J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Tribeca ’15: A Faster Horse

It is a scrappy underdog story, whose hero is the world’s oldest automotive company. Granted, old Henry Ford was a hard cuss to love, but at a time when we lucky taxpayers were underwriting all of its competitors’ bad decisions and Detroit, the seat of the nation’s auto industry, was declaring bankruptcy, it was hard to root against the Ford Motor Company. Not only did they refuse government bailout money, they announced an ambitious redesign of their signature vehicle, the Mustang, to be released in time for its fiftieth anniversary. It will be Chief Program Engineer Dave Pericak’s task to ensure the new Mustang is both innovative but also true to the beloved car’s tradition. David Gelb follows the process from drawing board to dealer lot in A Faster Horse (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Yes, Steve McQueen drove a Mustang in the eternally cool Bullitt chase scene. Yet, the Mustang was conceived as a high performance car that was affordable for middle class consumers—a classically American concept if ever there was one. However, it was not so easy convincing Henry Ford II, who was still smarting from the Edsel. Horse gives full credit to then Ford exec Lee Iacocca for his role in championing the Mustang. Gelb also nicely captures the love and esteem many Mustang enthusiasts and motor clubs have for their car of choice.

Nonetheless, most of film follows the design, testing, and manufacturing process. Frankly, it is refreshing to see a film that values commerce and industry. Gelb is also fortunate that most of the Ford team are enthusiastic and rather eloquent. After all, they are all delighted to be working on the pride of the company’s fleet. Whether you are in engineering or marketing, everyone at Ford wants to work on the Mustang—and if you work at General Motors, you want to be at Ford.

Clearly, there are real stakes at play in Horse. However, Gelb does not merely bury his lede, he covers it in cement and drops it in the East River. The GM and Fiat Chrysler bailouts and Detroit’s economic woes are briefly mentioned at the start of the doc, only to be neatly swept under the rug. Given the situation, the guts and vision of the Mustang redevelopment project were rather remarkable.

Not to be spoilery, but Horse ends on a wholly satisfying note. Let’s be honest, there is a reason Gelb’s film is about the Mustang instead of the Camaro. It is more-or-less the same reason Ford has outperformed its subsidized rivals. Fifty years from now, you will probably still be able to get your Mustangs serviced. Had it been less timid in exploring the full economic and political context of the fiftieth anniversary redesign, Horse could have been a truly great documentary. As it stands, it is highly watchable and a nice change of pace from the typical demonization of the auto industry. Recommended for car fans and viewers fascinated by processes, A Faster Horse screens again tonight (4/20), Thursday (4/23), and Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Greatest Catch Ever (a Short Spike Lee Joint)

The sports media loves to depict New England Coach Bill Belichick as a football genius and the New York Football Giants’ Tom Coughlin as an anachronistic disciplinarian. However, Belichick has an O and 2 record against Coughlin in the Super Bowl, so the New York coach must be an even smarter genius. Of course, Coughlin had help from some spectacular play-making. None stands out more than David Tyree’s one-handed leaping grab to keep the Giants’ fourth quarter go-ahead scoring drive alive. That 2008 Super Bowl catch is chronicled, analyzed, and celebrated in Spike Lee’s documentary short, Greatest Catch Ever, which screened yesterday as part of a special ESPN Sports Film Talk at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Spike Lee was watching Sports Center one night when he heard Tom Brady describe a teammate’s snag as the best he’d ever seen. That stuck in Lee’s craw and ultimately resulted in this short documentary. The format is simple. Lee interviewed the principle Giants players, in their practice facility, with their Super Bowl XLII and XLVI championship banners ever so conspicuous. Tyree, Coughlin, Plaxico Burress, Eli Manning, and linesman Chris Snee leave the trash-talking to Lee, but he is happy to fill that void.

However, Lee finds ways to open up the film a little, including traveling to the home of former New England safety Rodney Harrison, who is the Bill Buckner of the famous catch. He also compares and contrasts Tyree’s grab with subsequent Giants highlight catches superhumanly pulled in by Mario Manningham and Odell Beckham, Jr.

