J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Angry Sky

There are good reasons why Nick Piantanida did not factor in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but it was not due to a lack of guts. Arguably, the amateur skydiver put together history’s first private space program, but he fell short in his attempts to break the world record for highest parachute jump. Needless to say, falling short is a dangerous prospect when jumping from over one hundred thousand feet in the air. Jeff Tremaine chronicles Piantanida’s bid for glory in Angry Sky, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Piantanida was a restless non-conformist with a taste for adventure. He had quite the reputation as a basketball player in New Jersey, but he refused to sign a pro contract because he was more or less uncoachable. Thanks to his natural physique and swagger, Piantanida became the first climber to scale Angel Falls, despite his lack of mountaineering experience. He applied the same attitude to his parachuting career, but the results were not so happy.

In the mid-1960s, skydiving was quite the exotic pursuit. Naturally, Piantanida took to it like a fish to water. Before long, he became preoccupied (obsessed might be more accurate) with breaking the record for the highest jump. Technically, the title was held by a Soviet. However, USAF parachute-specialist Joseph Kittinger had successfully completed higher jumps, but intentionally declined to participate in the record-certifying process. Piantanidia meant to break both the official and unofficial records, but he would need to appeal to Space Race fervor to raise the necessary support and sponsorship.

There was a time when Piantanida was quite the national celebrity, but for most viewers who grew up after the Moon landing, his story will be a revelation. Tremaine presents a scrupulously balanced portrait of Piantanida, suggesting he is a figure of classically tragic hubris. Indeed, those who knew him well, including his widow and brothers, remember him as both courageous and irresponsible. Frankly, it is a far more nuanced and cautionary perspective than viewers might expect from Tremaine, one the co-creators and directors of the Jackass franchise. However, his interest in Piantanida makes sense, given his editorial background in extreme sports.

Tremaine uses some brief recreation sequences, which always risk riling up the documentary police, but in the case of Angry Sky, they are easy to identify as such and help convey the tenor of the era. He also scored extended interviews Piantanida’s wife Janice and Kittinger, who intuitively recognized the daredevil’s Achilles Heel. Without question, Kittinger, an eleven month Hanoi Hilton POW, deserves his own documentary, but it is nice to see aspects of his career acknowledged on-screen here.

There are moments in Angry Sky that will have viewers shaking their heads in disbelief, even though Tremaine maintains a sensitive tone throughout. It is downright strange it has taken so long for Piantanida to get the documentary treatment, since his story so nicely compliments that of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven astronauts. Give Tremaine credit for recognizing the void and filling it with a compelling film. Highly recommended for fans of extreme sports and The Right Stuff, Angry Sky screens again today (4/25) and tomorrow (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Backtrack

There are two things that always worked in Hitchcock movies: trains and psychiatrists. It is therefore a rather shrewd strategy for screenwriter Michael Petroni to combine them in his feature directorial debut. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but it is always stylish when head-shrinker Peter Bower tries to get his head around his traumatic past in Petroni’s Backtrack, which was recently acquired by Saban Films after successfully screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Still devastated by the accidental death of their pre-teen daughter, Bower and his wife Carol have moved back to Melbourne, hoping the change of scenery will do them good. For the time being, Bower’s practice consists of evaluation-cases referred by his former teacher, Dr. Duncan Steward. These patients seem to have a lot of issues, but they can hardly compare to the visibly disturbed teenager Elizabeth Valentine. She has all kinds of problems, starting with the fact her records say she died in 1987.

Evidently, one Elizabeth Valentine was a victim of a tragic train derailment accident that devastated Bowers’ provincial hometown of False Creek years ago. While Bowers investigates the circumstances surrounding the catastrophe, he starts to remember his own unfortunate involvement. As he stirs up a hornet’s nest of local resentment, the pushback of the living and the torments of the ghosts start to jog Bowers’ long suppressed memories.

Frankly, there are a lot of logical holes in Backtrack, but they are mostly concentrated in the first half hour. If you are willing to gloss over them, the film picks up considerable steam in the second and third acts. Throughout it all, Petroni demonstrates a mastery of atmosphere, building suspense through creepy ambiance and the restrained use of Grudge-like supernatural effects.

It is hard to imagine Adrien Brody saying “put another shrimp on the Barbie,” but his sad-eyed, hang-dog screen persona works quite well for Bowers. As usual, Sam Neill’s forceful bearing classes up the joint, even if his character, Dr. Steward, really doesn’t make a lot of sense. George Shevtsov also adds some grizzled seasoning as Bowers’ old man. However, Bruce Spence (whose mind-blowing credits include the Mad Max, Star Wars, Matrix, and Narnia franchises) arguably lands the best scene as Bowers’ jazz musician patient.

Part of the fun of Backtrack is identifying where the pieces fit seamlessly into each other and where they are just sort of jammed together. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio (who lensed the breathtaking Canopy) gives it all the perfect look of noir foreboding. Petroni rewards viewers who can overlook the narrative’s early ragged edges with a lot of clever bits down the stretch. Recommended for psychological thriller fans not inclined towards pedantry, Backtrack will eventually hit theaters following its successful world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Tribeca 15: Misery Loves Comedy

Stand-up comedy is a tough racket. When you’re on, you’re killing and when you’re off, you’re dying—and you’re rarely anywhere in between. What kind of person is drawn to this business? Depressive neurotics. At least that is the casual thesis of Kevin Pollak’s riff-heavy interview documentary Misery Loves Comedy (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, ahead of its official opening today at the IFC Center.

To explore the notion that comedy is either some kind of cathartic therapy or sick compulsion, Pollak interviewed over sixty comics and performers, as well as Jimmy Fallon. Of course, everyone was “on.” That is the whole point. Nevertheless, they said some revealing things. After all, they just can’t help themselves.

Pollak and editor Robert Legato went for and nailed the rat-a-tat pacing. They never linger long enough after a punchline for the audience to supply their own rim-shots. As a result, there are a lot of laughs in Misery. A good deal of attention will be focused on big name like Penn Jillette, Steve Coogan, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, and Richard Lewis, as well as filmmakers like Jason Reitman and James L. Brooks. Fittingly, Lewis Black and Jim Norton are also prominent in the film, considering they joined Pollak for the Tribeca Talk and will also represent at the IFC Center. However, some of the best material come from unlikely sources, like journeyman comic Dana Gould getting in a killer bit about his struggle with depression and Freddie Prinze, Jr’s reflections on his father.

