Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kevin Smith, an old-hand at humor, now tries mixing it with horror in the rock-bottom TUSK

As a long-time fan of the work of Kevin Smith -- from Clerks and Chasing Amy through Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Red State -- it pains me greatly to declare his newest film, TUSK, the worst movie I've seen all year, maybe several. How could this happen? Has Smith's sense of humor, crazy and transgressive as it is, utterly deserted him? Was it this venture into the world of crappy special effects-laden schlock that did him in? Or the use of a very hoary story, so thick with cliché (that he never manages to upend)? Or, worst of all, is it due to a certain very famous actor playing a character called Guy LaPointe (ostensibly playing himself and credited as such), who is so dreadfully unfunny as to stop the proceedings dead in their tracks (and then leave them there)? Tusk is, above all, the What-were-they-thinking? movie of the new century. This film is so bad that it will have you wishing the upcoming apocalypse would occur immediately, just to put you out of your misery.

Mr. Smith, shown clowning at left, apparently has lost all sense of what works and what doesn't for an intelligent audience, or even for one that just wants dumb laughs and/or scares. He's au courant, as usual, in his choice of the profession of his "hero" -- a podcaster, played by Justin Long, who specializes in the crass and crappy. Mr. Long, below, is an actor I have always enjoyed, and this is literally the first time I've seen him give a bad performance. He's rude, crude, ugly -- and loud as hell. Granted, he's playing a not very likable fellow, and considering what is going to happen to him in the course of the movie, we wouldn't want to find ourselves identifying with him much. Even considering all this, Mr. Long gives an utterly two-note performance: first playing asshole, then playing victim.

The filmmaker manages to telegraph just about everything that happens along the way, thus draining suspense and chills from the menu. (This is quite a sadistic movie, however, and that quality remains throughout.) While Long manages some chemistry with his leading male co-star -- a rather heavily weight-gained Hayley Joel Osment (below, left), playing his friend and business partner, he has absolutely none with his would-be paramour, played by Genesis Rodriguez (below, right, and at bottom).

The plot finds Long's character in Canada, tracking a story for his podcast that suddenly disappears, leaving him needing a new one -- which he finds via a handwritten letter posted on the bulletin board of a local bar. Heading to the story's source, he is confronted by a wheelchair-bound Michael Parks (below), another actor I always enjoy. Except here, where he brings the art of blathering to new depths. (When you find yourself several steps ahead of the story and cast in terms of plot and performance, things can really grow boring.)

And then, with the introduction of the main supporting character, that would-be private detective, Guy La Pointe, the movie simply dies right in front of you. This character -- played about as badly as possible by a famous actor, the identify of whom I will not give away -- is so poorly conceived and executed that what is clearly supposed to be funny dies on the vine. There's nary a laugh to be found. Instead, things grow thuddingly slow, repetitive and tiresome. (Perhaps the actor in question imagined he was creating some sort of humorous, Peter Sellers type of character. Sorry, but no.)

Was Kevin Smith trying to make something new and different here? I expect so. The movie is full of idiot  flashbacks that are there to help make us care. We don't  And when the film goes for full-bore horror, the effects are so ridiculous that we laugh instead of gasp.Worse, I actually believe that Smith wants us to be moved a bit by our hero's plight in the final reel. This is really embarrassing. Watching a tear form in the eye of what Mr. Long's character has become proves one of the nadir moments in cinema history.

One enormous misfire, Tusk (released via A24) embarrasses everything and everyone it touches. The horror/fantasy genre would appear to be one in which Mr. Smith ought not to dabble. But if you crave a view of what utter failure looks like, you can see it tomorrow, Friday, September 19, at half a dozen theaters in New York City, and a bunch more in the Los Angeles area. And probably elsewhere, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Get to know this dear exploitation couple in Wiktor Ericsson's A LIFE IN DIRTY MOVIES

TrustMovies has long known (and somewhat appreciated) the oeuvre of sexploitation filmmakers Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, but the name and work of one, Joe Sarno, had somehow escaped him. No more. Thanks to one of my favorite distributors, Film Movement, together with its new genre division, RAM Releasing, and a young Swedish filmmaker, Wiktor Ericsson, a new documentary about Mr. Sarno -- his life, wife and work -- is about to open here in New York City. And it is one pip of a movie.

