J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Lucky Them

Matthew Sweet is the Grunge version of Eddie Wilson from Eddie and the Cruisers. He only cut one classic album, but many fans still believe he faked his own death to avoid the onslaught of fame. After all, no corpse was ever recovered from his misadventure on that fateful bridge. His former girlfriend has sort of moved on, in a wounded, self-destructive kind of way. However, she will have to seek some closure whether she wants to or not in Megan Griffiths’ Lucky Them (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Music critic-journalist Ellie Klug has a bad reputation for sleeping with musicians and blowing off deadlines. She has managed to get by on her street cred as the woman who was there when the Seattle scene exploded, but the editor of Stax is finally ready to cut her loose (really, an alt rock magazine named after one of the all time great soul record labels?). She has one last chance. Her assignment (that she must accept) will be to follow-up on a new lead on Sweet’s whereabouts and hopefully score a reunion for her readers. Reluctantly partnering up with a wealthy old flame who now fancies himself a documentary filmmaker, Klug sets off in search of Sweet.

Lucky Them largely follows the conventions of road movies, but it has a good handle on the witty and insightful people who practice music criticism. Tough and earthy, yet also vulnerable, Toni Collette’s work as Klug follows vaguely in the tradition of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. She also develops some appealing comedic chemistry with Thomas Haden Church, whose trademark deadpan delivers consistently scores solid laughs. Lucky Them also features a surprise cameo from a genuinely big name who typically commands a pay check greater than the film’s presumed budget. Even more impressively, Joanne Woodward (real Hollywood royalty) served as an executive producer, which probably explains the mystery guest’s participation. You do not say no to Ms. Woodward if you have any understanding of the history of your craft.

To its considerable credit, Lucky Them is much smarter and funnier than skeptical viewers will expect. Griffiths keeps it snappy, but also recognizes when to give a moment time to breathe. Recommended for general audience and jaded music journalists alike, Lucky Them screens Monday (4/21), Wednesday (4/23), and Saturday (4/26) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: When the Garden Was Eden

In New York, we applaud defense, because we have seen how it is meant to be played. That is why it was so painful to watch the dysfunctional teams of the Isaiah Thomas era. Even today, the teams of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Willis Reed, and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe cast a long shadow over Madison Square Garden. The glory years of the New York Knicks are chronicled in Michael Rapaport’s documentary When the Garden Was Eden, which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

New York has always been a basketball town, but the Knicks played second fiddle to the Big East during the early 1960s. It was not just the Knickerbockers. At the time, the NBA had less prestige than Arena Football at its nadir, but the Knicks were especially bad. However, they had a scout named Red Holtzman who had an eye for talent. Players like Frazier and Reed gave the team some credibility just as the league’s prospects were improving, but the highly touted Bill Bradley captured the City’s imagination—at least until his deferred Garden debut.

Although still better known as an actor, Rapaport is building a nifty body of work as a documentarian. Beats, Rhymes, and Life, his compulsively watchable rise-and-fall profile of A Tribe Called Quest deserved to breakout beyond the obvious hip-hop audience, but Eden, based on Harvey Araton’s national bestseller, is probably playing to the fanbase more. Still, isn’t everyone a Knicks fan when you get right down to it?

If so, the 1970 and 1973 teams are a major reason why. Rapaport talks with just about all of the surviving starters and role players, getting some classic Clydisms from Frazier and some ironic reminiscences from Cazzie Russell (the final L.A. Laker the wear #32 before Magic Johnson) regarding his rivalry with Bradley (whom he also faced as a National Guardsman when the politically ambitious small forward was protesting in the streets).

Along with plenty of New York attitude, Rapaport provides some historical context regarding the state of New York City and professional basketball in the late 1960s, but probably not to an extent that would win over non-basketball enthusiasts. It is well put together, sporting a funky soundtrack, but it is a bit fannish. Regardless, it is the perfect way to kick of the Tribeca/ESPN sports programming, especially considering Madison Square Garden just bought a fifty percent stake in Tribeca Enterprises. It premiered Thursday night at the BMCC with Rapaport, Frazier, Russell, Dick Barnett, returned prodigal Phil Jackson, and other championship team members in attendance. Recommended for New Yorkers, When the Garden Was Eden screens again this afternoon (4/19) and next Saturday (4/26) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Muscles Shoals: Mud & Soul

Record collectors are prone to strange fetishes. A vintage Blue Note with an “ear” impressed in the dead wax can still fix ridiculous sums. It probably makes more sense to innocent bystanders when we obsess over recording studios. After all, that is where the magic originally happened. FAME Studios is one such storied shrine. It was there producer Rick Hall fostered a distinctive sound that made soul so much more soulful and midwifed what we now consider “Southern Rock.” Greg “Freddy” Camalier chronicles the man, his studio, and the sound in Muscle Shoals (promo here), which airs this Monday on PBS as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Ironically, many fans do not realize Hall and his original studio ensemble, The Swampers, were all white cats. Regardless of listeners’ racial preconceptions, they directly contributed to some of the greatest hits waxed by artists like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Etta James, and Percy Sledge. When we talk of hits, we are referring to classics like “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

While many of the great Muscle Shoals recording artists grace Camalier’s film, he focuses on Hall as his protagonist. His producing touch might be golden, but Hall’s formative years were just as hardscrabble as that of any delta bluesman. Abandoned by his mother early on, Hall has faced more than his share of adversity throughout his life. Although he is clearly reserved by nature, when Hall opens up, it is heavy stuff. In fact, his resilience becomes a source of inspiration.

Camalier integrates enough historical context to establish the wider cultural significance of FAME Studios without belaboring the point. He also scored some pretty impressive sit-downs with the likes of Franklin, Carter, and Keith Richards, which he stages in visually intriguing settings. However, the interstitial music never sounds very Muscle Shoalsy. He also over-indulges attempts to explain the local sound in spiritual terms. Sometimes poetic, these often descend into New Aginess corniness (to quote Jobim: “it’s the mud, it’s the mud”).

