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By Joe Bendel. If anyone is entitled to laugh at the garage metal band Skum, it is Alice Cooper. He participated in even crazier shenanigans during the early stages of his career, yet he made it to the top and stayed on top. Fittingly, he serves as the subtly acerbic narrator for their shoulda-coulda story. A group of William & Mary soccer players very well might have formed an appallingly untalented hard rock band, but when Clay Westervelt brought them together for a reunion, they kept their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. The emphasis is on mock and rock when Westervelt’s Skum Rocks screens as a legit doc at the 17th annual Dances With Films in Hollywood, USA.

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Skum were almost profiled on Behind the Music style program for “Disaster Bands,” but they turned out to be too disastrous. Nonetheless, Westervelt and a pick-up crew kept following the story. Founding members Hart Baur, Todd Mittlebrook, and Scott Bell had no musical aptitude, but they did not let that dissuade them. Eventually, they recruited some band-members with genuine chops, but quickly fired them when they provided too much competition for their admiring lady fans. Somehow they built up a cult reputation in Miami after graduation, partly because of their success in battle-of-the-bands. Again, this was not due to talent, but the extra credit Baur (now a high school teacher) offered his classes.

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Even though they never really made it, Skum lived the rock & roll lifestyle to the fullest, leaving everyone who ever tried to do business with them reeling in bankruptcy. Like an inadvertent Max Bialystock, they oversold shares of their long promised debut album, but fortunately their sole masters were stolen under appropriately bizarre circumstances. That temporarily spelled the end of Skum—and the music industry was grateful. Oh, but there has to be a comeback.

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From "Skum Rocks."

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While not Spinal Tap or the real life Super Duper Alice Cooper, Skum Rocks is still pretty funny stuff. It hits all the rockumentary bases, including the band’s revolving door for drummers and one member’s pornstar obsession. Sure, they are “playing themselves,” but the dudes from Skum nail the aging un-self-aware hedonist rocker vibe, particularly Baur and John Eaton. Of course, Cooper sells it perfectly with his stranger-than-fiction voiceovers. Following Super Duper, Supermensch, and An Honest Liar, Skum Rocks represents the fourth “documentary” he appears in this year. It is quite a body of work that makes for entertaining binge viewing.

Whether hand-on-the-Bible true or somewhat enhanced, Skum Rocks is a lot of mischievous fun, which nobody should take too seriously regardless. At least the rock & roll attitude is certainly genuine. Recommended for Skum fans and those who appreciate their milieu, Skum Rocks screens this Friday (5/30) during the 2014 Dances With Films.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on May 29th, 2014 at 9:21pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Stationed in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley dubbed Camp Restrepo (in honor of a late, beloved medic), the men of the Airborne Brigade’s Battle Company, 2/503 were supposed to be the tip of the spear for the American military in Afghanistan. However, in 2010, the administration decided the spear no longer needed a tip and closed all the American outposts in the deadly Korengal. Through new interviews and previously unseen footage, Sebastian Junger revisits the men featured in his Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo, analyzing the impact of war on those who fight it in Korengal, which opens this Friday in New York.

Tragically, Junger completed Korengal without his late partner Tim Hetherington, who shot his share of the footage and served as co-director of Restrepo and the subject of Junger’s elegiac tribute documentary, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? In fact, they had always planned a more reflective companion film to Restrepo that would allow audiences to become better acquainted with the men of Battle Company.

So now that Restrepo has been decommissioned, do they miss it? More than you might think. War can be shocking and profoundly unfair, as Junger’s first film with Hetherington documents, but it can also be bracing. Nothing clears the head like a morning fire fight, especially for the athletically inclined. (In a rueful aside, one Airborne infantryman casually observes the Korengal mountain ridge would be “sports paradise” were it not for all the warfare going on.)

However, Junger will not allow ideological viewers to conveniently dismiss the men as adrenaline junkies. That might play a part in their adaptation to the harsh duty conditions, but the men form a strong camaraderie with one another and consciously shield their loved ones from the realities of their service as best they can. They also develop unromanticized opinions of the assorted clan leaders operating within the Korengal. Frankly, they probably have a much better understanding of the country than their current civilian leadership (not that that is a particularly high standard to surpass). Indeed, they sound remarkably grounded, all things considered, despite all they have witnessed.

It is very clear why Junger made his Afghanistan films, including Front Line. They vividly capture the soldiering experience, very definitely including the sudden loss of a brother-in-arms. However, it is fair to wonder what was the purpose of the events they documented, if the strategy can be reversed at the drop of a hat? To Junger’s credit (and Hetherington’s too), the films scrupulously avoid politics, but once the house lights come back up, we exit into a political world.

Always fair to the men who appear in it, Korengal covers the full gamut of human emotions, while opening a window into one of the least forgiving corners of the world. Recommended for general audiences, perhaps even more highly than Restrepo, Korengal opens this Friday (5/30) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on May 27th, 2014 at 2:03pm.