What Mr. Ericsson, shown at right, has given us is a  lovely portrait of a man and his time and especially his obsession with filmmaking and sexuality from -- of all things -- the woman's point of view. If you haven't seen many sexploitations films, trust me: This is very unusual. As attuned to women and their needs as was Sarno in his films, Ericsson proves equally so where Sarno's wife. Peggy, is concerned. This woman, a young actress when she met the filmmaker (who was 17 years her senior), worked with him, married him (against the wishes of her family) and then devoted her life to her husband and his movies.

Peggy (above, left, dancing with Joe) is a pip, too -- beautiful in her youth and almost equally so now. She seems to have been the glue that held it all together, and Ericsson makes full use of her. The movie finds the couple working on what is to be Joe's comeback -- his first film in decades -- which he is writing on an old word processor, and which Peggy proofreads and gives suggestions for. The two (mostly she) talk about their life together and past endeavors, and the reminiscing is filled with archival footage (below, with the younger Sarno shown center, left), much of it from Joe's films.

Sarno greatly admired the work of Ingmar Bergman and when he was asked to come to Sweden to make a movie, the couple leaped at the oppor-tunity. They loved that country and have spent time there every year since. (That's they below, in Sweden, back in the day.) It soon becomes clear that Peggy is currently more necessary to Joe's well-being than ever before: emotionally, physically, even artistically. (We watch as she proofs and then explains to him why he'll have to change a scene in which a girl makes a phone call from a telephone booth into one in which she uses a cell phone.)

Ericsson has chosen to only slowly reveal points from the couple's personal life. Do they have children? Eventually we learn the answer to this and other questions, while meeting Peggy's aged mother in the process. The filmmaker seems to have become a kind of protecting presence in his subjects' lives; he certainly make us viewers feel protective of this endearing pair.

We get some surprises--both lovely and sad--in the film's final 20 minutes, as we learn of the couple's financial struggles ("Don't ask!") and the story of Joe's teen years. The movie is also full of interesting talk and opinions via everyone from film historians to Sarno aficionado John Waters.

Finally, we grow to, yes, love the Sarnos, I think, and certainly appreciate them. Yet, Ericsson never pushes. Simply by his choice of what to show and tell, he allows us to come to care for this couple on our own. The film lasts only 80 minutes; in that time you'll laugh, learn and, I suspect, be very moved. Best of all, as with the recent doc Art and Craft, you'll come to care for people whom you would very probably never have expected to.

Another thing that A Life in Dirty Movies should do is gear you up to watch one or more of Joe's films. Fortunately, along with the debut of the documentary -- this Friday, September 19, here in New York City at Anthology Film Archives where it will see a one-week run -- a selection of Sarno's movies will also be shown, screening for eight days through September 26.

Click here to see the entire program listed, here for directions to AFA, and here to buy tickets.. 

‘Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World--the Tickells' PUMP Imagines a Petrol-Free Future

Note: This special guest review is written for TrustMovies 
by Beth Kelly, an environmentally-conscious, Chicago-based 
freelance writer and blogger who contacted me to ask if 
she might write about this film, assuring me that she had no 
personal nor business connection with the film itself nor with 
its creators. Her review seems, to my mind, on the mark 
and now has me most interested in viewing this documentary.

Kicking our foreign oil habit has been a topic of conversation since at least the early 1970’s, when U.S. drivers encountered the effects of two separate oil crises when they went to fill up at the pump. In 1973, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped shipping oil to the United States and other countries backing Israel in the Yom Kippur War - shocking a generation of Americans that believed oil resources would continue to be plentiful and cheap forever. The 1973 oil shock (below), combined with growing environmental concerns, resource scarcity and rising overseas tensions, elicited a serious questioning of our relationship with oil.

