J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tribeca ’14: The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

He is the French contemporary equivalent of the kid from “The Ransom of Red Chief.” He smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and is a massive hypochondriac. Frankly, even Michel Houellebecq cannot imagine who would pay to get him back, but that seems to be the only detail his abductors have nailed down in Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Although Houellebecq translations have been published in America, he has never really caught on in New York literary circles. Charges that his novel Plateforme was anti-Islam probably did not help (these were real legal charge, on which Houellebecq was ultimately acquitted). It also spurred wild rumors Houellebecq had been abducted by Al-Qaeda when he abruptly disappeared during a book tour. That did not happen. Neither did the narrative written by Nicloux.

When we first meet Houellebecq playing himself as he goes about his daily business, he strikes us as a massively self-absorbed bundle of tics. This impression only grows stronger when he is kidnapped by a trio of cut-rate gangsters. At first he resents the intrusion into his life, but he soon seems to appreciate having his captors at his beck and call. Luc is nominally in charge, but he clearly answers to people above him. He has stashed Houellebecq at his parents’ home, where he is watched over by Maxime the bodybuilder (played by French bodybuilder Maxime Lefrançois) and MMA fighter Mathieu (played by Mathieu “the Warrior” Nicourt).

Much to Luc’s frustration, Houellebecq largely wins over his parents and associates, despite his frequent demands for cigarettes and his favorite Spanish wine. Perhaps their greatest bone of contention of contention is Luc’s refusal to let the writer keep his cigarette lighter. It seems like a small point in the larger scheme of things and an understandable position for a kidnapper to take, but it becomes symbolic of Houellebecq’s efforts to reassert his control.

Although more scripted than mumblecore, there is enough improv room for Houellebecq to put his stamp on the film. Nobody can accuse him of being overly concerned with his public image. It might be a great comedic performance, but it certainly feels like it has the ring of truth. He also develops some truly bizarre but effective screen chemistry with Nicourt, Lefrançois, and Luc Schwarz.

Kidnapping deftly skewers notions of the public intellectual and sends-up Houellebecq’s iconoclastic image, but the humor is of a decidedly dry variety. Houellebecq’s future biographers will surely have a field day with it, but it requires a post-modern sensibility to appreciate its docu-fictional games. Recommended for highly literate Francophiles, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq screens this Friday (4/18), Saturday (4/19), Wednesday (4/21), and next Friday (4/25) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: Traitors

So far, the Arab Spring has hardly trickled down at all for women. Malika and her bandmates know this only too well. They are punk to the bone and have plenty to say about their country’s corrupt patriarchal society, but they need cash to express it. More specifically, they must cut a professional grade demo to keep a prospective producer interested. There are ways to make quick money in Tangier, but the drawbacks are considerable, as viewers will witness during Sean Gullette’s Traitors (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Malika and her band, Traitors (with no “the”) might sound vaguely familiar to hip readers, because it grew out of the similarly titled short film that played the 2011 New York Film Festival. Gullette reprises many scenes in the feature version, but there is a new focus on Tangier’s increasing importance as an international drug trafficking hub.

As befitting any self-respecting punk rock diva, Malika has a strained relationship with her parents, particularly her good for nothing father. Thanks to his gambling debts, they are facing the very real possibility of eviction. Plus, she must raise funds for her band’s studio time. Of course, she gets fired from her French call center job around this time as well. However, she has caught the eye of Samir, a drug dealer with a proposition. Although she more or less knows better, she still accepts his offer to act as a drug mule. As she talks to her traveling companion, the very pregnant Amal, Malika comes to understand the magnitude of her mistake.

In a strange way, Traitors the feature suffers a bit in comparison with Traitors the short. While the former segues into an impressively tight and tense crime drama, its predecessor was powerful indictment of the everyday misogyny (and even violence) faced by Moroccan women, particularly non-conformists like Malika. Frankly, many views (especially those in the know) will want to see more of the rest of Traitors and less of Samir’s thuggish associates.

Still, both incarnations of Traitors prove Chaimae Ben Acha is a future superstar poised to breakout globally. The camera loves her and she can belt them out like Joan Jett in her prime. This is a richly layered performance, bringing to life a deeply complex character. Malika is unusually intelligent and creative, yet also seriously self-destructive. Artists, you know.

Gullette (co-writer and star of Aronofsky’s Pi) maintains a brisk pace and a nervy vibe, but there is no question this is Ben Acha’s show (although Mourade Zeguendi has his moments as Samir, the complicated drug dealer). Traitors the feature is a good film, but it leaves us wanting to see and hear more from Traitors the band. Maybe that is all part of the master plan. Recommended with conviction for viewers with a punk heart or an interest in women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East, Traitors screens Sunday (4/20), Tuesday (4/22), Thursday (4/24), and Saturday (4/26) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’14: The Bachelor Weekend

Ever noticed how those crunchy granola camper types are lousy in a crisis, especially in the great outdoors? If you ever have an emergency in the forest look for the city guy. Oh, but “The Machine” is something else entirely. Outdoorsmen and urban sophisticates alike will shrink before his chaotic power in John Butler’s The Bachelor Weekend (a.k.a. The Stag, trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fionnan is sort of a Groomzilla. Finding him bizarrely interested in their wedding details, Ruth the bride-to-be presumes on best man Davin to take him on a stag camping getaway. Although Davin knows his chum is hardly the outdoorsy sort, he complies anyway. After all, as everyone but Fionnan knows, he also once went out with Ruth and never really recovered when she dumped him.

However, both men utterly dread her borderline psychotic brother, known simply as “The Machine.” They try to make it look like they have invited the hard-charging U2 fanatic, while holding back key info, like where and when. Nonetheless, The Machine still manages to find his way to the party, arriving in a wickedly foul mood. Let the celebration begin.

Weekend is not exactly a staggeringly original concept, but it is considerably gentler and less raunchy than The Hang-Over franchise and its copycats. Even The Machine turns out to be a reasonably grounded character. In fact, Butler and co-writer Peter McDonald (who also co-stars as the prospective brother-in-law from Hell) pull a bit of jujitsu, shifting viewer sympathies from the uptight Fionnan to the madly roguish The Machine.

Frankly, the biggest question Weekend answers pertains to Andrew Scott’s viability as a comedic leading man. Best known as Jim Moriarty in PBS’s Sherlock (and one of the memorable voices calling in during Locke), Scott fares rather well as Davin. He brings a sad dignity to the film that holds up quite nicely over time. McDonald brings the heat as The Machine, but also throws an effective curve ball or two in the late innings. In contrast, Hugh O’Conor is annoyingly nondescript as Fionnan.

