J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Preservation

We do not read short story writer Richard Connell very much anymore, except for his constantly anthologized “The Most Dangerous Game.” Years after the Joel McCrea-Irving Pichel adaptation, exploitation filmmakers keep “paying homage.” The latest is not the greatest, but midnight movie fans have certainly seen worse than Christopher Denham’s Preservation, which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

For reasons that escape us, Mike Neary has organized a nostalgic hunting trip with his neglected (and secretly pregnant) wife Wit and his surly brother Sean, who has just been discharged from the military under mysterious circumstances. He seems a little tense. His disposition will not improve when their gear is stolen. Wisely, brother Mike chose an abandoned state park for sentimental reasons, so with their cell phones gone, the three will be totally on their own.

Frankly, the first two acts rather try a viewers’ patience. Here is a survival tip: if a gang of psycho hunters are stalking you, give them that extra whack if you ever get the drop on one of them. Instead, the Nearys are constantly letting them pop back up, with dire consequences.

However, when the hunted finally becomes the proper hunter, Preservation starts to deliver the sort of sleazy vicarious payback we went in looking for. For a good portion of the film, the hunters have no villainous personality because of the admittedly creepy masks they wear. Yet, when we finally come to understand who they are, it is rather unsettling, offering an unexpected commentary on our increasingly desensitized nature.

Wrenn Schmidt is pretty convincing as the reluctant action heroine, while Pablo Schreiber (Liev’s half-brother) nicely skirts the line between intense and kind of crazy as Sean Neary. In contrast, Aaron Staton seems rather pale vanilla in comparison.

Preservation is mostly just standard issue survivalist fare, but it looks like Hitchcock’s Vertigo compared to the thematically similar Black Rock. Scattering a few laughs amid the bloodshed, Preservation only occasionally raises the exploitation bar above the genre minimum. If that’s good enough for you, it screens again this Friday (4/25) during the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: Keep On Keepin’ On

Clark Terry’s distinctive personal sound has been justly hailed as the “happiest” in all jazzdom. Nobody could lift your spirits in live performance like he could, so it will be especially difficult for his fans to see Terry’s suffering the ravages of age and ill health. Yet, he doggedly continues to mentor his latest student, forging an unusually close relationship with blind Justin Kauflin. Alan Hicks follows four eventful years of their jazz lives in Keep On Keepin’ On, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Terry is the only musician to play in the Ellington, Basie, and Tonight Show bands. Thelonius Monk’s last real studio sideman gig was for Terry, one of the trumpeter and flugelhornist’s 905 documented recording sessions. If you didn’t know already, he is the real deal, but he has always been willing to take young musicians under his wing. However, Kauflin is more than just his latest pupil.

Born with degenerative vision that failed completely during his grade school years, Kauflin replaced his enthusiasm for sports with music. Despite his obvious talent, he suffers from confidence issues. Frustratingly, he just cannot seem to find sideman gigs, for conspicuously obvious reasons. Surely, Terry must know someone who can help, right? As a matter of fact, he once gave lessons to a young cat named Quincy Jones, who happens to be one of the producers of Keep On.

At times, Hicks’ intimate access to the two musicians feels like more of a curse than a blessing. He captures moments of pain and indignity that are uncomfortable to watch, but they accurately present the messiness of reality. For jazz fans, it is also bittersweet to see the late great Mulgrew Miller briefly appearing in an interview segment. On the flip side, it should be noted Quincy Jones looks eternally fab.

Frankly, it is important to accentuate the positive in Keep On. Perhaps providentially, one of Terry’s greatest hits was “Mumbles,” featuring his sly nonsensical blues vocalizing, considering his lessons now largely depend on his scatting chops. As bad as things get, Terry keeps plugging away with and on behalf of Kauflin, because you cannot keep a great man down.

Indeed, great is the right term. Jazz fans respect Bird and Dizzy, revere Duke and Armstrong, but its Clark Terry that we love. For years he would regularly headline one of the major New York clubs every other month or so, giving us a chance to recharge our spiritual batteries. It is hard to accept we probably will not be see lead that familiar quintet again (featuring David Glasser on alto, Don Friedman on piano, Marcus McLaurine on bass, and Sylvia Cuenca on drums), but that appears to be the case. If you missed them, you missed out.

