Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Fear (short)

When a totalitarian state uses violence, intimidation, and humiliation to rule over its people, it is hardly surprising when clinical depression develops as a by-product. Yet, we rarely address the lingering emotional issues for those who live through traumatic oppression, like the kind wrought by Mao and Stalin. For victims, this often layers on additional levels of stigma. Dr. Zenglo Chen would know only too well. He survived the Cultural Revolution, but the atrocities and privations he endured continued to torment him over the subsequent decades. Dawn Dreyer & Andrea Love chronicle his healing process in the animated documentary short Fear (trailer here), which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

At the age of four, Dr. Chen’s parents were persecuted and eventually condemned to re-education camps, leaving the young boy in the care of his twelve-year-old sister. Given the hardships his family endured, Chen was certainly entitled to periodic bouts with the blues. Unfortunately, his survivor’s guilt and abandonment issues would prove emotionally paralyzing, even after he moved to America. Despite his training as an organizational psychologist, Dr. Chen had trouble “curing” himself. It was not until he integrated spiritual elements into his life that Dr. Chen finally started feeling at peace with himself.

It turns out those Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms do some genuine good from time to time, at least judging from Dr. Chen’s story. Indeed, there is a great deal we can learn from the way Dr. Chen balances his personal faith with the science and medicine of his vocation. It is an inspiring film in many ways, sensitively rendered by Love, the animator, through hand-drawn and stop-motion techniques.

Dr. Chen is a real role model, but his life-story is much more complicated than “mere” triumph over adversity. In a brief seven minutes, Dreyer & Love give viewers a sense of that rich complexity. Still, there is considerably more uplift in Fear than the vast majority of documentaries on the Cultural Revolution and mental illness. It is a deeply moving film that features some cool animation as an extra added bonus. Very highly recommended as a stand-alone film on its own merits, Fear will be incorporated into Dreyer & Love’s feature-length project Bipolar Girl Rules the World and Other Stories, following its screening as part of the Whoopi’s Shorts program at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Hot Docs ’16: Fear Itself

Eighty-three years after his first inaugural address, FDR’s words still hold resonance for us: “all we have to fear is the lame clip package.” Obviously, he was trying to rally the nation against dubious docu-essays during our darkest hour. Of course, there are plenty of other things to be afraid of, like cannibals and satanic possession. The things we fear and the ways that fear manifests says a lot about a national culture. However, Charlie Lyne is too afraid of his own subject—horror movies—to give them the analysis they deserve in Fear Itself (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

Lyne’s compilation essay is entirely cobbled together from clips of horror movies and a sizable number of ringers, only occasionally referred to by the meta-fictional narrator. Apparently, she has been binging horror films while recuperating from an auto-accident that may have also claimed the life of her mother. However, instead of catharsis or escapism, she feels desensitized and depressed.

There is something innately problematic about a film like Fear Itself or the glacial anti-zombie zombie-movie Here Alone (the inexplicable winner of the Tribeca Award) that have deep-seated contempt for their genres. By holding themselves above genre conventions, they basically make a half-hearted job of things. In the case of FI, Lyne’s narrator never delves into the collective anxieties reflected on-screen.

During the early Atomic age, fear of nuclear war produced a host of radiation-mutated monsters. Neurotic uncertainty regarding changing gender and sexuality norms is reflected in a host of slasher movies, going back to Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960. On the other side of the spectrum, our collective guilt and the kernel of Catholicism buried deep within us all is the reason demonic horror in The Exorcist tradition scares the bejesus out of us. Unfortunately, Lyne never goes to any of these places.

At least Lyne has a decent eye for visuals. Italian Giallos are quite prominent in his mix, but that is not a bad thing. He is also refreshingly international in focus, incorporating several Japanese and Mexican films. He draws on the vintage Universal monster movies surprisingly heavily, but Hammer is bizarrely absent. Yet, we can see how uneasy Lyne and company are with horror from the many films outside of genre he shoehorns into a thematic discussion, such as Alive, Gravity, Logan’s Run, and both the Alan Clarke and Gus Van Sant Elephants.

Frame for frame, you can probably find slier social commentary in horror films than any other genre, but aside from a few choice scenes culled from Dawn of the Dead, Lyne never gives masters like Roger Corman and John Carpenter their due. That is frustrating for fans and offers no constructive insights for horror movie outsiders. Not recommended, Fear Itself screens tomorrow (5/1), Tuesday (5/3), and Wednesday (5/4), as part of Hot Docs ’16.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Sacrifice: What Happens on the Shetland Islands . . .

Never call a Shetlander English, they are likely to take exception. However, some would be even less thrilled to be called Scotts. They consider the Faroe Islanders their closest cousins and aspire to a similarly quasi-independent status. They definitely do things differently on the Islands. American surgeon Tora Hamilton learns that the hard way in Peter A. Dowling’s Sacrifice (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the IFC Center.

After her untimely miscarriage in New York, Hamilton agrees to relocate to the Shetlands, her husband Duncan Guthrie’s ancestral home. On paper, there are plenty of advantages. He will have plenty of petroleum-related work and the local hospital will be delighted to have surgeon of her caliber. There is also a large, unflaggingly immaculate orphanage that is chocked full of infants ready to be adopted. That is indeed the plan for Hamilton and Guthrie, once they are past the one-year cross-the-t’s-and-dot-the-i’s waiting period.

