Fantastic Fungi


Paul Stamets makes some new friends.

(2019) Documentary (Diamond DocsPaul Stamets, Brie Larson (narrator), Michael Pollan, John Stamets, Charles Grob, Art Goodtimes, Lori Carris, Jay Harman, Andrew Weil, Peter McCoy, Steve Sheppard, Suzanne Simard, Patricia Stamets, Eugenia Bone, Roland Griffiths, Tradd Cotter, Tony D. Head, Brandon Hopkins, Judith Goedeke, Mary P. Cosimano. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg

 

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the fungus among us; if anything, when we see molds and mushrooms growing, we react with revulsion (for the most part). These things accompany decay and death, and remind us of our own mortality. One day, we too shall rot.

But the various types of fungi are part of a vast world we know little about. This documentary, directed by Schwartzberg who happens to be one of the best at utilizing time-lapse photography in the business, aims to educate us about these things which are somewhere between animal and vegetable

Paul Stamets is our main guide and he has the enthusiasm of an obsessive hobbyist. Self-taught about the marvels of mycology (the study of mushrooms and their ilk), he has become one of the foremost experts on the subject, holding half a dozen related patents and recently giving a TED talk on “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” And no, that isn’t a facetious title.

We find out about mycelium, a thread-like growth that connects trees to one another, allowing them to share nutrients and even identify other trees grown from their own acorns. Mycelium have a similar architecture to the Internet as well as our own neural net; vast networks of them exist in the old growth forests. The largest and oldest living thing in the world is a patch of mycelium living on an Oregon mountaintop.

However, fungi have a usefulness that have real world applications. Penicillin is derived from a mold that is related to mushrooms and has saved thousands upon thousands of lives since its discovery; a variation of that mold is responsible for Gorgonzola cheese. There are studies that show that a variety of mushrooms may allow neural connections that have been destroyed to grow back again, which may end up being a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Mycelium and other molds and fungi also take carbon out of the air and store it underground, which helps with the climate change fight.

There are also, of course, the magic mushrooms, those that alter consciousness. While Stamets expounds on the so-called “Stoned Ape” theory in which homo erectus, consuming psychedelic mushrooms, which in turn makes neural connections that allow us to develop speech and intelligence (a bit of a stretch), there is no doubting the real-world benefits of psilocybin as organic pain reducers for those with terminal diseases. Stamets also credits the use of magic mushrooms with curing his childhood stutter.

Stamets makes for an engaging subject and the visuals are beautiful (and occasionally terrifying). The film is crammed with information, so much so that you’ll probably need repeated viewings to take it all in; fortunately, the film isn’t too long and the visuals make it more palatable. There is some voiceover narration by Oscar winner Larson taking the point of view of the fungi which I found unnecessary, interrupting the flow of information with flights of fancy.

Nonetheless this is one of those documentaries that has a lot to offer and for those who are inquisitive about the world around them, doubly so. I found it to be fascinating both visually and in terms of the information that’s delivered. While those frightened of decay and rot may shy away, there is a bit of comfort in it as Stamets explains; our DNA becomes part of the world, nourishing it and helping heal it. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind for anyone.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative. Some wonderful time-lapse sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Larson’s voice-over narration is unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of death and corruption.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

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Wallflower


Reflection of a mass murderer.

(2017) True Life Drama (Passion RiverDavid Call, Atsuko Okatsuka, Conner Marx, Hannah Horton, Cequoia Johnson, Hassan Cristos Messiah, Molly Tollefson, Hope Shanthi, Jose Abaoag, Stewie Valencia, Sheila Houlihan, Joe Cummings, Kyle Jewell, Rosario Rieger, Nathan Christopher Haase, Geoff Garza, Reza Leal-Smartt, Rachelle Henry. Directed by Jagger Gravning

 

Sometimes, when a mass murder is committed, there’s a reason, an explanation that those left behind can at least understand. Other times, however, the act is senseless and we are left to wonder why the killer did what he did.

The movie is based on the 2006 Capitol Hill Massacre in Seattle. A loner, a disturbed young man identified only as Murderer (Call) in the credits, attends a rave at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. He seems aloof and quiet, but he meets Link (Marx), a happy-go-lucky prankster who invites him to an after-party at a local home owned by aspiring comic book artist Strobe Rainbow (Okatsuka) – the victims are mainly identified by their rave names.

