Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

Cold Nights, Hot Salsa


Latin passion.

Latin passion.

(2015) Documentary (WDR Productions) Victor Contreras, Katia Morales, Eddie “Mambo King” Torres, Tito Ortos, Tamara Livolsi, Edson Vallon, Albert Torres, Billy Fajardo, Katie Marlow. Directed by Edwin Gailits

Some years ago as a rock critic, I did a cover story for the newspaper I worked for on the salsa scene locally. It was concentrated mostly in the Latin Quarter of the town but I wanted to show more than just what preconceptions of the scene might bring; I chose as the person through whose eyes my readers would enter the scene through was an affluent tech company administrator; he was third generation American, had graduated from Stanford and loved to go to the clubs on weekends and dance to the beat of the irresistible music that was played in his home the entire time he grew up. He was young, forward-thinking and often brought his non-Hispanic friends with them. Some went once and never returned but quite a few, he told me, came back almost every time he went dancing and some even on their own.

This film gives us a glimpse at why that happened to a very large extent. Salsa is a form of dance that is sensuous and requires virtually no instruction to become proficient in it. Salsa isn’t about formal moves so much as it is about passion; you either have it in you or you don’t and quite frankly, most of us do. I’ve heard it described as sex without getting naked, and that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve encountered.

An entire competitive salsa dancing scene has sprung up over the past decade or so with a world championship event being broadcast on ESPN. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two Canadians living in Montreal who met in a dance company and found a mutual love for salsa that brought them into a romantic relationship. The two became dance partners as well as boyfriend and girlfriend, and tried to hone their craft in a city which isn’t known for its Latin population, although there is a fair portion of Hispanics there.

With the help of teachers like Albert Torres and supporters like fellow dancers Billy Fajardo and Katie Marlow, who are semi-retired from competition and have become head judges for the World Salsa Championships, they hone their craft and eventually win the Canadian championship, earning them the right to compete at the World Championships.

The film follows the couple through their first international competition and through bitter disappointment at the 3rd Annual World Championship. Their relationship undergoes severe stress as they return home to lick their wounds and start over, ever-striving to improve until they are ready to tackle the 4th Annual World Championships in Orlando.

We see an awful lot of rehearsal, but the scenes from the competitions are the most compelling; we see the fluid movements, the almost erotic body positioning, the colorful costumes and the incredible interaction between partners; the rehearsal footage serves to put the finished routines in context as we get a sense of the work that goes in to perfecting these routines.

The trouble is that towards the end we see couple after couple at the championships and it all begins to blend together a little bit. There are a number of different divisions within the Championships and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the differences were between them; some seemed to be more athletic and others more romantic. I would have liked a bit more explanation as to what these different divisions were and how the dancers were judged.

Like a lot of documentaries that take place in competitive environments, the dramatic tension comes from getting to know the participants and gaining a rooting interest in their success. Contreras and Morales are both engaging young people who clearly love to dance and just as clearly love each other, although at times the road is a bit rocky, romantically speaking. While Victor is a bit more outgoing, I found myself more focused on Katia not just because of her beauty but because she has a kind of genuineness that Victor occasionally doesn’t; at times he sounds like he’s reading a promo script rather than speaking from the heart, but that isn’t a bad thing. He’s more articulate in a lot of ways than his partner when he is speaking genuinely.

This is a short documentary, just under an hour long. It is just entering the festival circuit so expect to see it at your local film festival this fall and spring. Likely it will also find it’s way onto either TV broadcast or online streaming service or both; keep an eye out for it when it does.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the dance moves are incredible. Victor and Katia are engaging subjects.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the different dance routines begin to blend together. Could have used an explanation of the different divisions of competition and how the competitions work.
FAMILY VALUES: Some dance-based sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker was inspired to pursue this as a documentary subject after a trip to Havana when he noticed during a walk back to his hotel after a night in the clubs how music was coming out of nearly every open doorway and he observed people dancing on their balconies and in their living rooms.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Turbo Kid

I Am Thor


It's good to be Thor.

It’s good to be Thor.