Just when Hamilton starts to feel comfortable, a peat-bog preserved corpse is unearthed from their property. The police assure her the anonymous body most likely dates back centuries, but Hamilton notices physical traits similar to a young wife and mother who supposedly died of cancer a year or so ago. Everybody tries to pooh-pooh her concerns, but the body’s injuries sure look like a ritualistic killing to her. Forced to conduct her own investigation, Hamilton starts to suspect the murder was the work of a not-so ancient pagan cult operating uncomfortably close to home.

Evidently, some of the islands are covered with scattered rune fragments (rune ruins), making the Shetlands a highly suggestive setting for supernatural skullduggery. The problem is Dowling’s narrative is much more a conventional Brit mystery than a horror film, which rather figures, considering it is based on a novel by Mary Higgins Clark Award winner, Sharon Bolton. The trappings are strange and sinister, but the surprises are few and far between.

Still, it is rather worth the price of admission to see Downton Abbey’s David Robb (Dr. Richard “It’s Eclampsia You Idiot” Clarkson) in such a radically different context. He chews the scenery with great gusto as Hamilton’s shadowy father-in-law, Richard Gutherie. Likewise, Rupert Graves is slippery enough to maintain Gutherie fils’ moral-ethical ambiguity. Radha Mitchell is a bit vanilla for the lead, but her restraint serves the film well in a number of key scenes. She also develops a fast screen-rapport with Joanne Crawford’s Sgt. Dana Tulloch perhaps the only honest copper on the archipelago and certainly the only pregnant one.

Sacrifice is highly watchable, but it never really dials up the intensity you would expect from an IFC Midnight release. It feels more like a highly promising BBC America pilot than a midnight movie. With that in mind, it should definitely be on the radar of British mystery fans, who will recognize Robb from Downton and Graves as Cumberbatch’s Lestrade. Recommended on VOD for the And Then There Were None demo, Sacrifice opens round midnight tonight (4/29) at the IFC Center.

Hot Docs ’16: Raving Iran

According to the Islamist Iranian government, Anoosh and Arash play “satanic” music. In their case, this means techno-house, but it could refer to any form of music that is not traditional Persian or classical piano. That necessarily makes the duo known professionally as Blade & Beard outlaws in their own country. Eventually, they will have to choose between their home and their passion in Susanne Regina Meures’s Raving Iran (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

The double meaning of Meures’ title is inescapably spot-on accurate. As they try to build their careers in Tehran’s ultra-underground rave scene, Anoosh and Arash constantly ask has nothing changed under Rouhani, the purported “liberal.” Sadly, the answer is always a resounding no. From the DJs perspective, if the Islamist regulation of music and culture has changed at all, it has become more intrusive and arbitrary.

In what amounts to a Sisyphean mock epic, Anoosh and Arash visit a series of printers and media stores, hoping to get their album covers printed and possibly secure distribution for their newest CD. Time and again, the proprietors tell them they are under government surveillance. Several believe their phones are tapped. One store owner tells the duo he was recently arrested for selling a heavy metal CD that had been duly approved by the state, only to have the sanction revoked retroactively, with no public notice.

One of the intrepid DJs is even briefly arrested, but fortunately he is not blackballed from traveling to Switzerland for an electronic music festival. There Blade & Beard can actually enjoy an alcoholic beverage in public, while they listen to new music at its most unruly. They definitely make the most of their days abroad, but a critical decision looms.

Throughout Raving, there are a number of grey dots obscuring the faces of those enjoying the Iranian techno scene and most of the closing credits for the Iranian shoot are billed as “anonymous.” Obviously, Meures went to considerable lengths to protect the innocent, as any rational humanist would see them. Still, we have to wonder how Meures secured some of the early footage of Anoosh and Arash beating their heads against a wall of censorship. Some of it is truly mind-blowing, like their visit to the government office that authorizes (or more likely denies) licenses for public performances.

You cannot hold any illusions about the state of intellectual and artistic freedom in Iran while watching Raving. (Quick, let’s make this regime a nuclear power.) On the other hand, it fully addresses the wrenching emotional decisions involved in asylum-seeking. It is an extraordinarily brave and honest documentary that also features plenty of real deal techno. Very highly recommended, Raving Iran screens this Sunday (5/1), Tuesday (5/3), and next Saturday (5/7), as part of Hot Docs ’16.

Tribeca ’16: Starring Austin Pendleton (short)

His imdb page looks impressive, but it only covers a fracture of Austin Pendleton’s work. While the movie industry largely sees him an eccentric character actor, the theater world better understands his talents. Whether it is a grand Broadway theater or an Off-Off Broadway cubby-hole, rarely a week goes by in New York without a stage-production either starring or directed by Pendleton. The instantly recognizable thespian finally gets an overdue cinematic ovation in Gene Gallerano & David H. Holmes’ short documentary Starring Austin Pendleton (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Once you see Pendleton, you will totally recognize him. He had recurring roles on Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street, as well as supporting parts in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind and the Oscar-nominated Amistad, but he is probably best known as the stammering attorney in My Cousin Vinny. In fact, Pendleton has a lot to say about how he came to terms with his close association with that film.

In most of his interview segments and those of his admiring colleagues (including Ethan Hawke, Nathalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), we get a sense of Pendleton’s generous spirit and professionalism. However, we also see he can let loose some attitude when it is warranted. An appropriate example is Janet Maslin’s dubious NYT Magazine piece, in which she dubbed Jeff Bridges the “most under-rated actor.” (At that point, Bridge had three Oscar nominations to his credit.) It was a ludicrous piece, much like when Yahoo Movies features one-hundred-million-dollar grossing films on listicals of overlooked sleepers. Viewers will second his venting, just like Ethan Hawke.