Listening to Black and Norton after the screening really helps underscore Pollak’s general point. Clearly, they are both gallopingly neurotic, but in vastly different ways. It also provided Pollak with an opportunity to respond to criticism regarding the alleged lack of diversity in the film, but such charges are completely unfair. For instance, he features Whoopi Goldberg and she isn’t even funny.

Sure, you could ask about dozens of absent well-known comics, but a film like Misery is largely captive to people’s schedules. You get who you can get and then you go. Pollak’s film never delves too deeply into serious pain (arguably, Adam Carolla’s Road Hard offers a more revealing look into the trials of life as a comedian), but so what? It’s breezy and consistently amusing, which is what most people want from a comedy doc. Recommended for stand-up fans, Misery Loves Comedy opens today (4/24) at the IFC Center.

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Tribeca ’15: All Eyes and Ears

During his confirmation hearing, our current ambassador to China, former Sen. Max Baucus, admitted: “I’m no real expert on China.” At least he was being honest. In contrast, his predecessor’s predecessor certainly was. A former Ambassador to Singapore, Gov. Jon Huntsman was familiar with the region and fluent in Mandarin. However, his greatest asset was probably his adopted daughter Gracie Mei Huntsman. Vanessa Hope chronicles their posting to Beijing in All Eyes and Ears (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Huntsman’s nomination was a bit of a surprise in 2009, especially considering Huntsman was still widely seen as a conservative at the time. He would leave the Utah Governor’s Mansion with high marks from the Cato Institute, after having signed an ambition school voucher program into law. However, it was fortunate America had an experienced adult serving as ambassador during Huntsman’s eventful tenure, which would include the aborted Jasmine Revolution and the diplomatic crisis arising from blind dissident attorney Chen Guangcheng’s request for asylum.

Essentially, All Eyes follows Huntsman’s term of service from three perspectives: that of the diplomat, his adopted daughter, and the so-called “Barefoot Lawyer.” While braiding the three threads can get a little unwieldy, it is crucial to have Chen’s viewpoint, because it often acts as a corrective to Communist Party’s narrative. As a diplomat, Huntsman acts scrupulously diplomatic, whereas young Gracie Huntsman has a very personal reaction to the events unfolding.

Of the three vantage points, Hope arguably favors hers—and it is easy to see why. She is clearly a “good kid” with remarkable poise. Commentators in the film make the point probably no other Chinese adoptee will ever return to their birthplace under similar circumstances. Most likely, this is true, but Hope never really delves into what Gracie Huntsman truly represents to the Chinese people. She documents the Huntsman family’s return to the orphanage she was adopted from, which all parties clearly find quite moving. However, China’s One Child policies were very likely a major reason why her name is now Huntsman, yet they are only mentioned in passing. Likewise, the widening gap between the oligarchical urban haves and the provincial have-nots are a direct cause of other children getting put up for adoption. Only Chen talks about these issues in the film, which is why it is so important to have him there.

Frankly, so many significant events transpired during Huntsman’s stint and Hope’s three primary POV figures are so compelling, All Eyes could easily be expanded to a longer form series, which reportedly might be in the works. Yet, somewhat ironically, Hope’s short doc China in Three Words (also featuring the Huntsmans) is even more incisive and grabby. Still, Chen Guangcheng and Gracie Huntsman definitely deserve your full attention (but some of the old China hands, not so much). Recommended as a reflection of a good deal of contemporary Chinese reality and the often awkward messiness of diplomacy, All Eyes and Ears screens again tonight (4/24), at the reasonably located Chelsea Bowtie, as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Because I was a Painter: Art and Artists that Survived the Concentration Camps

Josef Richter’s life could inspire a truly great narrative film. In 1943, the Polish resistance fighter knowingly infiltrated Sobibor with the express intention of documenting the horrors within. Since smuggling in a camera would be impractical, Richter smuggled out hand-drawings of concentration camp life. (Conveniently for screenwriters, almost nothing else is known about the rest of his life, leaving ample room for artistic license.) Although his intent was more journalistic than artistic, Richter is justly included in Christphe Cognet’s study of the art and artists that survived the Holocaust in Because I was a Painter (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Painters paint and sketch artists sketch. That is what they do, regardless where they might be. Therefore, the artists consigned to the National Socialist camps logically used their art to process the madness. Some sought beauty amid the terror, while others considered such attempts impossible. Indeed, this is the great pseudo-debate of Because, but it is hardly one viewers can join. After all, every artist profiled in the film came to their opinions by enduring the worst humanity can inflict on fellow human beings.

Obviously, the work featured in the film is extremely powerful and extreme in nature. Unfortunately, Cognet’s detached, slow cinema approach does not always serve his subject matter particularly well. He deliberately keeps the audience at arm’s length, interspersing his interviews with long, drawn-out tracking shots of the former camp sites that now look deceptively peaceful and overgrown by nature.

Yes, time moves forward, but the past can still haunt the present (and the future). More narrative structure and more context would increase our understanding of the artists Cognet profiles. Some pieces, such as Dinah Gottliebova’s portraits of Mengele’s experiment subjects (previously documented in Hilary Helstein’s more aesthetically conventional As Seen Through These Eyes), need the barest of background to be fully appreciated. For the most part though, their work literally speaks for itself.

Indeed, the work of the artists surveyed is so powerful precisely because it incorporates art as it is ideally understood, as well as a form of journalistic documentation and a method of asserting one’s existence. There are many valuable sequences and riveting oral histories in the film, but Cognet’s stylistic severity is sometimes counter-productive. Even though it can be frustrating, it is still good that we have this film. Recommended for students of art and history, Because I was a Painter opens today (4/24) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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The Water Diviner: The Ghosts of Gallipoli

Joshua Connor has the Australian version of The Shine. The grizzled farmer senses certain things, like where to drill for water. If he can only get to the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli, he is sure he can find the remains of his three sons who died in combat there. That is something the British authorities are not so eager to facilitate in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

All of three of Connor’s sons enlisted in the ANZACs and all three presumably perished at Gallipoli. When the bitter news drives their mother to her grave, the salt-of-the-earth Connor promises his late wife he will find their sons and bring them home to her. However, Gallipoli is not exactly a tourist attraction in 1919. The British military consul flatly refuses him access to the prohibited beaches. Of course, he is not about to be dissuaded after such a long and arduous journey.

