Saturday, May 31, 2014

BRAFF NY ’14: City of God—10 Years Later

It was a big deal in Brazil when Fernando Meirelles was nominated for best director, but Katia Lund never got her Oscar props, because the Academy has issues with the “co-director” credit. However, this is strictly a management controversy. It is the hopes and unrealized dreams of the favela kids who appeared in their art-house smash that concern Cavi Borges & Luciano Vidigal, who document fates of the cast’s winners and losers in City of God—10 Years Later (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Brazilian Film Festival in New York.

Many of the nonprofessionals who appeared in City of God hoped it would be their golden ticket out of the favela. Not surprisingly, they were not particularly sophisticated when it came to negotiating back-end deals, but they did not have a lot of leverage in the process. Clearly, Meirelles did quite well for himself, but not a lot of the money trickled down. Hollywood would certainly approve.

Still, the television series and subsequent follow-up film, both titled City of Men provided steady work for many ensemble players. Nonetheless, Borges & Vidigal clearly suggest there is something rather arbitrary about the distribution of post-release success. Of course, it is pretty clear why Alice Braga advanced to a Hollywood career in films like I Am Legend, despite her limited screen time. Yet, it is harder to explain why some cast-members caught on and others did not.

If nothing else, 10 Years certainly re-establishes life is not fair. They bring this point home dramatically when they capture the reunion between Seu Jorge and the “kid who was shot in the foot,” who now works as a bellhop in the luxury hotel the actor-singer often patronizes. Ironically, he was offered a fair amount of work as a child actor during the immediate aftermath of City, but dropped out of the business due to family issues.

While Braga and Seu Jorge are each featured in their own segments, the absence of Lund and particularly Meirelles is conspicuous. Whether it is just or not, viewers are left with the impression he was something of an exploiter, but that gives 10 Years an edge and a point-of-view. As a result, it is hard to dismiss the film as a mere “DVD extra.”

As a sobering look behind the scenes of the Brazilian film industry, 10 Years demonstrates how good intentions can sometimes lead to unrealistic expectations. Even so, there is no question it will resonate more deeply with viewers who have substantially invested in the franchise. Surprisingly pointed but still not essential for general audiences, City of God—10 Years Later screens this coming Wednesday (6/4) and Friday (6/6) as part of this year’s Brazilian Film Festival in New York at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Friday, May 30, 2014

BRAFF NY ’14: The Invisible Collection

It was hyperinflation that laid once noble Saxon families low in Stefan Zweig’s short story. In Bernard Attal’s Brazilian adaptation, it is a fungal pestilence known as the “Witches Broom” that has ravaged plantations in Bahia. Yet collectors still collect, obsessively. A young art dealer will seek the rare prints his father sold to an eccentric customer, but the old man’s family will have none of him in Attal’s The Invisible Collection (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Brazilian Film Festival in New York.

In a departure from Zweig, Beto is a former DJ, whose high flying party world came crashing down when an SUV full of his closest friends died in a traffic accident. As a strange attempt to rouse her deflated son, Dona Iolanda suddenly reveals the precarious state of their finances. Yet, it sort of works, especially when an old colleague drops by with word an American curator will pay top dollar for a formerly obscure artist’s work. It turns out his father sold several such pieces to Samir Loedy, an eccentric cocoa plantation owner in Itajuípe.

Having faith in his charm, Beto sets out to reacquire the prints and flip them to the American, but Loedy’s wife Dona Clara and daughter Saada are not taken in. A game of wits ensues, as Beto struggles to make contact with Don Samir, scrambling to evade the strong, forceful women of the plantation.

Considering the original source material is a brief O. Henryesque tale, Attal’s feature treatment (co-written with Sérgio Machado and Iziane Mascarenhas) nicely expands and Brazilianizes the story in ways that feel natural and logical. Even though it sounds like a cliché on paper, the halting attraction between the urban hipster and the earthy, gun-toting Saada is particularly well turned by Vladimir Brichta and Ludmila Rosa, respectively.

Frankly, Brichta is a bit of a bland playboy in his scenes without Rosa, but he is evidently quite the thing with teenage Brazilian girls, so here he is. As Dona Clara, Clarisse Abujamra brings real grace and dignity to the film, while Walmor Chagas deftly avoids overplaying the blind and somewhat muddled Loedy. Still, we really did not need the plucky shanty kid who appoints himself Beto’s personal tour guide (that is one overused convention Attal and company are not able to appreciably freshen up).

Attal, the French transplant, has documented the very real Witches Broom outbreak in a previous film, so he is highly attuned to its devastating effects. As a result, he strikingly captures the beauty and the blight of the Bahia region. Still, the vibe is not radically different from that of Zweig (who took his own life while living as a political émigré in Brazil).

Attal’s take also comes amid the blossoming of a mini-cinematic renaissance for Zweig’s work. In addition to Patrice Leconte’s faithful but bloodless adaptation of A Promise, Zweig’s oeuvre was an inspiration for the Grand Budapest Hotel. More than a footnote to this trend, Attal’s Collection is a rather thoughtful blend of old and new world sensibilities. Recommended for literate audiences, The Invisible Collection screens this coming Tuesday (6/2) and next Friday (6/6) as part of this year’s Brazilian Film Festival in New York.

DWF ’14: The Curse of Styria

The Austrian state of Styria was once home to jazz musician Wolfgang Muthspiel and disappointing former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was also where the vampire Carmilla Karnstein haunted her victims in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic classic. The fictional Communist era Hungarian hamlet of Styria will also fall prey the undead seductress. It is a shift that works rather well, adding an additional layer of menace to Mauricio Chernovetzky & Mark Devendorf’s The Curse of Styria (trailer here), which screens during the seventeenth edition of Dances With Films.

