J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ida: A Novitiate Nun in Communist Poland

In Communist Poland, a vow of poverty hardly mattered. For one nun in training, the most challenging part of her novitiate will be meeting her sole living relative. It leads to some profound soul searching in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Convent life is all Anna has ever known. Orphaned as an infant, the young woman will soon take her vows, but the mother superior insists she first visit her aunt Wanda. Neither has been pining to meet the other, in part because of what they represent. While Anna identifies with Poland’s strong Catholic tradition, Wanda is a notorious Stalinist era prosecutor and judge. “Red Wanda” as she is known, now lives a boozy, solitary existence, only occasionally relieved by brief “carnal” distractions. When Anna arrives unannounced, Red Wanda reveals the young woman’s true identity, almost as an act of hostility. Anna was actually born Ida Lebenstern to Jewish parents who perished during the war.

Despite her abrasive welcome, Red Wanda quickly warms to her niece, agreeing to set out with her in search of her parents’ remains. It will be a rather tricky task, given their sketchy information. Simultaneously, Red Wanda does her best to play Anna’s devil-on-the-shoulder, trying to convince her to sample some of life’s more adult pleasures before she completely renounces the secular world.

Ida might be opening May 2nd (the day after May Day), but audience members should take a heavy coat to the theater, because it is one of the chilliest films you will ever see. 1962 was a relatively stable period for Communist Poland (compared to the subsequent anti-Semitic campaign and imposition of martial law), but it was still a time of scarcity and drabness. Nonetheless, jazz was on the upswing with the smart set and not yet explicitly on the outs with the authorities. It just so happens, Lis, a talented saxophonist gigging at their provincial hotel, attracts Wanda’s leering stare and the awkwardly demur notice of her niece.

Arriving on the heels of Władsław Pasikowski’s more confrontational Aftermath, Ida is clearly part of Poland’s continuing effort to process the national WWII experience, long deferred during the Communist era. However, this is a more personal meditation on identity and family. It is also unusually beautiful, in a severe, ascetic way. Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal’s black-and-white cinematography is absolutely arresting, while Pawlikowski strikingly composes each shot, dwarfing his figures against imposing backdrops.

Acting within such a frame is quite a challenge, but newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska seems to grow along with her character, Anna/Ida, as the film progresses. Without question though, Agata Kulesza’s Red Wanda is the most successful breaking out of Pawlikowski’s frozen tableaux with her sharp elbows and razor-like tongue. Dawid Orognik also shows flashes of presence as Lis, while Joanna Kulig briefly catches the eye and ear as Lis’s band singer.

The British-based Pawlikowski makes a bold statement with his first Polish production, aesthetically and thematically. His deliberate pace and dark vision will limit Ida’s appeal even within arthouse circles, but it is an ambitious work of auteur level cinema. Recommended for disciplined cineastes, Ida opens this Friday (5/2) in New York at Film Forum.

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Tribeca ’14: Supermensch

You have to have a real Zen-like attitude to successfully manage Alice Cooper. The drugs did not hurt either, at least in the early years. Starting with Alice Cooper (the band), Gordon expanded his roster to include clients like Anne Murray. You could call that a career. It certainly provides plenty of anecdotal grist for Friend-of-Shep Mike Myers’ affectionate portrait Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

In true 1960s fashion, Gordon started managing Alice Cooper as a cover for his causal but considerable drug-dealing income. When law enforcement started getting nosy, he decided to make management a full time gig. The early years were tough, but Cooper (the man) gives Gordon credit for eventually making good on all the motel bills they skipped out on.

Eventually, Gordon’s long-term strategy—make parents hate Alice Cooper—paid off handsomely. Gordon would subsequently manage Murray, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, and Groucho Marx (the latter more as a fan’s act of devotion than as a money-making concern). Perhaps the most eye-opening sequence explains Gordon’s role kicking off the celebrity chef phenomenon, making Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck rich and famous in the process. Of course, Cooper plays a central role in Myers’ profile, which makes sense both from a biographical standpoint and as an endless source of good material.

