Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Dispatch: ‘Zero Motivation’ and ‘Gueros’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Two of the award-winning narrative films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival didn’t quite fit the fest’s usual mold. Neither Zero Motivation (which won for best narrative feature) or Gueros (best cinematography) were the usual small, tightly-focused chamber-piece dramas. Both had large ambitions that might have outstripped their abilities, but were thrilling nonetheless.

My review for PopMatters is here.

Zero Motivation is a deft Israeli comedy set in a military post’s administrative office that’s most easily described as a mash-up of M*A*S*H* and Office Space, with a little surrealism thrown into the mix:

Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders…

The Mexican film Gueros is a sprawling, black-and-white, French New Wave-inspired ramble through Mexico City:

Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future…

Hopefully these wins will lead to both films getting at least a limited American release and enlivening what’s been a fairly limited slate of foreign films that made it to these shores so far this year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part III: ‘Match’ and ‘1971’

Two common Tribeca tropes in this pair of reviews: an interesting but underwhelming drama with name performers doing their level best and a solid historical documentary that’s practically required viewing. My most recent dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival is here.

The drama is Stephen Belber’s Match, a three-performer melodrama about a high-strung, Wildean dance instructor (Patrick Stewart) who gets an unwelcome blast from his wild past:

Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t…

1971_Keith
‘1971’: Picking the FBI’s locks

Highly essential is 1971, a pitch-perfect historical thriller about antiwar activists whose burglary told the country what hippies had thought all along: the Feds are spying on us:

Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught. The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it…

Both films should probably get some kind of release later in the year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part II: ‘All About Ann’ and ‘Art and Craft’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

In the last weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival, a strong slate of documentaries showed that covered things southern, eccentric art forgers and brassy politicos. My second dispatch runs today at PopMatters, here.

First is All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State. Befitting its once-in-a-lifetime subject, this clearly worshipful documentary is big-hearted and loud-mouthed, but gets by on the strength of sheer personality. It’s also screening tonight on HBO:

Ann Richards seems a perfect subject for a documentary. The beloved Texan progressive wore her hair in a signature bouffant and power-lunch suits, and was well known for her remarkable comic timing. Her knack for bringing crowds to their feet recalled a long-ago era, especially when she embarked on stemwinders skewering the traditions that kept women and minorities in their place (and her state in the 19th century), while also pointing the way forward. As her old buddy Bill Clinton—who is about the only Democrat of recent years to have come close to her facility with humor and language—notes in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, you can get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re funny…

Next up we’ve got Art and Craft, a taut story about a spindly little criminal who may not actually have broken any laws, just infuriated museum staffers across the south who have been taken in by his forgeries:

Already the subject of numerous news stories and magazine profiles, Mark Landis is a square peg in a round hole figure, the sort that raises questions about the “art world” every so often. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s film shows an appreciation for Landis’ oddities, not just personal but also professional. Landis is an art forger and a schizophrenic, but he doesn’t forge for money. He just likes to create fake pieces of art and give them away to museums and other institutions under false pretenses. As he puts it, “I went on philanthropic binges.”

Art and Craft was already picked up by Oscilloscope for a release later this year; keep your eyes peeled.

Writer’s Corner: Oates on Oates

In a mostly successful attempt to undermine and interrogate the whole concept of author publicity, the writer as an identity, the interview process itself, Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself for the Washington Post.

One key takeaway:

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Also, this:

Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

Points to Oates as well for referencing both Henry James and Paula Deen in the same piece without straining.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 25, 2014

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Screening Room, Tribeca Film Fest Edition: ‘An Honest Liar’ and ‘In Order of Disappearance’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Getting to the Tribeca Film Festival only in its final weekend, but better late to the festival than never. My coverage will be running in pairs at PopMatters over the next few days, usually a documentary along with a narrative film that has little to no relation to the other. Hopefully the randomness of the pairings will help replicate the festival experience, only without the long lines and well-meaning volunteers.

