Friday, March 31, 2017

More Holocaust-lite, as Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE opens wide theatrically

Both like and unlike Fanny's Journey, another Holocaust-lite movie that recently opened, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE resembles that French young-adult film in that its view of World War II and the Nazi extermination of the Jews is rendered with much less violence and horror than in many other Holocaust movies you're likely to have seen.

On the other hand, this big-budget U.S./UK/Czech Republic production is not the "family" movie some audiences may expect of this tale of the wife of the zookeeper in Warsaw, Poland, who manages, against all odds and expectations, to save quite a number of Jews during the war -- even as she fails to protect many of the zoo animals that she and her husband so love and nurture.

Children and animal lovers alike will recoil in horror as some of these beasts are slaughtered, so be warned. With a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, and directed by Niki Caro (shown at right), the movie does not bypass the Nazi extermination (we see an elderly mother and her daughter both executed at close range), but it keeps this to a minimum -- which actually adheres rather closely to the facts, since we told during the film's end credits that, of the hundred of people saved who passed through this zoo, only those two women were caught and killed.

Ms Caro, a New Zealander with an up-and-down record, so far as directing and box-office are concerned -- Whale Rider is probably her most critically lauded film and McFarland, USA her most successful at the U.S. box-office -- remains a favorite of TrustMovies, if only for her majestic (and majestically crazy) film, A Heavenly Vintage -- which, if you have not seen, you simply must.

I would guess that The Zookeeper's Wife might be her biggest-budget effort so far, and the film's look and production values are stellar. So's her star, Jessica Chastain (above), who's always good and here acquits herself here with the usual talent and beauty this actress possesses in spades. (Her Eastern-European-inflected accent's pretty good, as well.)

Her zoo-keeping hubby is played by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (above, of the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown), while her antagonist is portrayed with lip-smacking relish by the talented German actor, Daniel Brühl (below).

The screenplay adheres closely to the paint-by-numbers, this-happened-and-then-that-happened mode, yet the story told grabs us from the outset -- as we meet the main characters and the zoo animals -- and then carries us along through plenty of thrills, suspense and Hollywood movie moments that are obvious and predictable.

Yet along the way, Ms Caro, provides some wonderful stuff -- the most memorable of which is a scene in which the Polish Jews are finally to be deported to the concentration camps. Here, a group of children, so far saved from obliteration, are now to be placed in the rail cars that will take them to their death. Unknowing of this, they look to the two men who have provided their safety and caring and outstretch their arms with loving, smiling faces to be lifted up onto the train. This is a scene that I shall never forget.

While I wish the film were better, I am still grateful that it has reached the screen, as its tale is one worth telling, especially amidst our current times with Holocaust denial on the rise internationally, and here in the USA, the Trump administration telling ever bigger and bolder lies.

So see the movie, take the kids (the older ones, at least), and then talk about the whole experience afterward. From Focus Features and running a lengthy but full-of-incident 124 minutes, The Zookeeper's Wife opened nationwide this week. Click here to find the theater nearest you.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Death becomes her: The Widers' moving testament to the life and demise of Linda Bishop, GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM

Let's admit it up front: GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM -- the new documentary by Jedd and Todd Wider about a woman whose decomposing body, back in 2007, was found in a closed-up house just off a relatively busy New Hampshire highway -- is a grueling experience. But it is also a fascinating and emotionally moving one that will be worthwhile for audiences who care about mental health and the question of how much responsibility the state has in both diagnosing and protecting those of its citizens who are mentally ill.

The body in question belonged to a woman named Linda Bishop (above, left), a divorced mother who, for much of her life at least, appeared to be a happy, smart, relatively popular girl and woman. What happened when and why to change all this is something the movie can only hint at, but eventually, Linda had clearly grown mentally ill (the medical diagnosis was schizophrenia), abandoned her daughter and older sister Joan (above, right), was eventually confined to a state mental hospital then released after some time and left to her own devices.

Those devices allowed her to become so paranoid and out of touch with reality that she eventually starved to death in the cold New England winter, writing daily all the while in a journal (pages of which are shown below) that she kept and which was found along with her body. It is this that the Wider brothers -- shown above (flanking Lori Singer, who provides the film's voice for Linda Bishop's journal), with Jedd on the left and Todd on the right -- make use of in telling this woman's sad story.