One thing that clearly comes through in the twenty minute short is the adventurousness of Pendleton’s stage work. He is willing to give new works a shot, simply because they are interesting. We’ve covered him as the star of the fascinating Another Vermeer and the director of the Pearl Theatre Company’s first Tennessee Williams revival, Vieux Carré, both of which took a bit of guts, but the resulting productions were excellent.

Pendleton’s career could easily sustain a feature length American Masters treatment, but for now, Starring is an admirable bite-sized overview. It is also sadly fortuitous Gallerano and Holmes were able to record Hoffman’s tribute to Pendleton, whom he credits for launching his stage career. Anyone with any interest in the craft of acting should keep an eye out for Starring Austin Pendleton, following its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

L’Attesa (The Wait): Easter with Juliette Binoche

A young man has died, leaving behind a saintly mother and a morally compromised girlfriend. Does that give you any kind of archetypal inklings? How about the fact it takes place in the days leading up to Easter? Giuseppe is dead, but who knows? Giuseppe just might come again in Piero Messina’s L’Attesa (The Wait) (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The details are sketchy (better get used to that), but the upshot is clear. Anna is devastated by her son’s premature death. She had resigned herself to her grief until Jeanne comes knocking. Evidently, Giuseppe invited his French ex for Easter before his destiny took a tragic turn. Clearly unaware of his death, she eagerly hopes to patch up their relationship. Instead of breaking the bad news, Anna lets her continue to expect Giuseppe’s imminent arrival. It sounds terribly cruel, but it seems to allow Anna to feel some sort of connection to her son through the stunningly unintuitive Jeanne.

Nobody wants to call Jeanne an idiot, but she walks in on the funeral reception without picking up on any mournful vibes. Still, it should be conceded Anna is quite persuasive. Like any Sicilian mother (in her case, formerly French), she will serve up plenty of food for Jeanne.

Juliette Binoche is at the top of a short list of maybe two, who could play Anna with the grace and dignified reserve she demands. We can see how deeply she is hurting and how loathe she is to show it. On the other hand, Lou de Laâge is an open book, broadcasting her yearnings and insecurities with the fervency of youth. Those contrasts play well together in their many shared scenes.

Having served as assistant director on The Great Beauty, Messina is often considered a protégé of Paolo Sorrentino. You can see Messina has a similar affinity for bold visuals, particularly the grand, sweeping tracking shot. However, the effect on viewers is mostly distancing in L’Attesa rather than giddily intoxicating, as in Beauty. Regardless, Francesco Di Giacomo’s cinematography is wonderfully lush and heavy with the suggestion of otherworldliness.

Messina also builds to an is-it-or-isn’t climax that ought to be intriguing for its ambiguity but is really just frustratingly coy. Frankly, so many films have led us down this opened-ended road before, most cineastes would find concrete certainty much more interesting and novel.

Still, there is Juliette Binoche, riveting as always. While she does not reach the lofty heights of Blue, Flight of the Red Balloon, Certified Copy, or Clouds of Sils Maria that is largely due to L’Attesa’s weaker script, credited to Messina and a trio of co-screenwriters: Giacomo Bendotti, Ilaria Macchia, and Andrea Paolo Massara. It is all a bit over-ripe, but at least Messina and his cast are reaching for something. Recommended for Binoche’s fans, L’Atessa or The Wait or whatever they’re calling it on the marquee opens tomorrow (4/29) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

Black Salt (short): Launching the Franchise

He has Shaolin training and an Interpol badge, but the most dangerous thing about Samuel Lincoln Tharpe, a.k.a. Black Salt, is probably his hardnosed attitude. He will need every possible edge to save the world from an apocalyptic Yakuza sect in Ben Ramsey’s Black Salt (trailer here), a short film intended to launch an ambitious multimedia franchise based on the comic book characters created by Owen Ratliffe. Genre fans can get a dose of martial arts and WMD when Black Salt airs on Cinemax on Demand and MAX GO.

When young Tharpe’s mother relocated to China, it ended in tragedy. However, a rebellious Shaolin monk took the boy in, teaching him the secrets of Shaolin Kung Fu. Not so surprisingly, many in the monastery were not happy with this breach of tradition, so they were not sorry to see him leave before completing his training.

Of course, the very grown Tharpe is a badder customer than just about anyone else in the West, which makes him quite valuable to Interpol and the allied agencies they lend him out to. The stakes will be particularly high when Tharpe is sent on a mission to recover a vaguely defined doomsday device from an evil Yakuza death cult. However, things seem to go pretty smoothly thanks to intel acquired Li Jing, his dissident source inside the Yakuza—at least until the sect’s super villains turn up in an untimely fashion.

Even though Black Salt is pilot-like thirty-minute short film, it features two centerpiece-worthy fight scenes, in which Tharpe first faces off against the icily sadistic Rain and then the mysterious and stealthy Horse Ripper. Both feature plenty of highly cinematic fight choreography, co-directed by Ron Yuan (who appears in a non-action role, at least thus far, as Japanese agent Mamori Shiga).

So far, so good. True, Black Salt the short will totally leave fans hanging, but that is really to be expected, given the concept-proving, audience-teasing nature of the project. As Tharpe, Kinyumba Mutakabbir has a suitably steely presence and all kinds of action cred. Sheena Chou’s Li Jing is an intriguingly vulnerable femme fatale, but we maybe shouldn’t get too attached to her. The same caution goes for Panuvat Anthony Nanakornpanom, who tears it up as Rain.

