Friday, January 31, 2014

Select 2014 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

The subjects of this year’s two best Oscar nominated documentary shorts have some pretty unique talents, but Alice Herz-Sommer is in a class by herself. Still playing with verve at the spry age of 109, Herz-Sommer performed over one hundred piano recitals in the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) concentration camp. Taking strength from her music, she lived to tell and continued to find the beauty in life. Her story unfolds in Malcolm Clarke’s The Lady in Number 6 (trailer here), part of the annual two part showcase of Academy Award nominated short docs, which opens today at the IFC Center.

As a young girl, Herz-Sommer’s sophisticated Prague family often socialized with the likes of Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Something of a prodigy, she was widely recognized as one of the world’s top concert pianists by the time she was in her early thirties.  Then the Germans invaded.

Obviously, Herz-Sommer survived, but she would be no stranger to tragedy. Yet, her indomitable spirit is genuinely inspiring—not in a Hallmark card sort of way, but reflecting hard won wisdom and a tenacious love of music. Still razor sharp at 109, she is forceful screen presence, who never resorts to canned clichés.

No stranger to the subject of Theresienstadt, Malcolm Clarke was previously Oscar nominated for the documentary feature, Prisoner of Paradise, chronicling the life of Herz-Sommer’s fellow prisoner, Kurt Gerron. He includes enough historical context for those unfamiliar with the realities of the Potemkin concentration camp, but keeps the focus squarely on Herz-Sommer. He also has a great voice for narration and incorporates some distinctive original music, performed by Julie Theriault. Altogether, it is a sensitive and classy package, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

While he life circumstances are radically different, Ra Paulette, the subject of Jeffrey Karoff’s Cavedigger (trailer here) is another fascinating artist. Like the title implies, Paulette digs caves. He is sort of a subterranean landscape artist, whose work incorporates elements of architecture and sculpture. Frankly, Paulette comes across as a bit of a flake, but his dedication is impressive and his caves are truly a sight to behold. Some of his work is reminiscent of Granada cave homes, but on a much grander scale. It is real feat of filmmaking, spanning years and transporting viewers to the remote corners of northern New Mexico.

Ordinarily, Yemen would also be considered quite the exotic locale, but over the last two years footage of the Arab Spring uprisings have become almost ubiquitous. Sara Ishaq’s Karama has no Walls adds some particularly graphic images to the public discourse. Drawing on video shot by two remarkably young cameramen, Walls is surprisingly effective breaking down step-by-step how the Change Square massacre escalated. Yet, despite the anguished testimony of two grieving fathers (say, why don’t we the mothers on camera, as well?), the film has the look and trajectory of an extended BBC report. In contrast, Matthew VanDyke’s Not Anymore feels more cinematic, yet also more immediate.

Granted, Herz-Sommer’s story has been documented in Caroline Stoessinger’s widely translated A Century of Wisdom, but thank heavens Clarke got her oral history on film. Frankly, Paulette is not getting any younger either, but he seems to keep chugging along, just like Herz-Sommer. The best of the five, The Lady in Number 6 screens as part of the annual nominated short documentary showcase’s program A, along with the well intentioned Karama has no Walls. The intriguing outdoorsman outsider art documentary Cavedigger screens as part of program B, both of which open today (1/31) in New York at the IFC Center.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

If you are looking for a unifying theme among this year’s live action short film Oscar nominees, several address the responsibilities of parents and the extent to which the wider society can complement or replace the family unit. Of course, there is also the ringer that cannot be shoehorned into a handy rubric. All five nominees screen as part of the annual showcase of Academy Award nominated shorts, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York.

Frankly, Sini and Jokke are not bad parents. They are just kind of a mess in Selma Vilhunen’s Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? Nearly over sleeping an important wedding, they still manage to schlep their two young daughters over to the chapel, despite a series of minor disasters. Everything is pleasant and amusing, but only an inch deep and seven minutes long.

In contrast, Esteban Crespo’s That Wasn’t Me seems to expect a round of applause just for dramatizing the child-soldier issue. Married Spanish doctors have come to an African war zone as part of a humanitarian mission, but their safe passage documents do not impress one warlord. The horrific crimes that follow will be done at his behest by young orphans pressed into his so-called army. Discussing his crimes after the fact, one former child-soldier explains how the guerilla commander exploited their need for a sense of family and belonging.

There are scenes in TWM that are genuinely shocking. While it serves as a timely reminder of the appalling lack of human rights throughout the continent, the film feels rather programmatic, like a calculated statement rather than a fully realized drama in its own right.

When it comes to pulling on heartstrings, none of the shorts can compete with Anders Walter’s Helium (trailer here), but it earns its sentiment through honest hard work and artistry. Alfred’s parents are caring and conscientious, but that cannot change the fact he is dying of a terminal disease. His mother constantly tells him he is going to Heaven, but the harps and white robes do not do much for him. Enzo, the clutzy new janitor, has a better conception.

