J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Just Ducky: Sally Cruikshank

Like H.R. Pufnstuf, Sally Cruikshank’s animated shorts helped prepare a generation of kids to trip their lights out. Surreal and baroque, her animation also appeared in Sesame Street and graced the opening credits of several films. In 2009, Cruikshank’s work became canonical when her best known film, Quasi at the Quackadero was voted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Perhaps an even more significant honor for hardcore cineastes, Cruikshank will be the focus of Just Ducky, a special evening’s retrospective at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow night.

According to Cruikshank, she was initially influenced by Carl Barks’ Disney ducks. However, she readily admits her ducks do not look particularly like ducks. (For Japanese cinema fanatics, they kind of look like kappas.) Inspired by old time Fleischer cartoons, Quasi is a cad and Anita has a real femme fatale streak. Though he would rather stay in bed, Quasi accompanies her and their robot companion Rollo to the Quakadero, a freaky carnival where the attractions involve psychic mind-reading and time travel. Quackadero was produced in 1975 and it looks it—in a cool retro Yellow Submariny kind of way. Quasi and Anita are essentially Cruikshank’s franchise, appearing again in Make Me Psychic, where they revisit Uri Geller territory, and Quasi’s Cabaret Trailer, a spec film for a proposed feature that would have made the trippy Quakadero look like a Branson, Missouri dinner theater.

Music often plays an important role in Cruikshank’s shorts, like Danny (Batman and several hundred other films) Elfman’s playfully referential score for the bizarre haunted house short Face Like a Frog. For jazz listeners though, one of the coolest shorts of the evening will actually be a piece produced for Sesame Street. An ode to dreaming, Cruikshank originally set From My Head to the gently swinging vocals of the great Betty Carter. The stylish animated sojourn into the subconscious was later incorporated into a duet of the same song for Elmo and Diane Schuur.

The ahead of its time hipness of Cruikshank’s work for Sesame Street is quite striking. A piece like I’m Curious could easily be seen as a forerunner to The Cars’ famous “You Might Think” video. Still, she has had the occasional detractor along the way. Reportedly, Mick Jagger was quite uncomplimentary in his appraisal of her animated credits for Ruthless People, but frankly, they are far more distinctive than his theme song playing over them (quick hum a few bars, if you can possibly remember it).

Cruikshank was always at the vanguard of independent animation, yet some of her strange and psychedelic work helped make my generation what we are today (which is quite significant, I guess). A singular stylist, up-scale animation fans should definitely check out her work in all its diversity tomorrow night (5/1) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Holocaust Remembrance on PBS: Prisoner of her Past

Chicago-based jazz critic Howard Reich is an authority on Jelly Roll Morton. While it is often tricky winnowing the myths from the truth of the early jazz pianist’s life, Reich addressed a far more difficult research subject in his most recent book: his mother, Sonia. A Holocaust survivor, Sonia Reich’s late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) spurred her son’s investigation into her harrowing experiences during WWII, inspiring his book The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich and Gordon Quinn’s subsequent documentary, Prisoner of her Past (trailer here), which airs on many PBS stations nationwide over the next two days in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

One day, the eighty-some year old Reich suddenly fled her Skokie home in a deeply agitated state of paranoia. She was obviously delusional, but not suffering from Alzheimer’s or similar suspects. Indeed, she could recognize her grown children and grand children perfectly well. When her doctors finally diagnosed late PTSD (“with all the bells and whistles”), her son set out to discover its roots, hoping a secret from her past could untangle her knotted psyche.

Reich’s mother never talked about her past and her few surviving relatives are nearly as reticent. The only exception is her cousin, Leon Slominski, who was sheltered (both physically and emotionally) by a brave Czech family. Reich pointedly notes how the contrast between his survival through the compassion of others and his mother’s formative years of constant fear and flight profoundly shaped the people they are today.

As befits a film with a jazz critic as its central POV figure (and writer-co-producer), Prisoner employs the music in distinctive ways. Particularly effective is the use of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” as the film’s theme. Poignant yet vaguely unsettling, it sets the appropriate mood, even for those who do not recognize the avant-garde innovator’s most “accessible” piece. (We also briefly hear guitarist Bobby Broom’s swinging soul jazz combo when Reich and Slominski visit Chicago’s Green Mill.)

In addition, Reich eventually visits the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, as a way to take his story full circle. He shows how counselors are working with NOLA school children post-Katrina to prevent the sort of PTSD plaguing his mother. While these scenes seem somewhat abbreviated (and perhaps a bit tacked-on), it is nice to have some sort of positive take-away when the film ends.

As is often the case in real life, Prisoner does not end with a neat and discrete moment of closure. Yet, there are quite a few insights to be gleaned along the way. A very intelligent and compassionate film, it screens on many PBS outlets, including the Tri-State area, over the next two days (5/1-5/2). (Viewers might need to set their Tivos or old school VCRs in some markets though). Definitely recommended, it also screens the traditional way this Tuesday (5/3) at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the following Tuesday (5/10) in San Francisco at the Koret auditorium.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Tribeca ’11: The Guard

Sergeant Gerry Boyle is too corrupt to be corrupted. The Archie Bunker of the Garda (with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson), his flaws are manifest, but misunderestimate him at your own peril in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, which screens during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

When Boyle and his new partner discover a dead body connected to a trio of rogue drug traffickers, the curmudgeonly copper takes it in stride. He certainly not about to cancel his regularly scheduled assignation with two up-scale call girls imported from Dublin. However, when Boyle’s partner turns up missing, he starts to take matters more seriously.

In contrast, the FBI is quite concerned about the ruthless (but eccentric) gang, dispatching Special Agent Wendell Everett to take charge of the case. Needless to say, the straight-laced agency man clashes with the decidedly unimpressed Boyle. Unfortunately for Everett, Boyle is not only the smartest cop on the force, he is also the only one not on the take.

McDonagh’s razor-sharp dialogue is a joy to hear, particularly coming from Brendan Gleeson as the jowly and jaundiced Boyle. Gleefully subverting the jolly Irish cop stereotype, his Boyle comfortably occupies the hazy border between hero and anti-hero. Likewise, Don Cheadle is appropriately intense, but still cool, as the strictly business Everett. Their standoffish relationship and pointed banter is well beyond the stuff of standard buddy-cop fare.

Completing the package, Guard also boasts some entertainingly colorful villains. Liam Cunningham, also seen at Tribeca this year in Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies, chews the scenery with relish as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a homicidal self-styled gentleman of literary refinement. Though much more understated, Mark Strong’s turn as Clive Cornell, the gangster cynically disaffected with illicit drug trade and the crooked cops who abet it, gives the film a distinctive edge.

Cleverly written from start to finish, The Guard is the most quotable film in years. Boyle may very well be a character Gleeson was born to play. In fact, he more-or-less reprises the role in Noreen (trailer here) a very funny short written and directed by his son, Domhnall Gleeson, that also screens at Tribeca this year. His name is Con this time round and he might not have Boyle’s deceptive cunning, but the attitude is similar. Also quite funny, it has a similar appeal as Guard, so the two together would fit quite nicely. One of the most entertaining films at Tribeca this year, Guard screens again tonight (4/29) and tomorrow afternoon (4/30). Gleeson and Son’s darkly comic Noreen is definitely recommended as well. It screens as part of the Mix Tape shorts program Saturday and Sunday.

