J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hot Docs ’15: A Sinner in Mecca

The extra security provided openly gay Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma at this year’s Hot Docs is an ominous development, but in a perverse way, the death threats prompted by his latest film constitute a ringing endorsement. Nonfiction-filmmaking does not get much gutsier than Sharma video-documenting his hajj. Frankly, it is a bit surprising the ever-so open Saudi government granted his hajj visa. They probably already regret it, but not for reasons you suspect. Ignore the overheated internet trolling and honestly engage with the issues raised by Sharma’s A Sinner in Mecca (trailer here) when it screens again at the 2015 Hot Docs in Toronto.

Sharma had already been on the receiving end of a minor fatwa, because of his prior documentary on the Muslim LGBT experience, A Jihad for Love. After marrying his partner, Sharma decided to take his hajj, hoping to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. Of course he will secretly document the process. He is a filmmaker. That is what he does. Frankly, nobody is more aware of the potential danger for an internationally recognized LGBT activist in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia than Sharma. He was consciously risking his life to make the film, but he was completely unprepared for the rampant exploitation and abuse all pilgrims must endure.

Critics of Sharma will latch onto his sexuality because they are homophobic (and misogynistic and anti-Semitic), but the real arsenic in the film are the many scenes exposing the Saudi government’s neglect and overt commercialization of Islam’s holiest site, bar none. Tellingly, one fellow pilgrim tells Sharma: “I’m glad they don’t allow non-Muslims, so the Western world cannot see this.”

As Sharma struggles to complete the pilgrimage rituals, he must navigate filthy streets teeming with rubbish, amid what is supposedly a holy and protected city. Unquestionably though, the most disturbing incident comes when Sharma relates a conversation he had with a man whose wife was sexually molested while circling the Kaaba, which Muslims consider to be the first house of worship, constructed by Abraham. Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience.

Much of Sinner would be legitimately horrifying, even if Sharma was not constantly worried his true identity might be revealed. That is why the coda in which he declares his faith is renewed feels completely out of place and inconsistent with everything that preceded it. One suspects that Sharma is trying to convince himself for his own personal reasons. We have to respect that, but the footage he covertly shot (on mini-handhelds and his iPhone) speak thunderously.

First and foremost, Sinner thoroughly indicts the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. If you really wanted to be provocative you could argue the global Muslim community would be much better served if Mecca were in Israel, because the Israeli government understands how to respect and preserve artifacts and landmarks associated with other religions (exhibit A: the Dead Sea Scrolls). Regardless, Sharma’s hajj is a very personal act, but his documentation has much greater implications. Bold and stingingly truthful, A Sinner in Mecca is very highly recommended when it screens again tonight (4/30) and Saturday (5/2), as part of this year’s Hot Docs.

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Dupieux’s Reality: It’s Different from Other People’s Reality

Something about Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts brings to mind Torgo’s theme from Manos: the Hands of Fate. That is not a criticism. In fact, it is another reason why it works so well as the soundtrack to Quentin Dupieux’s latest mind-trip. Reality with get twisted up and bent over double in Dupieux’s ironically titled Reality (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center.

Her name is “Reality” and her hunter father just bagged a wild boar. Nobody believes her, but she knows she saw a blue VHS tape pop out of its stomach while her Pops was removing the entrails. She will duly retrieve that tape, but the director filming her story will take his sweet time before he lets watch it. His name is Zog and he is driving his French producer Bob Marshall to distraction with his cost-overruns. Marshall is the decisive type. He is fully willing to fund Jason Tantra’s horror movie if he can produce the perfect groan of misery to express its essence.

In between his groan sessions, Tantra works his day job as a camera man for a cooking hosted by a man in a rat costume suffering from phantom eczema. All that scratching is starting to turn viewers against him. Frankly, the viewing experience can be trying in Reality, as when Tantra accidentally takes his wife to see his film before he starts making it. Rather upset with the sound mix, he tries to stop the screening, so he can fix it in the future. Then things start getting strange.

As weird as Dupieux’s first act undeniably is, it is nothing compared to the lunacy that follows. Dreams and films will interrupt and fold back into each other, as each strange subplot doubles back and refers to itself. Edited by Dupieux (a.k.a. Mr. Ozio), Reality has an extremely complex structure mere mortals could not even begin to diagram.

Granted, Reality lacks the warmth and sweetness that made Wrong such an unexpected pleasure, but it is still a blast to watch Dupieux juggle an infinite number of balls in the air. Each new reverse is a thing of beauty onto itself. It is easy for actors to get overwhelmed in such an auteurist spectacle, but John Glover gives one for the ages as the supremely confident Zog. Alain Chabat’s Tantra is like an everyman from an alternate universe (and maybe he is), while Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder really looks like he is suffering from a nasty rash in that rat suit.

By now, you really should know within a 99.99 degree of certainty whether Reality is your cup of tea or not. If you’re not sure, go anyway, because part of Reality’s subversive fun is watching other audience members getting confused and upset. Highly recommended for Dupieux fans and connoisseurs of cult cinema, Reality opens tomorrow (5/1) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Tribeca 15: Hungry Hearts

It is based on an Italian novel, but echoes of the notorious Atlanta vegan baby starvation case ring throughout Saverio Costanzo’s mostly English language drama. A new Italian mother parents too much with her intuitive feelings, ignoring conventional pediatric nutrition and medicine in Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts, which had its U.S. premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, with a screening at the Montclair Film Festival soon to follow.

Jude, an Upper Westside engineer, and Mina, a PR flack for the Italian consul, meet-cute, under slightly gross circumstances. Enjoy the scatological humor while it lasts, because there will be major friction in their married lives. There are ominous portents of trouble to come during her difficult pregnancy, but Mina’s manic New Aginess really starts to manifest in highly problematic ways when she starts imposing a strict vegan diet on the infant.

At first, Jude is more worried about his underweight son’s persistent cold-like symptoms. However, when he finally sneaks the crib monster to a doctor, he is told the sniffles are “the least of his concern.” The boy is so malnourished, he simply isn’t growing. However, whenever Jude questions Mina’s dietary decisions, she takes it as a personal attack on her legitimacy as a mother and a person. Yet, some things should be said before it is too late.