It is amazing how right Lee is on sports and how wrong he gets nearly everything else. Like Alex Gibney, he should pretty much stick to sports docs (or Scientology exposes, if he wants a real challenge). He was amusing ripping on Belichick both in the film and during the post-screening panel discussion. Yet, to Lee’s credit, he generously gave credit in turn to Harrison, for agreeing to face his ghosts on camera. Tyree, Burress, and Snee were also present, looking fit, and clearly enjoying the opportunity to reminisce and needle each other.

Even Giants fans will be surprised how many stories were intertwined with the big catch (depicted via stills, due to NFL Films’ difficulty playing nice with others). Christians in the audience were especially moved by the role Tyree’s faith played in the famous play. At about half an hour, Greatest Catch Ever always feels brisk and muscular—and never padded. In fact, one suspects Lee could have easily expanded it to forty-five minutes without repeating himself. Altogether, Tribeca’s presentation was a highly enjoyable trip down memory lane. New York Football Giants fans will love it when it eventually airs on ESPN, but the network’s Belichick apologists probably not so much.

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24 Days: Abduction as Hate Crime

The savage Charlie Hebdo shootings only just happened on January 7th of this year, but one can already feel complacency re-settling back in, predictably like the turning of the seasons. After all, it was not without recent precedent. The kidnapping and torture of Ilan Halimi was a hate crime that shocked France, but only too briefly. Taking the subsequent book written by Halimi’s mother Ruth as his source material, Alexandre Arcady chronicles the tragic events step-by-chilling-step in 24 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ilan Halimi was a likable young man, who was always close to his mother and sister, but was also rebuilding his somewhat strained relationship with his divorced father in the months leading up to his abduction. Although he simply worked at a cell phone store, a Muslim gang operating in both Paris and Ivory Coast deliberately targeted him because he was Jewish. In their hatred, they assumed all Jews had money. Alas, the Halimis were rather lower middle class with little ready cash on hand. Therefore, they had little choice but to alert the police.

The police’s secret involvement will be both a curse and a blessing. Initially, the negotiator advising Ilan’s father Didier as the family’s chosen representative is somewhat helpful reducing the unrealistic 450,000 Euro ransom. Tragically though, the police’s refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of the crime leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the “Gang of Barbarians,” as the abductors called themselves.

Considering how easy it is to google Ilan Halimi, it is not much of a spoiler to say the case ends quite dreadfully. However, Arcady maintains a great deal of suspense, as the horror and outrage steadily mount. Yet, this is not a propagandistic passion play. Arcady and co-writers Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Frèche prefer to focus on resulting emotional toll the ordeal takes on the Halimi family. It is not just limited to his nuclear family either. With the police tightly controlling Didier Halimi’s contact with the kidnappers, the Gang of Barbarians expand their game of psychological terrorism, sending unspeakably graphic photos of Ilan to his cousin and rabbi.

Zabou Breitman viscerally expresses the anguish and sorrow of Ruth Halimi, but it is the quieter, more understated work of Pascal Elbé that will truly haunt viewers over time. Likewise, Jacques Gamblin dials it way down as Commandant Delcour, a sort of problematically politically correct version of Harry Baur’s soul-deadened Maigret. Within the large and diverse supporting ensemble, Audrey Giacomini stands out as Halimi’s terrified pseudo-girlfriend (understandably so, since by grabbing Ilan, the kidnappers also had her flat keys).

24 Days will turn your stomach into ice-water. It is a tense, often brutal white-knuckle ride from start to finish. However, it is important to understand, Arcady and his co-writers somewhat water-down the torments inflicted on Halimi, probably because it would be impossible to release anything remotely accurate in mainstream French theaters. Nevertheless, what we do see is profoundly disturbing.