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Holocaust Remembrance on PBS: Irena Sendler

There are more Polish citizens recognized by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations than any other nationality. Irena Sendler was not just one of the Polish rescuers. She was an underground ringleader. Yet it was not until long after the fall of Communism that the Catholic Sendler was widely hailed for her heroism. Featuring Sendler’s final interview of appreciable length, Mary Skinner’s documentary profile records her words and deeds for posterity in Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers (trailer here), which airs on PBS stations across the country on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this coming Sunday.

Sendler was not the Irena whose story was told on Broadway in Irena’s Vow. That was Irena Gut. At tremendous personal risk, Gut sheltered twelve Jews slated for “deportation” in the basement of the home commandeered by an SS officer who had impressed her into service as his housekeeper. If not operating directly under the noses of the National Socialists, Sendler still faced profound dangers, eventually even seeing the inside of a Nazi prison and living to tell the tale.

Establishing a network of safe houses, Sendler and her colleagues in the resistance began smuggling children out of the ghetto and teaching them Catholic prayers should they ever be challenged by a German. Indeed, Poland’s widespread Catholicism was a major reason for the network’s success, with many Catholic schools and convents agreeing to shelter Sendler’s children. She even recruited a formerly virulent anti-Semite who simply could not countenance the atrocities underway. Ultimately, they saved over 2,500 children, including one man, now of late middle-aged years, who finally meets a crucial member of Sendler’s network in the film’s moving climax.

Skinner tells an amazing story with respect and economy. One gets a vivid sense of the fear permeating the era, gaining a genuine appreciation of Sendler and her comrades. However, the film never fully explains why Sendler and the veterans of the Polish resistance were largely scorned by the subsequent Communist regime. Of course, it makes intuitive sense that a record of resisting oppression was hardly the ticket to advancement in a Soviet captive nation.

Produced with great sensitivity, Mothers tells an important (but nearly overlooked) episode of history. Along with the recent 100 Voices, it should also help spread recognition of Poland’s record of resistance. It airs on many PBS outlets (check those listings) this Sunday (5/1).

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Tribeca ’11: Klitschko

Mother Klitschko is no fun. She expressly prohibited her boxer sons Vitali and Wladimir from fighting each other. Of course, that is exactly what the boxing world wants to see. Sebastian Dehnhardt profiles the two well educated Ukrainian brothers who rose to the top of the boxing ranks, got knocked down, and clawed their way back in the simply but aptly titled documentary Klitschko (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Growing up military brats, the Klitschko brothers’ father was an ardent Communist. However, he would pay for his blind faith, when his unit responded to the Chernobyl crisis without adequate protective gear. Fortunately, when his cancer inevitably surfaced, the Klitschkos already had sufficient means to provide their father with the best of western medicine. Coincidentally, the now cancer-free Col. Klitschko has had a complete ideological change of heart, at least according to his sons.

Though not technically twins, the Klitschko boys were always big and nearly impossible to tell apart. The older Vitali actually started out as a kick-boxer while so-called “Western martial arts” were prohibited in the Orwellian Soviet Union. Eventually, the Klitschkos switched to boxing, where fighters could make serious money. Due to inopportune injuries, they lost several high profile bouts they should have won. The elder Klitschko was especially dogged by the quitter epithet. Yet, both brothers would have their Rocky moments in the ring.

Klitschko the film is definitely produced with boxing fans in mind. However, those who follow post-Soviet politics will also find Dehnhardt’s documentary engaging. A reformer, the elder Klitschko was even elected to the Kiev City Council for two stormy terms. It is also unexpectedly (and unfortunately) topical, given the increased interest in the Chernobyl disaster following the near repeat in Fukushima.

Not surprisingly, Dehnhardt shows a whole lot of fight footage, but he establishes the dramatic import of each match quite clearly. In addition to the Klitschkos and their parents, he also includes extensive commentary from their contemporaries in the ring, many of whom, like Chris Byrd (and his young son) are truly gracious on-camera. Frankly, the film has no villains, per se (except perhaps the delegate who inexplicably took a swing at Vitali Kilitschko during a heated council session). Indeed, Dehnhardt argues the lack of a flashy nemesis has prevented the pugilist brothers from getting their proper due. Of course, they can hardly go back in time and fight Ali in his prime.

While they are certainly imposing, the Brothers Klitschko are clearly smart and articulate. Unlike UFC champ Anderson Silva who appears reticent to the point of apathy in Like Water, his own documentary also screening at Tribeca, the Klitschkos make the effort to connect with the audience. Briskly paced and quite informative, Klitschko is one of the best docs at this year’s festival. Highly recommended, it screens again tomorrow (4/30).

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Flowers of Evil

The wave of protests sweeping the Middle East started in Iran, but it was the Islamist government that supplied all the rage. Their crackdown was swift and violent. The almost-revolution was not televised, but it was on youtube, where a young Iranian expat breathlessly follows the tumultuous events rocking her country from the safety of France in David Dusa’s Flowers of Evil (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

When the French-Algerian Rachid (a.k.a. Gekko) first meets Anahita, he does not make a strong impression. He is the one carrying her bags when she checks into her upscale hotel. It is not snobbery. The attractive Iranian is understandably preoccupied with the government’s brutal response to the “Green” pro-democracy demonstrations. It is not just political. She has a number of friends and relative ominously missing. Yet, Rachid’s joie de vivre appeals to her, particularly as she faces the reality of Iranian oppression.

Anahita and Rachid initially connect through Facebook and social media is deeply ingrained in their daily lives. Though both are Muslim, their socio-political backgrounds are radically different. Naturally, she is the moderate though he wisely refrains from judging her occasional glass of wine (much). Initially, they appear to be a good match, with Anahita drawing off his energy, while he learns from her to appreciate the French culture he had always taken for granted. She even introduces him to the poetry of Baudelaire (hence the title). Unfortunately, her survivor’s guilt often manifests itself in bouts of depression, which the immature Rachid has little patience for.

Dusa sensitively dramatizes the expat’s dilemma, deftly incorporating actual youtube videos of the Revolutionary Government’s ruthless attacks on its own people. It is particularly shocking, because it is all true. A genuine find, Alice Belaïdi is smart, pretty, and vulnerable as Anahita. Unfortunately, the filmmaker is too enamored with the character of Rachid, (evidently based on his real-life friend Rachid Youcef, who essentially plays himself in the film), failing to recognize how problematic he is within the film’s dramatic context. Rachid cannot simply walk down the street without practicing a compulsive combination of parkour and hip hop dancing. (Indeed, how precious.) Yet, far less appealing is his rather short supply of empathy.

Considering France’s historically cozy ties to Iran, Flowers is a fairly bold film. Essentially a two-hander, it features at least one great performance. Shrewdly, it also goes directly to the online source for the straight dope on Iranian repression. Though presumably still available on youtube (the final credits even include the links), viewers should be warned some of these videos are quite graphic. Such is the nature of the Iranian regime. On balance, it quite a worthy little picture. Flowers screens again today (4/28) at Tribeca and will be available tomorrow as part of the online component of the Festival.