Hungry paints an alarming portrait of everyday extremism and the slow but steady evolution of conventional vegetarianism to reckless child endangerment. It springs some abrupt course corrections on viewers, but there are reasons for the sharp tonal shifts. While the jokey prelude seems like it belongs in a different film, it helps explain why Jude defers to Mina for so long. There is always love there, but it turns into something very dark and ultimately dangerous.

Ordinarily, the nebbish Adam Driver and the pixyish Alba Rohrwacher would never look like a convincing couple, but cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti’s lens serves as a harsh leveler, ruthlessly focusing on and magnifying the imperfections of their skin. Frankly, in the case of Rohrwacher (who steamed up the screen in Soldini’s Come Undone) this is a much more complicated process, but she compellingly portrays Mina’s physical and emotional decline as she starts to shun direct sunlight and protein. It is a seriously scary transformation.

In contrast, Driver’s Jude always seems to be a step behind the beat, for no good reason. Just for the record, Mina never says to him: “Hey Jude, don’t let me down,” which seems like an obvious oversight. Regardless, they often seem to nurse special resentments only possible through intimate familiarity. There are also brief but pitch perfect supporting turns from Medium co-star Jake Weber as the calm but concerned pediatrician and Roberta Maxwell as Jude’s concerned but not necessarily calm mother.

Hungry is an honest and direct film, but the nearly two hour running time starts to feel punishing after ninety minutes or so. It is like the film is holding us hostage until we pledge to feed our future children healthy slabs of meat. Still, you can’t say it isn’t convincing on that score. Meat is good. The film is also quite good, despite a few stylistic excesses here and there. Recommended for fans of Italian cinema (in exile), Hungry Hearts screens this Sunday (5/3) at Montclair, but the Tribeca Film Festival had it first.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

SFIFF ’15: Wonderful World End

Evidently, you can make a career out of being cute and popular in Japan, but it isn’t easy. Would-be model-actress Shiori Hayano does not have that many followers for her social networking outreach, but she has one undeniable super-fan. Their relationship will be hard to classify, but all kinds of intense (as befits its internet origins) in Daigo Matsui’s Wonderful World End, which screens during the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Hundreds of people watch Hayano put on make-up and discuss her Gothic Lolita wardrobe, but that mostly just earns her demoralizing work handing out fliers and the odd appearance on dodgy late night talk shows. However, thirteen year old Ayumi Kinoshita thinks she is the living end. Eventually, the shy girl runs away from home, hoping to be near her idol. Hayano’s hipster boyfriend Kohei Kawajima obliges, letting Kinoshita crash at their pad. Initially, Hayano is put off by his presumption, but she soon enjoys the constant adulation. As she tires of Kawajima’s pretensions, Hayano starts to develop a yuri-ish attraction to her younger fan, but it will be rudely interrupted when Kinoshita’s mother tracks her down.

At various junctures Wonderful threatens to turn dark and heavy, but for a film about runaways, it maintains an unusually upbeat mood. In fact, crazy surreal third act developments turn it into a legitimate genre picture, but what genre is anyone’s guess. Somehow, Ai Hashimoto manages to anchor the hyper-real proceedings, neatly balancing Hayano’s pronounced vanity with affecting sensitivity. She is relentlessly endearing, especially as she starts to develop offline human connections. Jun Aonami also looks frighteningly young and vulnerable as Kawajima, while Marie Machida has some strange but compelling moments as her mother.

Essentially, Wonderful is a two-hander with Hashimoto assuming the senior partner role. However, veteran thesp Go Riju steals a few scenes as Hayano’s sleazy agent. He almost makes exploitation look quirky and charming—almost. Since her label helped underwrite the production, Japanese alt-rocker Seiko Oomori also gets her feature spots in performances that were also produced as music videos. She is a charismatic live performer who nicely fits the film’s milieu, so her musical interludes do not feel so very out of place.

The vibe of Wonderful veers all over the place, but its energy is consistently impressive. In many ways, it suits the nature of contemporary uber-connected youth culture. Odd but indisputably grabby, Wonderful World End is recommended for fans of jpop and yuri manga when it screens tomorrow (4/30), Friday (5/1), and Saturday (5/2), as part of the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival.

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Stanley ’15: 12th Assistant Deacon (short)

Demonic horror can be profoundly unsettling, but it largely validates a Christian (particularly Catholic) framework of good and evil. After all, William Peter Blatty is admirably serious about his Catholic faith. While it definitely follows in the thematic tradition of The Exorcist, Jang Jae-hyun gives the possession horror story a distinctly Korean identity in 12th Assistant Deacon, which screens during the 2015 Stanley Film Festival.

Father Kim is determined to exorcise the demon possessing comatose teenager Young-shin. If he can liberate her spirit, her body might start responding as well. Tragically, the demon is particularly cruel and belligerent. Despite his repeated efforts, many of his appointed assistants have been scared off by its mocking torments. Yes, it is safe to say Deacon Choi has more than ten predecessors. To his credit, he has deep faith and can pray in multiple languages, but he too has painful memories the evil one will exploit.

On the surface level, 12th Assistant resembles any number of possession films, but its atmosphere and execution are considerably superior. It gets decidedly tense, but what really sets the film apart is its unequivocal embrace of faith and spiritual resiliency. Father Kim explicitly argues the darkness they witness necessarily implies the existence of the light. He is quite convincing, in the context of the film.

Park Ji-il is absolutely terrific as the battle-hardened Father Kim. He handles the surprisingly impressive special effects scenes quite well and completely nails his big speech. Likewise, Lee Hak-joo hits all the right notes as the earnest but unprepared deacon.

This is one of the rare films Catholics, Evangelicals, and cult film connoisseurs can enjoy in equal measure. Its depiction of demon-exorcising Catholic clergy is particularly interesting, considering it was produced in South Korea, where Christianity is the largest organized religion. Yet nearly half the country is agnostic and many regard Christianity with suspicion or worse. That thorny dynamic is directly reflected in Father Kim’s complex interactions with Young-shin’s very different parents. It is a serious film, but also seriously scary. Highly recommended for horror fans, 12th Assistant Deacon screens this Friday (5/1) as part of Short Program II, at this year’s Stanley Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Hyena

If they hadn’t become corrupt cops, Michael Logan and his team probably would have been football hooligans. Unfortunately, there probably isn’t enough time for the husky louts to go less crooked. Karma will be harsh to some in Gerard Johnson’s Hyena (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, following its U.S. premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

After plundering a large quantity of cocaine in a night club shake down, Logan’s team is in the mood to party. That is often the case, but this time Logan has bigger fish to fry. He has a meeting with his partner in a new Turkish drug trafficking scheme. This is not an undercover operation. It’s an investment. Inconveniently, Logan secretly witnesses the psychotic Albanian Kabashi Brothers murdering his contact. At least Logan manages to secure their first shipment. The Kabashis will be looking for that.

