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Sunday, April 26, 2015

MONTY PYTHON: THE MEANING OF LIVE

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

When the famed comedy troupe Monty Python decided to do its first live performance in 34 years, it seemed only right to document the process.

Chronicling the reunion of the surviving members of the troupe in their first live performance since 1980, we learn that the catalyst is a lawsuit (unexplained) that has had a severe effect on some member's finances.  The result is a 10-day run at London's O2 stadium where they'll have a nightly audience of 15,000.

The film, by Roger Graef and James Rogan, shows the troupe dealing with media, getting reacquainted, rehearsing and performing shows that are nostalgic and where the audiences frequently know the sketches, line by line.

Between stage sequences, the documentary flashes back to the old days when the troupe was performing together.  While some of the material may seem dated now, or even less humorous than originally, the bonafide delight in each other's company is very evident.  Even after a hiatus of so many years, these troupe members genuinely like being together and performing together.

Well worth seeing, overall the documentary is nostalgic and funny and will be most appealing to die hard Monty Python fans

Friday, April 24, 2015

MISERY LOVES COMEDY

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E Levine

Actor Kevin Pollak goes after some answers to in-depth questions about whether some well-known comedians see tragedy as the basis for their going into comedy but fails to get those answers.

Instead, this documentary contains interviews with Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, Larry David and Steve Coogan and humorous anecdotes about their lives and careers.  It doesn't, however, actually answer the deeper questions.

There is also an inconsistency about the answers and the quality of the conversations since other interviews are with more serious, less comedic actors.    Additionally, some interviews are brief and fleeting, while other interviews are much longer and fairly dominant without adding much to the film.

While a worthy effort and very entertaining, the dominant interviewees are basically from the old boys club while well known comics of color are not interviewed at all and women are barely onscreen.  In the current environment, Pollak misses his mark by skipping so many important, gifted comic minds.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

CARTEL LAND

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E Levine

Matthew Heineman wrote, photographed and edited this film which focuses on two separate groups of vigilantes policing different fronts of the drug war.  It's a riveting film and frankly I was surprised he made it back to New York alive, without being imprisoned by the Mexican government or killed by one of the vigilante groups.

One group is a citizen's anti-cartel paramilitary organization in Mexico known as the Autodefensas and led by Dr. Jose Manuelo Mireles..  The other group is a self-appointed border patrol in Arizona known as the Arizona Border Recon that focuses on stopping the importation of drugs and illegal aliens. The Arizona organization is led by veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley.  In both cases, Heineman ingratiated himself into the organizations and focuses on their leaders.

Filming with a small crew and accompanying both groups on patrols and actions, the viewer can justifiably fear for the filmmakers.  As the film progresses we see corruption infiltrate the Mexican group and indications of corruption on the part of the Autodefensas.  On the American side we see racist elements infiltrate the Arizona Border Recon, which adds a sense of danger and in some ways negates the groups actions.

Heineman is a self-trained filmmaker who claims to frame and shoot scenes through intuition.  The photography on this film is terrific, with subtitles for the Spanish portions.  But the filmmakers were frequently in the crossfire and the film is scary.  Even scarier is the ongoing corruption which lends credence to the fact that neither of these groups can hope to be successful if the ongoing corruption can't be eliminated.


PALIO

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

This is a really exciting documentary focusing on the world's oldest horse race, the Palio.  Held in Siena, the ancient city in Tuscany, this race is dramatic and exciting and certainly rivals any of the other well known horse races.

Director Cosima Spender has done an outstanding job of filming the biannual event and certainly the characters she focuses on are as rich as any created for scripted sports stories.  They are real people but almost too rich as characters to believe.  Add to that the traditional banners and ceremonial garb of the contrades and the film takes on deep emotional and visual color.

Born to British artists outside of Siena, Spender is knowledgeable about the storied race which is held every July 2nd and August 16th.  After giving a brief history of Siena, a city divided into close-knit independent contrade or districts, Spender then immerses the viewer in the specifics of the Palio competition, where the jockeys are essentially free agents, contracted to represent individual districts.

However, the Palio is not just a race.  The races last only 90 seconds in Siena's Piazza del Campo but it's doubtful a fiction writer could author something as intricate as the Palio.  It's outcome is openly dependent on all types of intrigues, bribery and betrayals and even threats of physical violence.

While some archival footage is used, cinematographer Stuart Bentley has captured some new and exciting footage.  Anything goes.  Jockeys lash their steeds, bump into competitors during turns and frequently slam competitors into walls, causing pileups and injuries.  And when the race is over, dissatisfied district loyalists are known to get into physical rumbles necessitating police interaction.

