwell "with a face that would win a stonewalling contest with the Sphinx". Cromwell must have learned very well to mask his emotions. Ms Foy has been distinguishing herself quietly for years (she stole series II of "Upstairs-Downstairs", re-run over the summer on PBS, playing the sociopathic sister of the lady of the house). Foy's Anne Boleyn is a memorable duo of haughty entitlement and seductiveness, an annoying presence to her enemies (see Anne below -- if looks could kill....). Mr. Lewis's Henry s menacing because he is so capriciousness. Other lesser figures of nobility are mere worker bees scrambling to stay in the good graces of the political moment. Yet many lesser characters stay with you, such as Charity Wakefield (Sense and Sensibility) as Anne's sister Mary and Jessica Reine (Call the Midwives) as Anne's sister-in-law -- a tribute to their acting and to beautiful screenwriting and direction.

The naturalistic intimacy of Mantel's Tudor court makes it appear much more truthful than earlier Tudor projects, yet one must be aware of being influenced by an author who is simply a more convincing story-teller. The author/screenwriter's point of view can decisively affect our view of history, as in this case, to possibly moderate if not reverse long-held views of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Yet Mantel appears somewhat even-handed as is the noted Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, who does a fair job of explaining (here) the two figures despite his own predispositions.

This clip (click the link) gives you a flavor of the interactions among the players as Anne begins to sense her control over her position is at risk.

The photo chart above (from Vanity Fair magazine) depicts the main players in Wolf Hall.

The above post was written by our correspondent, Lee Liberman

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Noaz Deshe's WHITE SHADOW shows us the frightful, lurid, awful life of an African Albino

Uncompromising. That might be a pretty good word to describe a movie like WHITE SHADOW, which, though it sounds like a possible dog or wolf tale (or a remake of that popular TV series from the late 1970s), is actually a story about a young Albino man in Tanzania, Africa, who is almost constantly on the run because Albinos -- like elephants, rhinos and other animals -- are prized most in the Dark Continent for certain of their body parts and organs, which are used by the local Tanzanian witch doctors to make "magical" potions. We're not talking fantasy here. What happens in the film is evidently more the rule than the exception regarding African Albinos.

Co-written (with James Masson) and directed by Noaz Deshe (shown at right), this nearly two-hour movie begins with a lovely visual fantasy/dream. Treasure these few moments because they are just about the only positive and beautiful things you'll be seeing. Post-dream we encounter our hero, an Albino named Alias (played by Hamisi Basili, below) and his family, only to witness the horrifying slaughter of his Albino father. Soon Alias is himself slaughtering a chicken and, with the help of his mother, spilling its blood over Daddy's grave.

We also meet Alias' little friend Salum, (played by Salum Adballah, below) and their friendship goes some distance in making the movie a bit more filmgoer-friendly--story-wise, at least. Yet, finally, loss is every-where for our hero, who spends his time alternating mourning with fleeing.

Impressionistic to a fault, Deshe's film hops and skips all over the place -- from character to character, countryside to city and back again, from witch doctors to the workplace (such as it is), dragging us along as though we had any idea of where were or why. The confusion is effective for a time, but eventually some of us -- yours truly, at least, want a deeper and better understanding of the characters, their background, and the traditions that have helped form the culture we're observing.

These things are certainly hinted at, but the constant motion, the choppiness of the editing, together with the truly horrific tale being told of the persecution and murder of Albinos becomes an endurance test. I watched and finally finished the film, more out of a sense of guilt than anything else -- for a situation this dire deserves to be witnessed.

If the movie succeeds in bringing to light the plight of Albinos in Tanzania (and probably elsewhere in Africa, as well) then it must be credited as a major success. No doubt this is what pushed the likes of Ryan Gosling to act as executive producer on the film.

White Shadow -- from IndiePix, running 117 minutes, and in Swahili with English subtitles -- arrives on DVD and digital platform this coming Tuesday, September 29. Click here to view options for purchase or rental. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

In Jon Watts' COP CAR, a pair of updated Hardy Boys encounter some very bad things

The Hardy Boys, for all you youngsters out there, was a popular series of books first published back in the late 1920s about a pair of young boys who investigate all sorts of mysteri-ous happenings (think of them as a male version of Nancy Drew times two, though they actually preceded Nancy by three years). I bring this all up because those Hardy Boys came to mind as I watched the new film COP CAR, which is about to make its Blu-ray/DVD/digital HD debut this coming week.

