Monday, April 30, 2018

Beauvois’s The Guardians

In strategic terms, it is not so advantageous to have the front line on your national soil. At least for French soldiers during World War I, it provided opportunities to return home on furloughs. However, it is decidedly a mixed blessing when they also bring home their post-traumatic stress and find gossip waiting for them. There is still plenty of tension on the home-front in Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hortense Sandrail is not called a matriarch for no reason. Despite her advanced age, she has kept the Paridier farm productive while the men in her family have served at the front. She has done so mostly just with the help of her daughter Solange. Somewhat reluctantly, she hires Francine Riant as a temp worker for the harvest. Happily, Riant quickly proves she is both a hard worker and a good personality fit within the family. In fact, Mother Sandrail offers her a permanent position, but that was before she realized she and her son Georges developed an intimate attraction during his leave.

The family always assumed Georges Sandrail would marry his childhood friend Marguerite, as did she. However, Georges is so smitten, he carries on a deeply revealing correspondence with Riant after his return to duty. Unfortunately, some rather foolish misunderstandings will be exploited to short circuit their romance. Partly, it is all due to bad timing. There are already rumors swirling about Solange’s fidelity, or lack thereof, as well as a percolating resentment of the Paridier Farm’s continued success, during what for many is a time of privation.

Guardians is set during WWI, but the pastoral setting and circumstances could almost pass for the American Civil War. Certainly, many folks residing in Middle America should relate to the family drama and the challenges of agricultural economics. Even before the war, life on Paridier Farm was surely one of toil and hardship. Yet, they endure, because Hortense insists.

However, Beauvois’s achingly deliberate pace will be a barrier to entry for many less adventurous viewers. His approach is often more that of a painter than a filmmaker, composing vistas for his hardscrabble characters to populate. Still, he is acutely attuned to the characters’ emotional travails. Every time the mayor pays a death-notice call, appropriately dressed in black, the simple dignity of their reactions pack an emotional wallop.

Nathalie Baye is a wonder of grit and rectitude as the severe Hortense. Laura Smet, her real-life daughter, also projects strength and beauty, in a rustic kind of way. However, Iris Bry is shockingly expressive and strangely prepossessing, considering she was literally a discovery off the street (or rather in the bookstore), with no formal dramatic training to speak of. She is indeed a find.

The Guardians could also very well spur a [re]-discovery of Ernest Pérochon, the author of the source novel, who was a French provincial school teacher drafted into service at the front, very much likes Georges’ older brother Constant. However, he died prematurely during the second German Occupation of WWII, due to stress caused by his refusal to collaborate. His reputation is unimpeachable, but alas, he has not been available to promote his canon.

There is a good deal of grit in Guardians, but it is also elegant in a hauntingly old-fashioned way. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier evokes the soft light and warm colors of Impressionist landscapes, while the sparse but graceful score composed by the legendary Michel Legrand lends just the right supportive notes, at just the right time. Very highly recommended, The Guardians opens this Friday (5/4) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Tribeca ’18: Ryuichi Sakamoto Coda

Even if you are not familiar with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto or Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (starring David Bowie) you will probably recognize “Forbidden Colours,” which he wrote for the soundtrack. A vocal version even charted in the UK. It is unusual when a classical-ambient piece develops such a life of its own, but it is even rarer still for such a cerebral composer to attain rock star status. Stephen Nomura Schible documents the composer at a pivotal juncture in his life—commencing work on score for The Revenant after enduring successful cancer treatment—in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (trailer here), which had its North American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

You can think of Sakamoto as a Japanese David Byrne, but with stronger orchestral chops. He won an Oscar for The Last Emperor, a BAFTA for Mr. Lawrence, and a Golden Globe for The Sheltering Sky. He also scored Little Buddha, Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri, a couple of De Palma misfires, and the Binoche-Fiennes Wuthering Heights. His music is particularly well-suited to grandly operatic canvasses, but he still releases his own albums. However, his fight against cancer understandably slowed him down.

During the early scenes of Coda, Sakamoto still tires easily. Nevertheless, he has returned to work on both the Revenant score and a Paul Bowles concept album he shelved years ago. Around about the second act, Sakamoto renews his commitment to the Japanese anti-nuclear campaign, newly invigorated in the wake of Fukushima. At rallies, Sakamoto advocates a complete ban on nuclear power throughout Japan, yet he never suggests where the rolling blackouts should start each day or how long they should last. Seriously, it is absolutely impossible for Japan to do former without instituting the latter.

Be that as it undeniably is, there is great poignancy in Sakamoto’s spiritual journey into the exclusionary zone, both to bear witness in general and to search for a battered but intact piano that reportedly survived the devastation, taking on mythic significance as a result.

Throughout Coda, Schbile clearly tailors his style to Sakamoto’s aesthetic. Frankly, it is exactly like what you would expect a Sakamoto doc should be. It often looks and not infrequently sounds like ECM albums (which he, like Byrne, should have an affinity for). It is also fascinating to hear a composer of Sakamoto’s stature talk so candidly about his creative process. In fact, it would have been an even stronger film if there were more of Sakamoto on music and less of Sakamoto on nuclear power.

