Book review: ‘Real subject of Tate biography is Charles Manson’s twisted family’

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My first book review in a few months recently ran in the Sunday Buffalo News.

It is nearly impossible to look at the image of Sharon Tate and not think about the slaughter that ended her life. That undeniable truth presents a major obstacle for any biographer. Everything that comes before her encounter with Charles Manson’s doe-eyed acolytes – her early days as a model and actress, her marriage to filmmaker Roman Polanski, her glamorous life in the public eye – feels like a grim coming attraction to the sad feature presentation.

Clearly, the public narrative of Sharon Tate’s life, sadly, is focused solely on her ending. And in many ways, the latest Tate biography is more of the same. However, “Sharon Tate: A Life” by Ed Sanders is not really about the life of Sharon Tate – despite its title. The doomed icon is instead an entry point for a chilling dive into a fantasia of violence, sex, drugs, and celebrity.

As a biography of Sharon Tate, then, Sanders’ book is a failure. As a gripping, comprehensive, relentlessly involving revisiting of the Manson murders, however, it is a stunner. Once Sanders turns his attention from Tate’s life and career to the story of her death, “Sharon Tate: A Life” becomes the most engrossing read I’ve encountered in 2016.

Before then, we have the standard chronicle of Tate’s life: Success in beauty pageants during her youth, discovery by producer Martin Ransohoff, stardom in “Valley of the Dolls,” falling in love with Polanski during the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”

Sanders – who wrote of Manson in the bestseller “The Family” – does unearth some unique, very personal details I’ve not come across before. For example, the first meeting between Polanski and Tate’s father Paul, aka “The Colonel,” was a telling view into the couple’s unconventional relationship:

“She’s too nice,” Polanski told Tate’s father. “I’ve been trying to toughen her up.”

“I wouldn’t try too hard,” he replied. “She doesn’t get mad too often, but when she does, oh, son, you better watch out. And when she’s done with you, then you’ve got me to reckon with.”

The author certainly captures the slightly menacing vibe of the time, especially as we draw closer to “that fatal night.” Anyone who has read “Helter Skelter” or watched any of the dramatic recreations of the Manson story knows the broad strokes of what comes next. But the skilled Sanders brings the era to vivid life. It all starts on page 115, in a chapter titled, with chilling blankness, “1969: Cielo Drive and Pregnancy.”

Sanders recounts the murders with fascinating detail, including the killers’ strange life at the Spahn ranch and the backstory of the small gathering at the Polanski household that night. It all culminates, of course, in a nightmare:

“Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were chatting in Sharon’s bedroom when the knife stabbed into the gray screen, slicing an entrance into the empty nursery at the far end of the house.”

The remainder of the book is a chronicle of real-life horror and its aftermath. And it’s enormously effective.

There are significant issues with “Sharon Tate: A Life,” and they start with the title. This is a book about death, not life. And as stated previously, Tate feels like a secondary character in her own story. At times the focus is so removed from Tate herself that things feel slightly disrespectful.

The illustrations by Rick Veitch don’t help matters. The work of the underground comic artist is generally fascinating, but here feels overly cartoony. A final illustration depicting Tate clutching her unborn baby in the clouds (called “Sharon in the Sky”) is particularly silly.

Interestingly, there was a very strong book about Sharon Tate released last year, one that focused on her life, rather than her death. “Sharon Tate: Recollection” is a lush, gorgeously composed visual appreciation by her sister, Debra, that restores Tate to her rightful place as the vibrant style icon of her era. This bold, bracing approach divorces her from the too-often-used classification of “Manson victim.” Debra Tate rescues her sister from being known by many as simply a casualty.

One image in particular – a shot of pregnant Tate in 1969, wearing a black headband – carries more emotional weight than any moment in “Sharon Tate: A Life.” She appears breathtakingly alive, a stunning force of power and beauty.

Comparatively, the Tate that appears in Sanders’ book is constantly surrounded by danger. She is emotionally scarred and threatened at all counts by a system that saw her only as a sex symbol. She is quite simply, doomed, and her collision with the Manson family feels almost predestined.

Was her murder, in fact, predestined? Was it a wrong-place, wrong-time scenario? Was Tate chosen? These questions haunt us, and Sanders. The author saves his final flourish for the afterword, nine pages of mind-detonating theories, rumors, and could-bes. It sent me racing to google “English Satanists,” and, typically, more dead-ends.

The book ends with Sanders reaching out to Charles Manson himself via letters. Sanders asks several key questions, but of course, these pleas go unanswered. This hammers home a sad truth. We’ll never really know why Sharon Tate was massacred. As Sanders puts it, “So far, no answer, no phone call.”

Interestingly, the finale successfully turns the focus back to Tate. The sad miasma of conspiracy theories that make up the afterword are, in a way, the author’s attempt at understanding and rationalizing something that can never be understood or rationalized. Whatever led to the murders, Sanders believes, is secondary to the result. In the end, it’s the deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends that truly matter:

“[E]ven though the world moves on, decade after decade, that does not prevent loose ends flapping in the multi-decade breeze, and no loose ends can prevent our sense of outrage and anger for the horrible injustice perpetrated upon Sharon Tate and her friends.”