Things will steadily go from bad to worse for Logan. Initially, he tries to forge a temporary working arrangement with the Kabashi Brothers, but nobody believes that will last. He also must contend with an Internal Affairs investigation, while his mates become increasingly erratic and drug-addled. Seriously, how hard could it be to bust these knuckleheads?

Yes, we have seen this all before—and we’ve seen it better. The opening sequence is a stylistic tour-de-force, but from there on Gerard is indecisively torn between old school exploitation movies and affected art cinema. To a large extent, you can determine a film’s pretentiousness by comparing the amount of screen time devoted to the back of the protagonist’s head as they grimly trudge onward versus more conventional (and engaging) frontal and profile shots. In Hyena, the ratio is nearly one-to-one, which means tough sledding.

When we can actually see his face, Peter Ferdinando is pretty good as Logan. Likewise, Ben Wheatley regular Neil Maskell is obviously on comfortable ground as Logan’s sleazebag subordinate, Martin. His Kill List co-star MyAnna Buring also brings some verve to the film as Logan’s exasperated girlfriend, Lisa. Inexplicably, cult favorite Mem Ferda is almost completely wasted in what is effectively a cameo as Turkish crime lord Akif Dikman. Like Buddy Sorrell on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, he spends most of his screen time lying on a couch. Yet, he is still cool.

Speaking of Ferda, Hyena obviously follows in the tradition of Luis Prieto’s Pusher remake, but it cannot match the frenetic energy. Johnson tries to compensate with 1970s era pessimism and nihilism, but that gets old after the first act. However, fans of The The will get an nostalgic charge out of their original soundtrack. Not recommended, Hyena opens this Friday (5/1) in New York at the Cinema Village, after screening as a midnight selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

LAAPFF ’15: Cambodia 2099 (short)

Koh Pich or Diamond Island is the Cambodian government’s showcase development zone, yet the young people who congregate there still think about leaving. For two friends, this will probably entail one-way tickets, but the nature of their travel will be radically different in Davy Chou’s short film, Cambodia 2099 (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Los Angeles AsianPacific Film Festival.

If their dreams are any guide, both Kavich and Sotha will soon be leaving Phnom Penh. The former will be joining his mother in Stockton as a conventional immigrant, while the latter believes the secret of time travel has been revealed to him. Naturally, it involves a crash helmet and red pajamas. Not so surprisingly, it will be Kavich rather than Sotha who leaves behind a girlfriend, but he is not so eager to have that farewell conversation with Vanary.

Chou’s feature documentary Golden Slumbers was so exquisitely moving his next project would probably be something of a let-down no matter what it was. Throughout 2099 he again displays a keen eye for visuals, but the tone and focus are somewhat inconsistent, which is a problem for a short film. Nevertheless, it heralds the remarkable debut of actress Sothea Vann. In many ways, she brings to mind Shu Qi in Millennium Mambo, as two formerly free-spirited party girls who are coming to terms with the disappointments of reality.

So should Cambodia’s future generations stay or should they go? Cambodia’s political and economic systems are obvious more firmly rooted in law than say forty years ago, but they still leave much to be desired. It would be convenient if Sotha could turn forward the hands of the clock to see whether it is worth staying to struggle for further improvements. Either way, there will be an increasing pool of modern, largely westernized students, like Vanary.

Cambodia 2099 was conceived as a way for Chou’s collaborators to build confidence before he commenced filming a narrative feature, so in a way it is a perfect project to follow-up the widely celebrated Slumbers. Even if it is not a perfect short, he is clearly a talented filmmaker and Vann is a highly promising screen thesp. On balance, their work is still definitely worth watching in Cambodia 2099, when it screens tomorrow (4/29) as part of the Something Around the Corner short film block at this year’s LAAPFF.

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Tribeca ’15: Monty Python—the Meaning of Live

The surviving members of Monty Python have little use for solicitors and lawyers, no matter how silly their walks might be. They have good reason, measurable in pounds. After fighting a nuisance suit for years, the Pythons found themselves holding a mountain of legal debt. Not getting any younger, they wanted to pay it all off as quickly and cleanly as possible. For Monty Python that meant returning to live performance. Roger Graef OBE & James Rogan document the preparation and behind-the-scenes camaraderie of their resulting sold-out stadium shows in Monty Python—the Meaning of Live (trailer here), which screened as part of a Python celebration at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Meaning of Live should not be confused with The Meaning of Life or The Life of Brian (which also screened at Tribeca) and it certainly should not get mixed up with Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff. This is strictly a fan’s eye view of the Pythons at work and in-performance. Fortunately, they are all still pretty funny, so you never know when they are going to unleash some of the old magic.

Yes, this is all about paying tribute and singing along to “Always Look on the Brighter Side of Life.” However, there are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned on the economics of a Monty Python farewell concert. Evidently, it is so costly to rent London’s massive O2 Arena, you really need to play for about a week to get into the black and you will not have the luxury of much tech rehearsing in the actual space. Hence, the Pythons signed on for ten shows. Frankly, they should have just added three or four shows in order to finally finance Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote.

Yes, even though Gilliam was never much of an on-camera guy, he does his part in classic skits as a full-fledged member. One-for-all, after all. Part of the fun of Live is watching the fun the Pythons are having being together again. That is more than a little fannish, but they’ve earned it. However, there are also a few notable cameos, ranging from the heart-warming (Carol Cleveland once again performing with the randy lads) detouring through the lameness (Mike Meyers taking a pointless walk-on) to the truly surreal (Stephen Hawking singing the “Universe Song” through his computer voice-box).

