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By Joe Bendel. You can judge the legitimacy of Belarus President-for-life Alexander Lukashenko’s latest “re-election” by the countries that sent their congratulations: Venezuela, Syria, Russia, China, and deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. For many, it was just business as usual in what has been dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictatorship.” However, it was an outrageous affront to independent thinking Belarusians, like the underground Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). Filmmaker Madeleine Sackler provides an uncensored chronicle of the activist artists’ Annus horribilis in Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

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In a state as pervasively regulated as Belarus, any theater group that forthrightly holds a mirror up to society will have to operate outside the official arts bureaucracy, in direct defiance of the law. The small rag-tag troupe was accustomed to a routine level of surveillance and harassment, but the presidential election on December 19, 2010 precipitated a nationwide reign of terror. Co-founders Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin were close family friends of Andrei Sannikov, the leading opposition candidate everyone expected to win the presidency if the elections were even remotely fair. That did not happen. Although tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated on Liberty Square, the regime responded with violence, imprisoning Sannikov and six other opposition candidates.

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Fortunately, most of the BFT were able to evade the KGB (yes, they retained those charming initials), ironically fleeing through Russia. However, the time away from their homeland and families takes a toll on them. The only way they know how to process it is through their art.

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Classifying the BFT is a tricky proposition. Many of the productions Sackler documents are distinctly avant-garde, rather closely akin to the style of Poland’s formerly dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day. Yet, sometimes their performances are painfully intimate and achingly accessible. Frankly, the film’s most intense and devastating sequence does not feature the brutal violence unleashed by the KGB (though there is a good deal of that and it is truly appalling). Instead, a monologue written by featured actor “Oleg” relating the non-political circumstances surrounding a personal tragedy truly leaves audiences emotionally staggered.

Nevertheless, when performing under a regime that prohibits open discussion of mental health, suicide, drug use, and sexuality, the personal becomes perversely political. Sackler and her editors Anne Barliant and Leigh Johnson show Solomon-like judgment, perfectly balancing the political and the artistic, the national and the individual, the macro and the micro.  A heck of a lot of courage went into the making of Dangerous Acts, starting with the BFT, but also including the Belarusian cinematographer Sackler directed via Skype and the small army of eye witnesses and netizen-journalists who contributed protest-crackdown footage.

To her credit, Sackler has tackled some bold subjects, following up her first-rate charter school documentary, The Lottery, with the censorship-defying Dangerous Acts. As a result, she might be one of the few people who can say which is more ruthless protecting their power, Lukashenko or the New York teachers union. Both tell critically important stories, but Dangerous Acts has even more urgency. Highly recommended for all lovers of liberty and advocates for human rights, particularly on the weekend we celebrate our independence, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus premieres Monday night (7/7) on HBO, with further air dates scheduled for 7/9, 7/10, 7/13, 7/16, 7/19, and 7/25.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 5th, 2014 at 2:43pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Glenn Miller had more number 1’s than either Elvis Presley or the Beatles. At the peak of his success, he made considerably more in an average week than most Americans could hope to earn in a year. Yet, he voluntarily signed up to serve his country during a time of war. Although he was never assigned to combat, Miller ultimately died in the service of his country, but the details remain murky. The circumstances surrounding his final fateful flight get a TV looking-over in The Disappearance of Glenn Miller, the latest installment of History Detectives Special Investigations, airing Tuesday on most PBS outlets.

Even (or particularly) amongst swing die-hards, Miller is a divisive figure, with fervent champions and detractors. However, there is no denying his popular success or his patriotism. The sacrifices he made for the latter are especially impressive given the former. Capitalizing on his stature, Miller was tasked with leading an Army Air Force Band that played morale-boosting concerts for the troops.

To prepare for the first concert in newly liberated Paris, Miller hitched a ride on a single-engine Norseman prop plane across the English Channel, but it never arrived in France. Essentially, three theories emerge: accidental causes (small plane plus bad weather is never a good combination), friendly fire, and the straw man of assorted conspiracy theories.

From "The Disappearance of Glenn Miller."