Bribing a fisherman, Connor makes his to the fateful beaches, where a combined team of British and Turkish military personnel are working to identify and properly bury as many fallen combatants as possible. Although Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes is a little put off by Connor’s sudden appearance, his Turkish counterpart, Maj. Hasan convinces him to assist Connor’s search. Sure enough, the farmer quickly finds his sons, but only two of them. Through a little bureaucratic digging, Hasan discovers the eldest Connor brother might have been taken captive as a POW.

Suddenly, Connor has a glimmer of hope and a knotty mystery to entangle. The British are even more determined to send him packing, but Connor finds unlikely allies in Hasan and his veteran aide-de-camp, Sgt. Jemal. As Turkish nationalists loyal to Ataturk, they are more concerned with the Greek occupation of Smyrna. The fact that Hasan commanded Turkish troops at Gallipoli also makes their relationship somewhat awkward, but the slowly develop a degree of mutual respect. Much to his surprise, Connor also finds himself acting as a surrogate father for Orhan the urchin-like son of Ayshe, the widowed proprietor of the hotel he is staying at.

In Australia, Gallipoli is still the source of strong national emotion, so this was a somewhat bold choice for Crowe’s feature directorial debut. Presumably, his countrymen are okay with it, since Diviner tied with The Babadook for best picture Australian Academy Awards. Frankly, Crowe’s film should have had the award all to itself or shared it with the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination. Crowe uses an epic story to tell an acutely personal story—and quite effectively so.

Screenwriters Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight accurately reference all the macro forces roiling the Ottoman Empire’s final days, but they keep a lot of details hazy, such as Ataturk’s commitment to secularism. These days, Turkey could use a reminder on that score. Nevertheless, it is reasonable for the film to reflect Connor’s naïve confusion with Turkish mores and politics.

As his own lead, Crowe is perfectly on-key as Connor, the quietly grieving father. It is the sort of understated performance that pays far greater dividends than overindulgence, over-the-top Meryl Streepian wailing and garment-rending. The French-Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko also puts the “hot” in hotelier as Ayshe, developing some better-than-you-expect chemistry with Crowe. However, it is Yilmaz Erdoğan who really puts a stamp on the film, oozing integrity while avoiding cliché as the hard but compassionate Maj. Hasan.

There are a lot of potential potholes in Diviner, including Connor’s prophetic dreams and his chaste non-courtship of Ayshe. However, Crowe consistently brings a light touch to bear in scenes other directors would drive into the ground. More often than not, his filmmaking instincts are correct. Recommended for those who enjoy sweeping historicals, The Water Diviner opens today (4/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Song of Lahore

There have been many notable fusions of jazz and South Asian musical forms over the years, such as Buddy Rich’s percussion duets with Alla Rakha and the Indo-Jazz Fusion double quintet co-led by Joe Harriott and John Mayer. However, the impetus for such explorations typically started on the jazz side. The traditional musicians of Pakistan’s Sachal Studios are a different case entirely. They decided to experiment with jazz forms and they did it at a time when simply being a musician could get them killed in Islamist Pakistan. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy & Andy Schocken chronicle their unlikely collaboration with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Song of Lahore, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

In Taliban infested Pakistan, culture of any sort is largely prohibited. It was not always so. The Sachal Studio musicians represent a long line of artists, stretching back to the time when Lahore was a renowned center of music. Things were bad under the Zia regime, improved somewhat after his fall, but became even more dangerous in recent years. Identifying the need for a safe creative outlet, Izzat Majeed secretly opened Sachar Studios.

Finally, Pakistani musicians had a place to play together. With their chops rebounding, Majeed challenges them to tackle American style jazz, hoping it will broaden their potential base of listeners. The idea that the commercial popularity of jazz looks enviable to Pakistani musicians is a pretty depressing thought. Nevertheless there are kinships between the two musical traditions, most notably the improvisational ethos.

Of course, one of the bestselling jazz records of all time was Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, featuring his classic rendition of “Take Five.” When the Sachar Studio posts a video of the ambitious arrangement of “Take Five” on youtube, its viral appeal quickly surpasses their expectations. Soon, they are invited to play a special concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. However, melding the two ensembles will be a tricky proposition.

Wow, it is simultaneously inspiring and horrifying to see musicians risking everything to play jazz. Indeed, Song leaves little doubt jazz is the music of freedom, giving a deserved shout out to the U.S. State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program of the 1960s. Longtime fans and patrons will also find it cool to see J@LC mainstays like Ron Westray, Victor Goines, Ryan Kisor, and Joe Temperley on the big screen. However, not to be pedantic, but the frequent references to “Dave Brubeck’s Take Five” get a little irksome. Actually, Paul Desmond, a longtime Brubeck band-member and leader in his own right, composed “Take Five” and his alto solo (along with Joe Morello’s classic drum solo) helped make it so enduringly popular.

Regardless, Obaid-Chinoy & Schocken show a fine general understanding of the music and appreciate it enough to let us hear some of the performances in their entirety. Ellington’s “Limbo Jazz” is an especially hospitable vehicle for the combined group’s improvisations.

Song of Lahore does something that is almost impossible. It gives viewers a faint glimmer of hope for the future of Pakistan. It also features some wonderfully swinging and sophisticated music. Highly recommended, Song of Lahore screens again today (4/23), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Fastball

They say for fastball pitchers, it more about movement and location then velocity, unless they can hurl it over 100 mph. In that case, it really is about velocity. Some of the game’s best power pitchers and power hitters explain what it is like to be on either side of the high heat in Jonathan Hock’s enormously entertaining Fastball, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Obviously it is almost impossible to compare pitchers from different eras, but Hock and his on-screen experts will develop a methodology to do just that. Hock surveys the game-changingest fastball pitchers throughout baseball history, starting with Walter Johnson’s celebrated 122 feet per second fastball, segueing into Bob Feller’s still impressive 98.6 mph benchmark. Yankee fans will be delighted to see Goose Gossage get ample screen time, but will be baffled by the absence of Mariano Rivera (what, the cutter doesn’t count?). Still, future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter turns up as consolation (presumably he is like Martin Scorsese in classic cinema docs, if you can get him, you find a place for him).