Something terrible happened to Laura Hill’s’ mother at an early age, but her art historian father refuses to speak of it. It is just her and him now, but he is mostly wrapped up in his work. Dr. Hill has dragged her to a remote Hungarian castle to remove a series of culturally significant murals. However, the clock is ticking. As a symbol of class exploitation and imperialism, the government will soon demolish the creaky old fortress, regardless of what national treasures it might contain. As Dr. Hill races to finish his work, his government liaison, General Spiegel, regularly drops by to be unhelpful and intimidating.

One day, Mme. Hill witnesses a young woman flee Spiegel’s custody, following a car accident and an altercation. That would be Carmilla. She will also start visiting the castle frequently, but only at night. Initially, Lara is delighted to have a companion, but Carmilla exerts an unhealthy influence over her, physically and mentally. There seems to be a lot of that going around, given the recent wave of suicides amongst Styria’s teenage girls.

Unlike previous adaptations, Styria does not leeringly exploit Carmilla’s lesbian overtones. Instead, Chernovetzky & Devendorf concentrate first and foremost on atmosphere, which is not such a bad strategy for a supernatural film. The late 1980s Communist setting also heightens the foreboding vibe. Granted, they could have just moved the story a few feet over the Slovenian border, but that might have complicated the viewing experience with inadvertent Balkan baggage.

Polish actor Jacek Lenartowicz (seen briefly in Wajda’s masterwork, Katyn) is gleefully evil as Spiegel, clearly portraying a self-aware agent of oppression, who realizes his time may soon be up. Always reliable, Stephen Rea is consistently credible as the concerned but deeply flawed father, especially compared to the sort of clueless parents typically encountered in horror movies. Unfortunately, Eleanor Tomlinson is a bit colorless as Laura Hill, but it is easy to believe her self-destructive slightly goth-ish teen would be highly susceptible to Carmilla’s supernatural overtures. Likewise, Julia Pietrucha is certainly no Ingrid Pitt, but she conveys a respectable air of danger.

In truth, Styria is better described as a gothic film than a horror or vampire movie. Grzegorz Bartoszewicz’s cinematography is appropriately moody. Likewise, the evocative work of production designer Jim Dow and art director Ian Dow is somewhat in the Hammer period tradition, but more austere. Smarter and more refined than most genre films, but bloodier than BBC productions of Wilkie Collins, The Curse of Styria is recommended for literate vampire fans when it screens Sunday night (6/1) at this year’s Dances With Films.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dances With Films ’14: Karaganda (short)

If you want to know why Russia held the Winter Olympics in a town without snow and spent so much money on sub-standard construction, you might ask the Ganavim ba Hok or Thieves By Law, but that probably would not be a good idea. They survived the Czars and would survive the Communists, often plying their criminal trades behind bars. Given their power, one Jewish gulag prisoner is convinced joining the “Vors” represents his best chance to save his wife in Max Weissberg’s short film Karaganda (trailer here), which screens during the seventeenth edition of Dances With Films.

During Stalin’s reign of terror, approximately 18 million Soviet citizens were condemned to the gulag system of prison work camps. Like Siberia, Kazakhstan was a prime location, because of its harsh climate and forbidding landscape. Smuggler Vladimir Bershstein has been sentenced to such a gulag somewhere in the vicinity of Karaganda, but it might as well be the dark side of the moon. At least he is not a political prisoner, like work detail partner Aleksei, but his Jewish heritage is nearly as reviled. Yet, knowing his wife Elena was also condemned to a women’s camp not far from his own, torments Bershstein even more than his Soviet jailers.

In spite of Aleksei’s warnings, Bershstein is convinced he can only save Elena by earning an invitation to join the so-called Vors. Of course, it is easier said than done. After all, the guards themselves are afraid to cross the heavily tattooed gang, for good reason. To be considered for membership, Bershstein will need a killing to his name, but that will be the easy part.

The Thieves By Law are definitely a scary bunch, but Weissberg does not let the Soviets off the hook either. What comes to pass in Karaganda is truly Russian style tragedy, portending future repercussions that could be explored in a future feature length version. Still, in just under half an hour, Weissberg covers more plot than a lot of slow cinema indulgences, without skimping on characterization or atmosphere.

He also has the benefit of a strong cast and crew. As the intense Bershstein, Konstantin Lavysh is clearly a gold medal contender for brooding. While his character is more outgoing, Nikita Bogolyubov really centers the film as the decent but somewhat unpredictable Aleksei. Both have strong presences that never wilt under the existential weight of Terrence Laron Burke’s striking black-and-white cinematography and the bleak, forbidding backdrops.

There is more ambitious filmmaking in Karaganda than a festival full of precious navel-gazing indies. Recommended both as a self-contained film and as the start of a potential saga, Karaganda screens this Saturday (5/31) as part of Competition Shorts Group 2 at this year’s Dances With Films.

Hornet’s Nest: With the No Slack Troops in Afghanistan

He was known as QZR—was known. Now the Taliban militant is simply the late Qari Ziaur Rahman. The civilized world can thank the troops of the No Slack Battalion 2/327 and their 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment Marine Regiment and 3BCT “Rakkasan” Airborne colleagues. Embedded journalists Mike Boettcher and his son Carlos followed the No Slack Task Force on a series of dangerous missions, culminating with a strike against Rahman on his home turf. Shot by the Boettchers, the action is as real as it gets in David Salzberg & Christian Tureaud’s The Hornet’s Nest (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Credited as producers and cinematographers, the Boettchers were deeply embedded with the No Slack troops, very much in the line of Taliban fire. A veteran war correspondent, Mike Boettcher had done this sort of thing before, serving as a fulltime embed for Nightline. This was Carlos Boettcher’s first time covering a war zone, but his father reluctantly agreed to let him share his assignment. Despite his concern, he hoped the same forces that bound the troops together would help repair their somewhat estranged relationship.