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Tribeca ’11: Catching Hell

Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman was vilified for trying catch a foul ball. Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner was hounded by Boston fans for booting a routine ground ball. Same sport, same little white ball, but the contexts were very different. Unfortunately, they both contributed to heartbreaking post-season losses for their legendarily unlucky franchises. In a documentary refreshingly free of ideology, Alex Gibney examines the scapegoating phenomenon in ESPN Film’s Catching Hell, the Gala selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

After years of endearing futility, the Chicago Cubs fielded a contending team in 2003. Everything seemed to be coming together for a magical season, until game six of the National League Championship Series. With the Cubs leading the Florida Marlins 3-0, Moises Alou (not a great fielder, as Mets fans can attest) thought he had a play on a tailing foul ball, but it was deflected by the fan sitting in seat 113. Slightly disappointed, Alou threw a minor fit on the field. From that point forward, Steve Bartman’s life became a media maelstrom.

As Gibney astutely points out, fans give the players a complete pass for the wild pitch and costly fielding error that followed, turning on one of their own instead. What follows was an example of the madness of crowds that threatened to get dangerously ugly. If anyone comes out looking good in Hell it is the Wrigley Field security staff who acted swiftly and decisively to protect the poor nebbish fan. Indeed, Gibney captures the fever pitch of the game and the immediate aftermath quite vividly, even including a sound bite from not yet disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich that only fanned the flames. (He neglects to mention Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman sanctuary, which the suburban Chicago resident did not avail himself of.)

While Hell’s wider examination of scapegoating is somewhat underwhelming, Buckner adds some hard-won insight into the phenomenon. A good-to-great player whose career will be forever defined in the sports media by a fluke error, Buckner could empathize with Bartman. However, Gibney also captures a nicely redemptive moment, when Buckner finally returns to Boston’s Fenway Park, receiving a genuinely warm welcome from the fans. Of course, as Gibney points out, the Bosox fans had enjoyed two World Series victories in the half decade before making their peace with Buckner. Nothing heals old wounds like a couple of rings.

Unlike his previous two films (Client 9 and his chapter of Freakonomics) Gibney has made a well sourced, rigorously logical documentary. He also refrains from any extraneous political references, sticking to sports. Unfortunately, he was not able to score an on-camera sit-down with Bartman, who now scrupulously guards his privacy. Yet, Hell is not undermined by his absence. Rather, there is something poignant about a life forced into seclusion by foul ball hit at an overgrown kids’ game.

Conceived as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series, Hell is another sports film with crossover appeal beyond sports fans. Regardless of Gibney’s reputation for politicized fare, it is a fitting selection for Tribeca’s ESPN Sport Film Festival track. Entertaining but also a more than a bit sad, Hell screens again this Saturday (4/30) at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Criminal: The Robber

Running is a solitary sport, but Johann Rettenberger is not exactly a social guy. It is also a handy talent for his chosen line of work: armed robbery. There will indeed be plenty of running and daring daylight larceny in Benjamin Heisenberg’s existential crime drama, The Robber (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Recently released from prison, Rettenberger used to while away his days running round and round the yard and spend his nights chugging away on a treadmill. Frankly, his routine has not changed much with freedom, but at least the scenery varies. Of course, he is not one for square jobs, so he simply knocks over banks when he needs some cash. He really ought to be going straight, particularly when his out of nowhere finish in the Vienna Marathon shocks the Austrian sports world, making him a mid-sized celebrity over night. Yet aside from regular exercise, Rettenberger is not about doing what’s good for him.

Rettenberger might sound like he is cut from the same cloth as the surfer robbers in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, but he is really more closely akin to Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. Similarly distant emotionally, Rettenberger also commits a hitherto out-of-character act of impulsive violence that will set off a sensational series of events. A great deal of running will also be involved.

Somehow, Andreas Lust is simultaneously impassive and twitchy as the loner protagonist. A performance that keeps viewers consistently off balance, just as it appears he is about to finally plumb Rettenberger’s depths, he erects more barriers to keep us at bay. Lust also clearly trained like a mad man for the part, shedding any trace of body fat to play the anti-social crook.

Though Heisenberg effectively stages a long, complex chase sequence that serves as the centerpiece for the film, Robber is far quieter and ruminative than most action fare. While not nearly as self-consciously stylized as Tom Tykwer’s vaguely thematically related Run Lola Run, Heisenberg and cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider bring a distinctly chilly aesthetic to bear on their road-running morality tale. An intriguing blend of art-house and action, The Robber opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Tribeca ’11: Neon Flesh

America is so puritanical. Those Christian Evangelicals in particular get so judgmental about stuff like white slavery. The sophisticated Spaniards do not suffer from such hang-ups. Indeed, two lovably roguish sex slavers are the protagonists of Paco Cabezas’ stunningly ill-conceived Neon Flesh (trailer here), which screens as a late-night Cinemania selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Ricky is a smalltime pimp born to the streets as the son of prostitute. With his mother Pura due to be released from prison, Ricky wants to set her up as the Madam of brick-and-mortar bordello. Being an enterprising chap, he and his colleague Angelito naturally go buy themselves some sex slaves from the friendly neighborhood human traffickers. Unfortunately, when Ricky picks up dear old mom, she does not recognize him, due to a combination of Alzheimer’s and old-fashioned denial. At least she has an aptitude for the new family business. Unfortunately, their sex club attracts the attention of the ominous vice lord El Chino, who comes looking for his cut.

Cabezas would have us believe Ricky’s abandonment issues make him sympathetic, while Angelito is not such a bad guy, because he cannot quite bring himself to murder his junkie-hooker-lover Scrag, for sentimental reasons. No, seriously. Supposedly, the slaves (since they are not working voluntarily, they should not be called prostitutes) at their Hiroshima club (even the name is problematic) are fortunate to be there, given their relatively humane treatment. For instance, rather than murdering one slave’s newborn baby, Prince Ricky arranges to sell it on the black market instead. Obviously, anyone who has a problem with any of this must be a narrow-minded knuckle-dragging fundamentalist incapable of appreciating its fringe transgressiveness.

Watching Neon leaves you feeling unclean. Clearly, Cabezas is a talented filmmaker, pulling viewers through the muck on-screen at a breakneck velocity, despite their constant resistance to the problematic subject matter. Yet, no flash and dazzle can sufficiently mask the underlying depravity.

Of course, it hardly helps matters that lead actor Mario Casas is utterly wooden and inexpressive as Ricky. Conversely, as “Princess,” the transvestite sidekick with a heart of fool’s gold, Damaso Conde’s screechy over-acting gets tiresome quickly. Frankly, only Angela Molina strikes any interesting dramatic chords as the decidedly unmatronly Pura.

Anti-heroes and moral ambiguity are all well and good, but Neon is ridiculous. Essentially, the sociopathic offspring of Pulp Fiction, Neon flaunts its presumed hipness to pre-empt criticism of its unsavory excesses. Yet, rather than desensitize viewers, the cumulative effect of the violent sleaziness weighs down Cabezas’ bullet-like pacing, which is all the film really has going for it. Unnecessary and unredeeming, Neon screens again tonight (4/28) and Friday (4/29) and will also be available through the festival’s online component.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Japan’s post-war economic comeback is usually defined by the rise of automotive and electronics giants, such as Toyota and Sony. Yet, during this period, Japan’s impact on world cuisine was arguably just as profound. With the rise of its global popularity, sushi became a food of the masses, but not at Jiro Ono’s restaurant. A plate will set you back $300 (or about 24,500 yen) there. Part documentary profile, part mediation on the elegance (and good taste) of simplicity, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi (trailer here), screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, in collaboration with the Japan Society.