Clearly, Hicks understands Terry’s musical significance and appreciates the dedication of his wife Gwen. Keep On is definitely a happy-sad kind of film, instilling optimism in the next generation, while paying tribute to those who came before them. You will probably need to listen to a good dose of Terry after viewing Keep On Keepin’ On to cheer yourself up, but it is still highly recommended for jazz fans when it screens again this Friday (4/25) during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

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The Girl and Death: A Colleague for Zhivago

Love rarely works out for early Twentieth Century Russian doctors with a taste for lyric poetry. Sadly, Nicolai Borodinski will be no exception. Geography, corruption, and consumption will all conspire against him in Jos Stelling’s awkwardly titled The Girl and Death (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

En route to medical school in Paris, Borodinski stops at a Leipzig country inn of questionable repute. Everyone seems to work for the dodgy “Count” who leads the nightly hedonism, especially the mysterious woman living in the top room. That would be Elise, the Count’s kept woman and most exclusive “working girl.” According to her procuress, Elise’s childhood was so abusive her life with the Count is considerably more pleasant in comparison. Despite the Count’s possessive jealousy, Borodinski and Elise fall madly in love, but it is not to be.

Initially, the Count’s wealth and hired thugs are sufficient to foil Borodinski, but the doctor in training keeps coming back for more. Eventually, his idealism inspires false hope in Elise, but her mounting debts and failing health will sabotage their attempt to be together. As misunderstandings compound, their great love will obviously follow the course of all Russian tragedies.

It is probably impossible for a film to be anymore elegiac than G&D. Although Stelling’s deliberate pace can be lulling at times, there is something intoxicating about the film’s aching romanticism. A lush period production, G&D is defined by its decadent and decaying mise-en-scène. However, when revisited in a cold post-screening light, it seems rather hard to believe a well-to-do doctor with bourgeoisie interests and a history of frequenting German brothels would weather the Stalinist era so easily (even if Leipzig was unfortunate enough to fall under Soviet domination in the GDR).

In truth, G&D is not meant to be analyzed for socio-political implications. It is all about taking in the rich visuals and the delicate classical soundtrack, largely consisting of Chopin, with a dash of Satie and Gounod thrown in (but no Für Elise—that would be too literal and too obvious). Best scene on a real screen, The Girl and Death is recommended for those who appreciate the look and feel of grand historicals when it opens this Friday (4/25) in New York and the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tribeca ’14: The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin

In the near-ish future, hyperinflation, Gresham’s Law, and even central banking as we know it might become relics of the past. We are not there yet, but the silver bullet might already be out there in cyberspace. It is called Bitcoin and it is not just for Libertarian eggheads anymore. Nicholas Mross documents the genesis and prodigious growth of the digital currency in The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the special Tribeca Talks series at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Presumably writing under a pseudonym, “Satoshi Nakamoto” sketched out the principles of the decentralized Bitcoin infrastructure, integrating pre-existing technologies in revolutionary ways. Finite in number, Bitcoins would be “mined” by those who lend their computing resources to process Bitcoin transactions. Mross’s brother Daniel was one such early adopter, whose Bitcoin evangelism provided the impetus for Rise.

As director and co-writer, Mross provides a lucid explanation of the Bitcoin system and an authoritative history of its formative years. However, he spends a disproportionate amount of time chronicling the Bitcoin mining experiences of his brother, who seems like a really nice guy, but will probably mostly be remembered in the Bitcoin history books for inspiring the currency’s first feature documentary.

Unfortunately, the news cycle did not do Mross any favors either. He was able to tack on an epilogue addressing several late breaking developments that bear quite directly on the Bitcoin narrative, but it is clearly a rushed job that lacks the depth of the prior segments. You cannot blame anyone, it is just a documentarian’s worst fears realized.

There is still good history and analysis in Rise, but one wishes he had gotten even more fundamental, by measuring Bitcoins against Jevons’ textbook functions of money: a medium of exchange, a measure of value, a standard of deferred payments, and a store of value. Although not universally accepted, you could probably use Bitcoins for all your daily shopping in certain New York and Bay Area neighborhoods, so yes, it increasingly serves as a medium of exchange. Bitcoins are commonly listed in most market reports, so they can technically serve as a measure of value, but the extreme volatility Mross chronicles makes this slightly problematic in practice.

Clearly, the store of value question remains the thorniest and will continue to be so long as Bitcoin holdings are vulnerable to hacking or the collapse of exchanges (as happened in the notorious Mt. Gox case, which factors prominently in the third act). Without that sense of security, it is hard to envision widespread acceptance of Bitcoins as a means of deferred payments.

