J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tribeca ’17: I Am Heath Ledger

To date, Heath Ledger is the only posthumous best supporting actor Oscar winner. That is not exactly the sort of honor an actor aspires to, but there is no getting around it. The actor’s meteoric rise and tragically early demise are chronicled in Adrian Buitenhuis & Derik Murray’s I Am Heath Ledger (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even apart from his youthful twenty-eight years, Ledger’s death was especially sad. He was a proud new parent, whose already red-hot career was poised to go stratospheric with the opening of The Dark Knight, featuring his Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. In compiling I Am Heath Ledger, the latest installment in Spike’s “I Am” series, Buitenhuis & Murray were blessed in the bounteous video footage Ledger compulsively shot of himself and his mates and cursed with the reticence of those closest to him. Do not hold your breath waiting for Michelle Williams to appear.

Presumably, they also made do with whatever ground rules were offered to them. For instance, Naomi Watts only talks about Ledger as someone who always supported fellow Australians who came to Hollywood, never mentioning their relationship. At least, his parents and siblings were willing to reflect on Ledger’s early years.

Frankly, IAHL is rather disappointing when compared to its predecessor, IA Chris Farley, because it is dramatically less forthcoming. While Farley’s friends and family directly address his addiction issues and the role they played in his ultimate death, Ledger’s demons and the circumstances surrounding his death are completely whitewashed from his Spike profile. Anyone watching the film completely cold will be baffled as the how a healthy actor who played a surfer on more than one occasion could suddenly pass away.

On the other hand, it is striking how Ledger built such an accomplished reputation on a comparatively small body of work. Most of the doc’s cinematic focus is reserved for hits like The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale, his breakout in 10 Things I Hate About You, and critically acclaimed awards-winners, like The Dark Knight (the Neocon War-on-Terror allegory) and Brokeback Mountain, with passing mention given to a handful of other releases. Somehow, his Vatican-set horror film The Order gets short-shrift (so maybe we’ll shoehorn in a review sometime for the sake of fairness, at absolutely no extra charge to you the reader).

Ledger was indeed a restlessly creative soul, but Buitenhuis & Murray risk driving the point into the ground. One could also argue by sanitizing Ledger’s life they forego the chance to dramatically illustrate the perils of prescription drug interaction to the actor’s presumably young fans. The resulting documentary is easy to watch, but conspicuously safe. Recommended mainly for the devoted, I Am Heath Ledger screens again tonight (4/27) and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in advance of its special nation-wide one-night-only Fathom Events screening on May 3rd.

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Displacement: Time Travel and Family Issues

Time might be relative, but family is a cold, hard absolute for Cassie Sinclair. She is wracked with guilt for not fulfilling her mother’s dying wish, while bitterly resenting her father’s disappearing act. She might be able to partly rectify her past with the breakthrough time-travel equation she developed, but first she will have to extricate herself from the time loop someone created through their arrogant incompetence in Kenneth Mader’s Displacement (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

It was Sinclair who developed the equation, not her theoretical physicist father or her kindly faculty advisor, Peter Deckard. However, both men now want it, so they can find a negation point for the loop they are stuck in—or so they say. However, Sinclair does not want to end the repeating cycle until she can prevent her boyfriend Brian Chance’s fatal gunshot. Further complicating matters, she is periodically captured and interrogated by a shadowy cabal (yes, another one) that also wants the secret of time-travel for vaguely sketchy military applications.

Displacement is a bit slow out of the blocks, but once it starts looping back on itself, the energy and tension pick up considerably. Mader slyly choreographs the crisscrossing paths of the various Sinclairs from various times and he creates some highly credible sounding physics mumbo-jumbo. Displacement has few special effects of any sort, because it is driven by ideas, which is cool. However, it is still a bit pedestrian looking.

Courtney Hope convincingly portrays Sinclair as both wickedly smart and emotionally damaged. Sarah Douglas (the super-villainess Ursa in Superman II) is almost too good as the Dr. Miles, the mysterious co-conspirator trying to extract the equation from Sinclair. She is so poised and polished, she almost makes viewers switch their allegiance to the quasi-governmental faction. Veteran character actor Bruce Davison also inspires confidence as Prof. Deckard, but Hope’s chemistry with Christopher Backus’s Chance always feels forced and flat.

Displacement still can’t lay a glove on Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but its cerebral concern for molecular physics helps distinguish it from other recent time-travel movies. It is smart and ambitiously complicated in the right way. Recommended without reservation for time-travel fans, Displacement opens tomorrow (4/28) in LA, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

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Shainberg’s Rupture

If Martyrs was torture porn as informed by millennial theology, this would be the equivalent for the secular faith so many place in UFOs and fringe conspiracy theories. When a shadowy cabal abducts and tortures a single mother, they do so for the sake of what they consider the greater good. Isn’t that always the case? However, their latest victim will be surprisingly resourceful in Steven Shainberg’s Rupture (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Renee Morgan is pretty cool for a mom, but her ex is a big jerkweed, so their son is a bit confused. She had planned to go skydiving with friends as an exercise in empowerment, but winds up in a life and death struggle instead. As the victim of a highly-organized kidnapping, Morgan finds herself captive in a grungy, dungeon-like laboratory, where the evil people in lab coats and business suits try to get her to “rupture” through drug treatments and scare tactics, a la the rats in 1984 (its spiders for Morgan).

Just what it means to rupture is sort of a secret, but it is safe to say it would profoundly alter Morgan’s nature and identity. Regardless, she would prefer not to stick around to find out. Her mothering instincts override everything, as we can easily believe. However, we would also expect her drive to reunite with her son to bring out more of a killer instinct as well, but Morgan is strangely well-behaved during her escapes into the ventilation ducts.