As it happens, Supermensch is one of three interconnecting docs that played at this year’s Tribeca. Obviously, Gordon appears in Super Duper Alice Cooper and vice versa, but Cooper also briefly appears An Honest Liar, explaining the Amazing Randi’s role devising the guillotine routine for his stage show. All three are entertaining, but Super Duper’s rock & roll attitude combined with its Jekyll & Hyde psychoanalysis is ultimately more compelling than the breezy show biz vibe of Supermensch. By the way, if Gordon and Cooper had a connection to Bob Weir it did not come up in The Other One.

Regardless, the first-time director clearly had no trouble getting his fellow FOS’s to talk. Just about all of it is pretty funny stuff. Occasionally, Gordon gets serious, but Myers never lets that last, keeping things snappy throughout. For the post-screening discussion, Michael Douglas (another FOS) interviewed Gordon, eliciting more reminiscences. Frankly, a good number were repeats from the film, but you could say they were observing rock & roll’s “greatest hits” tradition. A pleasant source of bubbly, low calorie laughs and nostalgia, Supermensch is recommended for Boomer rock fans and aspiring talent managers. A crowd-pleaser at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon also screens tonight (4/30) and Friday (5/2) during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Protector 2: The Elephant Man Returns

Elephants have long held special cultural significance in Thailand, as symbols of both the royal family and Buddhism. Yet, for Kham, Korhn is no mere pachyderm. He is his spiritual brother. There is no better way to stress him out than kidnapping Korhn. For some strange reason, a shadowy MMA cabal does exactly that—again—in Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector 2 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

One afternoon, an elephant dealer’s sketchy lackeys drop by, offering what they consider a ridiculously generous price for Korhn. Naturally, after telling them off, Kham pops down to the market, leaving his elephant home alone. Seriously, that practically constitutes negligence. Launching a frontal on assault on the elephant fence’s villa, Kham finds old Boss Suchart already dead and his purloined elephant nowhere to be found. Not only has he obligingly stepped into the frame-job, Suchart’s martial arts proficient, sailor suit wearing nieces are quite upset with him.

Eventually, Kham will try to forge an alliance with the not-really-twins to bring down the man responsible for both their woes. That would be LC, the leader of a gun-running martial arts cult. Supposedly, he wants Kham to be his new #1 fighter, but we know from the daft in media res opener, there is a larger scheme afoot.

Whatever. At least it all involves a series of massive throw-downs with the almost super human #2. LC’s loyal lover, #20, is no slouch either. As long as people are fighting, P2 works like a charm. However, there are some ridiculously overtop action sequences involving a motorcycle gang clearly intended for 3D that blatantly suffer from an unforgiving 2D rendering.

In case you forgot, the original Protector featured the awesome long take tracking Kham fighting his way up a spiral Guggenheim-like vice den. His successive face-offs with #2 almost rank at that level, but collectively they last considerably longer. While Tony Jaa is just kind of okay when it comes to the conventional drama, his fight scenes, choreographed with Panna Rittikrai are spectacular, as is #20’s wardrobe, rocked by Ratha Phongam, who was just about the only watchable part of Only God Forgives.

As the nieces, Chocolate’s JeeJa Yanin Wismitanan and Teerada Kittisiriprasert also show off some pretty amazing synchronized moves.  However, despite all the scenery RZA chews as LC, Marresse Crump upstages his villainy as the lethally cool #2 (an absolute force of nature worlds away from Robert Wagner’s #2 in the Austin Powers franchise).

There are times when both P2 and its hero are pretty dumb. Fortunately, the film is only really about two things: kicking butt and kicking more butt. Pure escapist meathead fun, The Protector 2 is recommended for fans of Jaa, Wismitanan, and Muay Thai films in general when it opens this Friday (5/2) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Tribeca ’14: Bright Days Ahead

Caroline looks considerably younger than her husband Philippe, but he still practices dentistry, whereas she has retired. That means she has time on her hands. Much to her surprise, she will find things to do at an upscale senior center that happens to employ a much younger but surprisingly receptive personal computing teacher. Fanny Ardant takes a diva turn in Marion Vernoux’s adultery drama Bright Days Ahead (trailer here), which screened during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Caroline is not adapting well to retirement. When her grown daughters buy her a trial membership at the Bright Days Ahead senior’s club, she nearly has a fit. You can hardly blame her—a name like that sounds like some sort of rehab clinic. Reluctantly, she starts going to Julien’s computer classes when their home PC goes on the Fritz. Before long, some cougar-himbo hanky-panky commences.  Unfortunately, her increasing recklessness leads to inevitable exposure.