According Mross’s creation story, the first recorded Bitcoin transaction was 10,000 Bitcoins in exchange for two Papa John’s pizzas. One would think Mross would have revisited the relative price of those pies to illustrate Bitcoin’s dramatic increase in value, but evidently that was too gimmicky for him. There is a great deal of food for thought in Rise, but ultimately Mross strives too hard to humanize the tale. Recommended as a primer on digital currency, The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin screens tomorrow (4/23) as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks programming. Given the stop-press addendum, there should be plenty discuss.

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Seven Warriors: Sammo Hung Puts Them Through Their Paces

Seven is an auspicious number. There are the Wonders of the World and Deadly Sins. It also only takes seven hardnosed mercenaries to rally a small village’s defenses. The template created by Akira Kurosawa and burnished by John Sturges’ classic western is transplanted to Republican China in Terry Tong’s Seven Warriors (trailer here), notably co-directed by Sammo Hung, which releases today on DVD from Well Go USA.

Right, you know how this goes. The women of a provincial village regularly plundered by outlaws shame their men into recruiting some hired guns. They find seven volunteers: Commander Chi, five of his former comrades-in-arms, and the over-eager country bumpkin Wong Way-wu. It quickly gets personal when Chi discovers an old colleague happens to be the chief warlord in question. The stakes also increase for Wong when he secretly shelters the sister of Hung Sap Kan, the leader of an aborted rebellion in a nearby village, who meets a premature end during the prologue.

Viewers should have a pretty clear idea what they are dealing with from the old school foley effects and heroic synthesizer music. Compared to its two notable predecessors, Warriors is definitely the lesser of the Trio of Seven, but it still delivers plenty of high spirited period action. Also serving as action choreographer, Master Hung stages some nifty fight scenes. The overall body count is also rather impressive. Yet, what might standout most are the frequency and severity of mistakes made by the home team. You certainly cannot accuse them of comic book invincibility.

Master Hung also shows his moves that defy the laws of physics during his cameo smackdown as his namesake. It is also rather amusing to see a young “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai (now so familiar to us as the mature smoothie) as the rustic Wong. Both he and Wu Ma (best known for supernatural fare, like A Chinese Ghost Story) overdo the comic relief, but there will be plenty of tragedy to offset it.

There are some surprisingly striking visuals in Warriors, as well as some genuinely earnest performances. Hung keeps the action gritty and grounded and Tong maintains a respectable pace. Altogether, it works pretty well, especially for those for whom it will appeal to a sense of nostalgia. Recommended for genre fans, Seven Warriors is now available on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

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Tribeca ’14: Ice Poison

He is not exactly a budding Walter White. His partner is more daring, but her willingness to sample their goods does not bode well. Thanks to Burma’s economic stagnation, the young protagonists willing make some very problematic choices in Midi Z’s Ice Poison (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

When we first meet the former farmer, he is so poor, Midi Z’s screenplay does not even grant him a proper name. With prices for their vegetables tumbling, the man and his father hock the family cow to buy a scooter. The old man seems to think there is good money to be made shuttling people home from the local bus depot, but proper cabs take most of that business. His surly son can only scuffle odd delivery jobs. However, that might be just what Sanmei needs.

Tricked into an involuntary marriage in China, Sanmei has been granted leave to bury her failing grandfather. Even though she left behind a child in Yunnan, she has no intention of returning. Determined to make some real money, she gets involved with her drug dealing cousin. Her deal with the scooter driver is simple. If he does the driving, she will handle all the exchanges, giving him a healthy cut for his efforts. They might not be Bonnie and Clyde, but we can all assume they are headed in a similar direction. Yet despite their reckless behavior, Midi Z would not have us judge them harshly. After all, they have taken some pretty drastic steps to secure legitimate work, only to be disappointed at every step.

Arguably, Ice is an unusually ambitious film, grappling with at least two and a half hot button issues. Obviously, Midi Z shines a light on Burma’s drug related social pathologies. He also directly addresses the plight of migrant workers, particularly with respects to bait-and-switch white slavery. Finally, Poison drops intriguing, if under-developed, hints regarding the extent secular modernity has challenged cultural and religious traditions. As a case in point, Sanmei’s return from China was delayed so she could retrieve her grandfather’s burial clothes, which had to be secretly buried themselves to survive the Cultural Revolution.