Muscles Shoals tells an important story with more style than the average music documentary. It is entertaining in a jukebox kind of way, but also compelling on a human level. Recommended for fans of soul, swampy R&B, and the Allman Brothers (who will probably not be seeing Midnight Rider anytime soon), Muscle Shoals premieres on most PBS stations this coming Monday (4/21), courtesy of Independent Lens.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribeca ’14: In Order of Disappearance

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then provincial Norway is the perfect place for it. Technically, Nils Dickman is Swedish and he will serve up payback with Ikea-like efficiency in Hans Petter Moland’s comic noir In Order of Disappearance (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Dickman (yes, there are comments made regarding his surname) is not a gangster, he is a snowplow driver, but he becomes a very put-out snowplow driver when his son is murdered by a drug gang. Maybe it is in his blood. His older brother was once a gangster, nick-named “Wingman” in honor of Top Gun. Dickman’s anger and initiative are sufficient to ice the low level lackeys who administered his son’s fake overdose, but he will need some help getting to their boss, a legacy kingpin known as “The Count.” As Dickman works his way up the food chain, The Count responds by igniting a gang war with the Serbian mob he assumes is responsible for his underlings’ disappearances.

For some reason, Tribeca programmers have a soft spot for films about snowplow drivers. Even though Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s Whitewash won last year’s best new narrative director award, Disappearance is the film to see. Screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson (who also wrote the radically different Perfect Sense) neatly balances moody revenge drama (in the tradition of the original Death Wish) with generous helpings of dry, black comedy. In fact, there is a running visual gag that gets funnier and funnier through repetition.

On the other hand, Stellan Skarsgård plays it scrupulously straight as Dickman. He is about as Nordic as a vigilante can get. Despite his severe reserve, viewers get a sense he is so tightly wound, he might shatter if he tipped over. It takes a couple beats to realize the ever-reliable Bruno Ganz appears as the grieving Serbian godfather (known simply as Papa), but his sly turn adds the icing to this frozen ice-cream cake.

On paper, Disappearance would sound like a grim and slightly gory story, but it is great fun on the screen. Moland’s subtle touch and Aakeson’s inventive but rigorously logical plot developments keep the audience locked in every step of the way. Highly recommended for fans of gangster movies with a sardonic attitude, In Order of Disappearance screens again Sunday (4/20) and Wednesday (4/23) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: Art and Craft

Mark Landis is not all bad. After all, he regularly shops at a great American retailer like Hobby Lobby. He just happens to be one of the most notorious art forgers of our day. However, he never made a dime off his impressive fakes. Instead, the high functioning schizophrenic indulged his “philanthropic” impulse, to the embarrassment of many of the nation’s most respected museums. Landis and his nemesis will take stock of his strange career in Sam Cullman & Jennifer Grausman’s Art and Craft (co-directed by Mark Becker), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Clearly, Landis has difficulty relating to people. Yet, we cannot automatically blame his mother and father, since the master forger describes them as gregariously social and indeed loving parents. Landis lived with his widowed mother for years, so he is understandably still struggling with her somewhat recent death. He has a unique coping mechanism. Even as a child, Landis always had a talent for the mechanics of art, but he lacked either the vision or the confidence to produce originals. However, regional museums throughout the country rolled out the red carpet for him, thanks to his facility for forgery.

It is still unclear whether Landis’s fraudulent donations were all for the sake of a massive ego boost or the misguided product of a compulsion to please. Regardless, shockingly few institutions did the sort of “due diligence” practiced by former museum registrar Matthew Leininger. Having discovered several of Landis’s “gifts” offered to his museum suspiciously listed in press releases and websites of other institutions, Leininger sounded the alarm bell in the museum world. Yet, Landis remained at liberty and continued his “giving,” because no money ever changed hands, relegating his activities to a persistently gray legal area. At an obvious cost to his career, Leininger became the Javert to Landis’s Valjean, dogging the former in the press and through his professional networks.

What happens when Landis and Leininger finally come face-to-face? It is a rather interesting moment. To the credit of the battery of directors, A&C is very understanding of human frailty and presents both pseudo-antagonists in a sympathetic light. In a sense, the two men represent polar extremes, with Leininger arguing for truth above all, while Landis points to the immediate gratification produced by his gifts. Most viewers will line-up somewhere in the middle, alongside the curator organizing a display of Landis’s work. Duping museums is obviously problematic, but we still recognize a good story when we hear one.

In fact, the entire film sounds great, thanks to a swinging soundtrack composed by Stephen Ulrich to evoke big band music of the 1930s and 1940s (particularly Artie Shaw, but you will also hear echoes of “The Mooche” in there), as well as the solo guitar work of Eddie Lang. Although it has the fullness of more modern recording technology (and takes occasional liberties with instrumentation), there is something wonderfully appropriate about Ulrich “forging” a vintage swing era sound.

At times, A&C raises questions about the nature of art and creativity, but Cullman, Grausman, and Becker never belabor the point, squarely maintaining their focus on the personalities involved. It will be fascinating to see how the film is received as it screens across the country, near museums that were taken in by Landis (many of whom remained in denial, even when confronted with Leininger’s evidence). Highly recommended for general audiences, Art and Craft screens tomorrow (4/19), Wednesday (4/23), and next Saturday (4/26) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: Super Duper Alice Cooper

It was a band that became an individual persona. Subsequently, that persona nearly overwhelmed the person who adopted it. Vincent Furnier was a preacher’s son, but as Alice Cooper, he toured with Vincent Price, appeared on The Muppet Show, and had his own Marvel comic book. Yet, Cooper’s rock & roll lifestyle nearly killed the flesh and blood Furnier. Furnier/Cooper and those who knew him take stock of his long, strange trip in Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen, & Sam Dunn’s Super Duper Alice Cooper (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Dubbed a “Doc Opera,” Super Duper eschews staid talking head shots, in favor of disembodied voice-overs, archival footage, idiosyncratic animation, and of course a steady stream of music. The film immediately introduces its Jekyll and Hyde theme with mood setting clips from vintage horror films. However, Furnier/Cooper’s own words will drive the point home. Furnier had come to Los Angeles with his high school garage band to find their fame and fortune. They were not overnight successes. However, a late night Ouija board session inspired the band to rename themselves Alice Cooper in honor of Furnier’s past incarnation as a Salem witch. This being the 1960s, the unconventional name stuck.