Even with the not exactly jaw-dropping age difference between the not-so secret lovers, Bright is a pretty standard exercise in cinematic infidelity. Yes, Ardant still has it, but what distinguishes Vernoux’s otherwise conventional screenplay (co-written with Fanny Chesnel) are a handful of blisteringly honest scenes and a quiet gut-check performance from Patrick Chesnais as the wronged husband.

Philippe is indeed wronged, a fact that Vernoux and Chesnel do nothing to water-down. Refusing to be conveniently submissive, he is a dignified yet emotionally messy rebuke to the of pat empowerment themes often bandied about by adulterous wife movies. Similarly, Caroline goes into the affair remarkably clear-headed, even helping Julien keep up appearances with his younger lovers. However, you might have to be a sixty-some year old French woman to appreciate the charms of Laurent Lafitte’s Julien.

Without question, it is the veterans Ardant and Chesnais who make Bright work to the extent it does, particularly in their scenes together. Rather undistinguished looking, it still has enough incisive moments that pop to make the whole worthwhile. Recommended for Francophiles, Bright Days Ahead has already opened in New York at the Quad Cinema, following its American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It also screens this Sunday (5/4) at the Montclair Film Film Festival in Jersey.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Point and Shoot

Matthew VanDyke’s only formal military training came while he was an embedded reporter with the American military in Iraq. There were those in the Libyan rebel army who had far less, but they were not a sheltered twenty-seven year-old living with a conspicuous case of OCD. Relying on travel and combat footage shot by VanDyke himself, Marshall Curry documents his journey from a homebody who had never even done his own laundry to a POW of Gaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison in Point and Shoot (trailer here), which won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Partly at the prodding of his girlfriend Lauren Fischer, the underachieving VanDyke set out to remake himself into a sort of gonzo travel journalist motorcycling through the Middle East. It worked to some extent. By virtue of proximity, he was able to cover Iraq for a local Maryland paper. Not surprisingly, he got along famously with the troops he followed, most of whom he still considers friends. The instruction they gave him on the shooting range would also serve him well.

Through his travels, VanDyke also made fast friends with hippie Libyan tourist Nuri Funas, whose home he illegally visited before the war erupted. When the Arab Spring reached Libya, VanDyke also returned, determined fight for and alongside his new friends. Unfortunately, he was captured during an ambush shortly thereafter, but that would hardly be the last word on his warfighting experiences.

Hipper readers might recognize VanDyke as the director of the short but intense documentary, Not Anymore, which dramatically captures the boots-on-the-ground reality in Syria (now available on-line). It is safe to say recent years have been eventful for the filmmaker, considering Curry only takes viewers through VanDyke’s Libyan period.

He tells the story well, framing VanDyke’s footage with a confessional interview—he is almost like the Twenty-First Century equivalent of a Joseph Conrad narrator, except he has the video to verify his narrative. For obvious reasons, VanDyke has no footage from his time held in solitary confinement, but Curry compensate with Joe Posner’s stark 3D animation sequences, modeled from the very walls of VanDyke’s former cell.

VanDyke’s chronicle is pretty darn dramatic (and still developing). While just about everyone with a handheld device might be recording the world around them, you have to be in a warzone to shoot a battle selfie. Indeed, the filmmaker-freedom fighter captures some powerful and illuminating images. Altogether, it celebrates freedom and human dignity for all, as well as the very American practice of self-reinvention. Highly recommended, Point and Shoot is sure to have a long festival life after winning the World Documentary Competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is already scheduled to screen this Wednesday (4/30), Thursday (5/1), and Saturday (5/3) during Hot Docs in Toronto.

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Speak the Music: Robert Mann

Classical chamber music is not just about playing well. You must play well with others. According to Robert Mann, he was never a dazzling soloist, but he had a keen sense for the dynamics of a small chamber group’s interplay. At ninety-three, Mann’s reputation only continues to grow, further burnished by filmmaker-symphony conductor Allan Miller’s documentary profile Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music, which opens this Friday in New York.