Reminded of his late kid brother, who also shared a love for zeppelins and Jules Vernish hot air balloons, Enzo starts telling Alfred about the world of Helium, a steampunk-Boy’s Life alternative to Heaven. For a while, Enzo’s vision of Helium lifts the boy’s spirits, but his body soon takes a turn for the worse. Helium’s animated fantasyscapes are quite richly rendered, bringing to mind about the only part of the What Dreams May Come movie that actually worked. However, it is the chemistry between Casper Crump, Pelle Falk Krusbæk, and Marijana Jankovic as Enzo, Alfred, and his understanding nurse that really lowers the boom in Helium. Despite the melodramatic aspects, viewers will feel moved rather than manipulated.

There is also some pretty raw emotion in Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything (trailer here), which is arguably the best of this year’s live action nominees. Miriam is a battered wife, who has finally decided to leave her husband. However, it will not be a simple matter of walking out the door.  She must bundle up her kids and collect what money she can from the job she must leave behind. Everyone at her Tesco-like superstore is sympathetic, but uncomfortable and unsure how far they can go to help. Then her husband shows up looking for the checkbook.

If Helium boasts the strongest ensemble of this year’s nominations, Losing features the single strongest performance from Léa Drucker as Miriam. We so get all her fear, vulnerability, and misplaced shame. Instead of yelling “look at me,” it is work that hits you in the gut.

As the odd man out, Mark Gill’s BAFTA nominated The Voorman Problem (trailer here) tells a self-consciously clever tale of an emotionally disturbed prison inmate who thinks he is the almighty and the nebbish shrink sent to evaluate him. There is witty bit of business involving Belgium, but the ironic payoff is forced and perfunctory.  Nonetheless, co-star Martin Freeman has helped generate scads of revenue for the industry as Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy and Watson in BBC/PBS’s Sherlock, so Voorman might have the inside track with the Academy.

In terms of tone and overall quality, this year’s live action field is less consistent than their animated counterparts. Still, it is well worth seeing for Helium and Just Before Losing Everything, which account for over half the program’s running time. They introduce some international talent worth keeping an eye on. Recommended accordingly, the nominated live action showcase opens tomorrow (1/31) at the IFC Center.

2014 Oscar Nominated Animation Shorts

Was man free in his original state of nature? Are we enslaved by our stuff? Several of this year’s Oscar nominated animation shorts lend themselves to such Rousseauean questions. There is also a Disney Film (not included in the media screenings) to contend with.  Regardless, all five nominees and a few additional short films of note will screen as part of the annual showcase of Academy Award nominated shorts, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York.

Amid the international field, the clear standout is Shuhei Morita’s Possessions, a lush supernatural fable in the tradition of Kwaidan. It is a dark and stormy night in Eighteenth Century Japan. A weary traveler seeks shelter in shrine, only to find himself in a supernatural repository for broken objects that hold a “grudge.” Fortunately, the man is both handy and spiritually sensitive.

Morita’s richly detailed animation is strikingly elegant, yet it has an appropriate macabre undertone. Possessions evokes scores of classic Japanese movies, but there is also something strangely moving about it. Completely satisfying, it deserves the little gold statuette, but other nominees might be more to the Academy’s tastes.

Clearly, the BBC produced adaptations of Julia Donaldson’s children’s books appeal to many Oscar voters’ sensibilities, since The Gruffalo was nominated in 2011. In the case of Max Lang & Jan Lachauer’s Room on the Broom (trailer here), a witch’s broomstick and the freedom of movement it represents to a swelling menagerie of forest creatures is the object driving the action. Given its wholesome quality animation and brains-over-brawn themes, Broom is likely to be most parents’ favorite of the showcase. It also boasts the strongest celebrity interest, featuring the voice talent of Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and best supporting actress nominee, Sally Hawkins (festival review here).

Parenting is a more problematic proposition in Daniel Sousa’s Feral (trailer here), a dark Kaspar Hauser fable about a boy reintroduced into human society after spending his formative years living with the wolves. Visually, Sousa’s black-and-white animation is starkly powerful, but its extreme stylization keeps viewers at arm’s length emotionally. Nevertheless, it is an accomplished work that should make an impression on animation connoisseurs.

The agoraphobic titular protagonist of Laurent Witz’s Mr. Hublot (co-directed by Alexandre Espigares, trailer here) might also learn something about nurture. Inspired by Belgian sculptor Stephane Halleux’s figures, Hublot lives in a fantastical industrial world, where the living and the mechanical are partially integrated. One fateful day, he takes in an abandoned robotic puppy, but he never expects it to be such a handful. While Witz’s narrative is pretty straight forward and conventional, he (and Espigares) create a wonderfully distinctive environment, with a real lived-in feel.

Frankly, there are no clunkers among the media-friendly nominees. All four are well crafted films, but Room on the Broom is probably the sweetest and most family-appropriate, whereas Possessions is the most rewarding overall. Recommended for Oscar watchers and animation fans, the nominated short film showcase opens tomorrow (1/31) at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Breath Courses Through Us: A Curtain Call for the New York Art Quartet

They were arguably the original super group of free jazz. They formed in 1964 and disbanded in 1965, yet they still had turnover on the bass.  Eventually, Reggie Workman settled into the role and would return for their special anniversary tour. Despite the brevity of their tenure together, the New York Art Quartet remains enormously influential. Alan Roth documents their history and triumphant reunion in The Breath Courses Through Us (trailer here), which has its American premiere this Friday at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

It all started when Congolese-Danish alto-saxophonist John Tchicai met trombonist Roswell Rudd. Both musicians were exploring the creatively disruptive innovations of Cecil Taylor, recognizing each other as kindred spirits. The next piece of the puzzle was Milford Graves, a former Latin percussion specialist, who had reoriented his perspective on the drums after hearing Elvin Jones. As the New York Art Quartet, they recorded their instantly recognizable eponymous ESP release with Bernie Worrell on bass, bringing Workman on board for Mohawk the following year.

