Saturday, October 31, 2015

Frederick Wiseman's documentary IN JACKSON HEIGHTS opens at New York City's Film Forum

My cousin Paula Carroll, a relatively wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world woman, used to say (and undoubtedly still does) that if you know a particular subject well and then see a movie about it, you'll find that movie wanting. TrustMovies has more often than not discovered for himself that this is true. Depth, specificity and honesty are not necessarily synonymous with mainstream entertainment. Having lived in Jackson Heights for 22 years and only recently relocated to southern Florida, I know my ex-community relatively well and so was looking forward to the Frederick Wiseman (the filmmaker is shown above) documentary, IN JACKSON HEIGHTS, about as much as I've awaited the coming of any movie I can recall. I've been impressed with other of this documentarian's works -- from Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968) onwards to Crazy Horse (2011) -- and now, here he is tackling my own stomping ground!

Yeah, right. I should have lessened my expectations and recalled what cousin Paula said. Also, I should have noticed that the title of this film is not Jackson Heights (as though it were going to be any kind of definitive picture or history) but In Jackson Heights, as instead, "This is what's happening in the neighborhood right now." As such, Wiseman's movie is a not uninteresting look at a place that, like the borough of Queens of which it is a part, offers as ployglot a community as you're likely to find anywhere in the world (167 languages are said to be spoken here!).

Inclusive is also a term you can use about this place which is and has been for some time open and relatively welcoming of the GLBT community (some of its seniors are shown above), of new immigrants (legal and otherwise), and of the various cultures these immigrant represent (the number and variety of ethnic restaurants alone are legion). All this is catnip to Wiseman's eye and camera, and so we get a cursory look at food and restaurants and culture and mariachi bands (below).

What really interests the filmmaker, however, are certain groups -- from those in a senior center, to the GLBT population, to young social activists trying to help a beleaguered Hispanic business community survive an attack by wealthy real estate investors, to a support group for recent U.S. immigrants, a member of which (below) tells the tale of her daughter's very frightening and near-death experience getting into the country.

Also covered in some depth and detail is the office of Danny Dromm, New York City Council member for the 25th district, which includes Jackson Heights. We watch and listen as his staff handles various phone calls, and later watch and listen again as Dromm and staff tackle a thorny education question. (The movie certainly works as an endorsement of Councilman Dromm.) The funniest moments probably arrive as the camera and microphone capture a class for new taxi drivers (below) who need to learn about Brooklyn! This is clever, unusual stuff, and their teacher seems like a born New Yorker (that is to say, himself a somewhat Sammy Glick-like immigrant striver).

My spouse stopped watching the film after two hours (it runs a total of three hours and ten minutes). He found it too repetitive and not very eye-opening. I watched that final hour and was glad  I did, even though I, too, did not find myself surprised or educated by much I saw.) I suspect that none of the critics who are currently praising the film to the skies live in Jackson Heights, or they would be aware of all that is going on here. And more. The movie barely cuts into the community, save for these few "group" experiences that we see.

Wiseman is a filmmaker who prefers to show rather than tell (some of his subjects do plenty of that, however). So he does not use narration or go into history.  He simply points his camera -- savvily, it must be said -- and records. What he has captured In Jackson Heights is a community undergoing change, as communities always do. Earlier, Hispanics pushed out an older population of Irish and Italians; now they are being pushed out by gentrification and wealth. There was a time when Jews were not allowed to purchase in the Jackson Heights Historic District -- a beautiful, landmarked area within Jackson Heights that this movie barely shows or mentions -- but you wouldn't learn anything like that from watching this vibrant, colorful but somewhat shallow film. There is a limit to what simply pointing the camera and shooting can do, and when one goes into a community this diverse, there is a price to be paid in the kind of depth achieved.