Of course, we also get plenty of bite-sized servings of classic call-backs. The parrot is still dead as a doornail and the lumberjack still likes to dress up in women’s clothing and hang around in bars—and it is all still good stuff. However, perhaps we had better enjoy it while we can. How long will it be before the professional comedy scolds tell us it is inappropriate to laugh at the lumberjack sketch or any of the dozens of other politically incorrect gags in the Python repertoire?

You sort of have to be a fan to appreciate Meaning of Live, but there are plenty out there. More consistent than A Liar’s Autobiography but not nearly as comprehensive and authoritative as Almost the Truth—the Lawyer’s Cut, Live is basically a breezy curtain call, but it will definitely tide fans over until their next absolutely final farewell project. Recommended accordingly, Monty Python—the Meaning of Live screens today (4/28), Saturday (5/2) and Sunday (4/3) at Hot Docs up north, following its international premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

LAAPFF ’15: (Sex) Appeal

This Taiwanese film fully capitalizes on Taitung’s scenic backdrops and its protagonist is often seen listening to headphones. Superficially, it might look a lot like the popular and critical hit The Most Distant Course, but this is a radically different film. For one thing, the young woman in question is not trying to hear a human connection in mysteriously provided audio recordings. Rather, she is trying to blot out the outside world after suing the popular professor who raped her in Wang Wei-ming’s (Sex) Appeal (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Even though Pai Hui-hua is from Taipei, she is one of the most innocent new arrivals at her Taitung liberal arts college. On the train, she meets cute with Wang Mu-hung, but she is not convinced he is serious enough for her. Like many freshmen, she is in awe of orchestra director Li Jen-fang, so she understandably accepts his potentially problematic lunch invitations. Unfortunately, Li soon forces himself on her in his office. Confused about her feelings for the married professor and ill-equipped to deal with his behavior, Pai lets the situation continue until she finally attempts suicide.

In a massive conflict of interest, the campus victims’ advocate happens to be Li’s wife, criminal law professor Lin An-ni. Instead of representing Pai, she will essentially prosecute the damaged student when she finally presses charges. Frankly, her attorney is also somewhat problematic. Fang An-yu is something like a Taiwanese Gloria Allred, who has been opposing the university in a murky land use litigation that is never coherently established. She only took the case at the insistence of Pai’s counselor, Wang Wen-hui, a former friend with whom she had a falling out years ago.

Aside from Fang and Wang’s overly melodramatic spats, (Sex) is an unusually mature and challenging drama. Granted, there is never any question Li is guilty, but it vividly demonstrates how ordinary human weaknesses can be exploited after the fact. Pai becomes a victim several times over, pushing away Wang Mu-hung (whom viewers become rather attached to), because that is the sort of thing that happens in such situations.

Those who primarily know Amber Kuo from the Tiny Times franchise will be floored by the power and vulnerability of her performance as Pai. She has some tough scenes with no place to hide, but she forces the audience to watch and feel her torment. Likewise, Vivian Hsu is terrific as Fang, at least when she is not clawing with counselor Wang. Yet, it is TV star Yuan Huang’s Wang Mu-hung who serves as the conscience of the film. His sensitive portrayal makes it impossible to dismiss (Sex) as some sort of anti-male polemic. Indeed, it is about a host of unequal power relationships, starting with teachers and students, but also incorporating the popular versus the unpopular and the well-connected versus the socially marginalized.

(Sex) features some very big names (Kuo and Hsu) working at the top of their games. It is hard to watch at times, but it deftly reflects the manner in which insanity is apt to run unchecked through university campuses. Highly recommended, (Sex) Appeal screens tomorrow (4/28), as part of this year’s LAAPFF.

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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

He gets a long title for his long life. It was also eventful—and it still is. The man who blithely stumbled in and out of Stalin’s Kremlin should not have too much to worry too much about the gang of skinhead biker drug dealers looking for him. Heck, he hardly knows they’re out there. Instead, life is a bowl of Swedish meatballs for Allan Karlsson, the titular character of Felix Herngren’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York--UPDATE: now opening 5/8.

Karlsson’s retirement home is preparing a party for his centennial, but he really isn’t feeling it. Shimmying out the aperture in question, the oldster finds his way to the bus stop, where he inadvertently swipes a drug-runner’s suitcase. Since it is packed with fifty million Euros, he soon has the whole gang after him. However, Karlsson’s erratic behavior, knowledge of explosives, and blind stinking luck make him a formidable foe. Soon he joins forces with Julius Jonsson, a more lucid and irascible senior, as well as commitment-phobic professional student Benny and Gunilla, a gang member’s ex who is now more concerned with the elephant she is ferrying about in search of a long-term home.

Periodically, Karlsson flashes back to episodes of his unlikely life, including stints on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, service at Los Alamos assisting Oppenheimer, befriending Vice President Harry S. Truman, and defecting to and from the Soviet Union. He was also sterilized at a young age, so no love interests for him. It also helps explain his unvaryingly blasé attitude towards his daring exploits.

Obviously, Window Man brings to mind predecessor films like Zelig and Forest Gump (you could throw Being There into the mix as well)—and honestly, it never really steps out of their shadows. Still, Herngren and co-screenwriter Hans Ingemansson do what they can to differentiate their adaptation of Jonas Jonasson’s hit novel from comparative films. Wisely, they play up the subversive slapstick possibilities of Karlsson’s fascination with explosives. A lot of minor characters die gleefully macabre deaths in Window, giving it the tone and pacing of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Robert Gustafsson shows tremendous range, but he is equally distancing as both the young and awkward Karlsson and his older and even more addled self. Still, he conveys a sense of comfort and camaraderie with Iwar Wiklander’s Jonsson. Aside from Alan Ford as the boss with anger management issues, the assorted thugs and cops are all essentially stock figures and the historical characters are entirely played as the broadest possible caricatures.

Window never engages on a deeply emotional level, but Herngren keeps all the mayhem breezy and upbeat. If you can relax and buy into all the fortuitous explosions, it offers some laidback fun. Recommended for those looking for a light weight diversion, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared opens this Friday (5/1) in New York, at the Village East.

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Lost Child—Sayon’s Journey, on PBS

By now, everyone should fully understand the Khmer Rouge killed approximately two million Cambodians (maybe more) in their attempt to create an agrarian socialist utopia. However, there are thousands of forgotten victims of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. They are the child soldiers who were abducted by the Khmer Rouge and forced to commit atrocities (sometimes against their own families). One former child soldier finally returns to Cambodia in search of his long lost family ties. Filmmaker Janet Gardner documents Sayon Soeun’s homecoming in Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on New York’s Thirteen.