As is usually the case in jazz, the Quartet was short lived, precisely because it was just five minutes ahead of its time. At the time, they were consciously challenging traditional notions of melody, harmony, and rhythm, yet to contemporary ears they do not sound nearly as radical as much of the subsequent free music they blazed a trail for.

Sparingly using WKCR’s Ben Young as the expert commentator, Roth lucidly establishes the Quartet’s musical significance, placing them in the context of their era. We hear from all four musicians at length, all of whom are earnest and reflective about the music they made. However, there is no question Graves is a uniquely spirited and charismatic interview subject. His reminiscences are the sort of gift documentarians only dream of.

Of course, there is also plenty of straight-up music. Indeed, Roth has a nice editorial ear, selecting performances that illustrate the Quartet’s considerable technique. Watching Breath should dispel any uncharitable notions that they embraced freer forms because they could not adequately swing. After all, Rudd started off playing Dixieland and Workman recorded with just about everybody, including Art Blakey, Grant Green, and John Coltrane. At one point, Tchicai even played with a band inspired by Miles Davis’ electric period. The late controversial poet Amiri Baraka also joins the Quartet for some spoken word contributions. Roth wisely opts for his more benign pronouncements, but his interludes are still the only part of their reunion concert that sound dated.

To borrow terminology from Downbeat magazine, it is always great musicians get their overdue ovation. Breath should lead to greater appreciation of the New York Art Quartet, even among viewers not deeply steeped in the free jazz aesthetic. Recommended for open ears, The Breath Courses Through Us screens this Friday (1/31) at the Library of Congress, with a New York premiere in the works.

Sundance ’14: Cooties

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach at public schools. So then, what are the chances of a misfit Ft. Chicken Elementary summer school faculty surviving a juvenile mutant attack? Not great, but at least there will be plenty of gory humor in Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion’s Cooties, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Failed novelist Clint Hadson has moved back to his mother’s house in Fort Chicken and accepted a position teaching English at his old elementary school. To make matters more depressing, his old high school crush and her jealous gym teacher boy friend are also on the Ft. Chicken faculty. Hadson wants to be the cool teacher, who lets his students call him by his first name, but these kids are real hellions—and that is before contaminated chicken nuggets turn them into rampaging zombie death machines.

These little monsters like to bite and they are definitely contagious, but their viral brain rot only affects those who have not yet gone through puberty. In no time at all, the rabid kids have overrun the school. Hadson, his maladjusted colleagues, and a handful uninfected students hole-up, hoping help will come at 3:00, when parents start arriving to pick up their brood.

If you enjoy humor derived from splattered brains and guts then Cooties is in your power zone. Co-writers Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannel keep the shameless gags coming at a regular pace. However, the conspicuous narrative similarities between Cooties and Return to Nuke ‘Em High are distractingly awkward.  Cribbing Troma—get your head around that one.

Elijah Wood’s nebbish everyman shtick works well enough for Hadson and he delivers some amusing lines here and there (partly redeeming his role in the dour travesty of Maniac). Whannel probably gets the biggest laughs as the socially inept sex ed. teacher, but nobody tries harder than Rainn Wilson, unleashing his inner Will Farrell as the past-his-prime P.E. teacher.

Horror movie fans will chuckle at Cooties, but there is nothing here they have not seen before, even if they have not yet revisited Nuke ‘Em High. For epic gross-out humor, it cannot compete with its fellow midnight selection, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, but both were picked up for distribution, so they were both winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Wait: the Psychic Said What?

At least the psychic never asks for money.  Maybe that is why Emma believes her. It must be admitted her timing is also spot-on, given she calls unsolicited immediately after the death of Emma’s mother. Much to her sister’s frustration, Emma insists it will only be a matter of time before their mother returns to the land of the living, because a stranger told her so in M. Blash’s supernatural-ish drama The Wait (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Presumably, Angela is the more responsible sister since she does all the things you are supposed to do when a family member dies.  Her older sister is clearly a flake, yet everyone seems to defer to her.  Instead of grieving, the family just ambles about in a daze, with the air conditioning cranked up to arctic levels. Angela recognizes cracked behavior when she sees it, but her flirtation with a scruffy hipster neighbor distracts her from pushing the issue.

Blash plays up the verdant eeriness of the Pacific Northwest woods for all its worth, simulating the vibe of Twin Peaks, but lacking the distinctive characters and stuff happening with regularity.  Kasper Tuxen’s lush cinematography evokes a sense something uncanny must be going on somewhere, but there are simply too many shots of characters staring off into the distance for Wait to sustain any appreciable momentum.

After Tuxen, Jena Malone is probably the film’s MVP. As Angela, she actually supplies a real performance, marked by vulnerability and sensuality.  In contrast, Chloë Sevigny’s Emma largely fades into the background, which is surprisingly given the lively impression she made in Jonathan Caouette’s even more surreal short, All Flowers in Time.