It looks like Ratliff and Ramsey plan to combine Eastern spirituality with gritty street action, in much the same way the original Power Man and Iron Fist comics did, which would be terrific. They clearly understand the genre and know how to deliver the goods to satisfy aficionados. Based on the thirty minutes of Black Salt, we would definitely welcome a full length feature or episodic series. Recommended for martial arts and comic books fans, Black Salt will be available on Cinema on Demand starting today (4/28) until May 26th and continues its current availability on MAX GO until June 30th—with a limited edition DVD coming soon.

Tribeca ’16: By Sidney Lumet

Have we lost Deathtrap to political correctness? It was once celebrated for its frank depiction of sexual orientation, but in an era of safe spaces, are its unsavory characters now a too edgy for the professionally sensitive? You have to wonder, since it is completely absent from a new career-surveying profile of its director, Sidney Lumet (aside from the final screen crawl of his filmography). Nancy Buirski covers all the Lumet core requirements (12 Angry Men, Network), but her choice of electives is frustrating in By Sidney Lumet (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

There was good reason for Lumet’s reputation as an actor’s director. He understood thesps because he once was one himself. As a child actor, Lumet started out in Yiddish theater, before moving onto Broadway and radio (where the bread was really terrific). In time, the grown-up Lumet segued into theater and television directing, working prolifically on the Golden Age dramatic showcases. He also happened to direct an Off-Broadway production of Mr. Roberts Henry Fonda rather liked, so the star was amenable when someone suggested Lumet to helm the theatrical feature version of Reginald Rose’s teleplay, 12 Angry Men.

From there, Lumet and Buirski go film-by-film, mostly in rough chronological order. Plenty of time is justly devoted to The Pawnbroker, Network (still a grossly misunderstood film), Serpico (including a few bars of Bob James’ kind arrangements), and Dog Day Afternoon. On the other hand, Lumet’s red diaper baby films, Daniel and Running on Empty get disproportionate attention. Fail-Safe and The Verdict are also duly covered, but not as extensively as you might expect. However, his Oscar-winning outlier, Murder on the Orient Express is only seen in passing.

When you have credits like Lumet’s, an interesting minor film like the le Carré adaptation The Deadly Affair is understandably overlooked (it also might have been better known if it had not changed George Smiley’s name, for contractual reasons). However, Buirski’s determination to frame Lumet as the great voice of morality in American culture gets a little heavy handed, especially for the generally modest Lumet.

The best of Lumet’s films could provide grist for hundreds of film studies theses, but when he was off his game, he could drop bombs like Gloria and Critical Care. Hey, nobody is perfect. Of course, it might have been interesting (and even instructional) to hear more about the misfires. As it stands, By Sidney Lumet is highly watchable, like an installment of American Masters, where it is indeed ultimately destined. Recommended for fans of 1970s New York cinema, By Sidney Lumet will eventually air on most PBS stations, following its special screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pali Road: A Hawaiian Detour

It is sort of like a Hawaiian Mulholland Drive. Dr. Lily Zhang’s life will drastically change after an accident on this titular scenic route. Most distressingly, she finds all traces of her lover have been mysteriously erased. However, she will tenaciously cling to her memories in Jonathan Lim’s Pali Road (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Chinese-born Zhang cares about her patients and about what her parents think. Both cause a lot of stress in her life, especially given how strongly the latter object to her American significant other, grade school teacher Neil Lang. Of course, they would happily approve of her arrogant colleague, Dr. Mitch Kayne, whom Zhang was briefly involved with—much to her regret. However, when a quarrel with Lang leads to a severe-looking car crash, Zhang wakes up to find herself married to Kayne and the mother of a five-year-old son.

Much to her alarm, none of Zhang’s friends seem to remember Lang. Kayne’s creepy psychiatrist colleague diagnoses late-onset amnesia and prescribes some happy pills. Nevertheless, Zhang remains suspicious, especially when she uncovers traces of her life with Lang.

Given the warmth and vulnerability she exhibited in films like Hear Me and Ripples of Desire, USC alumnus Michelle Chen was a fitting choice to lead this American-Chinese co-production. She definitely has an appropriately intelligent presence for a driven doctor, even though the narrative often feels rather half-baked. Once again, Chen instantly claims viewers’ sympathies and credibly turns up the angst and pathos down the stretch. As Kayne, Sung Kang agilely turns on a dime, from a slimy jerkheel to an apparently caring husband and father. Frankly, he is a major reason why the film is able to keep the audience somewhat off-balance and not completely sure where it is all headed.

The problem is reality-bending films of this nature almost always end in one of two ways: either with a frustratingly Lynchian lack of resolution or an overly pat gimmick. Such is the case again with Pali Road, but at least the Hawaiian backdrops are lovely to look at. The work of Chen and Kang is also well worth watching, even when the bottom falls out of the third act. Recommended for Chen’s fans, Pali Road opens this Friday (4/26) in New York, at the AMC Empire.


They won’t tell you this at the Grand Ole Opry, but the commercial development of Country music was greatly supported by goat . . . glands. “Dr.” J.R. Brinkley was the man who recognized the untapped potential of both. Penny Lane (yes, that is her given name) chronicles the up-and-down life of Brinkley, the pioneering broadcaster and purported infertility specialist in the subtly titled NUTS (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Brinkley’s rise from mean circumstances was so unlikely, even Horatio Alger wouldn’t believe it—perhaps with good reason. As the narrated passages of his authorized biography explain, the young hayseed was laughed out of medical schools because he was so scruffy. Yet, the diploma-ed-up Brinkley would eventually set up practice in Milford, Kansas, where destiny was waiting for him. When a patient suffering from “dysfunction” requested a little of vim and vigor from the Billy-goat they could hear going about his business outside, Brinkley obliged, because why not? When the man’s wife soon found herself in a family way, frustrated men from around the country soon flocked to Milford for Brinkley’s gland transplant surgery (it was really just a slice he was inserting, mind you).

