J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tribeca ’19: Lucky Grandma


Here is some local color for you: Chinatown is a major hub for casino buses. Unfortunately, that makes it easy for this rather jaded Grandma to get in trouble. Her gambling does not work out, but she still takes her opportunities where she finds them—just like her fortune teller predicted. Grandma Wong will antagonize one of the most dangerous gangs in Chinatown, but she is still in no mood to apologize or back down in Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, Grandma Wong is not all that broken up over her long-time husband’s death, but the precarious state he left their finances is deeply distressing. Encouraged by a happy-feel-good fortune reading, Grandma sets off to Foxwoods, determined to win big, which she does—before losing it all. Yet, she enjoys a reversal of fortune when the old reprobate in the seat next to her dies on the drive home, leaving a duffle bag full of cash for a quick-thinking Grandma to nonchalantly carry away.

It turns out, he was a courier for one of the local gangs, who wants their money back. Of course, this Grandma is not so easily intimidated. Instead of panicking, she heads straight to a rival gang whose protection services she hires. In a twist, they will actually live up to the term “protection,” out of pride and disgust with their horrible rivals, whom they assume just started picking on Grandma for no reason. At first, Grandma is not so thrilled to be stuck with the schlubbiest gang member as her bodyguard, but she soon takes a shine to good-natured Big Pong.

This is the sort of film that could have been absolutely insufferable, but it is actually a real kick, thanks to Tsai Chin’s bone-dry, acid-tongued performance as Grandma Wong. This is no sentimental On Golden Pond in Chinatown. This is screw-U attitude mixed with the special brand of misanthropy that comes with age. Grandma Wong is a wonderfully tart and vinegary character and it is a role that Chin totally knocks out of the park.

Chin also develops some warmly winning surrogate-grandmother-grandson chemistry with Corey Ha’s Big Pong. They play off each other nicely, while the enormous differences of physique and body language makes them amusing to watch as soon as they are brought together.

Boy, is Tsai Chin ever something else as Grandma Wong. The expression “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” could have been coined expressly for her. Yet, Sealy’s big emotional payoff is completely legit and altogether fitting. Chin earns it, along with Ha. Sealy and co-screenwriter Angela Cheng’s dialogue is razor sharp from start to finish, while Andrew Orkin’s lightly swinging score keeps the energy at a nice, jaunty level. Plus, Sealy captures the vibe of as-of-now Chinatown, in all its glory and grunge. It is all just so much better than it sounds. Highly recommended for general audiences, Lucky Grandma screens again tonight (4/30), Thursday (5/2), and Sunday (5/5), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Tribeca ’19: The Place of No Words


It is not exactly the case of a buried lede, but the Jim Henson Company’s creature design work for this labor-of-love family drama is definitely a hook that could pull in considerably more viewers. Indeed, who better to realize the fantastical beasts that inhabit a young child’s imagination? Unfortunately, Bodhi, the little lad with the Lord Fauntleroy coif, will have to face up to the very adult reality of his father’s impending mortality in Mark Webber’s The Place of No Words, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bodhi can be difficult, probably because he is often not totally present. He has a rich fantasy life, wherein his father is a knight, who protects the boy during their wanderings through a Seventh Sign-like fantasyscape. The father knows his time is short, but he has difficulty broaching the subject, partly out of a desire to enjoy the moment and partly due to the fear Bodhi simply will not understand.

No Words is achingly well-intentioned, but it also shuns fake sentimentality like the plague. Essentially, it is a “feel-good” movie without the expected weepy catharsis. However, the Henson Company’s creatures, particularly the beaked Frick-and-Frack duo, really bear the studio’s signature look.

They are cool, but Henson fans should still understand the fantasy realm of No Words is not like the lush worlds of Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. Instead, Bodhi’s imaginings mostly take place in a rocky, wind-slept environment, aside from the occasional fart swamps. This is some distinctive filmmaking, but there is surprisingly little genuine playfulness. That is a bit odd for a film so dedicated to a child’s perspective. That also makes it an exhausting cumulative viewing experience.