Though outwardly unassuming, the ten-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro earned a coveted three star rating from Michelin. Sushi critics swear they have never been disappointed by a meal there. Yet, Ono’s sushi is deceptively simple. No secret ingredients or unconventional techniques are employed (at least as far as we know). However, Ono’s staff cut no corners in the arduous preparation process and buys only the finest fish and rice.

Ono’s eldest son Yoshikazu is expected to eventually succeed his father, but since the master is still going strong at 85, he has lived his entire life in an understudy role. Ironically, it is the second son Takashi who his father’s blessing to franchise the family name with his own restaurant in the Tokyo suburbs.

Do not expect any family drama in Dreams. Everyone accepts their roles with apparent grace. Instead, Gelb valorizes Ono’s sushi for its aesthetic purity. Fittingly, his lush shots of appetizing rolls are accompanied by the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Max Richter. Though not originally composed for the film, their compositions segue into each other perfectly, sounding all of a piece, much like the distinctive John Adams selections heard throughout I Am Love.

Indeed, Dreams is a sensitively rendered example of cinematic minimalism that might bear comparison to Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (forthcoming on PBS’s Independent Lens). However, that poetic ode to Japanese insect-collecting offers the charm of watching the creepy-crawlers through the fascinated eyes of children. In contrast, Dreams rather depends on viewers’ craving for sushi to hold their interest.

Like Ono’s sushi, Dreams would seem to be for exclusive palettes, but evidently Magnolia Pictures disagreed. They acquired Gelb’s documentary in the first reported sale at Tribeca this year. Quiet and graceful, it is another timely reminder of Japanese contributions to world culture (culinary in this case).

Tragically, our Japanese friends and allies are now experiencing a profound human crisis. Private citizens tired of the inattention of the media and the current administration can show their support by contributing to the Red Cross here or the Japan Society’s relief fund here. Sushi lovers might be particularly so moved after Dreams screens again this Friday (4/29) at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sitcom Détente: Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal might be a sad sack, but he is a rich sad sack. The creator and executive producer of Everyone Loves Raymond thought the appeal of his sitcom was so universal, he could easily transplant it to Russia. Naturally, the process turned out to be a little trickier than he anticipates when he arrives with a suitcase full of corny scripts and a film crew. Rosenthal documents the resulting creative differences in Exporting Raymond (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Frankly, the American Raymond is so run-of-the-mill, it hardly seems worth adapting. Consisting of a mopey loser, his goonie brother, impatient wife, and grouchy parents, it was hardly staggering in its originality. In a way, Rosenthal might agree. Over and over, he stresses the show’s universality as the key to its success. However, the Russians do not seem to get it.

The network argues the Russian people will never accept such meek, hen-pecked protagonist as Raymond, redubbed Kostya. The glamorous costume coordinator is particularly resistant to Rosenthal’s demands for a realistic wardrobe for his wife. Casting is also a nightmare, exacerbated by network interference. Like Napoleon, it appears Rosenthal will be forced to retreat from Moscow in ignoble defeat.

Exporting would be a good value-added DVD extra, but as a stand-alone documentary, it is a bit thin. Easily the most interesting figure in the film is the ambiguously connected bodyguard, who eventually gets bored with Rosenthal’s schtick (we suspect). While he has a few funny moments, Rosenthal is hardly a fount of charisma. Most of the time, he is really just a pill. He certainly shows no interest in Russian culture or history. As a result, his documentary sojourn will hold little interest for Russophiles.

Perhaps fittingly, Exporting is more of an extended sitcom episode than a documentary. It is harmless, but leaves little lasting impression. Maybe you just had to be there. Those already nostalgic for the Raymond sitcom (for whatever reason) can check it out when it opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and AMC Lincoln Square.

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Tribeca ’11: Let the Bullets Fly

Call it gangster government. During China’s lawless 1920’s, adventurers bought governorships to make a quick score bleeding the locals dry through excessive taxation. Basically, it was a lot like the Federal government’s current fiscal policy. However, one old school outlaw finds the system too corrupt to countenance in Jiang Wen’s wild Eastern Let the Bullets Fly (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Nick-named for the pockmarks he ought to have but doesn’t, “Pocky” Zhang is not exactly Robin Hood, but he has his limits. Hi-jacking the train carrying Goose Town’s new governor, Bangde Ma, Zhang and his six sons instead find a weasely con man looking to make a fast buck. Assuming his place as the incoming governor, Zhang and his band try to establish some legitimate law & order in town, which hardly endears him to “Master” Huang, the town’s entrenched opium lord. Thus begins a game of chess played with a rounds and rounds of bullets.

Fly gives the “new-sheriff-in-town” story several clever twists, especially with Zhang’s final stratagem to cajole the cowed populace to rise up against Huang Tea Party-style. Indeed, it is chocked full of Mexican stand-offs, impostors, and double-crosses. Granted, it is hardly unusual for Chinese action epics to incorporate high tragedy and slapstick comedy, but viewers can really feel Jiang shifting the gears here. If not a smooth ride, at least he always has his foot on the gas, delivering high energy scene after scene.

Arguably, Jiang is his own best asset, playing Zhang with world weary gravitas and super-bad charisma. Unfortunately, Chow Yun-Fat is more than a little schticky as Huang. Watching him mug and bicker with his double (also played by Chow) does not instill the sort of joyful loathing great villains inspire. In contrast, HK actress Carina Lau (also seen at Tribeca this year as Empress Wu Zeitan in Detective Dee) is a tart-tongued delight as conman Bangde Ma’s wife masquerading as “Governor” Bangde Ma’s wife.

China’s current domestic box-office record holder, Fly is an eccentric period production with big set pieces that appropriately appear to be on the brink of collapse. Cinematographer Fei Zhao also gives the harsh countryside and crumbling village an evocative spaghetti western look. Featuring a great anti-hero in need of a worthy villain, Fly is still a solidly entertaining action morality play. Definitely recommended, it screens again tonight (4/27) and Friday (4/29) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Love Always, Carolyn

If you are considering watching her documentary, Carolyn Cassady thinks you are kind of an idiot. She has no illusions regarding people’s interest in her. Frankly, it is not about her at all, but the men she was romantically involved with: Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. However, Ms. Cassady is never shy correcting the myths and legends about the beats she knew so well in Maria Ramström and Malin Korkeasalo’s Love Always, Carolyn (trailer here), which screens again today at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

In the mid 1940’s, Carolyn Robinson was studying theater arts at the University of Denver, a first class, under-rated private liberal arts college (with a graduate certificate program in publishing your trusted blogger attended). Fatefully, Robinson’s promising career was sidetracked when she met the magnetic Cassady, now renowned as the model for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty. A whirlwind romance, marriage, friendship with Kerouac, and a whole mess of drama would follow.

After the substance-related deaths of both men, Carolyn Cassady quickly tired of answering the same stupid questions over and over again. She relocated to England, where she wrote her own memoir in an attempt to have her definitive say on the Beat icons that had come to define her life. However, her son John Allen Cassady somehow convinces her to return to Denver for the 50th anniversary celebration of On the Road.

Indeed, Cassady is still sharp as a tack. Euphemisms like “does not suffer fools gladly” are wholly insufficient. Perhaps most annoying to her is the unlicensed use of her famous copyrighted pictures of Kerouac and Cassady, which have become symbols of literary bromance. Of course, she is well within her rights to be upset, especially since those pictures have supplied her retirement nest-egg.