Just so there are no hard feelings, let us be clear Speak the Music is already available on DVD. However, its limited one-week theatrical run in New York will feature post-screening Q&A with Miller. Plus, this being the City, you never know who might show up. After all, Mann’s admirers are quite accomplished in their own right, including Itzhak Perlman and the late Elliott Carter. In fact, the Centenarian composer (looking and sounding tremendous) credits Mann’s interpretation of his string quartets for his two subsequent Pulitzer Prizes.

While Mann’s family appears throughout the film, Miller is clearly more interested in documenting Mann’s performances and workshops than intruding into his private life. The better portion of the film is dedicated to archival footage of Mann’s Julliard String Quartet and scenes of his incredibly detailed teaching sessions. Anyone who is interested in pursuing a professional chamber music career will find it offers much to study and absorb.

For casual viewers, there is hardly any drama per se, but Mann is remarkably candid about the tensions simmering within the later incarnations of the Julliard Quartet that were largely his own fault. In fact, Mann is quite gracious throughout the film, notably giving a shout out to criminally under-appreciated jazz pianist Bernie Leighton, with whom he played in a military combo during World War II.

Viewers who enjoyed Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet should also appreciate Speak the Music. It addresses some similar musical conflicts, without any of the personal melodrama. It is a short (fifty-eight minutes) but insightful look at a master musician and his preferred musical style. Recommended for classical connoisseurs, Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music opens this Friday (5/2) at the Quad Cinema.

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Tribeca ’14: NOW—In the Wings on a World Stage



Like the old thesps of yore, Kevin Spacey assembled a classical theater troupe to tour like mad, performing Shakespeare’s Richard III in countries throughout the increasingly globalized world. There had to be some craziness going on backstage, but you will be hard-pressed to find any in Jeremy Wheeler’s sanitized-for-your-protection behind-the-scenes documentary, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center following its special screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

When Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes announced Richard III would be their first collaboration since American Beauty the theater world sat up and took notice. Indeed, it is a good thing Mendes was on-board, because he provides some of the film’s most thoughtful commentary. Yet, it would still probably be more interesting to hear him talk about Skyfall.

By all accounts, Richard III was an artistic triumph. Many critics see a direct correlation between Spacey’s Richard and his Francis Underwood in Netflix’s cable-killing House of Cards. Unfortunately, Spacey does not have much to say about that. He would rather sing the praises of his cast members.

It seems like everyone involved on the Richard III utterly adored every last one of their colleagues, which is jolly nice for them, but absolute dullsville to watch. Frankly, NOW has the depth and drama of a making-of DVD extra. Sure, the staging looks spectacularly ambitious (particularly in Greece’s Epidaurus theater, circa 400 B.C.), but the best way to appreciate it would have been by seeing the production live. For the most part, viewers must be content to watch as cast members discover the Great Wall of China is really long and the desert in Qatar is rather sandy.

In a way, NOW is the high-brow equivalent of the bloopers that ran over the closing credits of old Burt Reynolds movies, in which everyone works very hard to show us how much fun they were having. This is such a lightweight trifle, especially when compared to the other robustly entertaining documentaries that played this year’s Tribeca. Of interest only to Spacey’s hardcore stalker-fans, but certainly not recommended for everyday civilians, the awkwardly titled NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage opens this Friday (5/2) at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Extraterrestrial

Ever heard of an alien abduction in the City? No you haven’t. As Rick Blaine would say, there are some New Yorkers you wouldn’t recommend poking and prodding. However, a group of college kids planning to party away the weekend in a cabin near the lake do not stand a chance in The Vicious Brothers’ Extraterrestrial, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Right, since Kyle is planning to pop the question to April during their romantic country getaway, he naturally invites his loud mouth buddy Seth and two generic bimbos along, without consulting her. Meanwhile, she is polishing her its-not-you-its-me script. Things get so awkward it is almost a relief when the aliens to unleashing their standard issue strobe light effects. At least before they left, April’s newly divorced dad asked her to bring back his shotgun and fishing rod, so we know what that foreshadows—some intense fly-fishing.