Frankly, this film speaks for itself, if audiences are willing to listen. Unfortunately, French politicians prefer to pander for “multi-cultural” votes rather than really facing the root causes of the precipitous rise of anti-Semitic violence. Sadly, it is probably only a matter of time before another Charlie Hebdo-Ilan Halimi style attack. Very highly recommended as a masterful work of cinema and an impassioned warning for those who value tolerance and the rule of law, 24 Days opens this Friday (4/24) at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and the Kew Gardens Cinemas in Brooklyn.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Stung

These are wasps, not bees, so the stakes are already higher than in Irwin Allen’s The Swarm. A plucky caterer and her slacker assistant are about to lay a spread for the worst garden party ever. It was totally dead, until the mutant wasps crashed the soiree. Laughter and gore go together like white wine and canapés in Benni Diez’s Stung (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

After inheriting her father’s catering business, Julia is struggling to keep it afloat. She employees the obviously besotted Paul, who struggles to keep himself together. They will cater the annual shindig hosted by Mr. Perch and her socially stunted son Sydney. By the way, the mutated wasps are all his fault, because he foolishly spiked the fertilizer with his late researcher father’s molecular juice. Unfortunately, these killer wasps are not just big and angry. They also lay their larva inside their victims, creating mutant-hybrid, with some Alien-style chest cavity explosions thrown in for good measure. Of course, that is nothing Lance Henriksen hasn’t seen before. This time he turns up as Mayor Carruthers, a flinty Korean War veteran, who appreciates a nice bottle of wine.

Seriously, how money in the bank is Henriksen? In this case, he is no mere “guest star.” He has significant screen-time as the Mayor (you know you’d vote for him) and he never wastes a second of it. Frankly, it is darned difficult sharing the film with a rampaging swarm of evil wasps and a cult favorite like Henriksen. Nevertheless, Matt O’Leary and Jessica Cook are admirably good sports dealing with all the spurting blood and spewing goo, as Julia and Paul, respectively. They seem just real enough to be worth rooting for and tough enough to not try our patience as experienced genre movie fans.

Nevertheless, the mutant insects are always the most important thing in a bugs-gone-wild movie, but happily Stung delivers the goods. Frankly, Diez gets the balance just right with creatures realized well-enough to facilitate all kinds of gruesome gags, but not so realistic it can’t poke fun at itself and its genre. Not to be spoilery, but normally the “it’s still out there” ending is predictably lame, yet Stung’s finale is truly a spectacle to behold.

Stung is not quite as gleefully nuts as last year’s Tribeca-selected Zombeavers, but it is not for a lack of trying. An inspired exercise in gross-out humor and big creepy bug effects, Stung is one of the first 2015 Tribeca film to get picked up for distribution (by IFC Midnight), which suggests we might live in a just world after all. Highly recommended, Stung screens again this Thursday (4/23), as part of Tribeca ’15.

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Tribeca ’15: Listen (short)

If you think the burqa is empowering, try wearing one for a week in August. Then try reporting your violent and sexually abusive husband to the local police, despite not speaking the local language. A translator ought to help, especially a woman, but reality will be tragically different for the battered wife in Hamy Ramezan & Rungano Nyoni’s short film Listen (trailer here), which screens as part of the Interferences programming block during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

She cannot speak Danish and she cannot remove her burqa. She has fled her home, taking only her young son with her, hoping and expecting the Danish police will provide shelter. However, she never anticipated the interpreter would deliberately mistranslate her pleas. The translator is also a woman, but clearly she considers herself an Islamist first and foremost. She duplicitously tells the police the woman is seeking divorce advice, whereas she tries to convince the increasingly desperate woman to trust her imam to resolve her marital troubles.

It takes about five seconds to understand just how isolating and alienating the burqa truly is. Had her face been visible, her expressions and her bruises would have told the cops what the interpreter deliberately mistranslated. Listen is a relatively short thirteen minutes, but Ramezan & Nyoni still patiently take their time, showing the initial police interview from each party’s perspective, to fully establish the tragic significance of the situation.

Although we never see her, Zeinab Rahal’s body language still constitutes a harrowing performance. Just think how good she could be unshackled from the burqa. Likewise, Amira Helene Larsen discomfortingly projects the assurance of a blind believer. Nanna Bottcher also nicely hints at the police woman’s nagging suspicions, but Alexandre Willaume’s knuckle-dragging police man is film’s only real caricature.

