J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tribeca ’18: The Saint Bernard Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tribeca ’18: Blue Note Records—Beyond the Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Escape of Prisoner 614

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Freaks and Geeks, the Documentary

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

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

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

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

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

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Tribeca ’18: Jonathan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Violent Life: Corsican Gangsters and Separatists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Tribeca ’18: 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss, Etc., Etc.

They dig their cults in LA. Just review the recent history: the Mansion Family, the Source Family, the SLA, Synanon, a satellite office of the People’s Temple, and of course, L. Ron’s Thetans. It is easy to see the cult of the Holy Storsh gaining traction here, but that is bad news for Claire and her underwhelming boyfriend Paul. They rented the apartment where Storsh shuffled off his mortal coil, so they must contend with a steady stream of cult members intending to follow his example. However, the malleable losers will adopt a policy of “if you can’t beat them, join them” in Vivieno Caldinelli’s 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Claire should call her dad, because she is in a cult. To put it more accurately, she aspires to join a cult, which is sort of sad. Sadder still, her support network entirely consists of her unemployed boyfriend Paul, who is even weaker than she is. Initially, they are freaked out by the Storsh-heads who break into their flat to kill themselves after performing an absurd set of rituals, but one day Claire starts reading one of Storsh’s little red books left behind by a cultist—and suddenly it all starts to make sense to her.

Of course, she carries along the spineless Paul with her enthusiasm. Suddenly, they start ushering the Storshies into the tub and even help them take their final exit. In fact, Claire gets super enthusiastic about assisting their suicides. However, they also have to keep the detective assigned to Storsh body-processing at bay.

The first fifteen minutes or so are mildly amusing, but 7 Stages Etc., Etc. never goes above, beyond, or below the level of a sketch comedy show routine. Basically, the film plateaus at a constantly level of one-liners and carefully calibrated bits of mildly transgressive slapstick. A film about a suicidal death cult should never become formulaic and repetitive, but that is what happens here. As a further source of annoyance, Caldinelli and the producers cast a number people like Dan Harmon, whom the entertainment media are constantly telling us how funny we find their work, but have no appreciable following with real people, aside from a few dozen podcast listeners.

Frankly, Harmon is excruciatingly embarrassing as the neurotic Det. Cartwright. It is also uncomfortable for very different reasons to watch how hard Kate Micucci tries to make it work as Claire. On the other hand, Sam Huntington takes the intentionally annoying character of Paul and makes him utterly nauseating. Yet, to give credit where it is due, it is duly stipulated Taika Waititi is thoroughly and profoundly eerie as old Storshy (seen in flashbacks).

I’m sure we are all looking forward to the day when 7 Stages plays on a triple bill with Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Seriously, a ridiculously long title has to be the cheapest gag possible. In this case, its fitting. Not recommended, 7 Stages screens again this Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: Mr. Soul

You won’t often hear this about a jazz musician, but this year, Robert Glasper is the toast of the Tribeca Film Festival. He participated in two all-star post-screening concerts, one for the soon to be reviewed Blue Note Records documentary, which prominently features him in performance and the doc-profile of African American broadcaster Haizlip and his PBS-produced variety show Soul!, which Glasper also scored. Soul! featured many jazz guests, but filmmaker (niece) Melissa Haizlip and co-director Samuel Pollard mostly focuses on, you know, soul. The music still moves and groves, but the rhetoric sounds awfully dated in Haizlip’s Mr. Soul, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Of course, there was a huge, under-served market for Soul! when it premiered on New York’s (then) NET public educational network (if you think it is hard finding an African American in the big three’s programming from this era, just try looking for an Asian). Supposedly, the idea was to do a show celebrating African American arts and culture, but politics was conspicuously high in the mix, right from the start. Perhaps that is inevitable to some extent, but when you chose up partisan sides, it makes you fair game for some hardball.

Be that as it may, it is pretty incredible how many great artists appeared on Soul!, including Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Hugh Masekela, Billy Preston, Al Green, Kool and the Gang, Ashford & Simpson, Lebelle, and Earth Wind and Fire. Yet, it wasn’t just music. Soul! often showcased modern dance, including dancers affiliated with Alvin Ailey and George Faison. There is no major network talk or variety show currently broadcasting today that gives air time to dance as a serious artform, which has truly impoverished our culture.