While these concerns linger, the world energy market today is not what it was 40 years ago. Since the crisis in the 1970’s, every national policy we’ve tried as a way to end our oil addiction has failed. In July 2008, when oil prices hit $147 a barrel, reverberations of our dependency on carbon-based resources echoed throughout the global economy. The oil- addicted American household, as it was imagined and invented in the 20th century, was orchestrating its own decline through an unwillingness to re-examine its foundational, oil- stemming weaknesses.

But as many Americans continue to struggle to pay for the gasoline that will transport them to school, work, or elsewhere, others have begun to look for a way to live a life free from fossil fuels. Joshua Tickell, and his wife, Rebecca Harrell Tickell, are such a pair. Fuel, the husband-and-wife team’s first documentary together, was lauded by critics and instrumental in raising awareness of the viability of biofuel alternatives. But the petroleum industry also had something to say about it, launching an impressive smear campaign against the nascent biofuel industry by attesting that ethanol and other non-oil alternatives contain less energy than is required to produce them. The Tickell’s most recent film, PUMP, provides illuminating information against the pervasive Big Oil doublespeak.

Suggesting that we never needed to be addicted to oil in the first place, the film traces the convoluted history behind the crippling of the electric mass transit system, the 70’s gas shock, and the dominant role oil played and continues to play in our foreign policy strategy. Featuring candid testimony from former Shell president John Hofmeister (at right), Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk (two photos below), Internal Combustion author Edwin Black, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (just below), the Brazilian president responsible for shifting the country to biofuels, the film offers plenty of informed perspectives on the issue.

By making another film that shows replacement fuels in a positive light, Tickell endeavors to propel the biofuel resurgence. Prices at the pump have built a demand for natural gas vehicles, since larger domestic sources of that fuel source mean their availability is not as susceptible to tensions in the Middle East, Russia, or Asia. Natural gas prices and availability have fluctuated little over the past three years, while diesel and gasoline costs are comparatively volatile. PUMP advocates for two “monopoly busting fuels,” methanol and ethanol, and flex-fuel vehicles that will run on a combination of gasoline or any blend of up to 85% ethanol.

Without indicting the automobile itself, PUMP paints a picture of political leaders that are too spineless to stand up to special interests and an oil-reliant citizenry. It should be obvious that there isn’t enough oil on the planet to satisfy our immense thirst for fossil fuel forever, but to acknowledge this is only a fraction of the battle. In order to make the transition from an oil economy to an alternative plan, as a nation we will have to acknowledge some hard truths about our lifestyle, and may have to undertake some potentially uncomfortable changes to make the ultimate shift away from fossil fuels.

Peter Lehner, the Executive Director of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), calls PUMP “a must see movie that jump-starts an impor-tant conversation about the crippling costs of our oil addiction,” and there’s no doubt that the issues it explores will make you think hard about the scope of this problem for our times and for future generations - while also suggesting some possible solutions. A documentary that champions the American spirit of innovation, PUMP promises that the same inimitable embrace of progress that got us into this mess will drive us to find a better solution.

Pump, running 88 minutes, opens in theaters this Friday, September 19. Here in New York City, you can see it at AMC's Empire 25 and the Cinema Village; in Los Angeles, look for it at Laemmle's Royal. To see where the film is playing near you, click here and then follow the instructions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A fantasy documentary? Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau's KUNG FU ELLIOT qualifies

Some documentaries seem utterly fueled by the necessity to be born, to take shape, to... appear! Some of the best docs that TrustMovies has seen this year -- Code Black and The Internet's Own Boy, as well as the about-to-open 20,000 Days on Earth and Art and Craft certainly qualify for that description. They -- and their subjects -- are either so strange, important, vital or necessary that it would seem they simply must see the light of day. And so they have. On the other hand comes along a "maybe" documentary such as KUNG-FU ELLIOT, with a subject (that guy of the title) so unbelievable, if kind of creepy and phony that, you wonder, after a time, if you are not seeing another faux/mock piece of work like Exit Through the Gift Shop -- but without even half the smarts and appeal that Banksy brought to that little film.

