Monday, February 29, 2016

Of Mind and Music: A NOLA Street Musician’s Tale

In many respects, the case of Una Vida (“the Queen of Royal Street”) is not so different from those chronicled in the documentary Alive Inside. Although she suffers from Alzheimer’s, music seems to awaken her memories and offers a means to relate to the outside world, at least to some extent. However, the standards she sings are also intertwined in her head with a profound trauma from decades past. A grieving neuroscientist will be drawn to the vocalist and her blues guitarist protector in Richie Adams’ Of Mind and Music, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Much like Dr. Nicholas Bazan, the author of the film’s source novel, Dr. Alvaro Cruz is an Argentine polyglot neuroscientist specializing in Alzheimer’s. He is also a New Orleanian through and through when it comes to music and cuisine. Plagued with guilt when his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother dies while he is attending an international conference, he seeks solace in the muffaletttas of the Central Avenue Grocery and the sounds of Frenchmen Street. At such old school NOLA locales, he regularly encounters Una Vida and her guitar accompanist, Stompleg. He can tell she suffers from some form of neurological dementia, but the lyrics of the “gold old good ones” keep her somewhat tethered and focused.

Dr. Cruz quickly develops an easy rapport with Stompleg and Una Vida finds him pleasant enough, even though she can’t necessarily remember him from one day to the next. However, her junkie former minder Jessica is instantly suspicious of the doctor and jealous of the connection he might be slowly forging with the withdrawn Una Vida. Nevertheless, she will need his help when Stompleg is accepted by an out-of-state assisted living residency for legit blues artists.

Clearly, Mind means well so ardently it practically aches with good intentions. Fortunately, it also has an intimate familiarity with New Orleans, which helps ground the picture and gives it the ring of authenticity. The somewhat pivot role played by the Louisiana Music Factory earns it multiple bonus points. You could actually go to a lot of the locations in Mind—in fact, you really should.

Although he is probably still best known for playing Bucho in Desperado and Ramon Salazar in 24, Portuguese-born Joaquim de Almeida is wonderfully earthy as Dr. Cruz. Quantico’s Aunjanue Ellis is mostly convincing and often quite compelling as the tragic Una Vida, but it is Bill Cobbs who really lowers the emotional boom as Stompleg. Frankly, he does award-worthy work, but he gets a key assist from John Fohl, who dubs Stompleg’s blues guitar. Their rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” heard over the closing credits is eerily haunting. Similarly, Mykia Jovan supplies the deeply soulful vocals of Una Vida. Unfortunately, Sharon Lawrence (from NYPD Blue) is mainly stuck watching the drama from the sidelines as Cruz’s eternally patient wife Angela.

Strangely, the incidental soundtrack is not very jazz or blues, but the inclusion of bandoneon and clarinet gives it a touch of Louisiana flavoring, while also evoking Dr. Cruz’s Argentine roots. Of course, you cannot get anymore legit than Kermit Ruffins and Jon Cleary who briefly appear as themselves. While Adams does not always skirt every potentially melodramatic pitfall cleanly, the cast and the music always propel the film forward. Recommended as a valentine to the Crescent City and a realistic portrayal of the challenges of Alzheimer’s, Of Mind and Music opens this Friday (3/4) at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.

The Wave: Norway Gets Disastrous

If you have read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know this is all Slartbartfast’s fault. He to delight in designing Norway’s fjords. Unfortunately, they are ticking time-bombs. Eventually, a seismic shift will lead to a rock slide and that will inevitably cause a tidal wave. That day is now in Roar Uthaug’s The Wave (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

This is supposed to be the aptly-named geologist Kristian Eikfjord’s last day working for the Geiranger warning station, so you know the coast is toast. Just when he has the kids all packed up in the car, his Spidey sense starts tingling. His wife Idun was supposed to join them later after working through the tourist season at town’s luxury hotel, but when her husband gets sidetracked by a potential tsunami-style catastrophe (evidently, it happened before in 1934), she fixes up their teen-aged son Sondre (yes, he’s a guy) with a room instead. However, the geologist and their young daughter Julia opt to camp out in their former home for old times’ sake. As a result, the family will be separated when the mega-wave hits.

Of course, by the time the dreaded wave starts, it is already too late. Eikfjord the alarmist was ready to evacuate twelve hours ago, so it is a little hard to figure why he stuck around. Regardless, the good residents of Geiranger will only have ten minutes to reach high ground when the station finally sounds the alarm. No, that is really not enough time, especially when the moody Sondre is skateboarding in the basement with headphones cranked up to eleven.

When the actual wave comes in, Uthaug’s devastation is as good as anything Hollywood has produced. Not surprisingly, the aftermath will be just as perilous, with screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg borrowing pages from Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure. Water has an inconvenient tendency to rise, doesn’t it? It general, The Wave is a slightly better than average disaster movie, but it seems like it will do something awesomely dark and unexpected at the end, only to cop out at the last moment, leaving the audience feeling manipulated.

Still, the fjord-bounded setting is spectacularly cinematic and the well-known Norwegian cast is uniformly competent and polished. As Kristian, Kristoffer Joner is a blandly likable absent-minded everyman. Both kids are similarly serviceable, but it is Ane Dahl Torp (so terrific in 1001 Grams) who best stands out as their down-to-earth and tenacious mother.