Okay, fans from every city might wonder why their respective teams are not better represented, but nobody will question the time spent with Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan. There are even more Hall of Famers represented on the hitters’ side of the equation, including George Brett (yes, the pine tar incident is revisited), Hank Aaron, and Al Kaline. Some fans might find it rather bittersweet seeing the recently passed Ernie Banks and Tony Gwynn adding even more class to the film.

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud stories in Fastball, but there is also a lot of nostalgia. In fact, the film becomes unapologetically sentimental and empathetic when chronically the story of Steve Dalkowski, the almost Major Leaguer who partly inspired the film Bull Durham. It is a tough game sometimes.

Surprisingly, Hock even incorporates lessons in physics and physiology into the film that really heighten our appreciation of fastball pitching (and hitting). The manner in which the documentary breaks down and adjusts fastball measurement over time might sound a little geeky, but it is totally perfect for such a wonky, numbers-obsessed sport. To Hock’s credit, Fastball is willing to make the call as to which pitcher really was the fastest, without any hedging or second-guessing, so there is even some suspense built in.

Throughout the film, Hock always hits the right notes and Kevin Costner’s narration is the perfect finishing touch. If you are a baseball fan, Fastball will bring make fond memories of the game and if you do not follow the boys of summer, you can still enjoy the anecdotes. Highly recommended, Fastball screens again this Saturday (4/25) and Sunday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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The Forger: Travolta’s Monet

Raymond J. Cutter is not exactly Raffles or the Pink Panther. This working class art thief and forger is a decidedly Gloomy Gus. His son Will’s terminal illness gives him a very valid reason. To get out of prison while there is still time to reconnect with the young lad, Cutter makes a deal with the devil involving a Monet. Eventually, things will get caperish in Philip Martin’s The Forger (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

With a little less than a year left on his sentence, Cutter would ordinarily sit tight and do the time. Unfortunately, time is one thing Will Cutter does not have, so Cutter reaches out to Keegan, a Boston mobster, to “fix” things with the judge. Of course, there will be a quid pro quo. In this case, Cutter must steal Monet’s Woman with a Parasol on loan from the National Gallery, replacing it with a fake. It seems Keegan desperately needs to clear a debt to his art-loving cartel connection—hence the caper.

It takes a while to get to the actual art thievery though. Instead, Martin and screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio force viewers to cool their heels in a lot of hospital waiting rooms and sit through many father-and-son heart-to-hearts. Patience and character development are both good things, but at some point the film starts to feel like it is stalling for time.

It has been a while since Travolta rekindled that old magic on-screen, but in a way that works to his advantage here. Believe it or not, he is quite good as Cutter, forcefully conveying all his guilt and regret, without wallowing in melodramatic excess. Unfortunately, Tye Sheridan is pretty dull and wooden as his son, whereas it is hard to know what to make of Christopher Plummer as Travolta’s extremely Irish father.

There are random flashes of chemistry between Travolta and Abigail Spencer’s Special Agent Paisley, but the film goes out of its way to keep them apart. The actual heist is well executed, but the film’s baffling casts its lead characters as Red Sox fans, thereby making it extremely difficult to establish any degree of viewer sympathy.

Much to the frustration of his fans, The Forger probably ranks as one of Travolta’s better vehicles in recent years (anyone care to make a case for Old Dogs or Wild Hogs? Anyone?). It is not without merit, but it is maddeningly uneven and undeniably slow out of the blocks. Watchable but hardly worthy of Manhattan movie ticket prices, The Forger opens tomorrow (4/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Sunrise

If Andrew Vachss made a Giallo in Mumbai, you would have to give it your full attention. Arguably, India could use a child protection advocate and cautionary story teller like Vachss, judging the reported 60,000 children that go missing in the country every year. It is a grim statistic that opens Partho Sen-Gupta’s hallucinatory but hard-hitting Sunrise (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Lakshman Joshi is a social services inspector with the Mumbai police force (think SVU). His own daughter Aruna was kidnapped and the copper still isn’t over it. Neither is his wife Leela. In fact, they might both be losing their grip on reality, but in very different ways. When Joshi starts investigating the suspected abduction of another young girl named Naina, her case and that of his daughter become intertwined with the presumed visions Joshi has had of a seedy nightclub ironically called Paradise.

As Joshi chases a shadowy figure through the city’s rain-drenched streets, he experiences increasing difficulty distinguishing reality from his visions. It might even be bigger than Joshi’s problematic perception, as the film’s border between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly porous.

Sunrise is the sort of massively stylish Lynchian-film-on-acid that can overwhelm even the sturdiest screen presence. However, Adil Hussain’s absolutely riveting work as Joshi stands out and stands tall. It is a haunting, soul-searing performance that is all the more impressive given the gallons upon gallons of water that are dumped on him over the course of the film.

The ultra-noir and uber-surreal tone of Sunrise makes it unlikely to go mainstream, which is too bad, because it has an important message. Coming in the wake of the India’s Daughter censorship controversy, it viscerally addresses another social pathology many Indians are inclined to sweep under the rug. With recent studies suggesting 53% of the nation’s children have suffered some form of sexual abuse, you can quibble with numbers here and there, but the trends and the magnitudes are undeniably alarming.