In other hands, Rupture could have been far more torture-focused, so Shainberg’s restraint, so to speak, is appreciated. The top shelf cast also helps immensely. Noomi Rapace does some of her best work since the Lisbeth Salander trilogy as the resilient Morgan, making her both resolute and vulnerable. Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishé, Lesley Manville, and Peter Stormare bring more color and variation to her tormentors than you would expect. Even if it is not spectacularly original, the lab-lair is still a creepily effective setting.

The real problem is it simply isn’t much fun to watch a narrative like this unless it evolves into a shameless payback movie. The fundamental premise, incorporating elements of Martyrs, X-Files, and any number of abduction horror movies, is not exactly unprecedented either. In this case, Shainberg makes us go through all that for an awkwardly flat payoff. The tension is considerable and the performances are more than competent, but it is still hard to justify the trip they take us on. Earning deeply mixed emotions, Rupture opens tomorrow (4/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tribeca ’17: Blurred Lines

In his pithy book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe explained how the art world became preoccupied with “concept” at the expense of the object itself during the 1970s. Those were the days. For our current era of Hirst and Koons, price is everything. What exactly that means for art as something meaningful and enduring is definitely a question that is asked in director Barry Avrich & art insider-producer Jonas Prince’s Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is hard to imagine a Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassing a collection of pivotal contemporary artists before they became famous in the current collecting climate. Instead, the representative collector in Blurred Lines is Michael Ovitz, as in the founder of the CAA agency. It seems you must be not merely rich but considerably wealthy to collect any artist getting serious press consideration, because of the practices of galleries and auction houses.

Although Blurred Lines is not an expose per se, the auction houses in particular will have some PR work to do, thanks to the film’s explanation of “chandelier bidding.” Essentially, it is the questionable but apparently relatively commonplace practice of auctioneers taking ghost bids to elevate the going auction price closer to the reserve—and presumably to fool online and phone bidders.

Along the way, Blurred Lines gives us a jaded dealer’s perspective on the burgeoning business of art fares and the continuing importance of museums, even though they can rarely afford to acquire pieces from these speculation-driven star artists. Perhaps most troubling is the notion that many artists are producing work to meet their dealers’ demands rather than to fulfill an artistic vision.

Avrich’s approach is maybe too slick and breezy for its own good, but there is a lot of fascinating details in there. Sometimes, the film’s soundbites are even more significant because of who they are coming from than because of what is said. Seriously, can you get any more real-deal than Glenn Lowry of MoMA? However, Larry Gagosian, the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of gallerists is conspicuously absent, as per everyone’s expectations.

Several commentators in Blurred suggest galleries and dealers engage in business practices that would trigger anti-trust prosecutions in any other industry. However, since it is ostensibly only obscenely rich collectors who get taken for a ride, nobody seems to care. Yet, Avrich and Prince clearly suggest the artificial manipulations of the art market are not healthy for promising artists’ long-term development.

Indeed, when watching Blurred, one wonders whether Hirst and Koons will be remembered in three hundred years for their body work or just for the commercial phenomenon they represent. Recommended for viewers who take art and culture seriously, Blurred Lines screens again this afternoon (4/27) and Saturday night (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (as well as this Friday, the following Saturday, and Sunday the 7th at Hot Docs in Canada).

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Take Me

Frankly, in today’s neurotic world, the concept behind Ray Moody’s Kidnap Solutions, LLC has commercial potential. His simulated kidnappings offer aversion therapy (in the tradition of the Tales from the Darkside episode, “Bigalow’s Last Smoke”) and fetishistic escapism. He just isn’t the right person to realize its potential. Anna St. Blair would be the perfect client to spread word-of-mouth, but it is unclear whether she really is a willing customer. The kidnapper and kidnappee may have been set-up in Pat Healy’s Take Me (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

There was a time when Kidnap Solutions was growing in leaps and bounds. Sadly, when Moody’s ex-wife walked out on him, she left him holding the bag for a kidnapping that went awry. Personally and professionally, he still has not recovered from her betrayal. However, the lucrative gig St. Blair is offering will give him a bit of the seed capital he has been seeking. The only catch is her request for more rough stuff than he is ordinarily comfortable with.

When the abduction starts, St. Blair seems genuinely terrified. When she is subsequently reported missing, Moody realizes he might be in serious legal trouble. Rather awkwardly, St. Blair does not seem inclined to forgive and forget, so he will have to hold onto her until he can convince her to see reason.

As lead actor and debut director, Healy has crafted a spritely farce seasoned with tar-black humor. This is a comedy that draws blood (all of it his own). Arguably, he is his own best asset, playing Moody as a likably nebbish striver in the tradition of Willy Loman (wearing a balaclava). Even when we laugh at his humiliation, we sort of want to see him overcome. As the second half of the more-or-less two-hander, Taylor Schilling is a smart, forceful, and altogether worthy foil.

Granted, the predictable predictableness of the final twist is maybe not so surprising, but the film is more about the verbal sparring and gamesmanship of the two leads than the actual power reversals. It is just good fun to watch and listen to Healy and Schilling verbally spar. It is a relatively modest production, but if Take Me becomes a hit, Healy and Schilling could perform it on stage as a nostalgia act for years to come. Recommended for viewers who enjoy a bit of shaggy dog mayhem, Take Me screens again tomorrow (4/27), Friday (4/28), and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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The Black Room: Natasha Henstridge Faces Temptation

How sad is it when people get possessed in Ouija movies just because they were playing a commercially produced board game? At least victims of the “us” demons (succubus and incubus) get a little gratification before damnation. That is the sort of entity that lurks in the basement of the Hemdales’ new home. They are in for a scorching hot time and it not just because of their overheating boiler in Rolfe Kanefsky’s ridiculously silly, shamelessly horny The Black Room (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

As soon as Paul and Jennifer Hemdale move into their amazingly affordable new house, strange things start happening. You might ask what “strange” means in this context. Let’s just say when you see Natasha Henstridge orgasming from the vibrations of a demonically possessed washing machine, you know you haven’t walked into a long-lost Val Lewton film.