With respects to the natural versus the supernatural question, Wait seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. Blash offers up sequences to support either alternative down the stretch, but they are all so frustratingly underwhelming. There are interesting bits here and there, like the forest fire raging on the horizon, which everyone assiduously ignores, like revelers in Pompeii. Yes, it is a carefully crafted film, but there will be times viewers will want to hook it up to a car battery and give it a jump. For dedicated Malone fans only, The Wait opens this Friday (1/31) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Sundance Shorts: Rat Pack Rat & Pleasure

They are extreme professions, but you will not see reality shows about them on the History Channel. The E! Channel, maybe. Neither protagonist of will have a typical day at the office. One celebrity impersonator will also get stuck with his worst request ever in Todd Rohal’s Rat Pack Rat (the more highly recommended of the two), which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Dennis looks worn down and frail, but the Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator can still turn on the Candyman for his Craigslist clients. This will be a tough one though. His command performance will be the birthday present for an adolescent Rat Pack fanatic wasting away from a terminal condition.

Helmed by The Catechism Cataclysm’s Rohal, Rat probably generated a lot of nervous laughter during its screenings from those expecting similar lunacy, but it is a distinctly sad and sober film. Eddie Rouse is fantastic as “Sammy,” conveying all his weariness and regret, while also evoking some of the pathos of the original Davis. It would be a fascinating film to see in dialogue with Armando Bo’s The Last Elvis, a previous Sundance selection that also explores how impersonators relate to their famous inspirations.

The protagonist of Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure also works in show business, in a far more professional capacity. Right, she does blue movies (always a mainstay of festival programming). Initially, it is a typical workday for Marie, but there is buzz one of her colleague will shoot a maneuver that sounds like it would defy the laws of physics, but evidently happens from time to time.

Pleasure is sexually charged, but not sensual.  It analyzes the day-to-day details of her business with clinical detachment. Probably the most intriguing element of the film is her relationship with Samson, a co-worker who clearly has eyes for her, notwithstanding what they do all day, often together.  Yet, for Marie, he represents more of a Survivor style alliance. It is probably the only subtle aspect of the film, nicely turned by Jenny Hutton and Christian Brandin.

While neither film is what you might call fun, both create a distinctive vibe and Rat Pack Rat is strangely affecting.  Both should expect considerable play on the festival circuit, given Pleasure’s subject matter and Rohal’s cult reputation, following their screenings (as part of separate shorts programs) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Love is in the Air: Ludivine Sagnier’s First Rom-Com

It is a pretty good rom-com premise, but you wouldn’t want to be seated near a couple like this in real life. When two former lovers fitting themselves sitting next to each other on a trans-Atlantic flight, they revisit the end of their affair in Alexandre Castagnetti’s Love is in the Air (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Julie is a sculptor with major jealousy and self-esteem issues. It is not clear what Antoine does, besides womanizing. Obviously, they are polar opposites, so they must be meant for each other. For a while, they really gave it a go, but now Julie is winging her way back to France to marry her predictably buttoned down fiancé.

They seem to have chemistry, so how did it all go wrong? Of course, there were complicating factors, like her career frustrations and judgmental mother.  Antoine similarly had to juggle counseling sessions with his nebbish best friend Franck and the unwelcome attentions of an ex-girlfriend’s nymphish little sister. Mix together and let the farce commence.

Right, so there are no real surprises in store for viewers here—no surreal mindtrips from left field or third act revelations. Air follows the tried and true formula, but its execution is silky smooth. Right from the start, the soundtrack wins us over with Nancy Wilson’s lightly swinging rendition of “I Wish You Love” (which is so much more effective than more maudlin versions). Frankly, Castagnetti is rather shameless milking Paris for all its romantic worth. Even Julie finds it clichéd when they have their first date at the Eiffel Tower, but it works nonetheless.

Ludivine Sagnier has probably never looked lovelier on-screen, but Julie’s assorted anxieties wear a little thin over time. In contrast, Nicolas Bedos looks like a gigolo from central casting, but he actually has his redemptive moments digging out from under all Antoine’s jerkweed behavior down the stretch.  Of course they look good together, but they do develop a considerable amount of romantic X-factor during their courtship scenes.

Air is not exactly a towering accomplishment in cinema, but it is a can’t-miss date movie. If things are working, its romantic trappings will keep the good vibe going.  If not, folks can ogle the attractive cast. Recommended as the sugary confection it is intended to be, Love is in the Air opens this Friday (1/31) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Sundance ’14: Blue Ruin

It only takes one family to launch a feud. By the same token, an emotionally damaged drifter hopes it will only take one family member to end it. Revenge is indeed the gift that keeps on giving but never fully satisfies in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (trailer here), which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

After the murder of his parents, Dwight Evans’ psyche just disintegrated. In recent years, he has survived hand-to-mouth, often living uninvited in the homes of vacationing families, until they return. Then he resumes crashing in his beat up blue four door sedan. His anaesthetized existence is interrupted by a sympathetic police officer, who informs Evans the man who killed his parents is about to be released from parole.