Frankly, Extraterrestrial starts on a promising note, sounding a lot like an attitude-fueled Kevin Williamson take on the alien abduction genre, but halfway through it starts taking presenting its warmed over UFO themes with inappropriate seriousness. While the Viciouses’ cult favorite Grave Encounters tightly controlled the mood and pace, Extraterrestrial rattles all over the place. Even the big special effect sequence set inside the mothership looks nearly indistinguishable from similar scenes in films like Independence Day and the upcoming The Signal.

Still, the Brothers Vicious have an ace up their sleeve with genre legend Michael Ironside (as in Scanners, Total Recall, and V the original series) as Travis, the super-patriotic conspiracy theorist pot farmer and an old friend of April’s family. Whenever he growls and swaggers into the narrative, the energy level surges. Believe or not, Gil Bellows is also not bad as plodding Sheriff Murphy, who must have the lowest case closure rate of any law enforcement officer in the country.

You know Travis has plenty of guns, which would bode well for zombie survivability, but not so much for alien party-crashers. It makes you wonder what would happen if they abducted zombies, or better yet, zombeavers. Still, most of the cast are rather zombie-like. Daytime Emmy winner Brittany Allen has a bit of presence as April and Jesse Moss could not possibly be any more annoying as Seth, but the other kids fade so quickly from memory, it is hard to say there were ever really there in the first place.

Extraterrestrial pulls off a cool bit of business with a telephone booth, but it lacks the tension and vivid sense of place that made the original Grave such a breakneck monster. Instead, it slowly coasts downhill. Just okay for raucous midnight viewing, fans should not expect too much from Extraterrestrial, following its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: An Honest Liar

He has been a sworn foe of all swindlers and conmen, but James Randi had two great nemeses in his life: Uri Geller and a milk can. However, the magician, escape artist, and one man bunco squad received his own lesson regarding the relativity of truth during the course of Justin Weinstein & Tyler Measom’s documentary, An Honest Liar (trailer here), which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

"The Amazing" James Randi literally ran away with the circus. Learning sleight of hand and other illusionists’ secrets, Randi realized magicians could easily misapply their skills for criminal purposes. His respect for the craft kept him honest and made him resent those who used the tricks of their trade to fleece the gullible. While still a practicing illusionist, Randi set about exposing faith healers and phony psychics. In a twist of fate, a nearly fatal attempt to replicate Houdini’s milk can escape essentially forced Randi to become a full-time truth-teller.

Frankly, those unfamiliar with Randi’s greatest hits might be surprised by the time and logistical planning required by some of his operations. Yet, the media was often just as resentful of Randi’s efforts as the fraudsters he uncovered. The Carson-era Tonight Show was a notable exception. In fact, Carson’s staff dealt a seemingly fatal blow to up-and-coming psychic Uri Geller by following Randi’s prop handling instructions. It has been said before, but nobody played Johnny Carson for a fool.

Many of the intrigues Honest documents are absolutely fascinating, bringing to mind the hit-or-miss skullduggery of Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights, except they are considerably more interesting. They also happen to be true. The third act revelation is also a real surprise most causal viewers will not see coming. It is not exactly a focal concern, but Honest reminds the audience of the appalling state of human rights in Venezuela when that shoe finally drops.

Honest delivers plenty of magic and flim flammery, but it has a highly pronounced dramatic arc. Compared to the breezy fun of the Ricky Jay doc, Deceptive Practice, it is much more serious and sober.  Clearly, Weinstein & Measom won over Randi’s trust, capturing some truly wince-inducing long dark nights of the soul. The filmmakers also scored an on-camera with Geller, the unrepentant spoon-bender, for the sake of fairness and completeness.