Eventually, Frank Zappa signed Alice Cooper as sort of a male glam-rock band, but that was not their destiny. Managed by Shep Gordon (who is also the subject of another Tribeca doc), Alice Cooper slowly but steadily built a rabid following as a live band, incorporating elements of horror movies into their stage shows. Increasingly, Furnier became identified as Cooper, maintaining the identity when the band broke up. All the usual crazy rock star stuff applied to the macabre rocker—raised to the power of ten.

Yes, there is a feast of Behind the Music-style chaos in Super Duper, but it does not glamorize any of it. Instead, it suggests there is nothing wrong with being the child of minister. In fact, it is rather a good thing to have a forgiving family support system to fall back on. Clearly, Furnier and the filmmakers suggest it is more rewarding to be a father and a husband than a rock star, but playing sold-out stadium tours sure helps pay the bills. The question of how you keep your inner monster contained in its box is a compelling one that Super Duper duly explores in great depth.

Nevertheless, the Doc Opera is still a lot of fun. If ever a public figure left a trail of intriguing visuals it would be Cooper. His music might not be to all tastes, but how many other music docs incorporate footage of horror icons like Price and Dwight Frye? At some point, you just have to tip your hat to his incredible longevity, especially considering the extreme demands of being Cooper.

Fans will get plenty of attitude and head-banging in Super Duper, but responsibility and family values ultimately trump addiction and hedonism. Ironically, many of the viewers least likely to see it would probably appreciate Super Duper the most, including those who self-identify as Evangelicals. Fast-paced and entertaining, but also surprisingly mature and thoughtful, Super Duper Alice Cooper is highly recommended for both Furnier/Cooper’s loyal groupies and his fellow Born Again golfers when it screens again tomorrow (4/19) and Saturday (4/20) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Make Your Move: BoA Steps Up with COBU

Their motto is: “dance like drumming, drum like dancing.” Founded by Yako Miyamoto, the first Japanese cast-member of Stomp, the COBU dance troupe puts on an amazing live show combining Taiko drumming with tap and hip hop dancing. If they were not already extensively touring through South Korea, they probably soon will be. That is because reigning K-Pop diva of divas BoA plays a member of the COBU ensemble for her English language film debut. She learned her steps well. Viewers will come for the Taiko dancing and stay for the Taiko dancing when Duane Adler’s Make Your Move (trailer here) opens today nationwide.

Let’s admit right from the start the screenplay from Adler, the Step Up scribe is pretty clunky. Whenever you hear the sound of grinding metal it is really just the dialogue. However, for dance movies that is just par for the course. What counts are the moves, which are hot, particularly the Taiko sequences choreographed by Miyamoto. The more traditional Dirty Dancing-esque numbers choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo also smoke thanks to the agile footwork of BoA and Dancing with the Stars’ Derek Hough.

BoA plays Aya, the Japanese-born Korean leader of COBU, whose visa will expire in a matter of days. She needs confirmed gigs and a sponsor to stay in the country. Unfortunately her only volunteer so far is Michael Griffiths, her brother Kaz’s creepy majority partner in OTO, a swanky new Brooklyn dance club. He would be happy to feature COBU, but he requires exclusivity. Aya would rather be deported than be beholden to a stalker like him.

Kaz used to be partners in the underground hipster club Static with Nick, but they split on bad terms. Their feud threatens to get deadly when each sends thugs to disrupt each others’ businesses. It is an inconvenient time for Donny leave New Orleans in violation of his parole, hoping to land a dancing gig in his foster brother Nick’s club. However, when Donny sees Aya launch into an unsanctioned impromptu performance in Static, all bets are off. Yes, it is West Side Story in BKLN, but when they are dancing, it all sort of works.

Although BoA is clearly still a bit uncomfortable with English, the camera absolutely loves her. Frankly, she handles her dramatic responsibilities rather well, thanks to a naturally warm screen presence. Hough is a different story, but at least he can dance. (Yet bafflingly, he sports a spit of peach-fizz so ridiculous looking, even the other characters bust on him for it.)

It is also nice to see Miyamoto get some screen time as Kaori, a COBU troupe member. She even gets to start the big climatic dance number with Hough, before BoA and the rest of COBU come in. It’s a show-stopper alright. Although he never shows any moves, Will Yun Lee also brings some professionalism to the proceedings as big brother Kaz.

To recap, the Taiko choreography and the partner dancing in MYM are rousingly entertaining. The plot and dialogue and what they are. Fans of BoA, COBU, Stomp, or the Step Up franchise will definitely dig it. Recommended for those looking for a dancing fix with a garnish of inconsequential romance, Make Your Move opens today (4/18) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tribeca ’14: The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

He is the French contemporary equivalent of the kid from “The Ransom of Red Chief.” He smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and is a massive hypochondriac. Frankly, even Michel Houellebecq cannot imagine who would pay to get him back, but that seems to be the only detail his abductors have nailed down in Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Although Houellebecq translations have been published in America, he has never really caught on in New York literary circles. Charges that his novel Plateforme was anti-Islam probably did not help (these were real legal charges, on which Houellebecq was ultimately acquitted). It also spurred wild rumors Houellebecq had been abducted by Al-Qaeda when he abruptly disappeared during a book tour. That did not happen. Neither did the narrative written by Nicloux.

When we first meet Houellebecq playing himself as he goes about his daily business, he strikes us as a massively self-absorbed bundle of tics. This impression only grows stronger when he is kidnapped by a trio of cut-rate gangsters. At first he resents the intrusion into his life, but he soon seems to appreciate having his captors at his beck and call. Luc is nominally in charge, but he clearly answers to people above him. He has stashed Houellebecq at his parents’ home, where he is watched over by Maxime the bodybuilder (played by French bodybuilder Maxime Lefrançois) and MMA fighter Mathieu (played by Mathieu “the Warrior” Nicourt).

Much to Luc’s frustration, Houellebecq largely wins over his parents and associates, despite his frequent demands for cigarettes and his favorite Spanish wine. Perhaps their greatest bone of contention of contention is Luc’s refusal to let the writer keep his cigarette lighter. It seems like a small point in the larger scheme of things and an understandable position for a kidnapper to take, but it becomes symbolic of Houellebecq’s efforts to reassert his control.

Although more scripted than mumblecore, there is enough improv room for Houellebecq to put his stamp on the film. Nobody can accuse him of being overly concerned with his public image. It might be a great comedic performance, but it certainly feels like it has the ring of truth. He also develops some truly bizarre but effective screen chemistry with Nicourt, Lefrançois, and Luc Schwarz.