From time to time, Weekend offers some humorous commentary Irish cultural identity amid the bromance. It is good-hearted and reasonably amusing, but not earthshakingly memorable. A pleasant diversion, The Bachelor Weekend screens this coming Tuesday (4/22), Wednesday (4/23), Thursday (4/24), and Sunday (4/27) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proxy: There is No Twelve Step Program for this Kind of Nuts

A grieving parents’ support group is about to get sinister. Fortunately, a formerly pregnant woman and her new fast friend have their own strange ways of processing loss. The hyper-sensitive are sure to be offended and nobody is likely to win mother-of-the-year awards, but some truly game-changing twists will come viewers’ way during Zack Parker’s Proxy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Walking home from her ultrasound, the very pregnant Esther Woodhouse is brutally attacked by a hooded figure deliberately targeting her baby. She survives the attack, but her unborn child does not. During her recuperation, the hospital staff is so alarmed by her emotional detachment, they require her to attend a grief counseling group session. It is there that she meets fellow member Melanie Michaels. Clearly Woodhouse feels some degree of sexual attraction, but Michaels seems to take exploitative emotional satisfaction from their encounters—none of which pleases Anika Barön, Woodhouse’s violently jealous ex-con lesbian lover.

Fate will ensnare all three women in a web of obsession and revenge, but a series of massive revelations will profoundly alter our perceptions of Woodhouse and Michaels. In contrast, Barön wears her insanity on her sleeve and never wavers from it. To give away any further details would be spoilery. It would also look ridiculously lurid spelled out in black and white.

Yet, that bite-me fearlessness is part of Proxy’s charm, so to speak. Parker synthesizes Cape Fear, Don’t Look Now, and half a dozen De Palma films, while the Newton Brothers’ score transparently evokes the Bernard Hermann music heard in the Hitchcock films the latter was riffing on, but he gives his themes and motifs a distinctive spin all his own. Parker does not merely dab a toe on the third rail of sexual orientation—he jumps on it with both feet. Frankly, this is the sort of gleefully bold erotically charged thriller we probably thought we would never see again—and it works for precisely that reason (even though Parker’s extreme budget constraints nearly undermine key third act sequences).

Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, and Kristina Klebe admirably go all in as the bat-scat crazy trio, each in their own way. As the formerly pregnant Woodhouse, Rasmussen might just take the honors as the most unsettling, but the competition is fierce. Yet, somehow horror film and mumblecore actor-director Joe Swanberg adds a messy but unexpectedly moving human dimension to the proceedings as Michaels’ in-for-it husband Patrick.

It is no hyperbole to say Proxy will surprise even old jaded genre hands. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Parker’s film is its distribution deal with IFC Midnight. Regardless, here it is. Recommended for those who appreciate dark psychological thrillers with a healthy disregard for polite conventions, Proxy opens this Friday (late night 4/18) at the IFC Center and also launches on VOD.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That Demon Within: Spooky Action from Dante Lam

This is a haunted film on many levels. It is loosely inspired by the case of Tsui Po-ko, the notorious cop-killing HK cop, who launched a one man crime-spree. His unquiet ghost hangs over the film, alongside the Demon King and other traditional malevolent spirits, whom the film’s villains periodically invoke. Yet, within the film itself, a highly strung police constable may or may not be tormented by ghosts from his past. Yet, he might somehow still bring a desperate criminal gang to justice in Dante Lam’s That Demon Within (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The thoroughly by-the-book Dave Wong is so unpopular with his colleagues he has been banished to the night watchman’s booth in a major hospital. Raised by his pathologically strict father to do the righteous thing in any circumstance, he automatically agrees to give blood when a critically injured O-negative patient arrives. It turns out his transfusion saved Hon Kong, a.k.a. the Demon King, the leader of demon-mask wearing “Gang from Hell.” Inspector “Pops” Mok is not exactly thrilled by Wong’s act of compassion, because Hon had just killed two of his men in a raid gone bad.

When the eerily resourceful Hon escapes, Wong concludes it is his destiny to capture the ringleader and the rest of his gang. However, when Hon’s accomplices turn against him, there might be an opportunity for the Demon King and his nemesis to forge a narrow alliance. At least Hon seems to think so.

Lam is one of the top action directors in the world, so it is no shock that he stages some impressive shootouts. However, his flair for creepy ambiance and ambiguous psychological suspense is a happy surprise (if by happy you mean dark and ominous). Eventually, he mostly resolves the open question of how much skullduggery may be ascribed to supernatural agencies versus everyday criminal evil, but one thing is certain: karma is absolutely merciless.

If you need a wiry hardnose, it is tough to beat Nick Cheung, who is especially steely as Hon. Better known as a romantic lead, Daniel Wu has played the odd psycho before, rather overdoing the twitch in Shinjuku Incident, for instance. However, even when he completely loses it, he keeps Wong clearly tethered to his tragic past, thereby maintaining viewers’ investment quite compellingly throughout the ensuing chaos. This is largely a two-man show, but Astrid Chan adds a note of authority as the psycho-therapist enlisted to treat Wong by his sympathetic superior officer.

In Demon, Lam stages plenty of well lit, intricately choreographed action sequences, but also takes us on an atmospheric tour of the graveyards and condemned tenements of Kowloon. Tense and moody, it is recommended for multiple genre enthusiasts and fans of the superstar co-leads when it opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the AMC Empire, from China Lion Entertainment.

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Kid Cannabis: The Canadian Connection

It was a case that just might change how you think about Idaho. Potatoes are still the state’s cash crop, but there was (and presumably still is) plenty of “B.C. Bud,” as in British Columbia, just across the border. For an awkward high school drop-out, it represented an opportunity that turned out to be golden—at least for a while. Based on the true stoner story of Nate Norman, John Stockwell’s Kid Cannabis (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Norman started at the bottom of the social pyramid in his sleepy Idaho town. Delivering pizzas to support his troubled single mother and younger brother, he and his mate Topher Clark have only one pleasure in life—weed. Unfortunately, the local dealer, privileged adoptee Brendan Butler, only sells crummy stems and seeds at inflated prices. However, it is a different world up in Nelson, Canada. After a bit of reconnoitering, the lads blunder into a dream supplier: organic farmer and connoisseur John Grefard.

