J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Fortunately, they did not make sex jokes and potty humor respectable, because then they wouldn’t have been fun anymore. However, this crude band of brothers were able to move them out of the frat houses and onto our newsstands and movie screens. War stories are told and the thanks of a grateful nation is expressed throughout Doug Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: the Story of the National Lampoon, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

It all started with two slightly off-center Harvard students. The Harvard Lampoon was considered the nation’s oldest humor magazine, but it was usually more about racking up extracurriculars than being funny. Editors Doug Kenney and Henry Beard were the exceptions. Together with fellow alumnus Robert Hoffman they took the Lampoon national. It took a while to catch-on, partly due to the underground comix look of the early issues. However, their tastelessness and contempt for authority soon found an appreciative audience.

From the vantage point of the internet age, it is hard to imagine the vastness of the Lampoon’s comedy empire at its height. In addition to the magazine, there were books, radio shows, stage productions, records, and of course films. Naturally, Animal House is chronicled in fitting detail. While Van Wilder fans might be upset over the franchise’s snubbing, Tirola and the surviving Lampoon staffers own up to the notorious head-scratcher that is Disco Beaver from Outer Space.

Happily, former editor P.J. O’Rourke gets substantial screen time, but Tirola never plugs the national bestsellers that came after his magazine stint, like Holidays in Hell, which made his reputation and had a considerable influence on the prose you read here every day. Indeed, Tirola scores interviews with just about everyone still living you would hope to hear from, including John Landis, Tim Matheson, and Chevy Chase.

However, there is no getting around his Tony Hendra problem. He can hardly ignore Hendra’s long association with the magazine, but he never acknowledges his personal controversies. The problem is, Jessica Hendra’s memoir How to Cook Your Daughter, in which she accuses her father of sexual abuse, takes its title from a now notorious Lampoon piece Hendra wrote, so the subsequent media frenzy becomes part of the magazine’s extended story, regardless how uncomfortable it makes us. By not addressing it in some fashion, Tirola risks being told he has a Hendra problem by internet know-it-alls.

Regardless, Drunk etc is a fun documentary that reminds us how different the state of entertainment looked in the 1970s and 1980s. In today’s world Funny or Die wishes it were National Lampoon, but it is so not. Highly recommended as a nostalgia trip, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead screens again this Tuesday (4/21) and Friday (4/24) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Live from New York

Having featured Ornette Coleman as a musical guest, Saturday Night Live has a claim to coolness nobody can ever take away from it. Unfortunately, the show is a pale shadow of what it once was. Where did it go wrong? Do not look for an answer from Bao Nguyen’s documentary, since it refuses to acknowledge any slippage in the show’s cultural currency. Instead, expect several rounds of back-patting when Live from New York! (trailer herescreens at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Live duly chronicles the show’s creation story, largely from Lorne Michaels’ perspective and spends a fair amount of time with the surviving original cast-members. However, the only skits they really analyze are Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford impressions. Julia Louis-Dreyfus then apologizes for how bad the show was during Michaels’ five year absence—before the film hastens to celebrate Dana Carvey and Will Farrell’s impressions of the respective Presidents Bush. Eventually, it stutter-steps to the one high-point: the first show broadcast after September 11th, as remembered by Michaels and Giuliani. It shows how SNL can capture the sentiments of the City when it tries.

Frankly, Live is not merely shallow. It is a nauseating combination of self-congratulatory narcissism periodically interrupted by bouts of self-flagellation for not being more racially and ethnically inclusive over the years. Of course, they take great self-serving efforts to call out their new and improved line-up, but the obvious lack of a Hmong cast-member suggests they still plagued by extensive institutional racism.

To give you an idea of the film’s editorial focus, its de facto centerpiece sequence revolves around the twitter reaction to Leslie Jones jokes about her hypothetical sex life if she were a slave. Right now, you’re probably wondering who is Leslie Jones? To put this in perspective, the doc has nothing to say about the Coneheads, the Killer Bees, the Wild and Crazy Guys, Mr. Bill, Father Guido Sarducci, Deep Thoughts, Buckwheat, Ed Grimley, the Liar, “You Look Marvelous” Fernando, Charles Rocket dropping the F-bomb, or Elvis Costello pulling a set-list switcheroo, whereas Jones’ twitter feed represents the show’s defining moment. That’s just sad.

Live would be a disappointment as a DVD extra, but it was inexplicably chosen to open this year’s festival. The fact that it presents Brian Williams as an authority on the show’s wider significance without a trace of irony is tragically embarrassing. Yet in a way, it is so politically incorrect and deeply in denial, it is exactly the sort of docu-treatment the current incarnation of the show deserves. Not recommended, Live from New York! screens again next Friday (4/24) and the following Saturday (4/25) as part of this year’s Tribeca. Watch the 1979 show surreally featuring Coleman as musical guest and Milton Berle as host, instead.

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Bernard Shakey at the IFC Center: Human Highway

It is the end of the world, but everyone feels fine. Linear Valley is pretty much devastated from the radiation spewing from the nearby nuclear power plant and outright nuclear war is imminent. However, burning down the local diner for the insurance money is still a viable scheme for the new owner. Too stoned-out to even be considered satire, Neil Young’s pseudonymously directed apocalyptic musical Human Highway (trailer herefinally gets a proper New York release, starting today, as part of the IFC Center’s new film series, Bernard Shakey Retrospective: Neil Young on Screen.

Co-directed under Young’s Shakey alter-ego with co-star Dean Stockwell, Highway also features Dennis Hopper (in dual roles), Russ Tamblyn, and Mark Mothersbaugh with Devo, so that should give you a general idea what’s on-tap. Young plays earnest loser mechanic Lionel Switch, who harbors dreams of rock & roll stardom, but every year the nuclear power plant’s garbage men win the radio station’s talent show. This morning he has brought along his pal Fred Kelly, whom his boss, Old Otto has promised a job.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t known as “Old Otto” for nothing. Sadly, the town benefactor has passed away and his money grubbing son, Otto Quartz has inherited the diner and garage. He has some new policies that will not go over well with the staff. Yet, it may not matter very much, judging from the ominous radio reports.

It is hard to apply any rational critical standard to such a manic exercise in DIY spit-ball shooting and general tom-foolery. Frankly, the reason most people will want to see it would be Young’s hard-edged rendition of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” with Devo. Arguably, Highway is even more a curio for Devo fans than admirers of Young (who has been quite well documented on film, by Jonathan Demme).