It probably is not much of a spoiler to report that much proceeded as planned. The real point to Nest is the footage they jointly recorded, which is absolutely incredible. Remarkable for their clarity of sound and visuals, Nest’s warfighting incidents are even more intense and far easier to follow than anything seen in Junger’s Korengal films or Brothers at War and Severe Clear, documenting the Iraq War experience. At times, Salzberg & Tureaud are able to shift between each embed’s footage for multiple vantage points on the chaotic battles.

Frankly, Nest probably realizes the worst fears of several Columbia School of Journalism faculty members regarding embedded reporters. While the senior Emmy winning Boettcher scrupulously avoids political judgments, he makes no secret of his deep emotional involvement in the events he covers. It is easy to understand why, because the audience sees what he sees. It is tough to stay neutral watching Afghan children fall victim to IEDs or medivac helicopters take fire from Taliban forces, but the Boettchers witness it all in the heat and smoke of real-time war.

For obvious reasons, Nest has followed an unconventional distribution strategy, releasing in markets with large military populations before its New York run. As it happens, it opens here the same day as Junger’s Korengal. Both films are well worth seeing, but Nest is in fact the more powerful of the two. No other contemporary war doc so eerily captures the whistling sound of bullets whizzing overhead and when No Slack soldiers mourn their fallen brothers, Nest packs a greater punch to the emotional solar plexus. Very highly recommended, The Hornet’s Nest opens tomorrow (5/30) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7 theaters.

BRAFF NY ’14: Casimiro Effect (short)

They appreciate an excuse to party in Brazil, especially when it comes hot on the heels of the military regime’s fall from power. First contact would certainly fit the bill. Clarice Saliby chronicles the would-have been close encounter that turned into a gathering in the short documentary, The Casimiro Effect (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Brazilian Film Festival in New York.

After years of military authority, the Brazilian media apparently threw out their filters and ran any story that caught their fancy. As a result, a rather rustic gentleman in Casimiro de Abreu got tremendous pick-ups claiming his was the aliens’ advance man. Supposedly, they were coming to Casimiro at an appointed hour. He could even predict some cosmic activity, claiming it was alien reconnoitering.

So what happened? Every Brazilian with a guitar packed up their VW van and headed to Casimiro. Obviously, the aliens never came but it was a heck of a party. Saliby tracks some of the leading witnesses of the party-slash-hoax, who try to keep the extraterrestrial dream alive, but give us a break. Who needs aliens if you have good music?

Even if it takes itself a tad too seriously, Effect is entertaining time capsule, capturing a moment in Brazilian history when hope and joie de vivre were looking for any old outlet. The alien mythology will also interest genre diehards, adding another incident to their grand conspiracy theories. Recommended for fans of UFO Hunters and wild parties in general, The Casimiro Effect screens this coming Monday (6/2), before the feature The Invisible Collection, at the Tribeca Cinemas, as part of this year’s Brazilian Film Festival in New York.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

DWF ’14: Skum Rocks

If anyone is entitled to laugh at the garage metal band Skum, it is Alice Cooper. He participated in even crazier shenanigans during the early stages of his career, yet he made it to the top and stayed on top. Fittingly, he serves as the subtly acerbic narrator for their shoulda-coulda story. A group of William & Mary soccer players very well might have formed an appallingly untalented hard rock band, but when Clay Westervelt brought them together for a reunion, they kept their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. The emphasis is on mock and rock when Westervelt’s Skum Rocks (trailer here) screens as a legit doc at the 17th annual Dances With Films in Hollywood, USA.

Skum were almost profiled on Behind the Music style program for “Disaster Bands,” but they turned out to be too disastrous. Nonetheless, Westervelt and a pick-up crew kept following the story. Founding members Hart Baur, Todd Mittlebrook, and Scott Bell had no musical aptitude, but they did not let that dissuade them. Eventually, they recruited some band-members with genuine chops, but quickly fired them when they provided too much competition for their admiring lady fans. Somehow they built up a cult reputation in Miami after graduation, partly because of their success in battle-of-the-bands. Again, this was not due to talent, but the extra credit Baur (now a high school teacher) offered his classes.

Even though they never really made it, Skum lived the rock & roll lifestyle to the fullest, leaving everyone who ever tried to do business with them reeling in bankruptcy. Like an inadvertent Max Bialystock, they oversold shares of their long promised debut album, but fortunately their sole masters were stolen under appropriately bizarre circumstances. That temporarily spelled the end of Skum—and the music industry was grateful. Oh, but there has to be a comeback.

While not Spinal Tap or the real life Super Duper Alice Cooper, Skum Rocks is still pretty funny stuff. It hits all the rockumentary bases, including the band’s revolving door for drummers and one member’s pornstar obsession. Sure, they are “playing themselves,” but the dudes from Skum nail the aging un-self-aware hedonist rocker vibe, particularly Baur and John Eaton. Of course, Cooper sells it perfectly with his stranger-than-fiction voiceovers. Following Super Duper, Supermensch, and An Honest Liar, Skum Rocks represents the fourth “documentary” he appears in this year. It is quite a body of work that makes for entertaining binge viewing.

Whether hand-on-the-Bible true or somewhat enhanced, Skum Rocks is a lot of mischievous fun, which nobody should take too seriously regardless. At least the rock & roll attitude is certainly genuine. Recommended for Skum fans and those who appreciate their milieu, Skum Rocks screens this Friday (5/30) during the 2014 Dances With Films.