Hiring his misfit high school cronies as runners, Norman establishes a high volume trafficking operation, with the financial backing of Barry Lerner, a vaguely Russian sounding gangster and cell phone store magnate. When the money starts flooding in, Norman and Clark predictably lose their heads binging on drugs, parties, and women. Unfortunately, rather than finding competitive inspiration from Norman’s lower prices and higher quality product, Butler opts to go gangster.

Right, this is a total stoner movie. Even if only a handful of people see Kid in theaters this Friday, nearly every frat boy in America will know it by heart in a few years. True to genre form, it gives the outward appearance of a cautionary morality tale, but really implies the good times were totally worth it.

As if the hedonistic excesses were not enough, Kid also has Ron Perlman and John C. McGinley for cult film fans. Perlman could probably play Lerner is his sleep, but he is still cool as Fonzy whenever he is on-screen. While McGinley only appears in an early sequence, he memorably supplies the film’s (thoroughly high) voice of reason. Happily, Jonathan Daniel Brown exceeds expectations as Norman, largely avoiding lazy shtick and cheap sentiment. In contrast, the rest of his criminal associates are a dull, colorless lot, except for Aaron Yoo chewing the scenery like a hash brownie as the increasingly erratic Butler. In fact, Norman’s best bud Clark is so lifeless, one might assume he is a refuge from a zombie flick.

Evidently Stockwell is quite the working director, with Kid opening a mere two weeks after the release of In the Blood. Nobody will accuse him of being an auteur or a pretentious stylist (even if he was part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle), but he has a knack for keeping things snappy. It all flows along nicely, keeping viewers hooked, despite telegraphing exactly where it is all headed.

Remember kids, drugs are bad and trafficking is really, really dangerous. While not exactly a good movie per se, Kid Cannabis is something of a guilty pleasure that certainly accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Recommended for those who will relate, Kid Cannabis opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the Village East.

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Short Peace: An Anime Anthology from the Creator of Akira

They are four very personal potential apocalypses. Three occur during Japan’s past and one is set during its future. The ultimate results will vary drastically according to the characters and circumstances involved. Produced under the auspices of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira, the anime anthology Short Peace (trailer here) screens in many markets this Friday (but look for it in New York on the 21st).

After a brief but strange opening prelude, Peace commences with Shuhei Morita’s Oscar nominated Possessions, which truly deserved to carry home the little statuette. Its loss can only be ascribed to a lack of taste on the Academy’s part, because it is a visually striking work with unexpected depth. A lush supernatural fable in the tradition of Kwaidan, Possessions takes place during a dark and stormy night in Eighteenth Century Japan. A weary traveler seeks shelter in shrine, only to find himself in a supernatural repository for broken objects that hold a “grudge.” Fortunately, the man is both handy and spiritually sensitive.  Morita’s richly detailed animation is strikingly elegant, yet it has an appropriate macabre undertone. Possessions evokes scores of classic Japanese movies, yet there is something strangely moving about it.

Otomo’s own Combustible packs quite an emotional punch, as well. Set during the Edo era (or thereabouts), it follows the ill-fated son and daughter of upper class neighbors, who are obviously meant for each other, but are irreparably separated when he rejects his birthright to join the fire brigade. Unfortunately, his services will soon be required. Inspired by the look and composition of Japanese watercolors and screen art, Combustible is stylistically stunning. Nothing like conventional anime, it borders on the outright experimental, yet it is driven by a narrative worthy of classical tragedy.

Arguably, Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo could be considered a kaiju film, yet it is perfectly in keeping with the tone of Otomo’s contribution. A demon has terrorized a forest village, carrying off their young girls until only one remains. Venturing into the woods to meet her fate, she encounters Gambo, a gigantic white bear, who is the earthly servant of the Gods. When the two supernatural creatures clash, things get intense and unusually bloody.

The action continues with Hajime Katoki’s A Farewell to Arms, a post-apocalyptic techno-thriller following an armored military unit’s campaign to take out an automated battle tank. A veteran designer on Mobile Suit Gundam, Katoki puts the pedal to metal, delivering a barrage of explosions amid a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

Arguably, Peace’s constituent films proceed from best to worst, but the decline is remarkably gradual. Frankly, there is no clunker in the lot. While the overall running time is only sixty-eight minutes, we can hardly accuse it of false advertising, since it announces its shortness in its title. Regardless, the four chapters will convince any viewer anime can be a form of high art. Absolutely necessary viewing for any and every animation fan, Short Peace screens in Colorado at the Littleton Drafthouse this Friday (4/18), in New York at the Village East on the following Monday (4/21). Check Eleven Arts’ website for further cities and dates near you.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

The Original Japanese Godzilla—Feel his Wrath

There was a time when the sight of a mutant lizard leveling the city of Tokyo would have been somewhat traumatizing. It became a campy tradition, but it started as a surprisingly moody expression of national angst. Sixty years later, Godzilla is still the king of the monsters, but his original uncut 1954 Japanese debut (sans Raymond Burr) will be a revelation for many fans. Film Forum pays homage to the granddaddy of all kaiju movies with a special one week engagement of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla (trailer here), beginning this Friday.

There are dozens of drastic differences between the version released in the U.S. (with scenes added featuring Burr as American reporter Steve Martin) and Honda’s original high concept apocalyptic morality play. Initially, we do not see Godzilla, but we witness the effects of his handiwork. In an episode reportedly inspiring by the Lucky Dragon Incident, a commercial fishing boat has inexplicably disappeared in a remote quadrant of the Pacific. The company responds by sending more ships to the last known coordinates, which only compounds their tragic losses. Of course, we know who is responsible, but Godzilla will not actually show himself, peaking over a mountain ridge in an entrance to rival Harry Lime in The Third Man, until late in the first act.

Dr. Kyohei Yamane suspects the mutant monster dubbed Godzilla (or Gojira) is a nasty by-product of the nuclear age. Destroying such a beast is no easy feat, as the military conclusively proves during their futile defense of Tokyo. As events unfold, the professor’s daughter Emiko finds herself in uniquely Japanese love triangle, betrothed to the distant Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, but in love with salvage captain Hideto Ogata, who suddenly finds himself all kinds of busy. Serizawa has developed an Oxygen Destroyer that just might be able to stop the rampaging monster, but he refuses to open another Pandora’s Box.

Of course, Godzilla is all about the monster, but Serizawa is a fascinating character in his own right. He adopts western style dress and furnishings, yet he consents to a traditional arranged marriage. Frankly, he often seems oblivious to Emiko, driven by his obsessions and haunted by his mysterious wartime experiences.