The movie, from Zipporah Films (Wiseman's own distribution company) opens this coming Wednesday, November 4, in its world theatrical premiere in New York City at Film Forum. In the weeks to come, it will make its way around the country and elsewhere. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

DVDebut: Miguel Llansó's Ethiopian-set sci-fi festival hit, the kooky, charming CRUMBS

What a pleasure it is to see a post-apocalyptic narrative set in something other than the burnt-out drudgery of a wasted planet. While CRUMBS, the first full-length feature from director Miguel Llansó, takes place partly in a desert-like locale, much of the movie offers the verdant, hilly landscapes of Ethiopia, a country I warrant most of my readers have rarely seen on film and never traveled to themselves.
Nor have I.

This alone makes Crumbs worth a look for film (and geography) buffs. There's more, too, for the movie is often as goofy and sweet as the look on its director's face (Señor Llansó is shown at right). In concept and in its often remarkable visuals, full of odd juxtaposition and connections that don't quite adhere, Crumbs is a treat for jaded filmgoers fed up with post-apocalyptic emptiness, violence, horror and depression. To take their place, the filmmaker has come up with a hero like no other we have seen, embodied by a very particular actor named Daniel Tadesse (shown below).

Tadesse, with his misshapen body and handsome, expressive face (the camera roams over both of these) plays Gagano, a collector of scrap and any other items that might come his way -- the film is full of what we might call "collectibles": present-day artifacts that one hopes may gain value over eons to come -- and these bizarre pieces (from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine to a Michael Jackson record to a Baby Jesus creche piece) seem to have done exactly that.

Gagano lives with his true love Birdy (the graceful Selam Tesfayie, shown foreground, above) in an non-working bowling alley they now call home. And... Well, that's mostly it. There's little plot to speak of here, and what incidents there are -- a visit to a so-called "witch,"  the appearance of a very perverse Santa Claus (below) and a someone-or-other wearing a Nazi arm band (further below) who seems to menace our hero but not really -- only serve to attenuate an already thin tale.

As clever and visually enticing as Llansó has made his movie, this viewer at least felt the plotting and execution to be inordinately slow. While this does give us time to try to piece together a meaning to it all -- What's that spaceship doing up in the sky for so long without moving? Where do our twosome's food and water come from? What's real here (if anything) and what isn't? -- there is not much meaningful that I could piece together.

Still, I enjoyed very much the look of the film, and the performance of Tadesse, below. Because the movie is a mere 68 minutes, the DVD also offers two other short films by Llansó, both starring this unusual actor.

Crumbs, released via IndiePix Films as another in its "highly-curated collection of the best independent films from around the world," hits DVD this Tuesday, November 3, for sale or rental, with its digital debut following close at hand on November 17.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Oscar campaign begins for Sean Baker's oddball and entrancing indie, TANGERINE

The fact that mini-budget independent movies almost never get noticed by the Academy is by now such a standard occurrence -- an anomaly like Winter's Bone simply proves the rule -- that most of us critics just groan and roll our eyes yearly at all the excellent work that never gets "officially" noticed (except occasionally by the group that shepherds the Best Foreign Language Film to completion). So the recent news that TANGERINE, the latest film from indie stalwart Sean Baker, is going to receive an Oscar campaign via its distributor, Magnolia Pictures and its executives producers The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark (also indie stalwarts), is welcome news.

Filmmaker Baker has been on my radar since his funny/sad/ energetic look at an illegal immigrant deliveryman of Chinese food, Take Out, released theatrically back in 2004. When I finally saw the movie upon its DVD release a few years later, I contacted Baker for a quick Q&A interview (you can find it here), and I have been enjoying his every-couple-of-years-appearance of a new film ever since. These would include Prince of Broadway, Starlet, and now Tangerine.

The adjective group funny/sad/energetic applies to all of Baker's films, as does the term "documentary feel." While all of these are narrative films, so filled with specific of the workplace and the living habits of their protagonists, with each you could swear you're watching a documentary. One thing that will tip you off to the contrary is how often, plot-wise, the films seem melodramatic. And yet, so gifted are the performers on view, and so full of life and good will are the movies themselves -- despite their often bleak subject matter -- that even some of us cynical critic types appear to embrace them quite fully.