Apparently, the previous owner sacrificed herself to save her granddaughter from the demon lurking within the hidden room in the basement. Of course, why she would let the nubile teen sleep over knowing there was a sex demon barely contained downstairs is such a blindingly obvious question, we keep asking it throughout the film.

Before long, the entity is making the Hemdales all hot and bothered, while sowing dissension through their resulting misunderstandings. Soon, it flat out possesses Paul, just in time for the arrival of Jennifer’s obnoxious gothy, occulty little sister. She ought to realize something is off about Paul’s outrageously sexualized behavior. Unfortunately, Jennifer will have to face it on her own, with only the counsel of the still defiant grandmother’s spirit for help.

Every time you assume this film can’t possibly go any further over the top, it goes and does something even more nuts. Its spectacles of infernal orgies are neither erotic or scary, but they are a sight that must be seen to be believed. Forget logic, forget modesty, and just hang on and try to enjoy the ride as this train wreck of a film careens off the bridge.

Henstridge from Species still looks like a scream queen sex symbol, which is obviously why Kanefsky cast her. Somehow, she manages to stay relatively grounded and maintain the shreds of her dignity, washing machines notwithstanding. In contrast, Lukas Hassel understandably figures the only way out is to fight fire with fire. “Scenery chewing” doesn’t even begin to describe his outrageously flamboyant turn as Paul Hemdale. Apparently, the mania was contagious, because even the typically reliable horror film stalwart Lin Shaye sounds wacky and forced as Grandma Black. Oh and by the way, Tiffany Shepis plays Monica the realtor in what might be the film’s most restrained performance.

It is impossible to recommend a film like The Black Room, but if you see it now, you will reference it for years to come. It is just so weird and smarmy, it is hard to believe it actually exists—and yet it does. Words fail when The Black Room opens this Friday (4/28) at the Laemmle Music Hall in La La Land.

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Small Crimes: E.L. Katz’s New Film on Netflix

Joe Denton is not the slightest bit remorseful, but he sure is sorry. Formerly a corrupt cop, the recently released ex-con has caused a lot of trouble for people close to him. However, the truth of the incident he did time for is even worse than people think. Unfortunately for Denton and his prospects for a straight life, the gangster who ordered it all might be considering turning deathbed stool pigeon in E.L. Katz’s Small Crimes (trailer here), which debuts on Netflix this Friday.

Denton might have conned the parole board, but his long-suffering parents doubt whether he has truly reformed—not that they will see much of him after his release. Having survived a random, small-time set-up (awkwardly orchestrated by the wayward daughter of Phil Coakley, a prosecutor literally scarred by Denton’s misadventures), the ex-cop gets a good talking-to from his ex-partner, Lt. Pleasant, who isn’t. Vassey, the gangster who ordered the disastrous hit-job Denton claimed was self-defense, has been having long conversations with Coakley. Pleasant insists Denton must kill Vassey or potentially suffer the consequences.

However, getting close enough to Vassey will be difficult, thanks to the interference of his psychotic son Junior and the diligent care of his nurse, Charlotte Boyd. Denton starts romancing her for strategic reasons, but finds himself genuinely attracted to Boyd, which complicates matters even further.

Small Crimes is an insidiously clever one-darned-thing-after-another crime thriller, featuring a veritable who’s who of genre cult favorites in its supporting cast. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (from Game of Thrones) is absolutely terrific as Denton. He has such disheveled sad sack charm, you lose track of how truly degenerate he is, until the totality of his jerkweedness comes back to roost down the stretch. He also develops some surprisingly subtle and mature chemistry with Molly Parker’s Boyd.

Co-screenwriter Macon Blair (screenwriter and star of Blue Ruin) adds color and poignancy as Scotty, the oblivious brother of the best friend Denton kind of, sort of killed, while Pat Healy does his thing as the sadistic Junior. Larry Fessenden adds further genre cred in a small but appropriately sleazy role. However, nobody upstages or in any way steps in the light of Gary Cole’s entertainingly evil Lt. Pleasant.

Small Crimes is old school all the way. Its characters exist in a world where evil prospers because it is more fun. Katz keeps the noir badness lean and mean, with credit also due to the tight work of frequent horror movie editor (and sometimes actor) Josh Ethier. If you want to enjoy some skullduggery without any tiresome teaching moments, this is your cup of spiked tea. Enthusiastically recommended for hardboiled fans, Small Crimes starts streaming this Friday (4/28) on Netflix.

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Tribeca ’17: The Endless

Maybe the hippie commune Justin Smith rescued his younger brother Aaron from was not quite the “castrating doomsday UFO cult” he thought it was, but you still would not call it a New Religious Movement. Regardless, the brothers are probably not being unduly alarmist when they assume the worst from a “goodbye” video they receive from a former friend. Against the older brother’s better judgement, they will visit their former “family” before they “ascend” in Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, one look at the smiling tool standing at the gate of Camp Arcadia would have made us do an immediate one-eighty. The anti-social fellow who keeps brusquely walking in straight lines is also rather off-putting. However, Anna, their big sister figure is as lovely and welcoming as ever—and she hardly seems to have aged at all.

In contrast, life has been hard for the brothers in the years that followed their Camp Arcadia escape. In fact, Aaron remembers the plentiful food and kumbaya gatherings rather fondly. Justin was hoping their visit would serve as an antidote to his nostalgia, but it might have the opposite effect. However, after the older brother gets the heave-ho from Arcadia, he stumbles into the truth. The real secret of Camp Arcadia is truly Hellish in a Sisyphean sense, but the camper cultists have embraced it out of their warped hippy spirituality.