Elena: Sister Remembers Sister

The timing is eerie, yet perhaps providential. It is hard not to be reminded of the recent death of Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjellou when walking into Petra Costa’s cinematic elegy to her older sister, who tragically took her own life in 1990. While Bendjellou’s recent success makes his death is particularly shocking to outsiders, Costa’s sister and mother were to some extent consciously battling the darker forces within her psyche. Nobody can ever really understand what happens in someone else’s head, but Petra Costa will try nonetheless throughout her impressionistic documentary, Elena (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

As the daughter of leftist revolutionaries, Elena Costa’s early years were rootless and secretive. Perhaps coming to New York City to pursue an acting career represented a form of rebellion against her rebellious parents. Unfortunately, despite the support of her family and new friends in the City, Costa was not able to make it here. Eventually, Costa’s mother and her younger sister joined her in New York, but they were not able to dispel whatever ghosts haunted her.

Clearly, none of the Costas have finished processing their grief. Yet, Petra Costa follows in her sister’s footsteps, returning to New York to study acting. Of course, she is highly attuned to the parallels between their lives. Indeed, she is almost obsessed with them.

Essentially, Elena can be divided into two nearly equal segments. Throughout the first half, Costa tries to recreate her sister through the audition videos, home movies, and audio tapes sent home in lieu of letters. It is quite remarkable how well documented her tragically short life was, at a time when cell phones had yet to become a ubiquitous presence in daily life (and might have facilitated communication at vital junctures had they been available). It is a deeply compelling expression of guilt and mourning.

However, Elena the film loses some of it power, as well as a measure of its visual luster, when it segues into an examination of the filmmaker’s personal sense of bereavement. Although viewers are supposed to get metaphorically lost in the distinction between the sisters, it never really happens on a practical level.

For the most part, Elena is quite a carefully composed film. It also has an important de-stigmatizing message regarding the perils of depression, particularly for those with artistic sensibilities. Earnest and unexpectedly ambitious, Elena should not be dismissed as navel-gazing, but it remains undeniably uneven. Recommended for those who appreciate deeply personal cinema, Elena opens this Friday (5/30) in New York at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Feeding Mr. Baldwin: In the Doghouse

It’s like Weekend at Bernie’s, but with more self-help and dismemberment. An earnest sad sack is determined to make a good impression house-sitting for a success guru, but the parade of unwelcome visitors threatens to sabotage his ambitions. The dead bodies probably will not help either in writer-director Will Prescott’s Feeding Mr. Baldwin (trailer here), which launches today on VOD.

Lance Bryant wrote the book on success and Drew Delaney read every word. If the house-sitting goes well, he might have a chance to join “Team Lance” in a more permanent capacity. How hard can that be?  After all, his most demanding duty should be feeding Bryant’s bulldog, Mr. Baldwin. Then a mysterious crate arrives, which Mr. Baldwin starts chewing on, revealing a dead body inside.

In a state of panic, Delaney tries to dispose of the corpse, finding further misadventures in the process. Suddenly, all sorts of shady characters start dropping by, assuming Delaney is Bryant. His only potential ally is Kamal, an estranged school chum who happens to come calling for his door-to-door knife salesmen gig. (Foreshowing? Maybe so.)

At least Mr. Baldwin is low maintenance. In fact, Prescott largely squanders the cinematic possibilities of a very chill bulldog. Instead, he tries to mine comedy from some distinctly unfunny subjects, especially human trafficking. There are also a lot of gory gags that we have essentially seen before. Frankly, the only material that consistently lands involves Bryant’s success gospel, delivered with appropriately hammy conviction by Christopher B. Duncan.

The rest of Prescott’s cast of comedy troupe veterans can turn a snappy bit of dialogue, but they are hamstrung by the tonal inconsistencies. For some reason, Feeding is determined to find ways to be sentimental, despite the bloody bedlam. Dalton Leeb plugs away as the plugger Delaney, but Anil Margsahayam often looks bored to be there as Kamal, the reluctant accomplice.

Without an inspired Macguffin, it is hard to really stand out for midnight movie fans. Feeding plays every card in its hand, but it never comes together. Undoubtedly best seen with at a loud late night screening, Feeding Mr. Baldwin is now available on demand, from Devolver Digital Films.

Gebo and the Shadow: The Latest from Manoel de Oliveira

Reportedly, Raul Brandão’s 1923 play was a strong influence on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but it will strike most contemporary viewers as being downright Dickensian. Regardless, probably no filmmaker is better suited to adapt it for the screen than 104 year old Manoel de Oliveira. He was around when it premiered and has seen its critical reputation evolve over time. The dean of world cinema continues to polish his craft with Gebo and the Shadow (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the Anthology Film Archives.

This is the part of the review where we all marvel at Oliveira’s productivity and longevity. Pushing 105, Oliveira has multiple projects in development and at this point there is no reason to doubt he will see them through. Given the exquisite elegance of The Strange Case of Angélica (which hit theaters when Oliveira was the tender age of 102), we can also expect them to be quite good. While Shadow is a relatively minor work, it clearly shows the hallmarks of a master at work.

Old Gebo should be retired by now, but he labors on as a debt-collecting clerk for his callous employers. He has no choice. Gebo is the sole support of his beloved wife Doroteia and daughter-in-law Sofia, since his son João absconded eight years ago, under ominous circumstances. Gebo struggles to preserve the illusion João might someday return to protect Doroteia’s fragile psyche. Yet, he fears their son’s homecoming might lead to more harm than good, should it actually come to pass. Unlike Godot, the prodigal (the metaphoric shadow of the title) will indeed suddenly darken Gebo’s door at the end of the first act.