In some ways, Tangerine seems the best of all the Bakers so far. While I say that with each new film of his, it's because he keeps growing as a filmmaker. Here he has acted as director, editor, co-writer, co-cinematographer, co-producer and co-casting director. (Yes, I think we can legitimately call this a Sean Baker film.)  Baker also completely shot his film on an iPhone, and while it is not the first movie to boast this -- 2012s underseen and excellent King Kelly was shot on a phone camera -- Tangerine looks like a million bucks in comparison.

Baker loves to tackle "the other," whether it be immigrants, the poor, porn industry workers or now, the transvestite hookers of his latest movie. He endows all his characters with enormous humanity and such a range of good and bad qualities that we see their faults aplenty but can still care about them and enjoy them and their often fraught situations. His characters become so real, genuine and important that their humanity completely overtakes their "otherness." This is no small accomplishment.

Tangerine takes place in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, as hookers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, below, right) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor, above), exchange pleasantries and sadness concerning Sin-Dee's unfaithful pimp (the wonderful James Ransone of The Wire), whom Sin-dee decides to punish (along with the blond whore with whom he's taken up: a very funny, spaced-out Mickey O'Hagan, below left).

What happens and why includes an Armenian taxi driver with a yen for chicks-with-dicks (played beautifully by Karren Karagulian, below, Baker's go-to guy in literally all his films), the family of this sex-obsessed cab man, and various other denizens of the dank, culminating in a Hollywood donut shop in which all hell breaks hilariously loose.

Whether Tangerine will connect with Academy members in a major way, I couldn't say. But so far as low-budget independents with sleazy themes, big hearts and a lot of gumption and talent are concerned (Taylor and Rodriquez are both phenomenal), this is the one to beat.

The movie, running just 88 minutes, is still playing in theaters (it first opened in early July) and still turning heads. No doubt its video incarnation will appear in time for Academy members to take further note before nominations are in. New upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters listed, can be found by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Is the new fright anthology, THE HORROR NETWORK, a good Halloween watch? Maybe...

...or maybe not. It depends, I should think, on how old you are and how many other "scary" movies you've managed to view over your years. I am fast coming to the conclusion that I've seen way too many of this genre, and an anthology movie like THE HORROR NETWORK serves mostly to underscore that point. Horror anthologies have a storied history, going at least as far back as the 1945 British gem (in its time; much of it still holds up well today), Dead of Night. Later came some fun Hammer horrors, then the more "modern," special-effects-enhanced efforts like Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, all of which took fear into a different, less subtle direction, while the most recent examples -- the V/H/S group and the even better ABCs of Death -- tend to count on envelope-pushing sex, violence, transgression and gore to do the job. (And, one must admit, they sometimes do.)

Only one of the short films included in this five part anthology rises to the challenge, and that's the penultimate creep-fest, Merry Little Christmas. Directed by Ignacio Martín and Manuel Marín, with the latter handling the screenwriting duties, this 20-minute film is the longest in the bunch, and also the best, as well as the goriest and biggest-budget effort. Involving masked women and what they get up to (not good), spousal and child abuse, agoraphobia and self-destruction, this is one wild, woolly, yucky piece of filmmaking.

Otherwise, the movie contains four perfectly professional scare films, in which everything will remind you of stuff you've seen previously, and you'll mostly want to ask, Could you please get on with it?" Second best film honors go to Joseph Graham's Edward, shown below, in which a shrink and his patient do an eventually tiresome pas de deux, complete with everything from guck and gore to personality transference.

The film begins with 3 AM, in which a young woman in an empty house in the middle of the night is menaced by...something or someone. Sounds familiar? It is. The Quiet, directed by Lee Matthews, a bullied-because-she's-deaf school-girl go from frying pan into fire, as she becomes predator prey in some highly bucolic, beautifully photographed scenery.

The final tale, in black-and-white, offers us a guy, a dog and a killer, plus Bible verses from Proverbs, Jeremiah, Leviticus, Colossians and Revelation. Seemingly dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy of the anti-gay fringe, it's mostly a yawn -- but at least it's a short one.