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By Joe Bendel. To be a jewel thief, you have to talk the talk and walk the walk. Even though Doris Payne was born into a life of poverty and segregation, she never had trouble passing for an elegant society lady. Criminals also have a saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time. She takes issue with that one. Nonetheless, she finds herself on trial facing a de facto life sentence in Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina’s The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Doris Payne has been doing this for sixty years. It is easy to forgive, or even applaud her first score, perpetrated solely to finance her mother’s escape from her abusive father. Initially, she capitalized on the “invisibility” of an African American woman from clerks eager to wait on presumably more affluent customers. However, she soon adopted the role a woman of means and position, literally taking her act global.

Some of Payne’s exploits would sound fanciful if she did not have the arrest records to prove them. She has seen the insides of many a prison cell in several countries, but somehow providence always intervened. Unfortunately, providence seems to be running late at her current trial.

Frankly, there is a bit of a disconnect between the heists Payne gleefully describes and her protestations of innocence this time around. Essentially, she falls back on snobbery as a defense, claiming she would never steal from such a gauche store as Macy’s. Yet, from time to time, Pond & Marcolina catch her playing them. As charming and innocent looking as Payne might be, viewers will eventually understand that truth is a movable goalpost for her.

Arguably, Pond & Marcolina could have and should have challenged her more in their interview segments, but it is clear they preferred to print the legend, for good reason. There is something very appealing about Payne, the international woman of mystery, romancing Damon Runyonesque accomplices and evading the Swiss police (all of which is true). We want to enjoy her adventures, investing them with the spirit of a racially conscious Raffles, so it is hard to fault the filmmakers for not following up with the various sales associates who might have been fired or the smaller stores that might have been shuttered due to increased premiums and loss of valuable inventory. Nonetheless, the absence of such deeper digging is conspicuous.

Still, by doc standards, Life and Crimes is unusually entertaining, even when Payne’s sociopathic tendencies peak through. Pond & Marcolina keep the pace brisk, getting a nice assist from Mark Rivett’s retro-groovy score. When it’s over, audiences will definitely keep their hands firmly on their wallets as they file out of the theater. Recommended for fans of true crime and too-true-to-believe documentaries, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne opens this Wednesday (5/28) at Film Forum.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on May 27th, 2014 at 2:01pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It is the product of eighty-one days of solitary confinement and rough interrogation. Recreating scenes from his ordeal, S.A.C.R.E.D. is already recognized as one of Ai Weiwei’s masterworks, as well as a devastating critique of the Communist Party’s police state tactics. At least the government did its best to prevent any distractions from delaying its completion—by confiscating his passport and placing him under house arrest. The artist’s difficult year spent as a prisoner in his own home-studio (known as 258 FAKE) is documented in Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists in the world today, as his famous sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern and the current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum well attest. However, Teacher Ai claims he never initially set out to be a political artist, but was forced down that path by the government’s reaction to his work and activism. Those who have seen Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry or Teacher Ai’s own films, particularly Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry, know the artist as a compulsively outspoken, larger than life figure. It is rather shocking to see the nearly (but not completely) broken Ai Weiwei who emerges from almost three months of illegal detention early in Fake.

As a condition of his so-called parole, Ai Weiwei is forbidden to speak with the media, particularly international reporters. He duly complies, at least for a while. Suffering from memory gaps and nightmares, Teacher Ai is literally a pale shadow of his former self. Yet, as his health returns that familiar spirit also perks up.

Once again, the Communist government provides an inadvertent assist, by requiring Teacher Ai to post a considerable bond during his appeal. Much to the artist’s stunned amazement, there is a massive outpouring of support on his behalf, as 100 Yuan note paper airplanes start sailing over his wall, at no small risk to the donors. Their heartfelt messages move him deeply. Frankly, if viewers do not get a little choked up at this point, they perhaps missed their true callings as Communist torturers (as sleep deprivation is widely acknowledged as a form of torture, it is indeed fair to say Teacher Ai was tortured while in custody).

Essentially, Fake picks up where Klayman’s documentary left off, making them excellent companion films. Of course, it is hard to go wrong with any film that captures Ai Weiwei being himself. Although we might expect Teacher Ai to be far more guarded on camera following his incarceration, the opposite appears to be true. Not only do we hear him talking candidly about the lasting effects of his imprisonment, we also witness (quite touching) scenes of him interacting with his young son, Ai Lao.

Arguably, we see more of Ai the private citizen than Ai Weiwei the public figure. Of course, that rather makes sense, considering he could not leave his home without government permission during this time. Nevertheless, the injustice of his persecution is clearly and thoroughly established. Largely observational in his approach, Johnsen’s trust in his subject’s cinematic presence and compelling work (be it artistic, political, or both) pays off handsomely. A source of inspiration and outrage, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is highly recommended for all viewers who value free expression when it opens this Friday (5/16) at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on May 15th, 2014 at 1:18pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Typically, it is the most privileged elite who serve in a nation’s diplomatic corp. They should be the ones who could most afford to follow their consciences’ dictates, yet career preservation and general CYA-ing are more often the norm. British historian Sir Martin Gilbert and his Rwandan research associate Stephanie Nyombayire profile twelve exceptional diplomats who bent the rules and in some cases risked their lives to save Jews from the National Socialists in Michael King’s The Rescuers, which opened today in New York.