Shadow’s theatrical roots are highly conspicuous, but Oliveira tries to make a virtue of its staginess—for understandable reasons. He might be 104, but Micheal Lonsdale looks at least that old as the much abused Gebo. It is a striking performance, marked by palpable physical exhaustion and acute world weariness. Yet, it is his tender moments with Leonor Silveira as the sensitive Sofia that really give the film its soul. Claudia Cardinale is perfectly fine as the high strung Doroteia, but it is not a great showcase role. For further art house appeal, Jeanne Moreau makes her presence deeply felt when appearing briefly as the mystical neighbor, Candidinha, like the veteran screen diva she is. In contrast, Ricardo Trêpa is rather stiff and shrill as Dostoyevskian João.

Oliveira and cinematographer Renato Berta absolutely love the soft, smoky light given off by the era’s oil lamps. The entire film glows like the chiaroscuro of the Old Masters. At times, Oliveira tries to enhance the mystery surrounding João, the shadow, but he still maintains an overriding mood of melancholy. Despite the big name international cast, Shadow is a small film in the grand scheme of cinema history, but it certainly demonstrates Oliveira can still do his thing. Respectfully recommended for those who appreciate chamber dramas, Gebo and the Shadow opens tomorrow (5/28) in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Korengal: Revisiting Camp Restrepo

Stationed in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley dubbed Camp Restrepo (in honor of a late, beloved medic), the men of the Airborne Brigade’s Battle Company, 2/503 were supposed to be the tip of the spear for the American military in Afghanistan. However, in 2010, the administration decided the spear no longer needed a tip and closed all the American outposts in the deadly Korengal. Through new interviews and previously unseen footage, Sebastian Junger revisits the men featured in his Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo, analyzing the impact of war on those who fight it in Korengal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Tragically, Junger completed Korengal without his late partner Tim Hetherington, who shot his share of the footage and served as co-director of Restrepo and the subject of Junger’s elegiac tribute documentary, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? In fact, they had always planned a more reflective companion film to Restrepo that would allow audiences to become better acquainted with the men of Battle Company.

So now that Restrepo has been decommissioned, do they miss it? More than you might think. War can be shocking and profoundly unfair, as Junger’s first film with Hetherington documents, but it can also be bracing. Nothing clears the head like a morning fire fight, especially for the athletically inclined. (In a rueful aside, one Airborne infantryman casually observes the Korengal mountain ridge would be “sports paradise” were it not for all the warfare going on.)

However, Junger will not allow ideological viewers to conveniently dismiss the men as adrenaline junkies. That might play a part in their adaptation to the harsh duty conditions, but the men form a strong camaraderie with one another and consciously shield their loved ones from the realities of their service as best they can. They also develop unromanticized opinions of the assorted clan leaders operating within the Korengal. Frankly, they probably have a much better understanding of the country than their current civilian leadership (not that that is a particularly high standard to surpass). Indeed, they sound remarkably grounded, all things considered, despite all they have witnessed.

It is very clear why Junger made his Afghanistan films, including Front Line. They vividly capture the soldiering experience, very definitely including the sudden loss of a brother-in-arms. However, it is fair to wonder what was the purpose of the events they documented, if the strategy can be reversed at the drop of a hat? To Junger’s credit (and Hetherington’s too), the films scrupulously avoid politics, but once the house lights come back up, we exit into a political world.

Always fair to the men who appear in it, Korengal covers the full gamut of human emotions, while opening a window into one of the least forgiving corners of the world. Recommended for general audiences (who are celebrating Memorial Day today), perhaps even more highly than Restrepo, Korengal opens this Friday (5/30) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: America’s Most Famous Jewel Thief

To be a jewel thief, you have to talk the talk and walk the walk. Even though Doris Payne was born into a life of poverty and segregation, she never had trouble passing for an elegant society lady. Criminals also have a saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time. She takes issue with that one. Nonetheless, she finds herself on trial facing a de facto life sentence in Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina’s The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Doris Payne has been doing this for sixty years. It is easy to forgive, or even applaud her first score, perpetrated solely to finance her mother’s escape from her abusive father. Initially, she capitalized on the “invisibility” of an African American woman from clerks eager to wait on presumably more affluent customers. However, she soon adopted the role a woman of means and position, literally taking her act global.

Some of Payne’s exploits would sound fanciful if she did not have the arrest records to prove them. She has seen the insides of many a prison cell in several countries, but somehow providence always intervened. Unfortunately, providence seems to be running late at her current trial.

Frankly, there is a bit of a disconnect between the heists Payne gleefully describes and her protestations of innocence this time around. Essentially, she falls back on snobbery as a defense, claiming she would never steal from such a gauche store as Macy’s. Yet, from time to time, Pond & Marcolina catch her playing them. As charming and innocent looking as Payne might be, viewers will eventually understand the truth is a movable goalpost for her.

Arguably, Pond & Marcolina could have and should have challenged her more in their interview segments, but it is clear they preferred to print the legend, for good reason. There is something very appealing about Payne, the international woman of mystery, romancing Damon Runyonesque accomplices and evading the Swiss police (all of which is true). We want to enjoy her adventures, investing them with the spirit of a racially conscious Raffles, so it is hard to fault the filmmakers for not following up with the various sales associates who might have been fired or the smaller stores that might have been shuttered due to increased premiums and loss of valuable inventory. Nonetheless, the absence of such deeper digging is conspicuous.

Still, by doc standards, Life and Crimes is unusually entertaining, even when Payne’s sociopathic tendencies peak through. Pond & Marcolina keep the pace brisk, getting a nice assist from Mark Rivett’s retro-groovy score. When its over, audiences will definitely keep their hands firmly on their wallets as the file out of the theater. Recommended for fans of true crime and too-true-to-believe documentaries, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne opens this Wednesday (5/28) at Film Forum.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

D-Day 360: PBS Commemorates the 70th Anniversary

D-Day would be a scandal today. A battle that cost the lives of 2,499 American soldiers would result in a paroxysm of disingenuous media outrage. Gen. Bradley would be called in front of a Senate committee. MSNBC would want to know what did FDR know and when did he know it. Errol Morris would make a documentary inviting Eisenhower to offer a tearful mea culpa—and the war in question would drag on even longer. Viewers will learn the surprisingly stark arithmetic of the Normandy Invasion in D-Day 360, directed by Ian Duncan, which airs this Tuesday as part of PBS’s special programming marking the Seventieth anniversary of the Longest Day (promo here).