That's it.  If all this sounds like a productive way to spend Halloween (or whenever), by all means, take a chance. The Horror Network -- via Wild Eye Releasing and running 87 minutes -- made its DVDebut yesterday, October 27, just in time for that favvorite, would-be holiday.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

From Basque country: Garaño and Goenaga's quiet, thoughtful, deeply moving FLOWERS

Back in 2010 TrustMovies viewed and covered, during the FSLC's sorely missed annual series, Spanish Cinema Now, a wonderful film from writers/directors Jon Garaño and José Mari Goenaga titled 80 Days (80 egunean). That film unfortunately never saw theatrical release here in the USA, so it pleases me no end to be able to cover the theatrical debut of the pair's latest work, FLOWERS (Loreak). This marks the first time a Basque-language film has been submitted by Spain as the country's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. (Language enthusiasts and foreign film buffs alike will discover that the Basque language, Euskara, sounds little like Spanish.)

The talented pair of writers/directors, Garaño and Goenaga (above, with the latter on the left), here abetted in the writing department by Aitor Arregi, have created a quietly complicated tale of lives entwining in a most unusual way. Oddly entwined lives are nothing new to cinema (consider Paul Haggis' Oscar winner Crash and his much-better, though less seen, Third Person), but what distinguishes the world of these filmmakers is how beautifully they avoid melodrama, despite their film being about some of the very things -- love, possible adultery, death and family squabbles -- most prone to bring this out in a movie.

Instead, the filmmakers -- via elegant, composed-but-never-showy cinematography (by Javier Agirre) and a tale that holds our attention by virtue of its complicated and beautifully wrought characters -- draw us in and manage to keep us focused on the bigger picture, even if we don't know for some time what that picture will include.

The story involves an early-middle-aged woman (a lovely, smart, and very subtle performance by Nagore Aranburu, above) who gets some surprising news from her physician, after which she begins receiving weekly delivery of flowers -- with no note or name-of-sender attached.

Another woman, Lourdes, a wife and mother who works as a toll collector (Itziar Ituño, above) is in an unhappy relationship with her mother-in-law, Tere (Itziar Aizpuru, below, who was so fine in the filmmakers' earlier 80 Days).

What connects all three women is a man -- surprise! -- Beñat (played by Josean Bengoetxea, below), who proves the filmmakers' ace-in-the-hole: a character who bonds the others -- and the movie itself -- even though we never really know him nearly as well as we come to know these women. In the film's finest scenes, we follow along with what happens to one of these characters -- as a corpse! -- and the movie touches profundity without ever seeming pretentious.

Garaño and Goenaga's great accomplishment, in addition to avoiding the expected melodrama, is to make mysterious -- even as they show us the connections and characters -- the workings of this thing we call life. And while they do not leave any "loose ends," how events work out, and why, is full of the unexpected made entirely credible.

Flowers is so very fine a film, in fact, that I would hope to see it among the finalists for that Oscar. Probably not, however, because the Academy usually proves more receptive to melodrama over real drama or films of particular subtlety. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, you see this film, please -- if possible on the big screen, where it's wide-screen cinematography is best appreciated. From Music Box Films and running 99 minutes, it opens this Friday, October 30, in New York City at the Paris Theatre, then goes to Washington DC on November 6, to Philadelphia on November 20, and to Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal on November 27. Click here, then scroll down and click on THEATERS to see all currently scheduled playdates.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

A quick Q&A with the stars of APARTMENT TROUBLES: Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler

If you follow TrustMovies regularly, yes, you've already seen the below post. But as Apartment Troubles is one of those little movies that has gone straight to video, it's likely to get lost in the shuffle. And that's too bad because it has much to recommend. And since, post-viewing, I had the opportunity to chat via phone with its two stars/writers/ directors -- Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler -- it seems like a good idea to post again, this time including as much of the interview as time and memory permits. (My typing skills, never very good, are definitely lessening with age, and although I thought I understood how to record via my new SmartPhone, I obviously did not, so score another point for technology in the ongoing struggle for comprehension by us senior citizens.)