The filmmakers also probe family and friends of Bishop, as well as the medical/social services establishment, to discover as much as possible about who the woman was and how she came to die as she did. Their film is a blending of long past with the more recent past, of memory, desire, hope and pain. Lots, especially, of that last one. Along Linda's journey -- which grows ever more fraught and crazy, as she goes on then off her necessary medications, over and over again -- we go from New England to Florida, even to New York City post-9/11 (which offers by far the most surprising moments in the film).

The Widers' accomplishment, aside from telling a story that is both utterly bizarre and predictably horrific yet expected, is in the manner in which they brings us close to Linda Bishop.  They begin their film with the final entry in Linda's journal, which we see and hear but without any real context. Then they fill that context in -- slowly and carefully (this is not a fast-paced movie) -- so that when, at the end, we see and hear this same journal entry once again, the effect is suddenly and quietly heartbreaking. We know this woman now, and yet we also know that, given who she was and how she "played the system" in her own crazy way, there really was little hope for her survival.

God Knows Where I Am is beautifully filmed, the events reconstructed in simple, often stunning ways that never try to hide their "re-creations" while also making them seem part and parcel of Linda' life. Ms Singer's readings are spot-on, and though, during the many interviews included here, you may look for a villain or two, I doubt that you will find one. Everyone -- including, yes, Linda herself -- seemed to do his or her best under difficult circumstances. The movie brings us closer to understanding, even experiencing, mental illness that almost any I can remember.

From Bond/360 and running a rather lengthy (for this kind of film) but never boring 103 minutes, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, March 31, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema; on Friday, April 7, at Laemmle's Monica Film Center; and then in the weeks to come, across the country in another 16 cities and even in London, England. To see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters, click here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Logan Sandler's LIVE CARGO: the non-touristy Bahamas as we've seldom seen them on film

A side of the Caribbean moviegoers don't often see -- that of the lives of the natives who permanently live and work on the islands -- is brought to minor life and interest by co-writer (with Thymaya Payne) and director Logan Sandler (shown below). On the plus side is the film's lovely black-and-white cinematography (by Daniella Nowitz) that takes us from gorgeous seaside and underwater scenes to grungy bars and homes that seem to lack indoor plumbing. Also worth considering is the chance to see this location from a different and decidedly non-touristy angle.

Another plus is the professional cast rounded up by the filmmaker, the performances of which are all as good as the material the actors were given to work with. Which brings us to LIVE CARGO's major problems, which include just about everything else the movie has to offer. Said to be based upon the filmmaker's own experience as he grew up in and around The Bahamas, the film's would-be "hero" -- Sam Dillon, as the oddball, mother-problemed man named Myron (shown below) -- even looks a good deal like director Sandler. 

The filmmaker has divided his movies into a quartet of people, beginning with our aging boy Myron. We also have a couple, Nadine and Lewis, played by Dree Hemingway (below, left) and Keith Stanfield, (below, right), the latter of whom, under the name Lakeith Stanfield, just made a bit of a stir in Get Out. (Mr. Stanfield has also worked under the name, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, so I hope by now he has decided upon his permanent moniker.) Nadine and Lewis have come to the island, to a home her family has long owned, to grieve over the death of their child.

We also have two native families, those of patresfamilias, Roy (Robert Wisdom, below) and Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze), both of whom exert a certain control on the island, the former for mostly good, while the latter deals in human trafficking via Haiti.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sandler is unable to develop any of these characters past the point of one-note cliche, and the movie's 88-minute running time is too often devoted to individual moments the director has chosen that simply don't add up to much in terms of either deepening his characters or advancing the plot. In addition, his pacing is glacial,  

Overall, Sandler and Payne have provided very little dialog, which may be just as well, since what there is they mostly devote to either exposition or needless repetition. The bereft couple grieves (over and over), Myron waffles and makes a bunch of wrong decisions, the two islanders do exactly what you'd expect of them, and it all comes together in a burst of silly-but-expected melodrama that uses so much coincidence that it becomes instead coinci-dunce.

But that, of course, provides the happy ending all these poor characters need (except the naughty one, who gets his comeuppance). The final shot is of our hero, butt-naked and about to either baptize himself, bathe away those recent sins, or maybe just drown his poor ass. By this time, if you give a shit, you clearly have more patience and/or goodwill than I.