However, Haizlip interviewed guest like Louis Farrakhan and members of the Black Panthers, largely leaving their extremist views unchallenged. The contention Haizlip prompted Farrakhan to concede gays and lesbians (the term LGBT wasn’t yet in the lexicon) were still human beings on some basic level, but not necessarily socially acceptable, is embarrassingly underwhelming. You can get far better than that from the most conservative Evangelical clergy, without any effort. The show clearly chose a side, so they can’t act surprised when Nixon appointees declined to continue using tax dollars to produce interviews with radicalized militants. Had they also invited more conservative African Americans of the era, such as Jackie Robinson, Lionel Hampton, and George Schuyler for balance, it might have been a different story, but apparently, they didn’t.

Regardless, the music and the dance were great—then and now. In the post-screening concert, formatted in the style of a vintage Soul! episode, with musical performances alternating with interview segments, Glasper and his band laid down a strong grove backing up the acts. Alas, the Last Poets sound like relics from a bygone era, but Kyle Abraham performed some lovely choreography for Stevie Wonder’s “You and I.” However, Lalah Hathaway really lived up to the show’s name with a rousing closer that definitely upheld her soulful family tradition.

Mir. Soul! is well worth watching just to get an eye and earful of all the great artists who performed on its stage, but its racial-cultural politics are certainly debatable. An intriguing time capsule (even if it is somewhat insular in perspective), Mr. Soul! screens tonight (4/23), Wednesday (4/25), and Thursday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Satan & Adam

For a musical art form to survive, it must be performed live, for real people, so it can actively engage with the world around it. Starting in 1986, the veteran bluesman known as Satan (born Sterling Magee, not a fan of organized religion) and Adam Gussow very definitely kept the blues alive. Playing on the streets of Harlem undeniably strengthened their attacks and gave them ample opportunity to pick-up on all the life going on around them. Satan’s vocals started to incorporate rap elements, while Gussow developed jazz saxophone influences on his mouth harp. V. Scott Balcerek chronicles the duo’s life and times in his twenty-three-years-in-the-making documentary, Satan & Adam, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is probably the second most famous creation story in blues, after Robert Johnson’s meeting at the crossroads. On that fateful day, Gussow asked to sit in with Satan, who was already quite recognizable for playing solo electric guitar, while accompanying himself on drums with the foot pedals. Satan was curious enough to agree and was pleasantly surprised when the kid managed to keep up. They started playing together so often, they became a regular act: Satan & Adam.

Initially, they busked on the streets, but they started to get respectable, recording an album, holding down a regular weekly bar gig, and signing with a manager. Frankly, their story was so attractive, it was probably inevitable they would get at least fifteen minutes of fame. They were after all the first interracial performers to appear together on the cover of Living Blues magazine. However, the music was so good and so honest, they maintained a loyal (and rather sizable, by blues standards) fan base, even after the music media moved on.

Balcerek managed to capture a fair amount of those glory days and he was also there for the quiet years of separation. Balcerek’s treatment is somewhat vague on the particulars, but Satan had something like a nervous breakdown and moved to Florida, where his Evangelical family forced him to temporarily give up the blues and the “Satan” moniker. In his nonfiction collection, Journeyman’s Road, Gussow more-or-less suggests he had to learn to let Satan go and get on with his own life.

As poignant as those sentiments were, it turned out the music wasn’t ready to let them go. In fact, S&A has the best third act of any music doc since Searching for Sugar Man. It was maybe more like a fourth or fifth act, but for their fans, it was utterly shocking good news, sort of like Harper Lee publishing Go Set a Watchman, but more satisfying.

It is that combination of pain and joy that makes Balcerek’s film such an immediately indispensable document of modern Americana. This film is blues to the bone, including the clear-eyed manner it addresses issues of race. As is often the case with jazz, the music we call the blues is frequently intertwined with racially charged questions of authenticity. Yet, without white (and increasingly foreign) audiences, there would be little market for the music. Of course, the first listeners Satan & Adam won over were “pre-gentrification” Harlem residents, who just responded to what they heard. If you respect the music, you also have to respect young players keeping it alive, regardless what they look like. (That is why it is so odd to see Al Sharpton turn up as a talking head in the film, because probably nobody else who has done more to foster racial tension in New York, through his involvement in the Tawana Brawley hoax and the Crown Heights Riots.)