The Burma-born, Taiwan-based Midi Z is almost a one-man dynamo for the nascent Burmese film business (and they do call their nation Burma, rather than “Myanmar”). His eye for visuals has sharpened considerably since Return to Burma. However, the narrative balance is a bit out of whack. He spends considerably more time establishing the crumminess of the two protagonists’ lives than building suspense around their illicit trade. Still, the closing scene will knock the wind out of audiences, vividly reminding us just who the biggest loser is amidst this tale of woe.

Given her frequent collaborations with Midi Z, Wu Ke-xi probably qualifies as the first lady of Burmese cinema. In a chilling performance, she conveys both desperate vulnerability as well as a chillingly nihilistic inclination. In contrast, Wang Shin-hong is almost too reserved as the scooter-driver, even making it rather tricky to discern when he is stoned. Nevertheless, when he loses it down the stretch, it is something fierce to behold.

Ice Poison is not a perfect film, but it is significant, both as a symbol of Burma’s cinematic potential and a documentary like exercise in holding a mirror up to nature. It is a bit slack at times, but the stakes are about as serious as could be. Recommended who those who appreciate challenging social dramas, Ice Poison screens again tonight (4/22) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Black Coal, Thin Ice

China’s working poor are regularly ignored and exploited, but from their ranks will emerge an unlikely black widow that even James Cain would appreciate. Wu Zhizhen toils thanklessly in a provincial dry cleaner, but the last three men to be romantically linked to her met with early demises. Her suspicious misfortune attracts the attention of a disgraced ex-cop in Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

In 1999, hard boozing Det. Zhang Zili is called to investigate the discovery of multiple body parts at the local coal processing plant. Learning other pieces have turned up at other facilities, Zhang connects the dots to the Liu brothers, two drivers with a sketchy past. However, his routine inquiry goes spectacularly bad. The case is presumed solved, but that will not save his career.

Five years later, an old colleague comes to Zhang for an off the books consultation. The widow of the dismembered coal corpse has just lost her third significant other to foul play. The two more recent bodies were both found wearing ice skates, suggesting an obvious pattern. Seeking some sort of personal satisfaction, Zhang starts following Wu, but she is neither careless nor easily intimidated. However, as she gets used to his presence, she starts to entertain his overtures.

Like a Taiwanese Bette Davis, Gwei Lun Mei is a deceptively innocent looking femme fatale, but still a powerfully seductive screen presence. Well suited for Wu, she keeps audience sympathies sharply divided and expectations off-balance throughout Coal. She is also probably the biggest international movie star gracing Tribeca screens this year.

Conversely, Liao Fan revels in Zhang’s anti-heroics and degenerate binging. In fact, his flaws run so deep he had to be cashiered out of the police force to satisfy the Chinese censorship board. Intriguingly off-kilter in a hardnosed kind of way, Liao deservedly won the Silver Bear at Berlin for his work.

In a way, Coal bridges the gap between Chinese “indie films” and commercial releases to a surprising extent. Everything that goes down in Diao’s narrative is ultimately attributable to systemic injustice and inequity. Wu may very well be involved in something nefarious, but it is impossible to judge her harshly. Yet, this pointed social commentary proved to be a monster hit at the Chinese box office.

Coal could be considered a Chinese noir in the tradition of Fargo. The weather is cold, the landscape is grim, and people often behave in a dark and unpredictable manner. It is all definitely good stuff. Highly recommended, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a head-and-shoulders stand-out at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it screens again tomorrow (4/22), Thursday (4/24), and Saturday (4/26).

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Last Passenger: Going Express

Driving is the American way to commute. It suddenly does not look so bad for a handful of Brits trapped on a runaway train. The end of the line looms ominously in Omid Nooshin’s surprisingly spry thriller Last Passenger (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lewis Shaler tries to be a conscientious single father, but the demands of his emergency room practice often tax his young son Max’s patience. They are headed home from London on a redeye express, so Dr. Shaler can perform an emergency operation. At least they have a volunteer to help them pass the time. There might even be a halting attraction brewing between Shaler and the charming Ms. Sarah Barwell.

Unfortunately, events will interrupt them when Shaler starts to suspect something is amiss. Initially, nobody wants to get involved in matters like the disappearance of the porter. However, when the train starts blowing through scheduled station stops they quickly start to care. It turns out a mystery man has barricaded himself in the control room and disabled the emergency brakes. Of course, the outside authorities are slow to react, but it hardly matters. This is a diesel train, so there is nothing they can do to cut the power.