From Gunpowder & Sky Distribution, Live Cargo opens this Friday, March 31, in New York (at the Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (at the Arena Cinema). and will probably soon enough make its way to DVD and VOD, as well.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Girls (the real deal) in the Jenny Gage/Tom Betterton coming-of-age doc, ALL THIS PANIC

There were times during TrustMovies' viewing of ALL THIS PANIC -- a new film from Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton -- when he wondered if this movie about a group of young girls on the cusp of adulthood was actually a documentary. The girls' dialog, which sounds completely off-the-cuff, was presumably caught on the fly, while the cast list uses their real names, with the exception of the leading lady, who is referred to as Lena M. Yet at times the movies is so cinematic, engulfing and artfully done that one is tempted to wonder if it is not, after all, some kind of fictional fable about coming-of-age in our current, frightening, what-lies-ahead? decade. Late adolescence and the oncoming trip to adulthood have always been fraught and uneasy. These days they are simply more so.

Ms Gage and Mr. Betterton, shown at right, introduce us to these maybe half dozen young women in their last (or penultimate) year of high school and then follow them, so the press information tells us, for three years. It's all very scattershot and all over the place, but as the short (just 79 minutes) film progresses, we come to understand these girls surprisingly well and care about them, too. My spouse, busy in the kitchen but able to hear the soundtrack, called out to me at one point, "These sound like pretty nice girls!" They do, and they are. 

Sure, they argue and get angry and all the rest, but basically they're rather normal examples of what we used to refer to as raw youth. They're certainly not "mean girls," and we wish them well. What they're dealing with, however, runs the gamut from parents who have their own problems (unemployment, mental health) to life after high school (and college, which proves a tough, do-I-go-or-don't-I choice in itself) to the usual what-to-do-about-sex quandary.

At first we see only the girls -- all varieties: straight, gay, black, white -- and then slowly, some of the parents enter the picture (they prove just as real, believable and problemed as their offspring), and finally we get a boy or two, as relationships form and evolve.

And that's it. Yet, by the end of this little film, it seems as though we've been made privy to girls' lives in a manner we've not seen previously: genuine, specific and on the mark -- if scattered and fragmented all to hell. The result is a documentary that has us hanging on every word, with visuals that are immediate, pointed and often quite beautiful, as we (and the girls) try to piece it all together. In its way, this is as good a picture of late adolescence as we've so far experienced.

At the end, which is, by the film's very nature, anything but an end, we simply leave the girls in the middle of it all. This is one documentary to which, a few years down the road, I would love see a sequel.

From Factory 25, All This Panic (a smart, ironic-but-not title, which one of the girl expresses early on) opens this Friday, March 31, in New York City at the IFC Center and in Chicago at Facets Multimedia.  On April 7 it hits the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, and on April 14, the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles. Click here then scroll down to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

Monday, March 27, 2017

At Film Forum: The horror of the German Democratic Republic via KARL MARX CITY and BROKEN--the Women's Prison at Hoheneck

A fascinating double bill about the late country of East Germany (aka the GDR or German Democratic Republic) -- that should lay to rest memories of that delightful, bubbly multi-award-winning German comedy, Good-bye Lenin! -- the two films that open at New York City's Film Forum for a two-week run this Wednesday make the GDR seem one of the prime horror haunts of our 20th-Century world.

The main attraction is the full-length documentary, KARL MARX CITY, by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker both of whom gave us the fine docs Gunner Palace and How to Fold a Flag, in which Ms Epperlein (shown at left, and below, right, with Mr. Tucker) investigates her own and her family's past in the GDR, a country in which, it turns out, one out of three people were spying on the other two.

If you saw and recall the Oscar-winning German film, The Lives of Others that detailed the work of the GDR's secret police agency, the Stasi, you'll have immediate entry into this world (though the documentary rather firmly discredits that movie's major plot point, as well as one of its main characters). As more and more of the Stasi's records become available for former East Germsns to view, Petterlein visits her family and the former Stasi headquarters on a mission to learn why her father committed suicide. Had he, as she suspects, worked as a Stasi informant?