The Palio is known as "a game of legitimate corruption" with Palio Organizers practicing shenanigans that will throw the race.  Basically they do everything to minimize luck as a factor in the race.

The characters, real-life trainers and jockeys, are rich in history and passionate in their desire to win the race, although their methods are questionable.  They both admire and resent each other and it all makes for a captivating film.





SONG OF LAHORE

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

Broad Green Pictures has offered an exceptional documentary directed by Shameen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken.

The city of Lahore, Pakistan has been famous for its music since the time of Pakistan independence.  When Pakistan became Ismalized in the 1970s most of the music was banned and it became increasingly difficult for musicians to continue to practice and play.

A group of very brave musicians has continued to play at Sachal Studios in Lahore and they have become world-reknown for their experimental music which fuses traditional music with contemporary Western innovation and flare.

When their rendition of Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' attracts the attention of Wynton Marsalis, they are invited to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Highlighting their difficulty in practice and playing at home, the film traces their uplifting endeavors to culturally preserve their music and their heritage and to inspire global listeners.

Further, it shows them risking their own safety to travel to the USA, to practice and then perform with Marsalis and his band, the Jazz.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

WONDROUS BOCCACCIO (MARAVIGLIOSO BOCCACCIO)

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

Written by legendary brothers Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviai, this is a period piece set against  14th century black plague stricken Florence.

Based on Boccaccios' 'Decameron', the story revolves around ten young aristocratic women and men who escape to a country estate and spend their days telling stories about life, love, fate and resurrection, in the hopes of taking their minds off the very real sense of their own mortality..

Visually exquisite, the stories are the real ones that emerged from one of Italy's darkest periods in history.  In this film the Taviani focus on 5 of the 100 stories that are in the book which is considered an Italian masterpiece.

During an interview session the Taviani brothers said that since the modern world is currently facing many economic and spiritual plagues, their new Decameron is meant to demonstrate escaping the ailments of society through the power of story telling and love.

However, while the stories told are interesting, they don't really show a parallel between society today and that of the 14th century.







GRANDMA

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

Comedienne Lily Tomlin brings anger and sorrow to her character Ellie Reid, a septugenerian poet/ author and grandmother.

When the film opens, the tart-tongued Ellie is breaking up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer).  She's never fully recovered from the death of her longtime partner Violet, hasn't written much since her death and has financial problems.

When her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives with the news that she's pregnant and needs Ellie's help to get an abortion.

Sage is broke and her mother, Ellie's daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) has confiscated her credit card.  Ellie just finished paying off all her credit card debt and cut up the credit cards to make a wind chime and keep from racking up more debt.

The only solution is for Ellie and Sage to "hit the road" in LA in Ellie's vintage Dodge Royal and go out seeking the necessary $600.

With an interesting family background (Ellie came out as a lesbian long before it became fashionable and Judy had Sage through an anonymous sperm donor), the third generation, Sage, now has to make her own decision about her body and her pregnancy.

As they make their rounds trying to raise the $600, Ellie wreaks havoc wherever they go. Finally visiting Karl (Sam Elliott) a man from Ellie's past with deep pockets who may provide a solution but who, after taking Ellie on a journey down memory lane, proves himself as vulnerable and as much in pain as Ellie, due to decisions they made years ago which are still impacting their life.

Not wanting to give spoilers regarding the end of the film, we suggest viewing the 78 minute film for the outstanding performances by its cast and the intriguing story and characters.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A NAZI LEGACY: WHAT OUR FATHERS DID

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

Are the sins of the fathers visited on their children?  Director David Evans and writer Philippe Sands have created a documentary that show how children perceive the sins of their fathers is a purely personal matter.

In this case, the writer and director chose two sons of once high-ranking Nazi Party officials.  Although the fathers are long dead, and both left a horrific legacy, the two sons have chosen to respond in totally different ways.

Both Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter were born in 1939.  Niklas' father, Hans Frank, was a prominent German attorney who served as Hitler's personal attorney and during World War II became governor-general of Nazi-occupied Polish territories.  He was convicted of war crimes at Nurenberg and executed after expressing remorse for his actions.  Otto von Wachter was an Austrian lawyer who held the positions of governor of Krakow, Poland and Galicia, Ukraine and was never brought to justice before his death in 1949.

During the documentary we see how each man's family history has shaped his opinions and memories of his father.  Niklas had no relationship with his cold, unaffectionate father and has spent most of his life denouncing the actions of his father.  Otto remembers his father as a warm, loving individual who contributed to a loving upbringing and has never reconciled himself to his father's part in the Final Solution.