There also happen to be real performances in the genuine article Godzilla, including Akihiko Hirata as the brittle and intense Serizawa. Momoko Kōchi also gives an acutely sensitive turn as the conflicted Emiko Yamane. As for screen presence, it is hard to beat Ozu and Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura, who would later reprise his role as Dr. Yamane, unless you were a mutant lizard monster.

Yes, most of Godzilla’s scenes were rendered by “Suitmation” (which was exactly what it sounds like), but Honda really focuses in on the human dimension during his now legendary attack. He makes us feel for the people caught up in the terror, rather than glossing over the little people getting stomped on. Obviously, the look of Godzilla caught on, but it is the sound that seals the deal. There is something alarming (even bitchy) about his high-pitched keening roar that gets under the skin. You would absolutely not want to hear anything like it in real life.

By any reasonable critical standard, the original Godzilla qualifies as a good movie—for real. It has far more going on than you would assume for subsequent sequels. Yet, it still delivers the kaiju goods. Sixty years later, Godzilla is still one of the baddest cats to grace a movie screen. If you do not catch him now in his original glory, you risk some profoundly bad karma. Recommended for fanboys and cineastes, the restored, undubbed Japanese Godzilla opens this Friday (4/18) at Film Forum.

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Fading Gigolo: John Turturro, Ladies Man

You cannot get by in New York with part-time floral arrangement work. Yet, as a vocation, it probably means poor struggling Fioravante is a sensitive soul, who is good with his hands. His cash-strapped former boss hatches an unlikely scheme to capitalize on those talents in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Murray Schwartz’s antiquarian bookstore had been in his family for years, but it did not survive the neurotic Upper Eastsider’s mismanagement. Fortunately, Schwartz’s wife still has a job, but his longtime clerk Fioravante is scuffling to make ends meets. A trip to his dermatologist gives Schwartz an idea so crazy, it just might work. Evidently, the cougarish Dr. Parker and her BFF Selima are looking for a man’s services. Frankly, they would prefer someone who is mature and less intimidating than the stereotypical boy toy type. Reluctantly (and rather skeptically), Fioravante agrees to let Schwartz pimp him out to his high class clientele.

Naturally, Fioravante is a hit with the well heeled ladies, because what woman wouldn’t lust after John Turturro? However, things will get complicated when Schwartz seeks the delousing services of a widow in the Brooklyn Hasidic community. Picking up on Avigal’s loneliness as she picks through his step-child’s hair, Schwartz convinces her to try Fioravante’s services. While their meeting is downright chaste by his recent standards, it would still be considered scandalous within her community. Further complicating matters, Fioravante and his new client start developing confusing feelings for each other. Her out-of-character trips to Manhattan also attract the suspicions of Dovi, the Orthodox neighborhood patrolman, who has long carried a torch for her.

Frankly, Fading is the sort of Woody Allen movie Allen ought to be making, but isn’t. It is a wistfully mature film, deeply steeped in an elegant sadness. The notion of writer-director Turturro casting himself as the illicit lover of Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara might seem self-serving, but the aging average Joe-ness of Fioravante is part of the point. It is his comfort with intimacy that makes Fioravante desirable. If anything, Fading is old school Alan Alda sensitivity porn rather than a vehicle for people doing it like rabbits.

Turturro shows a remarkable deft touch as a director, patiently letting his scenes unfold. He gets a key assist from the jazz soundtrack, which includes several seductions from boss tenor Gene Ammons. Jug had a seductive sound that could get anyone to say “yes,” but it also perfectly suits the sophisticated New York milieu.

Allen does his shtick as Schwartz, but it is funny more often than not. Yet, it is Turturro who quietly commands the screen as Fioravante, a sad clown incapable of acting less than chivalrous. He develops some achingly powerful chemistry with Vanessa Paradis in her first English language role as Avigal. Their scenes together are a reminder how dramatically potent denial and yearning can be on-screen.

Likewise, Liev Schreiber could not possibly be any more earnest as the lovesick Dovi. Stone and Vergara certainly look the parts of Fioravante’s clients, but never come close to exposing the inner depths of their souls. In a small supporting role, Bob Balaban nearly steals the show as Schwartz’s lawyer, Sol. In fact, Fading is well stocked with brief but neatly turned performances, including Loan Chabanol as a French expat who makes a strong impression late in the game.

Absolutely never smarmy, Fading is an emotionally intelligent film intended for an adult audience. It should satisfy all of Woody Allen’s fans, but Turturro gives it his own distinctive stamp. Highly recommended, Fading Gigolo opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the UES’s City Cinemas 1, 2, 3.

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A Promise: Leconte Adapts Zweig

Few understood the pain of involuntary exile as acutely as Stefan Zweig. In his day, the Jewish Austrian was the world’s most translated author, but he took his own life while living as a political émigré in Brazil. In his posthumous novella, Journey into the Past, Zweig’s protagonist is also stranded in Latin America, separated from his love and homeland. For his first English language film, French director Patrice Leconte adapted Zweig’s wistful German tale with a British cast. Whether you consider it reserved or repressed, it is most definitely “Old” Europe that dictates social expectations for the characters of Leconte’s A Promise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Friedrich Zeitz has done the near impossible. Like a German Horatio Alger hero, the poor orphan worked his way through university as a scholarship student, eventually finding employment in the offices of the steelworks owned and operated by the dreaded Herr Karl Hoffmeister. At least, Zeitz is told to fear his aristocratic boss. However, when Herr Hoffmeister notices the young man’s keen grasp of metallurgy and relentless work ethic, he takes a shine to his new clerk.

With his health slowly declining, the increasingly home-bound Herr Hoffmeister promotes Zeitz to serve as his private secretary and liaison to the corporate office. Of course, that home is more of a castle. As soon as he is admitted into the Hoffmeister estate, Zeitz promptly falls head over heels for his boss’s younger wife, Charlotte (who goes by Lotte, echoing Zweig’s wife and secretary, Lotte Altmann).

Lotte Hoffmeister is unfailingly gracious and welcoming to Zeitz, but she initially seems oblivious to his attraction, despite the way his eyes bug out of his head like a cartoon character whenever she is around. Still, maybe someone notices his torch-carrying. Just as Zeitz is transferred to Hoffmeister’s embryonic mining operation in Mexico, Lotte Hoffmeister confesses Zeitz’s ardor is reciprocated. They vow (or promise, if you will) to do something about it, once he returns from his two year stint abroad. Then World War I breaks out.