One of the cooler aspects of Always is its surprising emphasis on the roles Denver and DU played in Beat history. However, it is a real head-scratcher that Ramström and Korkeasalo did not reach out more to the great jazz-multi-hyphenated musician David Amram, who is seen briefly in performance as part of the anniversary fest, as either an interview subject or soundtrack composer. He is one of the last real deal cats who was on the Beat scene, having collaborated on Pull My Daisy and he has composed some distinctive scores, including The Manchurian Candidate. (In my experience, he is certainly approachable.) In contrast, Jan Strand’s soundtrack is serviceable, but snoozy.

Among fans, the appetite for all things Beat is eternal. For the less ravenous, Always is a bit long, even at seventy minutes. It is well worth hearing Cassady have her say, but a short doc around half an hour ought to cover it sufficiently. Definitely for self-selecting audiences, Always screens tonight (4/26) at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog offered to make his latest and perhaps most ambitious film for the princely sum of one Euro, before taxes. Granted, he probably had additional compensation arranged, but he really just wanted to get on the set. To gain access to the over 30,000 year-old Chauvet Cave, the unclassifiable auteur offered to become an essentially unpaid employee of the French Cultural Ministry, which controls access to the ancient site. Succeeding where scores of filmmakers previously failed, Herzog brings the arguably most exclusive place on Earth to any and all film patrons with genuine lifelike 3-D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Given the delicacy of the millennia old cave paintings and the stunning geological features, access to Chauvet is tightly regulated. Among other concerns, the simple accumulation of CO2 exhaled through normal breathing could cause significant damage. Strict limits were placed on the size of Herzog’s crew and the amount of time they could spend inside. To accommodate the confined spaces, they even redesigned the 3-D cameras to be smaller and more agile. Yet, even with these constraints, Herzog conveys a vivid sense of what it is like to step foot within the primordial cavern.

Both in terms of form and function, Forgotten is arguably the greatest use of 3-D technology seen in commercial (broadly defined) theaters. Although it has come a long way in the age of Avatar, 3-D has always been more impressive conveying depth than pointy things jutting out of the screen. Obviously, Chauvet has awe-inspiring depth. There are also legitimate educational and aesthetic reasons for rendering Chauvet in 3-D, considering the average person stands about zero chance of ever visiting there in the flesh.

Of course, Forgotten is not filmed entirely within the Chauvet Cave. In scenes that hardly require 3-D photography, Herzog interviews many of scientists involved in the site for geological and anthropological context. In the tradition of 1950’s Hondo, in which arrows were periodically shot towards the camera to prove it was all still 3-D, we even have a scene of one scientist demonstrating the Paleolithic Chauvet peoples’ harpoon-like weapon.  Aside from that little bit of silliness, Forgotten is a classy package, featuring Herzog’s singularly distinctive narration and an elegant classical chamber-chorale music soundtrack composed by cellist Ernst Reijseger, which is arresting in its own right.

If Herzog lays on the metaphysical ruminations a bit thick in the denouement, it is what we come to expect from. In any event, it all looks quite striking through cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s (3-D) lens. Some fans might be a bit disappointed we do not get to watch Herzog eat another shoe in 3-D. However, Forgotten is still an informative and artfully crafted film. Perhaps the best application of 3-D technology seen outside museum I-maxes, Forgotten opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Tribeca ’11: Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame

He was a legendarily honest and perceptive administrator during the turbulent reign of Wu Zeitan, the first and only woman to rule China in her own right. However, most westerners know him as Judge Dee, the protagonist of Dutch Asian scholar Robert van Gulik’s detective novels. Dee or more properly Di Renjie’s powers of deduction are such Wu Zeitan plucks him from prison to ferret out the truth behind a series of grisly deaths threatening to derail her coronation in Tsui Lark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

One look at the giant Buddha statue under construction outside the Imperial palace (complete with internal staircase and observation deck) should tell viewers something spectacularly disastrous is in the offing. Currently, a former associate of Die Renjie is scrambling to finish construction in time for Wu’s official ascension. Suspiciously, the court architect and lead investigator spontaneously combusted there (presumably after seeing something sinister), setting work slightly behind schedule.

Through his animal avatar, the mysterious Imperial Chaplain tells Wu Zeitan who she’s gonna call: Die Renjie. Dispatched to fetch the imprisoned Die Renjie, the trusted Jing’er finds him fending off a horde of assassins with the help of his blind prison mentor. There will be plenty more for her blade over the course of their investigation, as well as a considerable helping of sexual tension with the tentatively rehabilitated Die Renjie.

Flame combines intricately choreographed martial arts sequences directed by Master Sammo Hung with big sprawling set pieces, like that giant Buddha statue and an underground city of thieves. While it straddles the mystery and fantasy genres, much of the supernatural skullduggery ultimately have Scooby Doo-like explanations (dubious though they might be). Frankly, style, setting, and action are what really count here, as Lark pulls viewers into this eerie world of intrigue and old school revenge.

Andy Lau projects an appropriately Zen-ish sensibility as Die Renjie. However, Li Bingbing really emerges as an action star, exhibiting dramatic nuance and gritty martial arts cred as Jing’er. Likewise, Deng Chao nearly matches her step for step as Pei Donglei, an albino Imperial copper. A character as intriguing as he looks, he starts out as a jerkweed, but earns his spurs as they probe the shadowy conspiracy afoot.

In terms of artistry and ambition, Flame falls somewhere between the Ip Man franchise (which are great fun, but essentially recycle the Rocky template) and crossover masterworks like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With respect to ideology though, it is more closely akin to films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which argue in favor of a strong centralized authority, despite their occasional despotic excesses, as necessary means of unifying the country. Chinese state censors seem to like these storylines. Go figure. Regardless, Flame is a lushly rendered high-end period action film that should have appeal beyond fanboy circles (in which I should probably include myself for films of this genre). Definitely, recommended, it screens again at Tribeca this Thursday (4/28).

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Dunbar & Daughter: The Arbor

At the age of fifteen, Andrea Dunbar’s first play debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Thirteen years later, she was dead, a victim of the self-destructive behavior she chronicled in her dramas. The lasting effects of her deficiencies as a mother are illustrated in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (trailer here), a radically self-conscious departure from traditional documentary forms that won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best New Documentary Filmmaker Award almost a year ago to the day, which opens tomorrow in New York at Film Forum.

Deliberating blurring documentary and dramatic filmmaking, Barnard recorded extensive interviews with the Dunbar’s family and friends. However, instead of showing them on camera, she filmed a cast of actors lip-synching their spoken words. She also staged a production of Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, in an open space near the low income housing estate that inspired the playwright’s work. Barnard’s only bow to convention are clips from a BBC profile of Dunbar interspersed throughout the film.

Obviously, Dunbar’s plays were largely based on her experiences and observations of life on the Bafferton Arbor Estate. However, the theatricality of Barnard’s approach completely blurs any distinction between author and character. As biography, this might be problematic, but as cinema, it is strangely engrossing.

It quickly becomes apparent Dunbar was never mother of the year. While her son and younger daughter might have survived her parenting with relatively few emotional scars that was clearly not the case for Lorraine, her bi-racial eldest daughter. Unfortunately, as Arbor shifts its focus to Lorraine, its unorthodox format loses some of its power. While Andrea Dunbar was a true enfant terrible of British drama, Lorraine’s story is hardly remarkable. She might be a tragic figure, but she is hardly the first to succumb to drug addiction as a result of a chaotic family environment.