Most everyone has a Saving Private Ryan understanding of how bloody and chaotic it was on the Normandy beaches. However, the first fifteen minutes of 360 will be a revelation to many. Far from proceeding according to plan, the initial hours of the invasion were an unqualified disaster. The statistics speak for themselves. Despite the barrage of ordinance expended to soften up the coastal defenses, the exact number of Germans killed and obstacles destroyed equaled exactly zero. The beaches became the killing fields intended by the architect of Germany’s coastal defense system: Erwin Rommel.

How did the Allies carry the day? They just kept throwing wave after wave of soldiers on those mine and corpse filled beaches. It was a brutal business. Through computer imaging, 360 gives viewers a sense of what the battlefield looked like and the destructive power of the German defenses. For human interest, 360 also follows the respective fates of two GI brothers, Ray and Roy Stevens, from Bedford, Virginia, the town with the highest per capita American fatalities on D-Day.

At times, 360 has wonky preoccupation with numbers, a techy fascination with technology, and a touchy feely concern for the fate of the so-called Bedford Boys. While the inconsistency of tone might be an issue for a feature documentary, the critical standard is different for a broadcast television special. What is important is that each segment further illuminates our understanding of D-Day, which they do.

There is a good deal packed into 360, much of which could alter how viewers think about D-Day. In various ways and with radically different semantics, the commentators, surviving D-Day veterans, their family members make the point freedom is never free, especially for soldiers. Recommended for general audiences who will have just celebrated Memorial Day, D-Day 360 premieres on most PBS outlets this coming Tuesday (5/27) as part of a slate of anniversary programming.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality

What is it like to grow up with a father who idolizes Stalin? It’s hard. Yet, Alejandro Jodorowsky tries not to judge him too harshly. In fact, he casts his son Brontis in the role, adding further Freudian layers to his autobiographical The Dance of Reality (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

As the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, young Alejandro would be an outsider in coastal Tocopilla, regardless. Dressing like Stalin, just as his father Jaime does, only makes matters worse. He is a sensitive youth, more comfortable around his protective mother Sara, who sings arias rather than talking in a conventional manner. The future director of Santa Sangre is bullied mercilessly by his father, but he slowly forges a relationship through his stiff upper lip—at least until Jaime vanishes on a mysterious (and purely fictional) mission of extremist political violence.

Although it does not exactly belabor the point, Reality eventually suggests Jaime’s Stalinism is a manifestation of his domineering instincts, which he should strive to overcome. That certainly seems reasonable. However, most of the film is an uneasy attempt to tell Jorowsky’s coming of age story while providing the surreal weirdness his admirers will expect, like Truffaut’s Doinel films tripping on acid. Frankly, it often feels rather forced.

To make matters stranger and more uncomfortable, Jodorowsky himself often walks into the picture Rod Serling-style to offer commentary and comfort his young alter-ego. However, it is decidedly creepy to see him drape himself over the boy, like a pervy Looper. While Jodorwosky’s manic enthusiasm is rather charming in Frank Pavich’s Dune documentary, he quickly wears out his welcome in Reality.

Surprisingly, it is Brontis Jodorowsky who takes ownership of Reality. More than just keeping his head above the flood of madness, the almost Paul Atreides vividly expresses both the intolerance and the insecurity warring within his grandfather. In contrast, his brother Cristobal is game enough as the lead of their other brother Adan’s Voice Thief, but a little of him and his thong goes a long way as the Theosophist.

Jodorowsky senior almost pulls Reality together down the stretch, gently but firmly repudiating Jaime’s paternal severity and political zealotry, but there are just too many freaks, midgets, and scenes of ambiguously oedipal nudity to wade through. Only for hardcore Jodorowsky cultists, the long awaited The Dance of Reality opens today (5/23) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Love Punch: Where’s the Pink Panther When We Need Him?

Due diligence is a general business term for the standard practice of verifying everything is on the up-and-up before engaging in a long-term contractual arrangement. For instance, Richard Jones might have at least googled the French outfit he sold his company to. Instead, he blithely signed on the dotted line and received a nasty surprise when the company and his entire pension were plundered. On the plus side, he will have time to reconnect with his ex-wife and fellow wiped out pensioner when they pursue a little payback in Joel Hopkins’ The Love Punch (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jones was scheduled to retire one week after the transfer, but when he arrives at work he finds the offices padlocked. Not only did he sink his entire pension in the company, he also convinced all his co-workers and his ex, Kate, to do the same. Yet, Jones does not even have a contact name at the French conglomerate he somehow made the deal with. After an awkward conversation with Kate, they skype their hacker college student son to get some intel. It turns out the robber baron in question is Vincent Kruger, who just purchased the world’s largest diamond as a wedding gift for his fiancée, Manon.

Since the most famous diamond on earth will be a snap to fence for first time thieves, the Joneses (she kept his name for convenience sake) set out to steal it. They will enlist their mutual pals, Jerry and Penelope, to impersonate two Texan couples Kruger hopes to do business with. In the process, Kate unexpectedly befriends the ditzy but decent Manon.

Sadly, Punch’s humor is just as dumb as its business sense. It is rather painful watching Emma Thompson try to maintain her dignity. Still, her pleasant chemistry with Pierce Brosnan is about the only thing that works in the film. When Hopkins is not going for yucks, their couple stuff feels kind of real. It is also somewhat depressing to watch Brosnan suffering the aches a pains of late middle age, but as he himself admits, he was never a very good James Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies was by far his best, due largely to Michelle Yeoh).