As Switch, Young is pretty shameless mugging for the camera. Likewise, Stockwell is not exactly shy about chewing the scenery while playing the villainous Quartz. What would you expect from a film conceived as a lark and fueled by peyote and transcendental meditation, or who knows what?

This is the sort of film you watch just to confirm it exists. Some see seeds of The Simpsons in its wacky nuclear waste handlers, but you could probably find crude analogs for just about every subsequent surreal vision quest within Linear Valley. For fans of Young, Devo, and anarchic micro-budget slapstick allegories, the director’s cut of Human Highway opens today (4/17) at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Art of the Real ’15: Snakeskin

The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew is certainly a logical moment to reflect on Singapore’s past and speculate about its future. However, this film is probably not the right vehicle to do either. It is something of a city symphony and an exploration of the national character, but it views both past and present through a deliberately distorted dystopian futuristic lens, circa 2066. Stylistically, Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin (trailer here) is a wholly fitting selection for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Art of the Real series of aesthetically challenging docs.

Apparently, the narrator is the sole survivor of a doomsday cult led by a messianic prophet, who claimed to be the descendent and spiritual heir of Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s British Imperialist founder. This seems like a strange recruitment strategy, but it offers an opportunity to explore Singapore’s ambiguous and contradictory collective feelings towards its colonial past.

Our narrator’s ruminations are heard over and between surviving film footage his father ostensibly shot of contemporary Singapore, often featuring minority (but not especially marginalized) voices. It is certainly a timely reminder Singapore is not and never has been an ethnically homogeneous population.

Regardless of its intentions, Snakeskin prompts us to consider just how remarkable Singapore’s economic growth has been. This is a small archipelago-state, with little natural resources to speak of, and a historically fractured and factionalized populace. Race riots were relatively common place there in the immediate post-colonial years. Yet, it has become one of Asia’s celebrated “Tigers” solely due to its economic policies.

Be that as it is, a little of Snakeskin’s impressionistic reflection goes a long ways. The framing device is always conspicuously artificial and the images are often rather workaday. It is still a striking city and Hui gives us a sense there is both celebrated and secret history associated with nearly every street corner, but his approach is more conceptual than cinematic (or even installation-ish).

For those who appreciate the self-conscious aloofness of typical Cinema Guild releases, Snakeskin should scratch your itch when it screens Saturday (4/18) at the Francesca Beale, as part this year’s Art of the Real. You should now consider yourself duly warned or reasonably informed. The less adventurous who are still intrigued by Singapore’s history might find the HBO Asia miniseries Serangoon Road considerably more rewarding.

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Twenty: Time to Grow Up, Amigos

It is an uncertain age for guys in South Korea, typically coming after high school, but before their expected military service. It is particularly awkward for these three chums, because everything is. Somehow they will mature a little over the course of Lee Byeong-hun’s Twenty (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

They never had much in common beyond a general horniness, but that was enough for a fast friendship when Chi-ho, Dong-woo, and Gyeong-jae met John Hughes-style. After graduation, Chi-ho becomes a lay-about, only aspiring to seduce an older sugar-mommy. Dong-woo retakes senior year in hopes of scoring better university test scores the second time around. Although not an uncommon practice in the ROK, it is a luxury he can no longer afford when his family’s fortunes precipitously decline. A born plugger, Gyeong-jae enters university hoping it will be a stepping stone to a prestigious corporate gig.

These plans, such as they are, will be complicated by romantic entanglements. Chi-ho will taste some of his own medicine when he develops an ambiguously romantic relationship with Eun-hye, a starlet with more ambition than talent. At least it is a more reciprocal arrangement than Gyeong-jae’s torch-carrying for Jin-ju, an out-of-his-league senior in his campus investment club. Working several part-time jobs to support his family, Dong-woo is initially annoyed by the advances of Gyeong-jae’s sister So-hee, but the high school senior is persistent.

Frankly, it is all even more complicated than that, but screenwriter-director Lee rather dexterously juggles the many subplots and extensive cast of characters. He also nimbly walks a fine line, giving the lads serious enough issues so that there are real stakes involved, but never letting the film get so heavy it craters into melodramatic or after-school special terrain. Kang Hyeong-chul’s monster hit Sunny, which Lee co-wrote, is a somewhat apt comparative film in terms of tone, but he displays a much lighter touch for his directorial debut.

In contrast, the sizable ensemble is less consistent. Arguably, Kim Woo-bin shows the greatest range and charisma as the entitled Chi-ho, whereas both Lee Joon-ho and Kang Ha-neul are a bit too passive and sometimes even a little flat as Dong-woo and Gyeong-jae, respectively. Lee Yoo-bi and Jung So-min add some nice energy as little sister So-hee and Chi-ho’s neglected pseudo-girlfriend So-min, but some of the assorted love interests are cold and detached to a problematic extent. However, Oh Hyun-kyung completely subverts sentimental stereotypes and steals most of her scenes as Dong-woo’s brutally honest and direct mother.

You do not often see American studio films that so freely combine comedy and young anxiety. Again, maybe think of some of the films we assume John Hughes directed, but he really only wrote and produced, like Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. Twenty skews a little older and little sillier, but American teens would probably love it if they were bold enough to give it a try. It is surprisingly endearing, but not overly desperate to be loved. Recommended for fans of Korean rom-coms and coming-of-age films, Twenty opens tomorrow in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Squeeze: Wrist Breaks and Other Golf Dangers

Augie Baccus has a heck of a swing and a solid short game, but he makes Happy Gilmore look like a genius. Unfortunately, he also lacks the popular Adam Sandler character’s toughness. That will become a serious problem when he gets entangled with some dodgy professional gamblers in Terry Jastrow’s The Squeeze (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Baccus is a dirt poor, but amiable young kid, going nowhere in rural Texas. However, he can shoot the lights out on a golf course. When the slicker-than-slick gambler known as Riverboat happens to hear his impossibly low scoring amateur tourney victory on the radio while passing through town, he recognizes an opportunity worth taking a detour. With the backing of his lover-accomplice, “The Bank,” Riverboat convinces Baccus to play for him in a series of high-stakes money games, sort of like Cruise and Newman in The Color of Money, but without the grit.