Kidnapping deftly skewers notions of the public intellectual and sends-up Houellebecq’s iconoclastic image, but the humor is of a decidedly dry variety. Houellebecq’s future biographers will surely have a field day with it, but it requires a post-modern sensibility to appreciate its docu-fictional games. Recommended for highly literate Francophiles, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq screens this Friday (4/18), Saturday (4/19), Wednesday (4/21), and next Friday (4/25) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: Traitors

So far, the Arab Spring has hardly trickled down at all for women. Malika and her bandmates know this only too well. They are punk to the bone and have plenty to say about their country’s corrupt patriarchal society, but they need cash to express it. More specifically, they must cut a professional grade demo to keep a prospective producer interested. There are ways to make quick money in Tangier, but the drawbacks are considerable, as viewers will witness during Sean Gullette’s Traitors (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Malika and her band, Traitors (with no “the”) might sound vaguely familiar to hip readers, because it grew out of the similarly titled short film that played the 2011 New York Film Festival. Gullette reprises many scenes in the feature version, but there is a new focus on Tangier’s increasing importance as an international drug trafficking hub.

As befitting any self-respecting punk rock diva, Malika has a strained relationship with her parents, particularly her good for nothing father. Thanks to his gambling debts, they are facing the very real possibility of eviction. Plus, she must raise funds for her band’s studio time. Of course, she gets fired from her French call center job around this time as well. However, she has caught the eye of Samir, a drug dealer with a proposition. Although she more or less knows better, she still accepts his offer to act as a drug mule. As she talks to her traveling companion, the very pregnant Amal, Malika comes to understand the magnitude of her mistake.

In a strange way, Traitors the feature suffers a bit in comparison with Traitors the short. While the former segues into an impressively tight and tense crime drama, its predecessor was powerful indictment of the everyday misogyny (and even violence) faced by Moroccan women, particularly non-conformists like Malika. Frankly, many views (especially those in the know) will want to see more of the rest of Traitors and less of Samir’s thuggish associates.

Still, both incarnations of Traitors prove Chaimae Ben Acha is a future superstar poised to breakout globally. The camera loves her and she can belt them out like Joan Jett in her prime. This is a richly layered performance, bringing to life a deeply complex character. Malika is unusually intelligent and creative, yet also seriously self-destructive. Artists, you know.

Gullette (co-writer and star of Aronofsky’s Pi) maintains a brisk pace and a nervy vibe, but there is no question this is Ben Acha’s show (although Mourade Zeguendi has his moments as Samir, the complicated drug dealer). Traitors the feature is a good film, but it leaves us wanting to see and hear more from Traitors the band. Maybe that is all part of the master plan. Recommended with conviction for viewers with a punk heart or an interest in women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East, Traitors screens Sunday (4/20), Tuesday (4/22), Thursday (4/24), and Saturday (4/26) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: The Bachelor Weekend

Ever noticed how those crunchy granola camper types are lousy in a crisis, especially in the great outdoors? If you ever have an emergency in the forest look for the city guy. Oh, but “The Machine” is something else entirely. Outdoorsmen and urban sophisticates alike will shrink before his chaotic power in John Butler’s The Bachelor Weekend (a.k.a. The Stag, trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fionnan is sort of a Groomzilla. Finding him bizarrely interested in their wedding details, Ruth the bride-to-be presumes on best man Davin to take him on a stag camping getaway. Although Davin knows his chum is hardly the outdoorsy sort, he complies anyway. After all, as everyone but Fionnan knows, he also once went out with Ruth and never really recovered when she dumped him.

However, both men utterly dread her borderline psychotic brother, known simply as “The Machine.” They try to make it look like they have invited the hard-charging U2 fanatic, while holding back key info, like where and when. Nonetheless, The Machine still manages to find his way to the party, arriving in a wickedly foul mood. Let the celebration begin.

Weekend is not exactly a staggeringly original concept, but it is considerably gentler and less raunchy than The Hang-Over franchise and its copycats. Even The Machine turns out to be a reasonably grounded character. In fact, Butler and co-writer Peter McDonald (who also co-stars as the prospective brother-in-law from Hell) pull a bit of jujitsu, shifting viewer sympathies from the uptight Fionnan to the madly roguish The Machine.

Frankly, the biggest question Weekend answers pertains to Andrew Scott’s viability as a comedic leading man. Best known as Jim Moriarty in PBS’s Sherlock (and one of the memorable voices calling in during Locke), Scott fares rather well as Davin. He brings a sad dignity to the film that holds up quite nicely over time. McDonald brings the heat as The Machine, but also throws an effective curve ball or two in the late innings. In contrast, Hugh O’Conor is annoyingly nondescript as Fionnan.

From time to time, Weekend offers some humorous commentary Irish cultural identity amid the bromance. It is good-hearted and reasonably amusing, but not earthshakingly memorable. A pleasant diversion, The Bachelor Weekend screens this coming Tuesday (4/22), Wednesday (4/23), Thursday (4/24), and Sunday (4/27) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proxy: There is No Twelve Step Program for this Kind of Nuts

A grieving parents’ support group is about to get sinister. Fortunately, a formerly pregnant woman and her new fast friend have their own strange ways of processing loss. The hyper-sensitive are sure to be offended and nobody is likely to win mother-of-the-year awards, but some truly game-changing twists will come viewers’ way during Zack Parker’s Proxy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Walking home from her ultrasound, the very pregnant Esther Woodhouse is brutally attacked by a hooded figure deliberately targeting her baby. She survives the attack, but her unborn child does not. During her recuperation, the hospital staff is so alarmed by her emotional detachment, they require her to attend a grief counseling group session. It is there that she meets fellow member Melanie Michaels. Clearly Woodhouse feels some degree of sexual attraction, but Michaels seems to take exploitative emotional satisfaction from their encounters—none of which pleases Anika Barön, Woodhouse’s violently jealous ex-con lesbian lover.

Fate will ensnare all three women in a web of obsession and revenge, but a series of massive revelations will profoundly alter our perceptions of Woodhouse and Michaels. In contrast, Barön wears her insanity on her sleeve and never wavers from it. To give away any further details would be spoilery. It would also look ridiculously lurid spelled out in black and white.