Wisely, Weinstein & Measom minimize Randi’s collaborations with atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins, instead positioning him as an intrepid debunker of those who would exploit others’ faith for financial gain. Regardless, the details of his long campaign against dangerous fakers are far more cinematic than the typical doc grist. Recommended for skeptics and magic fans, An Honest Liar will screen at Hot Docs on Wednesday (4/30), Thursday (5/1), and Saturday (5/3) following its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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KCS: Nora Noh



Fashion designer Nora Noh is widely credited with popularizing the mini-skirt in South Korea. Obviously, she deserves the thanks of a grateful nation, if not the entire world. Yet many younger Korean fashionistas were unaware of her trailblazing work until the opening of a special retrospective commemorating her sixty years in the business. Kim Sung-hee surveys Noh’s life and couture while chronicling the mounting of the designer’s special exhibition in Nora Noh (trailer here), which screens for free this coming Tuesday in New York, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service.

Noh could be considered the Korean Coco Chanel and Edith Head combined. She was a pioneer designing sleek, elegant “western style” business and casual wear for professional Korean women. A shrewd businesswoman, Noh launched a successful ready-to-wear line before her European colleagues. Yet, she also became the personally designer for many of Korea’s top stars, including pop idol Yoon Bok-hee, who made Korean cultural history sporting Noh’s minis.

Even viewers with little fashion sense will pick out interesting nuggets from Kim’s profile. Noh very definitely lived a feminist Horatio Alger life. Her challenges continued when she refused to kowtow to the arrogant press (likely explaining her under-representation in Korean cultural history). She had her run-ins with the secret police, yet ironically, the film indirectly suggests the liberated simplicity of Noh’s designs was rather compatible with the militarist government’s drive to industrialize (a potentially provocative point that could have been explored at greater length).

Perhaps the film’s greatest assets are the extensive clips from vintage Korean movies illustrating Noh’s image-making power, which will intrigue cineastes as much or perhaps more than clothes horses. While not exactly chatty, she remains a strong figure of individual stick-to-itiveness and a mostly likable screen presence.

Nora Noh is not the most dramatic film ever lensed, even though Noh’s early life was quite tumultuous. Frankly, the sentimental soundtrack does not sound very Nora Noh. Nevertheless, Kim and editor Lee Hyuk-sang keep it moving along nicely. Recommended for students of fashion as well as those fascinated by the phenomenon of global cultural modernization, Nora Noh screens (free of charge) this Tuesday (4/29) at the Tribeca Cinemas as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s regular Korean Movie Night series.

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Next Goal Wins

Nicky Salapu is like the FIFA equivalent of the Mets’ profoundly unlucky Anthony Young. You have to pitch decently to set the all time consecutive losing game record without getting busted down to the minors. Likewise, the fact that Salapu was never pulled from goal during American Samoa’s record-setting 31-0 loss to Australia says something about his competitive spirit. The underfunded volunteer national team subsequently became the butt of the soccer world’s jokes, but a new coach will try to change their losing ways. Mike Brett & Steve Jamison document their turnaround efforts at the regional World Cup qualifying tournament in Next Goal Wins (trailer here), which is now playing in New York following high-profile “Drive-In” screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

In seventeen years, the American Samoan team never won an official game and only managed to score two goals. After another agonizing season, team management appeals to the American Federation for help. U.S. Soccer tries to recruit a game-changer coach, but they only get one taker: mad Dutchman Thomas Rongen. He is a hardnose’s hardnose, who does not seem interested in making friends, but he sees something in the team. He respects Salapu’s grit and admires the integrity of Jaiyeh Saelua, a transgender defender (considered part of Samoa’s traditional fa’afafine “third gender’).

There are a lot of surprises in this scrappy underdog story, including the evolution of Rongen. Still reeling from a personal tragedy, Rongen starts connecting with his players, finding something he did not even know he was looking for. He also knows more football cold. Still, the odds are still stacked against his team.

Brett & Jamison capture some legitimately touching moments and ratchet up the suspense during the qualifier. As Steve at Unseen Films can verify, at one point during the tournament, your faithful correspondent let loose an all too audible “dammit.” That’s getting caught up in the action.

American Samoa should start making licensing deals, because Goal is destined to become a sleeper hit over time and just about every sports fan who watches it will want to wear their colors. It might be tempting to say it illustrates the old saying: “it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.” Yet this is too pat and simplistic. Throughout Goal we witness the team risking the worst sort of humiliation and mockery, because of the pride they take in representing American Samoa.