Cinematographers Neo Sora and Tom Richmond create a dream-like vibe that perfectly matches the man and his music. It is a classy package, but there is probably still room for a more conventional survey documentary, covering the full diversity of his film work, including Tokyo Decadence and The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Recommended for Sakamoto’s admirers and students of film scoring, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is scheduled to open this Summer in New York, following its premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival (it also screens 5/6 during the upcoming Dallas International Film Festival).

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Studio 54

That storied disco club did something rather remarkable. It caused many elite New Yorkers to turn against the enforcement of tax laws. After all, for club owners like Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, all those tax code regulations could be so complicated—and doesn’t everyone keep large containers of cash in their drop ceilings? Especially for small change, right? Rubell and Schrager only owned and operated the famous club from 1977 to 1980, but they had quite a run. Matt Tyrnauer chronicles their glory years in Studio 54, which screened during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tyrnauer makes a convincing case Studio 54 came along at just the right time to catch the wave of burgeoning interest in tabloid-style celebrity pseudo-journalism. In fact, their former publicist still has her bonus rate card for placing Studio 54-related stories and photos. Naturally, the front page of the New York Post was the biggest get—and she got a lot of them. Rubell also shrewdly positioned the club as a haven for LGBT patrons. Somehow, that combination of the privileged and the marginalized created a buzz everyone wanted to experience.

Of course, there was also the exclusivity factor. We do indeed hear plenty of stories revolving around the velvet rope. Oddly though, there is little talk about the actual music. Nile Rodgers is one of the few musicians interviewed in the film, but he mostly discusses his experiences as a patron. For those interested in disco as a musical phenomenon, Record Man, the profile of disco-era producer Henry Stone is probably still the best doc out there.

Frankly, Tyrnauer’s 54 follows a very predictable beat sheet—rise, fall, legacy—while employing very conventional techniques. It is fitting that the film carries the imprimatur of A&E, because it has the look and feel of something cobbled together for cable. Still, it is hard to resist pop culture nostalgia, especially when served up in bulk quantities. Tyrnauer does a nice job of evoking the tenor of the time. You will hear names you haven’t heard for decades, like Bianca Jagger, the Kardashian of the 1970s. At the time, she was one of their prime publicity-generating regulars, along with Liza Minelli and Truman Capote. Honest, all this really happened.

Nevertheless, the film’s fast-and-loose skim of the legal case brought against Rubell and Schrager is conspicuously sympathetic. The film also ignores the building’s fascinating history before and after the Rubell/Schrager era. Currently, it is a Broadway theater, but it has also served as an opera house, a WPA theater, a New Wave club, and CBS soundstages.

Maybe you just had to be there, but how could you, if Steve Rubell wouldn’t let you past the velvet rope? In fact, you can hear some of the talking heads sounding a bit wistful for the time when they were the cool kids with access. It must have been fun at the time—and some of the dishy reminiscences capture that spirit. As a diversion, it holds the audience’s attention, but there is nothing earth-shaking here. Recommended primarily for fans who were there, Studio 54 had its New York premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (and it also screens today 4/29 at the Montclair Film Festival).

Tribeca ’18: Mary Shelley

There is a chapter devoted to Percy Bysshe Shelley in Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals, so it is probably safe to assume he was difficult to live with. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would agree. Her scandalous relationship with the poet brings her no end of grief. Yet, she can also recognize his merits. It is a complicated relationship that eventually inspires one of the greatest literary monsters of all time. Godwin’s artistic development and her eventful early years with her future husband, most definitely including the fateful 1816 summer in Lake Geneva, are dramatized in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mary Godwin never knew her mother, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but she always took pride in her nonconformist principles and lifestyle. By the same token, she instinctively recoiled from her stepmother’s puritanical attitude. Ironically, this made her a willing target for Percy Shelley’s seductions. Despite the fact he was already, strictly speaking, married, they openly consorted together in a very public romance. Naturally, it severed her relationship with her philosophically permissive but personally righteous father, but her sister Claire Clairmont remains loyal. In fact, she will do her best to follow Wollstonecraft Godwin’s example with Lord Byron, which explains how all three came to be Byron’s guests at his Swiss villa.

At least three films have been devoted to that literarily significant summer, but Ken Russell’s Gothic is the one cineastes will most likely compare with Mary Shelley. Arguably, it is Dr. Polidori who gains the most stature in Emma Jensen’s screenplay and under Al-Mansour’s direction. In fact, the respect and sympathy that develops between him and Wollstonecraft Godwin might even be the most memorable element of the film.

On the other hand, Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron is considerably creepier and more predatory than Gabriel Byrne’s in Gothic. It is hard to fathom spending more than one night as his houseguest, but it needs hardly be said, they were not thinking very clearly during this time.

Somewhat playing against her arrested-development-teenager type, Elle Fanning is much more forceful and confident as the titular Mary Shelley than you might expect, which is a very pleasant surprise. She also develops some convincing dysfunctional codependent chemistry with Douglas Booth, who is perfectly cast as the snide, self-absorbed Percy Shelley. Sturridge is flamboyantly sinister as Byron, while Ben Hardy and Stephen Dillane provide dignity and humanistic reality checks as Polidori and Godwin, respectively. Alas, Maisie Williams does not get enough screen time as Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Scotts friend Isabel Baxter, whereas Bel Powley’s petulant Clairmont quickly tries our patience.