Obviously, the man who developed goat transplant surgery was no dummy, but Brinkley also recognized the powerful possibilities of radio at a presciently early stage. He founded the nation’s fourth radio station right there in Milford, making it a home for all the “hillbilly” music proper stations would never play, as well as an advertising venue for his assorted treatments and cures. Eventually, the FCC shut him down, at much the same time the AMA revoked his license. Yet, a man like Brinkley would not be deterred from such setbacks. He simply went down to Mexico and founded XERA, the original “Border Blaster” that would become the storied home of artists like the Carter Family and opened a new clinic a stone’s throw away in Texas.

So did the gland transplants actually work? Hell no, they didn’t, but Lane will initially have viewers wondering. NUTS is in fact a deliciously subversive film that sets up the Brinkley legend and then knocks it down, using his own words (or those of his hand-selected biographer) each time. Arguably, NUTS is also a rather timely film, in an almost tragically bizarre way. Running as a populist candidate that combined the worst of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Brinkley ran a nearly successful write-in campaign for Kanas governor based on demagogic class warfare themes.

Using sly animation and ironically cornpone narration, Lane treats Brinkley’s story with the gentle mockery it cries out for. It is rather fitting that Brinkley incubated country music, because his aptitude for self-reinvention is pure Americana. Yet, Lane also captures the Shakespearean dimensions of his inevitable fall. It would be impossible to make Brinkley dull, but her stylistic choices kick it up several notches further. Very highly recommended, NUTS screens this Friday (4/29) and Saturday (4/30), as part of this year’s SFIFF.

Tribeca ’16: The Last Laugh

With The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin tried rather unsuccessfully to re-appropriate his toothbrush mustache. In the process, he established an unofficial rule of comedy that has been pretty scrupulously observed until recent years. You can mock Hitler (see John Cleese in half the episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), but you cannot joke about what he did. Many popular comedians and also Sarah Silverman discuss and debate the last taboo in their business throughout Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh, which screened during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

There is no consensus of opinion among the survivors featured in Last Laugh. Some claim they never could have endured without the subversive power of humor, whereas others say they never found anything funny about the Holocaust—end of story. Despite Chaplin in Dictator and Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare (which Warner Brothers withdrew from general circulation after the war ended), Hitler jokes were still a little iffy until Mel Brooks scandalized polite society with The Producers.

Frankly, you have to marvel at Brooks’ fearlessness when he discusses his long “relationship” with Hitler. Obviously, French Holocaust survivor and original Hogan’s Heroes cast-member Robert Clary has a very personal perspective on the issue as well. There is also a healthy disagreement regarding Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, with the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman taking a “pro” position and just about everybody else lining up against.

Yes, Mel Brooks is still funny and Silverman still isn’t. As a result, there are some mid-sized laughs sprinkled throughout Pearlstein’s doc, but her cafeteria style approach makes it feel more like the pay cable special it should have been. However, the double-secret bootleg footage of Jerry Lewis’s notoriously off-key Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried (pointedly contrasted with Benigni’s mawkish shenanigans) is a coup that should attract curious gawkers.

Pearlstein is sensitive in the way the film presents tasteless humor, so it is unlikely to offend any viewers. Last Laugh also moves along rather snappily, but it never delivers the deep revelations of its implied promises. Yet, the film will serve an important purpose as a benchmark to measure the further evolution of comedic standards. Considering the rise in anti-Semitism (driven by immigration trends and anti-“Zionist” activism), would anyone be surprised if Holocaust jokes were to become common place in five years? Pearlstein never asks that question, which is a lost opportunity. Sometimes amusing and sometimes informative, The Last Laugh is a mostly competent attempt to take our cultural temperature on a critically significant subject. It screens May 1st, 2nd, and 7th during this year’s Hot Docs following its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The American Side: Niagara Noir

If you think Niagara Falls is a romantic spot, you probably haven’t seen Niagara with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Hopefully, you are also unfamiliar with local P.I. Charlie Paczynski, who specializes in the sleaziest divorce cases possible. When the stripper-partner he employs for honey trap scams is rather inconveniently murdered, the Polish detective will blunder into a far-reaching conspiracy in Jenna Ricker’s The American Side (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Paczynski and “Kat” were basically running a blackmail operation, until one of her “dates” up and killed her. He liked her way more than Sam Spade liked Miles Archer, so he duly follows the clues to a suspicious character named Tom Soberin. When his chief suspect takes a swan dive off the Falls, Paczynski realizes there is a larger scheme at work. It turns out Soberin was once an employee of an experimental energy firm, whose co-founders have had a falling out. It is unclear which faction he ultimately chose, but he supposedly had an affair with Emily Chase, the younger, far less stable but much more alluring sister of Borden Chase, who largely won the corporate power struggle.

Sterling Whitmore, Borden Chase’s ostensible partner, serves up cryptic clues to Paczynski while he develops a high tech barrel sufficiently reinforced to provide safe passage over the American side of the Falls. Evidently, people have made the ill-advised trip on the more forgiving Canadian side, but not from New York. In fact, Paczinski will have no shortage of dubious sources, including a fishy FBI agent, a Serbian spook, and “the Eavesdropper.”

Side starts out as a nifty old school noir that fully capitalizes on the faded glory of its Buffalo and Niagara Falls locales. However, viewers better hold on to their hats when wildly speculative Nikola Tesla schematics enter the picture. Holy death rays, Mike Hammer. It is so crazy, it kind of works.