Of course, Baccus’s girlfriend Natalie is against the arrangement from the start, for moral reasons as well as the waves of bad vibes cascading off Riverboat. Baccus jumps in anyway, hoping to score some money for his battered mother and his beloved little sister. Inconveniently, Natalie’s concerns are soon justified in Las Vegas, where both Riverboat and mobbed-up gambler Jimmy Diamonds put the titular squeeze on Baccus before his million dollar match with the top-ranked youth-amateur.

Tin Cup was such a great golf film because it captured the inviting feeling of a lush green course on a sunny day that is not too hot and has a pleasant breeze blowing. The Squeeze does not do that, but at least it honestly seems to enjoy the game, beyond using it as a plot device.

Reportedly, Jeremy Sumpter was cast as Baccus because of his golf skills, which makes sense, because his bland white-bread screen presence doesn’t do much to move the needle. While the film is ostensibly about Baccus (modeled on the real life Texas Phenom Keith Flatt), it is much more interested in Riverboat’s Cheshire cat grin and Natalie’s legs. As the latter, Jillian Murray (from Cabin Fever: Patient Zero) certainly looks the part and expresses Natalie’s ethical and religious reservations without sounding hopelessly moralistic, which is something.

Nevertheless, Christopher McDonald is the real show. Essentially, he revisits his Shooter McGavin persona from Happy Gilmore, but takes delight in upping the villainous ante. He is consistently fun to watch, but Michael Nouri looks kind of weird as the bleach blond Diamonds. What was that all about?

Jastrow and his wife, co-producer Anne Archer have been dubbed “Super Scientologists” in the media, but it is hard to pick up on any overt references to Overlord Xenu or “Suppressive People” in The Squeeze. Frankly, it is largely rather by-the-numbers stuff, but McDonald makes it worth watching on cable or Netflix streaming. He can slyly turn a witty line and then pull off a goofy bit of physical comedy. Honorary Oscars ought to go to character actor mainstays like him, but instead they are determined by Hollywood popularity contests. Mostly just a harmless time-kill, golf movie fans can safely wait when The Squeeze opens Friday (4/17) in Denver at the AMC Highlands Ranch and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse.


Monsters: Dark Continent—Love the Smell of Burning Kaiju in the Morning

There is an old saying about no atheists in fox holes. By the same token, a herd of rampaging kaijus ought to make even the most irrational jihadist grateful to see the U.S. Marines. Sadly, that is not the case in this chaotic near future monster bash. The Middle East has become the world’s hottest infection zone, so the American military has come to fight the monsters where they are. Yet, every accidental case of collateral damage becomes grist for Islamist grievance propaganda in Tom Green’s Monsters: Dark Continent (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For those keeping score at home, Dark Continent is technically a sequel to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, but it is probably just as well if prospective viewer are not aware of its lineage, or else they might expect a significantly better film. Ten years after the events of straight Monsters, the Middle East has become the new center of battle. A group of thuggish friends from Detroit (looking even scarier than the terrorist and tentacle ridden desert) have shipped off to Sgt. Noah Frater’s unit, so he will make sure the maggots are in proper fighting condition. They are a stereotypical pack, who hardly deserve names, including the sullen orphan protagonist, his unstable protector, and the buddy whose girlfriend just had a baby. Right, odds are he won’t even make it into the second act.

Edwards’ Monster was a clever DIY calling card that led directly to his Godzilla gig. Unfortunately, even though Green retained the general creature designs, he emphasizes the worst aspects of the previous film. Where Monsters offered a lot of not so subtle immigration commentary, Dark Continent sees itself as an extended critique of American military intervention in the Mid-East. However, the message-making was hardly the reason the prior film was successful. The first time around, Edwards understood his responsibility for providing certain kaiju deliverables. In fact, aspects of politicized near future worked in tandem with the film’s genre movie conventions. Being stuck on the monster-plagued side of an ultra-fortified border follows right in line with the basic rock-and-a-hard-place tradition.

Bizarrely, Green frequently loses sight of the titular monsters and invites the audience to openly side with the terrorist insurgency against the American military. They are just uneducated thrill seekers who shoot first and ask questions later, whereas the victimized local population understands how to live with the monsters in inter-species harmony. Of course, if any of the monsters were women, they would have to wear a burqa and if any were homosexual, they would logically be stoned to death.

There is precious little characterization in Dark Continent, except for Frater, whom British thesp Johnny Miller plays as a bulging eyed, anti-social, PTSD head case. Happily, nobody in the film says: “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it,” but that probably represents a supreme act of restraint on Green’s part. Shallow as a puddle and clumsily didactic, Monster: Dark Continent is not recommended when it opens this Friday (4/17) in New York, at the Village East.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1915: Haunted by the Past

Through his studies of the Ottoman Turks’ systematic massacre of Armenians, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide. Yet, Turkey refuses to acknowledge the genocide as such, insisting instead it was merely a bit of clumsy rough-housing. This might sound like a purely academic question at this point, but it surely has very real world significance to Turkey’s Kurdish population, especially as the government becomes increasingly Islamist and more closely aligned with Iran. Clearly, the lack of historical closure deeply troubles the Armenian protagonist of Garin Hovannisian & Alec Mouhibian’s 1915 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in greater Los Angeles and next Wednesday in New York.

Simon Mamoulian once directed a series of popular ethnic European comedies at the iconic Los Angeles Theatre, but this will be his first production in seven years. It has a limited run of one night only, yet it has inflamed the community. Turks are outraged by the play for forthrightly depicting the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, whereas many Armenians are troubled by its Sophie’s Choice-like climax. It seems like just about everyone is protesting outside, but the stakes are even higher inside the theater.

Mamoulain’s wife Angela is playing the character unambiguously inspired by his grandmother and it is taking a lot out of her. The director seems to be able to transport her back in time to 1915 through a form of Svengali-like mesmerism. The rash of suspicious accidents do not help much either. However, we slowly start to realize Mamoulain’s play has two levels. Obviously, he wishes to speak for the estimated 1.5 million victims of the Genocide, but the play also has hidden personal meanings for him and Angela.

It is hard to imagine an independent film that is more ambitious structurally and thematically than 1915. As a result, it is impossible to judge Hovannisian & Mouhibian harshly when they lose control of their narrative. This is arguably a case where a little less would have been a little more. In particular, there is potential nemesis character introduced midway through, but his role is never cogently explained and he is so quickly dispensed, he really only serves as a baffling distraction from the serious issues at hand.