(2015) Music Documentary (Blue Lame 61) Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Rusty Hamilton, Jack Cionne, Katherine Elo, Stuart Morales, Thundergeek, D. Stevens, Steve Zazzi, Frank Soda, Nik Turner, Jack Holmstrom, Ed Prescott, Bruce Duff, Mark Weiss, Al Higbee, Mike Muzziani, Don Hill, Frank Meyer, Ben Perman, Ani Kyd, Linda Dawe. Directed by Ryan Wise

Florida Film Festival 2015

Some of our rock gods live in palaces, Taj Mahal-like and florid. They are truly Gods among men, regal and unlike us mortals in every way. We aspire to their greatness for they are great indeed, touching millions of lives in different ways. Then again, some of our rock gods live in trailer parks. They scrape and struggle to get by, trying to bring their music to the masses and somehow, failing. It isn’t always because their music isn’t up to snuff; sometimes it’s bad decisions or just plain bad luck.

Jon Mikl Thor is one such rock god. In the 1970s, he took up bodybuilding and as a baby-faced blonde youth, he showed some promise. What he really wanted to do was entertain however, and so he went to Las Vegas where he starred as a nude waiter in a Vegas revue – until someone with a bigger package took his spot.

So Jon picked himself up, dusted himself off, went back home to his native Canada and put together a band. I mean, doesn’t everybody? The strange thing was, this band had talent. They had potential. They had a contract with RCA in Canada. The band called itself Thor, after Jon’s onstage persona. And on the eve of their debut album release, a dispute erupted between the record label and the band’s management company. And in the middle of all this, Jon disappeared. Indeed, he was kidnapped – or at least he says he was and while perhaps you might be skeptical as you see him discussing this early on in the documentary, as the film wears on you come to believe that Jon Mikl Thor is a lot of things but he isn’t a liar.

This incident alone could have sustained a documentary but Wise, who followed the band for 15 years, instead focuses on the band’s attempts to break out into mainstream prominence. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a man on a mission who at every turn sees his mission prevented. And the hell of it is, Thor is actually a pretty damn good band. They actually deserve to have some fame, and yet it eludes them. That doesn’t mean that Jon and his bandmates have given up on the dream, or more importantly on themselves.

Now on the over side of 60, Jon continues to chase the rainbow of success. He keeps up a cheerful and optimistic attitude, perhaps to the point where he might be considered delusional. I have to admit that at first, I thought he had a problem distinguishing reality with desire, but the more I got into the movie, I began to realize that he still believes in the dream and knows full well the uphill battle he’s fighting. He also understands the inherent ridiculousness of a man putting on fake armor and battling fake monsters onstage.

Indeed, Thor is an engaging and charismatic guy. Not only does he have plenty of onstage presence, enough to grab the attention of a gigantic rock festival crowd, he also is humble and likable offstage (which is his Canadian heritage showing, eh?) which helps make this a fascinating view. I had no problem spending an hour and a half with Jon Mikl Thor and wouldn’t have minded hanging out with him for a much longer time.

Thor’s live show is, even by metal standards, something to behold. Many of Thor’s bodybuilding feats are displayed, from blowing up a hot water bottle through his own lung power until it explodes, to bending steel bars to having concrete blocks broken on his chest. Thor is an impressive entertainer and he is canny enough to surround himself with some superb musicians, particularly Price and Favata.

I have to admit that while I like heavy metal and listen to it from time to time, I’m not much of a fan and while I was semi-aware of who Thor is, I didn’t really expect much from this documentary. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that this is not only entertaining but poignant. You end up rooting for a man who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who’s had more than his share of bad  breaks. Against all odds, I became a fan which is a difficult achievement for any band these days given how many bands I’ve heard in my misspent days as a rock critic and since as a listener. So, rock on God of Thunder. Long live Thor!

REASONS TO GO: Thor is an engaging and charismatic personality. A look behind the trailer park of rock and roll.
REASONS TO STAY: Heavy metal isn’t for everyone.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During his bodybuilding days, Thor once finished as runner-up in a bodybuilding contest to Lou Ferrigno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul Williams: Still Alive
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cartel Land

Holy Motors


Roses are red...and delicious!

Roses are red…and delicious!

(2012) Art House (Indomina) Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Geoffrey Carey, Elise Lhommeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli,  Leos Carax, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Reda Oumouzoune, Zlata, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Elise Caron. Directed by Leos Carax

Making sense can be overrated. Our world is a series of contradictions made by hypocrites and swallowed whole by most of us who merely want to live our lives without too much interference. Sometimes it feels like an eccentric French movie that we’re all taking part in.