Abducted at the age of six, Soeun arguably got off easier than many child soldiers, both in terms of what he was required to do and the punishments he suffered. Nevertheless, it was all more than sufficiently brutal to cause long term psychological scarring. Again, Soeun was comparatively fortunate to be adopted by an American family. Effectively denied the basic coming of age process in Cambodia, the teenaged Soeun would emotionally mature in tandem with his new two year-old sister.

While Soeun had a spot of trouble in his early adult years, he soon settled down into a stable and productive life as a social worker and family man. Just as the limited genocide trials began to make international news, Soeun gets word he might just have surviving family after all. In fact, it would be quite a large, extended family. Although skeptical, Soeun hastens to investigate, bringing along his sister-in-law, co-producer Sopheap Theam, while his wife remained to care for their newborn.

In many ways, the tone of Lost Child is not unlike various survivor homecoming documentaries, such as Blinky & Me and Here I Learned to Love. Unlike Thet Sambath in Enemies of the People, he is not searching for cathartic confrontation or higher truths. He would simply like to feel a familial connection again.

Despite references to terrible crimes against humanity, Gardner and Theam only focus on good, decent people. Granted, there are a lot of inconsistencies in the memories of Soeun’s prospective family, but that is not so unusual given the extreme circumstances they endured. Viewers can be assured there will be some closure at the end of Lost Son.


Marking the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh and the start of the Killing Fields era of mass murder, Lost Child is a timely reminder of the dangers of utopian collectivist movements. While it is intimate in scope, Soeun still speaks frankly about the horrors he witnessed. Indeed, viewers can directly see how macro events devastatingly impact discrete macro lives. Recommended for mainstream documentary watchers, Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey airs on WNET 13 this Thursday night (4/30) and on Boston’s WGBX44 this Saturday (5/2). Check local listings for further dates nationwide.

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Tribeca ’15: Far from Men

Nobel Prize Laureate Albert Camus is associated with existentialism, but he was really a determined foe of all totalitarian “isms.” He is also closely linked to his Algerian birthplace, with good reason. In addition to his celebrated novels The Plague, The Stranger, and the posthumously published but still quite good The First Man, Camus’s most anthologized short story, “The Guest,” is also set in Algeria. Screen-writer-director David Oelhoffen thoughtfully but not entirely faithfully adapts Camus’s story as Far from Men (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, following its U.S. premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Daru is a former military officer trying to make amends for his mysterious past by serving as a school teacher in a remote village. The meditative life seems to suit him, but it will be rudely interrupted by Balducci, the gendarme. Whether he wants to or not, Daru has been tasked with escorting Balducci’s Algerian prisoner to the nearest French outpost in Tinguit, where he will likely be executed. That night, Daru makes it clear to the man named Mohamed, he is welcome to escape at any time. However, the admitted murder seems perversely intent of facing French justice. He does indeed have his reasons, which constitute some unusually smart writing on Oelhoffen’s part.

Unfortunately, Mohamed family did not have the blood money to buy peace after he justifiably killed his cousin. As a result, Daru will find himself in the middle of an intra-family feud, as well as increasingly violent uprising led by many of his former Algerian army colleagues. Fortunately, Daru is a crack shot with a rifle, because he will have to shoot his way out of a lot of trouble.

Essentially, Oelhoffen trades the icy cold irony of the Camus story for the tragic sweep of a revisionist Algerian western. Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines fully exploits the craggy terrain’s epic big sky country possibilities. After playing the Gloomy Gus in self-consciously arty films like Jauja and Everybody has a Plan, Viggo Mortensen finally finds the right vehicle for his simmering tough guy intensity. It also further burnishes his polyglot chops, this time showcasing him in French. Reda Ketab’s performance as Mohamed is almost too impassive as Mohamed, but it still sort of works for a pseudo western, in the moody Anthony Mann tradition.

Frankly, Far from Men is exactly the kind of film the pretentious Jauja should have been, but so wasn’t. It critically engages with a lot of hot button issues, including colonialism and tribalism, but never at the expense of its lean and mean narrative. Visually striking and tightly disciplined, Far from Men is recommended for fans of Mortensen and historical drama when it opens this Friday (5/1) in New York at the Cinema Village, following hard on the heels of its well-received screenings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Democrats

The notion of a country still governed by a Politburo sounds ominously anachronistic, but such is very definitely the case in Zimbabwe. Deliberately following the old Soviet system, Robert Mugabe and his oligarchical socialist ZANU-PF party have maintained a stifling hold on power in the African nation, since 1980. The only hiccup in Mugabe’s dictatorship happened in 2008. Outraged by blatantly rigged elections, the international community forced Mugabe to form a coalition government with his chief opposition, the MDC-T. Even though Mugabe and his party clearly consider this a coalition in name only, they agree to participate in the drafting of a new constitution. Camilla Nielsson documents the fraught negotiations of the rival co-chairs in Democrats, which screens today as the Best Documentary Feature Award winner at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Paul Mangwana is the ZANU-PF co-chair, who expects to win over the opposition with a smile and a handshake. After all, he has always gotten his way through charm before. Of course, being an influential member of the ruling party hasn’t hurt either. In contrast, Douglas Mwonzora is a human rights lawyer who has already seen the insides of Zimbabwe’s most appalling prisons. In fact, he will find himself back behind bars on trumped up charges during crucial stages of the drafting process.

For obvious reasons, the two appointees begin their co-chairmanships very wary of each other. Nonetheless, familiarity slowly builds camaraderie. Eventually, they start to agree on ostensibly nonpartisan building blocks. Unfortunately for Mangwana, when a misunderstanding angers his ZANU-PF patrons, the respective co-chairs experience a drastic reversal of fortune. For a while, Mangwana was literally afraid for his life. Frankly, he probably still should be.

If you outlined the structure of Democrats, it would look like an inspiring story, in which former adversaries come together to craft an agreement for the national good. However, the film’s last fifteen minutes completely undercut any possible uplift. It is made abundantly clear to both Mangwana and the audience constitutional democracy requires more than just a paper constitution. If the powers that be refuse to accept legal curbs on their powers than where are you? Possibly Zimbabwe.