There aren’t any villains in The Wave, except maybe Mother Nature. Even Eikfjord’s most cautious colleague always seems reasonable (and eventually quite heroic). Isn’t that rather refreshingly Scandinavian? While The Wave never transcends the disaster genre, it observes the conventions in a highly watchable fashion. Recommended for slightly more intimate natural catastrophe films, like The Perfect Storm and Hereafter, The Wave opens this Friday (3/4) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

Malick’s Knight of Cups

If you always suspected Hollywood was a den of vice and degradation, you are about to be vindicated by no less an auteur than Terrence Malick. His everyman screenwriter has been led astray by the hedonism Tinsel Town offers. Malick riffs on Pilgrim’s Progress, The Hymn of the Pearl, and Fellini’s 8½ while searching for higher meaning in Knight of Cups (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The screenwriter’s name is “Rick,” but we only know that from the closing credits. Not a lot of names get bandied about in Cups and dialogue is rather sparse in general. Instead, we watch Rick’s life flash by in snippets better measured in seconds than minutes. He is the Pilgrim or the “Son of the King of Kings,” who found worldly success, but lost sight of his values. However, he has not forgotten his family. In fact, they are another cross to bear. His relationship with his devout but guilt-wracked father is strained, but reparable. Unfortunately, his unstable brother Barry is apparently a lost soul. He will also have relationships with a number of attractive women, but it is often hard to tell when he moves onto someone new, because of Malick’s insistence on filming the backs of characters’ heads.

Aesthetically, Cups might just be Malick’s most maddening film yet—and that is quite a heavy statement. Yet, what is really frustrating is the extent to which he undermines his own challenging ideas. This is not a sterile exercise in style at the expense of substance. Malick is one of the very few filmmakers working today who seriously grapples with issues of faith and an ostensibly disinterested God in a serious, mature, and non-kneejerk manner. He most definitely does so again in Cups.

In fact, the very best moments directly explore man’s spiritual yearning. Making the most of his fleeting screen time, Armin Mueller-Stahl delivers a shockingly powerful Christian apologia as Father Zeitlinger. Likewise, the late Peter Matthiesson (essentially playing himself) delivers a potent lesson in Zen Buddhism. “I can only teach you one thing: this moment,” he tells Rick. Yet, instead of letting these significant moments breathe, so we can properly digest them, Malick continues his MTV-style rapid editing, moving to the next stage of Rick’s life, practically at the speed of light.

Even though he is in most of the scenes, Christian Bale perversely hardly gets a chance to do any acting. Malick’s actors really have to make an impression quickly if they stand any chance of standing out. In addition to the wonderful Mueller-Stahl and sage-like Matthiesson, Brian Dennehy projects appropriate gravitas and poignant humility as Rick’s father, Joseph (remember, that’s a Biblical name). It is also amusing to watch Antonio Banderas essentially reprise his role from Nine under the persona of Tonio, the Hollywood playboy (he even looks like he is wearing the same suit). Problematically, the women in Rick’s life are almost used like props, but Cate Blanchett shows some forcefulness and gumption as his ER doctor ex-wife, Nancy. Presumably, that is why it did not work out between the two of them.

Cups could have possibly been a truly great film, but Malick’s approach is way too unfettered in its Malickness. Even as its wise men explicitly tell us to more fully live in the present, it hurtles ahead, like a cheetah suffering from ADD. This is a shame, because there is wisdom within its frames. Still, this is not a film that can be easily dismissed. Indeed, it is quite an important work when viewed in dialogue with Malick’s prior films, but as a discrete screening experience, it is bizarrely agitated and off-putting. Viewers who really want to wrestle with a film will find their match in Knight of Cups, but the more conventional should probably take a pass. Still, even now it defies any clear-cut rendering of judgment. For the auteur’s adventurous admirers, Knight of Cups opens this Friday (3/4) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine and AMC Loews Lincoln Square.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Doc Fortnight ’16: Scrumped [Extended Version]

You would not say it about one of the world’s largest and most militant religions (that shall remain nameless for fear of reprisals), but the world would probably be a way more tranquil place if there were more Buddhists. Yes, they have been pulled into conflicts in Southeast Asia, but it has mostly been in response to the belligerence of a less tolerant religion. You can practically see that commitment to peacefulness baked into Buddhist customs and ceremonies. Seoungho Cho uses the form of Buddhist rituals to meditate on its inner essence in the experimental short film, Scrumped [Extended Version] (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Mostly, the Korean-born New York-based Cho relies on the ambient sounds of worship recorded at the Haeinsa and Silsangsa Temples in South Korea, but he occasionally also incorporates excerpts from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, op. 48. Arguably, it is not such a strange fit, considering the “High Church” vibe of Buddhist chants (it is also worth noting the Japanese Catholic Church has forged particularly close ties with their Buddhist counterparts).

Regardless, the first ten minutes or so of Scrumped look like Cho is feeling his way, without a clear concept in place. However, when he starts editing footage according to the rhythms of the ceremonial chanting, the film becomes a transfixing experience. Mind, spirit, nature, and art all whirl together in a microcosmic unity. The film’s aesthetic truly reflects the spiritual transcendence of the worship it documents, which is rather remarkable.

Frankly, Scrumped becomes the sort of cinematic wonder Samsara was billed as, but fell short of. It is entirely possible Cho’s shorter cut is sufficient, because the thirty minute “Extended Version” has its share of filler up top, but the guts of the film are absolutely engrossing. Although Cho professes to be a spiritual non-believer, his respect and affinity for Zen-related Korean Seon Buddhism are well evident. Highly recommended as an immersive and meditative experience, Scrumped screens again with Jacques Perconte’s Ettrick tomorrow (2/29), during this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Doc Fortnight ’16: Paths of the Soul

These Tibetan pilgrims have utterly nothing in common with Chaucer’s. They will tell no bawdy stories and engage in absolutely no untoward behavior. Their devotion is real, as is the danger they face while making the 1,200 mile journey to Lhasa, straight down Tibet’s National Highway 318 in Zhang Yang’s docu-hybrid Paths of the Soul (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Nyima’s uncle Yang has always been a father figure to him, so he readily agrees to accompany the patriarch when he resolves to finally make his pilgrimage. Eventually, eleven members of the extended family are chosen for the trek. Each will have their particular reasons for joining, but all share a deep but unfussy belief in the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism.