As a strong follow-up to Ramezan’s previous solo short film, Keys of Heaven, Listen forcefully announces it is time for the Finnish-Iranian filmmaker to graduate to full features. Its treatment of issues facing Muslim women is both stinging and sensitive. Highly recommended as an eye-opener with serious dramatic chops, Listen screens again as part of Tribeca’s Interferences short film program this Monday (4/20), Friday (4/24), and Saturday (4/25).

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Tribeca ’15: Palio

The world’s oldest continuous horse race is a full contact, bareback spectacle. The rules seem perversely designed to maximize acrimony and anarchy—and the good citizens of Siena’s seventeen districts would not have it any other way. Viewers experience all the longstanding personal rivalries and district grudges fueling the summer tradition in Cosima Spender’s amazing documentary Palio (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

If you live in Siena, you identify with your district, rather than the city as a whole. Since at least the Fourteenth Century, they have held some form of the Palio di Siena. Every July 2nd and August 16th, the districts compete in a horse race staged in the ancient Piazzo del Campo. There are no saddles and essentially no rules. Jockeys are free to bash each other and their horses black and blue. However, unlike every other horse race in the world, if a jockey is knocked off his steed, the riderless horse can still win. Current dominant Palio champion Gigi Bruschelli notched a victory that way, which his many critics are quick to belittle.

Bruschelli has amassed thirteen Palios in sixteen years. He has his sights set on Andrea “Aceto” de Gortes’ record of fourteen Palios. However, the Palio legend has formed an unlikely alliance with his former nemesis, Silvano “Bastiano” Vigni, who is training Bruschelli’s one-time protégé Giovanni “Tittia” Atzeni to unseat his old stable-master.

You might think you know horseracing from going to the Aqueduct, but the Palio is a completely different kettle of fish. Spender and cinematographer Stuart Bentley caught some absolutely jaw-dropping, up-close footage of horses crashing into the barrier wall and then careening back into the race. You can see the horses sweat and the men snarl. If you were to witness a Palio-style pile-up at an American track, you would expect to see the vet walk out with a shotgun. Yet, in Siena, everyone just shakes it off.

Yes, cornering is a bit of a challenge at the Palio, but perhaps even more mind-blowing, pay-offs and log-rolling are generally accepted parts of the game. It is common knowledge the other riders from Bruschelli’s stable are looking to cover his back, unless another district makes them a better offer. As a result, the behind-the-scenes intrigue is even more important than the action on the track.

Not so surprisingly, there is probably more trash-talking in Palio than any other sports doc one can think of. Like betrayal, it is a big part of the game. The old salty dogs Aceto and Bastiano are particularly good at it. Listening to them excoriate Bruschelli and needle each other is wickedly amusing. Yet, if you think they are harsh, wait till you hear some of the districts’ chants.

In many ways, the Palio is like stepping into the late Middle Ages. Visually, Spender’s Palio is a rich feast of chaos and color, vividly capturing all the traditional pomp as well as the bedlam on the track. There are real stakes to the narrative she chronicles and genuine roguish charm to her cast of characters. A documentary on Italian horseracing might sound like a decidedly specialized subject, but Palio is readily accessible and endlessly intriguing, in a stranger than fiction kind of way. In fact, it is so entertaining, it is even worth the time and hassle it takes to get to the Regal Battery Park. Highly recommended, Palio screens again tonight (4/19), Wednesday (4/22), and Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Gored

If you have read your Hemingway nonfiction, you know aficionados identify with two types of matadors. There are the naturals who just exude elegance in the bullring and there are the pluggers who lack that innate grace, so they display exceptional courage to win over the crowd. Having been on the receiving end of the bulls’ horns twenty-three times, there is little question what kind of bullfighter Antonio Barrera happens to be. For the sake of his wife and family, the gutsy Barrera is finally retiring, but he will first face one last bull in Ido Mizrahy’s Gored (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Any time a bullfighter steps into the ring, the stakes are high, regardless of the circumstances. Arguably in this case, Barrera has already pushed his luck, about twenty-two times. As a family man, he has a lot to lose. Yet, like any athlete, he wants to go out on his terms. However, anyone expecting the ginned up suspense and bombast of NFL Films productions (“but for Barrera, there would be another day”) will be thrown by Mizrahy’s change-up.