One of the ironies Leconte and co-adaptor Jérôme Tonnere clearly make without excessively belaboring is the extent highly intelligent people can lose sight of the critically important macro events swirling around them because they are caught up in their own personal dramas. Despite working in the steel industry, Zeitz and Herr Hoffmeister are caught completely flat-footed by the onset of the first World War (you think they might have noticed a slight uptick in government orders). Likewise, the climatic reunion commences just as the growing ranks of National Socialists launch another street protest-riot.

The passionate feelings of Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister are so chaste and restrained A Promise is likely to frustrate most viewers more accustomed to instant gratification. Yet, the yearn and burn of their thwarted love is quite powerful for those who can appreciate it. Unfortunately, Rebecca Hall and Richard (Game of Thrones) Madden must make the most vanilla couple you will ever see as Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister. In contrast, Alan Rickman outshines everyone as the sly but not villainous Herr Hoffmeister, showing the sort of erudite charisma he brought to bear in overlooked films like Bottle Shock and Song of Lunch.

Handsomely mounted, A Promise’s period details are elegant but convincingly Teutonic in their chilly austerity, while superstar cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives it all a sensitive sheen superior to the look of your average BBC historical. A mature and emotionally sophisticated literary drama largely waterlogged by its two cold fish romantic leads, A Promise is flawed but still oddly enticing for those who share its Old European sensibilities. It opens this Friday (4/18) at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Family and Community Events

You have to give credit to the Tribeca Film Festival. They will bring both Mr. Met and Scooter the Holy Cow, the Mascot of the Yankee’s Staten Island Single-A farm team to lower Manhattan for their Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day. That is covering the bases. Families on a budget will also appreciate the diverse community events once again programmed by the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

As one would expect, several of the film event involve screenings, since this is a film festival. For the first time ever, Tribeca is launching the Film For All Friday. All tickets on April 25th will be completely free, while they last. However, fest regulars know the Tribeca Drive-In is the place for free communal film-going, starting this Thursday (4/17) with Disney’s Mary Poppins, a film very much on cineastes minds’ following the recent Oscar-snubbing of Emma Thompson’s acclaimed turn in Saving Mr. Banks. Released fifty years ago (in late August, but who’s counting), it remains the definitive cinematic portrayal of chimney sweeping.

On Friday (4/18), Tribeca celebrates another anniversary marking thirty years of Ron Howard’s Splash. Arguably the definitive fantasy rom-com of the 1980s (featuring a score composed by Lee Holdridge), it showcased breakout work from Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, but it was the late great John Candy who really made it special. In honor of the theme, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade’s Tails of Glory dancers will give a special performance before the show.

Shifting gears, the Drive-In will present the world premiere of Next Goal Wins on Saturday (4/19). Chronicling the efforts of the American Samoan soccer team, ranked dead last in the world, to qualify for the World Cup, or at least finally score a goal, Mike Brett & Steve Jamison’s documentary is one of several soccer/football films screening at this year’s festival. For early arrivers, there will be Samoan drumming performances before the screening. All Drive-In screenings are free, but on a first come, first served basis. Doors open at 6:00 and the films start at dusk (estimated around 8:15).

Although not part of the Drive-In, Tribeca will also present a free family screening of The Wizard of Oz, celebrating its 75th anniversary on Saturday the 26th. Lines for tickets start thirty minutes before the screening at BMCC in Tribeca proper. On that same day, the Tribeca Family Screening series will also include Listening is an Act of Love, the first full length animated special from the StoryCorps oral history project, including four new stories and two old favorites: the gleefully funny Miss Devine and the bittersweet No More Questions (review here). The Rauch Brothers have a real facility for matching the expressions of their animated figures to the recorded interviews and the subject matter is always A-OK for family viewers.

In between ticketed family screenings, patrons can check out events at the annual Tribeca Family Street Fair on Greenwich. There will be plenty of interactive movie-making activities, the Games for Change public arcade, and performances from current Broadway shows, including the massively swinging After Midnight and appropriately for sports movie fans, Rocky.

Shrewdly, Tribeca has developed a festival-leading reputation for sports programming and they continue the tradition again this year. In addition to the Tribeca/ESPN slate of sports films, the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day returns on April 26th. There will be plenty of contest, giveaways, and skills tests sponsored by the likes of the NY Rangers, NY Jets, NY Liberty, and NY Mets (with Mr. Met in attendance from noon to 1:00—he’s a busy dude, you know). And Scooter too.

Tribeca has always conscientiously reached out to the community, broadening the film festival experience for many who ordinarily might not be able to afford it. After all, many New Yorkers are still struggling with high local rents, a sluggish economy, and now perhaps even fines for their insurance status. At least, they can get some free entertainment and exercise for the kids during the festival. Tribeca starts this Thursday (4/17) and runs through Sunday (4/27). Look for reviews to start going up here later in the week.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: The Bucuresti Experiment

Just what was the bad old Romanian intelligence service willing to do for the sake of power? The answer is deceptively obvious, but it will be obscured by layers of meta-reality or un-reality in Tom Wilson’s The Bucuresti Experiment (trailer here), a documentary, mockumentary, or something in between that screens during Panorama Europe at the Museum of the Moving Image.

To this day, the “truth” of the Romanian Revolution is clouded with uncertainty and dogged by conspiracy theories. According to commentators assembled by British ex-pat Wilson, the secret police read the tea leaves and realized Ceausescu’s days were numbered. To maintain their positions of privilege, they would have to adapt to capitalism, but the average Romanian’s brains were too thoroughly conditioned by socialism. A little mental re-alignment would therefore be necessary.

Supposedly, Romania’s leading captain of industry, Andrei Juvina, was the first to undergo the “Bucuresti Experiment.” However, it seems the clinical trials changed his personality, slowly rupturing his relationship with college girlfriend, Carmen Anton, a former Romanian teen idol. As the film progresses, Wilson focuses more on their personal issues, building up to their climatic reunion. However, Wilson springs a surprise third act-coda that completely alters our perception of the film, restoring it to the ranks of straight talking documentary exposes.

At the risk of being spoilery, the Romanian intelligence service was capable of far worse crimes than simply making future oligarchs adept at business.  Frankly, the real reality will make viewers somewhat ashamed they bought into all the meta-meta narrative game-playing. Yet, Wilson is remarkably sure-footed building the ostensive drama throughout his set-up. In fact, there is something particularly moving about the charismatically mature Anton’s performance as herself.