Be that as it sadly is, Sunrise is a bravura work of auteurist cinema. Sen-Gupta and cinematographer Jean-Marc Ferriere give the film a striking look, using the lurid Giallo color palate and the traditional nocturnal neons of film noir. Highly recommended for fans of high-end mind-benders with a social purpose, Sunrise screens again tonight (4/22) and tomorrow (4/23), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Wondrous Boccaccio

When you are waiting to possibly die, telling stories is a fine way to pass the time—especially if you have sworn off hanky-panky. Such is the position ten high-born friends find themselves in when they seek refuge in the countryside from the Black Death ravaging Renaissance Florence. They will learn how to cook for themselves and will take turns telling stories in Paolo & Vittorio Taviani’s Wondrous Boccaccio (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

The plague has reduced Florence to anarchy, so a group of friends retreats to a country villa. There they will either wait out the horrors racking the city or die in relative comfort. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (generally thought to be inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron), they will tell stories to entertain each other. The Taviani Brothers chose five out of the one hundred assorted tales and anecdotes, three of which live up to their implied greatest hits status and two that seem rather slight.

The telling of tales begins with perhaps the best, the almost Shakespearean saga of Catalina, a young wife who apparently dies of the plague and is callously cast away by her mother-in-law, only to be reclaimed first in death and then in life by her secret admirer. It is followed by the Medieval O. Henry tale of a lonely falconer who serves up his beloved bird to Giovanna the woman who spurned him, yet now has her own reasons for needing his now broiled companion. The Brothers Taviani also evoke the spirit of Pasolini with a wild and bawdy tale of cloistered sex and intrigue, mercifully sparing us the auteur’s excesses.

Unlike other Decameron adaptations and anthology films in general, the Tavianis are most interested in the framing narrative rather than the constituent tales. The opening scenes in Florence are strikingly stark and stylish, again inviting comparison to Pasolini and Terry Gilliam.

At times the cast is a bit difficult to distinguish from one another, like good Italian proletariats, but Josafat Vagni and Jasmine Trinca definitely stand out in the Falconer’s Tale. However, cinematographer Simone Zampagni, costumer Lina Nerli Taviani, and production designer Emita Frigato’s team are the real stars of the film. Wondrous just looks like a work of art worth framing.

Wondrous is actually often quite ribald, but it is such a classy package it always feels like proper prestige cinema (except maybe during the convent tale). Recommended for those who enjoy mature literary adaptations, Wondrous Boccaccio screens again tonight (4/22) and Sunday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Kung Fu Killer: Martial Arts is for Killing

Hahou Mo is no Hannibal Lecter, but this will still be a case where a killer is recruited to catch a killer. In his thirst to become the number one martial artist, Hahou Mo won a fateful match, but lost his honor and his liberty. Although he dearly regrets losing control, another martial artist is deliberately following his fatal example. The mystery man is seeking out all the masters Hahou Mo beat, but his challenges necessarily end in death. Teddy Chan marries together the martial arts and serial killer genres in Kung Fu Killer (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Even though he was once a police instructor, nobody in Stanley Prison messes with Hahou Mo, for obvious reasons. However, when he hears of the first victim and the circumstances surrounding his murder, Hahou Mo has to do something dramatic to attract the attention of Detective Inspector Luk Yuen-sum, unfortunately for seventeen of his fellow inmates. At first, she wants nothing to do with him, but he is soon remanded into her custody when one of the names he gives her turns out to be the next victim.

The newly freed Hahou Mo quickly deduces the pathological Fung Yu-sau is working his way through the masters of each respective discipline: boxing, kicking, grappling, qi, weapons, and inner energy. As the former head of the Mergence school of Kung Fu, his name is all over the latter. To raise the stakes even further, his former school is now overseen by Sinn Ying, the love of his life.

You don’t need to read a book on screenwriting to guess Hahou Mo and Fung Yu-sau will go toe-to-toe in the third act. Even though the highway setting is somewhat reminiscent of scenes in Iceman, the climatic duel lives up to expectations and then some. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is bruising yet quite cinematic. Fans only complaint might be some of the earlier duels end too soon, but at least Louis Fan gets his money’s worth as Weapons Champ Hung Yip.

As Hahou Mo, Yen once again demonstrates why he is one of the biggest stars in the world. His skills are as sharp as ever and he remains a likable, charismatic screen presence. He has okay chemistry with Michelle Bai’s Sinn Yang, who also displays some strong martial arts chops. Indeed, she acquits herself quite well in her action feature spot, but again, it is too bad this did not become an extended centerpiece scene, like Jing Tian’s spectacular face-off with Andy On in Special ID. Typically known for comedic roles and psychopaths, Wang Baoqiang finds unexpected pathos in Fung Yu-sau, playing him as both a sinister and tragic figure, almost like a Phantom of the Opera.

Due to Chinese censorship, Chan’s film was known as Kung Fu Jungle in Mainland theaters, which seems pretty ridiculous, but at least some apparatchik was able to exercise his power. Needless to say, Kung Fu Killer is more accurately descriptive. Yen delivers the goods and scores of figures associated with old school HK action films get to feel the love in smaller supporting roles. Darker than many of Yen’s films, but still all kinds of fun, Kung Fu Killer is highly recommended for martial arts fans when it opens this Friday (4/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Wednesday 04:45

Stelios Dimitrakopoulos is a jazz club owner in Greece. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn he is a terrible businessman. With his debt to a Romanian gangster about to come due, Dimitrakopoulos will scramble to find a way to save his club while also fulfilling his more mundane responsibilities in Alexis Alexiou’s Wednesday 04:45 (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Dimitrakopoulos has great taste when it comes to identifying emerging Balkan jazz talent, but he is not so hot at the rest of club management. Through Vassos, an old crony-gone-more-crooked, Dimitrakopoulos arranged a loan from “the Romanian.” Naturally, he cannot pay, so he passively agrees to sign over his club. Being Greece, this turns out to be quite a complicated process. In his dealings with Vassos, Dimitrakopoulos crosses paths with Omar, an Albanian who also owes money to the Romanian. However, Omar is not so accepting of the situation.

Eventually, high tempers and deep debts lead to violence. It all rather baffles Dimitrakopoulos as he tries to run his more workaday errands. Of course, it is just a matter of time before the bedlam completely engulfs him.

Alexiou practically screams at the audience, it is all about the austerity program. However, German and American audiences might have trouble ginning up either sympathy or outrage for Dimitrakopoulos’s plight. Not to defend loan sharks, but generally speaking, it is understood when someone borrows money they will eventually have to pay it back, with some sort of interest. Dimitrakopoulos seems to understand this only slightly better than the Greek government. Frankly, considering who he is in hock to, he is getting off quite easy.