Philippe Sands, an international lawyer specializing in cases of genocide and other human rights abuses, wrote the original article about Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter upon which the film is based.  His own family included many Ukranian Jews who were rounded up and executed directly as a result of Frank's and von Wachter's actions.  He visits both men's childhood homes and studies personal family photographs with them.

There are chilling moments in the film when Horst refuses to acknowledge Otto's wrongdoing at a public appearance in London, the visit of the three men to a burnt out synagogue in the Ukraine and the site where 3,500 Jews were murdered.  Throughout it all, Horst refuses to acknowledge his father's wrongdoing and the enormity of his actions.

It is intriguing to watch these three men, bound by their family histories, converse in a dialogue which shows us how their family history influenced and continues to influence them and their beliefs.




HAVANA MOTOR CLUB

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

A most unusual and beautiful film about mid-century cars that are owned and maintained by Cuban residents..  The stars, of course, are the cars.  They really are beautiful but since they pre-date the embargo getting parts and doing repairs requires owners to be inventive.

The Cubans are competitive auto racers.  In fact, the Cuban Grand Prix was a  mainstay of the 1950s until Fidel Castro declared auto racing to be elitist and outlawed racing indefinitely -- a law that is still in effect.

However, there is an underground movement that still races.  And, in order to get parts and in many instances fabricate them from scrap.  All the while, enthusiasts are looking for ways to legitimize the sport and make it legal in Cuba once again.

This film highlights the first sanctioned drag race since 1960 and how car owners are getting their cars ready.  As I watched I wondered why Americans are not as successful in making parts for older vehicles, because the Cuban owners, who dearly love their cars and are quite passionate about them, use very ingenious methods to make parts and the parts work well.

Written and directed by Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Zelmira Gainza does an admirable job as cinematographer and the lively Cuban soundtrack adds to the intensity and pleasure of the story.




MAN UP

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

A light-hearted romantic comedy starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, this film deals with the female perspective of a klutzy 34-year-old London single who just can't seem to meet the right man.

When Jack, a 40ish divorced man, accidentally mistakes Nancy for his blind date Jessica because she's carrying a dating-oriented best-seller (in reality trying to return it to Jessica who forgot it on a train), Nancy is instantly attracted and doesn't correct him.

Mutually attracted and fueled by alcoholic beverages, Jack and Nancy are heading out on the town together when they meet Sean, a former  high-school classmate of Nancy's who blows her cover.  Made aware of her deception, Jack has to re-evaluate their relationship.
 
There are some extremely humorous scenes, much of which audience viewers will relate to immediately.  This is basically a fun film with a happy and mature ending.  The photography of London is stimulating and the musical selections effective.

You go to a film like this to enjoy yourself, not to think about anything deep or serious.  And it would be difficult not to enjoy yourself because the script is fun and the performances delightful.

BRIDGEND

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E.Levine

Since 2007 there has been an epidemic of teenage suicides in the Welsh town of Bridgend.  Since February 1, 2007 there were 79 teenage suicides, with most victims between the ages of 13 and 17.

Most of the deaths involved death by hanging with no suicide note left behind.  This film steers clear of attributing a conspiracy or in fact indicating any proof of why the suicides occurred.

Danish Director Jeppe Ronde  co-wrote a screenplay with Torben Bech and Peter Amussen that is based on interviews and local research conducted over a six-year period.  The teenage community and the suicide problem is viewed through the eyes of a newcomer to town Sara (Hannah Murray) and never conclusively determines whether the adolescent group actively instructs or fosters drastic behavior such as suicide.

Although based on fact, the script is a drama centering around Sara who arrives in town with her policeman father David (Steve Waddington).  David is assigned to look into the plague of suicides.

While the adolescent community might not be forthcoming with the adults, Sara joins a group of the victims' friends who gather regularly in the woods for memorial rituals and maintain a message board to honor the dead.  Although initially distancing herself from the morbid rituals, Sara becomes involved with the vicar's son and feels drawn toward the eerie rituals.

The finale is both disturbing and somewhat confusing but makes for an interesting study of infectious hysteria.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

THE WOLFPACK

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

A very strange group of siblings is displayed in this film.  The seven siblings, all part of the Angulo family, live in a New York City apartment, where their parents  have kept them locked away and sheltered them from the outside world.  However, there has been no effort to shield them from the Hollywood movies.

The patriarch, Oscar Angulo, keeps his six sons and one daughter in a public housing apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side.  An unsuccessful musician who drinks heavily, this Peruvian Hare Krishna follower, Oscar and his American wife Suzanne have home-schooled the children (ages 16-24), and forbidden them to leave the apartment except on very rare, carefully supervised excursions.