The pilgrimage is especially meaningful for Uncle Yang, who always regrets his younger brother died before he could make the journey he always talked about. In accordance with their selfless faith, Nyima’s teenaged sons will be praying for the two laborers who died while constructing their house. The presence of the pregnant Tsring initially seems completely baffling, but the karmic benefits for her baby are apparently well worth the effort if she delivers during the pilgrimage. Likewise, the ritual journey hardly looks appropriate for the ten or eleven-ish Gyatso, but what she learns will last a lifetime.

Spanish Catholics might think the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is a tough road to travel, but they have nothing on Tibetan Buddhists. Yang and his family are not merely walking over two thousand kilometers, with their tractor trailing behind. They must stop after every three or four steps to kowtow. That entails complete prostration on the busy mountain highway. To facilitate these regular acts of obeisance, they wear the pilgrims’ clothes: full body aprons and hand-planks.

This is an absolutely grueling film, but also a powerfully moving one. Yang and clan will endure inclement weather, rock slides, and one auto accident. Yet, there is also hope and hospitality to be found along the way. Throughout it all, their faith and their family cohesion are too strong to even be tested. Watching them plug ahead is truly awe-inspiring. To what extent the non-professional actors are playing themselves or namesake characters hardly matters (either way, they are incredible), because the conditions they endure are more than real enough. By the time they reach Lhasa, you hope to see the Dalai Lama himself triumphantly swoop down on a giant golden eagle to personally bless each one of them.

In all honesty, Paths of the Soul is one of the least showiest, but most profound films about religious faith in action you might ever see. The fact it was produced and approved for distribution in China is a not so minor miracle. Perhaps the state censors were hoping the arduousness of their journey would dissuade others from making similar Lhasa pilgrimages. However, the dignity and purity of the pilgrims’ faith is unmistakable and tremendously stirring. Very highly recommended, Paths of the Soul screens again today (2/27), as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Friday, February 26, 2016

NYICFF ’16: April and the Extraordinary World

How would the world look if the Industrial Revolution never happened and petroleum energy was never developed? Far, far more environmentally ravaged than it is today. In this steampunky alternate universe, that steam power comes from trees and there are not a lot of them left. How did things get so bad? A mysterious agency has been abducting scientists, halting progress in its tracks. April and her family are some of the few researchers who have not disappeared or been pressed into the service of the House of Bonaparte emperor, but not for long. April will have to go underground to carry on the family research in Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

It all started with April (or Avril)’s great grandfather, Gustave Franklin, but he will not last past the big bang at the beginning of the picture. Her grandfather Prosper (a.k.a. Pops) and parents will continue his research into an ultimate cure-all life-extension serum, but they must do so off the steam-powered grid. Unfortunately, Inspector Pizoni’s raid goes bad, leaving April a presumed orphan with only the family’s talking cat Darwin for company. He was an early test subject, but instead of immortality, he developed the power of speech, because that is how chemistry works.

Busted down in rank, Pizoni swears vengeance against the Franklin family, but he is probably the least of their worries given the wider mysteries in play. However, he manages to recruit a likable parolee to worm his way into Franklin’s confidence. Of course, the smooth talking Julius is in for considerably more than he bargained for, but the issue of trust will loom large if these kids are ever going to develop a serious relationship.

Even in today’s world of banal CGI wonders, it would be a tall order the render the scope and detail of the Franklins’ ominous steampunk world in a live-action tent-pole. Based on Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, Ekinci and co-adaptor Benjamin Legrand fully establish the complexities of the alternate history. With the [un]timely death of Napoleon III, the disastrous Franco-Prussian War is averted and the not so enlightened Bonapartes remain on the Imperial throne. (On the plus side, the Paris Commune never happens either, sparing the French its lingering ideological toxicity.)

It is pretty cool to see a film suitable for family viewing reference the Franco-Prussian War and provide cameos for scores of scientists, including Einstein and Fermi. Francophiles will also be impressed by the big name French voice cast, including Marion Cotillard as Ap[v]ril, Jean Rochefort as “Pops” Prosper (he’s terrific), Bouli Lanners as Pizoni, and Oliver Gourmet as her father, Paul.

Stylistically, Desmares & Ekinci’s animation evokes the clean lines of Tardi’s comic art, but that allows them to render the steam engines and Belle Époque fashions and monuments with crisp precision. Even in an animated film, the narrative stretches believability, but the sophisticated world-building more than compensates. Highly recommended for steampunk fans of all ages, April and the Extraordinary World screens this Sunday (2/28) and next Saturday (3/5) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF, with a regular theatrical release coming from GKIDS on March 25th.

Tricked: Paul Verhoeven Harnesses the Dutch Internet

Perhaps Paul Verhoeven should have used this crowd-sourcing technique for Hollow Man. It is far from fool-proof, but at least he could have avoided its creepy rapiness. Instead, Verhoeven employed the distributed networking model for his hyped-up follow-up to his triumphant Dutch homecoming film Black Book. He started with four scripted minutes, relying on the internet to provide the rest of Tricked (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In four minutes, Kim van Kooten establishes the eight main characters. The rest was crowd-sourced or “user-generated.” It sounds pretty straight forward, but Verhoeven and his cast talk about it in agonizing detail in the “making of” epk-ish film that screens ahead of the fifty-five minute Tricked. From all their talk of breakthroughs and innovations, you would think they were filming the first soundie. Perhaps the only surprising revelation is the relatively high quality of submissions. Verhoeven expected to lean on a handful of super-users, but he had binders full of contributions that were under consideration.