Obviously, there is a pronounced feminist angle to the Wollstonecrafts and Al-Mansour’s film. Much has been made of parallels (arguably over-exaggerated) between chauvinistic Nineteenth Century England and the misogynistic Saudi setting of Al-Mansour’s debut, Wadjda. Yet, there are also echoes of the Percy Shelley and Lord Byron that Johnson would have us know. We definitely see a dramatic disconnect between the poets’ lofty rhetoric and their frequently appalling behavior. “Free love” might sound great in pamphlets, but it is more problematic when introduced into real relationships. Yet, there is also a theme of responsibility running throughout the film. At one point, the future Ms. Shelley will express the sentiment, if not in so many words: she made her bed, so now she will have to sleep in it.

Of course, Mary Shelley is in no way intended to be a horror movie, but you have to give Al-Mansour credit for including some rather sinister and cinematic hat-tips and pre-figuring sources of inspiration. As a result, Frankenstein fans (which is surely all of us, right?), should feel a warm attraction to the film. Indeed, it is quite a classy looking and cliché-challenging period drama. Highly recommended, Mary Shelley screens again tonight (4/29), during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Homeless—The Soundtrack (short)

Jenni Alpert studied with the great Kenny Burrell at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music (presumably no relation). That is definitely impressive, but her most significant musical association might just be with her biological father. It was a long time coming. Removed from her birth parents at a distressingly young age, Alpert has recently reconnected with her troubled father. Music has been their common ground and lingua franca, as viewers directly witness in Irene Taylor Brodsky’s twenty-six-minute documentary short Homeless: The Soundtrack, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Alpert studied jazz, but it sounds like she largely performs in pop and pop-country bags these days (thereby demonstrating the flexibility of jazz-trained musicians). It is probably just as well, because those seem to be the idioms Don Logsdon is comfortable playing. When they jam together, everything makes sense. However, it is clear his problems have not all melted away with their reunion.

Some viewers might be a bit put off to see Alpert pick up Logsdon from his squat under a bridge and even more turned off by her insistence he wear a blindfold during the drive to her house. However, you should respect her for having the backbone and foresight to protect herself from potential substance abuse backsliding and who knows what else. Thanks to her, he is clean and in treatment for various ailments, but you cannot be too careful with anyone coming out of a junkie’s existence.

Still, this is a good news story. Obviously, their reunion has made life richer and happier for both father and daughter, but Brodsky also makes it clear plenty of challenges remain. In terms of filmmaking, Homeless: The Soundtrack is stylistically pretty straight forward, but its honesty is impressive. The film never over-simplifies the messiness of the world, but it offers up some welcome cause for optimism. Recommended for general audiences, Homeless: The Soundtrack screens again this afternoon (4/28) as part of the Home Sweet Home documentary shorts block, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’18: Earthrise (short)

When I was a kid, many of us had NASA space photography posters in our rooms. Astronauts were cool and we were the leading nation for space exploration. So much has changed for successive generations. Viewers can recapture a taste of the idealism and optimism we have lost in Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s short documentary Earthrise, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

The three-man crew of Apollo 8 make it clear nobody had given any prior thought to taking photos of the Earth from space. When designated camera man Bob Anders had time, he was supposed to focus on the Moon, especially while passing behind the dark side. Of course, their plans changed when they started to take in the stunning sight of our blue planet. Yet, it was the sight of the Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon as they emerged from the Moon’s shadow that would become one of NASA’s most defining and iconic images.

Earthrise is one of the mot poetic space docs ever produced, which makes it distinctive and cool. However, the film’s greatest merit is perhaps its poignant reminder of just how triumphant the now somewhat hazily remembered Apollo 8 mission was at the time. They were the first to leave Earth’s orbit and fully orbit the Moon—arguably the single biggest leap forward before the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Vaughan-Lee includes long, thoughtful reflections from all three crew-members, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, which also makes Earthrise a pretty significant film document. Their perspective is both humanistic and galactic.

Unfortunately, the film brings us back down to Earth when it accurately points out only twenty-four astronauts have experienced this spectacular Earthrise view. Vaughan-Lee leaves unsaid the cold hard truth that we currently do not have the capacity send manned spaceflights back to Moon or anywhere else beyond our atmosphere, but we will spell it out, because it needs to be emphasized. Regardless, Earthrise is a very well put together film that engages on emotional and cerebral levels. Very highly recommended, it screens again this afternoon (4/28) as part of the Home Sweet Home documentary shorts block, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Tribeca ’18: To Dust

Albert is no Mr. Wizard. He is an embittered community college professor gone to seed, but Shmuel wouldn’t know the difference. For the Hasidic cantor, any participation in scientific inquiry is sinful, but the recent death of his wife leads to a desperate obsession with human decomposition in Shawn Snyder’s Best New Narrative Award winning To Dust, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Shmuel takes Orthodox teaching very seriously, particularly the part about “dust to dust.” In fact, he becomes consumed with anxiety, worrying his beloved wife’s soul will be in torment until her body fully returns to the earth. His concern is so troubling, he will even sin himself by seeking answers at a local community college. The initial meeting with Albert goes badly—the cantor keeps calling the professor “doctor” and the professor keeps calling the cantor “rabbi.” Nevertheless, the divorced, pot-smoking instructor tries to give Shmuel some answers using a rather graphic 1960 study of pig decomposition. Imagine his surprise when Shmuel drags him into his own practical experiments, using swine.