Evidently, there have been a lot of weird hypotheses hatched regarding Miller’s disappearance that all three host-investigators are quick to dismiss. However, they note in passing Miller’s connection to another celebrity officer, David Niven. Re-enlisting after the outbreak of war, Niven was apparently a real deal commando before his transfer to the propaganda unit, where it seems he may or may not have had dealings with the intelligence service. Frankly, his wartime experiences would make a terrific movie, but who could possibly play Niven? Of course, Jimmy Stewart played the bandleader in The Glenn Miller Story, seen briefly during this episode.

The three on-camera “History Detectives” (a lit professor, an auctioneer, and a sociologist) do a nice job explaining the technical details of the Norseman and the potential friendly fire misadventure, but they never really put Miller in his full musical context. Louis Armstrong loved his recordings, but many swing connoisseurs found his bands way too “sweet.” Indeed, it is doubtful Milller would have been the secret weapon for winning over Germany’s underground Swing Kids, as they suggest. Goodman or Ellington would have been far more effective. Still, a psych-ops unit probably had to make do with whatever bandleader they had handy.

Unfortunately from a dramatic standpoint, the verdict is decidedly anti-climatic, pretty much confirming our most prosaic suspicions. The hosts’ chipper, “happy news” style transitional conversations (“that’s fascinating, keep us posted”) also quickly get tiresome. Nevertheless, it is just nice to see some primetime television devoted to the iconic bandleader. Regardless of your feelings for his music, he was a great American. Why not listen to some of his Army Air Force Band recordings this Independence Day weekend and if you are still curious about his mysterious fate – and otherwise check out The Disappearance of Glenn Miller this coming Tuesday (7/8) on PBS’s History Detectives.

Posted on July 5th, 2014 at 2:32pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Oddly, nobody actually says the word “Beatles” in their first movie. It’s not like anyone needed to. It was clearly emblazoned across Ringo’s bass drum. Of course, just about everyone knew who they were. Beatlemania was already a full-fledged phenomenon that would be even further stoked with the initial release of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Digitally restored by Janus Films in time for its fiftieth anniversary, Lester’s iconic introduction to the band re-releases this Friday at New York’s Film Forum.

If you are still trying to figure out if the four lads from Liverpool were mods or rockers, you will not get a straight answer in AHDN, but that is all part of its charm. Instead, the Beatles just sort of be themselves as they gracefully deal with the challenges of superstardom, while trying to keep Paul’s grandfather out of trouble (his other grandfather). They run from hordes of screaming fans, play sound-checks, accidentally get arrested, and generally riff off each other. It is all still breezy fun fifty years later thanks to the wit and easy charm of Alun Owens’ screenplay and the Beatles themselves.

Looking back at AHDN, it is remarkable how profoundly it shaped our perceptions of the Beatles’ personas: George is the cerebral one, John is the snarky one, Paul is a bit of a pushover, and Ringo is a goof. It also established a deceptively easy formula that has proved exceedingly difficult to emulate, as a host of meet the band box-office duds proved (Spice World, anyone?). To be fair, it is hard to compete with enduring original songs like the title smash hit, “All My Loving,” “And I Love Her,” “I Should Have Known Better,” and “She Loves You.”

Lester and the Fab Four also had a not-so-secret weapon in veteran comedic character actor Wilfrid Brambell, who was then nearly as recognizable as the Beatles from his leading role in the hit sitcom Steptoe and Son (remade in America as Sanford and Son). He has a way of mugging that seems rather dryly amusing. He also demonstrates perfect timing playing off the Lads. Likewise, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans do a Mutt-and-Jeff routine as characters based on the Beatles’ personal assistant and road manager that nicely balances broad rubber-faced comedy with a kind of hyper-real sense of what it must have been like to ride the Beatles whirlwind.

AHDN provides a time-capsule of mid-1960s London, where you could buy milk from vending machines and television broadcasts involve transistors and dials. Yet, it still feels fresh and unspoiled. It is rather mind-boggling to suggest this, but AHDN would be a fine way for parents to introduce their children to the Beatles, because despite their mischievous inclinations, they essentially come across as good kids. More importantly, it is just funny in a good-hearted way and rocks (innocently and politely). It is a true classic that looks and sounds great after Janus’s careful 4K restoration. Highly recommended for any serious film lover, A Hard Day’s Night opens this Friday (7/4) at Film Forum.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:50pm.

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By Joe Bendel. The conquest of Mt. Everest is considered the final crowning achievement of the British Empire, but it was successfully completed by a New Zealander and a Nepali (or possibly Tibetan) Sherpa. It was a nearly impossible climb with early 1950s gear – that was further complicated by the odd logistical error here and there. However, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of a generation that refused to substitute excuses for success. The story of their summiting is recounted and recreated in Leanne Pooley’s 3D documentary Beyond the Edge, which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Before Hillary joined Colonel John Hunt’s 1953 expedition, the Everest statistics told a grim tale: “thirteen deaths and no summits.” Hillary, an unassuming bee-keeper, was one of only two New Zealanders in Hunt’s party, but he truly looked like a mountaineer. He also had the skills and the drive to for the final push. Unlike most of his Sherpa colleagues, Tenzing Norgay also had a climber’s ambition to summit—and summit first. Like good Survivor contestants, they sized each other up, recognized their compatibilities, and formed an alliance. Soon they were a team, hustling to establish a path through the dreaded icefall to impress Hunt.

Yes, there will be setbacks and complications. One of the strangest aspects of Beyond is the way its vocabulary more often evokes horror films than National Geographic specials. There are references to the “Death Zone” immediately below the summit and the “stench of death” asserting itself even before that stage. Nevertheless, Beyond is visually awe-inspiring. The 3D adds depth, but is not absolutely necessary—the spectacle of the Himalayas does not need punching-up. For her hybrid approach, Pooley seamlessly integrated restored 16mm color footage shot by the Hunt expedition with dramatic recreations mostly filmed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Just watching the immersive visuals will make viewers feel chilly and light-headed.

There is also plenty of expert commentary in Beyond, but Pooley eschews the traditional talking head approach, opting instead for disembodied voice-overs, sort of like Room 237, except her professionals are insightful and experienced Everest veterans rather than cracked eccentrics. The enthusiastic participation of Hillary’s mountaineering son Peter and Tenzing Norgay’s son Norbu Tenzing also adds apostolic credibility.

Mountain climbing sequences used to be where movies went to die (MST3K’s “rock climbing” riffs for Lost Continent pretty much said it all), but documentaries somehow managed to crack that nut. Like Nick Ryan’s K2 doc The Summit before it, Beyond is tight, tense, and very cinematic. Yet, instead of a tragic cautionary tale of reckless overreach, Pooley’s film celebrates courage, ambition, and sheer will power. No mere Discovery Channel special, it is much more dramatic and entertaining than you would expect. Highly recommended for sporty audiences, Beyond the Edge opens this Friday (7/4) in New York at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:45pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It is sort of like Shaolin’s Tibetan Buddhist cousin, but it is not called Esoteric Kung Fu for nothing. Practitioners are few and far between, but it might be just the discipline to take on the savage tiger claw. Regardless, vengeance will not be denied in Feng Huang’s The Himalayan, which is included in The Angela Mao Ying Collection now available from Shout Factory.

In the high Himalayas, a martial arts competition is a fine place for a courtship. As it happens, when Ceng Ching-lan faces Gao I Fan, they make more of an impression on her father, Lord Ceng and his older brother, Gao Zhen, than on each other. An arrangement is quickly struck, but when I Fan expresses reservations, the devious Gao Zhen permanently dispatches his brother, replacing him with a more compliant look-a-like. He was adopted anyway.

It quickly becomes apparent Gao has designs to take over the power and wealth of the Ceng house. Through his dreaded tiger claw kung fu, Gao incapacitates Lan, framing her for the murder of the latest I Fan. Fortunately, her boyhood chum Xu saves her from the ritual cast-off-into-the-river form of execution. Together they will regroup in the Eagle Lama’s monastery, hoping to be deemed worthy of learning his rare Esoteric Kung Fu.

From "The Himalayan."

With its wide mountain vistas and Tibetan-Nepalese locations, The Himalayan is an unusually visually striking martial arts film, much in the King Hu tradition. Similarly, it also has some highly cinematic fight scenes choreographed by Sammo Hung (sharing duties with Han Ying-chieh). However, since it was produced by Golden Harvest in the 1970s there are also the requisite nude scenes featuring Angela Wang En-chi as Gao’s vixen accomplice, Man. Genre fans will also want to keep their eyes peeled for Hung, Jackie Chan, and Corey Yuen, who pop up briefly as fight extras.

While Mao is not always front and center, she still takes a strong and steely star turn as the wronged Lan. She meets one of her best antagonists in the form of Chan Sing, who truly looks like he enjoys evil scheming more than any Bond villain. His tiger claw moves are also suitably fierce. Yet, it is Han, the co-action director, who nearly steals the show as Uncle Qu, Lord Ceng’s wise but surprisingly spry old advisor.

Altogether, The Himalayan is a winning blend of Buddhist wisdom and exploitation goodies. It is a great showcase for Mao, while getting the most from a talented supporting ensemble. Enthusiastically recommended, The Himalayan is now available on DVD as part of Shout Factory’s Angela Mao Ying Collection.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on June 26th, 2014 at 6:03pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Between James J. “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang and his brother, former Massachusetts Senate President William M. Bulger, the Brothers Bulger long ruled Boston from both ends of the law. Bulger the politician was never implicated in his brothers crimes, but his refusal to reveal communications received from the fugitive James J. effectively ended his public career. However, it now seems Whitey Bulger had such highly placed protectors in the FBI he would not have needed much help from his brother. Joe Berlinger documents the revelations and controversies that emerged during Bulger’s highly anticipated trial in WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, which opens this Friday in New York.

You will not hear the name William Bulger much in Berlinger’s WHITEY, nor hear from probably the brothers’ greatest media critic, the defiant radio talk show host, Howie Carr. However, viewers will hear an awful lot from the titular Bulger. Indeed, Berlinger features extensive telephone interviews with the convicted murderer, presented sans rebuttal. Frankly, it is rather strange the extent to which Berlinger adopts Bulger’s narrative as the film’s own—so much so, one almost expect him to receive a writing credit.

Of course, Bulger’s guilt is never in question. Instead, Bulger’s general defense strategy is to cloud the issue as much as possible, while causing maximum discomfort for the Feds. The central issue is whether Bulger really served as a government informant, dropping dimes on the competition, or if the late U.S. Attorney granted him immunity in exchange for protection from the Italian mafia instead.

While Berlinger’s editorial tone almost slides into Bulger apologetics, he is always scrupulously sensitive when dealing with victims and their family members. Tragically, the filmmakers faced a shocking challenge when Stephen Rakes, one of the potential witnesses they were following through the trial, was dramatically murdered. Supposedly, it turned out to be an unrelated case, but there is a note of skepticism detectable in the doc—for good reason.

From "Whitey."

Berlinger and his assembled talking heads leave no doubt in viewers’ mind that a corrupt echelon in the FBI protected Bulger for no legitimate law enforcement reason. They are morally complicit in several murders—and perhaps legally complicit too. They also helped ruin the sport of Jai Alai for the rest of us, which is one of the film’s most intriguing episodes that could have  been explored further (and perhaps was in the longer Sundance cut). In fact, Berlinger’s WHITEY somewhat rights itself when it becomes a conscious and deliberate vindication of Special Agent Robert Fitzpatrick, who tried to sever agency ties to the mobster. (Full disclosure, my house published Fitzpatrick’s book, but we have never met.)

WHITEY will once more shake viewers’ depleted faith in the Federal government, while chronicling some morbidly fascinating criminal history. However, it has a tendency to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The actions of Bulger’s handlers were badly misguided and downright criminal, but he remains the worst of the lot. The resulting doc holds one’s rapt attention, but leaves you feeling a little queasy, as if you have been getting an earful from Bulger himself (which is sort of the case). Recommended mainly for true crime fans, WHITEY opens this Friday (6/27) in New York at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on June 26th, 2014 at 5:58pm.

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