So it took hundreds of Dutch viewers to tell the tale of Remco, the philandering head of an architectural firm, who is under pressure from his two partners to sell out to the Chinese. At the worst possible time, Nadja, his former office hook-up returns from abroad with a massive baby bump. That gives his wife Ineke all kinds of attitude, but his current mistress Merel takes it more in stride. Since she is besties with Remco’s boozy party-girl daughter Lieke, she is not about to get all dramatic and call attention to their affair.

The fact that Tricked is a bit of a tonal mishmash really isn’t Verhoeven’s fault, since he really had no idea where it was headed. Likewise, the cast is also understandably tentative in the early going. Having no idea if their characters are ultimately sympathetic or detestable, they had to keep their options open. Frankly, the fact that it flows together as smoothly as it does is quite impressive. In fact, plenty of credit is due to Verhoeven and editor Job Ter Burg.

Veteran Dutch actor Peter Blok is appealingly roguish as Remco and Gaite Jensen is quite dynamic and engaging as the surprisingly proactive Merel. However, seven hundred Dutchmen should really have their heads examined for making Remco’s slacker son Tobias into a supposedly endearing antisocial pervert. Robert de Hoog does his best under the circumstances, but his scenes courting Merel are face-palm worthy.

Given the nature of the project, most of the blame for what does not work can also be distributed among hundreds of contributors. The one glaring exception is Fons Merkies’ ghastly score. Verhoeven and his cast put in a lot of work to make this gimmick look like legitimate cinema, but the carnival-style music makes you expect to see twenty or thirty clowns come piling out of a compact car.

Essentially, Tricked started out as an earnest attempt at sexual intrigue, but became a parody of sudsy melodramas. The important thing is it manages to be watchable in a less trainwreckish kind of way than some of Verhoeven’s notorious films (Showgirls anyone?). Recommended for the curious, Tricked opens today (2/26) in New York at the Cinema Village and also launches day-and-date on Fandor, but without the relentlessly self-congratulatory behind-the-scenes video, therefore making it the preferred viewing alternative.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Slightly Strange Course of Events

To visit his father at work in a Haifa mall, Shaul Tzimmer must first be wanded by security. It will soon be that way here too. At least it hasn’t hurt business for Shimon Tzimmer’s employers. Apparently they can still easily afford to pay him to putter about. He is delighted to see his somewhat estranged son again, but he is about the only one who voluntarily opts for the sourpuss’s company in Raphaël Nadjari’s A Strange Course of Events (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Shaul Tzimmer is a divorced father who is stuck in a joyless job as a late-night hospital receptionist. The worst part about his life is his full understanding of his loserishness. For some reason, Tzimmer decides to visit the father he has not seen in years, even though he hardly shows any desire to patch things up. Regardless, he is stuck going through the motions when his father introduces him to his New Agey but age-appropriate girlfriend Bati. Shaul does not have much to say to her, but he doesn’t have much charm for anyone. Unfortunately, things will get even more awkward when a freak accident lays Tzimmer up in Haifa.

It is a testament to the stringent reserve of Nadjari and his co-screenwriter Geoffroy Grison that the modest conclusion feels genuinely satisfying. I’m not saying this film is sleight of stature, but it needs a paperweight to keep it from blowing away with the wind. Arguably, Jocelyn Soubiran & Jean-Pierre Sluys’ distinctive, vaguely Middle Eastern-flavored sound track does exactly that, supplying heft and flavor to the light-weight film.

In all fairness, Ori Pfeffer also deserves tremendous credit for his weirdly engaging work as Tzimmer. He is painfully standoffish, yet Pfeffer makes it clear he would like to be more sociable and approachable, but he just does not have it in him. Moni Moshonov is also rock-solid as Shimon Tzimmer, but Michela Eshet is unfortunately annoying as the batty Bati.

It is rather rewarding to watch a downbeat sad sack finally try to take charge of his life, but Nadjari keeps the revelations ever so small and discreet. Frankly, the film would be more aptly titled “A Mildly Diverting Series of Loosely Connected Episodes.” Still, there is value to the work of Pfeffer and Soubiran & Sluys. A Strange Course of Events is a nice little film, but it is as unessential as it is unassuming. Safely harmless, it opens tomorrow (2/26) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Doc Fortnight ’16: France is Our Mother Country

If you could chose a country to be your colonial power, there is no question it would be the United Kingdom. They sure knew how to train civil servants. On the other hand, nobody would voluntarily opt for France. Although they were not quite as bad as the Belgians, the French have had the hardest time accepting the end of the colonial era, often with tragic results. Rwanda certainly proved both points when it became the first non-UK colony to join the British Commonwealth. It had been French. Rithy Panh echoes that critical ambivalence towards the French colonial experience in his archival docu-essay, France is Our Mother Country (clip here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Nothing screams “imperialist” like a white suit and a pith helmet. Apparently, that was the uniform of choice for French colonial oligarchs in Indochina. In his spliced together pseudo-narrative, Panh captures plenty of similarly outfitted Frenchmen overseeing factory and plantation work or getting drunk at garden parties. Their images have not aged well, but that is why they are so on-point for Panh.

Essentially, the film’s arc can be summed up as “they came, they exploited, and they left the land in political and military chaos.” However, despite their damning fashion sense and the air-headed French party girls cavorting on sacred religious sites, Mother Country never lowers the final coup de grâce. In fact, the footage of a 1920s or 1930s rain forest medical clinic looks relatively progressive, especially for the times.

Panh has a shrewd eye for imagery, but he never fully establishes a clear cause-and-effect chain of events linking the French imperialist adventurism of the early Twentieth Century with the Communist madness of the late Twentieth Century. He also indulges in the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel when quoting one of the era’s painfully virulent racial theorists. Yet, Marc Marder nearly saves the day singlehandedly with his distinctive, frequently jazz-influenced score.