There is no question the big reveal and its implications takes a while to unpack. However, it mostly all tallies, once you account for the varying severity of the x-factor in question. In any event, the cosmic scope and ambition of Endless are quite impressive, especially considering the intimate scale of the drama. Filmmaking partners Benson and Moorhead are terrific as the Smith Brothers. They really demonstrate the fine line between love and resentment, constantly crossing over and back. Perhaps drawing on their experience making Resolution, Spring, and the “Bonestorm” segment of V/H/S Viral, B&M really project a sense of the brothers’ long, chaotic shared history together.

In all honesty, The Endless is one of the more intelligent and emotionally sophisticated genre films you will see all year, but it has received unfairly middling notices thus far at Tribeca. This may well be due to the cult-themed subject matter. At a time when the advocacy-media is promoting large-scale demonstrations, any film that problematizes acquiescence to the moral judgement of the collective unit is likely to face instinctive resistance, so to speak.

That will be a real shame if it successfully dampens the enthusiasm of fans of Benson & Moorhead’s prior films. Smart, tense, and psychologically realistic, The Endless is highly recommended for fans of cult movies (in both senses) when it screens again tonight (4/26) and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tribeca ’17: November

Culturally, the Baltic States are considered more closely akin to Scandinavia than the Slavic countries, but the gothic goings on in this 19th Century Estonian village are downright Carpathian. Even the Devil himself has a role to play in Rainer Sarnet’s November (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fundamentally, November is a story of mismatched and thwarted love. Pretty peasant girl Liina has fallen for Hans, the dashing Brom Bones of the village, but he has hopelessly and futilely fallen for the sleepwalking ward of the local lord. Much to her horror, Liina has been promised to a much older rustic by her severe grandfather. Liina’s mother does not approve of the match, but she remains estranged from her crotchety father, even though she is now a ghost.

Despite their Medieval-style Orthodox faith, the villagers are in constant commerce with the sulfuric one. To maintain their subsistence living, they build “kratts,” eerie looking robotic creatures constructed out of farm implements, but to animate them, they must purchase a soul from the Devil, at the cost of their own. They will also have to contend with the shape-shifting plague, which comes to town in the guise of a beautiful woman, but fittingly assumes the form of a goat.

November is the sort of film that is greater in the sum of its parts than as a whole. There are some wonderfully macabre and inventive scenes distributed throughout the film, but the parallel stories of Liina and Hans’ unrequited love really start to drag. Still, the kratt effects are wonderfully weird and eccentric, while Mart Taniel’s black-and-white cinematography is absolutely arresting.

Pacing might be an issue for Sarnet, but he creates a consistently otherworldly tone. It is an unsettling vibe, not entirely dissimilar from Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels. November is stuffed with creepiness, including hints there might be something lycanthropic going on with Liina. Yet, it is a cold, impersonal film that always keeps viewers at arm’s length.

Frankly, November is so ambitious and richly crafted, it is worth seeing just for its visuals. It is an auteurist film through and through that is guaranteed to attract a cult following among Tarkovsky and Zuławski fans. Recommended for bold cineastes, November screens again this afternoon (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Thursday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Black Rose: Red Heat Redux for the Putin Era

Sadly, the constant abuse of the media, activists, and politicians has so thoroughly demoralized the LAPD, they will have to import a hard-charging shoot-from-the-hip cop from Russia to stop a serial killer. Since all the victims have been Russian-speaking women, they will have a legitimate excuse to recruit the help of Vladimir Kazatov. Unfortunately, the killer will soon turn his attention towards Kazatov’s pretty American partner in Black Rose (trailer here), directed by Alexander Nevsky (because Ivan the Terrible wasn’t available), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Despite the mounting death toll, the Russian community refuses to talk to the LAPD. Of course, the expats are sure to trust Kazatov, because it’s not like the Russian legal system has a reputation for corruption and oppression. Regardless, he and LAPD profiler Emily Smith quickly establish all the murdered women worked as “hostesses” in an exclusive Russian gentleman’s club.

That ought to be a significant break in the case, but Kazatov still has to sneak around, kicking down doors, sans warrant. Further complicating the investigation, the killer somehow got a hold of Smith’s number and frequently calls to do deep breathing exercises.

Black Rose is the sort of film where the police think the most effective course of action they can take is standing around, having expositional conversations. Aside from the initial Moscow bank robbery sequence, featuring Euro cult favorite Matthias Hues, there just isn’t a lot of action in this action movie. Instead, it relies on the Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry shared by Nevsky (a bodybuilder-turned-actor, born Alexander Kuritsyn) and Kristanna Loken (from Terminator 3 and BloodRayne). The fact that their endless bantering doesn’t completely collapse into a train wreck is a near miracle.

About the only thing going for Black Rose is a supporting cast chocked full of reliable character actors, including the great Robert Davi, chewing the scenery for all its worth as Captain Frank Dalano. However, it is rather depressing to see the post-Highlander Adrian Paul mope through the film as Matt Robinson, the ineffectual detective yanked off the case.

Nevsky has decent action chops, but with a name like that, he’d darn well better. Loken also deserves credit for gamely soldiering through, but their simplistic investigation holds little interest. We just can’t recommend Black Rose, but we’d be willing to give Nevsky another shot if his subsequent Showdown in Manila (directed by Mark Dacascos) follows it into theaters. That’s the long and the short of it when Black Rose opens this Friday (4/28) in LA at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

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A Dark Song: The Truth about Angels and Demons

Forget Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Bells never ring when these Holy Guardian Angels get their wings, but they are very real and they really do accompany humans through life. However, demons are also very real—and they are easier to interact with through supernatural means. A grieving mother hopes to call her Guardian Angel to request a final conversation with her murdered son, but the risks are fantastically high in Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you know anything about Aleister Crowley and the occultist movement, you might be familiar with the Abramelin Ritual. Reportedly, Crowley started one, but left it unfinished, with disastrous consequences. According to esoterica, anyone who completes the long, grueling procedure will finally see their Holy Guardian Angel, who will them be compelled to grant whatever wish the supplicant asks for. Of course, whatever unseen demons might be in the area will do their best to disrupt the ritual and doom the practitioner, body and soul.