Yet, that bite-me fearlessness is part of Proxy’s charm, so to speak. Parker synthesizes Cape Fear, Don’t Look Now, and half a dozen De Palma films, while the Newton Brothers’ score transparently evokes the Bernard Hermann music heard in the Hitchcock films the latter was riffing on, but he gives his themes and motifs a distinctive spin all his own. Parker does not merely dab a toe on the third rail of sexual orientation—he jumps on it with both feet. Frankly, this is the sort of gleefully bold erotically charged thriller we probably thought we would never see again—and it works for precisely that reason (even though Parker’s extreme budget constraints nearly undermine key third act sequences).

Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, and Kristina Klebe admirably go all in as the bat-scat crazy trio, each in their own way. As the formerly pregnant Woodhouse, Rasmussen might just take the honors as the most unsettling, but the competition is fierce. Yet, somehow horror film and mumblecore actor-director Joe Swanberg adds a messy but unexpectedly moving human dimension to the proceedings as Michaels’ in-for-it husband Patrick.

It is no hyperbole to say Proxy will surprise even old jaded genre hands. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Parker’s film is its distribution deal with IFC Midnight. Regardless, here it is. Recommended for those who appreciate dark psychological thrillers with a healthy disregard for polite conventions, Proxy opens this Friday (late night 4/18) at the IFC Center and also launches on VOD.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That Demon Within: Spooky Action from Dante Lam

This is a haunted film on many levels. It is loosely inspired by the case of Tsui Po-ko, the notorious cop-killing HK cop, who launched a one man crime-spree. His unquiet ghost hangs over the film, alongside the Demon King and other traditional malevolent spirits, whom the film’s villains periodically invoke. Yet, within the film itself, a highly strung police constable may or may not be tormented by ghosts from his past. Yet, he might somehow still bring a desperate criminal gang to justice in Dante Lam’s That Demon Within (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The thoroughly by-the-book Dave Wong is so unpopular with his colleagues he has been banished to the night watchman’s booth in a major hospital. Raised by his pathologically strict father to do the righteous thing in any circumstance, he automatically agrees to give blood when a critically injured O-negative patient arrives. It turns out his transfusion saved Hon Kong, a.k.a. the Demon King, the leader of demon-mask wearing “Gang from Hell.” Inspector “Pops” Mok is not exactly thrilled by Wong’s act of compassion, because Hon had just killed two of his men in a raid gone bad.

When the eerily resourceful Hon escapes, Wong concludes it is his destiny to capture the ringleader and the rest of his gang. However, when Hon’s accomplices turn against him, there might be an opportunity for the Demon King and his nemesis to forge a narrow alliance. At least Hon seems to think so.

Lam is one of the top action directors in the world, so it is no shock that he stages some impressive shootouts. However, his flair for creepy ambiance and ambiguous psychological suspense is a happy surprise (if by happy you mean dark and ominous). Eventually, he mostly resolves the open question of how much skullduggery may be ascribed to supernatural agencies versus everyday criminal evil, but one thing is certain: karma is absolutely merciless.

If you need a wiry hardnose, it is tough to beat Nick Cheung, who is especially steely as Hon. Better known as a romantic lead, Daniel Wu has played the odd psycho before, rather overdoing the twitch in Shinjuku Incident, for instance. However, even when he completely loses it, he keeps Wong clearly tethered to his tragic past, thereby maintaining viewers’ investment quite compellingly throughout the ensuing chaos. This is largely a two-man show, but Astrid Chan adds a note of authority as the psycho-therapist enlisted to treat Wong by his sympathetic superior officer.

In Demon, Lam stages plenty of well lit, intricately choreographed action sequences, but also takes us on an atmospheric tour of the graveyards and condemned tenements of Kowloon. Tense and moody, it is recommended for multiple genre enthusiasts and fans of the superstar co-leads when it opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the AMC Empire, from China Lion Entertainment.

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Kid Cannabis: The Canadian Connection

It was a case that just might change how you think about Idaho. Potatoes are still the state’s cash crop, but there was (and presumably still is) plenty of “B.C. Bud,” as in British Columbia, just across the border. For an awkward high school drop-out, it represented an opportunity that turned out to be golden—at least for a while. Based on the true stoner story of Nate Norman, John Stockwell’s Kid Cannabis (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Norman started at the bottom of the social pyramid in his sleepy Idaho town. Delivering pizzas to support his troubled single mother and younger brother, he and his mate Topher Clark have only one pleasure in life—weed. Unfortunately, the local dealer, privileged adoptee Brendan Butler, only sells crummy stems and seeds at inflated prices. However, it is a different world up in Nelson, Canada. After a bit of reconnoitering, the lads blunder into a dream supplier: organic farmer and connoisseur John Grefard.

Hiring his misfit high school cronies as runners, Norman establishes a high volume trafficking operation, with the financial backing of Barry Lerner, a vaguely Russian sounding gangster and cell phone store magnate. When the money starts flooding in, Norman and Clark predictably lose their heads binging on drugs, parties, and women. Unfortunately, rather than finding competitive inspiration from Norman’s lower prices and higher quality product, Butler opts to go gangster.

Right, this is a total stoner movie. Even if only a handful of people see Kid in theaters this Friday, nearly every frat boy in America will know it by heart in a few years. True to genre form, it gives the outward appearance of a cautionary morality tale, but really implies the good times were totally worth it.

As if the hedonistic excesses were not enough, Kid also has Ron Perlman and John C. McGinley for cult film fans. Perlman could probably play Lerner is his sleep, but he is still cool as Fonzy whenever he is on-screen. While McGinley only appears in an early sequence, he memorably supplies the film’s (thoroughly high) voice of reason. Happily, Jonathan Daniel Brown exceeds expectations as Norman, largely avoiding lazy shtick and cheap sentiment. In contrast, the rest of his criminal associates are a dull, colorless lot, except for Aaron Yoo chewing the scenery like a hash brownie as the increasingly erratic Butler. In fact, Norman’s best bud Clark is so lifeless, one might assume he is a refuge from a zombie flick.