Aside from Panh’s subversive editorial sensibilities, there is not so much to take-away from Mother Country. It lacks the beauty, grace, and anger of his Oscar-nominated masterwork The Missing Piece, but that is a hard film to be judged against. Perhaps this represents a pragmatic strategy for a follow-up, precisely because it is so different. Almost recommended solely for Marder’s themes (rather than Panh’s), France is Our Mother Country is mostly just grist for professional Third World Studies majors when it screens again tonight (2/24) as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

PIFF ’16: Man vs. Snake

There was a time when video games got you out of the house and up on your feet. In the 1980s, gaming was done in the arcades, requiring at least some level of human contact. Some people remain nostalgic for old school video games and as is often the case with gamers, a few are still prone to obsession. That could very well be the case when the original Nibbler champion seeks to regain his title. Tim Kinzy & Andre Seklir document his underdog pursuit of retro-gaming glory in Man vs. Snake (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Portland International Film Festival.

It might take you a while to remember Nibbler. It was sort of like Pac-Man, but it featured a snake with an inconveniently growing tail rather than ghosts. It was not exactly the most popular game in the arcade, but it was attractive to competitive video-game players, because it offered the chance to score one billion points. Tim McVey was the first documented player to reach that milestone. That would be the other, nicer Tim McVey.

For years, he assumed he was still the Nibbler champ, but he comes out of retirement when he learns a player in Italy bested his score. However, he will have competition from a younger player gunning for the title himself. It might seem like a dubious quest, but his indulgent wife supports him. He also has the old school video game establishment in his corner, including the media-savvy Pac-Man champ Billy Mitchell.

Aside from his understanding wife Tina, McVey sort of fits the gamer stereotype. He is somewhat on the schlubby side, working a depressing job and going through life with an unfortunate name. Yet, M vs. S will challenge many of the viewers’ snarky prejudices. Walter Day, the owner of the arcade where McVey set his original record and the leading arbiter of competive arcade gaming is a case in point. Deeply steeped in eastern philosophy, he turns out to have a lot more going on than Nibbler. Yet, they all seem to be pulling for McVey for the same reason they did in the 1980s. He just needs it more than his competition.

Like Wide World of Sports, Kinzy & Seklir capture all the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Frankly, it all gets pretty epic, but McVey’s earnestness will completely win viewers over. You will come to understand how cruel the snake can be and root for the underdog to have his day. Highly recommended as eighties nostalgia and a sympathetic look at a small but ardent gaming sub-community, Man vs. Snake screens this Saturday night (2/27) during the Portland International Film Festival.

Doc Fortnight ’16: The Event

Who lost Russia? To answer that question, Sergei Loznitsa harkens back to the day it appeared to be won. In what remains his finest hour, Boris Yeltsin rallied fellow Russians against the hardline Communists who had deposed Gorbachev in a coup that came well after the people started to believe they could be free. In the newly re-christened St. Petersburg, opposition to the coup was spearheaded by the reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, who is quite a tricky figure to take stock of, considering he was Putin’s mentor, who would eventually die under suspicious circumstances. There is both heady promise and strange flashes of foreboding in Loznitsa’s boots-on-the-ground documentary The Event (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

The images from Moscow are maybe more familiar to us, but the backdrop in St. Petersburg could not be more perfect. That is indeed the Winter Palace. Since the hardcore Communist coup-plotters had taken control of all media and communications, information is spotty on the square. To convey a sense of their confusion, Loznitsa periodically punctuates The Event with extracts from Swan Lake, the official soundtrack to internal Soviet strife, which the conspirators were duly broadcasting, being creatures of habit.

When addressing the crowd, Sobchak sure looks and sounds like a man of destiny. However, if you see a weasely-looking aide in the background who looks like Putin, it probably is. In fact, it is rather ironic to hear Sobchak rail against the dangers of resurgent Stalinism in 1991, knowing he would later proclaim his protégé to be the second coming of Stalin, as if that were a good thing. (Ironically, he was right both times.)

The Event is a somewhat demanding film that rewards viewers observant enough to pick up on little details buried within the tableaux of mass demonstrations. Loznitsa does not spoon-feed much to the audience, but he closes with a sharp reminder none of the old regime’s crimes were never prosecuted. Clearly, he leaves us to wonder just how discrete and firewalled the incoming government would be from the former oppressive system.

Assembling black-and-white archival video that evoke Eisenstein and newsreels of 1956 and 1968, The Event crackles with immediacy and uncertainty. In retrospect, it is even harder to render judgments on Sobchak’s moment of destiny, but the widespread anger at the Communist system still rings clear as a bell. Clearly, when it comes to documenting broad-based demonstrations against neo- and retro-Soviet oppression, Loznitsa is the man. Arguably, The Event is not as immediate or immersive as Maidan, but it has a slyer, shrewder editorial sensibility. Highly recommended, The Event screens again tomorrow (2/24) as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Last Man on the Moon: One of Twelve Americans

It now seems hard to believe given Russia’s current domination of space travel, but the Soviets never landed on the Moon. Captain Eugene Cernan was the eleventh man to walk on the lunar surface, but he was the last to leave. It is a notable distinction, but one he would rather not hold indefinitely. Cernan reflects on his career as an Apollo astronaut and offers some advice for the future in Mark Craig’s The Last Man on the Moon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Like all the best astronauts, Cernan had been a real deal Naval aviator before Deke Slayton recruited him for the second wave of Apollo astronauts. It seems everything you remember from The Right Stuff was true. The Apollo astronauts worked hard, studied hard, and played hard. Competition to be on each historic flight was fierce, but mostly collegial. Cernan would know better than most. When budget cuts forced NASA to slash its planned Moon expeditions in half, he found himself jockeying with Dick Gordon to command the final Apollo 17.