As directed and "written" by a couple of Canadians -- Matthew Bauckman (at right) and Jaret Belliveau (below) -- who've worked on a number of other films, Kung Fu Elliot is one of those how-dumb-can-people-come? documentaries that beggars belief almost from the first scene, as we meet a fellow named Elliot "White Lightning" Scott who is supposedly a champion Canadian martial artist. While his martial arts moves couldn't fool even my grandkids into believing he's anything like "the real thing," our two documentarians appear to believe the guy or

at least take his word on faith. After a short while, the viewer can't help but wonder why. Is this a case of making fun of one's subject for the entertainment of the arthouse/doc film masses (not all that numerous in any case)? Or are our two Canuck moviemakers actually dumb enough that they believe Elliot? (I am told my the movie's publicist that they are definitely not.) Either way, an intelligent viewer is going to be given almost immediate pause. Yes, Elliot is kind of fun in his fairly stupid, can-anyone-be-this-dumb? manner, but we've already seen this semi-cynical stuff a number of times previously, and it doesn't take long before our laughter rings a little hollow.

Sure, Elliot, above, has a kind of reverse charisma with his so-so body, semi-attractive face and minimal understanding of martial arts. But the deeper we and the moviemakers get into the guy's "plan" -- to make a DIY martial arts thriller called Blood Fight that will set him on a course to become Canada's first movie action hero -- the less possible it all seems. While one can draw some cheap humor from this by laughing at folk not smart enough to realize their weakness, one can also begin to feel "used."

Meeting his girlfriend Linda (above), a lady who has a sour puss for the entire length of the movie (it only grows more sour, for good reason, as the months pass), and his seemingly duped co-actors, one of whom is shown below, only adds to the questionable "fun."

When, at last, the movie turns darker, wise heads will be murmuring, "Finally!", as we move into the home stretch. Once the film has arrived at its conclusion, with the expected update on what happened to the various folk we've just seen, a number of ideas will be jostling for space and importance inside your head, self-delusion chief among these.

Except there may be no self-delusion here at all. Elliot has known all along of what he's is and is not capable. Note the scene when we see him clad in just a pair of tight underwear, as he adjusts his cock and preens a bit. Later he notes that he's got the equipment to do porn films but maybe just not the interest.

There may indeed be some surprises here, but not, I think, for the seasoned film-goer. What has remained on the filmmakers' cutting-room floor may be even more interesting that what we have already seen, and it is difficult to believe that Messieurs Bauckman and Belliveau were not unaware of what kind of fellow they had in tow from pretty early on in the game. While it is eventually clear that we cannot trust our Elliot, I unfortunately have some doubt about trusting these filmmakers, too.

Kung Fu Elliot, a kind of fantasy documentary that runs 88 minutes, has been playing the festival circuit for the past year or so, and will soon play at the soon-to-begin Fantastic Fest, so take note, those of you in the Austin, Texas, area. Next comes the Raindance fest in London. To see where else this film will play (or has played), simply click here and scroll down.

Monday, September 15, 2014

An anti-hero of the art world drives Cullman, Grausman & Becker's brilliant ART AND CRAFT

Another first-class documentary arrives in theaters this week: ART AND CRAFT, the tale of a most unusual art forger that our current art world, I suspect, would rather keep under wraps. The product of a directorial trio -- Sam Cullman (below, right, and co-director of the Oscar-nominated If a Tree Falls), Jennifer Grausman (below, left) and Mark Becker (who, along with Ms Grausman, co-directed Pressure Cooker), the movie introduces us to a Virginia-born fellow named Mark Landis, a quietly self-effacing man nearing sixty years of age with a voice somewhat like that of the late Truman Capote and a skill for drawing and painting in multiple styles that is simply uncanny.