To complete the ritual, Sophia Howard will need a wingman. The alcoholic Joseph Solomon is not perfect, but he has extensive experience in the occult. He conducted a prior Abramelin Ritual. Though unsuccessful, he lived to tell the tale. Once the ritual starts, occult things start going bump in the night, but the situation really turns dire when Solomon begins to doubt her motives.

There is no need to mince words—A Dark Song is absolutely terrifying. You have to go back to the original Exorcist to find a horror film that is equally serious when addressing themes of good and evil. It is the kind of movie that feels like it is pulling back the curtain surrounding our materialistic existences, giving us a peak at the deeper, darker truth beyond.

Gavin’s execution is unremittingly tense and eerily evocative of occultist archetypes. He adroitly capitalizes on the claustrophobic location and sinister trappings. Once the circle of salt is circumscribed around the house, we can just feel bad things will happen inside. He also gets invaluable assists from Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, who are absolutely electric playing off each other.

This is one of the scariest films of the year. Yet, it is also a deeply moral film, again much like The Exorcist. In fact, it will not leave viewers bereft of hope, unlike so many nihilistic horror films. One of the best genre releases of the year, A Dark Song opens after midnight this Friday (4/28), at the IFC Center in New York.

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Tribeca ’17: Mr. Long

Movie gangsters have been taking a shine to neighborhood kids since Angels with Dirty Faces, but few have been domesticated as quickly as this Taiwanese hitman. His latest assignment takes him to Tokyo, but it will not turn out well. While laying low, he falls in with the son of a heroin-addicted former prostitute. It is unclear how serious his intentions are, but it will hardly matter much if his enemies find him in Sabu’s Mr. Long, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mr. Long only wields a short stiletto, but it is sufficiently lethal in his hands. We get a sample of his handiwork in the opening scene, but unfortunately, his yakuza prey gets the drop on him in a nightclub. Barely escaping with his life, Mr. Long crashes in a squat in the distressed outer boroughs, where he quickly befriends Jun, a young boy forced to care for his drug-addled mother Lily. As we learn in flashbacks, she was once relatively happy working as a high-class yakuza prostitute, but when she fell for her driver Kenji, Jun’s father, it launched them both on a steep downward spiral.

Bereft of passport and money, Mr. Long must while away a week or so before he can catch a mobbed-up freighter back to Kaohsiung. In that time, he will start assuming a surrogate father role with respects to Jun and help Lily quit cold turkey. With the encouragement of the nosy, but well-intentioned neighbors (they can be a bit too cute), he starts selling Taiwanese beef noodles from a street cart. Of course, it is inevitable the villains from his past or Lily’s will interrupt this peaceful interlude.

Viewers should be warned, they could very well feel like they were stabbed in the heart with a stiletto after watching Mr. Long. Much like Sabu’s shockingly moving Miss Zombie, Mr. Long takes familiar genre elements and recombines them into an emotionally devastating tragedy. As a case in point, viewers will hope a key figure will appear at an opportune time to save the day, but Sabu is too honest for that.

As Mr. Long, quietly brooding Chang Chen burns up the screen. It is one of his darkest, most powerful turns since his teen debut in Edward Yang’s classic A Brighter Summer Day. However, Yao Yiti is arguably an even great revelation as the heartbreaking Lily. She just rips the audience’s guts out and stomps on them. Likewise, Bai Runyin’s performance as Jun is mature beyond his years.

To maximize their impact, Sabu is stingy with the action scenes, but when he uncorks one, the fight choreography is spectacularly down-and-dirty. In fact, the long period of household tranquility makes the third act showdown exponentially more powerful. Mr. Long will knock the wind out of you and stay with you. Very highly recommended for fans of yakuza movies and Sabu’s work, Mr. Long screens again tonight (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Tribeca ’17: The Trip to Spain

Seriously, does anything go better with spicy seafood than Roger Moore impressions? They’re in Spain, you see. The Moors, Roger Moore. Get it? You will if you join Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for another culinary jaunt in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Spain, which screens again today at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Steve Coogan is still Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is still Rob Brydon. Coogan was always the more famous one, but that is especially true now that he is riding high on the success of the ridiculously overrated Philomena. However, despite his professional frustrations, Brydon appears to be the happier one. It would be more accurate to say the loving father and sort of faithful husband is somewhat happy, whereas the emotionally unfulfilled Coogan is really just miserable. Of course, we are talking about their Trip franchise analogs, not the real comedians, right?

Regardless, Brydon and Coogan are together again, following up their restaurant tours of Italy and the North of England with a saunter through Spain. This time, Brydon will do the newspaper reviews, while Coogan takes notes for a self-indulgent book. Of course, Coogan brings up Philomena every chance he gets. His digs at Brydon also seem less good-natured, but his Welsh counterpart largely lets them roll off his back. After all, this is a good gig for the working-class celebrity.

Once again, the two bickering friends mine comedy gold from their dueling celebrity impressions. Coogan is also quite the good sport allowing Brydon and Winterbottom to deflate his pomposity for comic effect. There is no question Coogan and Brydon dominate this Trip, just like they did previous installments of the UK television series/US film franchise. However, Kyle Soller scores a lot of laughs in his scene-stealing cameo as Coogan’s ex-American agent.