The movie, then, is a kind of mystery coupled to an investigation of family, friends, co-workers and bosses in a culture in which there seemed to exist little trust -- and what there is was often betrayed. We tour the area, with Petterlein as our guide, meet her remaining family, and see and hear from a number of experts in the culture and history of the Stasi and the GDR, along with seeing and hearing a lot of archival footage, some of this actual Stasi surveillance imagery with sound included. Yeah: That's creepy and then some.

The entire film is shot in black and white and Petterlein/Tucker's present-day footage is gorgeously deep and dark with glorious grays of all sorts. The movie is artful and the mystery compelling. It is solved, by the way. Or part of it, at least. Suicide is seldom completely explained, I believe.

By the time we get to the Stasi report on the Epperlein family -- especially mom's reaction to this -- the movie becomes a kind of meditation of memory and even history, as well as our own willingness to so often "rush to judgment." Most of all, the movie is a look at what a deliberately defined culture of surveillance and mistrust can create. It ain't pretty. And it's probably in our future, too.

Released by Bond/360 and running just 89 minutes, the documentary opens this Wednesday, March 29, at Film Forum in New York City for a two- week run.

On the same program with Karl Marx City (named during the decades of the GDR for you-know-who, pictured above, in bronze) is a seven-minute animated film --  BROKEN--the Women's Prison at Hoheneck titled Kaputt in the original German) -- featuring relatively simple line drawings with shadings that accompany a narration that talks about what it was like to be a prisoner in this infamous jail in the GDR.  Both the narration and animation could hardly be simpler or more compact, and yet the overall effect is quietly horrifying. We learn of conditions in the overcrowded prison, the sanitary habits of the inmates, and most especially of the forced labor the women endured -- to sew items that were then sold in West Germany, the money from which helped keep the always near-bankrupt state of East Germany afloat.

This short film is so immediately engulfing and unsettling -- the many details presented in the narrations are beautifully captured by the animation (where the women's "lipstick" came from, for instance) -- that the little movie becomes, by its end, unforgettable. Directed by Alexander Lahl and Volker Schlecht (with artwork and animation by Schlecht) and written by Lahl and Max Moench, this is a film I'd suggest seeing after Karl Marx City, rather than before, if possible.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

John G. Young's BWOY: very nearly good enough to give gay movies a bad name

Well acted but beyond dreadful in most other aspects -- with characters and situations so stupid and unbelievable as to boggle the brain -- BWOY, the new film from John G. Young, tracks a middle-aged married man whose young son has recently died and who is now spending most of his time online, trying to find a gay relationship. We can buy this online love story, of course (and have been at least since the time of Craig Lucas's fine play and the excellent movie based upon it, The Dying Gaul). But aside from its central, obsessive relationship, everything in this tired film falls utterly flat.

As both writer and director, Mr. Young, shown at left, has a lot to answer for. His primary failure is to make the marriage/ relationship of his leading man, Brad (Rent's Anthony Rapp,below), and wife, played by De'Adre Aziza (shown at bottom, with Ashton Randle, who plays the couple's dead son) into something remotely believable.

Instead, we get two people who appear to have almost no relationship at all.

The couple barely seems to know each other, let alone live together in any kind of marriage. Over and over again, their behavior beggars belief -- from their near-complete lack of communication skills (could the filmmaker's have bothered to show us even one scene that might make this marriage real?) to the manner in which she, way too belatedly and coincidentally, discovers her hubby's online relationship.

If what we see here is the extent of the couple's bonding, then this marriage is hardly worth saving. And this is just fine, since most of the movie is devoted to our "hero's" budding romance with his online cutie, Yenny, a Jamaican boy played with sweetness and enthusiasm by Jimmy Brooks, shown at right. But is Yenny for real? Ah, we shall see...

Throughout the entire movie, we view Brad almost always at work (in boringly repetitive scenes) or online with Yenny. In both locales, all we can surmise about Brad is that is he is one-note and either shockingly stupid or amazingly naive.

As it rolls along, the movie goes from silly and implausible to -- as the foolish climax approaches -- big time melodrama. (Yes, that is indeed a gun you see above.) By the finale, the moral here would seem to be: You'd sure as hell better pay your credit card bill. (And that goes for our boy, Brad, as well.)

If you enjoy rolling your eyes and guffawing at nonsense, by all means take a chance on BWOY. Otherwise, I'd recommend just about any other gay film available (Netflix streaming has oodles from which to choose).