The movie tends to move around in time quite a bit. Therefore, the murders actually occur about 15 minutes in (incongruously set to the strains of the Archies bubblegum pop hit “Sugar Sugar,” one of the most upbeat songs ever) and the rest of the film (except for the final scene) is mainly told in a series of flashbacks as the murderer hovers on the edge of conversations, a figure of judgmental indignation who grows creepier as the night progresses. He’s the kind of guy who sees life as a party that he hasn’t been invited to and as a result despises those who seem happy and part of the community

By all accounts the Seattle rave community was known for its inclusive nature and while recreational drug use was a heavy part of the scene, they also look out for one another and make sure everyone is okay.

Most of the characters other than those of Link and Strobe, are mainly undeveloped. Even the murderer is essentially labeled as an angry white guy which  seems to me to be a gross over-simplification; while I applaud the director’s refusal to give the murderer a name or even a motive (to this day, nobody is sure why he erupted the way he did) it doesn’t serve the movie well to boil him down to an archetype.

Most of the conversations we overhear (through the murderer’s ears) are inane and even downright immature. The main question that bothered me while I was watching was why did this movie have to be made? To illustrate the innocence of the victims? Since they are never named, it makes me wonder if the project was done without the cooperation of the survivors and the families of the victims.

That doesn’t mean that Gravning doesn’t have some moments. There’s one sequence set at the rave where he changes the music on the soundtrack to classical music. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition and is a welcome relief from the occasionally monotonous EDM music that dominates the soundtrack. There’s also a conversation between Strobe and Link near the end of the film that has some depth that is staged in an interesting way with Strobe at the bottom of a staircase leading to the basement and Link, smiling and good-natured, leaning over the railing. Some of the shots show a nimbus of the rising sun around his head, presaging what was about to happen to him (although we saw his fate early on).

Most of the film is dimly lit by necessity but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The performances are solid even if the characters are mostly forgettable, although Marx and Okatsuka were both impressive and Call makes a game effort to make something of a thankless role. I’m still not 100% sure that I understand what the director had in mind, but this is nonetheless a reasonably interesting take on an act of violence that has become, tragically, so common that this particular act has been forgotten outside of Seattle.

REASONS TO SEE: Gravning makes a few interesting choices that really work nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching a party is never as much fun as being at one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of drug use and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wrinkles the Clown

The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hot Tub Time Machine


Hot Tub Time Machine

John Cusack realizes for the first time this isn't a Merchant-Ivory film.

(MGM/United Artists) John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clarke Duke, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan, Chevy Chase, Sebastian Stan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Collette Wolfe, Charlie McDermott, Kellee Stewart. Directed by Steve Pink

Every so often a movie comes along that you have very low expectations for that, when you actually sit down to watch, not only exceeds them but by a large margin. It’s one of the joys of seeing a lot of movies.

Adam (Cusack) is 40-something and miserable. His girlfriend has just left him and not in a nice way. He was one of those bright souls that never really measured up to his potential, and he lives in a nowhere life with no future. His video-game playing nephew Jacob (Duke) lives in his basement, mainly because his sister Kelly (Wolfe) wants nothing to do with the boy, who is an unemployed geek and a virgin to boot.

Nick (Robinson) is also 40-something, working in a pet spa cleaning the anal canals of dogs and inspiring them to exercise on a treadmill. He once had a promising music career but gave it up after marrying Courtney (Stewart), who has him completely emasculated.

Lou (Corddry) is an out-of-control wild man who drinks to excess and is the friend that everyone likes in small…okay, microscopic portions. At 40-something, he’s unmarried, has no girlfriend and no real life. He drives into his garage one night, totally hammered out of his mind. When his favorite Bon Jovi song – “Home Sweet Home” for those keeping score at home – plays on his car stereo, he goes into full-on air concert mode, not realizing that the garage door has closed with the engine running and that every time he stomps his feet the engine revs, spewing further emissions into the closed space.