Though I've seen Ms Prediger in several movies, especially Joe Swanberg's Uncle Kent, this one actually set me to wanting to remember her. I've been a long-time fan of Ms. Weixler since The Big Bad Swim, Teeth, Alexander the Last, Peter and Vandy and many other movies. So here again, is that review of Apartment Troubles, followed by a short Q&A with the young ladies.


OK: The movie's a mess. But, gheesh, it's sort of an endearing mess -- funny in odd ways rather than the expected, and as ditsy, charming and irritating as its two leading ladies, Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler, who also wrote and directed the film. You might call this a "vanity production," except that the filmmakers are as apt to show their worst sides as their better ones. Also, they do have a bundle of talent, even if it's oddball rather than mainstream.

Ms Prediger (shown at right) and Ms Weixler (below) both have a barrel of indie-film credits (Weixler has 37, Prediger 22) so they've been around the block a few times. Here, they take a well-known fact of life these days (nobody except the very wealthy can afford an apartment in New York City or its environs) and use it a leaping-off point for their adventures -- which prove to be a kind of first-class road trip to Los Angeles and back again.

That their film lasts only 77 minutes is probably wise, and the fact that it ends on a strange, lovely
and appealing note will send any Chekhov lovers in the audience levitating in a state of grace. The Russian master and his work figure in this film a couple of times and in major ways -- firstly in a weird piece of performance art that the two girls, Nicole (Weixler) and Olivia (Prediger) decide to act out on a kind of America's Got Talent TV show. It's a odd homage to Anton Chekhov and his play, The Seagull, in both the kind of amateur theater production it appears to be imitating and in its use of some of the dialog from the play. What's more, these lines appear again at film's end, this time performed by Weixler in what is the most beautiful rendering of them--visual and verbal--I've yet seen/heard.

I am guessing either or both of these actresses did Chekhov in high school or drama school and probably fell in love with him and his creation, Nina, from The Seagull. In any case, the movie's use of these few lines at the finale gives it a strange and slightly Armageddon-like quality, which is probably not amiss in our current times (just as it would not have been in Chekhov's own).

Also in the cast are three more noted and popular performers who were somehow corralled into joining the cast, which proves all to the good. Jeffrey Tambor -- shown above, right, and currently riding and definitely adding to the heights of Transparent (the double meaning of this terrific title word only became apparent to me as I typed it now). Tambor plays the girls' odd landlord (everything and everybody in this movie is odd), who for some reason enjoys showering in their apartment but is not happy about their consistently tardy and under-market rent payments.

Once they arrive in Los Angeles, they're given a lift by an even odder character played by Will Forte (above, right), who appears again toward the end to goose the movie into a kind of "full circle" thing. Forte is fresh and funny (and real), as usual.

But it is Megan Mullally (above, left) as Nicole's odd aunt, who gives the movie a consistent lift. Clearly sexually attracted to Olivia, as well as wanting to help the pair, she simply can't keep her hands to herself, making Prediger's character as uncomfortable as it makes us viewers amused. (That Mullally and Prediger could pass for mother and daughter adds a soupçon of further naughtiness to the proceedings.)

And that's pretty much it: They come to L.A., they do silly things, and then they leave again for NYC. But beneath the veneer lies longing and frustration of artists and women who cannot express themselves and be heard, so the expression comes out in, yes, odd ways. In a sense, both these young women are Ninas -- but let's hope as in the earlier, rather than the later, portion of Chekhov's play.

Prediger, looking like a lost little girl struggling to grow up, has a lovely, true and dulcet singing voice, which we hear only haphazardly at the aunt's dinner party. I'd like to hear it again.

Weixler, whom I have in the past compared to a young Meryl Streep, here looks more like the youthful and oddly beautiful Bette Davis. The actress has an edge that she knows how to use, as well, and she does so quite purposefully here.

If it sounds like I am raving about this strange little mistake of a movie, well, so be it. It certainly will not prove to be to most audiences' tastes. But for those willing to take a chance, or who love Chekhov, or enjoy any of all of the performers mentioned above, it is worth that chance. As a whole, it may go right by you, but certain little scenes, I swear, you'll remember for quite some time (particularly if you're a cat person).