Leos Carax can feel your pain, ladies and gentlemen. He knows exactly how you feel. Fortunately, as a director of eccentric French movies, he can do something about it.

We meet Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) on a movie screen (don’t ignore the preamble in which a sleeping man finds himself hearing sounds of a harbor while planes land at the airport outside his window, then proceeds to use a key growing out of his finger to open a door which leads into a movie theater – that’s director Carax himself, setting you up for the rest of the film) in which he appears to be

Monsieur Oscar climbs into the back of a limousine, driven by the taciturn Celine (Scob) into Paris to drive him from place to place for a series of appointments. He is given a file as he approaches each one. When he arrives at each destination and exits the limousine, he is not the same as he entered the limousine.

In one location he’s an old crone begging for change, mumbling about how sad her lot in life is. The next he’s a virtual reality ninja warrior whose shortcomings lead him into a reptilian sex session with…well, a kind of snake-like alien dragon thingy. Then he’s a nearly-mute chain-smoking sewer-dwelling troglodyte who kidnaps a supermodel (Mendes) from a famous Paris cemetery (where the headstones read “see my website”) and takes her to his subterranean lair where he changes her dress into a Muslim outfit after which he strips naked and lays with his head in her lap (and with a raging erection) while she sings him to sleep with a lullaby.

He’s a disapproving father with an unpopular teenage daughter who lies about her misery. Which gives him a full opportunity to show what assholes fathers can be. Then he meets an old lover (Minogue) for possibly the last time, in a bittersweet melancholy musical number – you read that right, a musical number. Not so much with dancing and production effects but more a solo act with a certain wistfulness. It’s actually quite moving.

He’s an assassin killing someone who looks suspiciously like himself. He’s an old man on his deathbed consoling his beloved niece and saying goodbye. And finally, he’s a family man with a highly unusual family.

We get the sense that he’s being filmed in all of these appointments – for whom? What for? The inside of his limousine is much bigger than the outside, a kind of low-tech TARDIS with a make-up table and costumes – tall enough to stand up in, although from the outside it wouldn’t appear so.

There are connections to other films here. Scob, who once starred in a horror film called Eyes Without a Face dons the mask she wore in that film near the end of this one. Lavant’s troglodyte character has also made a previous appearance – in the Carax-directed segment of the anthology film Tokyo! complete with the same Godzilla-like musical accompaniment. His appearance is far more brief here (and thankfully, no courtroom scene afterwards) but like all of the scenes is oddly touching in one way or another.

Da Queen had a hard time with this movie. She’s not really into movies that don’t have some kind of sense. To her and to others who find this a hard movie to get behind, the thing to remember here is that this is a film meant to be experienced rather than watched passively. You are meant to let the images and dialogue wash over you and let it take you wherever your mind wanders to.

I admit that I have to be in the right frame of mind for a film like this and I wasn’t completely there when I saw it at the Enzian. Not all the segments connected with me (the crone sequence for example was too brief and nothing really happened; the father/daughter sequence just rang false to me) but those that did connected deeply, either through the fascinating images or the places they took my mind/heart/both to.

Lavant gives a magnificent performance, his pliable face changing with each segment. Each mood that is engineered here is different from the one that preceded it, sometimes subtly. Overall there’s a kind of bittersweet vibe that is like a moment of nostalgia for a moment that has been lived once and will never be lived in again. There is enough whimsy to bring a smile to the face but not enough to get us to French surreality – this is no Cirque du Soleil.

This isn’t a movie that spoonfeeds things to its audience; you have to work for it and use your noggin and your heart. That might not be why you go to the movies – you might be looking to turn your mind and heart off for an hour or two and that’s okay. Holy Motors is a movie for people who like puzzles, who like a good challenge. It’s abstract art and what you bring into the theater is largely going to determine how you view Holy Motors. It’s not for everybody – but it might be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always intriguing. Lavant gives a performance that is multi-faceted.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be disjointed and jarring. Doesn’t always make sense.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, sexuality and brief graphic nudity, some violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The supermodel part was written with Kate Moss in mind and offered to her; she seriously considered it but her impending wedding was more of a priority (imagine that) so she passed. The part went to Eva Mendes instead but the character is still called Kay M in honor of who it was written for.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. No doubt about it, the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters