By Joe Bendel. In 1962, Rudolf Nureyev made his post-defection American debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). However, the 1960’s would be a difficult decade for the performing arts institution. Still, it survived and eventually thrived, as James Sládek documents in BAM150, a portrait of the venue in its sesquicentennial year, which screened again today during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Originally founded to rival the concert halls of Manhattan, BAM had a difficult time establishing its own identity, notwithstanding the appearance of high profile artists such as Nureyev, Sarah Bernhardt, and even Mark Twain. It was more in the business of leasing space than producing performances when Harvey Lichtenstein took the reins of leadership in 1967.
During his tenure, Lichtenstein dramatically raised BAM’s stock through the somewhat contradictory strategies of institutionalizing the avant-garde and pursuing big name performers. Ironically, the economic growth of the 1980’s helped stabilize the venue despite the many theater pieces it staged protesting the very policies that made it all possible. However, it was nearly all undone by Lichtenstein’s disastrous attempts to establish a repertory company.
BAM150 is a perfectly respectable survey of the hall’s history. Sládek has a nice approach to the material, smoothly blending moments of quiet, Wiseman-esque observation with more conventional talking head sequences. The combined effect gives audiences a pretty good feel for the rapidly expanding institution.
After previously profiling Mark Kostabi, a somewhat dubious artist more famous than he should be, Sládek has shifted gears, shining a spotlight on an arts organization that ought to be more widely recognized. It is also a rather shrewd filmmaking decision, since his documentary is a lead pipe cinch to be screened at BAM’s Cinématek. Still, he faced a bit of a challenge, considering dance and theater performances are fleeting by nature. As a result, viewers must often settle for descriptions rather than video documentation. Fortunately, the quality of interview participants helps to compensate, including the likes of Steve Reich, Peter Brook, Alan Rickman, and Isabella Rossellini.
Clearly produced in a celebratory spirit, Sládek never pushes or prods his subjects into any news-making revelations, but he keeps it all moving along briskly. Most likely destined for an engagement at the BAM Cinématek and an eventual PBS broadcast life, BAM150 is basically pleasant and informative. Modestly recommended for proud Brooklynites and those fascinated by the performing arts world, BAM150 screened again tonight (4/28) as this year’s Tribeca Film Festival enters its concluding weekend.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on April 29th, 2012 at 10:40pm.
By Joe Bendel. Sex for money can be so liberating – at least, that is what some guys always say. A similar position is staked out in a rather mature new film produced and directed by women and featuring a largely female cast. Even if you adore Juliette Binoche, this is not a film to watch with your parents. However, a lot of people saw it with other people’s parents when it screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. And mere days later, Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles has opened its conventional theatrical run in New York.
Anne is a wife, a mother, and a freelance writer. Her latest story is a confidential profile of student prostitutes. The assignment came at an awkward period in her marriage, around the same time she busted her husband for a certain kind of net surfing. As she talks to these confident young women, she becomes obsessed with their explicit stories. According to Charlotte and Alicja, their approach to sex is healthier, because there is no hypocrisy. They make a comfortable living exploiting men’s weaknesses of the flesh. Maybe so, but liberation never looked so demeaning.
Films exploring the jujitsu ‘empowerment’ of prostitutes are nearly as old as the profession itself. One obvious comparison is Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, which also screened at Tribeca three years ago. Yet that film, starring an actual pornstar, is far more circumspect in what it depicts. In fact, there is no on-screen sex and only a spot of nudity is to be seen here or there. It is the emotional entanglements surrounding sex that concern GFE. In contrast, Elles jumps right into some of the more explicit scenes you will see in a public theater. And it was not tagged with an NC-17 rating for no reason.
Frankly, Soderbergh had the right idea. Even if Szumowska had a razor sharp analysis of sexual politics to offer, it is hard to get past some of the things she shows the audience. However, the film’s feminist themes are pretty threadbare and the drama is more frustrating than absorbing.
Normally a bedrock of reliability, even Binoche seems a little off here as the journalist. Her reactions to everything often seem wildly disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. Still, Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig both bring smart, attractive presences to bear on this material. For the record, I briefly met Kulig on the way to a post-screening Q&A and she seems like a lovely and engaging person. I imagine the audience had a lot of questions for her, but whether they had the guts to ask them is another matter entirely. It is also worth noting that the legendary Krystyna Janda (whose credits include Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Ryszard Bugajski’s The Interrogation) also co-stars in the largely thankless role of Alicja’s mother.
Something about Elles simply does not click. It is not necessarily because of the subject matter, but it makes the lack of depth and cohesion more conspicuous. Due to the accomplished cast, cineastes should have it on their radar, but it is not recommended as a satisfying theater-going experience. After its high profile Tribeca screenings, Elles is now open in New York at the Angelika Film Center.
LFM GRADE: D+
Posted on April 28th, 2012 at 10:38pm.
LFM wants to thank Indiewire for featuring Joe Bendel’s Tribeca coverage in Indiewire’s Criticwire ranking of the best films from the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Indiewire is a great resource for the independent film community, and we’re very proud of Joe’s coverage of Tribeca and other festivals.
Posted on April 28th, 2012 at 9:47pm.
By Joe Bendel. The Ragunan Zoo is a slightly run down Eden, and the city around it is jungle. One innocent young woman will learn the nature of the world outside in the singularly named Edwin’s Postcards from the Zoo (see clips here), which screened today at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Abandoned in the zoo as a young girl, Lana simply stayed there, falling in with a group of itinerant workers who do odd jobs around the park and sleep on the premises. Growing up amongst the animals, she seems to have special bond with them, particularly the giraffe. However, her sheltered existence is turned upside down when word comes of the migrant workers’ imminent eviction from the zoo.
Fascinated by a mysterious street magician dressed as a cowboy, Lana is lured out of the park, becoming his assistant and ambiguous companion. While she acclimates to their performance routines, it is not long before she is working at a massage parlor in an even more ambiguous capacity.
Like Lana, Postcards should have never left the zoo. In those early scenes Edwin and cinematographer Sidi Saleh create a breathtakingly delicate, fable-like environment. It is fascinating to watch the quietly subtle ways Lana interacts with the animals. The Ragunan Zoo is also a truly wonderful setting, looking a bit wild and over-run by forest, in a way that further heightens the fantasy atmosphere.
However, once she leaves the idyllic zoo, Postcards becomes a largely by the numbers end-of-innocence tale. While there are arresting visuals to be found throughout the film, usually involving return trips to the zoo, we have been down this road hundreds of times before. Yes, it reflects the reality of Jakarta, which is also why it clashes with everything special in the film. It is also getting emotionally exhausting to see yet another little girl abandoned or abducted in a film from the region. The filmmakers ought to start picking on someone more their size.
Even if Postcards is undermined by its second half, it is impossible to take your eyes off Ladya Cheryl’s Lana. Her earnest engagement and exquisite vulnerability gives the film an emotional center of gravity, preventing it from becoming a mere exercise in archetypal tropes. It is haunting work.
There were obviously some crack animal trainers contributing their talents to Postcards. Cheryl is also an absolutely luminous presence. However, viewers are more likely to fall in love with her or the Ragunan Zoo than Edwin’s movie. Richly crafted but somewhat disappointing, Postcards from the Zoo screened again today (4/28) as this year’s Tribeca Film Festival enters the home stretch.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on April 29th, 2012 at 9:31pm.
By Joe Bendel. Representing the fourth dimension in 2D is quite the daunting challenge. Fortunately, none of the filmmakers participating in a new hipster sci-fi anthology take it seriously. Nor will annoying glasses be necessary when watching The Fourth Dimension, three short films produced and assembled by Vice and Grolsch Film Works (cheers, mate), which screened again this afternoon as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
In the opening The Lotus Community Workshop, Harmony Korine (yes, but don’t panic) takes us to a world much like our own, where Val Kilmer plays a low rent motivational speaker named Val Kilmer. Addressing church groups in roller rinks, he passes off ego-centric tripe as New Agey pearls of wisdom. Occasionally hinting at the metaphysical, Lotus seems more like a confessional piece from Kilmer, admitting to his fans: “I realize I was once Iceman in Top Gun and now I’m kind of a slob, but at least I still don’t have to work at a real job.” This is a case where brevity is definitely Korine’s ally. Given the relatively short running time, the self-referential joke maintains its novelty better than one might expect.
Making a bit of a concession to the film’s umbrella premise, Alexey Fedorchenko’s Chronoeye involves indirect time travel. Employing some analog-style technology, a misanthropic Russian scientist (is there any other kind?) is able to glimpse into the past. However, there is an attractive neighbor above him to remind viewers not to lose sight of the present. Fedorchenko (probably best known for the strikingly austere road movie Silent Souls) maintains a fable-like vibe, preventing Chronoeye from descending into the realm of romantic cliché.
Jan Kwiecinski’s Fawns might come closest to revealing the fourth dimension, since it induces Armageddon. Much like Abel Ferrara’s meandering 4:44 Last Day on Earth, doomsday vaguely involves global warmish-ing, but here it is more Biblical. A cataclysmic flood has led to worldwide evacuation, but a group of Polish slackers are too cool to pay attention. Instead, they careen about a provincial town, hinting at the sexual tensions within their group. Suddenly though, the end of the world takes a serious turn for the aimless youth. Frankly, none of the Kwiecinski’s characters are particularly well defined, but as a mood piece, it is quite eerie.
Defiantly disregarding the theme that ostensibly holds it together, The Fourth Dimension lurches all over the place, but it is not without merit. Indeed, there should be enough eccentricity in each constituent short film to satisfy some strange subset of cult film fandom out there someplace. Recommended for those in search of a bit of bemusement, it screened yesterday as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on April 28th, 2012 at 8:56pm.
By Joe Bendel. Jo Nesbø is best known for his gritty detective Harry Hole, but film adaptations of his work have largely focused on the criminal and the compromised. Just as Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters begins its American theatrical run here in New York, Magnus Martens’ even better and bloodier Jackpot (trailer here) screened last night as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Oscar Svendsen is not a criminal, but the artificial Christmas tree factory he works at specializes in hiring released convicts. According to the detective interrogating him, this means he is used to thinking like a crook. Be that as it may, Svendsen certainly has some explaining to do, such as how he came to be found clutching a shotgun beneath a rather large dead woman amid a bloodbath at a strip club. Let the flashback carnage begin.
Reluctantly, Svendsen agreed to enter a betting pool with three of his scariest co-workers. Against all the odds, their dubious betting system produces a twelve-game winning ticket. Everyone should be happy, but when Svendsen returns to his apartment, he finds a dead body. Supposedly their late colleague got greedy and attacked the other two, who killed him in self-defense. Or so they tell Svendsen. True or not, there is a corpse to dispose of. This will get messy. Not for nothing, Svendsen wonders if he will be next.
Based on a Nesbø story, Jackpot is a lot like early Coen Brothers, but with a greater body count. Evidently the process for fabricating fake Christmas trees is a lot like sausage-making, so you know what that means. The pieces are sent flying almost as fast and furiously as the constant double-crosses. Indeed, Martens is not exactly shy in his approach to the material, but he keeps a tight rein on the narrative, never letting the proceedings descend into absolute bedlam.
As Svendsen, the game but unassuming Kyrre Hellum resembles a rag doll being tossed about. However, that works rather well in the context of the film. In contrast, Henrik Mestad displays mucho screen presence, supplying much of the film’s mordant wit as the investigating Detective Solør. Yet even more laughs come from blood-splattered slapstick gags that would make the re-launched Stooges blanch. Still, Svendsen’s three knuckle-headed co-conspirators are all rather generic. Indeed, that lack of a flamboyant villain is the only real knock on the film.
You should probably know by now if Jackpot is your cup of tea. Frankly, the execution (so to speak) is superior to many other films in what could be considered the recent Scandinavian noir invasion, but it definitely makes the typical Tarantino-impersonating film look rather sedate by comparison. For those looking for some good chaotic fun, it definitely fits the bill. Recommended for connoisseurs of outrageous crime drama, Jackpot screens again this weekend as the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival concludes.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on April 27th, 2012 at 8:54pm.