Will Cleland is a member of the thuggish Cleland clan. Even though they own a successful limousine rental company, they are more comfortable with back hills living.  Vengeance is definitely the sort of thing they are better at, but Evans shadows Cleland from prison to his roadhouse celebration nonetheless. He is clearly an inexperienced killer, as we see firsthand when he confronts Cleland alone in the men’s room.  From there, one darned thing leads inexorably to another, generating a whole lot of angst and bodies, but also threatening to engulf Evans’ estranged sister and her family.

At its essence, Ruin is equally akin to classical tragedy and hillbilly exploitation films.  Saulnier’s execution is wickedly effective, showing all the awkwardness of killing and the messiness of the resulting aftermath. Frankly, some of the most inspired scenes in Ruin are the bits most films gloss over. Yet, the tension never flags, notwithstanding the occasional punctuations of gruesome humor.

As Evans, co-executive producer Macon Blair is one of the most intense sad sacks you will ever see on screen. He is a palpably haunted presence, but shows flashes of inspiration, making it impossible not to root for him, despite his alarming tendency to make mistakes. He commands the film, but Devin Ratray adds some welcome attitude and general humanity as Evans’ well armed high school friend, Ben Gaffney. Eve Plumb (a.k.a. Jan Brady) is also all kinds of fierce as the ruthless Kris Cleland, thereby guaranteeing Ruin a sizable cult following.

They won’t be disappointed either. Blue Ruin is a taut and evocative thriller that utilizes its southern gothic violence for comedic and elegiac purposes. It is a cooker, recommended for anyone who enjoys payback cinema. With a theatrical and VOD release coming from Radius-TWC, Blue Ruin will also screen at the SF Indie Fest on February 16th & 20th, following its Spotlight selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Slamdance ’14: Wizard’s Way

Some legends might stand eternal, but no server last forever. When the one hosting one of the earliest surviving fantasy MMO’s is finally decommissioned, it causes great angst for two of the most dedicated players. A pair of snarky documentary filmmakers intend to capture the resulting drama, but the story evolves beyond their control in Metal Man’s Wizard’s Way (trailer here), which screened at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival.

Although nothing could upstage Christopher Nolan receiving the inaugural Founder’s Award at this year’s Slamdance, news that Jack Black plans to develop and executive produce the American remake of Way was still pretty big stuff. He could probably star as well, in nearly any of the scruffy roles. Joe Stretch and Chris Killen (played by their namesakes) are recent film school grads, who somehow received early notice of the impending demise of Wizard’s Way.  Recognizing a good opportunity for cinematic exploitation, they seek out Julian “Windows” Andrews, a stockroom prole by day, who is the undisputed top gun amongst Wizard’s Way’s dwindling ranks.

As his schlubby roommate Barry Tubbulb explains, Windows is the only player to get married “in-game” to Elin, whom he has never met outside of Wizard’s Way. When the plug gets pulled, Windows is understandably distraught, because he has lost his “wife” along with his life’s passion. Somehow Stretch convinces the gamers to stick with their film, but he has some rather cruel manipulations scripted out for the lads. However, Andrews and Tubbulb might not be as dumb and pathetic as the would-be-documentarians think.

Frankly, Wizard is exactly what Zero Charisma should have been, but wasn’t.  There is no question in the culture war between geeks and hipsters, Metal Man, a.k.a. co-writers Socrates Adams-Florou, Chris Killen & Joe Stretch, line up solidly behind the geeks. Their sympathy for Tubbulb and Andrews is genuine and the eventual comeuppance is satisfying.

As Tubbulb, Adams-Florou lets loose with a fair amount of shtick, but Kristian Scott is surprisingly grounded (and rather reserved) as Windows.  While Killen largely avoids the spotlight (which is definitely an issue for his character), Stretch’s slow, creepy evolution into outright villain is frankly quite impressive. This is obviously a zero budget affair, but everyone in front of the camera gamely holds up their end.

You do not often see movies at festivals that tell documentary filmmakers to sod off, which is why Wizard is so refreshing.  Similar in tone to Electric Man, David Barras’s affectionate ode to comic readers, Wizard defends geek culture in general, while gently encouraging the addition of an offline component.  It all works quite well. Highly recommended for gamers and fans of eccentric British comedies, the news-making Wizard’s Way should have plenty of festival screenings in its future.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sundance ’14: The Notorious Mr. Bout

He was the world’s best known arms dealer, who shot more selfie footage of himself in the wrong places at the wrong times than a punky skateboarding graffiti vandal. That was not the best strategy for minimizing circumstantial evidence, but it left a wealth of primary source material for Tony Gerber & Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary, The Notorious Mr. Bout, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Viktor Bout could be the model of the self-made oligarch in the age of Putin. It has been established that Bout served in the Soviet military in some capacity, but the exact details remain murky. Thought to have been active in Angolan operations, Bout set up shop after his early 1990’s discharge, focusing his “shipping” business in failed African states like the Central African Republic and ambiguously regulated fiefdoms throughout the Middle East.  Eventually dubbed “The Merchant of Death” by the media, Bout inspired the Nic Cage film Lord of War, guaranteeing him bad karma for his next life.