When they set no limits on the types of movies the children could watch, the boys began transcribing and memorizing scripts of the movies they saw and re-enacting them in their living room.  They were creative in producing costumes, props and poster art.  Many of their re-enactments are in this film and very entertaining.

Crystal Moselle has not found a clear theme in this film.  It does not develop the boys as individuals and there are several stories to be told and the director is unclear as to which she is concentrating on.

Abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the parents is passed over with no examination.  Also unexplained is how the Angulos have managed to avoid the influences of the outside world and the regulations and restrictions society mandates, for so long.


VIRGIN MOUNTAIN

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E.Levine

Icelandic director Dagur Kari has given us a brilliant film with an amazing performance by  Gunnar Jonsson.

No one could see this film and not be moved by Jonsson's exceptional performance as Fusi, a 43 year old, fat man who still lives with his mother.

By creating a limited and unchanging world, Fusi is playing it safe.  Fusi works as a baggage handler at the airport and comes home to recreate the battle of El Alamein on his work table.  His only friend, Rolf (Arnan Jonsson) helps him with the battle.

A creature of habit, not to be disturbed, he eats at the same Thai restaurant every Friday and eats the same pad thai.  Fusi never disturbs his routine and his mother (Margret Helga Johannsdottir) is somewhat domineering and wants to keep Fusi at home for company and household repairs.

Gentle and unassuming, whenever he ventures outside of his comfort zone his forays end in disaster.   Even his kindness and friendship with a neighbor's little girl who is starved for attention, raises unfounded gossip and rumors about perversion.

Throughout everything, Fusi accepts rejection, humiliation, and ridicule as a norm  When his mother's live-in lover gives Fusi a birthday gift of line-dancing lessons and a cowboy hat, although he tries to avoid the lessons, Fusi meets a vivacious blonde and begins to help her.

While one would think that Fusi would not be a strong romantic candidate, the blonde, Sjofn (llmur Kristjansdottir) is needed and deeply damaged and truly appreciates Fusi's gentleness and goodness. Their friendship provides a healing power that opens doors for them both.

One has to see this film to fully understand the depth of the performance provided by Gunnar Jonsson.  His Fusi is truly a gentle giant and the virgin mountain, whose life is forever changed by his life experiences and humble acceptance of them.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

ORION: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection


This is an amazing and true tale of an Elvis Presley lookalike and soundalike named Jimmy Ellis, who struggled to distinguish himself as a singer and then found he was so close to looking and sounding like Elvis that no one wanted to promote his career as a singular performer.  Finally, he found some success as a doppelganger for Elvis, but never achieved the fame he sought.

Noticed while he was still in high school, Jimmy Ellis was good looking and sounded like Elvis.  Unable to sign a record contract to him before he was of age, he went to work training horses in the family's successful business.

And, he was a very successful horse trainer.  He was noted for his abilities, loved by his animals and clients but very unhappy since he really wanted to be a singer.

Unable to get a start with his singing career, when Elvis died in 1977, Shelby Singleton, who took over the Sun Records catalog, offered him a new opportunity.

Ellis became Orion, a masked entertainer who wore a mask like the Lone Ranger, and a glitzy costume like Elvis, and sang with a voice amazingly similar to Presley.  Because he was contractually obligated to wear wear his mask in public, Ellis grew to resent it but in film clips sounds eerily like Elvis.

It's obvious that Jimmy Ellis was a talented singer and performer.  Ironically, this 90 minute film makes clear that what prevented his success both on radio and on stage, was his sounding like Elvis.  The soundtrack of Ellis, in another time, without the constant comparison to Elvis, might have propelled him to fame.


SWORN VIRGIN (VERGINE GIURATA)

A Tribeca Film Festiva 2015 Selection

By D.E,Levine

With transgender issues becoming more openly discussed and written about, this low key film offers an interesting view into the subject.

Only 87 minutes in length it's set in Albania, where transitioning from one gender to another is an accepted thing.  Alba Rohrwacher plays Hane, a rural woman who lives 14 years as Mark, a man in the hills of Albania.  After these 14 years she embarks on a tentative and uncertain path to reclaim her original identity as a woman

Albania has a tradition of burrnesha (sworn virgin), a Kanun code of social behavior, , a woman may forswear her female identity, live and pose as a man, and take a vow of lifelong chastity.  By doing this, the woman becomes exempt from the strictly servile role that the Kanun prescribes for all women.

After 30 years of living in a remote Northern Albanian village located in the Mountains of the Damned, Hane/Mark is haunted by the memory of her estranged sister Lila (Fionja Kodheli) who "escaped" to urban Italy for a 14 year traditional conventional heterosexual marriage.