Given the film’s ultimate gravity, Wilson’s liberties with the documentary form feel rather disconcerting in retrospect. Yet, there is definitely something to his larger point. In former Communist countries like Romania (and Lord knows Russia too) there have not been the sort of truth commissions and legal tribunals necessary to expose and bring to justice all those complicit in the crimes of the Communist regimes.

Frankly, The Bucuresti Experiment is likely to stir contradictory responses within most viewers, but it is a challenging film, produced with a serious purpose in mind. At a succinct sixty-eight minutes, it is also a decidedly less taxing exercise in post-modern historical analysis than most of the doc-hybrids playing at another mini-fest now underway. Recommended for the intellectually adventurous, it screens tomorrow afternoon (4/13) at MoMI, on the concluding day of Panorama Europe.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day: Wheeling and Dealing

Nobody wants to draft the next Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell, but they often look like sure things at the time. Of course, nobody ever understood the Knicks’ Frédéric Weis debacle, especially when Artest was still available. Granted, that is a basketball digression, from 1999, but the point is we still are not ready to forgive and forget. The stakes are consequently high for Cleveland’s GM when he makes a costly trade for the number one pick. He had better choose wisely, but the clock is ticking throughout Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day (trailer here), which opens today pretty much everywhere.

Sonny Weaver basically has one season left to turn things around. He largely inherited the current team, but he did little to endear himself to fans when he fired their legendary head coach, who also happened to be his father, now deceased. With the owner pressuring him to make a big move, he reluctantly agrees to a deal, trading away their next three years of first round drafts for the upcoming number one pick. (Ironically, it is your 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks who have that coveted #1 spot.)

Weaver quickly develops buyer’s remorse, but the trade is done. Everyone assumes he will opt for the presumptive number pick, Bo Callahan, the Heisman winning quarterback from Wisconsin. His owner is delighted with the prospects of a marquee player like Callahan, but Weaver cannot shake the Leafy vibe he gets from him. Further complicating matters, Weaver’s front office colleague and not so secret lover has just informed him she is pregnant.

You really have to hand it to Kevin Costner. After some pretty lean years, he has clawed his way back to leading man status in major Hollywood releases. Going back to the sports well obviously makes sense in theory and it works ably enough again in practice. Since it is all about wheeling and dealing, Draft Day is bound to be compared to Moneyball and not unfairly so. The truth is there is something oddly cinematic about watching the respective GMs’ hard bargaining, firing off lines like: “that offer already expired, it’s a different world than it was thirty seconds ago.”

Frankly, the only sports action we see are the teams’ research tapes and there are no surprises there, because Weaver will explicitly tell them to show the footage of Callahan getting sacked. Still, there is something very sporting about Draft Day’s persistent faith in next season.

Without question, Costner is the film’s lynchpin and he still has what it takes. He convincingly gives Weaver darker shades than his Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Tin Cup characters, but he remains undeniably charismatic. While they do not burn down the joint with their passion, he and Jennifer Garner develop some relatively likable and believable romantic chemistry together. Denis Leary and Frank Langella both do their shtick as the Browns’ head coach and owner, respectively, but it is the latter veteran thesp who really gives the film some sly zip. Football fanatics will also dig the scores of real life NFL cameos, mostly notably including Jim Brown (as far as old school cineastes are concerned).

Reitman keeps it all moving along briskly, capitalizing on the draft’s constantly ticking clock. While it ends up somewhere not wholly unexpected, getting there is a surprisingly satisfying trip. A well conceived and nicely executed comeback star vehicle, Draft Day is easily recommended for fans of football or Costner rom-dramedies. It opens today (4/11) across the country, including the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Perfect Sisters: The “Bathtub Girls” Kill their Mom

If you sue your parents in court, you will be vilified in the press, but if you drown your mother in a bathtub, movies and TV shows just might invite sympathy on your behalf. That certainly seems to be the case with a new film inspired by the murder of Linda Andersen. To be fair, she comes across as a really, really bad mom, so viewers will not be too terribly disappointed when she expires before the third act of Stanley M. Brooks’ Perfect Sisters (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Sandra and Beth Andersen try to look out for their little half-brother as best they can, because their shared mother is a train wreck. She is an unemployable binge drinker with a nasty habit of getting involved with abusive men. The family typically spends a month or two in each new apartment, because that is how long it takes to order an eviction. The only exceptions are when Andersen latches onto a sketchy sugar daddy. She finds a real beaut when she takes up with a lawyer named Bowman.

Frankly, it hardly fazes the sisters anymore when he starts abusing their mother. Likewise, Beth the goth thinks she can handle it when he starts pressuring her for sex. However, when he starts hitting their brother, they reach their breaking point. Oddly though, it is their mother that they decide to kill, only partly because they are the beneficiaries on her life insurance policy. To plan the murder, they enlist the help of Beth’s boyfriend and Sandra’s social rival. They also solicit advice from the school via online chatrooms. Everyone is duly impressed when they follow through, but the stress does not wear well on Sandra.

Yes, crowd-sourcing your murder plans is just a fundamentally bad idea. In general, killing a parent is low percentage play. The Andersen sisters probably should have taken a more responsible course of action, like running away with the circus. Still, co-leads Abigail Breslin (from Ender’s Game) and Narnia’s Georgie Henley are fearlessly intense as the so-called “Bathtub Girls.” Indeed, it is truly quite compelling to watch Breslin’s Sandra Andersen become more and more like her problematic mother.

Frankly, Perfect Sisters kind of works when it strives for high tragedy, but it is rather flat as a true crime thriller. Unfortunately, it is far from a smooth ride. Brooks’ herky-jerky transitions and the sisters’ awkward flights of fantasy do not serve the narrative flow or instill a consistency of tone.

Brooks (the former California Film Commission Chair under Schwarzenegger) is a veteran producer of cable true crime programming, so it is surprising he did not punch up the lurid details. His restraint is admirable, but not necessarily fun to watch. The film has its merits (primarily the cast and the alarmingly credible portrayal of a soul-deadened generation), but it never comes together as a cohesive whole. Mostly just recommended for diehard fans of the youthful thesps, Perfect Sisters opens tomorrow (4/11) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Art of the Real ’14: The Second Game

It was sort of like the Romanian equivalent of the Army-Navy Game, but with bizarrely ominous implications. Dinamo was affiliated with the secret police, while Steaua was the Army team, handpicked by Ceausescu’s son. Corneliu Porumboiu’s father refereed a moderately memorable meeting of the two football (soccer) teams. He will revisit the videotapes of that snowy 1988 match with his filmmaker son throughout the low-fi un-doc-like The Second Game (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real film series.