Nevertheless, Alexiou’s noir style and thriller mechanics are quite strong. The Athens backdrop gives it an almost postindustrial-dystopian-noir ambiance, sort of like Godard’s Alphaville, but more neon. Cinematographer Christos Karamanis makes the rain-glistening streets and hazy nocturnal club scenes look great, in a genre appropriate way. The acts Dimitrakopoulos books also sound quite intriguing based on snippets we get to hear.

As Dimitrakopoulos, Stelios Mainas is a droopy-eyed middle-aged anti-hero in the Jean Reno tradition. He looks the part as he steadily ratchets up Dimitrakopoulos’s resentment-stoked intensity. In some ways, 04:45 compares to Schumacher’s Falling Down, at least until Alexiou unleashes his inner Johnnie To with a storm-drenched rooftop confrontation. Altogether, it is a distinctive thriller. Recommended for noir fans who do not consider the Regal Battery Park prohibitively inconvenient, Wednesday 04:45 screens again tonight (4/21), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Anita B: Surviving the Aftermath

Anne Frank should have had the chance to become a young woman like Anita. Although she is a Holocaust survivor, she is ready to start living again. However, unlike the extended relatives she now lives with, she is absolutely unwilling to forget the past. This leads to tension in Roberto Faenza’s Anita B. (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Somehow, Anita survived Auschwitz, but most of her Hungarian family did not. She is finally leaving the Red Cross shelter to move in with the only relatives she has left—her Aunt Monika (sister of her dearly departed mother), Uncle Aron, and his kid brother Eli. Thanks to the expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland, they were able to find a sufficient flat in their new Czechoslovakian homeland.  Much to Anita’s surprise, Aunt Monika is decidedly cold when receiving her, but not Eli. Anita tries to discourage her advances, but she slowly falls for his awkward charms.

Whenever Anita tries to talk about her horrific experiences, she is abruptly shut-down. As a result, she can only really talk to Roby, Monika and Aron’s toddler son, who immediately adores Anita. Unfortunately, as she slowly falls for Eli, the mounting Communist oppression and the widespread anti-Semitic sentiment they foster do not bode well for the future. That is exactly why David, Anita’s salt-of-the-earth workmate, plans to immigrate to what will soon be Israel.

Anita B. is an English-language Italian-production set in Sudetenland Czechoslovakia, featuring Hungarian characters, but it does not have the tin ear you might fear. Faenza also shows a fair degree of restraint when it comes to the melodrama. The film rather matter-of-factly depicts Anita’s struggles with the coming-of-age process and the realities of being Jewish in postwar Eastern Europe.

Eline Powell (who had a small but memorable role in Private Peaceful) sensitively portrays Anita’s strength and vulnerability. On the other hand, Irish actor Robert Sheehan somehow combines the worst character traits of a womanizing cad and a gangly sad sack as Eli. However, Clive Riche and Jane Alexander add a lot of seasoning as an understanding doctor full of surprises and Sarah the local recruiter for the Zionist immigration movement.

There are no scenes of the actual horrors of the Holcaust in Anita B. Some might find that questionable, but this way, the unsavoriness of post-war anti-Semitism is not dwarfed on screen by the enormity of Anita’s time in Auschwitz. It is a respectful film and perhaps a tad too tidy, but it focuses on an intriguing but under-dramatizing transitional period of history. Evangelical audiences will also appreciate it holds pro-life implications, in a variety of ways. Recommended for those looking for a straight-over-the-plate, life-affirming film, Anita B. opens this Friday (4/24) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.


Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: When Phnom Penh Rocked

Before the Khmer Rouge take-over, Phnom Penh was a happening city, particularly if you were a musician. Once their reign of terror commenced, the city was the worst possible place to be from, especially for musicians. The few surviving veterans of the Phnom Penh music scene reflect on the lives and culture lost during the period of Maoist mass murder in John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

Frankly, it is a revelation just what a swinging good time it was in the capitol city during the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the early 1970s. There was a healthy nightlife, creating beaucoup jobs for musicians and singers. There was Pen Ran, who specialized in the sort of cute pop stylings you could also find on the American charts in the early sixties. Everyone loved Ros Serey Sothea, because she was the country girl that made good. Actually, the early stages of her career were a little rocky, but everything fell into place when she joined forces with popular bandleader Sinn Sisamouth.

Stylistically, Cambodian rock and pop followed a similar development pattern as it did in the west, except maybe not quite as heavy. Regardless, Pou Vannary made her name with hit covers of western songs, incorporating both the original English lyrics and Khmer translations. The scene rocked, but it looks and sounds like star vocalists often still fronted full bands, which was cool. Of course, we know it will end in incomprehensible tragedy and death.

DTIF is at its best surveying the Cambodian rock scene, giving viewers a good sense of each artist’s personal sound. Unfortunately, Pirozzi’s devotes a lot of time to an overly simplistic rehashing of early 1970s history. It is problematically reductive to say America bombed Viet Cong in Cambodia, therefore Pol Pot necessarily killed two million people. After all, a Communist conquest was exactly what the American government wanted to avoid.