All three men are close friends who have drifted apart since their glory years in the mid-80s. When Lou is taken to the hospital as a suspected suicide, only Adam and Nick come to the hospital (apparently Lou’s family hates him, which is unsurprising). The doctor urges the two friends to keep an eye on Lou and find a way to cheer him up. The two decide to take him to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort that was the site of some of their best times from their misspent youth. Much to Lou’s disgust, they bring Jacob with them (Lou has an unreasoning and unexplained loathing for Jacob).

When they get there though, it is far from the glittering village of hedonism that they remember. It is run down with many of the store fronts boarded up. The hotel is falling apart and the one-armed bellboy Phillip (Glover) is dripping with attitude.

The carnage continues when they get to their room. The hot tub is non-functional with the only thing in it a decomposing carcass of a raccoon. The only thing worth the trip is the carving that Lou put in one of the nightstand drawers that asserted that Adam was apparently gay and proud.

However, after a fruitless evening of playing quarters and reminiscing, the four are amazed to find the hot tub fully functional. The party really gets started then with the four drinking like fish, including a Russian sports drink that’s apparently illegal here.

They wake up much the worse for wear and decide to go skiing. To their surprise they find that the ski slopes are crowded. To their surprise, many of the skiers are wearing leg warmers and headbands to hold feathered hair. The black guys are wearing Jheri curl. Michael Jackson is still black. It’s 1986 and they’re at the scene of their many crimes.

It seems that they’re all inhabiting their young bodies again – which they can see when they look into the mirror. But after meeting a cryptic hot tub maintenance man (Chase), they begin to realize that they are being constrained by the butterfly effect – the consequences that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing causing a hurricane in Miami. In other words, the smallest action in the past can have devastating consequences in the future. Since Jacob was too young to be there, he is in danger of never having been born.

Of course, that’s nothing like finding out that his mom was also at the ski resort and she was something of a skank in her day. But the guys need to do exactly what they did that day in the past; Adam needs to break up with his girlfriend (and take a fork to the face for his problems), the happily married Nick needs to have sex with a groupie and Lou needs to get beaten up by Blaine (Stan), the arrogant preppy ultra-conservative leader of the ski patrol.

The thing is that by choosing different paths here they could make their lives a whole lot better in the future. However, the repercussions could also be devastating. Will they follow the path they chose once and return home to the lives they know, or will they take a chance and risk everything?

Director Steve Pink co-produced two of Cusack’s finer films, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity. This movie is totally unlike Cusack has ever done before. He plays the straight man here, but the film is infused with a surfeit of toilet and sexual humor. It is as raunchy as they come, raunchier even than last year’s The Hangover. While I don’t believe this is going to pull the kind of numbers that film did, it is at least of a similar quality.

Although Cusack is one of my favorite actors, he isn’t the reason I like this movie – Robinson and Corddry are. Corddry is manic and over-the-top in his performance. While he doesn’t deliver a Zach Galifinakis-like performance, he makes an indelible impression. Veteran actor Robinson is the master of the deadpan look, and he comes up with some of the best lines of the film.

The film reproduces the 80s quite well, from the look to the music although it tends to lead more towards the cliché side. It’s not as bad as, say, The Wedding Singer in dwelling on the excesses of the decade but it does spoof its share.

In some ways this is a parable about middle aged crazy, reclaiming our youth and second chances (in fact, the Jacob character plays the online social game Second Life incessantly which is a nice bit of business). On that level it works surprisingly well. Regret is a powerful thing, but the characters aren’t crippled by it precisely. They are however trapped by their choices to a certain extent which have colored their lives even to the present day. All three of these characters suffer from diminished returns on high expectations. It’s not a condition I’m unfamiliar with.

I found myself laughing throughout the movie, from beginning to end. Too often a lot of modern comedies start off strong and fade in the final reel; not so Hot Tub Time Machine. Yes, the humor is scatological and crude, but if you don’t mind something that’s less highbrow, this is for you. I was quite pleasantly surprised; ignore the less-than-stellar trailer and give it a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny, much more than I expected it to be. Corddry and Robinson turn in some fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too raunchy for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Much raunchiness, nudity and bad language. Mature teens and adults only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “what color is Michael Jackson” line spoken by Craig Robinson is ad libbed.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing really screams big screen here.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made of Honor

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Anna Briem and Brendan Fraser test out the next theme park attraction based on the movie.