Regardless, it is impossible to miss the appealing symbolism of Satan & Adam for music journalists and fans alike. Fortunately, Balcerek delves even deeper, really getting at the essence of friendship and music. The blues is rooted in the African American Delta experience, but it speaks to us on a universally accessible level. Balcerek presents Satan and Gussow in a way that we can similarly relate to. Satan & Adam is a terrific film that will move your feet and your soul. Very highly recommended, it screens this Wednesday (4/25) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: The Night Eats the World

It is based on a French novel written by Martin Page under the pen name Pit Agarmen, but it is clearly constructed over the foundation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Sam, a French musician, will barricade himself in a tony apartment when a zombie apocalypse sweeps through Paris, but as he battles loneliness and hunger, he comes to realize he is the freak amid this new world of the feral undead in Dominique Rocher’s The Night Eats the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

You could argue Sam is fortunate to be shy and have a low tolerance for alcohol, or perhaps the exact opposite. Either way, he survives the initial wave of the zombie outbreak, because he fell asleep in a tucked away back room during his ex-girlfriend’s hipster party. Most of the zombies have been there and gone, so he fortifies a particularly nice flat in her building and digs in.

Resigning himself to the new order, Sam does his best to forage for canned goods and clear the other flats of zombies. Much like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, Sam seeks companionship with a pet, but in this case, it is a cat—and Rocher and his co-screenwriters give their relationship a subversive twist. For most of the film, his only company is Alfred, an infected tenant trapped in the building’s retro wrought-iron elevator, until the exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani makes a cameo appearance.

There are so many similarities between Night Eats and I Am Legend, both the novel and its earlier film adaptations, Rocher really should have included some sort of hat-tip, such as a Matheson movie poster. Of course, Neville was fighting vampires in Matheson’s source novel, albeit very zombie-like vampires, so Night Eats should be off the hook for any potential litigation. There is also a pronounced Gallic vibe to Rocher’s film. For instance, when Sam passes the time by constructing some Rube Goldberg like musical constructions (which actually produces some groovy sounds), the vibe is almost Tati-esque.

As Sam, Anders Danielsen Lie does heroic work, withstanding the rigor and scrutiny that comes with being on-screen nearly every second of the way. One look at his tortured countenance tells us he is a quiet on the outside but roiling on the inside kind of guy. The always striking Farahani is also deeply haunting as the mysterious Sarah. However, the wonderfully eccentric Denis Lavant (Monsieur Oscar from Holy Motors) supplies the film’s indelibly memorable and most likely iconic performance as the infected and immobilized Alfred, who just might possibly be lucid at some level deep down in his diseased psyche.

These are real zombies, who are always looking to chomp down on the infected. Rocher’s approach is admittedly more stylish and cerebral than many zombie films, but he still embraces the core principles of the genre. Rocher also composes some eerie visuals of the de-populated Parisian neighborhood and the ferocious swarms of zombie masses. Despite a relative paucity of gore, Walking Dead fans should be able to relate and approve. Enthusiastically recommended, Night Eats the World screens again today (4/22), tomorrow (4/23), and Friday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: Kaiser, the Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football

They take football seriously in Brazil, maybe even more so than music. That is why the picaresque story of Carlos Enrique Raposo (a.k.a. Carlos “Kaiser”) is so amazing. He was more of con artist than an athlete, who essentially defrauded the bicheiros (numbers-running gangsters) that apparently ran Brazil’s professional club teams. Somehow, he lived to talk about it in Louis Myles’ breezy documentary-romp, Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Rio, with its nightclubs and beaches, was tailor-made for Raposo. He is still recognized when he strolls along their wavy sidewalks, even though he literally never logged a second of professional playing time. When it came to football, the man dubbed “Kaiser” (as in the German Emperor) had terrible skills, but he was always in great shape and bore a convenient resemblance to superstar player Franz Beckenbauer.

Through deceit and chutzpah, Raposo managed to get signed to a thoroughly mobbed-up Corsican pro-team. He easily passed his physical, but then immediately feigned an injury. Despite his lack of productivity, Kaiser managed to maintain his contract by cozying up to one of the team’s most-connected executives. Eventually, he was cut, but he was able to repeat the cycle, because he had a stint with a pro team on his resume. The more teams he did not play for, the more legit he looked on paper. However, things started getting dicey when “Dr.” Castor de Andrade, the notorious bicheiro patron of the Bangu club finally ran out of patience.