To Dust probably sounds like it pushes the line of good taste, given the prominence of dead pigs in the narrative. However, it is refreshingly thoughtful and sensitive it the ways it addresses Orthodox Judaism. Above all else, this is a deeply mournful film that readily forgives its characters’ foibles and excesses. There are indeed some rather grisly images, including the archival footage from 1960 and some morbid nightmare sequences, but they are always counter-balanced by the human element. It could very well appeal to the audience for Avishai’s Sivan’s Tikkun, but it is a dramatically warmer, more grounded, and more humanistic film.

Géza Röhrig (from Son of Saul) is quite remarkable as Shmuel. It is a quiet performance, but his anguish always feels very real and acutely pressing. He develops genuine chemistry with Matthew Broderick’s Albert that is hard to define or describe but is tangibly potent. Even though Broderick is playing another self-loathing man-child, he does his best work in years teasing out humanizing subtleties in the failed academic.

To Dust is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-supported film, which speaks volumes about the seriousness of Snyder and co-screenwriter Jason Begue’s science. Viewers could probably even recreate some of the experiments, but we would advise against trying that. Yet, it is the not-quite-buddy relationship that really lies at the core of the film. For extra added novelty, Ron Perlman served as one of the producers, so you’d better take note. Highly recommended, To Dust screens again Saturday night (4/28) and twice on Sunday (4/29), as an award-winner, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Supercon: Taking Down the Con Crud

Fan conventions are quite a shrewd place to pull off a heist-caper. There is tons of cash floating around, as well as a bunch of distracting odors. The cos play will also be handy for five questionable celebrities out for a big score in Zak Knutson’s Supercon (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

As a child actor, Keith Mahar played a cringey Indian stereotype with testicular cancer. Now approaching middle age, he ekes out a living at fan conventions. At least Matt Wheeler was the lead of his canceled TV show. Brock Hutchinson was a legit star in the 1970s, but those days are long gone. On the plus side, he can be much more open about his sexual orientation. Comic book artist Allison McNeeley has real talent, but since when has that ever been enough. They are all regularly exploited by Shatneresque TV space opera icon Adam King and his crooked partner, Gil Bartell, the forces behind the three-day cash cow, Supercon.

When Bartell fires the fab four and threatens to blackball them at other cons, they decide to hit back where it will hurt them the most—their wallets. With the help of respected comic book and screenwriting legend Sid Newberry, they hatch a crackpot scheme to rob the cash fleeced from fans. Thomas Crown would not approve of their minimal preparation, but they have plenty of enthusiasm to compensate.

That is somewhat true of the film as well. The screenplay is basically a clothes line holding a series of gags and rude insults, but it blithely barrels ahead at warp speed. In fact, the ensemble seems to have a go-for-broke spirit, weirdly invigorated by the in-jokes and defiant political incorrectness.

Surprisingly, John Malkovich (yes, the John Malkovich) actually tones it down a little as the Obiwan Kenobi-like Newberry, but he nicely provides the film’s fan-centric ethical compass. Russell Peters makes Mahar an unusually dry and acerbic sad sack loser, which is an accomplishment. Brooks Braselman goes in all for flamboyant shtick as Hutchinson, but he also delivers some cuttingly droll lines. Maggie Grace’s McNeeley is also quite the lethal banterer. Ryan Kwanten is a bit out of his league in their company as the impulsive Wheeler, but Clancy Brown is totally in his element, chewing the scenery as the scenery-chewing King.

Supercon is definitely slapdash, but it would be a blast to watch at one of the bigger Comic Cons. Clearly, Knutson and co-screenwriters Andrew Sipes and Dana Snyder know their con culture. It is hard to imagine actually paying money to see this film in a brick-and-mortar theater, but Supercon has its place in the world and should find an extensive audience. It is not exactly recommended, but this is a film that is bound to find real fans eventually, so you can just wait for it to happen. For the time being, Supercon opens today (4/27) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Into the Void Shorts

For genre fans, the words “to be continued” are a real double-edged sword. It’s nice to know there will be more of something good, but frustrating that we will have to wait. Those words most likely apply to several, or nearly all of the shorts in the science fiction Into the Void short film programming block, which screens at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Many of the sf Void shorts sure seem like they were intended as proof of concepts for a prospective feature or series, but Andrew Bowen’s The 716th is probably the second worst offender when it comes to cliffhanger endings. It is sort of like MASH in space, but with more shooting. The last human medics have been shunted off to what was a quiet corner of the war, but their quadrant has just heated up considerably. After a long day of triage, they naturally fix themselves moonshine highballs, but “Doc” rather impulsively decides to commandeer a shuttle to save the last human soldier on the planet and her battle android. Things do not go well for him, but it is not for a lack of brisk action and snarky humor. This is definitely enjoyable space opera—concept proved.

Zach Strauss’s Bad Peter is the most self-contained film in the program, yet it is also the least satisfying. Essentially, it plays like the What to Expect When You’re Expecting version of Stephen King’s short story Quitters Inc., but it should be fully stipulated Frankie Shaw from SMILF is absolutely terrific as the mega-pregnant Rachel.

Travis Bible’s Exit Strategy also tells a full and complete narrative, but it also gives the time loop movie a wildly original twist. The day starts innocently for Matt the fire-fighter, but his egghead brother Shane has been down this road many, many times before. He has to convince Matt to help him prevent a tragic forest fire, but time and fate keep conspiring against him, to bring about the same predestined result. The twists are impressive, but the film’s emotional heft is what really distinguishes it from the field of less engaging feature length films in the time travel/Groundhog Day sub-genres.