The Hardys, however, never encountered anything quite like what our two ten-year-olds get up to in this very-necessarily R-rated movie. Another critic has compared what happens to something out of a Coen Brothers film, though Cop Car has little of the Coens' style or sense of humor (it's funny and semi-stylish in its own manner), though the brothers' love of violence is indeed on hand, if only as a threat until very late in the proceedings. As co-written (with Christopher D. Ford) and directed byJon Watts (at right), the film is funny and intriguing from its opening scenes and holds you in thrall right up until its 87 minutes have concluded.

Though its above-the-title star is the oft-seen Kevin Bacon (on poster, top, and in the penultimate photo below), the movie rests solidly on the small shoulders of Bacon's co-stars -- James Freedson-Jackson (shown above) and Hays Wellford (below, left) -- the former a neophyte, the latter with a few roles already under his belt.

These kids (and the actors who plays them) are fabulous: funny and real and full of that anxiety that hits at the onset of puberty and doesn't let go until -- if you're lucky -- adulthood. The first 15 minutes of the film, in fact, belong to these kids alone, and they make the most of it as, apparently running away from home along a wide stretch of barely populated Colorado plains, they come across what appears to be an abandoned police car in a secluded, slightly wooded area.

The writers/director contrive to show us this first charming, funny scene, then go back a bit in time and then forward again, surprising us and making us more than a little concerned for the safety of these two boys.

The tale takes place within a single day -- a few hours, really -- which gives it a goose of extra reality and suspense, as event piles on event until things grow much darker and we're not at all sure where they will lead or what the outcome might be. In addition to Mr. Bacon and the boys, the cast includes only two other major roles (unless you count that of Kyra Sedgwyck, who plays the voice of  the police dispatcher): Camryn Manheim (above) and Shea Whiigham (below).

The movie is so cleverly plotted, exciting and fun that it surprises me it was not more widely seen. In fact, it's that rare more-or-less-mainstream film that we critics enjoyed (79% on Rotten Tomatoes) more than the audience (54% on RT). So, if you're in a mood for a movie than goes from sunny, light and carefree to awfully dark and unsettling, take a ride in this Cop Car.

The movie is an object lesson -- for all the characters involved -- in the myriad ways in which our actions can have unintended consequences. It's particularly sad that our under-aged heroes, with so little experience to fall back on, must suddenly learn this, too.

Cop Car, from Focus Features, hits the street on Blu-ray/Digital HD and DVD this coming Tuesday, September 29, for purchase or rental. 

QUEEN CRAB attacks, as Brett Piper takes us back to the sci-fi days of early Roger Corman

What goofy, old-fashioned fun (for awhile, at least), as filmmaker Brett Piper does a funny, often nifty homage to everything from stop-motion monster movies to the old American International sci-fi films to some of the early Roger Corman movies. QUEEN CRAB is such an intentionally silly story of science run amok (does it ever not, so far as movies are concerned?) and a cute little crab found by an adorable little girl that grows to something like the size of a house, terrorizing a small town and spawning lots of nasty, naughty offspring who also provide a certain amount of blood-and-guts mayhem.

Mr. Piper (shown at left) has fashioned a straight-forward 80-minute horror/monster movie using old-fashioned stop-motion photogra-phy, in which our crabby crab goes on the rampage, destroying life and limb with aplomb and finesse. That almost everything about this movie looks "fake" but fun is part of its charm, and that goes right down (or up) to the writing, direction and acting -- about which you can never be quite sure if the actors are being intentionally semi-bad, or trying to rise to the occasion. Either way, there's a certain frisson provided by this odd viewing experience.

"What does omnivorous mean?" our little cutie, above, asks her scientist daddy early on in the movie, and you can bet that by the time she grows up (below), she will fully understand the meaning of the word (while still loving her pet crab, despite its predilection for destruction).

Even at only 80 minutes, it's still a tad too long, and the filmmaker, who both wrote and directed, hasn't given us enough real humor or scares to fill those minutes, though he's done some fun stuff with the characters, situations and mayhem.

While I can't recommend the movie to just anyone, I do suspect that oldsters who fondly recall those Corman movies (Not of This Earth, anyone?) or the stop-motion delights of Ray Harryhausen, may want to take a look.

And you can, when the film -- from Wild Eye Releasing -- goes straight to DVD this coming Tuesday, September 29. Get ready to giggle. And maybe show your kids or grand kids what scary movies used to look like.