Gored is a surprisingly quiet and contemplative film. At its finest, Gored vividly coveys the importance of tradition, pageantry, and honor for the increasingly beleaguered sport. However, for those who do not follow bullfighting with the ardor of an aficionado, a little less direct cinema observation and a little more context would have strengthened the overall viewing experience. Apparently, a great deal of the work for Spanish bullfighters like Barrera is now found in Mexico. Although still legal in most of Spain, the Catalonian ban is an ominous portent for the sport’s future. It would be enlightening to hear Barrera’s thoughts on the matter, but Mizrahy maintains a scrupulously intimate focus throughout.

Regardless, it is impossible to get bored, or take anything for granted once Barrera steps into the ring. He comes across as an earnest and surprisingly responsible individual, despite all those gorings. He allows Mizrahy in during some remarkably unguarded moments, letting the audience to see all many of his scars and even more of his vulnerabilities.

Without question, Gored gets the nod for best title at Tribeca. While nowhere remotely as sensationalistic as it sounds without context, it still delivers some tense moments. Thanks to Hemingway and Bizet the very notion of bullfighting summons all sort of romantic images, so it is nice to have some of the behind-the-scenes realities and very personal backstories recorded for posterity. Recommended for aficionados, Gored screens again tomorrow (4/19), Tuesday (4/21), and next Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Tribeca ’15: Scherzo Diablolico

There is nothing like music to summon deeply buried sense-memories. That is why music therapists have had such success treating Alzheimer’s patients. On the other hand, it is not so pleasant for a school girl held captive by a classical piano loving sociopath. However, just when he thinks he has completely realized his plan, karma does what it does in Adrián García Bogliano’s Scherzo Diabolico, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Aram seems like the nebbish drone at a boiler-room law firm, whose work keeps his manager Licenciado Granovsky looking good with upper management. This will soon change. Tired of being a doormat, Aram will kidnap Granovsky’s diabetic daughter Anabela, using the same meticulous planning that makes him such a valuable employee. As the weeks pass without news of his daughter, the completely destabilized Granovsky never notices all the other little things Aram does to undermine his position. Eventually, Aram replaces his terminated boss, just like he planned. However, he will be completely blind-sided by the third act.

Scherzo plods along a bit early on and frankly it seems to be missing some obvious establishing shots, but if you are confident enough to fill in the gaps, the big reversal quite a sight to behold. Over the top hardly begins to describe it. This is horror-revenge filmmaking on an operatic scale, fueled by Romantic Era classical music. If you are inclined towards pedantry than you will miss out on the pleasures of its bold, gory spectacle.

As Aram, Francisco Barreiro stands apart from recent movie villains, making the audience truly despise him, before almost winning back their sympathy down the stretch—almost, but not quite. Indeed, Scherzo raises viewers’ indignant blood lust almost as much as José Manuel Cravioto’s Reversal. Likewise, Juan of the Dead director Jorge Molina’s Granovsky evolves in very complicated, human ways, constantly challenging the audience to reassess him. In contrast, Daniela Soto Vell only uses two speeds to play Anabela, but the second is something else entirely.

If that weren’t enough, Scherzo also boasts one of the most distinctive opening credit sequences since the days of Saul Bass. It is not simply cool looking. It helps link the piano sonatas with a sense of ominous foreboding. This is a film very much about the transforming power of music. We usually just assume it will be transformative in a good way, because only a philistine would argue to contrary—but not in this case. (It is also worth noting the titular composition was penned by Charles-Valentin Alkan, who bitterly resented being passed over for a Conservatoire position.) Stylish and outrageous, Scherzo Diabolico is not quite as sly and satisfying as Bolgiano’s Late Phases, but it is on par with his Here Comes the Devil. Highly recommended for fan of horror and dark payback thrillers, it screens again next Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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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.

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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.

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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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