The initial dispatch runs today, here.

First up is An Honest Liar, all about the magician and professional debunker James “The Amazing” Randi, still as spritely and snarky as ever, like a miniature Gandalf for the forces of logic:

Disturbed to the point of distraction by the sight of mystics and faith healers fleecing the vulnerable, even if they weren’t technically harming anyone, Randi became committed to telling the truth. According to Randi, it’s okay for magicians to entertain their audiences, as long as they’re honest that this is what they’re doing. As he puts it, it’s fine “to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson.” This crusade that he calls “my battle” makes for a great tale, particularly when Randi literally follows the patently fake mystic Uri Geller from one TV show to the next…

Stellan Skarsgard in 'In Order of Disappearance (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)
Stellan Skarsgard in ‘In Order of Disappearance’ (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Then there’s In Order of Disappearance, a black comedy from Norway with Stellan Skarsgard as an obsessed dad getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his son. Very Coen brothers by way of a third-rate Martin McDonagh impersonation:

Beyond this hard-boiled revenge tale, In Order of Disappearance introduces some distractions, beginning with “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), the prissy gangster who is Nils’ ultimate target. A vegan who hides his cocaine trade behind a line of cupcake bakeries and lathers his home with punchline-bad modern art, the Count is all bluster and rage as his minions are picked off one after the other. This gets old fast…

Nevertheless, due to the audience-friendly mix of ultraviolence and low humor, it’s likely to get a full release later in the year.

In Books: ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’

shotgunlovesongs1One of the more gushed-about fiction debuts of the season has been Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs. Inspired in part by the story of Bon Iver recording an album in a remote Wisconsin cabin, Butler’s story is a nostalgic, idealized paen to small-town life structured around a plot about four buddies growing up and growing apart.

My review is at PopMatters:

There are quiet hymns to the quiet life still published today. You find them scattered here and there amidst the angsty blank urban snarkscape of modern literature, like eager and well-behaved students in a classroom of smartasses and showoffs. These books usually fly below the radar, hidden in plain sight in the ranks of less-reviewed novels that might rack up honorable sales figures, but are barely noticed from a critical perspective. But sometimes this less attitudinal literature makes its presence known. You’re barely a page into Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, the breathlessly anticipated Shotgun Lovesongs, and already the choirs have sucked in their breath for a great big holler…

In Books: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ 75th Anniversary

Dust Bowl farm, June 1938, by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)
Dust Bowl farm, June 1938, by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)

Seventy-five years ago this month, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. The anniversary is as good an excuse as any to go back and crack open this gorgeous, painful, Biblical epic.

grapesofwrath-cover1I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath and its continuing power and relevance for the The Barnes & Noble Review:

Freedom in America has always been entwined with freedom of movement. The freedom to immigrate, the freedom to relocate from one state to the next, the freedom to wander without being hassled. That’s one of the reasons John Steinbeck’s coruscating epic of exodus, The Grapes of Wrath, hit bestseller lists like a bomb when it was published in 1939. It wasn’t a novel about people taking wing and transforming themselves in new settings. Steinbeck showed Americans heading west to better themselves like waves of people before them, only to be blocked, harried, fenced in, run off, denied. 

Seventy-five years later, the novel still speaks to us for this same reason…

Reader’s Corner: Free Books from the Vatican

The opening of the gospel of Matthew, in Persian. Possibly acquired by the Vatican in the 16th century (Library of Congress)
The opening of the gospel of Matthew, in Persian. Possibly acquired by the Vatican in the 16th century (Library of Congress)

The Vatican Library, with its gaudy halls and astounding troves of rare manuscripts—not to mention that ever-exciting aura of deep dark mystery—is about to get a whole lot less secret. Last week, the Vatican began a multi-year project to digitize 1.5 million pages from their 82,000 manuscripts. Then they’re going to post it all online.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

“The manuscripts that will be digitized extend from pre-Columbian America to China and Japan in the Far East, passing through all the languages and cultures that have marked the culture of Europe,” said Monsignor Jean-Louis Brugues, archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church.