Adrian Porumboiu was clearly the sort of ref who believed in putting the whistle in his pocket during pivotal moments of a game. Of course, it made a lot of sense to just let teams like Steaua and Dinamo settle it on the field, rather than risk deciding matters himself. Many aspects of the game have changed since 1988, including an EU mandate requiring the privatization of government agency affiliated teams. The fact that this match-up takes place a year before the fall of Ceausescu would seem to be highly symbolic, but neither Porumboiu overplays that card.

Instead, we hear far more regarding the senior Porumboiu’s thoughts on how to properly officiate a game, which is sort of interesting, for a while. Still, the less than pristine archival footage occasionally opens up a small window into the mechanisms of the Communist police state. Given the teams’ social-political significance, the cameramen never show the fighting or bouts of poor sportsmanship that periodically erupted on field, panning the crowd instead. Of course, this would leave home viewers inevitably confused when televised coverage finally resumed.

It seems like there ought to be more there there to Second Game than there really is. While the circumstances surrounding the match are fascinating on paper, viewers are really just watching a twenty six year old football match with occasional bits of color commentary. Frankly, the Porumboius do not pace themselves well, or even bother to turn off their cell phones.

If you cover film, Second Game offers a handy opportunity to examine how the totalitarian Socialist state manipulated mass media. If you actually want to immerse yourself in a cinematic experience, Porumboiu’s latest is a tough go. Of more interest to film students analyzing Porumboiu’s life and work (such as the deliberately paced but more rewarding Police, Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest) than those intrigued by the Cold War era, Second Game is odd programming choice for Art of the Real. For those determined to partake, it screens this Friday (4/11) and the following Monday (4/14) at the Francesca Beale Theater.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi was responsible for the mass murder of man and camel alike. Never shy about executing those unfortunate enough to have their loyalty questioned, Gaddafi also once ordered the wholesale extermination of all camels within Tripoli, believing they were incompatible with his vision of a modern city. Yet, during his final years, Gaddafi traveled internationally with representative camels along with his ostentatious, bullet proof tent, and extensive entourage of female bodyguards. Even the animals never knew where they stood with the Libyan tyrant. The cruel and erratic nature of his dictatorship is documented in shocking detail throughout Christopher Olgiati’s Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi, which premieres on Showtime this Friday.

It was President Ronald Reagan who dubbed Gaddafi a “mad dog” and history has vindicated him once again. Gaddafi initially charmed his neighbors and the regional media, but as the years progressed, his grandiose ambitions to become a modern day Saladin were largely derided within the Arab world. Instead, he tried to “re-brand” himself as the once-and-future “King of Africa,” launching a good will offensive aimed at Africa’s crowned royalty, despite his explicitly racist beliefs. At least, he always maintained mutually cordial relations with just about every terrorist group operating around the globe, including Carlos the Jackal, the PLO, and the IRA.

Nearly everyone will go into Mad Dog with the general understanding that Gaddafi was a bad guy, but the depths of his sadistic perversity are truly shocking. Olgiati thoroughly exposes Gaddafi’s crimes as a sexual predator, targeting young girls and boys alike, in a manner befitting Uday Hussein as immortalized in Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double.

Indeed, Mad Dog uncovers many more truly bizarre revelations that are mystifyingly macabre (you could say he had a habit of keeping his political opponents on ice). To his credit, director-producer-cameraman Olgiati pushes his interview subjects to be precise and supply specifics. He never accepts vague implications, forcing them to spell out each and every incident under discussion. While most of the talking heads are surviving Libyan dissidents, there are a few hidden camera sequences with former regime insiders that are highly illuminating.

Perhaps the least substantiated passages within Mad Dog are the rather gossipy charges of CIA support for Gaddafi during his early days as a mini-mart for terrorists. However, Olgiati is on solid ground criticizing the overly optimistic campaign to rehabilitate Gaddafi (who by the way, was sitting on top of vast oil reserves). He also notably details ways in which Gaddafi exploited Islam to serve his propaganda purposes.

Olgiati paints a comprehensively damning portrait of Gaddafi, but it is also a well paced, compelling viewing experience. He certainly appreciates the spectacle of Gaddafi’s flamboyant vanity, but never loses sight of his brutal despotism. Recommended for anyone seeking insight into the Libyan revolution, Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi airs this Friday (4/11) on Showtime.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: Honeymoon

Usually, couples keep the wedding simple for second marriages, but not Radim Werner and his fiancée Tereza. At least when you keep a low profile, it makes it harder for unwelcomed guests from the past to crash. There will be no ex-spouses arriving uninvited, but one mystery guest will thoroughly destabilize the celebration in Jan Hrebejk’s Honeymoon (trailer here), which screens during the rechristened Panorama Europe at the Museum of the Moving Image.

As fate would have it, Werner’s thirteen year-old son Dominik breaks his glasses seconds before the wedding ceremony. Fortunately, there is optometrist-in-the-box right on the church plaza. Werner does not think much of the man behind the counter, but he instantly recognizes him. Calling himself Jan Benda, the mystery man crashes the ceremony and hitches a ride to the reception in the country. He claims to be Werner’s old boarding school friend, but the groom pretends not to remember him. The kids take to Benda, but he unnerves both bride and groom.

It will become obvious the lens crafter is not really Benda, but he shares some complicated history with Werner and the real Benda. The truth is pretty ugly, especially when the newly married bride is forced to confront it. Honeymoon is considered the third installment of Hrebejk’s loosely thematic trilogy, begun with the excellent Kawasaki’s Rose, examining how the sins of the past continue to influence the present. While not explicitly political like Rose, it is worth noting Werner’s boarding school indiscretions indirectly involved his teenaged lust for Natassja Kinski during the height of her international superstardom, suggesting the 1980’s, perhaps thereby implying he was the privileged child of Party elites.

Regardless, Hrebejk successfully taps into viewers’ deep ambivalence regarding weddings and similar conventions. Somewhere deep within our inner Mr. Hydes, we resent having to dress up and be on our best behavior for people we only share an accidental relationship with. Like a Wedding Crashers from Hell, Honeymoon delivers the chaos we secretly yearn for at such times.