As the father, Mark Webber looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and also has it pressing down on his chest. It is a rigorously stripped-down, painfully earnest performance. Likewise, his son Bodhi Palmer is totally unaffected and utterly natural as his namesake, but there is an ambiguousness to his screen presence that raises questions that are never addressed. Theresa Palmer’s mother character is not as sharply written, but she earns the audience’s respect by literally fighting for screen time and attention during the third act.

It is important to bear in mind No Words is not a sappy tearjerker. It is an emotional ride, but Webber scrupulously eschews cheap manipulation. On the other hand, calling it a fantasy rather overstates matters, so calibrate your expectations carefully. Recommended for fans of Oliver Sacks and the Henson Studio, The Place of No Words screens again this afternoon (4/30) and Saturday (5/4), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Tribeca ’19: Two/One


This review might have made some dude in Shanghai oversleep. Mysterious, tenuous relationships are what the film in question is all about. In this case, it is the unknown connection between a Canadian ski jumper and a successful but lonely Shanghai executive. When one is awake, the other is asleep. It is not a relationship either is aware of, but it will eventually cause complications in Juan Cabral’s Two/One, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Kaden Russell is over the hill, but he has already sacrificed too much to give up on his Olympic dream. That most definitely includes relationships, but things might be looking up when the great love of his life suddenly comes looking him up again. His athletic prospects also start to brighten when Russell pulls a monster jump out of the vault, qualifying himself for the world championships. However, the competition will be in Japan this year, which will be an issue.

Meanwhile, Kai has steadily climbed the ladder at an ad agency with clients throughout Asia. Like Russell, he has not had anything happening from a relationship standpoint, until Jia joins the firm as a junior associate. She is beautiful, but self-conscious about her prosthetic foot, the unfortunate by-product of a recent accident. It has been a tough time for her, judging from the revealing photos her ex posted on a revenge website. Even though Kai stumbles across the online photos, he is still deeply attracted to her. Yet, he cannot help worrying what other people might think. Inconveniently, he will have to give a presentation in Japan exactly when he should stay to repair his relationship with Jia.

Although the first two acts largely feel like two unrelated storylines braided together, Cabral brings them together in a devilishly clever way when the film shifts to Japan and Korea (where both characters’ flights are forced to divert). Things get crazy down the stretch, but in a way we have never seen before.

Boyd Holbrook is so earnest and convincingly Canadian as Russell, viewers will really feel for him as he faces up to life’s disappointments. Yet, arguably the most touching work comes from Zhu Zhu (the rising star of Marco Polo), who overshadows Song Yang’s ultra-reserved Kai as the sensitive and insecure Jia. Dominique McElligott also makes a strong impression as the former lover stirring up Russell’s emotions, while Beau Bridges chews the scenery shamelessly as his restless father.

It is hard to neatly fit Two/One into a genre box, but it sort of fits the unnamed sub-genre, in which fate is shown to play games with the oblivious characters, exemplified by films like Kieslowski’s Blind Chance. It is an odd duck of a film, but also very definitely a distinctive one, in terms of tone and structure. Recommended for viewers who want to see something different, Two/One screens again tomorrow (4/30) and Thursday (5/2), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Tribeca ’19: Only


The difficult thing about the apocalypse is how it puts a strain on romantic relationships. Frankly, Will is pretty lucky to be involved with Eva, because she just might be the last woman on Earth. A deadly virus has swept the planet, but it is only fatal to women. Beyond the catastrophic death toll, the social disruption is profound in director-screenwriter Takeshi Doscher’s Only, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is kind of like Night of the Comet, but the disease spread in its wake is more discriminatory. Will and Eva tried to save her roommate Carolyn, but while waiting in the hospital, he notices all the incoming victims are women. Instead, he tries to save Eva by turning her apartment into a quarantine chamber, following the instructions of her father, an infectious disease specialist in India. They assume he will only have to keep her sequestered for a few days, but months go by without the discovery of a cure.

Eventually, the government starts sweeping up surviving women from their hiding places, to utilize their eggs in the re-population planning program. Yet, despite the dangers, Eva gets increasingly angsty to feel the sun again and get out from under Will’s controlling thumb.

So, according to Doscher, in times of crisis, women get emotional, while men get controlling.  Both are stereotypes, but at least Doscher gives solid grounding for every difficult and mistaken decision Eva and Will make. This is a deeply intimate apocalyptic film—probably the most since David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. Indeed, the Will’s loving and fraying relationship with Eva is far and away the most compelling aspect of the film. They feel like a real couple, with real history, and real issues.