Co-screenwriter Greg Stuhr has the right kind of nervy presence and caustic attitude for a hardnosed antihero like Paczynski. Alicja Bachleda (so terrific in Ondine) smolders up the lens as Nikki Meeker, the Tesla expert in distress. Matthew Broderick’s Borden Chase will be nobody’s idea of a sinister heavy, but as Emily Chase, Camilla Belle is a hot mess in the grand tradition of Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep. However, nobody can out-noir Robert Forster doing his thing as Whitmore, even when Robert Vaughn and Joe Grifasi (FX the movie) pop up in cameos.

Cinematographer Frank Barrera gives it all a suitably murky, noir glow, while David Shire (whose soundtrack for the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three remains a perennial collector favorite) reinforces the mood with his insinuating score. Like The Big Sleep referenced above, The American Side is a fun film, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense. Recommended for genre fans, it opens this Friday (4/29) in New York, at the IFC Center.

SFIFF ‘16: Radio Dreams

Pars Radio is sort of like a Farsi-language WKRP, but more existential. On most days, the esteemed literary-émigré program-director Hamid Royani has carte blanche to present the sort of elite broadcasts for the Bay Area Iranian-American community that interest him. However, this is not an ordinary day. Metallica will be coming to Pars to jam with the Afghan rock band Kabul Dreams, whose cause they have championed. The eccentric station owner’s business-minded daughter Maral refuses to let them squander this commercial opportunity. This inevitably leads to conflict in Babak Jalali’s Radio Dreams (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Yes, Metallica is coming, but their “people” were never very clear about when. That generates even more stress and uncertainty for the Pars staff. While there does seem like there is a Beckett-like “Waiting for Metallica” element to the film, it should be admitted up-front as a not very spoilery spoiler that the good sport Lars Ulrich does indeed show up in advance of the rest of the band and do right by the musicians of the real life Kabul Dreams. As a result, Radio Dreams might be the most commercial quietly observational Farsi dramedy since who knows when.

The real conflict in the film is the veritable fight for the station’s soul and financial health waged by Royani and Maral. He continues to program poetry, short story readings, and naval gazing essays in the worst tradition of NPR with perverse determination, while the latter would like to pay the bills. As everyone waits for the two bands to arrive, the Pars broadcasts seesaw between his low key classiness and the jarringly brash commercials paid for by her brand new sponsors.

Until the bands start to jam, the film is nearly as soft-spoken as one of Royani’s poetry recitals. However, he is an extraordinarily compelling figure to watch on screen. Played by Mohsen Namjoo (often referred to as “the Bob Dylan of Iran”), Royani radiates sad dignity. He has no problem with Metallica or Kabul Dreams, mind you, but interviewing the reigning Iranian American beauty queen clearly rubs him the wrong way.

As Maral, Boshra Dastournezhad goes toe-to-toe with Namjoo, never giving any ground. She certainly has presence and quite a withering stare. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the passive station personnel are largely overshadowed by the intensity of these two polar opposites. However, Ulrich could earn quite a few Farsi-speaking fans for Metallica with his energizing appearance.

Jalali’s approach might almost be too reserved for his own good, but the fatalistic vibe he nurtures is unusually distinctive. Indeed, it is an unflaggingly literate and gently ironic film. Recommended for patrons of Iranian diasporic cinema and the top one percent of Metallica fans, Radio Dreams screens this Thursday (4/28) and Friday (4/29), as part of this year’s SFIFF.

Tribeca ’16: Special Correspondents

Radio reporter Frank Bonneville and his engineer Ian Finch could be called the Jayson Blairs of radio, except they really intended to cover the uprising in Ecuador. Unfortunately, a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. It was all Finch’s fault, as it often is. In accordance with their journalistic ethics, they will just fake it as best they can in Ricky Gervais’s Netflix original Special Correspondents (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

After sleeping with the oblivious Bonneville, Finch’s preening wife Eleanor decides to give him the heave-ho. Frankly, it is probably the best thing that could happen to him, especially considering Claire Maddox the kind-hearted segment producer seems to be carrying a torch for him. The Ecuador assignment should be a convenient cooling-off period for Finch, but he rather inconveniently trashes their tickets and passports instead of his wildly ill-conceived letter to Eleanor.

With the borders closing imminently, Bonneville ensconce themselves in the spare room above their favorite coffee house and proceed to fake it so real, just like Edward R. Murrow would have done. When their “scoops” threaten to escalate the international incident, Bonneville and Finch are summoned to the embassy for their own protection. Of course, that is not going to happen, so they fake their abduction to cover for their absence. Then the stakes really start to rise when Eleanor Finch exploits the [fake] crisis as a means of establishing herself as a media celebrity.

Somehow Gervais (directing himself) maintains a level of mild amusement—light chuckles—consistently throughout Correspondents. There is funny stuff in there, but it is nothing like seeing the rat episode of Fawlty Towers for the first time.

As screenwriter, Gervais hits a nice tone, but he is not so well-informed when it comes to Latin America. Frankly, it is highly unlikely leftist guerrillas would revolt against the Correa regime. If a revolution broke out in the Cuban-Venezuelan-aligned nation (where the independence of the press and judiciary are routinely violated and thuggery is used to intimidate political rivals), it would be in the best interests of both the American people and the Ecuadorans to support the uprising, but our current administration would probably prefer to continue currying favor with the Castro regime.