On the other hand, the filmmakers made truly inspired castings choices, starting first and foremost with French Armenian actor Simon Abkarian (Gett, Army of Crime, Wedding Song, etc.) as Mamoulain. He has a commanding presence, yet he vividly conveys how tormented his character is by personal and historical tragedies from the past. Likewise, Twilight franchise alumnus Angela Sarafyan truly looks like she was transported from 1915 into the Los Angeles Theatre. Sam Page also shows some range when the audience least expects it as James, the celebrity outsider.

It is kind of impressive how much Hovannisian & Mouhibian try to say in 1915. It does completely work, but they swing for the fences—and arguably do not come up so embarrassingly short. In fact, it is rather fascinating to watch where the film goes. They also convincingly make their central motivating point. When incidents of great historical enormity are covered-up they fester and metastasize in the national psyche. Sort of worth seeing as a noble failure with no obvious prior analog, 1915 opens this Friday (4/17) at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, Town Center 5, and Playhouse 7, as well as next Wednesday (4/22) at the Quad Cinema in New York.

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Vengeance of an Assassin: Truth in Titling

Bone-crunching badassery runs in Nathee and Than’s family, but it apparently skipped their drunken uncle. He has his reasons for retreating into a beer bottle. He promised to keep them on the straight and narrow after their undercover cop parents were murdered, but the brothers remain dead set on revenge. Inconveniently, the old family nemesis gets proactive in Vengeance of an Assassin (trailer here), the final film helmed by late Thai action maestro Panna Rittikrai, which releases today on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

To discover the identity of his parents’ killers, Nathee leaves his uncle’s home to become a professional assassin. Than stays with their guilt-ridden guardian, but he secretly develops his skills using training tapes made by their parents. One day, “Thee” gets a suspicious assignment: he is supposed to protect Ploy, the daughter of a well-connected politician and minor celebrity in her own right. Nathee quickly figures out he is being set up by his mysterious employer to take the rap for Ploy’s murder. Although there is not a lot of trust between him and Ploy, he protects her anyway, because that is his assignment, dodgy as it is. Needless to say, it was personal to begin with and becomes even more so after Nathee kills Nui, the lethal girlfriend of his archenemy’s entitled son.

Okay, what part of Vengeance of an Assassin don’t you get? You have an assassin and he’s out for revenge. The plot is simple, yet strangely incomprehensible at times. Realism is not exactly a top priority here either. Frankly, Nathee probably should have died a dozen times over before he ever reaches the third act. At one point, he is repeatedly impaled on a metal spike, but Ploy is able to get him to her family doctor just in time. He practices Chinese medicine, you see. At least it provides an opportunity for the good doctor to lay a massive beatdown on the henchmen who follow Ploy and Nathee.

Without question, the main attraction is Rittikrai’s super-charged OSHA-free fights scenes. They are wildly cinematic and relentless over-the-top. As Nathee, Dan Chupong has the right old school 1980s down-and-dirty chops. Ooi Teik Huat nicely channels Gordon Liu as the venerable but surprisingly spry doctor, but it is tough to top the star power and action cred of Kessarin Ektawatkul, who really has Tony Jaa-level international breakout potential, even when she plays a villain like Nui. Nisachon Tuamsoongnern doesn’t get to have nearly as much fun as Ploy, but she is not nearly as annoying as most genre damsels in distress.

The CGI in Vengeance is not so hot and there are narrative holes big enough to hurtle a derailed train through, which in fact Rittikrai does. However, when the characters are bashing each other black and blue with license plates and windshield wipers, it is pretty darned entertaining. Recommended for martial arts fans hoping for a big serving of red meat, Vengeance of an Assassin is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.

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Tribeca ’15: Anniversary Screenings

In fourteen years, the Tribeca Film Festival has grown into an impressive institution, with well-respected grant-writing and film distribution arms. Still, the thirteenth anniversary just isn’t a very round number. However, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival will commemorate a number of films reaching milestones ending with fives and zeroes. Best of all, several of these special screening will be free of charge (although advance ticketing is still required in some cases).

You might have missed the anticipation for the 30th anniversary of Clue the movie, based on the perennially popular board game, which is why Tribeca’s free Drive-In screening is such a public service. Jonathan Lynn’s film was not kindly reviewed at the time, but in retrospect, we can acknowledge it as one of his wittiest works since the Yes, Minister franchise. The spooky old house set is wonderfully detailed and the all-star cast is relentlessly hammy—in a good way. The random uncredited Howard Hesseman sightings also add a dash of surreal humor, but the real star is the deliciously caustic dialogue. Lynn pushes the rapid-fire delivery, as if he broke out Howard Hawks’ old stop-watch. There are actually more films based on board games these days, but Clue remains the best. It screens for free this Thursday (4/16) at the World Financial Plaza.

In 1985, all the love denied Clue was showered on Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, which has become iconic for a reason. The effects were pretty cool for its time, but it had tons of heart. It heralded Michael J. Fox’s apparent arrival as a big time movie star, but despite some successful subsequent releases, Back to the Future 1 remains his cinematic high-water mark. As likable as he and Christopher Lloyd are together, it is impossible to think of the film without hearing Huey Lewis’s Power of Love in your mind’s ear, but that just proves how all the elements truly came together for it. Nostalgically recommended, it screens for free at the BMCC on Saturday (4/25).

Back to the Future presents a very innocent, 1950s version of love, but it is nowhere near as endearing as Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Arguably, the spaghetti sequence is the first movie moment that suggests to boys and girls kissing scenes might be okay after all. Let’s face it, the film is just adorable, plus it features the sassy vocals of Peggy Lee, performing original songs she co-wrote with Sonny Burke. Parents should take their kids to see it at the Drive-In this Friday (4/17), before Disney cheapens it with another live-action remake.

If you like Peggy Lee (and who the heck doesn’t?), you’re probably okay with Frank Sinatra too. 2015 marks the Sinatra centennial (1915-1998), so Tribeca will celebrate with free screenings of On the Town, Some Came Running, and High Society (trailer here). They are all worth seeing, but the latter is particularly notable. A musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, it co-stars Sinatra in the Jimmy Stewart role, Bing Crosby fearlessly stepping in for Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly in her final film, assuming Katherine Hepburn’s duties. Yes, Philadelphia is the better film, but Society has one thing the other lacks: Louis Armstrong, playing himself.