Yes, Democrats gives the audience a bitter pill to swallow, but there is something both chilling and electrifying about Nielsson’s truth telling. Through her direct style of filmmaking, we see Mugabe’s evil nature for what it is, because he never hides it. There are no voiceovers or academic commentators in the film, but Nielsson and editor Jeppe Bødskov shape it into a tight, tense, easily-followed narrative. There is no sitting around waiting for things to happen and the stakes steadily rise throughout.

Somehow Nielsson and cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen were unobtrusive enough to film some bombshell moments. This is definitely political sausage-making, but with life-and-death consequences. Don’t forget, Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade was trained in North Korea. There is very little of that sort of background in Nielsson’s doc, but it would be inconsistent with its conscientiously observational approach. Recommended for viewers concerned with human rights (and the lack thereof on the African continent), Democrats screens twice today (4/26), as an award winner at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: The Wannabe

How are Tommy and Rosemarie Uva like Truman Capote, Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, Jean Harlow, and Steve Prefontaine? They were all the subjects of rival film treatments produced at roughly the same time. Obviously, when faced with the prospects of a competitive production, you either want to be the first or the best. Unfortunately, Nick Sandow settles for second best on both scores with The Wannabe, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

In Raymond De Felitta’s superior Rob the Mob, Tommy Uva is a low life operator, who hates the Mob. Sandow changes his name to Greco and gives him a hero-complex fixated on John Gotti, “the Dapper Don.” For obvious reasons, the Mafia has no need of a loser like Greco. Rose from Ozone Park still loves him anyway, despite his whininess. To ingratiate himself with the Mob, Greco hatches a hair-brained scheme to fix the Gotti trial. Unfortunately, it only leads to a humiliating reality check from a neighborhood captain. Smarting from the dressing down, Greco and his wife finally start the holding up Mafia social clubs—the crime wave De Felitta shrewdly focused on throughout his punchier second act.

As Thomas and Rose “Greco,” Vincent Piazza and Patricia Arquette are cringingly annoying. Frankly, the Mob just can’t whack them soon enough. Yes, with a title like Wannabe, you have to expect a sad, pathetic protagonist, but that does not make it any more pleasant to spend time with these characters. Frankly, the Uvas were not especially grabby in Rob the Mob either, but De Felitta had some wonderfully colorful supporting help from Andy Garcia as composite don of dons “Big Al” Fiorello, Ray Romano as nervy crime reporter Jerry Cardozo, and Burt Young as aging Mafia lieutenant Joey D. Unfortunately, Wannabe does not have analogs for any of these characters, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the Grecos’ codependent relationship.

Still, Wannabe captures the vibe of pre-Giuliani New York quite well. It also inadvertently establishes the gutsiness of Guradian Angel founder and media gadfly Curtis Sliwa’s radio crusade against Gotti. Genre fans will also appreciate Michael “Spider” Imperioli’s brief but finely turned work as Greco’s florist brother, Alphonse. Nevertheless, when the slow starting film finally gets going, we have still already seen it all before.

It might seem unfair to compare films like Rob the Mob and The Wannabe or Capote and Infamous, but potential viewers should know if there is a better and more readily accessible doppelganger film available. Frankly, considering De Felitta’s past history with Tribeca, it is somewhat ironic Sandow’s film is the one that found its way into the festival, but Martin Scorsese’s role as executive producer probably counted for a lot. A wan also-ran, The Wannabe screens again today (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Angry Sky

There are good reasons why Nick Piantanida did not factor in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but it was not due to a lack of guts. Arguably, the amateur skydiver put together history’s first private space program, but he fell short in his attempts to break the world record for highest parachute jump. Needless to say, falling short is a dangerous prospect when jumping from over one hundred thousand feet in the air. Jeff Tremaine chronicles Piantanida’s bid for glory in Angry Sky, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Piantanida was a restless non-conformist with a taste for adventure. He had quite the reputation as a basketball player in New Jersey, but he refused to sign a pro contract because he was more or less uncoachable. Thanks to his natural physique and swagger, Piantanida became the first climber to scale Angel Falls, despite his lack of mountaineering experience. He applied the same attitude to his parachuting career, but the results were not so happy.

In the mid-1960s, skydiving was quite the exotic pursuit. Naturally, Piantanida took to it like a fish to water. Before long, he became preoccupied (obsessed might be more accurate) with breaking the record for the highest jump. Technically, the title was held by a Soviet. However, USAF parachute-specialist Joseph Kittinger had successfully completed higher jumps, but intentionally declined to participate in the record-certifying process. Piantanidia meant to break both the official and unofficial records, but he would need to appeal to Space Race fervor to raise the necessary support and sponsorship.

There was a time when Piantanida was quite the national celebrity, but for most viewers who grew up after the Moon landing, his story will be a revelation. Tremaine presents a scrupulously balanced portrait of Piantanida, suggesting he is a figure of classically tragic hubris. Indeed, those who knew him well, including his widow and brothers, remember him as both courageous and irresponsible. Frankly, it is a far more nuanced and cautionary perspective than viewers might expect from Tremaine, one the co-creators and directors of the Jackass franchise. However, his interest in Piantanida makes sense, given his editorial background in extreme sports.

Tremaine uses some brief recreation sequences, which always risk riling up the documentary police, but in the case of Angry Sky, they are easy to identify as such and help convey the tenor of the era. He also scored extended interviews Piantanida’s wife Janice and Kittinger, who intuitively recognized the daredevil’s Achilles Heel. Without question, Kittinger, an eleven month Hanoi Hilton POW, deserves his own documentary, but it is nice to see aspects of his career acknowledged on-screen here.