Both Leslie Odom Jr. and Freida Pinto hold up under Doscher’s searing focus, carrying the nearly two-handed film quite well. They have genuine chemistry together, but they also convincingly portray the messiness of a relationship under extreme strain. Frankly, we have gone down this apocalyptic road before, with only a tragic couple to guide us (as in Orthwein & Sullivan’s Bokeh), but Odom and Pinto still make us give a darn.

Doscher’s calibration of societal breakdown is somewhat fresh and different. Things have completely fallen apart, yet there is still enough infrastructure and social framework for people to continue going through the motions of their previous lives. However, his vision of the Federal government turned into a dystopian jack-booted police state is a tiresome cliché. In reality, can you imagine the politically correct panic if a disease really hit women and children (by extension) hardest?

Regardless, Doscher’s leads keep us thoroughly invested throughout Only. It might not be the most original film of the year, but it effectively taps into the fear of H-something super-viruses that is still very much percolating within our collective subconscious. Recommended for fans of Armageddon, Only screens again this Thursday (5/2) and Saturday (5/4), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Tribeca ’19: Something Else


You never see a film where things are perfect in the present, but miserable in the past, wherein the flashbacks explain how things got good. Instead, it is an idyllic past that slowly turns into a rotten present. Hank’s movie life is a perfect example. He was madly in love with Abby, but one day she just up and leaves him with no warning. Shortly thereafter, a sinister monster starts terrorizing him at night—maybe—in Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella’s Something Else, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

When they first got together, Hank was totally ga-ga over Abby, but he never did cotton to the idea of marriage. Maybe that is part of the reason she silently bailed. He takes it hard, but to make matter worse, a strange beast starts beating and scratching on the doors of his rambling farmhouse late at night. Outsiders just assume the increasingly sweaty and irritable Hank is just under some kind of delusion. Of course, his erratic, shotgun wielding behavior does not help much.

Still, at some point, his cop brother-in-law ought to look at the deep scratches on his door and admit they are a trifle odd. Instead, he just explains them away as bears or panthers or some kind of freak boating accident. On the other hand, it is tough to get too comfortable with Jeremy Gardner’s bulging eyes and jittery performance as Hank. Even though we have certain expectations as genre movie fans, Gardener makes us constantly question them.

As Abby, Brea Grant also plays it scrupulously straight and shows tremendous respect for the genre in her scenes opposite Gardener. In several keys scenes, they have the same level of intensity and ferocity you would expect to see if they were doing a Tracy Letts play instead of a grungy midnight movie.

Weirdly, Something Else shares a number of similarities with producers Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s Spring. Both films combine love, the pain of frustrated relationships, and weird monster business. However, Something Else’s aesthetics are definitely more redneck and slightly more mumblecore than the elegantly operatic Spring. In this case, Benson also scores most of the film’s biggest laughs portraying Hank’s goofy crony, Shane.

It would be spoilery to explain how, but timing is everything in Something Else. Gardener & Stella definitely have a keen intuitive sense of when to keep their powder dry and when to pull out the rug from us. They are greatly aided by the way Gardener and Grant pull us into the characters’ intimate drama. It might be too restrained for some horror fans, but those who appreciate Benson & Moorhead’s more relationship-driven films should enjoy it. Recommended for fans of subtle and sinister genre-blurring films, Something Else screens tonight (4/27), tomorrow night (4/28), and Sunday (5/5), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Friday, April 26, 2019

Art of the Real ’19: Breathless Animals


Even today, families remain the essential building block of Chinese social organization, especially when it comes to retirement and economic safety nets. Yet, the Communist Party has a long history of pushing policies to weaken family unity. Lei Lei explores his family’s history of trauma during the Cultural Revolution through a series of interviews with his mother in the experimental documentary, Breathless Animals, which screens during this year’s Art of the Real.

Breathless is an exercise in found art, crafted out of photographs, magazines, and cast-off footage Lei Lei has collected. Yet, it is also a work of oral history, wherein his mother chronicles her family’s painful milestones from the period of Cultural Revolution until the 1980s thaw, as well as her own concurrent personal experiences. Although her memories are often presented in a fragmentary and elliptical manner, viewers will clearly come to understand how the tribulations her parents endured caused tremendous emotional anxiety for her (that frequently manifested in her dreams of ominous animals).