Regardless, when Pirozzi sticks with the music and the oral history of survivors, DTIF is on rock-solid ground. Especially moving is the sequence chronicling Cheam Chansovannary’s radio performance of “Oh! Phnom Penh” when the city was finally recolonized after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

One striking aspect of DTIF is just how much of the music has survived, at least when compared to the almost entirely devastated Cambodian cinematic heritage. Watching Davy Chou’s masterful documentary Golden Slumbers will give audiences a sense of how average Cambodians deeply mourn the loss of their beloved movies on a personal level. While Chou’s elegant elegy is the considerably superior film, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is still well worth seeing when it opens tomorrow (4/22) in New York, at Film Forum.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Tribeca ’15: A Faster Horse

It is a scrappy underdog story, whose hero is the world’s oldest automotive company. Granted, old Henry Ford was a hard cuss to love, but at a time when we lucky taxpayers were underwriting all of its competitors’ bad decisions and Detroit, the seat of the nation’s auto industry, was declaring bankruptcy, it was hard to root against the Ford Motor Company. Not only did they refuse government bailout money, they announced an ambitious redesign of their signature vehicle, the Mustang, to be released in time for its fiftieth anniversary. It will be Chief Program Engineer Dave Pericak’s task to ensure the new Mustang is both innovative but also true to the beloved car’s tradition. David Gelb follows the process from drawing board to dealer lot in A Faster Horse (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Yes, Steve McQueen drove a Mustang in the eternally cool Bullitt chase scene. Yet, the Mustang was conceived as a high performance car that was affordable for middle class consumers—a classically American concept if ever there was one. However, it was not so easy convincing Henry Ford II, who was still smarting from the Edsel. Horse gives full credit to then Ford exec Lee Iacocca for his role in championing the Mustang. Gelb also nicely captures the love and esteem many Mustang enthusiasts and motor clubs have for their car of choice.

Nonetheless, most of film follows the design, testing, and manufacturing process. Frankly, it is refreshing to see a film that values commerce and industry. Gelb is also fortunate that most of the Ford team are enthusiastic and rather eloquent. After all, they are all delighted to be working on the pride of the company’s fleet. Whether you are in engineering or marketing, everyone at Ford wants to work on the Mustang—and if you work at General Motors, you want to be at Ford.

Clearly, there are real stakes at play in Horse. However, Gelb does not merely bury his lede, he covers it in cement and drops it in the East River. The GM and Fiat Chrysler bailouts and Detroit’s economic woes are briefly mentioned at the start of the doc, only to be neatly swept under the rug. Given the situation, the guts and vision of the Mustang redevelopment project were rather remarkable.

Not to be spoilery, but Horse ends on a wholly satisfying note. Let’s be honest, there is a reason Gelb’s film is about the Mustang instead of the Camaro. It is more-or-less the same reason Ford has outperformed its subsidized rivals. Fifty years from now, you will probably still be able to get your Mustangs serviced. Had it been less timid in exploring the full economic and political context of the fiftieth anniversary redesign, Horse could have been a truly great documentary. As it stands, it is highly watchable and a nice change of pace from the typical demonization of the auto industry. Recommended for car fans and viewers fascinated by processes, A Faster Horse screens again tonight (4/20), Thursday (4/23), and Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’15: Greatest Catch Ever (a Short Spike Lee Joint)

The sports media loves to depict New England Coach Bill Belichick as a football genius and the New York Football Giants’ Tom Coughlin as an anachronistic disciplinarian. However, Belichick has an O and 2 record against Coughlin in the Super Bowl, so the New York coach must be an even smarter genius. Of course, Coughlin had help from some spectacular play-making. None stands out more than David Tyree’s one-handed leaping grab to keep the Giants’ fourth quarter go-ahead scoring drive alive. That 2008 Super Bowl catch is chronicled, analyzed, and celebrated in Spike Lee’s documentary short, Greatest Catch Ever, which screened yesterday as part of a special ESPN Sports Film Talk at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Spike Lee was watching Sports Center one night when he heard Tom Brady describe a teammate’s snag as the best he’d ever seen. That stuck in Lee’s craw and ultimately resulted in this short documentary. The format is simple. Lee interviewed the principle Giants players, in their practice facility, with their Super Bowl XLII and XLVI championship banners ever so conspicuous. Tyree, Coughlin, Plaxico Burress, Eli Manning, and linesman Chris Snee leave the trash-talking to Lee, but he is happy to fill that void.

However, Lee finds ways to open up the film a little, including traveling to the home of former New England safety Rodney Harrison, who is the Bill Buckner of the famous catch. He also compares and contrasts Tyree’s grab with subsequent Giants highlight catches superhumanly pulled in by Mario Manningham and Odell Beckham, Jr.

It is amazing how right Lee is on sports and how wrong he gets nearly everything else. Like Alex Gibney, he should pretty much stick to sports docs (or Scientology exposes, if he wants a real challenge). He was amusing ripping on Belichick both in the film and during the post-screening panel discussion. Yet, to Lee’s credit, he generously gave credit in turn to Harrison, for agreeing to face his ghosts on camera. Tyree, Burress, and Snee were also present, looking fit, and clearly enjoying the opportunity to reminisce and needle each other.

Even Giants fans will be surprised how many stories were intertwined with the big catch (depicted via stills, due to NFL Films’ difficulty playing nice with others). Christians in the audience were especially moved by the role Tyree’s faith played in the famous play. At about half an hour, Greatest Catch Ever always feels brisk and muscular—and never padded. In fact, one suspects Lee could have easily expanded it to forty-five minutes without repeating himself. Altogether, Tribeca’s presentation was a highly enjoyable trip down memory lane. New York Football Giants fans will love it when it eventually airs on ESPN, but the network’s Belichick apologists probably not so much.

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24 Days: Abduction as Hate Crime

The savage Charlie Hebdo shootings only just happened on January 7th of this year, but one can already feel complacency re-settling back in, predictably like the turning of the seasons. After all, it was not without recent precedent. The kidnapping and torture of Ilan Halimi was a hate crime that shocked France, but only too briefly. Taking the subsequent book written by Halimi’s mother Ruth as his source material, Alexandre Arcady chronicles the tragic events step-by-chilling-step in 24 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ilan Halimi was a likable young man, who was always close to his mother and sister, but was also rebuilding his somewhat strained relationship with his divorced father in the months leading up to his abduction. Although he simply worked at a cell phone store, a Muslim gang operating in both Paris and Ivory Coast deliberately targeted him because he was Jewish. In their hatred, they assumed all Jews had money. Alas, the Halimis were rather lower middle class with little ready cash on hand. Therefore, they had little choice but to alert the police.

The police’s secret involvement will be both a curse and a blessing. Initially, the negotiator advising Ilan’s father Didier as the family’s chosen representative is somewhat helpful reducing the unrealistic 450,000 Euro ransom. Tragically though, the police’s refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of the crime leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the “Gang of Barbarians,” as the abductors called themselves.