There are moments in Angry Sky that will have viewers shaking their heads in disbelief, even though Tremaine maintains a sensitive tone throughout. It is downright strange it has taken so long for Piantanida to get the documentary treatment, since his story so nicely compliments that of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven astronauts. Give Tremaine credit for recognizing the void and filling it with a compelling film. Highly recommended for fans of extreme sports and The Right Stuff, Angry Sky screens again today (4/25) and tomorrow (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Backtrack

There are two things that always worked in Hitchcock movies: trains and psychiatrists. It is therefore a rather shrewd strategy for screenwriter Michael Petroni to combine them in his feature directorial debut. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but it is always stylish when head-shrinker Peter Bower tries to get his head around his traumatic past in Petroni’s Backtrack, which was recently acquired by Saban Films after successfully screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Still devastated by the accidental death of their pre-teen daughter, Bower and his wife Carol have moved back to Melbourne, hoping the change of scenery will do them good. For the time being, Bower’s practice consists of evaluation-cases referred by his former teacher, Dr. Duncan Steward. These patients seem to have a lot of issues, but they can hardly compare to the visibly disturbed teenager Elizabeth Valentine. She has all kinds of problems, starting with the fact her records say she died in 1987.

Evidently, one Elizabeth Valentine was a victim of a tragic train derailment accident that devastated Bowers’ provincial hometown of False Creek years ago. While Bowers investigates the circumstances surrounding the catastrophe, he starts to remember his own unfortunate involvement. As he stirs up a hornet’s nest of local resentment, the pushback of the living and the torments of the ghosts start to jog Bowers’ long suppressed memories.

Frankly, there are a lot of logical holes in Backtrack, but they are mostly concentrated in the first half hour. If you are willing to gloss over them, the film picks up considerable steam in the second and third acts. Throughout it all, Petroni demonstrates a mastery of atmosphere, building suspense through creepy ambiance and the restrained use of Grudge-like supernatural effects.

It is hard to imagine Adrien Brody saying “put another shrimp on the Barbie,” but his sad-eyed, hang-dog screen persona works quite well for Bowers. As usual, Sam Neill’s forceful bearing classes up the joint, even if his character, Dr. Steward, really doesn’t make a lot of sense. George Shevtsov also adds some grizzled seasoning as Bowers’ old man. However, Bruce Spence (whose mind-blowing credits include the Mad Max, Star Wars, Matrix, and Narnia franchises) arguably lands the best scene as Bowers’ jazz musician patient.

Part of the fun of Backtrack is identifying where the pieces fit seamlessly into each other and where they are just sort of jammed together. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio (who lensed the breathtaking Canopy) gives it all the perfect look of noir foreboding. Petroni rewards viewers who can overlook the narrative’s early ragged edges with a lot of clever bits down the stretch. Recommended for psychological thriller fans not inclined towards pedantry, Backtrack will eventually hit theaters following its successful world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Tribeca 15: Misery Loves Comedy

Stand-up comedy is a tough racket. When you’re on, you’re killing and when you’re off, you’re dying—and you’re rarely anywhere in between. What kind of person is drawn to this business? Depressive neurotics. At least that is the casual thesis of Kevin Pollak’s riff-heavy interview documentary Misery Loves Comedy (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, ahead of its official opening today at the IFC Center.

To explore the notion that comedy is either some kind of cathartic therapy or sick compulsion, Pollak interviewed over sixty comics and performers, as well as Jimmy Fallon. Of course, everyone was “on.” That is the whole point. Nevertheless, they said some revealing things. After all, they just can’t help themselves.

Pollak and editor Robert Legato went for and nailed the rat-a-tat pacing. They never linger long enough after a punchline for the audience to supply their own rim-shots. As a result, there are a lot of laughs in Misery. A good deal of attention will be focused on big name like Penn Jillette, Steve Coogan, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, and Richard Lewis, as well as filmmakers like Jason Reitman and James L. Brooks. Fittingly, Lewis Black and Jim Norton are also prominent in the film, considering they joined Pollak for the Tribeca Talk and will also represent at the IFC Center. However, some of the best material come from unlikely sources, like journeyman comic Dana Gould getting in a killer bit about his struggle with depression and Freddie Prinze, Jr’s reflections on his father.

Listening to Black and Norton after the screening really helps underscore Pollak’s general point. Clearly, they are both gallopingly neurotic, but in vastly different ways. It also provided Pollak with an opportunity to respond to criticism regarding the alleged lack of diversity in the film, but such charges are completely unfair. For instance, he features Whoopi Goldberg and she isn’t even funny.

Sure, you could ask about dozens of absent well-known comics, but a film like Misery is largely captive to people’s schedules. You get who you can get and then you go. Pollak’s film never delves too deeply into serious pain (arguably, Adam Carolla’s Road Hard offers a more revealing look into the trials of life as a comedian), but so what? It’s breezy and consistently amusing, which is what most people want from a comedy doc. Recommended for stand-up fans, Misery Loves Comedy opens today (4/24) at the IFC Center.

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Tribeca ’15: All Eyes and Ears

During his confirmation hearing, our current ambassador to China, former Sen. Max Baucus, admitted: “I’m no real expert on China.” At least he was being honest. In contrast, his predecessor’s predecessor certainly was. A former Ambassador to Singapore, Gov. Jon Huntsman was familiar with the region and fluent in Mandarin. However, his greatest asset was probably his adopted daughter Gracie Mei Huntsman. Vanessa Hope chronicles their posting to Beijing in All Eyes and Ears (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Huntsman’s nomination was a bit of a surprise in 2009, especially considering Huntsman was still widely seen as a conservative at the time. He would leave the Utah Governor’s Mansion with high marks from the Cato Institute, after having signed an ambition school voucher program into law. However, it was fortunate America had an experienced adult serving as ambassador during Huntsman’s eventful tenure, which would include the aborted Jasmine Revolution and the diplomatic crisis arising from blind dissident attorney Chen Guangcheng’s request for asylum.

Essentially, All Eyes follows Huntsman’s term of service from three perspectives: that of the diplomat, his adopted daughter, and the so-called “Barefoot Lawyer.” While braiding the three threads can get a little unwieldy, it is crucial to have Chen’s viewpoint, because it often acts as a corrective to Communist Party’s narrative. As a diplomat, Huntsman acts scrupulously diplomatic, whereas young Gracie Huntsman has a very personal reaction to the events unfolding.

Of the three vantage points, Hope arguably favors hers—and it is easy to see why. She is clearly a “good kid” with remarkable poise. Commentators in the film make the point probably no other Chinese adoptee will ever return to their birthplace under similar circumstances. Most likely, this is true, but Hope never really delves into what Gracie Huntsman truly represents to the Chinese people. She documents the Huntsman family’s return to the orphanage she was adopted from, which all parties clearly find quite moving. However, China’s One Child policies were very likely a major reason why her name is now Huntsman, yet they are only mentioned in passing. Likewise, the widening gap between the oligarchical urban haves and the provincial have-nots are a direct cause of other children getting put up for adoption. Only Chen talks about these issues in the film, which is why it is so important to have him there.