Ordinarily, Timothy Spall is always the saving grace of a misfiring b-movie, such as Assassin’s Bullet, but his shtick as a former international adventurer-turned inconspicuous homebody might actually make matters worse. As Manon, Loise Bourgoin follows the same playbook she used in The Girl from Monaco, but it seems downright restrained here.

Thompson and Brosnan could have made a very good film playing a divorced couple that starts sparking again, but they are simply overwhelmed by Hopkins’ slapsticky screenplay. It is a shame to waste the inviting French Riviera locations on such a clownish mess, but hopefully the talented cast had a chance to enjoy the sights. Not worth hating on, but certainly not recommended for anyone, The Love Punch opens this Friday (5/23) in New York.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rooftop Films ’14: The Infinite Man

Do not expect Somewhere in Time or any Rachel McAdams time travel film. An obsessive compulsive scientist will invent a means of jumping through time to win back his girlfriend, but he, or rather different versions of himself, will sabotage his efforts at every turn. The time paradoxes will compound massively and it will all be his collective fault in Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man (trailer here), which screens this Friday, summer-style under the stars, as part of the 2014 season of Rooftop Films.

Dean probably loves Lara too much. For their anniversary, he takes her back to the tucked away motel where they spent their last anniversary, intent on recreating every last detail. Unfortunately, the motel has since been shuttered, throwing quite a spanner in the works. Lara also resents his habitual need to plan and relive the past. Initially, she tries to be a good sport, but when her crude ex-boyfriend crashes the party, the festivities completely bottom out. Through an odd chain of events, the miffed Lara ends up leaving with Terry the hothead.

For an entire year, Dean holes up at the abandoned inn, licking his wounds and perfecting his time travel device. On the day of their former anniversary, Dean convinces Lara to go back in time with him, so they can undo their past mistakes. Of course, this is easier said than done. In fact, Dean will make this trip several times, as he struggles to win Lara back from other versions of himself.

Infinite is a little slow out of the blocks, but it has to establish at least one straight lap around Dean’s year at the motel, before it starts turning everything inside out. Once it gets going, it’s off to the races. With each successive go-round, Sullivan completely changes the context of every scene, showing us what is now also happening simultaneously outside our prior field of vision.

It is an exceedingly clever screenplay that required very little special effects, beyond the trick photography allowing Dean to talk to other Deans. Still, the basic choreography determining who goes where when is rather impressive.

Frankly, Josh McConville is so cringey as Dean, it pushes viewers away during the set-up rather than pulling us in. Still, he creates a distinctively neurotic portrait and doggedly stays in character. He also has some very effective scenes playing with and off himself, so to speak. Hannah Marshall is a good sport as Lara, nicely maintaining the ambiguities in each scene while staying in the (ever recurring) moment. Although it is a small role, Alex Dimitriades brings several shots of energizing madness to the film as Terry.

Infinite is not quite as wildly entertaining as Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes but it constructs a similarly dazzlingly complex time-bender narrative, with hardly any visible seams. Richly inventive, it is smart science fiction rendered on a very human scale. Recommended with enthusiasm, The Infinite Man screens Friday night (5/23) in Gowanus, Brooklyn, presented by Rooftop Films.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

George Lucas in Love: A Long Time Ago at USC

It was a more innocent time in the late 1990s, when we still had general faith George Lucas would not debase his signature series with three dubious prequels. Not so long ago, Shakespeare in Love had upended Saving Private Ryan (from Lucas’s good buddy Steven Spielberg) at the Oscars, largely thanks to Tom Stoppard’s droll script, which constantly dropped hints of what might have inspired the Bard’s great masterpieces. Soon after the The Phantom Menace cruelly disillusioned fans, an affectionate short film spoof started making the rounds, giving Lucas the Stoppard treatment. A hit with fans as well as its subject, Joe Nussbaum’s George Lucas in Love re-releases today on iTunes.

There is a germ of something to Lucas’s senior screenplay, but he is badly blocked trying to develop his story of a space farmer. As he ambles around the USC campus, he unknowingly observes characters that resemble many favorite Star Wars characters. So where the heck did Jar Jar come from? Guys of the 1980’s generation will also recognize generous quotes from the original trilogy, which we used to know my heart. Of course, there are no echoes of Menace, because there is nothing worth quoting from it. “Kiss your trade franchise goodbye” just doesn’t cut it.

Regardless of any lingering Lucas issues, genre buffs will find GL in Love to be a well meaning tribute to the filmmakers who come up with this stuff in the first place. Martin Hynes and Lisa Jakub are rather winning as the earnest young Lucas and the cinnamon bun coiffed Marion, his potential love interest. However, Patrick Kerr almost steals the film as George’s faculty advisor, who speaks with Yoda’s odd cadence and indirect syntax.

While just a hair over eight minutes in length, GL in Love is something of an important film. It crossed the desks and VCRs of a lot of Hollywood decision makers and directly launched Nussbaum’s career (largely consisting of teen fare, like MTV’s Awkward and the American Pie series). It certainly proves critics and viewers who ignore shorts, do so at their peril. Eventually, it would be cool to see it paired with Roger Christian’s wholly dissimilar but still tangentially Star Wars-related Black Angel, but it is nice to have Nussbaum’s film readily accessible again on its own. Recommended for all fanboys, George Lucas in Love is now available from iTunes, as of today (5/20).