Without question, Gilbert is the preeminent historian of the Holocaust. For Nyombayire, who lost one hundred family members in the Rwandan genocide, crimes against humanity are not just an academic issue. Together, they accompany Jewish survivors as they revisit the various stops along their flight to freedom, paying tribute to the diplomats who interceded on their behalf, often in defiance of their nation’s policies. Pointedly, Nyombayire asks where were similar such rescuers in Rwanda, while Gilbert wonders why were there not more of them during World War II?

Essentially, Rescuers becomes a buffet of heroism, profiling both the well known and the unjustly forgotten alike. While the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and American Varian Fry are relatively well known, thanks to television dramas (starring Richard Chamberlain and William Hurt, respectively), Gilbert and Nyombayire also give due credit to American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, who supplied thousands of visas to asylum-seekers and gave Fry’s mission the deceptive veneer of official State Department sanction.

From "The Rescuers."

However, the most extraordinary examples must be Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese counsel to Lithuania, and German National Socialist Party member Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. In open defiance of his instructions, Duckwitz facilitated the safe passage of 7,200 Jews from occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden, rather than deporting them to Germany.

Rescuers never constitutes ground-breaking filmmaking, but it is highly informative and deeply reverent of its subjects. Granted, some of the staged conversations are indeed stagey, but they also offer real substance. The cynical might also accuse Rescuers of manipulation, but when Gilbert recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan to Nyombayire, if you cannot appreciate the heaviness of the moment, you really ought to have your soul checked.

As a dramatic lesson in history, ethics, and even geography, The Rescuers will be ideal for classroom viewing. Yet, the courageous case studies it chronicles should fascinate viewers of any age. Recommended for general audiences, The Rescuers opened today (5/9) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B+

May 9th, 2014 at 11:36pm.

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trailer TALES FROM A FORGOTTEN CITY from Amir Grabus on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. They are the things that unify a country. Music, culture, humor, and you had better believe sports all very much define a nation’s character. Four short documentaries addressing such aspects of Bosnian cultural identity (to varying degrees) screened last Friday night at the 2014 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Dragi Šestić’s efforts to assemble and record a sevdah supergroup are not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club record and film, except the producer was working in his own country, documenting a musical form that was very vital in his beloved Mostar not so long ago. Arguably, Sevdalinka songs and the sevdah sensibility are roughly akin to American blues songs and the larger feeling for the blues, but the former is more refined compared to the latter’s earthiness.

Amir Grabus focuses on Šestić’s Mostar Sevdah Reunion, keeping an emphasis on performance throughout the program opening Tales from a Forgotten City (trailer above). While the playing is virtuosic, the mood is rather wistful, befitting Šestić and Grabus’s elegy to the romantic Mostar that no longer exists. Although Grabus had directed straight-up music videos for the MSR, Tales is a proper documentary that deserves further play at musically-focused festivals.

Once again, BHFF regular Nedžad Begović returned with Beško, another short documentary profile. While musician-filmmaker Beško is more prominent than the working class protagonist of Zizi, they both project everyman personas and share raucous senses of humor. Clearly, Beško was a hit with festival patrons, but it might be best enjoyed by those who can fully appreciate the idioms and cadences of his jokes, sans subtitles.

Unfortunately, Mirna Dizdarević’s Vita Mulier is sort of the ringer of the short doc program, documenting the hard times that have befallen classical ballet in Sarajevo. It is earnest, rather pessimistic, but relatively brief.

From "Bosnia in Our Hearts."

In contrast, Sixten Björkstrand’s Bosnia in Our Hearts is heartfelt and optimistic. 2014 is the first year Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified for the FIFA World Cup as an independent nation—and don’t you forget it. The Finnish filmmaker followed several expatriate fans as they traveled to Lithuania for what might be the game to clinch their World Cup berth. For the fans that came to Finland as wartime refugees, a Bosnian victory will be especially sweet.

Although forced to serve as a crew of one, Björkstrand always managed to be in the right place to get the right shot. It is the sort of film that captures the extent to which a sports team can carry its nation’s hopes and aspirations. Frankly, ESPN should take a good look at it, because it is considerably more engaging and satisfying than Maradona ’86 and The Opposition, their two very so-so short football/soccer docs that premiered at Tribeca.

It is hard to go wrong with sevdalinka and soccer. Tales from a Forgotten City and Bosnia in Our Hearts were definitely standouts when they screened last week during Program #3. As satisfying, self-contained films with broad popular appeal, they deserve a serious look from other festival programmers.

Posted on May 8th, 2014 at 11:23pm.

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