Raposo’s story is a lot like that of Frank Abignale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, but it is more hedonistic and has better music. Clearly, Kaiser managed to hang on as long as he did, at so many clubs, because he could always start a party. Even Beckenbauer found himself vicariously indulging through his roguish pseudo-impostor.

Kaiser is mostly a great deal of naughty fun laced with episodes of head-shaking audacity, but it eventually gets serious in the third act. Alas, Raposo could not avoid real life indefinitely, but he has had a heck of a ride. Frankly, the film has the vibe of a guilty pleasure, but it also serves as quite a bold expose of the rough & tumble Brazilian football world in the 1980s and 1990s. Raposo never hurt a fly, which is why most of his “teammates” still have a great deal of affection for him (he also brought a lot of women around). On the other hand, the bicheiros were seriously bad cats.

Kaiser goes down as smooth as an ice coffee on an Ipanema beach. Myles keeps the pace at a brisk gallop and the diverse Brazilian soundtrack puts viewers in an after-hours-party frame-of-mind. He also scores some dishy and droll interviews with the survivors of the eighties and nineties Brazilian football scene. Even if you do not follow international football, you will be hard pressed to find a more entertaining documentary. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates Brazilian culture or a good con, Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football screens again today (4/22), tomorrow (4/23) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Blue Night

You should not judge Vivienne Carala too harshly for ignoring her body’s warning signs. When you are a jazz vocalist, you have to strike while the iron is hot and you can never stop hustling. However, missing out on her daughter’s childhood is another matter entirely, but that is the price she paid for kind of-sort of making it. A tumor diagnosis will rudely prompt her to reconsider all the choices she made throughout the fateful day before she is admitted for an invasive battery of tests and treatment in Fabien Constant’s Blue Night, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Carala has been gigging at a high level for over two decades. She is preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of her first Birdland gig (presumably, she has one of those weekend spots), which is an accomplishment, but instead of fulfilling her ambition of playing the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall, she might have to settle for Zankel Hall (which is also really nice).

Those were all yesterday’s concerns. This morning’s diagnosis has put everything in doubt. Yet, she still goes through the motions at a rehearsal and in press interviews. She has many people in her life she should tell, but she has trouble communicating with them (rather ironically, considering she is a vocalist in the Susannah McCorkle mold, who specializes in dramatically interpreting lyrics, rather than dazzling audiences with her chops).

Frankly, Blue Night is a lot better than you might expect, because it really looks like New York and gets a lot of the jazz details right. There is a scene shot on location in Birdland and another looks a lot like the Cornelia Street Café bar. The way Carala interacts with her musicians also feels very real (except for the fact that she is sleeping with her drummer, which happens less frequently than you might suppose). It is therefore frustrating that Constant did not have more confidence in jazz to use it for the underlying soundtrack. Instead, we hear a great deal of discordant strings.

Regardless, you have to give Sarah Jessica Parker a great deal of credit. First of all, she is willing to look her (and Carala’s age), often under harsh light and unflattering circumstances. Make no mistake, there is nothing vain about this film. She also handles Carala’s vocals with surprising taste and sensitivity. In fact, she really nicely turns a Rufus Wainwright original and a cover of Ritchie Cordell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” that plays over the closing credits.

When it comes to the drama, Parker develops some remarkably, ambiguously poignant chemistry with Common, playing her manager Ben. She also has some honest and effective scenes with Gus Birney and Simon Baker, as her daughter and ex-husband. However, the melodrama with her high-maintenance mother Jeanne (portrayed by the scenery-gorging Jacqueline Bisset) always feel forced and phony.

Sometimes Constant hits us over the head, as in Carala’s scenes with her mother and a chance encounter with a former friend and colleague, who essentially made the opposite choice, opting to raise her family instead of pursuing her career. Yet, somehow, he uses a lighter touch for the business with a Lyft driver who keeps crossing paths with Carala. By not forcing the issue, their final meeting packs a quiet wallop. It is just too bad there isn’t more music in the film Carala would actually like to hear. Recommended with all its imperfections, Blue Night screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.