Jesse Atlas’s Let Them Die Like Lovers could go either way. It would be relatively easy to expand this story of a body-hopping La Femme Nikita, but he still ends it at a logical stopping point (how novel). Like his deeply resonant Record/Play, Like Lovers is a psychologically and emotionally sophisticated film. It turns out, jumping into the bodies of trusted loved ones to assassinate their nearest and dearest takes a toll on Alexa’s psyche, even though her targets are some decidedly bad cats. It is a well-made, handsomely crafted film, but it doesn’t have Record/Play’s profoundly romantic and tragic sensibility.

Johannes Mücke & Patrick Sturm’s UI—Soon We Will All Be One looks completely amazing, as you might expect from a collaboration between a special effects specialist and a graphic designer. For this cryptic alien invasion tale, they create some of the most striking alien architecture since 2001, but the narrative comes across like a mere sketch to introduce the world. Still, it is worth seeing, literally for the spectacle, especially on the big screen.

Jocelyn Stamat M.D.’s Laboratory Condition is by far the best short in the Void block (with Exit Strategy coming in a strong second), but it has the most intense and maddening cliffhanger ending since maybe The Italian Job. It also boasts one of the eeriest and most inventive concepts since the original Flatliners. Dr. Holloway is an emergency room doctor, whose recently deceased patient has been purloined. It turns out he was dubiously requisitioned by Dr. Marjorie Cane, a senior researcher at the university. Her project hopes to document the exit of the soul from the lonely old man’s body. However, their completely sealed observation tank has trapped his soul, preventing it from going where it must. Yet, only Dr. Holloway can see his frantic desperation. Then things get really, really sinister.

This film gives goosebumps, both because it is pretty darned scary and the execution is so crisp and smart. It also has an amazing cast for a film of any length, most notable including Marisa Tomei as Dr. Holloway and Minnie Driver, who is absolutely fantastic as the curt and high-handed Dr. Cane. Obviously, this is intended as a proof of concept for a feature that is proved several times over. With this nifty Macguffin, the first-rate cast, and the wickedly impressive production design, it can’t miss,

Laboratory Conditions is very highly recommended, but once you see the short, you will want to watch the rest of it. In fact, the entire Into the Void is recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, especially for Exit Strategy, The 716th, and Let Them Die Like Lovers

Science Fiction fans might also be interested in Steve Kenny’s short film, Time Traveler. Even though it has no science fiction elements, it quite affectionately pays tribute to Back to the Future. Barry Ward proves he could well be the next Michael Fassbender with his sensitive portrayal of an Irish Traveler father of a young boy building a scale replica time machine, whose caravan-home is being evicted from their longtime camp site. Gritty and bittersweet in the right ways, it screens tomorrow (4/27) and Saturday (4/28), as part of the Make or Break shorts program, while the Into the Void program also screens on the same days.

Ryuhei Kitamura’s Downrange, on Shudder

Okay kids, the lesson here is hard to miss. Just say no to carpooling. If these six college students had been caravanning instead, they would have had much more cover and there would have been a good chance one of their cars would have made it through the serial killer sniper’s ambush. One of them is a former Army brat, so at least she understands what they are dealing with, but she has no way to return fire in Ryûhei Kitamura’s Downrange (trailer here), which premieres exclusively today on Shudder.

There is the Army brat, a married couple (or engaged or whatever), the good-looking guy, the token minority, and the one with the heart-tugging younger sister. The mystery shooter will be using them all for target practice, but Kitamura’s quite effectively builds the suspense as we wait for the first kill. Soon three of them are huddled behind the car (fortunately its actually an SUV, the only responsible they’ve made), while another is cowering behind a tree stump.

Needless to say, this is an impossibly quiet stretch of road. However, it is not a closed system. More grist for the mill will inevitably come ambling along and even the cops will eventually get in on the act, but as the late R. Lee Ermey would say, the mystery man will definitely show just what one motivated sniper and his rifle can do.

Basically, there is no character development to speak of in Downrange. They are just interchangeable victims. As a slightly spoilery warning, viewers should also expect the lamest cheat of an ending we have maybe ever seen in horror movie—ever. However, we have to admit Kitamura maintains a visceral, claustrophobic sense of tension during the heart of the film.

Plus, there is the gore, which is either the film’s greatest asset or grossest sin, depending on your tastes and preferences. Naturally, the shooter uses vintage rounds that really tear through the flesh. This should come as no surprise, since goriness has always been Kitamura’s specialty.