Though it is often devilishly difficult for Yankee ears to decipher the thick Yorkshire accents, it is often hard to tell the cast is lip-synching. Indeed, their mannerisms and body language seems perfectly matched to their disembodied words, with Manjinder Virk particularly convincing as the problematic Lorraine.

Given the intentionally artificial nature of Arbor, it arguably pushes its luck, running a bit longer than it should. Still, it represents filmmaking that legitimately takes risks. In fact, it is probably the fullest, most successful manifestation of post-modernism in documentary filmmaking. Recommended for Ken Loach and Mike Leigh audiences, Arbor opens tomorrow (4/27) at Film Forum.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Tribeca ’11: The Bully Project

They say kids will be kids. Maybe that is true, but why can’t adults act like adults? While the behavior of some sadistic students is reprehensible, the craven strategies employed by teachers and administrators to avoid responsibility for those in their care might be even more shocking in Lee Hirsch’s documentary, The Bully Project (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

By now, we know public schools are not teaching kids at an acceptable level. If they are unable to at least maintain a safe classroom environment, what is the point of it all, beyond employing a battalion of bureaucrats? Putting a face on the issue, Hirsch follows several students, whose school experiences are fast approaching tragedy, and a pair of grieving parents, who have recently lost sons to bullying-inspired suicide. Everyone will feel for the Longs and the Smalleys on a human level. Unfortunately, as the school year progresses in Sioux City, the audience will start to worry a similar fate awaits the parents of fourteen year-old Alex.

Unlike far too many verité documentarians, who let the cameras roll while abusive and dangerous behavior is underway (take Prodigal Sons as one of many examples), Hirsh broke protocol, to his estimable credit, showing his footage of the abuse leveled on Alex to his parents and the administrators of West High. The former responded with shock and concern. The latter kicked into serious CYA overdrive.

Based on the footage of BP, unless Hirsch and editors Lindsay Utz and Jenny Golden maliciously framed her in the editing room, the West High Vice Principal charged with maintaining discipline is an absolute disgrace, who has no business working in a school, in any capacity. Her behavior surpasses denial, bordering on outright collusion. She applies a wholly inappropriate moral equivalency, forcing battered victims to “shake and make-up” with their bullies, or be labeled “just as bad as they are.” When confronted with her abject failure, she falls back on legalisms, pointing specific discrete torments that she might have technically put a stop to, but resulted in escalating abuse, which she duly ignored to preserve her deniability. Frankly, any objective observer could tell Alex has trouble verbalizing his concerns. He is exactly the kind of kid she is there to protect. Shame on her.

Much of Hirsch’s footage is a cold hard slap in the face. Yet, it is so closely tied into its titular advocacy campaign, it detracts from BP as a work of cinema. Indeed, the final twenty minutes or so chronicles rallies and offer avenues for viewers to get involved. Fair enough, it is Hirsch’s film that he conceived in conjunction with the larger Bully Project movement. Yet, the legislation they advocate would not be necessary, if teachers and administrators would start doing their jobs. Perhaps shaming them in the community would be more efficacious than lobbying state capitols.

BP will convince viewers the bullying “issue” is not mere network newsmagazine hype, but a real and pressing problem for many children. A film that will generate audience sympathy and anger, BP screens again at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival tomorrow (4/26), Wednesday (4/27), and Saturday (4/30).

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Miike’s 13 Assassins

Times of tranquility make samurai weak and flabby. This is not the case for battle-hardened veterans the previous era. To preserve the peace, thirteen old school men-of-arms take on an army of two hundred soldiers. Pray for the two hundred. They are going to need it in Takashi Miike’s samurai spectacle 13 Assassins (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is a sadist, pure and simple. He is also the shogun’s illegitimate brother, who shall shortly be announced as his successor. After witnessing the suffering wrought by Matsudaira’s brutality, the wily old samurai Shinzaemon Shimada agrees to fix the problem permanently, fully understanding one way or another, it will be his battle. Naturally, he assembles his team in proper Dirty Dozen fashion, recruiting colorful ronin and disaffected samurai who are not particularly worried about the future. They might not make samurai like they used to, but Shimada will have a worthy opponent in his old colleague Hanbei. Though repulsed by his behavior, Hanbei believes he is honor-bound to defend Matsudaira to preserve the rule of law. And so it begins.

Aside from the shocking early scenes of Matsudaira’s handiwork, Assassins is not at all what one might expect from the director of Audition. Remaking Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same title, Miike is surprisingly traditional in his approach. However, he delivers the hack-and-slash goods in spades. Culminating in an awe-inspiring forty-five minute hand-to-hand battle sequence, Assassins generates a monster of a body count, without ever flagging or repeating itself. Steadily increasing the intensity, Assassins concludes with a moment of perfect Jadaigeki genre purity. Beyond fanboy fare, this is technically accomplished, bravura filmmaking, with some incredible sets designed (to be subsequently destroyed) by art director Yuji Hayashida.

Like an Edo-era Clint Eastwood, Koji Yakusho brings steely-eyed gravitas to the proceedings as the grizzled Shimada. Yet, he still has ample credibility swinging the samurai sword. Indeed, Yakusho makes Assassins work on a dramatic level every step of the way. Conversely, former J-popper Gorô Inagaki is about as unsettling and downright chill-inducing villain to slither across movie screens in decades.

13 Assassins will remind Japanese cinema aficionados of everything they ever loved about the great Jadaigeki costumed action epics. From the grit and grime of combat to the lofty macro themes of duty and sacrifice, Miike demonstrates a complete mastery of the Samurai movie package. Recommended far and wide, it opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the IFC Center.

It is also worth noting Miike was scheduled to attend a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective in March, but was forced to cancel after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan. While the current mis-administration could only be bothered to respond to this crisis with a brief spot of nuclear fear-mongering before returning to more pressing matters (like the NCAA tournament), private citizens can support our Japanese friends and allies by contributing to the Red Cross here or the Japan Society’s relief fund here.

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Tribeca ’11: Gnarr

“We have met the enemy and he is us,” Walt Kelly told us. Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr recently proved it is still true with his unlikely campaign for mayor of Reykjavik. What started as comedic performance art became a real deal political insurgency, documented each step of the way by filmmaker Gaukur Úlfarsson in Gnarr (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Gnarr once made a film with Michael Imperioli, which should preclude him from holding any office and possibly operating heavy machinery. As the 2010 municipal election season began, Iceland was still reeling from its financial tribulations. With a series of bizarre web videos, Gnarr launched his ostensibly tongue-in-cheek campaign, making a series promises emphasizing the absurdity of politics. He offered free trips to Disneyland and pledged he would not work with any elected official who had not watched all five seasons of The Wire.

So far, so good. Gnarr launched his “Best Party,” adopting Tina Turner’s cheese-drenched “Simply the Best” as their anthem. Then Gnarr started dramatically moving up the polls. Suddenly, a Gnarr mayoralty is not a joke, but a very real possibility. While the comedic actor continued incorporating outrageous improvised gags into the campaign, the tenor of his rhetoric appears to change. Absolutely, the government should pay for this or that he tells potential voters. Can it be even the smell of power corrupts? I suppose we can ask the citizens of Reykjavik. Spoiler for those who do not intimately follow Icelandic politics: According to the evil Dr. Wiki: “After the initial euphoria of the election, the city council under his leadership has raised taxes and fees while cutting expenditures on programmes. This appears to be having an influence to temper his popularity.”