Tribeca ’18: Cargo

Relatively speaking, Australia should expect high survival rates if a zombie apocalypse ever swept across the globe. They have a low population density and a good deal of open space. In fact, even the unassuming Andy has survived with his wife and infant daughter for several months. Unfortunately, dwindling supplies will lead to tragedy in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo (trailer here), a feature expansion of their widely viewed short film, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Commandeering a houseboat was a temporarily winning strategy, but it is not sustainable over the long run. Eventually, the need for food forces Andy (perhaps a nod to Andy Rodoreda, the lead actor in the 2013 short) and Kay to take risks and that leads to sloppiness. The upshot is first Kay and then Andy is infected with the zombie virus. She will go fairly quickly, but he will presumably have most of his full forty-eight-hour incubation period to figure out how to secure his baby daughter Rose’s future.

There are a few survivors out there, but some of them reflect the worst in human nature. Others demonstrate kindness, like a cancer-stricken school teacher, but obviously she cannot be a long-term guardian. Frankly, Australia’s aboriginal population seems to be the best prepared to deal with the zombies, so Andy tries to forge an alliance with Thoomi a resilient teen girl, who is essentially an orphan since her father turned.

Cargo is a zombie film with real emotional heft, sort of in the tradition of the Schwarzenegger film Maggie. Frankly, Howling & Ramke serve up relatively few zombie attacks, but they maintain an overwhelming sense of tension every second of the way, so you really can’t call it a revisionist zombie movie, or Heaven forbid, “post-horror.”

Based on what we heard from Steve’s interview with Martin Freeman forthcoming on Unseen Films, it is easy to understand why the film’s themes of fatherhood and sacrifice appealed to Martin Freeman. He is terrific taking over from Rodoreda as the father. He might just be the actor with the most everyman (or everyhobbit) credibility since Tom Hanks at his peak, which serves him well in this context. Susie Porter is also pretty darned devastating as Kay, while Kris McQuade also adds a graceful note of compassion as the school teacher, Etta.

The media and popular culture generally portrays widespread calamities as a catalyst for looting and exploitation, but the historical record suggests the opposite is more accurate. Disasters usually bring out the best in people, but we never see that in zombie movies and TV shows. At least Ramke’s screenplay offers a more balanced assessment. There are both good and bad people in Cargo, just as there are in real life. Recommended as a zombie film with heart and genuine feeling, the Netflix-bound Cargo screens again tonight (4/21) and Wednesday (4/25), during this year’s Tribeca.

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Tribeca ’18: Stockholm

Ostensibly, it is a term used to condone questionable decisions, but the term “Stockholm Syndrome” definitely carries highly negative connotations. In general parlance, it implies the victim was either too weak or too stupid to resist the brainwashing or seduction of their captors. However, the circumstances of the historical incident that coined the term were considerably different. At least, that is how the somewhat fictionalized chronicle of the Normalmstorg Kreditbanken hostage crisis unfolds in Robert Budreau’s Stockholm, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

He presents himself as an American singing cowboy, but the hostage-taker’s real identity will be the source of some controversy during the stand-off. Regardless, his love for Bob Dylan is genuine enough (the film opens with “New Morning,” a good one that isn’t over-played). Oddly enough, Kaj Hansson (as he is first assumed to be) is not so shocked when the alarm is tripped. In fact, it is a necessary precondition for him to start presenting his demands, which includes the release of his bank-robbing best pal Gunnar Sorensson.

It turns out Sorensson is rather surprised by the scheme, but he plays along—and maybe plays both sides against each other when the cops offer him a deal to act as a “mediator.” Bank officer Bianca Lind is more perceptive than Hansson (or whoever). She can tell he has more enthusiasm than brains. He is in over his head, but the increasingly infuriated cops are probably a greater threat to her safety. Together with the two other hostages, who also start to see things her way, Lind tries to help plot an exit strategy for Hansson and Sorensson.

For many viewers, the big surprise here is the portrayal of Lind (and to a lesser extent her two fellow hostages). Frankly, they are not victims at all (yes, they were menaced a bit during the initial hostage-taking, but they quickly get over it). There is no question Lind is the smartest person in the room—and she choses to help her serenading captor, making her own voluntary decision. As a result, this film is bound to be controversial, especially in Sweden, considering it portrays the sainted Olof Palme as a craven political beast.