There is no doubt her testimony is the most crucial element of Breathless. Lei Lei also assembles some striking images, which he sometimes partially animates in clever ways. However, his aesthetic austerity does not always work hand-in-glove with the story-telling aspect of the film (but obviously that earned it an invite to Art of the Real).

In many ways, Breathless represents the fractured and mysterious nature of memory, but both family and national history would probably be better served by a smoother and more accessible account of their Cultural History years—even if it is as straight forward as Wang Bing’s static steady-shot talking-head interview documentary, Fengming: A Memoir. After all, the Party remains in denial, determined to pretend the Cultural Revolution (as well as the Great Leap Forward) never happened.

Lei Lei has skills and his mother has important testimony to recount, but they combine rather awkwardly here. Of course, both aspects pretty much guarantee the film will never see the inside of a Mainland movie theater, both separately and most definitely when taken together, which makes it worth seeing just on principle. Indeed, this is absolutely a case where the act of remembering is significant. Recommended for experienced patrons of experimental cinema, Breathless Animals screens tomorrow (4/27) as part of Art of the Real ’17.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

JT LeRoy: The True Hoax


It was the biggest literary scandal to rock book groups until James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be a fraud a few months later. At least, the books in question were always billed as novels, even though heavy autobiographical elements were explicitly implied—but implied by whom? In phone interviews, it was Laura Albert, the author who wrote under the LeRoy name and played him in phone interviews, but it was her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop who assumed the role for photo shoots and public appearances. They really didn’t think they pulling a fast one until the story broke according to Justin Kelly’s not so dramatic retelling of the tale in JT LeRoy, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

By the time Knoop moved to San Francisco, Albert was already a bestseller under the LeRoy name. For reasons that are never made clear, she felt more comfortable writing her emotional revealing fiction pseudonymously, yet she was still quite possessive of her work. She also enjoyed the game-playing aspect, particularly when she took on the persona of LeRoy’s brash British agent, Speedy. However, LeRoy was developing such a following, she needed the boyish Knoop to serve as LeRoy’s socially awkward, mono-syllabic “body.”
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Weirdly, when Knoop appears as the androgynous LeRoy, she looks and sounds a lot like Johnny Depp. Regardless, it is hard to understand why so many people were apparently so fascinated by a person who is presented to be so painfully shy and charisma-challenged. Frankly, it is altogether baffling when the fictional actress Eva (transparently modeled on Asia Argento, who directed the film adaptation of LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) becomes so preoccupied with him (as she knew LeRoy).

To her credit, Kristen Stewart totally dives in and completely immerses herself in the role of LeRoy (or rather Knoop playing LeRoy), whereas as Albert, Laura Dern's homespun histrionics always sound like they were intended for the camera's benefit. Yet, the real problem is Kelly’s screenplay has the depth of a USA Today article. It provides a coherent chronology of events, but gives viewers no sense of anyone’s motives, beyond the most cliched, bargain-basement psycho-sexual analysis.

It is too bad, because Diane Kruger is spectacularly vampy as Eva and Jim Sturgess provides a humanizing dimension as Knoop’s brother (and Albert’s husband), Geoffrey Knoop, but Kelly’s treatment of the material never goes below the superficial surface level. Seriously, do we ever get tired of hearing how sometimes fiction holds a higher form of truth? Arguably, JT LeRoy would be better suited to airings on Lifetime than showings in theaters. Not recommended, it opens tomorrow (4/26) in the LA area, at the AMC Sunset and Laemmle Playhouse and Monica Film Center.

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Body at Brighton Rock: Seriously People, Stop Going Into the Woods


Outdoorsy types are passionate about nature, which might be endearing, but if you ever get lost in the woods, the survival instincts of a New Yorker will probably be more helpful. Regrettably, Wendy has neither attribute, but she works as the most-junior, least competent park ranger in a fictional National Park anyway. For her, the Federal government can never shut-down too often. When she gets lost, she gets really lost, but at least she finds a dead body to compensate in Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nobody has much confidence in Wendy, but she still switches her daily assignment to something more hiking-oriented, both as a favor to her friend and to prove a point (obviously that won’t work out so well). She could stay on her trail just fine if she just followed the map, but she quickly contrives a way of losing it. Suddenly, she is taking selfies on a mystery summit, much to the alarm of her co-workers. Then she spies a corpse.