This isn’t much of an actor’s showcase, but everyone looks adequately terrified or in shock. Plus, as an Easter Egg for viewers with sufficient endurance, cult horror movie regular Graham Skipper eventually appears as a sheriff’s deputy. It is not pretty, but Kitamura hits the low-hanging targets he aims for. Recommended for gore fans, Downrange starts streaming today (4/26) on Shudder.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tribeca ’18: The Saint Bernard Syndicate

The underlying business plan has potential. Dogs are definitely a status symbol for China’s privileged elite and growing middle class. Hence, the success of A Dog’s Purpose at the Chinese box office. A darker manifestation of the trend is the rapacious demand for Tibetan mastiffs, as seen in Pema Tseden’s Old Dog. Frederik Jorgensen wants to breed and sell Saint Bernards, starting in the go-go city of Chongqing, but he is profoundly ill-suited to doing business in China. His new Danish investor seems even sillier, but his guileless blundering might be slightly more effective, but only slightly, in madcap documentarian Mads Brügger’s narrative feature debut, The Saint Bernard Syndicate, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even though Rasmus Bruun attended one of Denmark’s most prestigious prep schools, he has worked crummy retail jobs all his adult life. Even though Jorgensen attended the same school, he has squandered his father’s patience with one failed investment scheme after another. When they reconnect at a reunion, Bruun is skeptical of Jorgensen’s pitch, but when he is shockingly diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he decides to take a chance and live a little in China. Of course, he does not have the kind of inheritance Jorgensen assumes, but it will not matter if they can quickly line up a Chinese investor. Their ace in the hole will be Dollar, a big slobbering Saint Bernard Jorgensen kidnaps from his father.

Needless to say, the ins and outs of Chinese co-ventures are trickier than Jorgensen assumed. He also resents Bruun’s determination to be an active participate in all stages of the process, especially when potential investors keep assuming he is the primary boss. Yet, when things really get dicey, they will have to rely on each other.

Given Brügger’s track record as a New Journalist provocateur, it is impossible to watch Syndicate and not wonder what it could have been if he had made it as documentary, in the style of The Ambassador, especially since selling Saint Bernard dogs in China should be considerably less dangerous than trying to smuggle diamonds out of the Central African Republic using dodgy diplomatic credentials (but this is Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed Jinping’s China, so maybe you never know for sure).

The attitude is still unmistakable subversive and intended to foster free-thinking. It is safe to say Chinese joint-ventures do not look like such a swell idea after watching Syndicate. You can also see a kinship between the real-life comedy team of Bruun and Jorgensen with Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell, who joined Brügger in North Korea for the propaganda expose Red Chapel, and Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, the duo responsible for the Klown franchise.

Bruun and Jorgensen adroitly play off each other, developing some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry. Li Boyang is also a charismatic good sport as their loyal Chinese assistant, Beyond. However, Odessa totally steals the show as Dollar, which should come as no surprise.

Brügger vividly captures the big, intimidating nature of Mainland mega-cities. This would be a hard place to be scuffling, especially if you had accrued a lot of bad karma. Just ask Jorgensen. Syndicate is funny and sad in way that are quite perceptive. It is a good, solid film, but fans will really want to see another Mad Mads Brügger docu-provocation. Recommended as the smart, honest work of cinema that it is, The Saint Bernard Syndicate screens again tonight (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’18: Blue Note Records—Beyond the Notes

It started with recordings of boogie woogie piano masters Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, but Blue Note Records would become synonymous with 50s and 60s Hard Bop, exemplified by artists like Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. They might sound stylistically disparate, but everyone on the classic Blue Note label was totally authentic and swung hard. The label’s past, present, and future are celebrated in Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were fans, not businessmen. Wolff presciently immigrated to America amid the rise of National Socialism in Germany, joining his boyhood friend Lion in New York. With Blue Note Records, they just started recording music they wanted to hear. Somehow, the venture became sustainable (barely), but it was never a commercial power house. Due to cash flow issues, they were forced to sell out to Liberty Records in 1965, but they were never comfortable working in a more corporate environment. Lion retired, Wolff passed away, and the new Capitol/EMI masters consigned the label to dormancy in 1979. Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story, but fan reverence for Blue Note was so deep and their backlist catalog sales were so strong, Capitol revived the label in 1985.

When an institution like Blue Note refuses to stay dead, it most definitely means something. Huber does a nice job explaining the many reasons fans have such respect and fetish-like collectors’ zeal for the label. Of course, the music is first and foremost. Lion and Wolff discovered, nurtured, and extensively recorded many great musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Jimmy Smith (who is oddly shortchanged in the film), Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson, and “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson, who consistently livens things up with his candid interview segments, as anyone who has heard him in the clubs would fully expect.

Due credit is also given to Reid Miles’ boldly modernistic cover designs and Wolff’s remarkable photographs taken at the sessions (incidentally, a few covers were designed by a cat name Andy Warhol, but he never amounted to much). (Some colleagues asked me how legit Wolff’s photography was after a press screening—does two collections published by Rizzoli and exhibitions at the Smithsonian and the Jewish Museum in Berlin answer the question?).

Huber and her interview subjects also acknowledge the mastery of Rudy Van Gelder, Blue Note’s regular engineer (who had a particularly good ear for jazz but recorded every style of music under the sun) and the respectful and productive atmosphere fostered by Lion and Wolff. Unlike other labels, they paid musicians to rehearse, allowing their artists to bring in sophisticated charts, instead of just blowing head arrangements on some impromptu blues.

Huber views this musical legacy through the prism of a studio session for Robert Glasper, one of the label’s most prominent and talented contemporary artists not named Norah Jones (who also duly appears to pay tribute). Past and present meet when Hancock and Wayne Shorter join Glasper’s group, with the label’s current president Don Was proudly looking on from the control board. That kind of says it all for a lot of Hard Bop-focused Blue Note fans—yet it still leaves much unsaid.