Meanwhile, the movie -- from Breaking Glass Pictures and running a thankfully short 86 minutes -- opens this coming Friday, March 31, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. A home video release will follow fairly closely on the heels of theatrical exposure: Look for both DVD and VOD to arrive on Tuesday, April 4.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT Tyler Hubbard's doc about one of our lesser-known (and happy about it) cultural icons

What to make of Tony Conrad? If you were to judge by TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT, the new documentary from Tyler Hubby -- opening this coming Friday, March 31, at New York City's Anthology Film Archives -- Mr. Conrad was a nearly undiscovered and unheralded genius and multi-talented artist and musician. And yet the proof Hubby offers is as likely to have you rolling your eyes in annoyance or disbelief as climbing aboard his bandwagon. And yet, by the end of this rambling but occasionally charming and/or surprising doc, you will have to admit that Mr. Conrad was pretty much one-of-a-kind.

Hubby's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) begins with a Conrad quote: History is like music. It's completely in the present.  Which, of course, history is not. But this does make for an OK subtitle for the documentary, while also reflecting Mr. Conrad, who was, perhaps more than anything else, a big tease. At various times across his career, he was a musician, an artist, a filmmaker, but mostly and always a provocateur. What Hubby allows us to see and hear of Conrad's work will have all but the hardiest of experimental art and music lovers running for the hills.

Still, what an oddly compelling career this guy had! Together, Tyler and Tony give us some early history of Conrad, such as his time with The Primitives, a music group that included the likes of Tony (shown above, left), Lou Reed (center, left), Angus Maclise (center, right) and John Cale (right). And yet the limelight was evidently something that Conrad not only didn't wish to inhabit but actively disparaged. As someone notes about him in the course of the film, "Tony was the smartest guy in the room, but he had other things to do."

Indeed. Along the way, he and a few "minimalist" musicians make a recording of their own experimental music that never, until nearly the end of Conrad's life, saw the light of day, thanks to one of the group -- La Monte Young, who is clearly shown to be the villain of the movie -- refusing to share the only recorded copy with the other participants. Well, who much cares? As Conrad (shown above) notes, "They wanted to be composers. I wanted to end composing." Listening to some of this music, you can fully understand that desire.

Later, Conrad has a serious fling with both experimental filmmaking and another experimental filmmaker, Beverly Grant, which results in a marriage and even a child. But not a lot of memorable work. Watching Conrad in his youth and particularly in middle age and senior years, the impression here is of an immensely likable guy with minimal talent at just about everything he touches.

His gift, it would seem, lay in being against things (New York City's Lincoln Center, above, was one of these). As someone notes along the way: "He reacted, he pushed back." He did -- and most often in a funny, joking manner. Once he gets into the "teaching" trade, his gift is even more apparent. (And why not? Since all of U.S. education, art, politics and the rest has simply led us to the coronation of Donald Trump, why the fuck not be against?)

From teaching, Conrad moves into documentaries and man-on-the-street interviews, and then to a women-in-prison movie in which all the roles were played by men in drag. Conrad ran out of funds midway through this film, and it was never completed. Decades later, he wants to go back to it, using the same actors in their golden years. "That blows my mind," exclaims filmmaker Hubby, though some in the audience may feel less amazed.

Then the director does something odd and interesting -- going back to the 1970s and a group called Faust, and then to a certain record called Outside the Dream Syndicate, an example, I guess, of early minimalism in music (it's almost trance-like), followed by a fling with Pythagoras and some writing Conrad did in which, by god, he does seem awfully smart (from the little snatch we're allowed to read, anyway).

We see Tony diddling with an art project you might call The Incontinent Underwear (above) -- which seems relatively original and something that the New Tate in London might appreciate. And finally, we leave Conrad, in media res, doing some kind of film or sound project on a busy New York street (see photo at bottom) halting/directing traffic, of all things. 

Conrad died one year ago this coming April and probably soon after this film was completed. If Hubby mentioned this in the film or during its end credits, I missed it, but discovered the fact when I went to Wikipedia. 

So then, the film acts as a kind of oddball memorial to an even more oddball fellow who never made it into, nor ever even strove for, that much-ballyhooed limelight.

From Sixty Cycle Hum LLC and running 94 minutes, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present opens this coming Friday, March 31, for a week's run at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Click here to see other upcoming screenings.