As you would expect, there are a number of terrific behind-the-scenes stories of our nation’s space program. In addition to Cernan, Craig scored interviews with his fellow astronauts, Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, and the still only slightly disappointed Gordon, as well as legendary NASA flight director Gene Kranz, and head of mission operations, Dr. Chris Kraft. Cernan’s current and former wives also get to have their say, but he is always the first to admit he neglected his family duties during the Apollo years.

The now overlooked Gemini program also gets its due, particularly Gemini IX, which Cernan still considers a troubling failure, but Kraft defends as a valuable learning experience. Without question, Last Man offers plenty for space program buffs, but Craig’s execution will pleasantly surprise cineastes. He and cinematographer Tim Cragg capture some striking visuals and he knows when to pull back to appreciate a quiet moment when it is appropriate. Indeed, watching the somber Cernan walk through the ghostly former Apollo launch site speaks volumes about the state of the current American space program.

For some reason Moon landing conspiracy theories are enjoying a spat of fringe popularity, popping up in the dumb comedy Moonwalkers and Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson’s disappointing found footage follow-up to The Dirties. Last Man (co-executive produced by racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart) arrives like a breath of fresh air, celebrating the courage and adventurous spirit of the first and second generation of NASA astronauts. It is also a timely wake-up call for renewing our space-faring capabilities or be beholden to the Russian program for the long-term. Highly recommended as both cinema and oral history, The Last Man on the Moon opens this Friday (2/26) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Kurosawa’s Ran

It was a triumph interrupted by tragedy. Shooting was halted three times on Akira Kurosawa’s monumental fusion of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the legend of feudal lord Mōri Motonari, due to the deaths of his regular fight choreographer Ryu Kuze, his soundman since Stray Dog, Fumio Yanoguchi, and his wife and sounding board, Yôko Yaguchi. Nevertheless, Kurosawa still finished the film that would forever cement his reputation as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Still as overwhelming as ever, the 4K restoration of Kurosawa’s final straight-up masterpiece Ran (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York, at Film Forum.

During the Sengoku Era, daughters were not allowed to inherit—hence, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji’s three sons. His son Saburo loves him best, but the Daimyo cannot see past the young man’s rash, impetuous behavior. Technically, Jiro is the most Machiavellian of the brothers, but even he is no match for Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede. She harbors a deeply-burning grudge against Lord Hidetora for slaughtering her family after their arranged marriage. Ichimonji caught the clan of Jiro’s wife Lady Sué similarly unaware, yet her profound Buddhist faith prevented her suffering from corroding her spirit. Consequently, she is the only person who inspires guilt in the old warlord.

Like Lear, Ichimonji concludes he must abdicate and name his successor to insure long-term stability. Of course, it will have the exact opposite effect. Although Saburo is the most talented and worthy, Lord Hidetora names Taro instead. Understanding the possible ramifications only too well, Lady Kaede spurs Taro to consolidate and codify his new power. This deeply disappoints his father, who finds himself essentially stripped of the emeritus status he had envisioned for himself. War is inevitable and the carnage will be spectacular.

It is almost impossible to recognize the iconically handsome Tatsuya Nakadai (the all business cop in High and Low and Mifune’s very different adversaries in Yojimbo and Sanjuro) under all the make-up transforming him into Ichimonji. Nevertheless, he vividly and poignantly expresses Ichimonji’s increasingly erratic mental state. However, Mieko Harada upstages everyone and everything as the ferocious Lady Kaede (an original character with no analog in Lear or the tales of Mōri). It is a huge ensemble, most of whom labor under dehumanizing circumstances, obscured by rain, smoke, and helmets. However, Hisashi Igawa adds intriguing heft and nuance as Jiro’s general, Kurogane, perhaps one of the film’s few characters with principals.

Frankly, there will probably never be another motion picture that devotes so much time and resources to filming battle scenes that is not first and foremost a war movie. Ran is high classical tragedy several times over, but it also features some absolutely stunning scenes of Sixteenth Century warfighting. It is one of the few films that lives up to and even surpasses its reputation as a career-capping masterpiece. It is sort of incredible that Kurosawa was able look through a camera lens again following the epic production of Ran, but did indeed make three more quite nice, but considerably smaller films (including a contribution to a multi-director anthology). Very highly recommended, the 4K restoration, in all its dazzling color, opens this Friday (2/26) at Film Forum.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Neerja: Courage in the Face of Terrorism

There was a time when flying was a glamorous business. Neerja Bhanot brought a little of that back. The part time fashion model was also a flight hostess for Pan Am Airways. Tragically, her first flight as the head purser of her Bombay-based crew was Pan Am 73. Its ultimate destination was New York’s JFK, but so-called “Palestinians” in the Abu Nidal Organization hijacked the plane during its Karachi layover. Thanks to Bhanot’s quick thinking, the terrorists would go no further, but that placed her even more in harm’s way. Bhanot’s courageous story is stirringly dramatized in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Right from the opening scene, can see Bhanot is the life of the party, as her friends and family wait for her to arrive and inject some vigor into their snoozy get-together. Even though she had made inroads into the glamorous world of modeling, she still loved her job as a flight hostess. Life was pleasant for Bhanot, but it was not always so. During her brief arranged marriage to Kishore Mishra, she was constantly abused, both physically and emotionally. However, surviving his torments gave her strength and insight for dealing with the Abu Nidal terrorists.

Disguised in stolen uniforms, the would-be hijackers shot their way on-board during the stopover in Karachi. However, Bhanot was able to alert the flight crew, who duly followed procedure, evacuating through the cockpit emergency hatch. Being stuck on the ground drastically changed the nature of the operation for the Islamist hijackers. Hoping to regain some leverage, the terrorists instructed Neerja to collect all passports so they could identify Americans. Again, Bhanot foiled their schemes, instructing her crew to hide all American passports. There were forty-one Americans on that flight but only two were murdered.