Frankly, Beyond the Notes could have easily been a four-hour Amazon documentary, in the tradition of Long Strange Trip. Admittedly, some editing is usually a good thing, but it is rather problematic that Huber ignores Blue Note’s avant-garde/free jazz legacy, because these jazz artists are always the most likely to be marginalized. Unless they recognize a few album covers that flash across the screen, viewers would have no indication “outside” and explorative musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, and Andrew Hill recorded for Blue Note.

Blue Note has such a rich history, distilling it down to ninety minutes would be a daunting task.  Yet, a good deal of time is devoted to arguing Blue Note is suddenly more “relevant” in the current cultural and ideological climate. However, the truth is Blue Note was never very political, especially when compared to Impulse Records or Flying Dutchman. Yes, jazz is descended from the blues, which was born out of slavery, but it is still frustrating Huber feels compelled to justify the music on the basis of some fleeting political relevancy instead of having confidence in its intrinsic and enduring value.

Blue Note is a record label. Ordinarily, those were just words on a sticker covering the dead wax of an LP, but Blue Note was, and to a considerable extent still is special. It was the artists, the look and the sound. It was the total package. Huber mostly gets at the essence, but there is so much more to the story, like Long Tall Dexter Gordon, whom many viewers who don’t know Blue Note from Blue Thumb will recognize from his Oscar-nominated performance in Round Midnight.

Even coupled with Julian Benedikt’s straight-over-the-plate Blue Note: A Story Modern Jazz, a great deal of significant Blue Note history and music is left out of the picture, but that means you are entitled to a feeling of discovery for everything you ferret out yourself (tip: start with Freddie Redd). Recommended (despite a few frustrations) for jazz fans and viewers with open ears, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes screens again tonight (4/25) and tomorrow (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The Escape of Prisoner 614

Shandaken, NY was originally partly carved out of the town of Woodstock (as in the big muddy music fest), but its sheriff seems to think it is nestled somewhere in the deep south. The troglodytic lawman is about to fire his two witless deputies—probably his only defensible action in the entire film. To regain their badges, they will attempt to recapture a fugitive convict, but the plan gets rather complicated when they start to suspect he is innocent. Justice gets clumsy and oafish in Zach Golden’s The Escape of Prisoner 614 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Thurman Hayford is the more confident deputy, whereas Jim Doyle is the nebbish dweeb, but between the two of them, they have not recorded an arrest in years. They argue that means they have been completely effective keeping Shandaken crime-free (they got that line from Marla at the diner), but the Sheriff is not buying it. However, when they take a call from the warden warning Prisoner 614 is loose in their jurisdiction, they head out to capture him.

Somehow, they manage to do exactly that, but the more they hear from their prisoner, the more they doubt the fairness of his trial and appeal. Of course, the Sheriff will not want to hear any of that when he catches up with them.

Tonally, this film is an absolute disaster area. Issues of race and injustice are heavy themes that demand serious treatment, but here they are basically window dressing for a slapstick buddy comedy. 614 plays like an ill-conceived cross between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Apple Dumpling Gang, with Don Knotts and Tim Conway.

Even the ordinarily reliable Ron Perlman cannot salvage 614. In fact, all the glowering he does as the Sheriff starts to come off as lazy shtick. He is still more watchable than either Martin Starr or Jake McDorman as the underwhelming deputies. As the titular escapee, George Sample III looks like he can hardly believe he is in this uncomfortable situation, which we can’t blame him for.

Whatever Golden was going for didn’t happen. It all looks modern day, but it feels like he is going for a period vibe. Presumably, he wants to make a statement, but the broad, sloppy humor drown it out. Not recommended, The Escape of Prisoner 614 opens this Friday (4/27) in New York, at the Village East.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Freaks and Geeks, the Documentary

What if Brandon Tartikoff had canceled the low-rated Cheers in 1983, instead of having faith in its long-term potential? NBC would have missed out on a crucial piece of its vaunted “must-see TV” Thursday line-up. Fans of Freaks and Geeks argue that is basically what happened when their beloved but mis-scheduled show was prematurely axed. Given the subsequent success of its cast-members and the recent trend towards more complex, single-camera TV comedies, they might have a point. Cast-members and network executives reflect on the series’ inception and demise in Brent Hodge’s Freaks and Geeks, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Everyone gets a little nostalgic for the high school programs they watched during their high school years. Who doesn’t still love Happy Days, but you probably had to be there for the original 90210. Freaks and Geeks was the Square Pegs of its era. It was critically acclaimed and adored by its core audience, but it just could not catch on with a mass audience.

In retrospect, F&G’s pedigree looks sterling. It was created by Paul Feig, executive produced by Judd Apatow, and starred James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps. Unfortunately, NBC president Garth Ancier just didn’t get it, but you have to give him credit for explaining his decisions on-camera, even though he surely knew he was appearing in front of a hostile audience.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of Hodge’s doc is the chronicle of the behind-the-scenes network politics. Frankly, anyone who just had their first pilot picked-up should watch F&G: The Doc, for perspective. Collectively, everyone associated with the show makes a convincing case for its just-ahead-of-the-curve influence on the current wave of single-camera network comedies. It is also vividly (but not necessarily nostalgically) transports us back to the last gasp of big-four network hegemony. Hodge, who also helmed The Pistol Shrimps and I Am Chris Farley has the right touch with this kind of documentary, nicely balancing the sentimental reminiscences with dishy trade-story details.