In fact, Armstrong gets the sort of star treatment he lacked in some of his more problematic early films. He serves as a sort of narrator in the opening and closing segments and performs a flat-out flag-waver, “Now You Has Jazz,” with Crosby. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the number is that each of the All-Stars gets a brief solo, introduced by Crosby. At this time, the line-up consisted of Trummy Young (trombone), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass), Barrett Deems (drums), and the New Orleans legend in his own right, Edmond Hall on clarinet (but sadly, no Velma Middleton). Society was also the first full screen musical Cole Porter had written in a number of years. It might not be his most memorable work, but there are flashes of that classic wit, like “have you heard, its in the stars, next July we collide with Mars” in “Well, Did You Evah!” It screens at the Regal Battery Park next Friday (4/24), but you’re going to have to deal with rush tickets at this point.

Perhaps the biggest ticket anniversary will be Monty Python and the Holy Grail celebrating forty years of lunacy. In fact, there will be several decidedly not-free Python screenings at Tribeca, as well as the premiere of the documentary Monty Python: the Meaning of Live chronicling their live performances at London’s O2 Arena, designed to pay-off their lawyers’ fees and Terry Jones’ mortgage (full review to come). The Rifftrax guys will also give the live treatment to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is only marking its twelfth anniversary, but it feels like it has always been with us. Altogether, it is an interesting selection of old favorites programmed (sometimes for free, sometime not, check the website) at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Closer to the Moon: Romania’s Crime of the Century

Irony was usually lost on Communist apparatchiks. It was especially so in this case. The socialist authorities were completely baffled why a small band of former Party members would stage a daring armored car robbery for a few million worthless Romanian leu, at a time when everyone was desperately seeking hard foreign currency. Yet, the absurdity is the whole point for the disillusioned resistance heroes in Nae Caranfil’s Closer to the Moon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

All the major facts of Moon are historically accurate, but the why’s remain a bit murky. However, Caranfil’s speculations are more than persuasive. They clearly carry the spirit of the truth, even if they cannot be verified by the participants, for reasons one could easily guess. At, one time, police inspector Max Rosenthal and his comrades were ardent Communists and heroes of the resistance. They also happened to be Jewish. The post-war years would have been disheartening enough as the Communist Party proceeded to betray their ideals, but to make matters worse, the group of friends have all largely lost their positions thanks to the Stalin-mandated anti-Semitic purges. Only Rosenthal still maintains his post, entirely due to the fact he is married to the shrewish daughter of his superior. However, he is dead set on a divorce, regardless of the repercussions.

Sadly, Yorgu Ristea, the academic, Razvan Ordel, the journalist, and Dumitru Dorneanu, the research scientists have even worse seats in the same boat. The outlook is nearly as bad for Rosenthal’s old flame, Alice Bercovich, who had been sent abroad to study, but was recalled under ominous circumstances. Unlike the others, she has a son to protect. Yet, against her better judgement, she gets caught up in Rosenthal’s armored car scheme. Conceived as an existential protest, they hope to spur their countrymen to start questioning the claims of the Communist government. Of course, one of the central pillars of its propaganda is the supposed abolition of crime in Romania.

Both the scheme and the punishment are so crazy they have to be true. Rosenthal and his comrades really did perpetrate the heist under the guise of an action movie shoot (it would have been the first in Romania, had it been real). Likewise, the government really did force the condemned prisoners to re-stage the crime for a massively ill-conceived propaganda film. With nothing to lose, the prisoners largely take over the production (aided and abetted by Virgil, the fictionalized apprentice cameraman). Desperate to learn why they did it and who else might be involved, Holban the frazzled bureaucrat, indulges their demands for champagne and caviar, hoping the truth will come out during an unguarded moment. Yet, the truth is all around him, if he could only see it.

Obviously, this story holds tremendous cinematic potential, which Caranfil fully exploits, but he also gives it all a darkly wry comedic twist. At times, it feels like The Lives of Others rewritten by a less manic Alan Ayckbourne, but viewers are constantly reminded of the impending finality. Indeed, Caranfil nicely balances the absurdist humor with the tragic fatalism.

The mostly British cast is particularly well suited to the film’s matter-of-factly sardonic tone, especially Mark Strong, who personifies world-weary dignity as Rosenthal. Vera Farmiga gets to exercise both her drama queen and sultry femme fatale chops as Bercovich, making the most of each. Eventually, Christian McKay will break out for his witty, sophisticated performances, including his work here as the disenchanted Ristea. Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd is blandly forgettable as Virgil, but his job is mostly to observe. However, David de Keyser adds real heart and gravitas to the film as Moritz, the camera man’s VOA-listening landlord. British television regular Anton Lesser might also do his career best as the politically vulnerable insomniac, Holban.

Moon bears witness to the crimes of Communism in an unusually droll and humanistic way. It is a finely crafted period production, recreating the space exploration-obsessed late 1950s (hence the title) in detail, but Marius Panduru’s cinematography often looks a little too sunny given the events in question. Regardless, it is a fascinating story (already the subject of at least one worthy Romanian documentary) brought to life by a distinctive cast. It also represents a rare opportunity to see excerpts from the re-enactment film, which the Party immediately locked away in a vault, upon its completion. Highly recommended for fans of heist and con films as well as prestige historicals, Closer to the Moon opens this Friday (4/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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The Dead Lands: The Deadly Maori Art of Mau Rakau

You may not be familiar with the Maori martial arts discipline of Mau Rakau, but there is a reason it translates as “to bear a weapon.” Viewers will see just how lethal paddle-shaped Patus and assorted traditional spears can be when a teenage Maori follows his father’s killer through a shunned stretch forest in Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

This is New Zealand before contact with Europeans, but it is not necessarily unspoiled. Something so horrific happened in the so-called Dead Lands, the various Maori tribes avoid it at all costs. The exact details remain hazy, but everyone believes the old, ferocious figure known simply as “the Warrior” was intimately involved in the atrocity. Just about everyone will travel days out of their way to avoid his territory, not Wirepa, who just barges through.

The arrogant young son of tribal chief has just manufactured a grievance against their rival tribe. His subsequent sneak attack nearly wiped out all of Hongi’s people and killed his father, the peace-loving chief. Nobody ever thought the clumsy Hongi would ever amount to much of a warrior, but he will have to develop his skills quickly to avenge his people. With the encouragement of his grandmother’s aggrieved spirit, Hongi forges an alliance with the fearsome Warrior (with a capital “W”), who does not appreciate the entitled Wirepa traipsing through his territory. Despite his profoundly antisocial nature, The Warrior will take Hongi under his wing, teaching him the deadly art of Mau Rakau.