Regardless, Gervais works overtime milking his likable sad sack shtick. However, it is Eric Bana who really gives the film some bite as Bonneville, the cocky prima donna. Vera Farmiga is ridiculously over-the-top as Eleanor Finch, but that is the whole point. Kevin Pollak also gets in a handful of sly line-deliveries as Bonnevilla’s less-than-impressed station manager.

Arguably, Correspondents is the perfect film to lead an almost entirely streaming life. It is diverting in the moment, but leaves nothing behind in the subconscious. More watchable than memorable, Special Correspondents launches on Netflix this Friday (4/29), following its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Obit

Clearly, this is an important documentary, because people were dying to be in it. That joke was promised on Twitter, so there it is. In all seriousness, obituary writing is a skill you have to admire, because you never know when the bell will toll for someone important. True, publications will have pre-written obituaries on file for people of a certain stature who have reached a certain age, but who would have thought to do that for Prince? Even more challenging and often more rewarding are the recently deceased who were not household names but still made a lasting mark on the world. Vanessa Gould observes the New York Times obituary staff at work and samples some of their pieces in Obit, which screened as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Loyal readers (who are probably dying off fast) all want their loved ones memorialized with a NYT obit, but very few make the cut. However, occasionally a call from family members pans out, like the late Jack Kinzler, who really did save Skylab. In a sense, these obituaries rescue the accomplished departed from obscurity, serving as time-capsule histories of their time and field of expertise.

Gould and the staff writers get into process, but not to tedious extent. Having been burned in the past, obituary writers have to get on-the-record confirmation for each passing and whenever possible the cause of death. The latter can be a little sticky at times, but readers will wonder if it is not there. When they are lucky, there are photos and perhaps even an advance obit in the so-called “morgue,” presided over by archivist Jeff Roth. Probably his greatest archival discovery was the advance for 1920s daredevil pilot Elinor Smith, who lived to the ripe old age of 98, even though editors doubted her luck would hold out during the height of her fame.

Gould and her subjects convincingly argue obituary writing is a life-affirming practice, which is cool. However, it would have given the film greater scope if she had incorporated obituary writers from different, perhaps more specialized publications. Believe it or not, The New York Times is not the only periodical publishing obits. Still, it is fascinating to listen to the many thumbnails of the obituary department’s greatest hits, like the tragically sweeping life of Anna Peters, a.k.a. Svetlana Alliluyeva [Stalin].

You have to wonder if the sudden deaths of popular figures like Prince, Chyna, and Papa Wemba are good or bad for a doc like Obit. Of course they can never schedule screenings around death, because it is always with us. Somehow Gould maintains both a sensitive tone and a breezy pace throughout the film. Recommended as a tip-of-the-hat to an under-sung field of journalism, Obit premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, with screenings to follow on 5/2, 5/3, 5/7, and 5/8 at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

SFIFF ’16: Very Big Shot

We all realize there is no shortage of narcotics in Hollywood, but the Lebanese film business is a different matter. Yet, the film Ziad is producing would not exist without illicit drugs. Technically, it still doesn’t exist, strictly speaking, but a lot of people will get worked up over it. It is all about those cans of film that get waved through customs unopened in Mir-Jen Bou Chaaya’s Very Big Shot (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

At Ziad’s pizzeria, the “special” comes with a bonus topping on the side: cocaine. He is the oldest of three brothers and also the most ambitious and temperamental. When Ziad accidently caps a rival in a drug-related scuffle, the youngest brother Jad takes the fall, knowing he will get a shorter sentence as a minor. When he is released, Ziad has a surprise for him: a major shipment of designer amphetamines. He was supposed to deliver them to his contact in Syria, who was then supposed to eliminate Ziad, but the pizza baker rather violently side-stepped the trap. Naturally, he took their shipment for his troubles—and no, this will not sit well with his former employers.

Regardless, Ziad and Jad are determined to make a big score. They just need to get the pills out of the country. Inspiration arrives from the unlikeliest source: Charbel, a deadbeat customer who fancies himself an independent filmmaker. In Charbel’s current documentary, Georges Nasser (the first Lebanese filmmaker accepted at the Cannes Film Festival and a consultant on VBS) explains how an Italian movie crew once tried to smuggle drugs out of Lebanon in film canisters. They just attracted suspicion because they were never seen shooting any film. Ziad will not repeat that mistake.

Bou Chaaya and co-writer-co-star Alain Saadeh start with a solid, potentially madcap premise, but they bury it under awkward tonal shifts and what feel-like local in-jokes that can’t possibly be expected to travel. Subplots, like middle brother Joe’s affair with Charbel’s pretty actress-wife Alia wither on the vine. It also seems like the Lebanese mafia is unusually patient when a significant drug shipment goes astray.

Still, there is no question Saadeh has real starpower and impressive range. As Ziad, he turns on a dime from gritty action scenes to deadpan comedy. It would not be surprising if he started popping up in French films, given VBS’s already considerable festival play. Alexandra Kahwagi is also terrifically tart and droll as Alia. Wissam Fares and Tarek Yaacoub are both fine as Jad and Joe, but the latter really gets lost in the shuffle.

VBS is inconsistent in almost all respects, but it has been a hit throughout the region, so it seems like an early favorite for Lebanon to submit to the Academy Awards. There is also something intriguing about its rough edges and erratic demeanor. Mostly recommended for those who follow Middle Eastern cinema, Very Big Shot screens again this coming Friday (4/29) and Sunday (5/1), as part of the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Tribeca ’16: A Hologram for the King

Any country that prohibits the consumption of alcohol is a terrible place for a mid-life crisis. Most inconveniently, Alan Clay finds himself in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as his personal life and finances reach their nadir. He has one last chance to make a career-saving sale in Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King (trailer here), which is now playing in New York after screening as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

How did the desperate-looking Clay get assigned the KSA account? He once cracked a joke that made one of the dozens of Saudi princes laugh. It is not much, but his company is looking to play any angle. They need the King to buy their holographic tele-conferencing software or face shareholder wrath. Unfortunately, Clay does not encounter the same sense of urgency when he finally arrives in Jeddah.