Perhaps transportation safety engineers could poke dozens of holes in Nooshin and Andrew Love’s screenplay, but its internal logic holds together pretty well for mere mortals. Obviously, there is a massive ticking clock counting down in the background, but the quiet moments work just as well. Nooshin vividly captures the eerily detached vibe of a late night train whooshing through nocturnal blackness. The mix of personality types and tics amongst Shaler’s fellow passengers also nicely follows in the tradition of great train suspense stories, going all the back to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Dougray Scott has become something of an overlooked leading man since the days of Ever After and MI: 2, but he anchors the film with understated strength and sensitivity. He definitely comes across as the sort of surgeon who would inspire confidence in patients. He also develops some relaxed but convincing chemistry with Kara Tointon’s Barwell. The supporting cast also feels right, particularly Iddo Goldberg (in a complete change of pace from Kat Coiro’s And While We Were Here) as an Eastern European immigrant transit worker.

Obviously, the question of who would do such a thing is hard to ignore, despite the narrative’s considerable tension. Nooshin & Love suggest (and never refute) a hypothesis that evades hot button ideological issues, but might be even more disturbing for what it implies regarding human nature. Regardless, they keep the train hurtling down the track. Frankly, there is something refreshingly old school about the smaller scope and corresponding emphasis on character. Recommended with unexpected affection for general thriller audiences, Last Passenger opens this Friday (4/25) in New York.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Journey to the West

Pilgrimages are supposed to be slow and arduous. That also seems to be the case for experimental cinema. Xuanzang, the iconic monk protagonist of Wu Cheng’en’s classic Ming-Era novel led quite the adventurous life, but Tsai Ming-liang slows it down dramatically for his avant-garde contemporary riff, Journey to the West (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng returns as ambling focal character from the director’s recent short, The Walker, but given the loaded title, we can also think of him as the second coming of fictional Xuanzang (or the historical Xuanzang on whom he was based). There will be no Monkey Kings for him to battle, but Denis Lavant will literally follow in his footsteps through the streets of Marseilles.

Tsai’s sense of composition is often slyly witty and cinematographer Antoine Heberle gives each frame the luster of Renaissance Old Masters, but there is no denying its static nature. This Journey is best considered in the tradition of film installations, such as Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (soon to grace the San Francisco International Film Festival). However, the British filmmaker’s ode to Chinese goddesses is considerably more cinematic thanks to the spectacle of Maggie Cheung hovering above the Shanghai skyline in the guise of the goddess Mazu and Zhao Tao’s eerie recreation of scenes from tragic actress Ruan Lingyu’s definitive film, The Goddess.

Let’s be honest, extreme close-ups of Zhao and Cheung make much more sense than Lavant’s haggard countenance. Lee’s physical discipline is commendable and his featured calligraphy is quite elegant. It also just nice to see he and Tsai still share their close collaborative bond, but that is something one can glean from the festival write-up.

Frankly, it is mind-boggling to think the same source novel kind of-sort of inspired Tsai’s fifty-six minute Journey to the West and Stephen Chow’s breakneck apocalyptic smackdown of the same name. More interesting on paper than on screen, this is the sort of film you can duck into for a few minutes and pretty fully get its gist (whereas Waves genuinely sucks viewers in). Festival goers will have a chance to do exactly that when the Tribeca Film Festival presents Tsai’s Journey free of charge at MoMA PS1, playing continuously from noon to 6:00 this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (4/24-4/26). It also screens conventionally this Tuesday (4/22) at the SVA Theater, but only those who deem plot and characterization optional should consider it.

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Tribeca ’14: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

They were like an adult version of the Bad News Bears. The Portland Mavericks were the last independent team to compete in Major League Baseball’s minor league system. Instead of simply developing prospects for big league affiliates, the Mavericks played to win. They also did their best to put on a show for the fans. Nearly thirty-seven years after their final game the Mavericks will entertain audiences once again when Chapman & Maclain Way’s documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball screens at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bing Russell was a working actor still probably best known as Deputy Clem on Bonanza, but baseball was his first love. About the time the Cartwrights were finally canceled, Portland’s AAA farm club left the city for Spokane. To the bemusement of just about everyone, Russell decided to launch an independent Single-A club and announced open tryouts to fill out his roster. The sports establishment laughed, but a whole lot of people showed up. However, Russell was able to recruit one veteran minor leaguer: his son Kurt Russell, a.k.a. Snake Plissken. Oddly enough, the makeshift Mavericks starting winning—and drawing. Of course, that rather embarrassed the baseball establishment.