In short, very cool.

Screening Room: ‘The Exorcist’ and True Evil

Turns out that besides being a young preacher, scourge of the empowered classes, and essayist whose words could scorch the hair right off your head, James Baldwin was also a crack film critic, when he wanted to be.

devilfindswork1In The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pulls out a choice quote of Baldwin’s from his mostly ignored 1976 book The Devil Finds Work. Here, he writes about one of the decade’s two most influential horror films (the other being Halloween, just as trashy but not given as much critical deference at the time):

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

It’s one of the reasons people hate critics, and why at least some critics (of a level with Baldwin) can actually be construed as necessary to the culture. Few people want to think about the evil that surrounds them every day; they’d rather go to the cinema and be treated the indulgent thrills of imaginary threats (demons, and the like).

The critic who reminds us of our short-sightedness is rarely rewarded for doing so.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 18, 2014

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In Memorium: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

onehundredyearssolitudeThe Nobel Prize-winning novelist, journalist, fabulist, realist, radical, magical Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away today at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87.

You will read many books in your life without coming across one with a more perfect beginning than that of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, fragrant as it was with the promise of the wild and ravishing pages to follow:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Many novelists from Isabel Allende to Mark Helprin worked from a similarly evocative template as Marquez’s, what became known as magic realism. But almost none were able to marry as Marquez did the ravishing heights of imaginative leaps with that bone-deep fatalism born out of his study of Latin American history and politics.

In other words, Marquez proved that in fiction sometimes a flight of fantasy tells the truth better than purported realism. The fact that he wrote like his life depended on it was just a bonus for us readers.

New in Theaters: ‘Transcendence’

transcendence-poster1Remember in the 1982 version of Disney’s Tron, where Jeff Bridges get zapped by a computer’s scanning device and somehow magically translated into bits of data that are reassembled inside the hard drive as a living, functioning being? Cool, but didn’t exactly make sense. The new Johnny Depp artificial-intelligence thriller Transcendence is kind of like that, only without any of those cool light cycles.

Transcendence opens everywhere on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

“They say there’s power in Boston,” intones Paul Bettany at the start of the disappointing Transcendence, the camera panning over scenes of post-technological devastation: street lights dead, keyboards being used for doorstops. The film soon jumps back to five years earlier, setting up its conflict between hubristic technophiles and neo-Luddites which the film tries to structure a coherent story out of. But as idea-popping as that fight has the potential to be, it’s hard not to wish that the film had stayed with that opening scene, in a world struggling to adapt to more primitive times. At the very least, it would have been something we hadn’t seen before…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Shakespeare in America

Shakespeare's statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)
Shakespeare’s statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)

Given how many of us have happily or miserably worked through at least a couple Shakespeare plays in school, not to mention the frequency with which those plays are revived on Broadway and in touring companies everywhere, it’s amazing to think that there was a time when Shakespeare was actually more present in American life than today.

James Shapiro’s new book, Shakespeare in America, tells of how in the early nineteenth century, a quarter of all dramatic productions on the East Coast were Shakespeare’s. To be even moderately cultured, one had to know a few of the soliloquies by heart. To get an idea of how deeply rooted the Bard was in American culture, consider this anecdote, related in the New York Times review of Shapiro’s book, which occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846:

To distract the troops, a theater was hastily constructed and a production of “Othello” put into motion. James Longstreet, the future Confederate general, was originally cast as Desdemona, but was judged too tall for the part. The shorter Grant took his place. “He really rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but he did not have much sentiment,” Longstreet later recalled. In the end, Grant was replaced by a professional actress at the insistence of the officer playing Othello, who, Longstreet wrote, “could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”

It’s a far cry from the classics-averse mood of the present. But, Shapiro notes, that could be in part because of one thing America has now that it didn’t two centuries ago: great home-grown playwrights of our own.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 11, 2014

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