Indeed, Hrebejk deftly plays a dual game, creating suspense through not-Benda’s unsettling behavior, while dropping clear hints that he is more worthy of our sympathies. He rather risks undoing the balance act late in the third act, but he certainly keeps us on our toes. Ultimately, the messiness lends Honeymoon further credence.

As the respective nemesis-classmates, Stanislav Majer and Jirí Cerny play a dynamite cat-and-mouse game. They invest both men with sympathetic moments, as well as profound flaws, making it impossible to reflexively align with either one. Anna Geislerova initially seems to be problematically passive as the newlywed bride, but she more than holds her own during a pivotal confrontation with Cerny’s crasher.

Honeymoon is a mature film, in which karma packs a real punch. On one hand, Hrebejk challenges how well one can ever know a prospective spouse, while also questioning whether we can ever out live the moral statute of limitations for our mistakes. Good luck coming up with satisfying answers, but the resulting drama is quite compelling. Recommended for discerning adults, Honeymoon screens this Friday (4/11) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of Panorama Europe.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: Cinematic Inclusions (including The Black Box)

The Lithuanians did not take to Soviet domination, culturally or politically. In strange ways, they cultivated their rugged, taciturn image to help sustain their distinctive national identity. One can see this strategy at work in a series of short documentaries restored to commemorate Lithuania’s EU presidency. Collected under the title Cinematic Inclusions, these often abstract films screen together for adventurous viewers during Panorama Europe.

In observance of strict chronology, the most accessible (and longest) Inclusion is the final film of the program. Not so surprisingly given their non-conformist nature, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia during the Communist era. The exile experience was especially painful when family members passed away, because Lithuanian customs highly value burial in one’s homeland. As the rotten Communist system started to crumble, many repatriated Lithuanians returned to Siberia in hopes of smuggling loved ones’ remains back home. Algimantas Maceina followed his father on one such mission in The Black Box.

In part, Box is like a time capsule of the early days of newly independent Lithuania, but it is also an ethnographic record of Lithuanian funerary customs. However, it is not included in Inclusions merely to represent the mid 1990s. While Maceina faithful records the trip, as well as the subsequent wake and funeral for his grandfather’s recovered remains, he plays the footage as if on an accelerated fast-forward. At least, you cannot say he does not respect the audience’s time, as he documents a significant phenomenon largely particular to Lithuania.

Before going further, it is worth remembering American experimental film icon Jonas Mekas is Lithuanian. Indeed, he would most likely appreciate the avant-garde aesthetic of the rest of the Inclusions. As much cinematic essays or visual tone poems as they are documentaries, they are remarkably consistent in tone and subject matter, despite spanning twenty-seven years of frustrating national history.

In the 1960s, Robertas Verba established a template with The Old Man and the Earth and The Dreams of Centenarians, celebrating the salt-of-the-earth while explicitly rejecting Socialist Realism. Poring over every wrinkle and imperfection, Verba’s films have a clear inclination towards grotesque fetishism. Not very doc-ish, they present a rather surreal perspective that becomes even more pronounced in films like Almantas Grikevičius’s Time Passes Through the City. The ambivalent attitude towards industrial “progress” reflected in Henrikas Šablevičius’s A Trip Across the Misty Meadow is also clearly out of step with Socialist propaganda. Yet, it is hard to get any less Soviet than the jazzy interludes that make their way into several of the films’ soundtracks.

Its execution might be a bit eccentric, but just about any viewer will get something out of Algimantas Maceina’s The Black Box. While the rest of the constituent films are decidedly more demanding, they represent a fascinating episode in cinematic history. It is good to know Lithuania values its heritage enough to preserve them for posterity. Recommended for hardcore fans of experimental film, Cinematic Inclusions screens free of charge this Wednesday (4/9) at Bohemia National Hall and Saturday (4/12) at the Museum of the Moving Image (free with regular admission), as part of this year’s Panorama Europe.

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Take Two ’14: The Reborn of Beichuan (short)

They are not “Reborn” in a physical or spiritual sense. This is strictly a bureaucratic designation for the “substitute” children born to parents who lost their first and legally only child in the horrific Sichuan Earthquake. They are already a sizeable and growing demographic. U.S. based Beichuan native Zijian Mu follows the lasting repercussions of the Sichuan quake for one set of parents fortunate enough to have a Reborn child and one anguished mother who does not in The Reborn of Beichuan, which screens in New York during the 2014 Take Two Film Festival.

The exact death toll remains unknown because of government censorship, but the province’s children died in disproportionally high numbers due to shoddy graft-laden school construction (as muckraking artist Ai Weiwei and others have documented). Many surviving parents have tried to plug the holes in their hearts with an allowable “Reborn” child. Jiang Hongyou and Fu Guangjun were duly blessed with a little girl whom they understandably dote upon. She is now old enough to recognize photos of her big brother, but they are waiting until she is a few years older to explain his heartbreaking fate. It is the kind of tricky parenting question luckier parents of New Beichuan will grapple with more and more. In contrast, they have no problem grilling nonplussed kindergarten officials with safety questions. Well, they had better get used to it.

Yang Jianfen would dearly wish to be a similar position. Still grieving her teen-aged daughter, but no longer able to conceive, she yearns to adopt. However, her increasingly cold and passive aggressive husband Fang Yanggui will not cooperate with her efforts, particularly when it comes to the requisite fees. (Old Fang probably did not expect to get called out for being a jerkweed in outlets around the world, but that is what he gets). Still, his concerns about money are not completely unwarranted. After all, the Communist government only loaned the 8,000 Yuan down-payments for displaced residents’ replacement flats in shiny New Beichuan. So much for: “to each according to their needs.”

Sadly, Mu’s family was also touched by the Sichuan tragedy, so he well understands the raw emotions at play. His treatment of surviving parents is unflaggingly sensitive, but still acutely penetrating. Culled from a larger documentary project (with the help of co-editor David Barreda), Reborn serves as a teaser and a bite sized introduction to the issues it addresses and has been released to the world for web and festival viewing (it can be seen here via the Asia Society).

Mu leaves aside the wider political context (at least for now), so Reborn is probably best seen in conjunction with films like Ai Weiwei’s Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry, both of which are also findable online. Nevertheless, the twenty-two minute documentary packs a powerful punch. Highly recommended, The Reborn of Beichuan screens conventionally this Wednesday (4/9) at the Take Two Film Festival, with an opportunity for Q&A with Mu afterward.

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