(New Line) Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jane Wheeler, Jean Michel Pare, Garth Gilker. Directed by Eric Brevig

The trouble with making a movie from a classic novel – particularly one that has been filmed as many times as this one has – is that it’s easy for the audience to get the feeling that they’ve seen it all before, even if they haven’t.

Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is a volcanologist who gets little respect from his colleagues, particularly from Professor Kitzens (Meyers) who covets his lab space at the university to use for storage. Trevor has spent most of the past ten years trying to prove the theories of his brother Max (Pare) who had disappeared ten years earlier while out in the field.

To make matters worse, Trevor has forgotten that he has agreed to watch over his nephew Sean (Hutcherson) while his sister-in-law (Wheeler) is out of town. Sean and Trevor regard each other warily, with only the long-missing Max in common between them. Sean barely remembers his father; Trevor is a painful reminder of that.

His sister-in-law has also brought some of Max’s effects that she thought Trevor might want to have including a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” There are some strange notations in Max’s handwriting in the margins, as well as a name – Dr. Sigurbjorn Asgeirsson.

Noticing that one of Max’s sensors in Iceland seems to be active, Trevor realizes that Max might have been onto something and here at last was his chance to prove Max’s theories once and for all. Reluctantly taking Sean in tow, he heads over to Iceland and to see Dr. Asgeirsson.

The Asgeirsson Institute of Volcanology turns out to be an unprepossessing shack in the middle of Icelandic nowhere – which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get. The good doctor turns out to be dead, but his daughter Hannah (Briem) isn’t. She reveals that her father, like Max, was a Vernian, a somewhat cultish group of people who believed that the works of Jules Verne weren’t fiction but was in fact documentaries of actual events. She knows the location of Max’s last sensor and can guide them there, which she does. However, a lightning storm chases them into a cave and then a stray lightning strike seals the entrance of the cave with a rock fall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Forced to find another way out, the trio find some old mine tunnels and go looking for an alternate means to the surface. Instead, they plunge through extremely thin rock and fall a long ways down into an entirely strange and different world.

Here they discover strange glowing birds, gigantic fungi and weird lifeforms that have either vanished from the surface world or were never there to begin with. However they discover to their consternation that the temperature is rising and if they don’t find a way out soon, they will all die and lie buried forever in the center of the earth.

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a pale imitation of it. We’ve seen lizards masquerading as dinosaurs and fiberglass sets with twinkling lights. Here, we see a fully realized digital domain with amazing creatures and realistic environments. The movie was filmed using 3D, and there are plenty of 3D effects likely to make you jump off of your couch.

Fraser has the kind of charm that is lovable in a goofy kind of way. He is aw-shucks modest and a little bit clumsy as action heroes go but when the chips are down he can throw a punch. He’s the center of the movie and when he’s on as he is here he can carry a movie effectively.

Briem is a fresh-faced find, filling the romantic interest role with a different flavor than we usually get with American actresses. The only quibble I would have is that there wasn’t as much romantic spark between her and Fraser as I would have liked, although I think that the script was written that way in deference to the family audience it was going for.

The filmmakers (and probably the studio as well) seem to have been aiming for family-friendly action adventure and you get plenty of it here. It isn’t terribly offensive or scary (although there are a couple of scenes that the youngest of children might be frightened of) and therein lies the movie’s big issue. It is a little too whitebread for my tastes. I could have done with a few more scares and a little less of the annoying nephew. Still, if you have kids and you want to see something big and action-packed, this is your ticket.

WHY RENT THIS: Big, broad adventure for the entire family with some nifty 3D effects. Fraser’s goofy charm carries most of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely disposable and bland. There is little or no chemistry between Hannah and Trevor.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly scary dinosaur as well as some hungry carnivorous fish but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During an early scene in the caverns, the explorers come across emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The diamonds the explorers examine are already cut and polished; in the raw they would actually resemble yellowish pebbles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Loaded with ‘em! It comes with both 2D and 3D editions of the movie, and four pairs of 3D glasses for viewing it in all its multi-dimensional glory. There is an interesting feature on the history of “hollow world” theories, as well as the scientists who loved them as well as a couple of interactive games.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Shutter Island