When Notorious follows Bout’s trail from one global hotspot to another, it is absolutely fascinating stuff.  However, the film sort of suffers from an odd split personality disorder. The first half meticulously pieces together the shady elements of his business, including his attempts to cultivate Congolese warlord turned politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is now facing war crime charges in The Hague. Yet, the third act largely paints him as a victim of a DEA entrapment. Frankly, that is a much more compelling argument in sex or drug cases that target human frailty than conspiring to sell arms to the Colombian FARC terrorists.

It is rather odd to see Notorious openly appeal the Russian persecution complex so assiduously stoked by Putin, considering Pozdorovkin also co-directed the uncompromising human rights expose, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer (which played at last year's Sundance). Most viewers will probably leave baffled by the film’s contradictory pieces. At the very least, the inconsistent tone reflects dubious editing choices. The story is compelling, but the conclusions drawn are hard to reconcile with the material that came before it.  Interesting but ultimately frustrating, The Notorious Mr. Bout is sure to draw further attention on the festival circuit, but it might want to go back to the editing bay for a few tweaks after screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Slamdance ’14: Rezeta

Rezeta still calls herself Albanian, but technically that is no longer true.  Regardless of her Balkan nationality issues, the fashion model is not fluent in Spanish.  Nonetheless, she will have no trouble meeting men in Fernando Frías’s Rezeta (trailer here), which won the narrative feature Jury Award at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival.

Things always seem to work out relatively okay for Rezeta, if not spectacularly so. The modeling agency that brought her to Mexico is decidedly on the dodgy side, yet she starts scoring high profile work almost immediately.  She gets along reasonably well with most of her roommates in the company’s model crash pad, but frankly she will not be around very much. She is not Blanche DuBois, but Rezeta will knowingly slip into some bad relationships with underwhelming men of means, for obvious reasons. However, things with Alex, the working class punk rock hipster, might be different. He definitely catches her eye when they bond over their tattoos, but he plays bafflingly hard to get.

Highly improvisational, Rezeta the film chronicles the rise and potential fall of a romantic relationship, with some culture clash garnish on the side. Even at its best, Rezeta is never particularly deep and there are long stretches of narrative slack. Still, the Balkan connection lends the Lost in Translation story a fresh angle.

Without question, lead actress Rezeta Veliu is the film’s winning ace-in-the-hole. Not just a pretty face, she is also quite a fine screen performer, blessed with a natural sense of when to dial it up or down. As Alex, Roger Mendoza does not have a fraction of her screen presence, but at least they develop some credible chemistry together during their ambiguous courtship scenes.

The occasional glimpses Rezeta offers of the vagabond lives led by not-quite-supermodels suggests there is more to be mined from this strange world of pseudo-glamour and exploitation. Clearly, Frías is much more interested in the characters transparently based on his co-leads, but their interpersonal dramas are rather hit-or-miss stuff.  Regardless, Rezeta obviously made quite an impression on the jury when it screened at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. The combination of its award attention and Veliu’s striking look (she is not a plastic cookie-cutter type, by any stretch) should secure it plenty of festival play, including the 2014 Indie Fest in San Francisco, where it screens February 11th, 16th, and 20th.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance ’14: Calvary

Whenever we see a picturesque Irish village with a curmudgeonly priest we are conditioned to automatically think quaint little comedy—the kind in which old people might get naked. This will be a much darker affair.  Reuniting with Brendan Gleeson, The Guard helmer John Michael McDonagh offers a sober meditation on faith, sacrifice, and forgiveness in Calvary, which screens today as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Father James was called to the priesthood late in life, after his divorce. Considered a good man by those who know him, he is completely innocent of the church’s abuse scandals.  Yet, that is precisely why a grown victim announces in confessional his intention to kill the upstanding father.  Murdering a compromised priest simply would not have the same jarring effect as killing Lavelle. With the one week deadline looming, Lavelle sets out to find the disturbed parishioner amongst his shockingly jaded flock.

Perhaps fortuitously, Father James will also have to deal with his twentysomething daughter, who has come to recuperate from another suicide attempt. They will have some unusually serious and heartfelt discussions throughout the course of the film, even though Father James never reveals the death threat hanging over his head. However, McDonagh does not use the confessional seal as a thriller device. Since the mystery man never asks for absolution, Father James is free to seek the counsel of his bishop and the local dodgy police inspector.  Yet, for various reasons, Father James is determined to handle the matter personally.

Given the title and the clock ticking down to Sunday, the symbolism of Calvary is almost crushing at times.  Nonetheless, its exploration of religious conviction is exceptionally mature and thoughtful.  Father James is a good man, but hardly a saint.  In contrast, the village is almost shockingly contemptuous of his relative virtue. If the Church’s problematic response to the notorious rash of abuse scandals is the lighter fluid that ignites Calvary, the moral bankruptcy of the increasingly agnostic village is the kindling that keeps it ablaze.

Throughout the film, Brendan Gleeson is pretty much perfect as Father James, delivering gruff one-liners, while facing a series almost Biblical trials with palpable dignity and resolution.  It is a salty yet mostly understated turn that might represent a career pinnacle. Likewise, Kelly Reilly is absolutely devastating in her big scenes as his daughter.  They are backed up by a diverse supporting cast, including the likes of M. Emmet Walsh and Orla O’Rourke, who always convincingly look and act like members of the dysfunctional provincial community.