Mr. Landis pretty much tells us his own tale, with some prodding from a journalist or two hoping to get a good story out of all this. (They do, as do the moviemakers.) Such a quiet, non-threatening man is Landis, with his slight frame, large ears, bald head and near-apologetic attitude that he finally becomes one of the more endearing, if sad, narrators in the history of documentaries.

With some difficult family history, and problems both mental (he is said to be schizophrenic) and physical, the movie offers some extra suspense in regard to whether or not this odd little man will make it to the next frame of the film. Landis may be an art forger, but he is not, we are told, a criminal because he has never profited from any of his forgeries. He creates them and then "donates" them to various museum around the country -- who have proven only too willing to accept this "largess."

Landis, it turns out, is as adept at forging Watteau as he is Walt Disney, Daumier and Picasso, and he also excels at disguise of sorts (dressing up as a man-of-god, he claims to have learned how to do all this from the British TV series Father Brown) and at creating the special "provenance" that attends each piece of art that he donates.

Forger or not, you're unlikely to find a "dearer," more soothing fellow on screen these days, and the movie-makers have surrounded him with some other very interesting characters, too. There are those journalists, a few of the museum folk he's fooled, and especially the man -- Matt Leininger (above, left), the former registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art-- who first "cottoned on" to Landis' scams back in 2008 and has become, over the ensuing years, a tad obsessive about tracking him down and making sure that he can't continue on this forgery route.

We get to know Leininger, not as well as we do Landis, but well enough to identify with and enjoy him. The filmmakers, in their unobtrusive way, have managed to capture both men quite beautifully, particularly Mr. Landis -- who will almost immediately become, in the words of that old Readers' Digest phrase, one of the most unforgettable characters you have ever met.

We get enough of Landis' family history, in addition to seeing him with doctors and social workers, to realize that he is "off the grid" in certain aspects. This serves to keep us viewers just a little off balance, as we try to piece together how far off our artist/forger actually is. Is he schizoid, bi-polar, and just "different"? And what of the all those duped curators and registrars in the museums whom our guy fooled. Is "due diligence" not worth bothering about any longer?

By the time an actual art show of Landis' work is being organized for an opening at an Ohio museum, the ironies are flying so thick and fast that you'll have to take a breath. "Do you plan on continuing to 'gift'?"the artist is asked during the opening of the show. He pauses to consider, and then: "I'll have to think about it," he answers.

Art and Craft , from Oscilloscope, is surely one of the most graceful and sweet, endearing and enduring documentaries about an outsider and his world that we have yet seen. It opens in New York theaters -- at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas -- this Friday, September 19, and will hit Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt on Friday, September 26. In the weeks and months to come, it will play another 20-odd cities and theaters. For all currently scheduled playdates, click here and scroll down.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Streaming a missed movie by Joe Swanberg: Jane Adams in ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY

He is prolific, that Joe Swanberg. Since the film under consideration here first appeared (2012), he has made three more full-lengthers, one short film and an episode for a series. All told, since his debut film just over a decade ago, he has directed (and often written) 16 full-length films, seven shorts, a couple of TV series episodes and a segment of the horror omnibus V/H/S. Some of these are even good films -- especially the last two: Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. Which now makes watching his slightly older work a bit of a strain/disappointment.

ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY, streamable now on Netflix, does have a couple of nice perks: the actors Jane Adams and Larry Fessenden. Ms Adams has long delighted us older NYC theatergoers, as well as adding immeasurably to certain not-so-hot movies (Little Children, for one). Mr. Fessenden, for his part, has long been a enjoyable actor in various genre films (I Sell the Dead), as well as a good writer/director (The Last Winter and his earlier work, Habit).

Both actors (shown above, with Larry on the left) acquit themselves well in this little trifle, but unfortunately the "script" often leaves them hanging out to dry. Swanberg (shown two photos up) is working once again in his most "mumblecorish" mode, with so little at stake or at risk that his actors are mostly stranded, having to create their "moments" practically out of whole cloth.