It is pretty inspiring to watch Bhanot stand-up to the so-called “Palestinian” mass murderers and strategically think two or three steps ahead of them. Madhvani’s cross-cutting between the hijacking and Mishra’s misogynistic cruelty runs the risk of heavy-handedness, but it establishes how she found the resolution and presence-of-mind to undercut the hijacking and hostage executions. Nevertheless, at the risk of being spoilery, those who are not familiar with Bhanot’s story should not expect a happily-ever-after conclusion.

In fact, Madhvani rather viscerally captures a sense of the horror and chaos when the “Palestinian” terrorists open fire on the passengers. He also shows in no uncertain terms what Islamists do best: hit women and point guns at young children. You really start to understand the realities of terrorism in Neerja, up-close and personal. Yet, thanks to Bhanot, there were only twenty fatalities out three hundred sixty-one passengers and a crew of twenty.

Sonam Kapoor not only looks a lot like the historical Bhanot. She also projects the necessary courage, grace, and dignity. She is no martyr caricature. Kapoor’s Bhanot often has to fight off panic and re-summon her courage. It is a forceful but down to earth performance that emphasizes her empathy and resilience, showing us just what a fighter Bhanot was.

Neerja is definitely the sort of film that will choke up viewers, but when the lights go up and you start to think about what happened on Pan Am 73, it will make you mad. When you watch the national rage expressed in Kabir Khan’s Phantom, it is hard to blame India for resenting America’s refusal to extradite Mubai 2008 terrorist David Headley. Yet, what can they expect when they responded to the 1986 hijacking by officially recognizing the supposed state of Palestine and continuing to send aid to the terrorist-dominated Authority? That’s really showing the hijackers. At least there has been some tilting towards the democratic state of Israel following the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Regardless, Neerja puts an acutely human face on the issue of terrorism. Kapoor does awards-caliber work, as does Anna Ipe & Apparna Sud’s production design team, which convincingly recreates the era’s analog airliner and retro-eighties trappings. Madhvani is not shy when it comes to manipulating viewers, but he keeps them focused like a laser beam, ever if they know how it all must end. Highly recommended, Neerja is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Kosovo’s First Oscar Nominee: Shok (Friend)

Most Americans would be hard pressed to distinguish an Albanian from a Serbian, but it is not a problem for the residents of a small Kosovar village. However, it will become pretty clear for most viewers of Kosovo’s first Oscar nominated film, simply through dramatic context. Two young Albanian boys will witness war crimes and ethnic cleansing first hand during the Kosovo War in Jamie Donoughue’s Shok (trailer here), which is currently screening as part of the Academy Award nominated short film package now playing at the IFC Center.

The sight of an abandoned bicycle in the middle of the mountain highway brings it all back for the adult Petrit. Through hard work and saving, his best friend and fellow Albanian Oki has just bought a bike. Hoping to similarly purchase two-wheeled mobility, Petrit has begun dealing with the Serbian paramilitaries stationed outside of town. Petrit believes he can forge a profitable relationship with Dragan, the commander, but Oki instinctively understands the dangers inherent when one deals with the devil. Alas, his fears will be vindicated when Dragan insists on appropriating Oki’s bike for his nephew.

Despite what we might expect, Shok does not abruptly end with the seizure of the prized bicycle. Instead, it launches a chain of events that will greatly complicate the boys’ relationship, cutting far deeper than any mere coming of age story. Innocence will not be the only thing that dies in this memory play.

As young Oki and Petrit, Andi Bajgora and Lum Veseli give extraordinarily poised and disciplined performances. Thematically, the film is as serious as it gets, but they carry it with sure hands, every step of the way. Based on the experiences of producer-co-star Eshref Durmishi (who ironically appears as Dragan), Shok is a fully realized narrative that follows a highly eventful dramatic arc. This is a film with a beginning, middle, and end that seamlessly establishes each beat, all of which have a real point.

It is hard to imagine another short edging out Shok this year, but Academy voters often seem to use the dartboard method to vote in the short film categories. (How else can we explain Helium beating out Just Before Losing Everything in 2014?) Regardless, Shok represents an important milestone for Kosovar cinema and should be quite a career stepping stone for Donoughue. Highly recommended, the twenty-one minute Shok is now screening as part of the live action short film nominees at the IFC Center and is also available on iTunes.

Friday, February 19, 2016

FCS ’16: No One’s Child

In 1988, a feral child literally raised by wolves had even less of an understanding of the Balkan conflict than Bill Clinton (how did that whole arms embargo thing work out again?), but he will be assigned his respective side just the same. It is baffling to the boy and perverse to the viewer, but it is as natural as gravity to the both the kids and adults around him. His belated education and socialization will come with a bitter dose of irony in Vuk Ršumović’s No One’s Child The Record Man (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Film Comment Select.

Discovered by Serbian hunters in central Bosnia, the boy who will be randomly named Haris Pucurica as an acknowledgement of his presumed Bosnia ethnicity is taken to Belgrade for their own convenience. Consigned to an orphanage, the uncommunicative Pucurica is considered little more than an animal. Periodically, junior staffer Vaspitac Ilke tries to reach the wild child, but only the somewhat older and cooler Zika succeeds in breaking through Pucurica’s animalistic shell.

Unfortunately, Zika’s own unstable family situation will cut short his friendship with Pucurica as well as his courtship of the pretty Alisa. Unfortunately, Pucurica’s acclimation to human society also comes with his first taste of human tragedy. As the years pass and the War ignites, Bosnia will claim their presumed countryman, but Ilke fears for the boy’s safety in the besieged nation.

We know right from the start Pucurica will be better off with the wolves than navigating the war. Still, Ršumović manages to make his points without completely bashing viewers over the head. Frankly, No One’s Child, along with Mirjana Karanovic’s A Good Wife represent the hopeful stirrings of a revisionist trend towards national self-examination in Serbian cinema. There is no way either would ever be possible under the bitterly remembered Milosevic regime.