Both Gnarr the man and the movie are often quite funny, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Yet, since Úlfarsson takes a strictly observational approach, he never challenges Gnarr when he appears to pander. It might have helped him in the long run. Indeed, New York may very well be a more welcoming environment for Gnarr as he promotes his film at Tribeca.

For political junkies, Gnarr’s story is fascinating. While Úlfarsson never delves beneath the surface, he certainly captures some of recent history’s funnier moments. Whether it is an inspiring story of underdog triumph or a cautionary tale remains to be determined. A mildly whacky diversion, Gnarr screens again today (4/25) at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Art Month on Independent Lens: Marwencol

There is a small piece of Belgium hidden away in upstate New York. Partly as therapy and partly as a retreat from reality, Mark Hogancamp created a model WWII-era village with an extensive mythology that has been hailed as a singularly significant work of outsider art. Hogancamp and his alternate world are profiled in Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (trailer here), which screens tomorrow night as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

One fateful night, the hard-drinking Hogancamp was beaten senseless by five thugs. Suffering profound brain damage, his mental slate was essentially wiped clean. Yet, elements of his previous life influence the characters of Marwencol, the fictional village newly liberated by the American Army, led by Hogancamp’s GI Joe alter-ego. Marwencol is a welcoming place with a large population of German deserters. However, the Hogancamp doll must constantly defend the village from the SS as he juggles the affections of several Barbies modeled after his real life crushes.

At its most distinctive, outsider art is both compelling and unsettling in equal measure due to its compulsive attention to detail and absolute earnestness. Clearly, this is the case with Hogancamp. It is a richly inventive “installation” (for lack of a better term), which could easily be adapted as feature in its own right. Yet, it is also quite sad to watch the damaged Hogancamp talking to his characters. Though he can still obviously distinguish between fantasy and reality, it seems as if he is attempting to breach that dividing wall through his concerted efforts.

The Marwencol figures and settings are extremely photogenic, particularly when accompanied by vintage big band swing music. However, the digital video shot by Malmberg and his producers Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, and Kevin Walsh looks rather flat and unremarkable, resembling a feature story on a local newscast than a theatrical doc.

In one of the great ironies of Marwencol, the gentle Hogancamp explains he was essentially an alcoholic jerk before the attack. He also had a few more things to learn about himself, which the film reveals as a big third act surprise. However, once it is out in the open, Malmberg almost entirely changes the focus of the film as a result.

The images of Hogancamp’s alternate reality are quite striking, but frankly television is the appropriate venue for Malmberg’s Marwencol. As luck would have it, here it is, airing tomorrow (4/26) on most PBS outlets, courtesy of Independent Lens.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tribeca ’11: The Trip

Prepare for a pitched battle of Michael Caine impressions. There will also be gourmet food. British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, respectively, in Michael Winterbottom’s pseudo-fictional road-movie buddy-comedy The Trip, which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival (currently underway in Chelsea and the East Village).

Coogan is one of the biggest stars in the UK. Just ask him, he’ll tell you. Divorced with a son he should see more of, Coogan’s personal life is pretty much a mess. His girlfriend has called a timeout and returned to America right before he is scheduled to take a culinary tour of the North of England on behalf of a major magazine. Stuck with a gig he only accepted because he thought she would enjoy it, Coogan invites along his old chum Brydon in her place.

Hardly a big star, Brydon gets paid to make silly voices on the radio. However, the working class Welsh comic knows there are worse ways to make a living. Happily married with a little girl, one hopes Brydon’s life is only thinly fictionalized. In contrast, we soon wish the moody Coogan portrayed in The Trip is largely an invented persona. They have one thing in common though. They both have very definite ideas on how Michael Caine should sound, which they demonstrate, repeatedly. Recognizing good material, Coogan and Brydon frequently return to the well and it is still funny each and every time.

Edited to feature length from the original six-part British mini-series, Trip is consistently droll, even when not plundering the Sir Michael comedy store. Stylistically very different, Coogan and Brydon play off each other quite well. Their mostly improvised bickering banter is always razor sharp, but never overly caustic. Coogan even offers a spot of credibly understated drama as his own rather miserable self. Yet, the film will not afford him the opportunity of blaming his parents, presenting them as warmly supportive and not at all embarrassing (at least by parental standards) when Coogan and Brydon pop in for a quick visit.

Throughout The Trip, viewers also get a driving tour of the North, which looks quite picturesque through cinematographer Ben Smithard’s lens. Still, one suspects 111 minutes of the Lakeland district might be just about right, unless you have reservations at some of the elite restaurants Coogan and Brydon visit. Witty without getting too cute or annoyingly self-referential, The Trip is surprisingly entertaining, definitely recommended when it screens again Tuesday (4/26) and Saturday (4/30) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’11: Beyond the Black Rainbow

Welcome to the early 1980’s, the era of Commodore computers and oppressive prog rock. Anyone jonesing for the garish look and casual disregard for narrative drive exemplified by the films screened by the MST3K robots will be delighted with this retro for its own sake sci-fi potboiler. The rest of us mere mortals will be left scratching their heads after sitting through Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow (trailer here), which screens late nights at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

By day, Dr. Barry Nyle torments the heavily drugged Elena in his sinister research facility. At night, he putters aimlessly around his shag-carpeted ranch style house. Yet, we can tell events of cosmic enormity are brewing, thanks to the portentous soundtrack. Perhaps Elena is related to Matthew Star, because she seems to have vaguely defined mental powers. Subverting her sedation, Elena makes a break for it, escaping through Buckminster Fuller’s acid trip, but she is not out of the woods (or desert) yet.

Rainbow often feels like it is channeling Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which butchered Michael Moorcock’s novel beyond human recognition. However, at least it had the novelty of a soundtrack featuring Beaver & Krause and unlikely enough, jazz legend Gerry Mulligan. In contrast, what most distinguishes Rainbow is its weak perfunctory ending. Frankly, it is such a lame cheat, it is almost a sin against cinema.

It ought to be impossible, but somehow Rainbow’s story is both simplistic and incomprehensible. Aside from a bit of sadism, the film is an entirely static one-note viewing experience. Still, to her credit, Eva Allan tries to cobble together something workable as Elena.

If you find yourself at a Rainbow screening, you can pass the time by counting walk-outs. There were ten when I saw it. For a while there were eleven, but one dude must have just gone to the men’s room. He took his time though. Rainbow is sure to have its hipster champions, but it is just a headache of a film. It screens again this Thursday (4/28) and Friday (4/29) as a Cinemania selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Underwater Love

Adult film was never so endearing. It is from Japan, you see. So-called Japanese Pinku Eiga or story-driven softish-core has earned its share of international fans and many of its leading stars and directors have crossed over into the mainstream. Just in time for Holy Week, Shinji Imaoka’s pinku-musical-crossover mash-up, Underwater Love debuted yesterday at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, very definitely as a late night Cinemania selection.

Kappas are legendary Japanese water spirits, roughly humanoid in form, with turtle features. They live in water and must keep their scalps wet at all times. It seems Asuka’s long deceased high school classmate Aoki has become such a creature. Bored with life in the river, he would like to hang with Asuka for a while and do human stuff. This is a little awkward for her though, since she is engaged to her boss at the fish factory, not mention Aoki’s beak and tortoiseshell. However, Aoki is not simply looking for a good time. He came back to save his true love.