Something about this film just hits you on a deep level, but it is also quite lively and at times enormously funny. Highly recommended, Next Goal Wins screened as part of the sports programming at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival before opening yesterday at the Cinema Village.

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Tribeca ’14: Zombeavers

This year, the road to the Academy Awards surely starts in Tribeca. Leslie Nielsen also suddenly has stiff competition for the best on-screen beaver joke. The dam-builders are indeed restive in Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers (viral trailer here), which screens midnight tonight during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Right, so a den of beavers get zombified just before Mary and her two sorority sisters, depressed Jenn and catty Zoe, arrive at her family cabin for a weekend getaway. Do you think they get cell service up there? Dude, please. At least their respective horny significant others crash the party, making things real awkward for Jenn and her cheating dog boyfriend. However, they will not have much time for recriminations before the zombie-beavers attack.

This year, Tribeca’s midnight programmers are determined to discourage viewers from vacationing in the woods. Whether it be the work of homicidal hunters in Preservation, alien-abductors in Extraterrestrial, or zombie-beavers, bad things just seem to happen when you try to get back to nature. Their cautionary warning is duly noted.

So seriously, Zombeavers is just a thing of beauty. It is easily the funniest zombie comedy since Red Snow: Dead vs. Red, which admittedly just screened at Sundance this January, but is still high praise. Rubin delivers plenty of comedic gore, but rest assured, the nudity is strictly gratuitous.

As Mary, Jenn, and Zoe, Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins, and Cortney Palm are impossible long legged and admirably good sports. The corresponding guys act like they are in a competition to see who can be the biggest meathead idiot, but that is about right for the zombie-beaver sub-genre. Of course, the wildly over the top furry undead creatures are the real stars and they do not disappoint. They’re resourceful little buggers. For extra random cult movie points, Zombeavers also features CSI: Miami regular Rex Linn as Smyth, the grizzled grizzly hunter.

What more could you want from a film than hordes of zombeavers attacking bikini-clad sorority sisters? When in doubt Rubin just cranks up the blood-splattered visual gags, but there are some wickedly droll bits of dialogue scattered throughout. Highly recommended good, clean movie fun, Zombeavers screens tonight (4/26) as a midnight selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Hot Docs ’14: Doc of the Dead & Whitey

Which could produce a higher body count, a potential zombie apocalypse or Whitey Bulger? Massachusetts gets it hard either way to judge from two documentaries screening at this year’s Hot Docs in Canada.

While it has already aired on Epix here in the U.S., Alexandre O. Philippe’s Doc of the Dead is only now shambling up north. Appropriately so, considering the debate over whether zombies should be fast or slow factors prominently in the film, along with the unholy trinity of zombie franchises: Romero’s Living Dead films, Max Brooks’ World War Z books, and Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novels and television series.

DOD offers up some amusing commentary, but Rob Kuhns’ Birth of the Living Dead remains a more satisfying zombie doc experience. However, the film provides a useful public service by establishing the state-by-state criteria for zombie survivor expectancy. Wyoming ranks highest due to its low population density and high degree of personal gun ownership, whereas New Jersey comes in dead last.

While the Bay State would not fare much better than Jersey for zombie survivability, they have also had the Winter Hill Gang to contend with. Unfortunately, the FBI was more of a hindrance than a help bring notorious South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger to justice. It is a shameful story of corruption and ambition detailed at length in Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger.

Unfortunately, in his zeal to expose the Federal government’s culpability, Berlinger lets off his ostensive subject pretty easy, even presenting Bulger’s self-serving myth-spinning calls recorded by his attorney stand without any rebuttal. Still, there are moments of shocking drama in the film, especially with regards to Stephen Rakes, one of Berlinger’s initial POV figures, who was murdered during the course of the Bulger trial.

Without question, Whitey will leave viewers convinced there has yet to be a full reckoning for Bulger and his high placed protectors. Recommended with reservations, Whitey screens this Sunday (4/27), Monday (4/28), and the following Sunday (5/4). Not as gripping or informative, Doc of the Dead is a relatively pleasant diversion specifically made for and by fans. It screens late nights tonight (4/26), Sunday (4/27), and next Saturday (5/3) as part of the 2014 edition of Hot Docs in Toronto.

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