At the halfway point, Calvary seems rather overstuffed with subplots and side characters, yet nearly each and every one pays off for McDonagh. It might sound like an opportunist broadside launched at the church, but its depiction of the good priest is remarkable sympathetic and nuanced. In fact, McDonagh maintains a tone much more in keeping with Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest than the churlish score-settling of Philomena. Highly recommended (especially to those most inclined to be suspicious of it), Calvary screens tonight (1/25) in Ogden as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’14: Life Itself

In 1994, Siskel & Ebert helped launch Hoop Dreams towards its Sundance success with an unprecedented early review that aired during the first weekend of the festival.  Twenty years later, Sundance regular Steve James returns again with a documentary tribute to his frequent champion, Roger Ebert. An affectionate profile produced with the cooperation of the Chicago Sun-Times critic during his final days, James’ Life Itself, which screens today as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Taking its oddly uncinematic title from Ebert’s memoir, Life focuses on Ebert, but his longtime co-host Gene Siskel naturally figures significantly throughout the film. Frankly, many viewers may well feel like the two critics should have had equal billing, but perhaps Ebert finally got one over on Siskel in that respect.

As the editor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student newspaper, Ebert was not shy about expressing his left-of-center opinions. It would also help him fit in at the Sun-Times upon graduation.  Like many entry level journalists, Ebert started out doing utility infield work at the paper, such as death notices and crime reports.  When the movie critic resigned, he was assigned the beat rather off-handedly, because it was not considered a high profile gig.  Pre-Kael newspaper film criticism often used generic bylines to accommodate multiple anonymous contributors.  Of course, Ebert and his Pulitzer Prize for criticism would help change matters.

James devotes a fair amount of time to Ebert’s cub journalist years (which are reasonably interesting) and resolutely faces up to his naughty collaborations with sexploitation pioneer Russ Meyer (that are downright fascinating). He also intersperses the biographic business with footage of Ebert’s slow decline during the early months of 2013.

However, most viewers will be interested first and foremost in his years co-hosting movie review programs with Siskel. While James does not skimp on clips from the various incarnations of their show and prominently features the reminiscences of Siskel’s widow, their contentious partnership arguably could have been even higher in the mix. After all, it is through their television appearances that most viewers would have come to know Ebert.

In fact, it is a wistfully nostalgic experience watching them argue and dispense thumbs. Life indeed reminds us what a comfortable presence S&E were on our idiot boxes. The influence they exercised over movie-going tastes and preferences will probably never be replicated.

Granted, James handles the scenes of the failing Ebert with tremendous sympathy, but they threaten to overwhelm the celebration of his life with uncomfortable hospital scenes. We come to understand why Ebert wanted to be so forthcoming about his health, but all the details do not have to be on-screen.

If you are wondering, Ebert’s in/famous North review did not make the cut.  Maybe it will be on the DVD.  Regardless, it is rather nice to see a movie that considers film criticism a worthy endeavor. Recommended for those who can never get enough movie nostalgia, Life Itself screens again tonight (1/25) in Salt Lake, as this year’s Sundance Film Festival comes to a close.

Sundance ’14: Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Something about the Minnesota accent must get lost when translated into Japanese, at least judging from one unhappy office worker’s strange obsession.  She is convinced the briefcase full of cash buried in final scenes of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo is really out there, waiting to be discovered. Her strange delusion will eventually take her to the fateful North Dakota border in the Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, which screens today at the Sundance Film Festival.

It is not clear whether Kumiko’s obsession has crowded out other aspects of her life or whether it has grown to fill the pre-existing void in her gloomy existence.  Regardless, her work as an “Office Lady” (fetching coffee and dry cleaning for her boss) remains profoundly unfulfilling. That she is conspicuously older than her bimbo colleagues is a fact not lost on her, either. Her only solace comes from her pet rabbit Bunzo and watching a well worn VHS copy of Fargo, constantly scribbling notes that only make sense to her

When Kumiko finally reaches her breaking point at work, she absconds with the corporate card and books a flight to Minneapolis.  This is not a well planned trip. Kumiko carefully collects all her Fargo material, but neglects to consider adequate winter gear. Yet, as she makes her way north, several locals will try to look out for her, as best they can. The wider world is not really such a cold place in Treasure. Kumiko just has trouble fitting into it. That forgiving spirit is one reason why it is such an oddly moving film.

With the right distributor behind her, Rinko Kikuchi might stand a chance of landing her second Oscar nomination for Kumiko. It is a quiet performance, but absolutely devastating in its power. She vividly projects the acute sensitivity and compulsive focus that make Kumiko more closely akin to outsider artists than routine nutters. David Zellner (the director and co-writer half of the Zellner filmmaking tandem) is also quite funny yet also rather touching, in an admirably understated way, as the sheriff’s deputy who tries to help Kumiko.  Bunzo is cute too.

It is too bad nobody from Fargo signed on for a cameo, because there is an obvious place where the Fellners could have put them. Evidently, when you land a hit HBO series, you quit caring about independent film.  Still, fans of the Coen Brothers’ film will appreciate all the references. Ironically, Alexander Payne recently signed on as an executive producer, just before he was nominated for Nebraska and the Coens were snubbed for Llewyn Davis (none of which he could control).