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Fatal Encounter: The Plot to Kill King Jeong-Jo

It is like a Joseon era Downton Abbey, except bloodier. The Dowager Queen openly schemes against her “grandson,” the king, as the palace servants furtively choose up sides. The drama all builds towards the infamous 1777 assassination attempt in Lee Jae-kyoo’s The Fatal Encounter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Things get complicated in the palace. Reluctantly, King Jeong-jo’s mother and grandfather sacrificed his father, the crown prince and heir to the throne, to placate the Noson faction, led by his “Grandmamma,” his grandfather’s Queen-consort. They did it solely for his sake. However, now that he has ascended to the throne, the Dowager Queen has grown tired of his independent inclinations.

When deciding to assassinate the king, the Noson conspirators assume they are holding all the cards, including key allies in the military and sleeper assassins planted deep within the palace. As a trump card, they also retain the services of Eul-soo, a hired killer who was once the sworn brother of the King’s private clerk, Gap-soo. However, many of the hidden assassins have concluded King Jeong-jo’s personal discipline and concern for the common people make him better suited to reign than their masters. Betrayals come fast and furious as the twenty-four hour countdown to the palace assault ticks down.

Fatal might just be the ultimate film for laundry intrigue, largely due to the important role played by Wol-hye, a senior maid and royal laundress with divided loyalties. Remember, they didn’t let just anyone scrub the King’s undies. While the focus is squarely on political maneuvering, there are also a few nicely staged action sequences. Viewers will not feel let down when the assassins finally arrive.

Domestically, the big story regarding Fatal was television megastar Hyun Bin’s return to acting after his compulsory military service. He provides a perfectly fine model of strong, silent rectitude, but international audiences will be more taken with the supporting cast. Living up to his chameleon-like reputation, Jung Jae-young (known for Broken, Confession of Murder, and Moss) again transforms himself, fully bringing to life the conflicted and guilt-ridden Gap-soo. Likewise, emerging star Jung Eun-chae anchors the film as Wol-hye, neatly playing off and with nearly the entire ensemble as her numerous secret relationships come to light.

Han Ji-min (who majored in social work according to Asianwiki) is also appropriately hiss-able as the cold-blooded Dowager Queen. Sensitive viewers should be warned Fatal features several young characters in various stages of distress, but Yoo Eun-mi is particularly impressive as Bok-bing, a seven year-old apprentice maid caught between the competing factions.

Fatal provides sufficient skullduggeries to keep a steady string of shoes dropping, without getting bogged down in its own complications. It is a nicely crafted period production, with enough tragedy to keep the Korea box office satisfied, but should still appeal to most American filmgoers’ tastes. Recommended for fans of grand historicals, The Fatal Encounter opens this Friday (5/23) in New York at the AMC Empire and is now playing at the CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles.

Frequencies: Future Destinies Deferred

If a name conveys a child’s future potential then Marie-Curie Fortune’s is indeed apt. Conversely, Isaac Newton Midgely is more of a Midgely than a Newton. The slogan of their near futuristic world is “knowledge is destiny,” but in practice your bio-metric “frequency” really determines your lot in life. Midgely will try to alter his hard-coded destiny in Darren Paul Fisher’s Frequencies (a.k.a. OXV: The Manual, trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday, hitting iTunes the day before.

Sort of like The Force or just plain luck, one’s frequency measures how well you fit into the world around you. Someone with a high frequency is never late or klutzy. Everyone responds to them positively. However, Fortune’s abnormally high frequency almost entirely crowds out her capacity for emotions. In contrast, Midgely is a genius, but he has a negative frequency. Whenever they meet at school, sparks fly, much in the manner of matter encountering anti-matter. Things become so chaotic a sixty second limit is imposed on their presumably random meetings. Of course, Midgely happens to be smitten with Fortune, who sort of leads him on, out of scientific curiosity and a lack of empathy.

Flashing forward to adulthood, we find Midgely still has not gotten over Fortune, but he may have developed a means of moderating frequencies, with the help of his old school chum, Theodor Adorno Straus. By lowering her frequency, Fortune is finally able to take pleasure from life. She even thinks she has fallen in love with Midgely, but when the nature of Straus’s breakthrough device becomes apparent, all bets are off.

Many decent genre films are built around a good gimmick, but become increasingly conventional as they progress. Frequencies is the rare film that begins with an intriguing Macguffin, the social predetermination of frequencies and Midgely’s attempt to change them, but morphs it into something even bigger and archetypal, uniting science fiction and fantasy, while raising the stakes for everyone.

Granted, post-Tarantino, temporal shifts are annoyingly over-used and often distractingly unnecessary, but Fisher’s triptych structure heightens the significance of each big revelation. This is a film with genuine logical integrity that fits together remarkably well. Those familiar with the Marxist sociologist Adorno’s boneheaded criticism of jazz might have a leg up discerning his namesake character’s ultimate significance. Regardless, Frequency’s combination of social science fiction and philosophical inquiry set it worlds apart from most star-crossed love stories.

As the teen-aged Fortune and Midgely, Georgina Minter-Brown and Dylan Llewellyn give remarkably assured performances. Although we cannot properly call it chemistry (given the circumstances), they way they play off each other totally pulls the audience in. Fortunately, they have nearly as much screen time as their adult counterparts, who are the film’s real weak link. Their drab lack of charisma might make sense in the case of Daniel Fraser’s Midgely, but it leads to credibility problems in the case of Eleanor Wylde’s Fortune. Fortunately, some key supporting players help carry them, especially David Broughton-Davies as the mysteriously wise Mr. Straus. Keep your eye on him.

It would be spoilery to explain why, but Frequencies is also a wonderful valentine to classical music. Smart and engaging, it is one of those inventive science fiction films that have no need of splashy effects or fancy set pieces. Instead, it relies on the power of its ideas (how novel). Highly recommended for science fiction fans and musicians, Frequencies opens this Friday (5/23) at the Cinema Village and will be available from iTunes on Thursday.