All three Trips are consistently funny films, but they also offer a bittersweet, deeply humanistic portrayal of middle-age and its related insecurities. Frankly, the trilogy makes us willing to forgive Coogan for What Goes Up, whereas Brydon still has plenty of good credit accrued from his voice-work in the Julia Donaldson animated specials (The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom). Recommended like the return of a slightly balmy old friend that always raises your spirits, The Trip to Spain screens again tonight (4/24), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Danger Close: Alex Quade Tells the Special Forces’ Stories

If you were embarking on a dangerous mission, you would much prefer to have embedded journalist Alex Quade with you than a lot of our so-called allies. You could count on her to keep her head and make the right decisions during times of crisis. For her, the U.S. Special Forces soldiers are not just a subject to file and forget. They are the people she shared foxholes with. Quade does their stories justice in Christian Tureaud & David Salzberg’s documentary, Danger Close (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Danger Close is the third film in Tureaud & Salzberg’s trilogy (so far), documenting both the day-to-day and extreme warfighting conditions experienced by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, following The Hornet’s Nest and Citizen Soldier. Quade is highly simpatico with their approach. She never takes positions on the missions themselves, but she feels a duty to truthfully report the dangers and challenges the U.S. Special Forces and conventional military personnel face.

This is particularly true in the case of the late Green Beret Staff Sgt. Rob Pirelli. The chief engineer of his detachment, Pirelli built their combat outpost almost single-handedly from scratch. In appreciation of his labor, the men of ODA-072 christened it Combat Outpost Pirelli. After Pirelli was killed in action, his family took great pride in the honor Pirelli’s comrades bestowed on him. The Combat Outpost Pirelli insignia emblazoned on its fortified walls became particularly meaningful to them, so they asked Quade to verify that Camp Pirelli wall still stands proud. Obviously, an embed cannot just race off to a remote corner of the embattled Diyala province on her own accord. Yet, Quade slowly but tenaciously started working her way across the country to uphold her promise.

Clearly, Quade formed a bond with Pirelli’s family, but her personal mission ran deeper than that. In the opening minutes of DC, we see the Chinook helicopter Quade very nearly boarded get blown out of the sky by a shoulder-launched projectile. The concern the Special Forces rank-and-file show for her well-being, despite the fact she is merely a journalist, is decidedly not lost on her.

Taken together, Tureaud & Salzberg’s three films form an extraordinary record of the boots-on-the-ground combat experience. The marketer inside us would recommend a special gift edition box set for the holidays. Each one has moments of white knuckle tension and emotionally devastating sequences that bring home the human cost of war in no uncertain terms.

This time around, Tureaud & Salzberg had the advantage of all the amazing footage Quade shot, often when she was under fire. You can easily see why the military personnel she covered believed she had earned her spurs. Yet, she also handles the Pirelli family with the respect and sensitivity they are due.

It is important to point out Quade has extensive credits packaging and producing for CNN, because a certain cynical segment of the population (those who automatically equate patriotism with “jingoism”) will want to dismiss her as a Fox News plant or some such fantastical beast. The truth is Quade has put her life on the line reporting from the frontlines—and she has the videotape to prove it. She has already received the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s award for journalistic excellence, but Danger Close ought to bring Quade much wider recognition. Very highly recommended for mainstream, popular audiences nationwide, Danger Close opens this Friday (4/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tribeca ’17: The Escape (short)

Science fiction writer Robert Sheckley was never quite a household name, but he had good success with movie sales. The diverse films based on his work include The 10th Victim starring Ursula Andress, Freejack, and Disney’s Condorman. Over a decade after Sheckley’s death, Paul Franklin adds another entry to the Sheckley filmography, adapting his story “The Store of the Worlds” as the short film The Escape (trailer here), which screens as part of the Shorts: Your Heart’s Desire program at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Kellan is a dodgy back-alley scientist who has a tempting offer for miserable, life-tossed souls like Lambert. For a fee, he can temporarily transport them to one of the infinite alternate realities, where they can experience the life they truly crave. In addition to the high financial cost, the process also takes ten years off a customer’s life, so Lambert will have to think about it.

We subsequently learn Lambert is a white-collar family man, with a slightly bossy wife, a teen daughter, and a young son. He is under stress both at home and his downsizing office, but his pompous boss genuinely seems to like him. However, his desire for escape will make perfect sense in light of the big climatic reveal.

Unlike the campy 10th Victim and cartoony Condorman, The Escape is actually a sentimental sf fable, more in the spirit of Twilight Zone episodes like “A Stop at Willoughby” and “Kick the Can,” but it does have the occasion for some grand spectacle down the stretch. Indeed, The Escape is likely to attract attention, because it is the directorial debut of Franklin, who supervised special effects on several Christopher Nolan films, including the Dark Knight trilogy. Fans should not be disappointed, but they might be slightly surprised by his sensitive character-driven approach.

He also assembles a pretty impressive cast for a short, including an appropriately gaunt looking Julian Sands as Lambert, who really delivers the existential angst when the time comes. Olivia Williams plays off the mopey Lambert rather nicely as his forceful but loving wife, while Art Malik (from Jewel in the Crown and dozens of other British shows) anchors it all with authority as Kellan.

Experienced genre viewers might guess the big twist, but Franklin execution packs a powerful punch. It is quality production that just feels like it will come around again during award season, particularly since he has that Nolan connection. Regardless, it is worth seeing just as a smart science fiction film in its own right. Highly recommended, The Escape screens again tonight (4/24), Wednesday (4/26), and Saturday (4/29), during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Sweet Virginia

Perhaps it is time to rethink your dream of becoming a motelier in small town Alaska. It turns out that life is not all caviar and champagne. This is especially true for a nerve-damaged former rodeo star when a triple homicide stuns his sleepy burg. The killer happens to be sleeping in Sam Rossi’s sheets, so it is almost inevitable he will strike again uncomfortably close to home in Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ironically, the Virginia-born hitman calling himself Elwood recognizes fellow Virginian Rossi from his rodeo days. You could say he is in town on business. Elwood is responsible for killing three men playing their regular late night poker game at Tom Barrett’s restaurant. He had only been contracted by Lila McCabe to kill her abusive, good-for-nothing husband, but Elwood does not like to wait. Unfortunately, he will have to, if he wants to collect his money.