Evidently Stockwell is quite the working director, with Kid opening a mere two weeks after the release of In the Blood. Nobody will accuse him of being an auteur or a pretentious stylist (even if he was part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle), but he has a knack for keeping things snappy. It all flows along nicely, keeping viewers hooked, despite telegraphing exactly where it is all headed.

Remember kids, drugs are bad and trafficking is really, really dangerous. While not exactly a good movie per se, Kid Cannabis is something of a guilty pleasure that certainly accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Recommended for those who will relate, Kid Cannabis opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the Village East.

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Short Peace: An Anime Anthology from the Creator of Akira

They are four very personal potential apocalypses. Three occur during Japan’s past and one is set during its future. The ultimate results will vary drastically according to the characters and circumstances involved. Produced under the auspices of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira, the anime anthology Short Peace (trailer here) screens in many markets this Friday (but look for it in New York on the 21st).

After a brief but strange opening prelude, Peace commences with Shuhei Morita’s Oscar nominated Possessions, which truly deserved to carry home the little statuette. Its loss can only be ascribed to a lack of taste on the Academy’s part, because it is a visually striking work with unexpected depth. A lush supernatural fable in the tradition of Kwaidan, Possessions takes place during a dark and stormy night in Eighteenth Century Japan. A weary traveler seeks shelter in shrine, only to find himself in a supernatural repository for broken objects that hold a “grudge.” Fortunately, the man is both handy and spiritually sensitive.  Morita’s richly detailed animation is strikingly elegant, yet it has an appropriate macabre undertone. Possessions evokes scores of classic Japanese movies, yet there is something strangely moving about it.

Otomo’s own Combustible packs quite an emotional punch, as well. Set during the Edo era (or thereabouts), it follows the ill-fated son and daughter of upper class neighbors, who are obviously meant for each other, but are irreparably separated when he rejects his birthright to join the fire brigade. Unfortunately, his services will soon be required. Inspired by the look and composition of Japanese watercolors and screen art, Combustible is stylistically stunning. Nothing like conventional anime, it borders on the outright experimental, yet it is driven by a narrative worthy of classical tragedy.

Arguably, Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo could be considered a kaiju film, yet it is perfectly in keeping with the tone of Otomo’s contribution. A demon has terrorized a forest village, carrying off their young girls until only one remains. Venturing into the woods to meet her fate, she encounters Gambo, a gigantic white bear, who is the earthly servant of the Gods. When the two supernatural creatures clash, things get intense and unusually bloody.

The action continues with Hajime Katoki’s A Farewell to Arms, a post-apocalyptic techno-thriller following an armored military unit’s campaign to take out an automated battle tank. A veteran designer on Mobile Suit Gundam, Katoki puts the pedal to metal, delivering a barrage of explosions amid a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

Arguably, Peace’s constituent films proceed from best to worst, but the decline is remarkably gradual. Frankly, there is no clunker in the lot. While the overall running time is only sixty-eight minutes, we can hardly accuse it of false advertising, since it announces its shortness in its title. Regardless, the four chapters will convince any viewer anime can be a form of high art. Absolutely necessary viewing for any and every animation fan, Short Peace screens in Colorado at the Littleton Drafthouse this Friday (4/18), in New York at the Village East on the following Monday (4/21). Check Eleven Arts’ website for further cities and dates near you.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

The Original Japanese Godzilla—Feel his Wrath

There was a time when the sight of a mutant lizard leveling the city of Tokyo would have been somewhat traumatizing. It became a campy tradition, but it started as a surprisingly moody expression of national angst. Sixty years later, Godzilla is still the king of the monsters, but his original uncut 1954 Japanese debut (sans Raymond Burr) will be a revelation for many fans. Film Forum pays homage to the granddaddy of all kaiju movies with a special one week engagement of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla (trailer here), beginning this Friday.

There are dozens of drastic differences between the version released in the U.S. (with scenes added featuring Burr as American reporter Steve Martin) and Honda’s original high concept apocalyptic morality play. Initially, we do not see Godzilla, but we witness the effects of his handiwork. In an episode reportedly inspiring by the Lucky Dragon Incident, a commercial fishing boat has inexplicably disappeared in a remote quadrant of the Pacific. The company responds by sending more ships to the last known coordinates, which only compounds their tragic losses. Of course, we know who is responsible, but Godzilla will not actually show himself, peaking over a mountain ridge in an entrance to rival Harry Lime in The Third Man, until late in the first act.

Dr. Kyohei Yamane suspects the mutant monster dubbed Godzilla (or Gojira) is a nasty by-product of the nuclear age. Destroying such a beast is no easy feat, as the military conclusively proves during their futile defense of Tokyo. As events unfold, the professor’s daughter Emiko finds herself in uniquely Japanese love triangle, betrothed to the distant Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, but in love with salvage captain Hideto Ogata, who suddenly finds himself all kinds of busy. Serizawa has developed an Oxygen Destroyer that just might be able to stop the rampaging monster, but he refuses to open another Pandora’s Box.

Of course, Godzilla is all about the monster, but Serizawa is a fascinating character in his own right. He adopts western style dress and furnishings, yet he consents to a traditional arranged marriage. Frankly, he often seems oblivious to Emiko, driven by his obsessions and haunted by his mysterious wartime experiences.

There also happen to be real performances in the genuine article Godzilla, including Akihiko Hirata as the brittle and intense Serizawa. Momoko Kōchi also gives an acutely sensitive turn as the conflicted Emiko Yamane. As for screen presence, it is hard to beat Ozu and Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura, who would later reprise his role as Dr. Yamane, unless you were a mutant lizard monster.

Yes, most of Godzilla’s scenes were rendered by “Suitmation” (which was exactly what it sounds like), but Honda really focuses in on the human dimension during his now legendary attack. He makes us feel for the people caught up in the terror, rather than glossing over the little people getting stomped on. Obviously, the look of Godzilla caught on, but it is the sound that seals the deal. There is something alarming (even bitchy) about his high-pitched keening roar that gets under the skin. You would absolutely not want to hear anything like it in real life.

By any reasonable critical standard, the original Godzilla qualifies as a good movie—for real. It has far more going on than you would assume for subsequent sequels. Yet, it still delivers the kaiju goods. Sixty years later, Godzilla is still one of the baddest cats to grace a movie screen. If you do not catch him now in his original glory, you risk some profoundly bad karma. Recommended for fanboys and cineastes, the restored, undubbed Japanese Godzilla opens this Friday (4/18) at Film Forum.