NBC might have let something big get away that could have temporarily forestalled the inevitable dominance of Netflix and Amazon over episodic television, but most people involved landed on their feet. Hodge keeps it all briskly paced and engaging, even for viewers who were not on board when the show was on the air. Recommended for fans and aspiring show-runners, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary screens this Thursday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’18: Jonathan

They are like the Corsican Brothers, but more symbiotic—and weirdly codependent. They do just share a flat and some DNA, they cohabitate in the same body. Each gets his own shift from 7:00 to 3:00. If you question the sustainability of this arrangement, your skepticism will be validated in Bill Oliver’s Jonathan, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Jonathan is the tidy and responsible one, who gets the day shift. John is the sloppy but social one, who lives by night. Obviously, they can never be present together, but at the end of each shift they leave each other video messages, recapping their interactions with people, so they will not be caught flatfooted during their shifts. However, John has been out of sorts ever since Jonathan read him the riot act about pursuing a long-term relationship with Elena, a pretty young waitress completely unaware of their condition.

Much to Jonathan’s alarm, John stops leaving messages. He is even more concerned when he discovers their doctor and surrogate mother, Dr. Mina Nariman has been treating John for depression. However, he really starts feeling guilty when he pursues his own relationship with Elena.

Jonathan is billed as science fiction, but the radical treatment the J-men have undergone does not feel very speculative at all. To an extent, the film plays like a more innocent cousin of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Nevertheless, the fraternal relationship and the rules they embrace or chafe under to make their co-existence possible are intriguing and inherently dramatic. Yet, the film is never mind-blowing in the way it clearly hopes to be. Despite a few fresh wrinkles, the multiple personality subject matter is largely confined to familiar territory.

Still, Oliver’s execution is tight and stylish. He is particularly adept at conveying Jonathan’s closely guarded emotional state. Ansel Elgort and Suki Waterhouse also give career-best performances (thus far), which might sound like a bold declarative statement, but it based on an underwhelming field of films, including November Criminals, The Bad Batch, and the “Ent” franchise.

Credit is still due, especially for Elgort, who clearly delineates Jonathan, who provides our sole POV and John, seen only in video messages, without ever resorting to cheap tics or tricks. Of course, Patricia Clarkson is always reliable, but she really deepens the film with her subtle but forceful portrayal of Dr. Nariman. If anyone earns award consideration for Jonathan, it will be Clarkson, but Shunori Ramanathan should earn consideration for bigger roles for her sensitive turn as Jonathan’s concerned co-worker, Allison.

There are some obvious logical questions Oliver co-screenwriters Peter Nickowitz and Gregory Davis just hope viewers do not think to ask. Yet, there is something about the synaptic Cain and Abel relationship that resonates on a gut level. It will not stretch your mind or your consciousness, but it will get under your skin. Recommended on balance for the ensemble work, Jonathan screens this afternoon (4/24) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

A Violent Life: Corsican Gangsters and Separatists

Sometimes you have to wonder why contending parties would bother asserting their competing claims to hopelessly economically depressed territories, but Corsica is different. The picturesque Mediterranean isle has obvious potential for tourism and real estate development, if it were not for the unchecked organized crime and escalating separatist violence. Frankly, it is tricky to distinguish the separatist radicals from the gangsters in Thierry de Peretti’s A Violent Life (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Based on the in media res opening, we know things will get dicey for Stéphane. Initially, the university student was not inclined to be political. In fact, he was openly hostile to extremism on either side. However, when he rather inexplicable agrees to ferry a shipment of guns for his independence-supporting common crook pals (the motivation here is the film’s biggest pothole), he gets pinched and sent to prison, where he is radicalized by François, a grizzled separatist ring-leader.

When both men are released, Stéphane becomes François’s liaison to the domestic Corsican underground. Essentially, Stéphane’s old chums agree to lend their muscle to François’s network, in exchange for support and cover for their illicit business. However, this does not sit well with the international crime syndicates that the French government in Paris allows to operate freely on Corsica, as a way to keep the local populace cowed and marginalized, or so François explicitly charges. Regardless of conspiratorial arrangements, there are plenty of heavily armed people on the island, who are not happy with Stéphane and his comrades.

Violent Life tells an epic story that compares very directly to many Sicilian-based mafia dramas, but de Peretti’s approach, favoring medium-wide shots (or even wider), has a distancing effect. Stylistically, it shares a kinship with Garrone’s Gomorrah and to a lesser extent, The Connection. Despite all the resentments and rivalries erupting on-screen, de Peretti maintains a cold cerebral tone that gives the film the texture and vibe of a docudrama.

The ensemble mostly features local Corsican first-timers, but they certainly look the part. In fact, Jean Michelangeli’s quiet intensity as Stéphane rather effectively anchors the film. However, it is professional ringer Marie-Pierre Nouveau who makes the strongest emotional connection as Jeanne, Stéphane’s young-looking mother, who is desperate to protect her wayward son.

Corsica is not exactly top-of-mind for many Americans, but de Peretti and co-screenwriter Guillaume Breaud clearly illustrate how thorny life is there. It is an easy film to admire, but a hard film to love. Recommended for fans of ambitious crime dramas, A Violent Life releases today (4/24) on DVD, from Distrib Films US/Icarus.