As it turns out, her loving hubby did not reveal their real financial situation to McCabe. It’s not pretty. Neither is the state of her conscience, knowing that two other men died because of her. Bernadette Barrett is also in a strange emotional place. She is truly sorry her husband died, but her growing feelings for Rossi, with whom she has been secretly carrying on an affair, remain undiminished. As the Widows Barrett and McCabe console each other, Elwood grows restive, which bodes ill for the town.

Sweet Virginia (a holdover title from earlier drafts set in rural VA, which really doesn’t make much sense anymore) is being billed as a “neo-western,” which is becoming a catch-all label for small town anxiety. Despite a few killings, it is worlds removed from Hell or High Water. The best part of Sweet VA is the relationship between Rossi and Barrett, two people wounded by life, who have found a bit of respite together. Unfortunately, most of the stuff around them plays out like warmed-over Fargo, except at a fraction of the pace.

Yet, to his credit, Dagg (who previously helmed the not-bad River) uncorks some tense scenes that make us sit up and suddenly start to care again. The opening murder scene is deceptively tense and a later home-invasion sequence is a real hum-dinger. In contrast, the unconvincing bromance that develops agonizingly slowly between Rossi and Elwood is mostly just a snooze.

John Bernthal and Rosemarie DeWitt are terrific as Rossi and Barrett. In contrast, Christopher Abbott seems to be trying to channel Shia LaBeouf as Elwood, which is a dubious strategy. Relying on little makeup, the glammed down Imogen Poots is still almost unrecognizable as McCabe, but she gets surprisingly little screen time, given her comparative prominence.

There is a lot of talent in this film, including Jessica Lee Gagné’s stylish cinematography. By process of elimination, we come to suspect the fundamental problem is the China Brothers’ inert screenplay. Frustratingly flawed, Sweet Virginia screens again tonight (4/23), Tuesday (4/25), and Thursday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’17: Blues Planet (screening & concert)

If you grew up in the early 1970s, you might be more familiar with the blues legend Taj Mahal than you realized, thanks to his soundtrack for the hit film Sounder. Since then, the real deal bluesman and his music have graced many films and soundtracks, including The Hot Spot and Once When We Were Colored. As he approaches his 75th birthday, Taj Mahal racked up another screen credit in Wyland’s short documentary, Blue Planet: Triptych, which celebrated its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival with a special post-screening concert by the Phantom Blues Band, fronted by Mr. Taj Mahal himself.

Awkwardly, the film itself, written, produced, directed, and featuring uni-named environmental artist and activist Wyland, is pretty much a big nothing. We see Wyland mope around the mucky aftermath of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and listen to his platitudes, like “it will take all 7 billion of us to save this planet” (in which case, we’re done for, since the 2.5 billion people of China and India, or at least their governments, clearly aren’t on board). However, he tantalizes us with scenes of the Phantom Blues Band recording the forty-eight environmentally themed blues songs he wrote, in a New Orleans studio.

Technically, the film is rather unremarkable, to put it diplomatically, but it is well worth sitting through if you get to hear Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band play afterwards. It is a heck of a band, including NOLA’s Jon Cleary on keyboard, Willie K (“the Hawaiian Jimi Hendrix”) on guitar, and perennial jazz poll-topper Steve Turre (known for his long tenure in the Saturday Night Live band) on trombone and shells.

Despite some quickly resolved sound issues, “Dirty Oil” was an appropriate tune to kick off the set. It certainly highlighted Wyland’s eco message, but more importantly, it really brings out the Delta in Taj Mahal’s voice. “Going Back to the Ocean” sure sounds a lot like another well-known Blues standard, but there’s certainly a long “cut-and-paste” tradition in Blues, so who cares, especially when the Phantom Blues Band digs into it. “My Home is Your Home” nicely dialed it down for Nick-I Hernandez’s vocal turn and Cleary’s solo, both of which were quite eloquent. Throughout the set, Cleary laid down some tasty lines on a Roland trying to sound like a piano, while a chugging Hammond gave it a firm bottom, all of which is just such a kind combination of sounds.

Arguably, “Little Ocean Pearl” was the highlight of the set, featuring Taj Mahal on harmonica, Willie K on uke, and Turre on the shells. It is indeed fitting Turre’s shells had a feature spot, given the ocean theme. In this case, his solo was especially melodic and rich in sonic color. “Queen Honey Bee” also sounds like a hummable cross-over hit, with a lovely melody and “honeypot” lyrics that definitely suggest “blues” connotations. There was actually a surprising degree of textural and rhythmic variety in the set, with the pseudo-calypso “All Gone Now” aptly summing up Wyland’s message at the end.

At one point, an audience member shouted out “sound good,” to which Taj Mahal replied “after fifty-five years, you’d better sound like something.” He then added: “I’m just waiting for those rappers to get to 75.” Frankly, it looked like the blues legend could have played all day if they would have let him, and he sounded so good leading the Phantom Blues Band, it is a shame Tribeca didn’t just let him go. As a film, Blues Planet: Triptych is what it is, but getting to hear Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band play afterward is a treat you shouldn’t miss if you have the chance. Viewers will get a hint of what they missed when Wyland’s film also screens as part of the Shorts: S.O.S. program Tuesday (4/25), Wednesday (4/26), Saturday (4/29) and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Hounds of Love

If Vicki Maloney had paid more mind to her mother, she would not be in this spot. Unfortunately, she snuck out when she was grounded and got into a car with strange people. We can only hope she was wearing clean underwear, because there is a very good chance she could end up dead in Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Maloney and her mother Maggie would be arguing like cats and dogs anyway, because that is what mothers and teen daughters do. However, her parents’ separation only makes matters worse, especially since her more financially secure father Trevor is so good at playing the abandonment card. Tragically, Maloney brief lapse of judgement might be fatal. It is clear John and Evelyn White have abducted, terrorized, and murdered a number of girls before her. Yet, even amid the horrors she endures, Maloney picks up on tensions between her tormentors. She has darn good reason to believe the manipulative John has been playing his needy wife and she can tell the more passive captor is starting to suspect it too.