Considering how easy it is to google Ilan Halimi, it is not much of a spoiler to say the case ends quite dreadfully. However, Arcady maintains a great deal of suspense, as the horror and outrage steadily mount. Yet, this is not a propagandistic passion play. Arcady and co-writers Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Frèche prefer to focus on resulting emotional toll the ordeal takes on the Halimi family. It is not just limited to his nuclear family either. With the police tightly controlling Didier Halimi’s contact with the kidnappers, the Gang of Barbarians expand their game of psychological terrorism, sending unspeakably graphic photos of Ilan to his cousin and rabbi.

Zabou Breitman viscerally expresses the anguish and sorrow of Ruth Halimi, but it is the quieter, more understated work of Pascal Elbé that will truly haunt viewers over time. Likewise, Jacques Gamblin dials it way down as Commandant Delcour, a sort of problematically politically correct version of Harry Baur’s soul-deadened Maigret. Within the large and diverse supporting ensemble, Audrey Giacomini stands out as Halimi’s terrified pseudo-girlfriend (understandably so, since by grabbing Ilan, the kidnappers also had her flat keys).

24 Days will turn your stomach into ice-water. It is a tense, often brutal white-knuckle ride from start to finish. However, it is important to understand, Arcady and his co-writers somewhat water-down the torments inflicted on Halimi, probably because it would be impossible to release anything remotely accurate in mainstream French theaters. Nevertheless, what we do see is profoundly disturbing.

Frankly, this film speaks for itself, if audiences are willing to listen. Unfortunately, French politicians prefer to pander for “multi-cultural” votes rather than really facing the root causes of the precipitous rise of anti-Semitic violence. Sadly, it is probably only a matter of time before another Charlie Hebdo-Ilan Halimi style attack. Very highly recommended as a masterful work of cinema and an impassioned warning for those who value tolerance and the rule of law, 24 Days opens this Friday (4/24) at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and the Kew Gardens Cinemas in Brooklyn.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Stung

These are wasps, not bees, so the stakes are already higher than in Irwin Allen’s The Swarm. A plucky caterer and her slacker assistant are about to lay a spread for the worst garden party ever. It was totally dead, until the mutant wasps crashed the soiree. Laughter and gore go together like white wine and canapés in Benni Diez’s Stung (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

After inheriting her father’s catering business, Julia is struggling to keep it afloat. She employees the obviously besotted Paul, who struggles to keep himself together. They will cater the annual shindig hosted by Mr. Perch and her socially stunted son Sydney. By the way, the mutated wasps are all his fault, because he foolishly spiked the fertilizer with his late researcher father’s molecular juice. Unfortunately, these killer wasps are not just big and angry. They also lay their larva inside their victims, creating mutant-hybrid, with some Alien-style chest cavity explosions thrown in for good measure. Of course, that is nothing Lance Henriksen hasn’t seen before. This time he turns up as Mayor Carruthers, a flinty Korean War veteran, who appreciates a nice bottle of wine.

Seriously, how money in the bank is Henriksen? In this case, he is no mere “guest star.” He has significant screen-time as the Mayor (you know you’d vote for him) and he never wastes a second of it. Frankly, it is darned difficult sharing the film with a rampaging swarm of evil wasps and a cult favorite like Henriksen. Nevertheless, Matt O’Leary and Jessica Cook are admirably good sports dealing with all the spurting blood and spewing goo, as Julia and Paul, respectively. They seem just real enough to be worth rooting for and tough enough to not try our patience as experienced genre movie fans.

Nevertheless, the mutant insects are always the most important thing in a bugs-gone-wild movie, but happily Stung delivers the goods. Frankly, Diez gets the balance just right with creatures realized well-enough to facilitate all kinds of gruesome gags, but not so realistic it can’t poke fun at itself and its genre. Not to be spoilery, but normally the “it’s still out there” ending is predictably lame, yet Stung’s finale is truly a spectacle to behold.

Stung is not quite as gleefully nuts as last year’s Tribeca-selected Zombeavers, but it is not for a lack of trying. An inspired exercise in gross-out humor and big creepy bug effects, Stung is one of the first 2015 Tribeca film to get picked up for distribution (by IFC Midnight), which suggests we might live in a just world after all. Highly recommended, Stung screens again this Thursday (4/23), as part of Tribeca ’15.

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Tribeca ’15: Listen (short)

If you think the burqa is empowering, try wearing one for a week in August. Then try reporting your violent and sexually abusive husband to the local police, despite not speaking the local language. A translator ought to help, especially a woman, but reality will be tragically different for the battered wife in Hamy Ramezan & Rungano Nyoni’s short film Listen (trailer here), which screens as part of the Interferences programming block during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

She cannot speak Danish and she cannot remove her burqa. She has fled her home, taking only her young son with her, hoping and expecting the Danish police will provide shelter. However, she never anticipated the interpreter would deliberately mistranslate her pleas. The translator is also a woman, but clearly she considers herself an Islamist first and foremost. She duplicitously tells the police the woman is seeking divorce advice, whereas she tries to convince the increasingly desperate woman to trust her imam to resolve her marital troubles.

It takes about five seconds to understand just how isolating and alienating the burqa truly is. Had her face been visible, her expressions and her bruises would have told the cops what the interpreter deliberately mistranslated. Listen is a relatively short thirteen minutes, but Ramezan & Nyoni still patiently take their time, showing the initial police interview from each party’s perspective, to fully establish the tragic significance of the situation.

Although we never see her, Zeinab Rahal’s body language still constitutes a harrowing performance. Just think how good she could be unshackled from the burqa. Likewise, Amira Helene Larsen discomfortingly projects the assurance of a blind believer. Nanna Bottcher also nicely hints at the police woman’s nagging suspicions, but Alexandre Willaume’s knuckle-dragging police man is film’s only real caricature.

As a strong follow-up to Ramezan’s previous solo short film, Keys of Heaven, Listen forcefully announces it is time for the Finnish-Iranian filmmaker to graduate to full features. Its treatment of issues facing Muslim women is both stinging and sensitive. Highly recommended as an eye-opener with serious dramatic chops, Listen screens again as part of Tribeca’s Interferences short film program this Monday (4/20), Friday (4/24), and Saturday (4/25).

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