Without an autopsy to confirm, the possibility of foul play must be considered. That means Wendy will have to hunker down and protect the evidence until the extraction team reaches them in the morning. Of course, it is already starting to get cold and dark—and her skills and supplies are lacking. At this point, Wendy’s mind starts playing sinister tricks on her—or is it? It is hard to say, because the film plays it maddeningly coy when it comes to its genre business.

Oddly, Brighton somewhat suffers when you look back on it with a little distance. During the initial screening, most genre fans will really dig Benjamin’s vintage horror vibe. It has the look and texture of classic 1980s horror, but not the violence. Yet, with a little consideration, it is hard to have much patience with a film so fundamentally predicated on irresponsible behavior.

More problematically, Benjamin never settle into any particular genre, nor does she even flirt with any for very long. That all leads to a resigned “so, that was that” summary reaction when it is all over. Brighton is no Trouble with Harry or Weekend at Bernie’s, but it is less annoying than Swiss Army Man, to place it on the spectrum of movies in which corpses play a substantial role. On the other hand, it is still definitely more “horror” or “thriller” than Backcountry, which was packaged as a midnight movie, but was really just about a lost couple trying not to antagonize a rather territorial bear.

Be all that as it may, Karina Fontes is totally committed as Wendy and Casey Adams nicely destabilizes the proceedings as the mystery man who periodically turns up. In her feature directorial debut, Benjamin does not quite live up to the promise of her contributions to the anthology film Southbound, but she shows enough stylistic flair to have us ready to check out her next film. However, Body at Brighton Rock is the film we have now and it earns a decidedly mixed notice when it opens tomorrow (4/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I Trapped the Devil: Riffing on Beaumont


It was Baudelaire who wrote the original form of the quote warning readers the Devil’s greatest trick was persuading us he does not exist, before it was paraphrased by The Usual Suspects. Yet, it was Charles Beaumont who really made hay with the idea with his short story “The Howling Man,” and his subsequent adaptation for a fan-favorite Twilight Zone episode. Director-screenwriter Josh Lobo riffs on Beaumont’s premise in his feature debut, I Trapped the Devil, which opens this Friday in New York.

It was Karen’s idea to visit Matt’s estranged brother Steve on Christmas—and boy, is he surprised—but not exactly welcoming. Frankly, he wants them out, for reasons that soon become apparent. He has a pathetic-sounding man locked up in his basement. Of course, Steve is convinced he has Satan trapped, just like John Carradine in the Zone. Initially, Matt and Karen are convinced his brother is barking mad, but she slowly starts to have her doubts (or rather, she starts to halfway believe).

Despite what he says, the man in the fortified closet just seems to radiant evil to the sensitive Karen. She is also unnerved by the constant telephone calls that Steve believes are coming from the evil one’s minions and worshippers. This is in fact Lobo’s best innovation on Beaumont, so it is frustrating that he never really develops it.

Lobo was part of the art and design team that crafted the visually brilliant Dave Made a Maze, so it is almost shocking how dingy and prosaic Trapped looks, but one could argue it is appropriate to the story. Regardless, it sorely lacks the two advantages the Howling Man episode had: Beaumont and brevity. Even with a running time under ninety minutes, Lobo’s is-he-or-isn’t-he guessing game quickly runs out of steam. The truth is glaringly obvious and Matt’s utter lack of intuition really starts to try our patience.

AJ Bowen has been one of the most reliable thesps regularly appearing in genre films for the last decade or so, but he cannot do much to engage with the audience as the rather plodding Matt. In contrast, Scott Poythress is a bundle of neuroses as Steve, but in ways that are tragically and acutely human. Susan Burke also convincingly takes Karen on a character development arc to Hell.