Years later, Russell still chuckles at his father’s showmanship. In fact, Battered is one of the rare documentaries with no dirty family linen to air. Clearly, he thinks old man Bing was a cool cat and has the rest of us convinced in about thirty seconds. Without question, the senior Russell set the tone for the Mavericks, who consistently lived up to their names.

Yes, Battered is a sports doc, but it is also a show biz story, a family history, and a great big slice of Americana. Of special interest to cineastes, Oscar nominated director Todd Field also extensively reminisces throughout the film about his experiences as the Mavericks’ batboy. It is about rooting for the underdogs and defying the old boys’ network. Most importantly, Battered is just more fun than an Elvis bobble-head.

The Ways were blessed with a great story that is already being talked about as a potential narrative feature, but they make some shrewd presentation choices throughout the film. There are the odd poignant moments in Battered, but they generally revel in the madcap spirit of the team. Few docs ever fly by at such a breezy gallop. Very highly recommended for fans of baseball, either Russell, and defiantly idiosyncratic entrepreneurship, The Battered Bastards of Baseball screens this Wednesday (4/23) and Saturday (4/26) during the Tribeca Film Festival.

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ContemporAsian ’14: Bends

Anna Li is a lady who lunches. She is not Marie Antoinette. She simply is unprepared for the speed at which fortunes can reverse in Hong Kong. Her Mainland chauffeur is not a revolutionary. He simply wants a safe delivery for his pregnant wife, but they cannot afford the punitive second child fee. Each will face an economic crisis, but Fai’s will be exacerbated by geography in Flora Lau’s Bends (more sensibly known as “Crossing the Border” in Chinese language territories, trailer here), which launches the new season of ContemporAsian at MoMA.

Li organizes charity events and looks good on her husband’s arm at business functions. She seems quite satisfied with how things have turned out, even if her spouse is a bit of a shark and a player. The fact that he has not been home for several days does not seem to raise any red flags for her, but she definitely takes notice when her credit cards are declined. Finding their accounts drained or frozen, Li starts hocking the family art collection to keep up appearances in her social circle.

Meanwhile, Fai has his own problems. Although he has been granted HK citizenship, his wife Ting is still Mainland PRC. To hide her advanced pregnancy, she becomes a veritable prisoner in their Shenzhen flat. It is all very confusing for their little girl Haihai. Fai needs money to smuggle her across the border and a hospital admission letter to secure her a bed for delivery, but both are hard to come by for a man of his position.

Bends sounds about as hot-button as it gets, indicting HK’s laissez-faire economy on the right and the Communist Party’s unforgiving family planning on the left. Yet, the execution is decidedly quiet and intimate. Happily, Lau offers viewers character studies rather than white papers, but the first time director’s sense of pacing is still a bit flat. However, she gets a key assist from superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who makes it all look coolly elegant.

Yet, it is unquestionably Carina Lau who makes the film. Approaching legendary status, Lau still makes a convincing trophy wife, but it is her chops that truly impress in Bends. Despite Li’s outward reserve, Lau clearly expresses her mounting confusion and anxiety. At the risk of belaboring the point, Lau brilliantly pulls viewers into Li’s inner turmoil rather than resorting to the sort of bug-eyed arm-flailing Meryl Streep over-indulged in throughout Osage. What can we say? Lau is simply much better at their craft.

Understatement is all very well and good, but Chen Kun nearly wilts into the background as Fai. Nevertheless, a strong supporting cast keeps him propped up in key scenes. Even with limited screen time, Stephanie Che makes a lasting impression as Lulu, Fai’s old HK flame, who now works as a maternity nurse. As Ting and Haihai, Tian Yuan and young Tu Jiamen also humanize the story rather compellingly.

There is no denying the wider issues raised by Bends, but it is only zeitgeisty after the fact. In the moment, it is unflinchingly intimate in its focus. Recommended for fans of Lau and those who appreciate films helmed by women, with great roles for women, Bends screens Monday through Sunday (4/21-4/27) as part of MoMA’s regular ContemporAsian film series.

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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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