The other happy revelation is just how good Noomi Rapace is as Lind. Let’s be honest, her post-Millennium Trilogy work has been iffy (we’re talking about films like Bright, Unlocked, and What Happened to Monday? here). Maybe going back to Sweden was healthy for her, because she is totally riveting as Lind, but in a way that is both cerebral and humane.

Rapace also develops some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry with Ethan Hawke as the nice guy hostage-taker. Arguably, Hawke is a tad old for the “impetuous kid” role (his historical analog was thirty-two at the time of the standoff), but he might be one of the few thesps working today who can credibly convey the character’s flamboyance and his naivete. Of course, Mark Strong is money in the bank as the intense, borderline sociopathic Sorensson. Terms like “heroes,” “villains,” and “anti-heroes” definitely get a little murky in a film like this, but Christopher Heyerdahl (a distant relation of the explorer) makes quite a memorably severe antagonist as police chief Mattsson.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is a term that gets haphazardly thrown around, but this film makes viewers question its usage, even starting in the first instance. It is a tight, energetic period thriller, helmed with a fair amount of flair by Budreau (who also directed Hawke in the hip Chet Baker bio-pic, Born to Be Blue). Highly recommended, Stockholm screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Tribeca ’18: You Shall Not Sleep

Method actors can be pretentious and annoying, but Alma Böhm’s method is downright dangerous. She has her actors stay up for days straight, in order to strip away their self-conscious selves and unleash their pure instinct—or something like that. Needless to say, this is a bad idea in a horror movie kind of way. Staging their performance in abandoned mental hospital further compounds the danger in Gustavo Hernández’s You Shall Not Sleep (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bianca has also been fascinated by Böhm’s work, so she can’t no when offered a part in her latest theatrical happening, even though she is well aware of the infamous ending to her last attempt at sleep-deprivation theater (apparently, 108 hours is a significant red line for participants). However, she is rather put out to learn she still has to compete for the role, against her pretty but less talented friend Dora.

The good news is she is much more susceptible to Böhm’s method than Dora. That is also the bad news. Before long, Bianca is seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of her eye and having flashbacks from the POV of her character, a wronged patient who very nearly killed her baby when she set the hospital on fire.

Pretty soon, we are just as lost as Bianca in the various temporal shift and reality warps. Yet, there always seems to be a method to Hernández’s madness, so to speak. Frankly, YSNS is probably a horror movie by default (it would certainly be terrifying to live through equivalent experiences), but it has nearly as much in common with mind-benders like Inception. Still, it is hard to argue with the implication of a haunted and crumbling lunatic asylum.

The Uruguayan Hernández shows a masterful control of atmosphere, tension, and general mise-en-scene throughout it all. This is definitely a moody movie. He also gets some great performances from his cast, particularly Spanish actress Belén Rueda, who goes from being the woman-in-jeopardy in Julia’s Eyes, to being the one putting women in jeopardy, as Böhm. She is chillingly driven, sharing a kinship with Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. It is also scary to see how worn-down and hollowed-out Eva De Dominici gets as the tragically sensitive Bianca, while Susana Hornos really sneaks up on viewers as the dramatically less intuitive Dora.

You have to give Hernández credit for making a haunted asylum film that can never be mistaken for a clone of Grave Encounters or Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Indeed, there is quite a bit of fresh and originally creepy stuff to be found here. Highly recommended for unpedantic genre fans, You Shall Not Sleep screens again tonight (4/20), tomorrow night (4/21) and next Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Ramen Heads: You’re Supposed to Slurp

Osamu Tomita is a lot like Jiro Ono, but he dreams of ramen instead of sushi. Ramen is so much his thing, Tomita visits other ramen restaurants on his day off. It is mostly just to eat, rather than for purposes of industrial espionage. For the fourth year in a row, his ramen has been recognized as Japan’s best, so his competitors are more likely to steal from him, rather than vice versa. Yet, he boldly welcomes viewers into his kitchen to watch him prepare the next day’s broth and noodles in Koki Shigeno’s documentary Ramen Heads (trailer here), which opens today in Chicago.

Ramen is probably the most quintessentially Japanese meal. Originally, it was cheap but filling food the large class of struggling post-war laborers could afford, but it has evolved into a culinary art form. Yet, all the real ramen restaurants are small neighborhood establishments. To the uninitiated, Tomita’s place in Matsudo, Chiba looks like clean, unassuming establishment, but there are always long lines in the morning to buy timed-entry tickets for a table.

