When menu-planning it is important to diversify nutritionally, and an array of new movies offer just such a spread. There’s surf (shark thriller Great White), turf (Nicolas Cage drama Pig), greens (a documentary about trees) and extra-crunchy performance poets (Summertime). All get released this Fri/16, so dig in.
Let’s face it: “Rural recluse will do anything to get back his kidnapped pet pig” sounds exactly like the kind of project in which one would automatically assume star Nicolas Cage to be at his most gonzo. Isn’t that what’s expected from him, especially now that his career has sunk from the A-list to churning out B movies? (There were six in 2019 alone.) It is what he does, whether in any particular role his chosen eccentricities swings towards the inspired, the misjudged, or the just plain irrelevant. The expectation of stunt acting has come to overshadow the times he’s played it “straight,” to the point where one might forget he won an Oscar on just such an occasion (Leaving Las Vegas).
So it certainly comes as a surprise that despite its offbeat premise, Pig is actually one of the more serious movies this star has made in a while, and he gives one of his most restrained, emotionally earnest performances in it. Indeed, Michael Sarnoski’s first feature as writer-director is improbable overall for the amount of poignancy it ekes out of what seems a pretty gimmicky, borderline-silly starting idea. Rob (Cage) is a hairy loner living very much apart in a Oregon wilderness cabin, his sole companion also his business partner: A very personable red-furred, wag-tailed who snuffs out the truffles he sells to make their bare living. One night, however, ruffians break in, battering him and stealing his valuable animal. With nowhere else to turn, Rob insists the slick operator who sells his truffles to Portland gourmands (Alex Wolff as Amir) drive him to the city, so he can track down his kidnapped pal.
There’s a sort of Rain Man dynamic between the two at first that gradually eases, as pushy yuppie Amir reveals his insecurities, and Rob digs up surprising elements of his past in the ever-upscaling urban jungle. Pig winds up being primarily about grief, something both these men need to come to terms with. It’s a graceful film that’s stylish, understated enough to be quite touching within a story arc that might just as easily have been played for black comedy or absurdism. Pig opens this weekend in theaters including SF’s Metreon, the Century 20 in Daly City, Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas, and AMC Bay Street in Emeryville.
Where Pig fully empathizes with the desire to flee society, this festival favorite (it premiered at Sundance last year just before COVID shutdown) runs with arms flung wide in the opposite direction, celebrating the diverse human clutter of city life. Music video veteran Carlos Lopez Estrada, who previously directed the underappreciated Oakland-set seriocomedy Blindspotting, is up to something very different here. In fact, Summertime is more comparable to the joyous Girl Walk: All Day a decade ago, which set dancers to traversing every borough and social niche in NYC.
Here, the place is Los Angeles, and the expressive mode is spoken word: Apart from some light connective storytelling tissue and regular dialogue, the script is mostly comprised of (and the movie primarily centered around) performances by over half a dozen local poets. They rant, they rap, they occasionally sing. In the daisy-chain narrative set over one summer day’s course, they also rollerblade, ride the bus, experience overnight success, and more.
Very woke in its inclusiveness and critiques alike, Summertime is a unique pulse-taking not just of a city, but of a particular cultural flavor of our moment, in which “everyone is broken” but also the self-affirming star of their own identity politicking. I’ll admit that as expressive mediums go, poetry has never been a personal favorite; too, that this movie’s exuberance sometimes struck me as strained and too-cute. But it’s easy to see why a package so energetic and colorful might exhilarate a target audience likely to be mostly half my age and under. It’s like the “city symphony” movies of many decades ago, except this time instead of orchestral accompaniment, there’s beatbox. Good Deed Entertainment is opening it on screens throughout the Bay Area, including the Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, and Rafael Film Center.
The Hidden Life of Trees
Retreating from the madding crowd again is this documentary by Jorg Adolph, which is basically an audiovisual extension of the titular international bestseller by forester, author, and environmental educator-activist Peter Wohlleben. As climate change throws the world’s whole ecosystem into crisis, he’s particularly agitated for improved forest management—even seemingly more conscious logging/replanting methods than clearcutting often fail to trigger the natural long-term replenishment that will ensure our (and most other creatures’) future.
But as we see him traversing the globe, lecturing everyone from grade-school groups to large professional conferences, he also probes the complex natures of trees themselves. For starters, “Natural forests are super-organisms much like ant colonies … trees are social beings (who) share with others of their species,” he says, communicating in a “wood-wide web” that warns against threats (albeit very slowly) and so forth. Sometimes his verbiage can sound a bit too anthropomorphic. But given the escalating ecological stakes, Wohlleben’s pleasant, good-humored communication skills render just about anything he says persuasive.
The polite alarm he’s sounding is made even more palatable by this film’s frequent beauty, whether in time-lapse photography of forest-bed changes or bigger landscape pictures. It will all be very nice to look at on the big screen, an option that in the Bay Area appears to be limited to the Rafael Film Center.
Second perhaps only to mankind as a destructive perpetual consumption machine is the villain of this aquatic thriller. Former marine biologist Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and his Yank spouse Kaz (Katrina Bowden from 30 Rock), a nurse, are trying to make a go of a private-air-excursion business on a remote Australian coastline. Financially crunched, they’re happy to accommodate a short-notice booking from a yuppie couple (Kimie Tsukakoshi, Tim Kano) who want a daytime outing to an even more isolated beach, with cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka) along to provide a luxurious seaside lunch.
Unfortunately, we know, as they do not, that another cute young couple thereabouts has already met a chewy fate from one very large, hungry shark. (The latter should not be here at this time of year … but global warming, y’know.) These protagonists will figure that out soon enough, however, with the unpleasant discovery of a corpse—well, uh, part of one. Not too much later our protagonists find themselves at the mercy of guess-what, stuck on an emergency life raft after their plane has suffered its own premature watery demise. Who will survive? Not everybody, that’s for sure.
Directed by Martin Wilson and written by Michael Boughen, Great White is small potatoes compared to umpteen bigger-budgeted such enterprises from Jaws onward, and even arguably alongside the similarly scaled-down likes of The Shallows five years ago. It’s nothing special, but it’s not bad, either. The filmmakers eke a decent amount of suspense from the ably played characters’ psychological dynamics, as well as the chomping menace. This isn’t big-screen material, really, but as home viewing fare (RLJE Films is releasing to VOD and digital formats), it’ll scratch that seasonal itch for oceanic terror.