Denis Murić is rather remarkable as Pucurica. He is indeed suitably wild when necessary, but his performance is also acutely sensitive and surprisingly disciplined. He really does not need language, because Murić has a knack for displaying his inner feelings on his forehead. As Zika and Alisa, young and charismatic Pavle Čemerikić and Isidora Janković show loads of future star potential, but it is Miloš Timotijević who really keeps the film grounded as the decent but not necessarily noble Ilke.

It is hard to miss the drastic change in tone when a more-or-less gang of Bosnian-Serbs are admitted to the orphanage and proceed to engage in wanton thuggery. It would be very healthy for the region if No One’s Child were widely screened and debated in the Srpska district, but it won’t be. Recommended for those who appreciate tough-minded drama, No One’s Child screens this coming Monday (2/22) as part of the current edition of Film Comment Selects, now underway at the Walter Reade.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

FCS ’16: The Paternal House

Any Iranian film with a history this torturous must talk some pretty serious truth to power. Banned at home, Kianoush Ayyari’s family saga has been slow to roll out international, due to the Islamist authorities’ bureaucratic foot-dragging and finger-wagging. Somehow Ayyari convinced the Iranian State Police’s film division to put up percent of the financing, but they were less than amused to subsequently discover they had funded a story about an honor killing. In its way, it is also a haunted house tale, but it is guilt and denial that torment Kabal’s clan rather than a spirit. The sins of the past hang over successive generations in Ayyari’s The Paternal House, which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

The year is 1929, but it is very much like today when it comes to Islamist attitudes towards women. The details will be forgotten, but for some reason Kabal has resolved to kill his daughter for supposedly dishonoring the family. He will recruit her ten year old brother Motashahn to help bash her skull in and bury her under the cobblestones of their backroom. Although the outraged uncle is now duly satisfied, Kabal’s wife Masumeh is suspicious of the cover story. However, it is not until 1946 that she learn the full truth, with dire consequences.

As Motashahn ages from ten to eighty-five, he will continually witness the bad karma rain down on his family as a result of his crimes. Matches will be broken, resentments will fester, and their business will suffer. Yet, he keeps scrambling to maintain the cover-up, while clinging to his twisted notion of honor.

Frankly, it is perversely spectacular to watch the plague of misfortunates visited on Kabal’s clan. There is a grim logic to it all that is profoundly compelling. It is deeper than just history repeating itself and the sons bearing the sins of the father, but those truisms most definitely apply in full force.

Even though the workshop in question and the adjoining courtyard are relatively spacious, Ayyari creates an unsettlingly claustrophobic atmosphere. The vibe is unrelentingly tense, but also acutely tragic. Basically, the ancestral home become a nest of vipers for which the patriarch has no one to blame but himself.

Obviously, this is bold stuff in Iran, approaching the outright radioactive. However, a number of prominent screen actors lent their talents to the controversial project. They are all quite believable as a family, albeit a severely dysfunctional one. Yet, perhaps none is more uncomfortably poignant than Shahab Hosseini as the grown 1990s grandson, who is two generations removed from the murder, but it still hopelessly mired in its consequences.

You know what they say about karma? Ayyari confirms it once again, in spades. It is not pretty to watch, but you will not be able to look away. This is drama with a purpose, executed with passion and skill. Very highly recommended, The Paternal House screens this Saturday (2/20) at the Walter Reade as part of Film Comment Selects and on May 6th at NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center as part of the Rethinking Iranian Cinema series.

Big Sky ’16: The Record Man

With the passage of time, you might be ready now to admit you own some of the records produced by Henry Stone—maybe a lot of them. Initially, he mostly oversaw R&B sessions, but he enjoyed spectacular but brief success as the original disco producer. When times were good they were booming, but the bust came on hard and fast. The late, great Stone looks back on his colorful career in Mark Moormann’s The Record Man (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

After serving in an Army band that included the likes of Sy Oliver and Jimmy Lunceford, Stone made some hard, levelheaded choices as a good but not great trumpet player. He opted to move over to the business side of the music industry, a decision his future right-hand man, almost teen idol Steve Alaimo would also make. At one point, he sold platters out of the trunk of his cars (earning the nick name “Record Man”), but he quickly moved into distribution and production at a more professional level.

Stone ran an appealingly loose ship at TK Records, where eager kids like Harry Wayne “KC” Casey and Richard Finch could fool around in the studio after finishing their gopher work. Eventually, their collaborations blossomed into KC and the Sunshine Band. It took them a bit of time to catch on, but when they did, Stone was practically minting money, at least until the phrase “disco sucks” entered the public consciousness.

Through Stone’s reminiscences, Moormann gives viewers a pretty robust history of disco. Maybe you knew George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” is considered the very first disco record ever, if you are a dedicated aficionado. However, the professional rivalry he developed with his wife and fellow TK recording artist Gwen McRae could be the basis of its own film.

Moormann scored interviews with most of the surviving TK artists (including Casey, George McRae, Timmy Thomas, Benny Lattimore, and the smooth-jazzish Bobby Caldwell) who describe Stone as old school, in mostly a fun to be around, only slightly roguish way. There is also a third act triumph-over-adversity angle to the film that sort of hides in plain sight from the audience during Stone’s initial on-camera appearances. There are also some real world music business survival tips to be gleaned from his experiences, like always be leery when a cat like Morris Levy calls.

For the most part though, Record Man is a lot of breezy, nostalgic fun, even if you are not a huge disco fan. Highly recommended as a slice of American cultural history, The Record Man screens this Saturday (2/20) and Sunday (2/21) as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the following Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday (2/28, 2/29, 3/2) at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.