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Fading Gigolo: John Turturro, Ladies Man

You cannot get by in New York with part-time floral arrangement work. Yet, as a vocation, it probably means poor struggling Fioravante is a sensitive soul, who is good with his hands. His cash-strapped former boss hatches an unlikely scheme to capitalize on those talents in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Murray Schwartz’s antiquarian bookstore had been in his family for years, but it did not survive the neurotic Upper Eastsider’s mismanagement. Fortunately, Schwartz’s wife still has a job, but his longtime clerk Fioravante is scuffling to make ends meets. A trip to his dermatologist gives Schwartz an idea so crazy, it just might work. Evidently, the cougarish Dr. Parker and her BFF Selima are looking for a man’s services. Frankly, they would prefer someone who is mature and less intimidating than the stereotypical boy toy type. Reluctantly (and rather skeptically), Fioravante agrees to let Schwartz pimp him out to his high class clientele.

Naturally, Fioravante is a hit with the well heeled ladies, because what woman wouldn’t lust after John Turturro? However, things will get complicated when Schwartz seeks the delousing services of a widow in the Brooklyn Hasidic community. Picking up on Avigal’s loneliness as she picks through his step-child’s hair, Schwartz convinces her to try Fioravante’s services. While their meeting is downright chaste by his recent standards, it would still be considered scandalous within her community. Further complicating matters, Fioravante and his new client start developing confusing feelings for each other. Her out-of-character trips to Manhattan also attract the suspicions of Dovi, the Orthodox neighborhood patrolman, who has long carried a torch for her.

Frankly, Fading is the sort of Woody Allen movie Allen ought to be making, but isn’t. It is a wistfully mature film, deeply steeped in an elegant sadness. The notion of writer-director Turturro casting himself as the illicit lover of Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara might seem self-serving, but the aging average Joe-ness of Fioravante is part of the point. It is his comfort with intimacy that makes Fioravante desirable. If anything, Fading is old school Alan Alda sensitivity porn rather than a vehicle for people doing it like rabbits.

Turturro shows a remarkable deft touch as a director, patiently letting his scenes unfold. He gets a key assist from the jazz soundtrack, which includes several seductions from boss tenor Gene Ammons. Jug had a seductive sound that could get anyone to say “yes,” but it also perfectly suits the sophisticated New York milieu.

Allen does his shtick as Schwartz, but it is funny more often than not. Yet, it is Turturro who quietly commands the screen as Fioravante, a sad clown incapable of acting less than chivalrous. He develops some achingly powerful chemistry with Vanessa Paradis in her first English language role as Avigal. Their scenes together are a reminder how dramatically potent denial and yearning can be on-screen.

Likewise, Liev Schreiber could not possibly be any more earnest as the lovesick Dovi. Stone and Vergara certainly look the parts of Fioravante’s clients, but never come close to exposing the inner depths of their souls. In a small supporting role, Bob Balaban nearly steals the show as Schwartz’s lawyer, Sol. In fact, Fading is well stocked with brief but neatly turned performances, including Loan Chabanol as a French expat who makes a strong impression late in the game.

Absolutely never smarmy, Fading is an emotionally intelligent film intended for an adult audience. It should satisfy all of Woody Allen’s fans, but Turturro gives it his own distinctive stamp. Highly recommended, Fading Gigolo opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the UES’s City Cinemas 1, 2, 3.

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A Promise: Leconte Adapts Zweig

Few understood the pain of involuntary exile as acutely as Stefan Zweig. In his day, the Jewish Austrian was the world’s most translated author, but he took his own life while living as a political émigré in Brazil. In his posthumous novella, Journey into the Past, Zweig’s protagonist is also stranded in Latin America, separated from his love and homeland. For his first English language film, French director Patrice Leconte adapted Zweig’s wistful German tale with a British cast. Whether you consider it reserved or repressed, it is most definitely “Old” Europe that dictates social expectations for the characters of Leconte’s A Promise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Friedrich Zeitz has done the near impossible. Like a German Horatio Alger hero, the poor orphan worked his way through university as a scholarship student, eventually finding employment in the offices of the steelworks owned and operated by the dreaded Herr Karl Hoffmeister. At least, Zeitz is told to fear his aristocratic boss. However, when Herr Hoffmeister notices the young man’s keen grasp of metallurgy and relentless work ethic, he takes a shine to his new clerk.

With his health slowly declining, the increasingly home-bound Herr Hoffmeister promotes Zeitz to serve as his private secretary and liaison to the corporate office. Of course, that home is more of a castle. As soon as he is admitted into the Hoffmeister estate, Zeitz promptly falls head over heels for his boss’s younger wife, Charlotte (who goes by Lotte, echoing Zweig’s wife and secretary, Lotte Altmann).

Lotte Hoffmeister is unfailingly gracious and welcoming to Zeitz, but she initially seems oblivious to his attraction, despite the way his eyes bug out of his head like a cartoon character whenever she is around. Still, maybe someone notices his torch-carrying. Just as Zeitz is transferred to Hoffmeister’s embryonic mining operation in Mexico, Lotte Hoffmeister confesses Zeitz’s ardor is reciprocated. They vow (or promise, if you will) to do something about it, once he returns from his two year stint abroad. Then World War I breaks out.

One of the ironies Leconte and co-adaptor Jérôme Tonnere clearly make without excessively belaboring is the extent highly intelligent people can lose sight of the critically important macro events swirling around them because they are caught up in their own personal dramas. Despite working in the steel industry, Zeitz and Herr Hoffmeister are caught completely flat-footed by the onset of the first World War (you think they might have noticed a slight uptick in government orders). Likewise, the climatic reunion commences just as the growing ranks of National Socialists launch another street protest-riot.

The passionate feelings of Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister are so chaste and restrained A Promise is likely to frustrate most viewers more accustomed to instant gratification. Yet, the yearn and burn of their thwarted love is quite powerful for those who can appreciate it. Unfortunately, Rebecca Hall and Richard (Game of Thrones) Madden must make the most vanilla couple you will ever see as Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister. In contrast, Alan Rickman outshines everyone as the sly but not villainous Herr Hoffmeister, showing the sort of erudite charisma he brought to bear in overlooked films like Bottle Shock and Song of Lunch.