There is no getting around the adult nature of Underwater, but longtime Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle gives it instant hipster art-house credibility (and a pleasing dream-like sheen). Yet, Sawa Masaki really supplies the film’s heart with her effervescent screen presence. Based on her charming turn in Underwater, she deserves to crossover to the mainstream.

As for Underwater, folks are probably wondering if there is any red hot human-turtle creature love. Oh yes, plenty. How about energetically goofy musical numbers? Affirmative. The Angel of Death appearing as a dirty smelly hippy? Present and accounted for. Considering how much Underwater has to offer, it might not simply be the finest motion picture ever produced, it could be the single greatest artistic achievement in the history of humanity.

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps a tad, for effect. The truth is Underwater represents the high-end of a distinctly Japanese movie genre. Though not to all tastes, Pinku Eiga has been the thin edge of the wedge for many fans who now love Japanese cinema of all stripes. It is part of a rich and occasionally strange cultural tradition that has enriched the world.

Of course, Japan is now experiencing profound challenges in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. While Hollywood and the current administration evidently could not be bothered to take any meaningful constructive action, private citizens can support our Japanese friends and allies by contributing to the Red Cross' efforts here or the Japan Society’s relief fund here. Indeed, the eccentric yet laidback Underwater will definitely put viewers in an appreciative frame of mind when it screens again during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival tonight (4/23), Wednesday (4/27) and Thursday (4/28).

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Tribeca ’11: Revenge of the Electric Car

In Terminator 2, the villain of the previous film comes back as the hero of the sequel. Such is also the case with Chris Paine’s latest film, except it is a documentary. The freshly reformed protagonist? General Motors. The times just might be changing after all in Paines’ Revenge of the Electric Car (trailer here), which premiered last night at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

According to Paine's Who Killed the Electric Car, despite positive driver feedback, GM recalled their experimental EV-1, while twisting its mustache and laughing maniacally. Instead, they ramped up production on Hummers. The end, or is it? Fast-forward a few years and meet Bob Lutz, the Vice Chairman of the automotive giant. The car executive’s car executive, Lutz is no tree-hugger. Yet, like Saul on the road to Damascus, Lutz fundamentally changed his mind about the feasibility and desirability of electric cars. Only Lutz has the prestige to put GM back in the electric business and the guts to allow their old nemesis to document it.

Revenge has other protagonists, like Elon Musk, the tech-centric entrepreneur, who made his fortune with Pay Pal before starting Tesla Motors. Sleek and striking, these sports cars are probably too elite to change the world, but they ought to make electric cool. Unfortunately, Musk has trouble filling customer orders (including Paine’s). As more mass market competition, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has “bet the future” of his company on electric, but that shoe has yet to drop.

It is important to note, none of these ventures are the result of government mandates. Indeed, they are highly speculative ventures that might just short circuit careers and fortunes. To his credit, Paine himself gives due credit to the captains of industry and entrepreneurs of Revenge. Though he retracts nothing from his previous film, it is clear he and pre-government takeover GM made a lasting peace.

Of course, Bob Lutz is a major reason why. Although Paine probably has a naturally affinity for the Silicon Valley-based Musk, Lutz’s curmudgeonly charm dominates the film. The camera loves the cigar chomping old school executive far more than the icy Ghosn or the cerebral Musk. (While Revenge eventually addresses the government bail-out, most of the GM segments deal with Lutz’s early championing of the hitherto underwhelming Volt.)

The open-minded fairness Paine brings to bear on an industry he formerly excoriated is quite remarkable. Still, the film raises a few questions that remain unanswered. Granted, it would certainly be advantageous to see electric cars displace a number of gas guzzlers, particularly in light of the Obama Administration’s war on domestic off-shore drilling and contentment to import petroleum from hostile governments, like Venezuela. However, is there sufficient infrastructure in place to support them? New York apartment dwellers, for whom alternate-side parking is an eternal fact of life, might be the most inclined to switch to electric cars, but would they be able to charge them? For that matter, electricity is not magically supplied. Could the state of California, which experienced roving “Gray-Outs” in the early 2000’s, handle a significant increase in demand? Paine well might argue the marketplace can respond to these challenges, in which case perhaps Lutz was not the only one to experience a conversion of Biblical proportions.

In a pleasant surprise, Revenge is probably the most favorable depiction of corporate and entrepreneurial America seen in a documentary since who knows when? Again, Paine deserves his just due. As a result, he will probably spread the electric car gospel to previously unreceptive audiences. He certainly makes a star of Lutz (so it is a shame the current administration does not want him involved in “Government Motors”). Informative and engaging, Revenge screens again at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival today (4/23), Wednesday (4/27), and next Saturday (4/30).

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Tribeca ’11: The Assault

It was France’s Entebbe. In what is often referred to as “the most successful anti-terrorist operation in history” (at least among those not involving the Israelis), French commandos stormed an airliner hijacked by Algerian Islamist terrorists on Christmas Eve. The hijackers had no intention of negotiating. Their plan was to crash Air France 8969 into the Eifel Tower. The year was 1994. The missed lessons are painfully obvious. In a case of France eating Hollywood’s lunch, Julien Leclercq vividly dramatizes the historic raid in The Assault (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

The Algerian terrorists were Islamic and they never let their captives forget it. As soon as they secured the plane, Abdul Abdullah Yahia and his accomplices forced all the women to cover-up with makeshift head scarves. The French being French, they first tried to appease GIA terrorists. Not surprisingly, the Islamist GIA was not interested in a payoff. They were hoping to make a big statement instead. Fortunately, they were delayed so long in Algiers (where the Algerians refused to remove the gangway stairs from the airliners, yet perversely denied permission for the French GIGN SWAT team to operate in-country), Flight 8969 was forced to stop for refueling in Marseilles.

Considering the film is called The Assault, it is not much of a spoiler to say the GIGN eventually board the plane. However, there is nothing video game-like about the film’s centerpiece action sequence. This is close quarters combat, vividly depicted as a distinctly violent, claustrophobic, confusing, and messy proposition. Tense and scrupulously realistic, these scenes are unlike anything peddled by recent antiseptic Hollywood action movies.

Reportedly, the terrorists were even more sadist than they are portrayed in Assault. Of course, there are understandable limits to what a commercial release can bear (particularly in France). To his credit, Leclercq and co-screenwriter Simon Moutairou never try to ameliorate the terrorists’ crimes with sympathetic back-stories. Instead, they show them executing hostages in cold blood. Frankly, the GIA as seen in Assault can only be described as hateful savages.

Assault’s one weakness is the rather cookie-cutter characterization of the GIGN officers. Viewers only glimpse the private life of Thierry, a family man wrestling with his conscience after his previous assignment. The rest are essentially interchangeable. However, Mélanie Bernier makes a strong impression as Carole Jeanton, an ambitious Interior Ministry bureaucrat, who goes from Chamberlain-esque appeaser to a Churchillian advocate for an armed response to terror in about thirty seconds flat. Maybe it was the guns pointed at her.

The Assault is the sort of action film Hollywood ought to be producing at regular clip, but refuses to do so for petty ideological reasons. Still, though the GIGN emerges as the film’s heroes, the French government takes quite a few lumps. Recreating an important historical incident with grit and tick-tock precision, Leclercq’s Assault is easily one of the best selections at this year’s Tribeca. It screens again tonight (4/23), tomorrow (4/24), and Thursday (4/28).

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