For the severely jet-lagged Clay, just getting to King Abdullah Economic City (KEAC) will be a challenge. Constantly over-sleeping the shuttle, Clay must repeatedly book Yousef as his private driver and the film’s comic relief. Once on-site, he quickly realizes his software pitch has been back-burnered. Nothing can happen without the King, who is constantly traveling abroad.

Clay’s team will also need better connectivity to make their pitch but they are being unceremoniously quartered in a stifling hot tent. The only staffer who will talk to him in the main building is Hanne, a Danish contractor who can at least hook him up with some contraband booze. To make matters worse, the suspicious growth on his back seems to get worse. However, his luck might finally change when he is examined by Dr. Zahra Hakem, one of the few women doctors in the KSA.

Seriously, it is hard to believe Dr. Hakem would ever treat a male westerner in a country where women are not allowed to drive (as the film duly depicts), but it allows a rather appealing romance to develop between the doctor and her patient. In fact, Tykwer’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers source novel readily acknowledges the severe theocratic regulations and the frequent public executions as a fact of Saudi life. However, it seems to reserve its outrage, since there are apparently work-arounds available for western expats. That is all well and fine for booze, but being LGBT in the KSA is still a dangerous proposition.

In fact, we get a sense of this intolerance when Clay starts his unlikely courtship of Dr. Hakem. Evidently, they can only steal a kiss while snorkeling along the sea floor. In terms of economic and geo-political concerns, the film clearly argues China is a far more sinister threat to the West, which is admittedly tough to argue with.

Tom Hanks does his Tom Hanks thing as Clay, but in this case his everyman is a bit more depressed and self-indicting. The halting romantic chemistry he develops with the charismatic Sarita Choudhury is quite engaging and quite convincingly played from a rational emotional perspective. (Again, it is hard to believe things could ever get so far in the opened-minded KSA, but why let reality stand in the way of a nice movie subplot?) On the other hand, Sidse Babett Knudsen (also seen in the first-rate Courted) is criminally under-employed as Hanne.

Arguably, Hologram invests greater symbolic significance in a cyst than any film since Richard E. Grant went nuts in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Don’t worry, this one doesn’t talk. Strangely, Tykwer manages to humanize our friends the Saudis to a remarkable extent, even though the film will absolutely discourage viewers from visiting. Not essential by any means, A Hologram for the King is modestly recommended for those looking for a rom-com with mature adults, which are few and far between. It is now open in New York at the Lincoln Plaza, following its screenings during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’16: Elvis & Nixon

Generations of Americans grew up with the reassuring presences of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. You can’t get much more iconic than blue suede shoes, the swiveling hips not on The Ed Sullivan Show, Checkers the Dog, and the Pumpkin Papers. It turns out the two men had more in common than the general public generally assumed. Liza Johnson gives the famous late December 1970 summit meeting a thinly fictionalized treatment in Elvis & Nixon (trailer here), which is now playing in New York after screening as the centerpiece of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

In late 1970, Presley was already a regular fixture in Vegas, but it would be eighteen months before he cut his milestone cover of “Always On My Mind.” The Gospel-singing man from Memphis has had enough of the hippies, New Left agitators, and Black Panthers he sees on television. After shooting out the TV (because he’s Elvis), he decides to fly to DC in order to meet with Pres. Nixon. The King has a half-baked notion of becoming a “Federal Agent At-Large,” not that such a thing exists.

To fulfill his mission, Presley slips out from under the Colonel’s thumb, calling on his old friend and former Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling to coordinate the logistics. Of course, even in 1970, nobody could just walk into the Oval Office, but Elvis Presley could get closer than most. He finds a key ally in Egil Krogh, the White House policy specialist on narcotics, who not so realistically envisions the King serving as a powerful spokesman for the administration’s anti-drug campaign.

Elvis & Nixon is a surprisingly gentle and nostalgic film that truly forgives the foibles of its subjects. Johnson and the trio of screenwriters, Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and actor Cary Elwes, zero in on the common ground shared by the two Horatio Alger figures. Frankly, it is downright shocking (in a good way), how steadfastly the film resists taking pot shots at the Nixon administration figures.

Although not an obvious candidate, Michael Shannon turns out to be an inspired choice for Presley. Granted, he hardly has that resonate baritone voice, but he can do Presley’s aura and bearing without resorting to shtick. He powerfully conveys both the pride and regrets of the man they still call “King.” As an added bonus, he shares some quietly effective scenes with Alex Pettyfer’s Schilling. On the other hand, it is harder for Kevin Spacey to avoid sliding into impersonation terrain as our beloved and reviled 37th President. At least his Nixonisms never feel vindictive or cheap.

Watching the eccentrically simpatico chemistry shared by Shannon and Spacey will make viewers regret the famous 1970 meeting was a one-off. You can almost see Presley and Nixon being the sort of friends they really needed, because unlike Bebe Rebozo and the Memphis Mafia, each was completely separate from the other’s world. Regardless, it is strangely entertaining to watch the two legends eat M&Ms and drink Dr. Pepper together. Recommended rather affectionately, Elvis & Nixon is now playing in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Bow Tie Chelsea, closely following its centerpiece screenings at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.