Adams (above, and below, right) plays a aging actress named, Marie, who is having trouble finding work. When her young niece (Sophia Takal, below, left) comes for a visit to her aunt's Malibu pad, also wanting to be an actress, the age thing bubbles up. That's about it. And it is all handled with about as much creativity and pizazz as my description above manages.

Fessenden plays Marie's Malibu neighbor who enjoys surfing with her. He may or may not be attracted to her. And that's about that, too. Marie meets a new fellow who might make a possible partner; her niece has some friends over and gets high. Conversations and a little sex ensue.

If you've sat through many of Swanberg's oeuvre, you'll know what you're in for, and there are a few good scenes here. But mostly it's same-old same old. His latest work shows infinitely more strength and power (not to mention humor and fun) -- in the scripts, situations and performances. So we'll hope that this continues apace.

Meanwhile, for fans of Adams and/or Fessenden, the movie is streamable here and probably elsewhere, too.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

All about artist Nick Cave in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's film -- 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH

There are, I believe, an enormous number of "staged" scenes (waking up in the morning, a psychotherapy session, visits with friends) in 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH, the new film -- I am not certain you could call this anything like a full-out documentary, and yet it does manage to let us see and understand its main subject, the singer/songwriter/screenwriter/artist Nick Cave, about as thoroughly as any 97-minute movie could -- by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (shown below, left and right).

What Forsyth and Pollard have accomplished, however, is something grand and encompassing. Via their idea of bringing together Cave's history, his career, his "notebooks," his music, even some of his performing, the twosome, together with their subject, have created a film in which ideas bounce off each other and grow into something approaching an entire and very rich view of a special personality and talent.

Mr. Cave, above (engrossed) and below (performing), is indeed an original and someone who is multi-talented. He is also, it seems, a man who wants to understand where that talent comes from and how it connects to what he values most in life. To that end he pursues this via friends (that's his long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, at left, three photos below), family, shrink, and of course his work. The filmmakers tag along, having made their own suggestions, and then shoot and edit, wrapping their whole study into a fascinating, unconventional semi-documentary/biopic.

From his Australian roots to Brighton, that rainy, weather-beaten British beach town; from memories of his dad and his first experience with a girl to the various musical groups he's played with; in archival material (below), present-day shots, memories, diaries, and his music and the performing of it, Cave appears as a surprisingly full-bodied character. (At times he reminded me in his own way of the performance artist Marina Abramovic: Maybe it's their dark clothing and severity of appearance, coupled to their intelligence and non-mainstream art...?)

What comes through most strongly here is Cave's sheer intelligence -- along with his ability to feel strongly and put these feelings/ideas together.  And yet, is 20,000 Days on Earth simply a new kind of hagiography? Clearly the filmmakers love their subject and he them (considering the enormous access Cave gave them into his life and art), and the result is a kind of magical film in which we watch, learn and enjoy the experience quite fully.

And everything we see and hear is positive; there's hardly a negative moment in the whole shebang. Perhaps Mr. Cave is a remarkably thoughtful, even-handed and even-tempered fellow. If not, well, we've missed that part of the equation. What we get, however, is so well-conceived, -executed, -filmed and -edited (this is one gorgeous movie) that it's a constant pleasure to view, hear and think about in retrospect. So, yes, it's difficult to complain about something this involving and enjoyable.

20,000 Days on Earth is something new in the documentary/biopic field. You won't easily be able to compare it to any other film. If you know Cave's work (I'm a big fan of his raspy, craggy voice and his songs, less so of his screenwriting), you'll want to see it. But even if you're a newcomer to Nick, I suspect the movie will grab and hold you. (That's Kylie Minogue in the back seat, above.)

In their unique blending of history, personality, music, cinematography, ideas, performance and more, Forsyth and Pollard have come up with something original and accomplished. Their movie -- from Drafhouse Films -- opens this Wednesday here in New York City at Film Forum. In the weeks to follow, it will open in cities all across the country. To see where and when, simply click here and scroll down.