Meanwhile, the Perth coppers are so unhelpful, they might as well be considered accomplices. However, the alarmed Maggie is in her fiercest mothering mode and will not be intimidated into waiting at home for Vicki to call. Old Trevor largely agrees with her, but he lacks her forcefulness. Basically, they are on their own, with the clock ticking.

It seems like abduction-captivity thrillers just keep getting increasingly more sadistic and disturbing. To be frank, Hounds continues the trend, but it also has redemptive substance to go with the unsettling cruelty. It sounds like a shameless pull-quote, but the third act climax really is so tense you can hardly breathe.

As John White, Stephen Curry creates a chilling portrait of clammy, calculating evil. In the potential victim role, Ashleigh Cummings gives a bravely exposed and vulnerable performance, but the real heart and soul of the film comes from Susie Porter’s defiantly haunting turn as Mother Maggie. In contrast, the arrested emotional development of Emma Booth’s Evelyn White does not always ring true, but her pathological codependency is generally credible enough to cover for it.

The sunny Australian Christmas season is also rather feverishly disorienting, like the original Die Hard transferred to a suburban dungeon. The 1980s period details are also spot-on. It is quite a distinctive way for Young, a TV and short film director, to announce his feature arrival. Recommended for fans of dark, provocative thrillers, Hounds of Love screens again this Monday (4/24) and Tuesday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’17: The Midnight Service (series)

What do the Florida Everglades and Hendricks County, IN have in common? You can find some nice homes in both locales, but the neighboring population is sparse. That makes them prime spots for nefarious goings-on. Brett Potter & Dean Colin Marcial “document” spooky incidents in both respective regions in the upcoming web series, The Midnight Service, which screened as part of N.O.W. [New Online Work] Showcase A at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

As Josh Meek explains in episode one, “Pizza Delivery,” he did not want to make a delivery at the end of long dark stretch of rural road, but he reluctantly did so at his boss’s insistence. When he arrives, he finds the house empty—or is it? What he sees could have been a scene out of Lost Highway, except tighter and more focused. At just four minutes, Pizza Delivery is in fact super-focused.

The second episode screened, “Home Invasion” is twice as long, but its basic premise could support an entire feature film. One night, comedian Kat Toledano was housesitting in the Glades when a small-time local felon tried to violently break-and-enter, but he suddenly just up and vanished. About the same time, a park ranger in Everglades National Park observed a strange phenomenon from his observation station. Could these events be related?

Toledano is pretty funny playing it straight as herself, but the real stars of the show are the creepy ambiance and Brian McOmber’s massively eerie music. You can think of Midnight Service as the old Unsolved Mysteries TV show reconceived for post-Scream generations. It has an ironic sensibility, creating situations that clearly imply the work of some sort of uncanny agency, while scrupulously maintaining its ambiguity.

The first two episodes are indeed short, but Potter and Marcial sustain the sinister vibe from beginning to end. It also inspires confidence knowing Midnight is a production of Borscht Corp, who previously shepherded a number of cool genre shorts, including Kaiju Bunraku and Boniato. Regardless, it is so vividly weird, it might just catch on when it launches online. Recommended for fans of urban legends and true crime re-enactments, The Midnight Service world premiered at this year’s Tribeca.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Gilbert

It’s like the turning of leaves or the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Periodically, somebody in the outrage business gets apoplectic over something Gilbert Gottfried said. Normally, the joke is on them, but when admittedly tasteless tsunami jokes cost the comedian his lucrative Aflac commercial gig, many assumed the speech police had finally claimed his scalp. Yet, the manically nebbish stand-up is still standing. Viewers get a peek behind his outrageous facade in Neil Berkeley’s documentary profile Gilbert, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Gottfried was always a comic’s comic in part because of his gleeful willingness to skewer sacred cows. His career kicked into high gear after his characteristically frenzied cameo in Beverly Hills Cop 2, but probably his biggest paydays were as the voice of the parrot in Aladdin and the Aflac duck. Berkeley duly covers Gottfried career high/low lights, such as his notorious appearance at the Hugh Hefner roast, which started with poorly received 9-11 jokes and ended with essentially the public debut of the filthy-as-the-day-is-long “Aristocrats” joke that has always been reserved for private one-upmanship among fellow comics.

The very same Gottfried also happens to be married to a woman who seems to be emotionally healthy and well-adjusted. Even Gottfried isn’t sure how that worked. Berkeley worms his way into their private lives pretty deeply, giving us some insight into their relationship. Clearly, Gottfried is a guarded person by nature, but he opens up—probably more than he expected. We also learn how close he was to his mother and his sisters. Granted, Gilbert is nowhere as revealing as Weiner—and thank goodness for that—but it humanizes the eccentric comedian to a shocking extent.

In many ways, Gilbert compares with Neil Barsky’s thoroughly entertaining Ed Koch documentary, aptly titled Koch. Both were very private individuals, yet they rather unrepentantly ignited public controversies with their outspokenness. However, Berkeley hardly explores the free speech implications of the Gilbert Gottfried experience, beyond some hat-tips to Lenny Bruce. For that kind of analysis, check out Ted Balaker’s funny and frightening Can We Take a Joke?, featuring the post-Aflac Gottfried.

The portrait of Gottfried that emerges through Berkeley’s lens is quite complex, but fans need not worry. He is still happy to meet their expectations for crudeness and crassness. Funny yet weirdly endearing, Gilbert is highly recommended for everyone except Puritanical Social Justice Warriors when it screens again tonight (4/21), Tuesday (4/25), and next Friday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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