Dead Lands is bound to offend some viewers because its vision of pre-contact Maori is all about fighting. Yet that is not such a bad strategy, since it allows the film to sidestep the awkward melodrama of a Rapa Nui. It certainly makes viewers reluctant to hassle anyone carrying a patu with authority, which is something the film can hang its hat on.

Indeed, the Mau Rakau fight scenes choreographed by cast trainer and co-star Jamus Webster are spectacularly cinematic. The imposing Lawrence Makoare (a veteran of The Lord of the Rings franchise and Marco Polo) is an especially effective action figure, who seems ripe for a cult following after all the glowering and hacking-and-slashing he does as “The Warrior.” James Rolleston and Te Kohe Tuhaka also go at it with admirable vigor as Hongi and Wirepa, respectively. Frustratingly, Raukura Turei displays impressive Mau Rakau chops and real screen presence as Mehe, a lady warrior and potential love interest, but she is forced to make a rough entrance all too quickly after the film introduces her.

There is probably plenty of ethnographic hand-wringing to do over Dead Lands, but the action scenes are cool and it provided a lot of work for Maori actors and craftsmen. In its way, it should inspire widespread fanboy appreciation for the time honored practice of Mau Rakau. Fraser gives it all a strong sense of place and nicely instills a mood of mystery and foreboding. Recommended for fans of Seediq Bale, The Dead Lands opens this Friday (4/17) in New York, at the Village East.

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Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris

It is the early 1980s in Paris. The hair is feathered and the phones are all rotary. It looks glaringly dated, but the relationship issues of the characters inhabiting this world are as fresh today as they were when the film wrapped. Such is often the case with the work of Éric Rohmer. Technically, it is the fourth of his narratively discrete Comedies and Proverbs pseudo-series, but Full Moon in Paris (trailer here) is completely its own Rohmeresque animal, which launches Film Movement’s Classic line when it re-releases this Friday in New York.

Louise loves Remi, more or less, but she is not nearly as enamored with him as he is with her. By now, the lovely social butterfly is accustomed to being in that position. Still, she is committed enough to move into his modern suburban condo in Marne. The daily commute from her Paris interior design internship is a bit of a drag, especially when she wants to go out with friends. Everything would be much simpler if Remi would agree to let her keep a pied-a-terre. Of course, that means they will have to mutually trust each other.

Despite her aggressively flirtatious nature, Louise is, by-and-large, faithful to Remi. Ironically, it is Octave, the married platonic friend whose advances she frequently refuses, who plants the seeds of suspicions in her. He is absolutely convinced he saw Remi with one of Louise’s fashionista friends, under rather intimate circumstances.

Like most of Rohmer’s films, Moon completely stands alone. Yet, the more Rohmer films viewers watch, the more they get out of them as a collective body. Again, Rohmer displays a characteristic fascination with schedules and time tables, while duly marking the passage of successive months. He also gives us a time capsule snap shot of the suburban Paris circa 1984.

However, Moon is arguably one of the easiest Rohmer films for viewers to identify with. Let’s be honest, just about everyone has been in an unequal relationship, liking the other person more than they reciprocated, or liking them in a completely different way. Louise is in several such relationships, but karma will ultimately catch up with her.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Moon is the tragic fate of Pascale Ogier, who would become only the second actress to be posthumously nominated for César Award for her performance as Louise. She might very well have become Rohmer mainstay, but it was not to be.  Even though the character causes all her angst and heartache, Ogier still makes Louise a figure of great sympathy. Yes, she is self-serving and insensitive, but in a strangely naïve way. Indeed, she is the picture of waif-like vulnerability.

It is also rather mind-blowing to see the future Luc Besson tough guy Tchéky Karyo playing the socially awkward Remi. He is in fact, quite good, especially in the big pay-off scene. In contrast, Octave is not so very different from the supercilious characters Fabrice Luchini has made a career out of playing, but he gives Louise’s married suitor a notable edge. Whereas, in the Rohmer tradition of small parts with large impact, László Szabó nearly steals the entire picture outright in his eleventh hour appearance as an illustrator working in the wee hours at a local café, slyly putting an exclamation point on Rohmer’s chosen proverb: “he who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.”

Moon returns just in time to act as a corrective to Victor Levin’s middling 5 to 7, which seems to think it has a lot to say about relationships, but is completely undercut by Louise’s eye-opening experiences. Rohmer’s film has a forgiving nature, but there is still a lot of sting to it. It is also rather encouraging to see the quiet Rohmer renaissance continue, following the long deferred proper New York opening of A Summer’s Tale and the subsequent revival of A Tale of Winter. Both are fine works, but Full Moon in Paris is an even better film. Highly recommended for those who appreciate honest and sophisticated filmmaking, Full Moon in Paris opens this Friday (4/17) at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, in conjunction with a full retrospective of Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Art of the Real ’15: Li Wen at East Lake

A cop who collects Cultural Revolution-era pre-execution photos must sound like one scary cat, but Li Wen does it with a sense of irony. To keep the peace, he will hunt a supposedly mentally disturbed troublemaker, who might just be an eccentric gadfly the powers-that-be find inconvenient. Everything about the copper and his latest case are both fake and real, making Luo Li’s meta-meta-hybrid documentary Li Wen at East Lake (trailer here) a perfect selection for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Art of the Real series of aesthetically challenging docs.

Following in the recent tradition of independent Chinese cinema, Li Luo does not exactly rush into his narrative. Instead, establishes a sense of East Lake, one of the few remaining inland lakes in the hyper-developed Wuhan metropolitan district. Legend has it, a dragon once rose from the lake to wreak fiery, purifying vengeance. A sort of Holy Fool seems to be peddling that story again, which is bad for state socialist-crony capitalist business, so Li Wen and his deputy must track down the rabble-rouser. Yet, either their quarry is surprisingly elusive or Li Wen is not feeling especially motivated, because it will take quite some time.

If ever there was a film whose sum of its parts is greater than its whole, it would be LW@EL. There are a number of boldly pointed scenes, some of which even get quite intense. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of sketchy and sluggish connective material, ostensibly holding it together, but really just watering down the overall cinematic experience.