Tentatively welcomed by Lila, her husband, and Jonida (Emily Ferratello), her teenage daughter, Hane, in a society with a relaxed gender protocol, pursues a reversal of her roles.  With flashbacks to their early oppressive years in their remote village, the audience gains an understanding of what drove each sister to her present "alternate" identity

The film is thought provoking and original in it's subject matter, definitely a thinking film for audience members.




Friday, April 17, 2015

MARY J. BLIGE - THE LONDON SESSIONS

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

This brief 45-minute film was a bit disappointing due to it's obvious promotional purpose in regard to Blige's 13th studio album.

We glimpse Blige in the studio recording and interfacing with London recording artists as she attempts to "shake up" her sound and give it an extra something.

The recording sessions are interesting but the film is too short and leaves the audience wanting to see more of Blige and what makes her a great soul singer.

THE BIRTH OF SAKE

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

How many of us who enjoy sake actually think about what goes into making it.

This 94 minute documentary shows a slowly vanishing way of life in Japan as director Erik Shirai takes us on an in-depth look at the men who work at the 144 year old Tedorigawa Brewery in northern Japan.

Every October a group of men bid farewell to their families and travel north to spend six cold and lonely months making sake at the Tedorigawa Brewery.  The process is complex and time consuming.

The onscreen footage of rice being polished, rinsed, dried and steamed in heated rooms where they're treated with special koji-kin mold.  After starch is converted to sugar fermentation begins producing a starter yeast called shubo, a final mixture of moromi which is churned for 25-30 days and from which eventually sake is pressed.

Like raising a "finicky child" according to Shirai, making perfect sake requires 24 hour night and day attention by workers, to prevent even the slightest variance which would negatively impact the very delicate balance of alcohol, fragrance and flavor.

All the workers are men and some have been doing sake brewing for over 50 years.  Making sake is an art, according to Shirai and the workers he interviewed.

Only 1,000 sake breweries now exist, as compared to 4,600 in the early 20th century.  Sake consumption has declined and the sixth generation heir to the Tedorigawa, Yasuyuki Yoshida, spends the six months when the the brewery is not in productions, traveling the world and promoting the brand.

Yoshida discusses the economic imperatives as well as the fact that most breweries are now 100% automated and frequently sacrifice bolder, richer flavors appreciated by established sake drinkers to lure younger drinkers in with the smoother more mellow flavors.


GORED

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E, Levine

Antonio Barrera is a matador who has been stabbed or gored 23 times by the bull in the bullring.  He holds the title of "Most Gored Bullfighter in History."

Given the repeated gorings and the life threatening in injuries, one has to wonder why Antonio Barrera keeps coming back for more.

In 2011 producer Geoffrey Gray wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated in which he described Barrera as "the Rocky Balboa" of bullfighting.  Although his repeated injuries show that Barrera is certainly not the best matador, he shows tenacity, spirit and heart, and by doing so makes a fascinating subject.

This 76 minute documentary directed by Ida Mizrahy is a study in personal sacrifice, "true grit" and obsession, as the aging bullfighter who is married with a family and began to realize that his own death could be imminent.

In interviews, Barrera admits that he has doubts and fears about hanging up his matador cape and giving up the career that he has trained for since childhood.

However, in addition to the portrait of Barrera, we see that southern Spain, where bullfighting is still extremely popular, is also having second thoughts, as protesters against bullfighting and animal abuse demonstrate.

TRANSFATTY LIVES

A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

This is a fascinating first person chronicle of serious illness.  The central character, Patrick Sean O'Brien was making a name for himself as a New York DJ, filmmaker and Internet personality.

Only 30 in 2005 when neuromuscular motor skills began to rapidly decline affecting his speech and motor skills he decides to "stay positive" after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).

Confined to a wheelchair and forced to move out of NYC to be closer to his family in Maryland he , approaches his illness with humor and positivity, making an type of art project out of his battle with the disease.

However, despite his emotionally upbeat attitude, we are witness to his declining health, his inability to swallow (necessitating a feeding tube) and his inability to breath (necessitating a ventilator).

Despite all of this, he meets a girl, has a relationship and gets her pregnant, which gives him a reason to stay alive.

The film does not go deep enough and while showing a true picture of some things, fails to follow through on the relationship after the mother and baby move to Florida and the impact his disease has on his immediate family.

O'Brien has outlived his prognosis with humor and wit despite the fact that he can no longer type manually and has to use eye pupil movements to convey instructions.  Despite his infirmity, TransFatty's mind and sense of humor remain intact.