Apartment Troubles, from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Gravitas Ventures, will appear on DVD Tuesday, October 6, for purchase or rental. One hopes it will soon become available digitally, as well.

TrustMovies:  How and why did you do this movie? Have you known Jess Weixler for a long time?

Jennifer Prediger: It's really "small world" stuff. She rented my apartment when she had to be here in New York doing The Good Wife for awhile, and then three months later, here we are writing a movie together!

TM: I know you've worked with Joe Swanberg, but I don’t see Apaprtment Troubles as anything like mumblecore.

JP: I learned a lot from watching Joe work. He doesn’t suffer, he just makes it happen -- I’m a big sufferer as a writer -- but Joe creates an outline, gets his group of actors together, and they improvise it. For our movie, we wanted something more structured. I’d say 85 per cent is structured and 15 improvised.

TM: Are you a Chekhov fan? Because Anton figures pretty heavily in your movie.

JP: It’s funny. My actual cat was named Pigeon, and, like the cat in the movie, he actually died while we were working on the movie, so he became a real part of the movie. He had a heart attack, and my producer and Jess had to get him to the vet with me. So for the new cat in the movie – I came up with the name Seagull. We were thinking of some kind of performance piece, and I had written something about how you could figure out your approximate death date. We wanted to add something to that or like that. Jess had been in The Seagull and had played Nina a couple of times. So we inserted one of the speeches, and it all came together somehow.

TM: I thought there was something smart and thoughtful to it all, kind of philosophical in nature. By the way, I loved your singing in the movie. You have such a true, clear voice. Have you sung professionally?

JP: No, but my "secret" profession is that I would have loved to be to be a jazz singer. But of course I don't do that -- except when I am a little drunk at a karaoke bar. I am always intrigued when people find their own special meaning in things and find strange things in creative work. What else did you find that seemed special in the movie?

TM: A lot, really. My favorite thing was your use of Chekhov. But my spouse, who watched the film with me, loved the scene just before your appearance on the "talent" show, where you two come up against the other pair of girls who sort of act as "doubles" for you -- just a little younger and more "mainstream." He thought the two seemed like your counterparts in some alternate universe, and he found the scene fun and very funny, too.

JP: Thanks! You know: That scene was hard for us – because we had to get to a place where we could attack the girls. But the two girls were just so nice, so lovely, that we found this really difficult to do.


TrustMovies: I found your film a very interesting and encouraging start for you as writers and directors. Will you write and direct again?

Jess Weixler:  Yes, I sure hope so.

TM: Are you working on something now.

JW: Well, both Jenn and I were writing about our fathers, so maybe something will happen with that.

TM: Jennifer said that you two really hit it off from the first.

JW: Yes -- we got along so well right away. And she had some friends with some money who told us, "If you have a script that we like. we'll produce it." So it just sort of worked out.

TM: I am particularly interested in the Chekhov connection to your film. Tell me about that.

JW: I'm so glad you noticed that! I was lucky in that I went to Julliard, and so I had the chance to do the classics. And I think that the character of Nina is, for women, like Hamlet is for guys: a role to treasure, and everyone wants to play it.

TM: I'd never thought about it in that way before, but I'll bet you're right.

JW: I think it all came about because both Jennifer and I love the movie Withnail and I.

TM: Yes, that is a good one -- and certainly an original of sorts.

JW: We wanted to do a kind of homage to Withnail and I because it's so funny, but it's also such a great story about about people, and about such unusual characters.. At the end of Withnail, they do the Hamlet speech, and we thought, let’s do something like that, but using Chekhov.

TM: Ah...  I get it. It's done first in that wonderful scene where Jennifer does the audition for the American Idol-like show. And then again to wrap up the film. I have to say that, in all the times I've seen The Seagull performed, I've never heard that particular speech done as beautifully as you do it. You made the words sound not just meaningful but somehow even timely, too!

JW: Wow. Thank you. You've made my day.

TM: Well, your rendition of that speech certainly made mine!

JW: What we really hope is that, for anyone who hasn’t already seen Withnail and I , maybe our movie will send them there.