As viewers watch Trapped, they are likely to start feeling a claustrophobic sensation, but not in the right way. If you openly invoke a television and short fiction classic, you really should bring your A-game, but this is just some warmed-over demonic porridge. Not recommended, I Trapped the Devil opens this Friday (4/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Criminal Element: Tribeca Ten Year Survey

It's sort of a reverse-curtain-raiser. As we gear up for this year's Tribeca Film Festival, we look back at the best of mysteries, thrillers, and true crime docs from the previous ten fests in our exclusive Criminal Element survey, now up here.

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The 27 Club: Dying Young and Famous


It is quite a sinister hall of fame. Of course, it is a coincidence, but quite a few legendary recording artists died at the age of twenty-seven, including Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. It is a steep price to pay for success, but there are still musicians who are desperate to make that Faustian bargain in Patrick Fogarty’s The 27 Club, which releases today on VOD.

Lily Glance has more talent for burning bridges than for singing. She is also twenty-six years old—a prime candidate for the 27 Club. Conveniently, that happens to be the topic of film student Jason Reed’s thesis documentary. The torch-carrying roommate of her sister’s boyfriend should be easy for her to manipulate. He might even be worth the effort when he discovers the evil Necronomicon-like book that holds the secret of attaining infernally-derived fame. However, the former bandmates of the 27 Club victim who died in the prologue are also out to find it and they play rough.

The coolest thing about 27 Club is that it is dedicated to the memory of the late, great R&B-jump blues saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, but frustratingly his scenes were cut from the film for continuity reasons, because he died before they could be completed. We’ve seen this film. Trust us, “consistency” is not a word anyone will use to describe it. He’s Big Jay McNeely—make what you’ve got work.

Indeed, if all the questionable continuity were edited out of 27 Club, there would hardly be any film left. Is possession of the book necessary or not? Are the Faustian stars always demonically possessed or just occasionally? Do we care? Not really. At least it is entertaining to watch Todd Rundgren chew the scenery as Prof. Crawford, Reed’s rock & roll faculty advisor.

Maddisyn Carter plays Glance in a similarly vampy spirit, but Derrick Denicola plods along painfully as dopey Reed. Yet, perhaps the most awkward and exploitative moments come from the tacky interludes portraying real life 27-ers like Johnson, Winehouse, and Curt Cobain as they reflect on their mortality and legacies, shortly before their deaths.

The circumstances of the so-called 27 Club are eerie enough to inspire a good horror movie, but this isn’t it. Admittedly, Fogarty’s film is a more professional piece of work than Phoebe Dollar’s unwatchable Sunset Society, but it cannot touch Rob Stefaniuk’s Suck, the gold standard of rock & roll horror comedies. Not recommended, The 27 Club releases today on VOD platforms.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

The White Crow: Fiennes Brings Nureyev to the Big Screen


Rudolf Nureyev brought ballet to new heights of popularity when he danced with the Royal Ballet in London and he took The Muppet Show to new levels of prestige when he danced with Miss Piggy. Yet, these career highlights were made possible by the most dramatic episode of his life: his defection from the Soviet Union. Nureyev’s fateful goodwill tour of France with the Kirov Ballet is the focus of Ralph Fiennes terrific The White Crow, which opens this Friday in New York.

Nureyev was born on a Transiberian train car, far away from the Kirov (a.k.a. Mariinsky) ballet in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Despite the bad timing of being born during WWII, Nureyev’s raw talent and drive would eventually take him to the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad, where ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin would take him under his wing, as the audiences sees in flashbacks. (Mikhail Baryshnikov would later study under Pushkin as well).

By the time Nureyev reached Paris, he already had a reputation for being the most electrifying dancer of his generation—and for being difficult for his minders to control. Despite attempts to shield him Parisian society, Nureyev quickly befriended French dancer Pierre Lacotte and Chilean expat Clara Saint, the former fiancée of French Culture Minister Andre Malraux’s late son, with whom he enthusiastically partook of Paris’s nightclubs, parties, and after-hours scene. For a while, Strizhevsky, the KGB agent assigned to the Kirov tour, gives Nureyev some slack, but eventually, the liberties he takes become to much for the apparatchik to bear.

However, when Strizhevsky tries to pull him from the tour in the Paris airport, Nureyev immediately senses something is wrong. Refusing to return to Moscow, a conflict of wills ensues, overseen by the quick-thinking gendarmes assigned to the airport, with Saint operating behind the scenes as a liaison to the press and the French government.