Nevertheless, when it is on, it scores impressive points. This is especially true when Li Wen argues with a gender and sexuality identity-studies grad student—a sequence that is as funny as anything you will see in a major studio release this year. Yet, there is also a very serious subtext critiquing the Communist government and state media’s hostility towards LGBT citizens. Likewise, Li Wen’s rather frank discussions regarding the Party and the Cultural Revolution (which officially never happened) are far from flattering. In fact, we eventually learn he was once a modernist artist, but now Li Wen paints motel-worthy landscapes as brown-nosing offerings for his uncultured superiors.

Piling on the meta-ness, Li Wen the copper-painter is played by Li Wen the real life painter and occasional actor, previously seen as the title character in Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell. As his namesake, he shows considerable range, in the unlikeliest of ways. He shows off some razor sharp comedic timing, while also conveying profoundly sad awareness of current injustices and the weight of historical tragedies.

There are flashes of brilliance from Li Luo and his mostly unprofessional (or perhaps semi-professional) cast throughout LW@EL, but he forces viewers to really work for them. Committed China watchers will find it worth the effort, but the less cerebral and adventurous the viewer, the slimmer the returns. Recommended for a narrow, confidently self-selected audience, Li Wen at East Lake screens this Wednesday (4/15) at the Francesca Beale Theater, as part of this year’s Art of the Real.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mary Lou Williams: the Lady Who Swings the Band

You can pretty much count on one finger the jazz musicians who have received Papal commissions. Mary Lou Williams will always be remembered for exceling as a musician-arranger-composer at a time when the music industry was ridiculously male-dominated. Yet, by reconciling and combining jazz with her Catholic faith, Williams shattered just as many musical preconceptions. Williams’ life and music are surveyed in Carol Bash’s Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band (promo here), which premieres on many PBS stations this weekend (but not always at convenient hours).

Williams was a child prodigy born to play the piano, but she first started to make a name for herself in Kansas City, at the height of the town’s hipness. Most musicians were loath to play with women, but her husband, alto and baritone player John O. Williams knew she could swing. When his boss, territory bandleader Andy Kirk found himself caught without a piano player, he reluctantly called her in to sub. Needless to say, she basically made Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy. Naturally, he resented her for it, but the producers were adamant—no Williams, no contract.

Eventually, Williams would separate from both Kirk and her husband, striking out on her. Despite her talent and reputation, she would experience all the ups and downs of the jazz musician’s life, except it was always even more challenging for Williams—until she heard what can be rightly described as her calling. Finding spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church, Williams was encouraged to use her musical gifts, but in a way that expressed her deepening faith.

It is great to see Bash fully explores the significance and influence of Williams’ sacred music. She also gives the jazz legend her due as an entrepreneur, self-producing her releases on her own Mary label, long before that became the industry norm. However, the film leaves some unanswered questions regarding her relationship with John O. According to his obit, he also played with the Cootie Williams band and co-wrote “Froggy Bottom,” which suggests he might be one of those unfairly overlooked kind of guys.

Of course, the music is the most important thing in Lady Who Swings. Bash incorporates some all-star performances, appropriately including Geri Allen, who played the Mary Lou Williams figure in Robert Altman’s unfairly panned Kansas City. Wycliffe Gordon also leads a big band and Carmen Lundy lends her vocal chops and elegant presence, but Bash cuts off them off before they really get started. That is a shame, because just about all of us interested in Williams will want to hear their take on her music. Maybe the concert interludes are allowed to go on longer in a more extensive festival cut.

Indeed, fifty-four minutes on Mary Lou Williams is certainly economical, but it only scratches the surface and whets the appetite. Nevertheless, Bash makes sure viewers leave with the right take-aways. If you still don’t understand Williams was Catholic who could still swing hard after watching her film, you have serious retention issues. Brisk, informative, and respectful of Williams’ Catholicism, Mary Lou Williams: the Lady Who Swings the Band will leave audiences wanting more, but what we have is still definitely worth seeing. Highly recommended, it airs Sunday night (4/12) in Salt Lake, Monday night (4/13) in LA, Wednesday night (4/15) in San Francisco, and in the early Monday morning a.m. (4/13) in New York/New Jersey (a more rational afternoon time-slot was announced and canceled, but hopefully it can be rescheduled, so check those local listings).

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Korean Movie Night: King of Jokgu

It is one of the few government programs that worked as intended. The game of Jokgu was devised by the ROK military to promote physical fitness. Korean enlisted men immediately took to the soccer-volleyball hybrid and it also caught on with civilians. However, the snobbish remain disdainful of its roughneck roots. At least, that seems to be the case on the college campus where the recently discharged Hong Man-seob has re-enrolled. However, the older underclassmen is not about to give up on the game he was born to play in Woo Moon-gi’s King of Jokgu (trailer here), which screens this coming Tuesday as part of the free Korean Movie Night series at New York’s Asia Society.

Sergeant Hong was the best Jokgu player on his base, by a country mile. He is actually sort of sorry to leave the Jokgu court that was like a second home to him. However, he is eager to return to the School of Food and Nutrition, in the hope that he will meet his future wife there. He sure thinks he has found her when he lays eyes on An-na. She often has that effect on guys, but Hong has more stick-to-itiveness than most. Inconveniently, An-na is still hung up on Kang Min, a former member of the national soccer team, but when an injury ended his playing career, he basically gave up on himself.

Initially, An-na starts seeing Hong to spur some jealousy in Kang Min, but she has to admit the big lug is a heck of a nice guy. She even starts to enjoy hanging with his oddball friends. Together, they join Hong’s campaign to rebuild the campus Jokgu court. However, An-na will have to decide who she will root for when Hong’s team faces Kang Min’s squad in the university’s re-established Jokgu tournament.

Yes, King is desperately trying to be a crowd pleasing romantic comedy, but it succeeds. It is endearingly bittersweet and surprisingly restrained when it comes to the slapsticky shtick. It starts with Hong Man-seob, who is not merely another stereotypical gentle giant. The man has integrity and he will even stand-up to An-na from time to time. Ahn Jae-hong plays him just right: slightly goofy, but wearing his heart on his sleeve. He shares some delicately ambiguous chemistry with Hwang Seung-eon’s An-na, who also pleasantly exceeds and subverts our expectations.