Handsomely mounted, A Promise’s period details are elegant but convincingly Teutonic in their chilly austerity, while superstar cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives it all a sensitive sheen superior to the look of your average BBC historical. A mature and emotionally sophisticated literary drama largely waterlogged by its two cold fish romantic leads, A Promise is flawed but still oddly enticing for those who share its Old European sensibilities. It opens this Friday (4/18) at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Family and Community Events

You have to give credit to the Tribeca Film Festival. They will bring both Mr. Met and Scooter the Holy Cow, the Mascot of the Yankee’s Staten Island Single-A farm team to lower Manhattan for their Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day. That is covering the bases. Families on a budget will also appreciate the diverse community events once again programmed by the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

As one would expect, several of the film event involve screenings, since this is a film festival. For the first time ever, Tribeca is launching the Film For All Friday. All tickets on April 25th will be completely free, while they last. However, fest regulars know the Tribeca Drive-In is the place for free communal film-going, starting this Thursday (4/17) with Disney’s Mary Poppins, a film very much on cineastes minds’ following the recent Oscar-snubbing of Emma Thompson’s acclaimed turn in Saving Mr. Banks. Released fifty years ago (in late August, but who’s counting), it remains the definitive cinematic portrayal of chimney sweeping.

On Friday (4/18), Tribeca celebrates another anniversary marking thirty years of Ron Howard’s Splash. Arguably the definitive fantasy rom-com of the 1980s (featuring a score composed by Lee Holdridge), it showcased breakout work from Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, but it was the late great John Candy who really made it special. In honor of the theme, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade’s Tails of Glory dancers will give a special performance before the show.

Shifting gears, the Drive-In will present the world premiere of Next Goal Wins on Saturday (4/19). Chronicling the efforts of the American Samoan soccer team, ranked dead last in the world, to qualify for the World Cup, or at least finally score a goal, Mike Brett & Steve Jamison’s documentary is one of several soccer/football films screening at this year’s festival. For early arrivers, there will be Samoan drumming performances before the screening. All Drive-In screenings are free, but on a first come, first served basis. Doors open at 6:00 and the films start at dusk (estimated around 8:15).

Although not part of the Drive-In, Tribeca will also present a free family screening of The Wizard of Oz, celebrating its 75th anniversary on Saturday the 26th. Lines for tickets start thirty minutes before the screening at BMCC in Tribeca proper. On that same day, the Tribeca Family Screening series will also include Listening is an Act of Love, the first full length animated special from the StoryCorps oral history project, including four new stories and two old favorites: the gleefully funny Miss Devine and the bittersweet No More Questions (review here). The Rauch Brothers have a real facility for matching the expressions of their animated figures to the recorded interviews and the subject matter is always A-OK for family viewers.

In between ticketed family screenings, patrons can check out events at the annual Tribeca Family Street Fair on Greenwich. There will be plenty of interactive movie-making activities, the Games for Change public arcade, and performances from current Broadway shows, including the massively swinging After Midnight and appropriately for sports movie fans, Rocky.

Shrewdly, Tribeca has developed a festival-leading reputation for sports programming and they continue the tradition again this year. In addition to the Tribeca/ESPN slate of sports films, the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day returns on April 26th. There will be plenty of contest, giveaways, and skills tests sponsored by the likes of the NY Rangers, NY Jets, NY Liberty, and NY Mets (with Mr. Met in attendance from noon to 1:00—he’s a busy dude, you know). And Scooter too.

Tribeca has always conscientiously reached out to the community, broadening the film festival experience for many who ordinarily might not be able to afford it. After all, many New Yorkers are still struggling with high local rents, a sluggish economy, and now perhaps even fines for their insurance status. At least, they can get some free entertainment and exercise for the kids during the festival. Tribeca starts this Thursday (4/17) and runs through Sunday (4/27). Look for reviews to start going up here later in the week.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: The Bucuresti Experiment

Just what was the bad old Romanian intelligence service willing to do for the sake of power? The answer is deceptively obvious, but it will be obscured by layers of meta-reality or un-reality in Tom Wilson’s The Bucuresti Experiment (trailer here), a documentary, mockumentary, or something in between that screens during Panorama Europe at the Museum of the Moving Image.

To this day, the “truth” of the Romanian Revolution is clouded with uncertainty and dogged by conspiracy theories. According to commentators assembled by British ex-pat Wilson, the secret police read the tea leaves and realized Ceausescu’s days were numbered. To maintain their positions of privilege, they would have to adapt to capitalism, but the average Romanian’s brains were too thoroughly conditioned by socialism. A little mental re-alignment would therefore be necessary.

Supposedly, Romania’s leading captain of industry, Andrei Juvina, was the first to undergo the “Bucuresti Experiment.” However, it seems the clinical trials changed his personality, slowly rupturing his relationship with college girlfriend, Carmen Anton, a former Romanian teen idol. As the film progresses, Wilson focuses more on their personal issues, building up to their climatic reunion. However, Wilson springs a surprise third act-coda that completely alters our perception of the film, restoring it to the ranks of straight talking documentary exposes.

At the risk of being spoilery, the Romanian intelligence service was capable of far worse crimes than simply making future oligarchs adept at business.  Frankly, the real reality will make viewers somewhat ashamed they bought into all the meta-meta narrative game-playing. Yet, Wilson is remarkably sure-footed building the ostensive drama throughout his set-up. In fact, there is something particularly moving about the charismatically mature Anton’s performance as herself.

Given the film’s ultimate gravity, Wilson’s liberties with the documentary form feel rather disconcerting in retrospect. Yet, there is definitely something to his larger point. In former Communist countries like Romania (and Lord knows Russia too) there have not been the sort of truth commissions and legal tribunals necessary to expose and bring to justice all those complicit in the crimes of the Communist regimes.

Frankly, The Bucuresti Experiment is likely to stir contradictory responses within most viewers, but it is a challenging film, produced with a serious purpose in mind. At a succinct sixty-eight minutes, it is also a decidedly less taxing exercise in post-modern historical analysis than most of the doc-hybrids playing at another mini-fest now underway. Recommended for the intellectually adventurous, it screens tomorrow afternoon (4/13) at MoMI, on the concluding day of Panorama Europe.

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