Frankly, so many significant events transpired during Huntsman’s stint and Hope’s three primary POV figures are so compelling, All Eyes could easily be expanded to a longer form series, which reportedly might be in the works. Yet, somewhat ironically, Hope’s short doc China in Three Words (also featuring the Huntsmans) is even more incisive and grabby. Still, Chen Guangcheng and Gracie Huntsman definitely deserve your full attention (but some of the old China hands, not so much). Recommended as a reflection of a good deal of contemporary Chinese reality and the often awkward messiness of diplomacy, All Eyes and Ears screens again tonight (4/24), at the reasonably located Chelsea Bowtie, as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Because I was a Painter: Art and Artists that Survived the Concentration Camps

Josef Richter’s life could inspire a truly great narrative film. In 1943, the Polish resistance fighter knowingly infiltrated Sobibor with the express intention of documenting the horrors within. Since smuggling in a camera would be impractical, Richter smuggled out hand-drawings of concentration camp life. (Conveniently for screenwriters, almost nothing else is known about the rest of his life, leaving ample room for artistic license.) Although his intent was more journalistic than artistic, Richter is justly included in Christphe Cognet’s study of the art and artists that survived the Holocaust in Because I was a Painter (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Painters paint and sketch artists sketch. That is what they do, regardless where they might be. Therefore, the artists consigned to the National Socialist camps logically used their art to process the madness. Some sought beauty amid the terror, while others considered such attempts impossible. Indeed, this is the great pseudo-debate of Because, but it is hardly one viewers can join. After all, every artist profiled in the film came to their opinions by enduring the worst humanity can inflict on fellow human beings.

Obviously, the work featured in the film is extremely powerful and extreme in nature. Unfortunately, Cognet’s detached, slow cinema approach does not always serve his subject matter particularly well. He deliberately keeps the audience at arm’s length, interspersing his interviews with long, drawn-out tracking shots of the former camp sites that now look deceptively peaceful and overgrown by nature.

Yes, time moves forward, but the past can still haunt the present (and the future). More narrative structure and more context would increase our understanding of the artists Cognet profiles. Some pieces, such as Dinah Gottliebova’s portraits of Mengele’s experiment subjects (previously documented in Hilary Helstein’s more aesthetically conventional As Seen Through These Eyes), need the barest of background to be fully appreciated. For the most part though, their work literally speaks for itself.


Indeed, the work of the artists surveyed is so powerful precisely because it incorporates art as it is ideally understood, as well as a form of journalistic documentation and a method of asserting one’s existence. There are many valuable sequences and riveting oral histories in the film, but Cognet’s stylistic severity is sometimes counter-productive. Even though it can be frustrating, it is still good that we have this film. Recommended for students of art and history, Because I was a Painter opens today (4/24) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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The Water Diviner: The Ghosts of Gallipoli

Joshua Connor has the Australian version of The Shine. The grizzled farmer senses certain things, like where to drill for water. If he can only get to the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli, he is sure he can find the remains of his three sons who died in combat there. That is something the British authorities are not so eager to facilitate in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

All of three of Connor’s sons enlisted in the ANZACs and all three presumably perished at Gallipoli. When the bitter news drives their mother to her grave, the salt-of-the-earth Connor promises his late wife he will find their sons and bring them home to her. However, Gallipoli is not exactly a tourist attraction in 1919. The British military consul flatly refuses him access to the prohibited beaches. Of course, he is not about to be dissuaded after such a long and arduous journey.

Bribing a fisherman, Connor makes his to the fateful beaches, where a combined team of British and Turkish military personnel are working to identify and properly bury as many fallen combatants as possible. Although Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes is a little put off by Connor’s sudden appearance, his Turkish counterpart, Maj. Hasan convinces him to assist Connor’s search. Sure enough, the farmer quickly finds his sons, but only two of them. Through a little bureaucratic digging, Hasan discovers the eldest Connor brother might have been taken captive as a POW.

Suddenly, Connor has a glimmer of hope and a knotty mystery to entangle. The British are even more determined to send him packing, but Connor finds unlikely allies in Hasan and his veteran aide-de-camp, Sgt. Jemal. As Turkish nationalists loyal to Ataturk, they are more concerned with the Greek occupation of Smyrna. The fact that Hasan commanded Turkish troops at Gallipoli also makes their relationship somewhat awkward, but the slowly develop a degree of mutual respect. Much to his surprise, Connor also finds himself acting as a surrogate father for Orhan the urchin-like son of Ayshe, the widowed proprietor of the hotel he is staying at.

In Australia, Gallipoli is still the source of strong national emotion, so this was a somewhat bold choice for Crowe’s feature directorial debut. Presumably, his countrymen are okay with it, since Diviner tied with The Babadook for best picture Australian Academy Awards. Frankly, Crowe’s film should have had the award all to itself or shared it with the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination. Crowe uses an epic story to tell an acutely personal story—and quite effectively so.

Screenwriters Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight accurately reference all the macro forces roiling the Ottoman Empire’s final days, but they keep a lot of details hazy, such as Ataturk’s commitment to secularism. These days, Turkey could use a reminder on that score. Nevertheless, it is reasonable for the film to reflect Connor’s naïve confusion with Turkish mores and politics.

As his own lead, Crowe is perfectly on-key as Connor, the quietly grieving father. It is the sort of understated performance that pays far greater dividends than overindulgence, over-the-top Meryl Streepian wailing and garment-rending. The French-Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko also puts the “hot” in hotelier as Ayshe, developing some better-than-you-expect chemistry with Crowe. However, it is Yilmaz Erdoğan who really puts a stamp on the film, oozing integrity while avoiding cliché as the hard but compassionate Maj. Hasan.

There are a lot of potential potholes in Diviner, including Connor’s prophetic dreams and his chaste non-courtship of Ayshe. However, Crowe consistently brings a light touch to bear in scenes other directors would drive into the ground. More often than not, his filmmaking instincts are correct. Recommended for those who enjoy sweeping historicals, The Water Diviner opens today (4/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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