Okay, maybe Kang Bong-seong and Hwang Mi-yeong can be a little embarrassing as Hong’s goony teammates, but the film is bolstered by several strong yet subtle key supporting turns. Lee Se-rang gives the film real heft as Hong’s off campus steakhouse employer and Park Ho-san nicely portrays the evolution of Hong’s initially judgmental roommate Hyeong-gook.

King has been programmed as part of a focus on emerging young Korean directors, with good reason. Woo exhibits a surefooted sense when to ease up on the physical humor and when to double down on the well-earned emotional payoff. As a result, it is impossible to dislike this film. Seriously, it can’t be done. Highly recommended, King of Jokgu screens (for free) this coming Tuesday (4/14) at the Asia Society in New York.

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Kino! ’15: Who Am I—No System in Safe

Considering the shadowy cyber-activist outfit known as FR13NDS decks out their avatars with masks clearly inspired by the terrorist protagonist of V for Vendetta, it is probably safe to assume the sanctity of life is not a big priority for them. However, a hero-worshipping hacker will be rather disappointed to learn they are in league with the Russian mob. Unfortunately, this revelation comes after he ever so ill-advisedly passes along some highly secretive intel. Cyber monkey-wrenching inevitably turns into cyber-terror in Baran bo Odar’s Who Am I—No System is Safe (trailer here), which screens as part of Kino! 2015, the festival of German Films in New York City.

Life has not worked out so well for Benjamin, at least so far. Yet, it always makes more sense when he is in front of a computer screen. Since he bought into the propaganda disseminated by FR13NDS, Benjamin has become one of the sycophants hanging on the pronouncements of the group’s shadowy leader, Mr. X, in super-secret online forums. He is not the only one. A chance meeting during court mandated community service with the mercurial Max will bring the two kindred spirits together. Together with Max’s old co-conspirators, they form CLAY (“Clowns Laughing At You”) in hopes of impressing Mr. X with their socially conscious prankersterism.

Much to the temperamental Max’s frustration, Mr. X remains dismissive of CLAY. Yearning for online approval, they swing for the fences, launching a major online and physical breach of the Federal intelligence service. Regrettably, when Benjamin gives Mr. X a batch of unvetted classified files as proof-of-hack, it leads to the gangland-style execution of government informants. Wanted for murder, CLAY will have to take down Mr. X to clear their names.

It might be awkwardly titled (“No system is safe” being one of Mr. X’s maxims), but WAI—NSIS is a massively slick thriller that offers a pointed critique of Vendetta and Hacktivist culture in general, while also slyly riffing on Fight Club. Odar’s inventive representations of cyberspace (in a dodgy looking subway car) are quite stylish and cinematic. He also stages some impressive breaking-and-entering scenes and seamlessly executes the third act mind-twister. Based on WAI—NSIS and his previous film, The Silence, it should not be long before Odar is recruited for a major American studio thriller gig.

The cast might have to wait longer for a call from Hollywood, but they are all reasonably solid. Tom Schilling (Generation War and A Coffee in Berlin) is suitably earnest and nebbish as Benjamin. Elyas M’Barek also vents some convincing spleen as the petulant Max, while Wotan Wilke Möhring and Antoine Monot Jr. add seasoning as their unlikely looking accomplices. On the other hand, it is difficult to fathom Hannah Herzsprung’s appeal as Marie, the charmless object of Benjamin’s affections.

Frankly, it is almost a miracle the production company behind WAI—NSIS has not been hacked back to the Stone Age by hacker-activists taking umbrage with the film’s relatively favorable depiction of law enforcement and decidedly critical portrayal of their online skulduggery. Arguably, it is one of the bravest films you will see all year. Highly recommended, Who Am I—No System is Safe screens this coming Monday (4/13) and Wednesday (4/15) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Kino! in New York.

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Broken Horses, Lame Movies

It is not exactly a western, but Of Mice and Men is certainly a novel of the American west. It clearly wasn’t conceived as a bordertown noir—and with good reason. Vidhu Vinod Chopra will demonstrate just how ill-conceived such a story would be. For his American directorial debut, Chopra transfers his Bollywood mega-hit Parinda to the Southwest, but something is definitely lost in the Spanglish translation that is Broken Horses (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Buddy Heckum is the older brother, but Jakey is supposed to be the responsible one. Buddy is a bit slow, but he sure can shoot a gun. When their Pa, the sheriff is murdered, local crime lord Julius Hench tricks Buddy into thinking he is avenging his father by killing Hench’s enemies. Soon, the elder Heckum Brother is a full-fledged member of the gang. That must make him a Henchman. Meanwhile, Jakey Heckum maintains his blissful ignorance pursuing his violin studies in New York. However, with his marriage to Vittoria, a fellow struggling musician, soon approaching, Jakey returns home to brief Buddy on his best man duties.

Much to his shock, he finds his brother is totally mobbed up. Afraid the younger Heckum will challenge his hold on Buddy, Hench tries to have Jakey killed. He somehow survives, but it is quite the wake-up call. Determined to save Buddy, Jakey decides to take down Hench’s outfit from the inside by joining the organization. Fortunately, Hench was looking to recruit a violinist. Actually, he wanted a second viola player, but he will have to make do.

The very notion of Alton Yelchin’s nebbish Jakey Heckum talking his way into a ruthless border gang is seriously credibility challenged. While Yelchin can be a hit-or-miss actor, he completely throws in the towel halfway through Horses. The whole point of the film is to watch him belatedly accept responsibility for Buddy and save him from his soul-sucking life of crime. Yet, he spends the entire third act setting up house with Vittoria on Buddy’s ranch, letting the brother is supposed to protect handle all the thriller business.

Clearly, Yelchin is trying to vanish into the background. As Buddy Heckum (seriously, why not just call him Friendly Helzapoppin?), Chris Marquette induces cringe after cringe with a performance suggesting Lennie Small with anger management issues. Likewise, Vincent D’Onofrio over-indulges all his annoying tics and scenery chewing shtickery, but since he is the villain, it is somewhat forgivable. Probably only María Valverde (seen at Sundance a few years ago in the infinitely superior Madrid, 1987) merits any notice for bringing some warmth to the film as Vittoria.

This movie is just an absolute mess. Somehow it manages to be exploitative and boring at the same time. The title is a reference to putting down horses that pull up lame, which might be the only fitting aspect of the entire shooting match. Not recommended, Broken Horses opens today (4/10) in New York, at the AMC Empire.