The White Crow (a Russian expression meaning something like “a rare bird” and “an odd duck”) is a little over two-hours long, but it feels like it runs less than ninety minutes, because the climatic airport defection scene is so tightly and tensely helmed by Fiennes. This is easily his best film as a director (even though his Coriolanus was also quite good), because his has such a strong aptitude both for the Cold War thriller elements and the dance sequences.

Fiennes gives himself an important assist with his achingly conflicted and humanistic portrayal of Pushkin. Of course, the critical casting coup was real-life Ukrainian-born ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, who looks and moves like Nureyev (which is saying a lot). He projects the magnetism that had such a potent effect on Nureyev’s admirers, but it is far from a hagiographic portrayal. In fact, he also quite vividly conveys the dancer’s ambition and diva-like arrogance.

Aleksey Morozov is almost as compelling as Strizhevsky, whose desperation to keep Nureyev in the fold and in his shackles is intensely palpable. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) is rather a dreary, whiny presence throughout the first hour of the film, yet somehow, she snaps to during the crucial airport standoff. The ensemble is impressive, both in their dramatic roles and when applicable, as dancers. Plus, the period production is seamlessly crafted (it is easy to see why it would be hard to keep someone in the Worker’s Paradise, after seeing Paris in the early 1960s).

Nureyev, along with Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov, established freedom-seeking Soviet ballet dancers were some of the gutsiest, most principled artists during the Cold War. Indeed, it is worth noting Sergei Polunin’s engaging performance as Nureyev’s friend and troupe-mate, Yuri Soloviev, who refused to join the Communist Party, even after Nureyev’s defection, despite the thuggish pressure exerted by the KGB. Fiennes nicely captures the tenor of the times and the passion of Nureyev’s dancing, making it a worthy companion film to Bruce Beresford’s criminally under-appreciated Mao’s Last Dancer. Very highly recommended, The White Crow opens this Friday (4/26) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Art of the Real '19: Karelia--International with Monument

Karelia is like the Finnish Katyn Forest. Of course, it is in Russia, but it really ought to be part of Finland. Alas, the Putin regime has never been inclined to return conquered territory, especially when it holds evidence of Soviet war crimes. Nevertheless, a local Christian family lives in relative harmony with their notorious surroundings, as Andres Duque documents in Karelia: International with Monument, which screens during the 2019 Art of the Real.

The Pankratev children sing songs and cavort with nature. They seem to live an idyllic childhood, undisturbed by the heavy significance of the tributes to dead soldiers affixed to so many trees in the forest. There are also numerous stone monuments dedicated to the soldiers of Finland, Poland, and Ukraine, who have been unearthed in the Karelian forest. Putin's organization of flunky historians also claims Russian soldiers have also been buried in Karelia's mass graves, but this contention is based solely on propaganda rather than science.

The first hour of Duque's doc is slow going, in the extreme. Only the Pankratev patriarch shows any interest in the region's history, but he is more concerned with earlier, primordial eras, such as the rein of Ivan the Terrible. However, things get interesting in the last half hour, when Duque shifts the focus to Katerina Klodt, whose father, Yuri Dmitriev was excavating the Karelia graves. He was a scientist, not a yes-man, so he frequently contradicted the assertions of Putin's organization of so-called military historians.

Now he is in jail, despite being exonerated by a lower court. Gallingly, the higher (more obedient) court not only reinstated the dubious charge he sexually abused his step daughter. They also added child pornography and weapons indictments. 

Dmitriev's case is more than a worthy subject for a documentary, so Duque deserves credit for addressing it in International. We wish there were a more accessible documentary that also chronicled the Russian state's concerted efforts to silence and break him, but we have to take what we can get.

Admittedly, the first hour of International is a demanding viewing experience, but the nearly thirty minutes devoted to Klodt and Dmitriev arguably redeems the film. It certainly issues a strong warning regarding the systematic campaign of Putin's propagandists to alter the historical record to serve their master's purposes. As a film, International is a vastly mixed bag, but it has it merits--and there are pressing reasons to cover it. Recommended for hardy cineastes that are receptive to more open and explorative sensibilities, Karelia: International with Monument screens this Tuesday (4/23) in New York, as part of this year's Art of the Real.

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