We see Tomita mix his broth, knead his noodles, and boil his bamboo shoots (none of those are euphemisms). Perhaps astute ramen chefs will pick up a step or two from what Tomita shows, but his secrets are safe with us. In fact, we feel like we more than sufficiently get it after a while. Fortunately, Shigeno eventually opens the film up a little, introducing us to some other notable ramen chefs and giving us a sly animated history of ramen. Frankly, Shigeno could have spent more time with the other ramen masters, because some of them must have stories to tell, especially seventy-two-year-old Katsuji Matsouka, who will nonchalantly sling 800-1,600 bowls of ramen each day at his Tsukiji Market stall.

Shigeno, a well-established director of Japanese TV food programming, gives viewers an insider’s perspective, which is obviously intended for hard-core ramen heads. However, he captures some of the vibe and every day details of Japanese ramen eating. This would be a good film to stream before visiting the country as a tourist, even if you have no intention of eating at Tomita’s shop.

Regardless, it is always refreshing to see someone like Tomita, who has a passion they are happy to share. Frankly, Ramen Heads is more accessible and energetic than the weirdly over-hyped Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but not nearly as fun as Mirai Kinishi’s Kampai! For the Love of Sake. Recommended for foodies and armchair travelers, Ramen Heads opens today (4/20) at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago (and also screens 4/22 and 4/28 as part of Udine’s Far East Film Festival).

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

CineFesta Italia ’18: Cinderella the Cat

There are no fairy godmothers in Naples. Prince Charming is the “King” of the underworld—and he’s no prince. Fortunately, Mia is a resourceful young girl, but not for long. She is about to come of age and inherit her murdered father’s fortune in Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak & Dario Sansone’s mature animated fable, Cinderella the Cat (trailer here), which screens during CineFesta Italia 2018 in Santa Fe.

Vittorio Basile’s plan to revitalize the Naples seaport district is so visionary, only he understands it. His grand QE2-like cruise ship headquarters and its pseudo-artificial intelligence only hints at the potential grandeur of the project. Unfortunately, Basile falls for the wrong woman, torch-singer Angelica Carannante, who is conspiring with her lover, gangster Salvatore Lo Giusto to kill Basile as soon as the rings are exchanged. They will have to keep his young daughter Mia around until she is old enough to sign over her inheritance, but that does not mean her wicked step-sisters (and drag queen step-brother) have to be nice to her.

Young Mia had a rather touching relationship with her bodyguard Primo Gemito (sort of like the Man on Fire movies), but alas, he is the first person Carannante fires. However, he will make a dramatic return to the now shabby-looking ship as an undercover cop. Frankly, the rusty vessel is a good place to nose around, because it often records significant moments and projects the holographic playback at times that are either extremely opportune or inopportune, depending on one’s perspective.

This is not a Cinderella for kids, but it is wonderfully stylish and rather inventive. With its retro-futuristic fairy tale setting and holographic imagery, it feels something like a cross between the under-appreciated Italian science fiction classic, Morel’s Invention and maybe Streets of Fire, or who knows what. Plus, as an added bonus, there are several contemporary pop-big band musical numbers that are quite jaunty.

Yes, there are four, count them four, credited directors on Cenerentola, but the look and tone are always consistent. Along with three additional co-screenwriters, they create some unusually sharply drawn characters. Their villains are particularly strong, especially the glamorous femme fatale Carannante. Arguably, the traumatized Mia is the least developed, but everyone around her more than compensates.

There is a cat who occasionally slinks in and out, but the title is figurative. However, there is a talking crow, who has a significant role to play. Frankly, this Cinderella is probably too adult for GKIDS to handle (more so even than Chico & Rita or Mind Game), which is a shame, because they might be the only distributor who can handle animation this sophisticated.

Regardless, animation fans will be impressed by the originality and ambition of this noir fairy tale. Again, it should be fully understood this is not a kid’s cartoon. It is meant for grown-ups with discerning taste, who still enjoy a little mayhem. Very highly recommended, Cinderella the Cat screens this Saturday (4/21) at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, as part of this year’s CineFesta Italia.

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