Whether or not it qualifies as a “co-production,” Treasure certainly represent extensive American and Japanese collaboration, shot entirely on location in either Tokyo or Fargo country. Surprisingly accomplished work from the Zellners, it has sweetly sad vibe that really distinguishes from the rest of the field. Recommended with considerable affection, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter screens again this morning (1/25) in Park City, as the 2014 Sundance Film Festival comes to a close.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance ’14: Life After Beth

Teenagers and zombies both have bad skin and smell like feet.  However, the similarities end with the risen dead’s affinity for smooth jazz.  At least, that is how the zombie apocalypse rolls in Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth, which screens today during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Zach Orfman was always inclined to be mopey, but the death of his out-of-his-league girlfriend Beth Slocum really has him down. He is especially anguished because their final awkward days of couplehood teetered on the brink of splitsville.  Seeking comfort in proximity, Orfman starts spending time with Slocum’s parents, Maury and Geenie, who also seem to take consolation from his presence.  Then one day they freeze him out and close off their entire house to the outside world.

Eventually, Orfman discovers they are harboring the “resurrected” Slocum, who has no memories of her fatal hiking misadventure.  The Slocums are determined to keep it that way.  They allow Orfman to renew their relationship, but insist he never tell her about her death or share the happy news with the rest of the world. It is all good for a few days, until certain changes start manifesting in Slocum. For instance, her skin is drier and her behavior is more aggressive. We also get hints she might not be the only zombie who came back.

Writer-director Baena dexterously keeps the zombie apocalypse lurking just outside our field of vision, focusing instead on the increasingly problematic relationship between Orfman and Slocum. He also stays true to the logical necessities of zombie movies in the redemptive third act climax.  However, the humor in After definitely leans toward the mild chuckle end of the spectrum.

Aubrey Plaza is the perfect choice for Slocum, jumping into the undead teenager angst and zombie gore with both feet.  In contrast, Dane DeHaan’s Orfman is a leaden presence, stuck on moody brooding throughout the film. He might be convincingly nebbish, but it is impossible to believe someone with this kind of dead fish charisma could attract the reasonably popular Slocum. While Paul Reiser (his second dad role in a Sundance film this year) and Cheryl Hines are largely wasted as Orfman’s parents, John C. Reilly’s shtick suits Maury Slocum rather well.

Life After Beth is pleasant enough, but it is quite like scores of previous teenager horror mash-ups thematically and stylistically. While it earns originality points down the stretch, Plaza and Reilly could have used some help carrying it to that point. Tightly executed but low in calories, Life After Beth will only serve as a light snack for genre fans when it screens today (1/24) in Park City, as a selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’14: All the Beautiful Things

A good conversation should be like jazz: a little call and response, plenty of riffing, and everyone gets a chance to make their solo statement.  Two estranged friends will try to talk out their complicated history amidst the soulful sounds of a jazz club in John Harkrider’s docu-hybrid-hybrid All the Beautiful Things (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Harkrider grew up on the wrong side of the tracks before making good as a Wall Street attorney and eventually segueing into the lucrative world of independent filmmaking.  His friend Barron Claibourne is a successful photographer who happens to be African American. Issues of race and class will haunt their discussion, particularly when it turns into an argument. 

It all revolves around a woman, but ironically neither man was particularly interested in her romantically.  Harkrider never had the desire or the opportunity to leave the friend zone. However, the woman in question had eyes for Claibourne and acted on her impulses. He did not really reciprocate her interest, but he slept with her anyway, thinking little of it.  Needless to say, things turned rather ugly, leaving Harkrider caught in the middle.

Presumably, whether you think Harkrider did right enough by Claibourne depends on which man you instinctively identify with.  Yet, the stunning African American bartender acting as a neutral referee seems to lean towards Harkrider’s side of things.  Of course, this could also be a function of gender identification, with respects to the unseen woman. While the inherent drama is obvious, it is highly debatable whether the legal events surrounding the Harkrider-Claibourne feud merit the feature documentary treatment. Nevertheless, the democratic ethos of jazz argues everyone deserves a chance to have their say.

Indeed, the better show is probably happening on the bandstand, where trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s quartet will perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in its entirety. It is an impressive interpretation that adds spiritual gravitas to the two friends’ bickering and bantering.

Essentially, ATBT was outlined but not scripted, introducing substantial improvisation into the mix. Believe it or not, this approach sort of works.  Harkrider has an acerbic wit, often making hip pop culture references, whereas the more blunt-spoken Claibourne has a knack for cutting to essence of each issue. Still, their purported insights into race and class do not readily suggest wider universal truths, reflecting more specific circumstances instead.

It might be talky, but ATBT is an unusually stylish film, thanks to Pelt’s music (definitely including his Coltrane cover as well as some original themes), Brian O’Carroll’s evocative neon nocturnal cinematography, and Matthew Woodson’s viscerally powerful black-and-white illustrations (used in lieu of recreated flashbacks). Arguably, there is enough substance in the two frienemies’ verbal parrying to keep viewers reasonably invested, but the male-centric gabfest is likely to be divisive among audiences. Regardless, the visual and audio trappings are quite a rich feast. Recommended for viewers receptive to a jazz-noir version of My Dinner with Andre, All the Beautiful Things screens again in Park City today (1/24) and tomorrow (1/25) as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.