In “Sharon Tate: A Life,” Ed Sanders brings that horrible injustice to life once more. Even if he fails to capture the life force that made Tate one of the 20th century’s most tragic icons, he succeeds in shedding new light on the horrors of 1969. This is true crime lit at its most grimly compelling.

From the April Spree: BNFF, Brando, Brazil, Holzman, and Hot Docs

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

I just realized my Coming Attractions column in the May Buffalo Spree will be posted on BuffaloSpree.com in a few days, and I’ve not posted my April column. There are still a few days left this month to enjoy these screenings, so take a look.

April was once considered a quiet time before the summer movie season, but it’s now the launch pad for dull fare like Fast Five and Captain America: Winter Solider. This year is no exception, with Disney’s live-action Jungle Book and a ho-hum quasi-sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman set to drop. Happily, it’s also busy with cinema series, screenings, and even film festivals, in WNY and beyond.

Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival (BNFF): 

Local festivals come and go, but Bill Cowell’s Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival—along with its eclectic approach—is a survivor. This year, there are over 100 features, documentaries, and shorts from Western New York and around the world, as well as workshops, a comic-con day, and a fallen soldier commemoration featuring portraits by Kaziah Hancock. Special premieres include Stanley Isaacs’ new documentary, It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd Jr. (producer of BraveheartThe Man in the Iron Mask, and Gone Baby Gone) and a twenty-year reunion premiere of Larry Bishop’s Mad Dog Time(starring Diane Lane, Burt Reynolds, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Idol, Rob Reiner, among others).

April 1–2 at Barton Hill Hotel & Spa, Lewiston; April 13–17 at the Tonawanda Castle (check thebnff.com or call 693-0912 for times and information)

Kid-Friendly Classic Film Series: Dipson Theatres began its family film series in February with a heavyweight (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and starts April with two underrated gems, A Little Princess (Apr. 2) and The Iron Giant (Apr. 9). Two more high-profile affairs follow in Shrek (Apr. 16) and School of Rock (Apr. 23), and the month finishes with Wes Anderson’s delightful Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (Apr. 30). While some might quibble with the “classic” label on a few of these (Rango and The Lorax are classics?), it’s an affordable—just $4—Saturday morning option.

10 a.m. at the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema, 4545 Transit Rd., Williamsville; dipsontheatres.com 

Kaleidotropes—David Holzman’s Diary: My days as a media study major at the University at Buffalo opened up to me an entire world of film (and video) art, and few of these made a greater impact on me than David Holzman’s Diary. Jim McBride’s 1967 satirical mockumentary still packs a dark comic punch. Diary is a perfect pick for Squeaky Wheel’s fab Kaleidotropes series.

7 p.m. on Apr. 27 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center, 617 Main St.; squeaky.org

Buffalo Film Seminars: Is this the best month in Buffalo Film Seminars history? It’s possible. The opportunity to see Spike Lee’s epic Malcolm X (Apr. 5), the stunning Waltz With Bashir (Apr. 19), and Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour (Apr. 26) in the company of Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian is hard to pass up. But the real treat is Beau Travail (Apr. 12), an adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd from the great Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, Bastards). A tale of sexual repression among soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, Beau Travail features one of the great endings in cinema history, actor Denis Lavant’s solo dance to Eurodance thumper “Rhythm of the Night.” The discussion after this one should be fascinating.

7 p.m. at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html

Burchfield Penney Art Center: BPAC’s ambitious (and free) “History of Terrorism” banner begins April with one of the best of 2002, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (Apr. 7). It’s a brutal, unforgettable film that interweaves several stories involving organized crime among young gangs in 1970s Brazil. Netflix drama Narcos and 2010 Mexican drama El Infierno follow on Apr. 21 and 28, respectively. Plus, this month the Beyond Boundaries: Dare to be Diverse Film Series features Up Heartbreak Hill (Apr. 14), a documentary about one year in the lives of three Native American teens.

6:30 p.m.; 1300 Elmwood Ave.; burchfieldpenney.org

TCM Big Screen Classics—On the Waterfront: The Marlon Brando documentary Listen to Me Marlon was one of 2015’s most acclaimed. Watch it, and then experience his still-stunning performance as dockworker Terry Malloy as Turner Classic Movies presents Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

2 and 7 p.m. on Apr. 24 and 27 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com

TIFF Kids International Film Festival: The annual Toronto International Film Festival is a cinephile must each September, and the TIFF Kids International Film Festival is a fun offshoot. Last year, the fest featured greats like When Marnie Was There and Shaun the Sheep; check tiff.net for upcoming news on the nineteenth annual installment.

Apr. 8-24; details TBA; tiff.net

Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road: While April sees a number of real gems gracing WNY screens, I don’t think anything tops the Wim Wenders retrospective hitting the Dipson Amherst Theatre. The prolific German filmmaker has been creating fascinating films since the seventies, and this four-film series features several of his most important works. Starting with 1976’s Kings of the Road (7 p.m., Apr. 7), the series continues with the great Harry Dean Stanton-starrer Paris, Texas (7 p.m., Apr. 14) and the gorgeous Wings of Desire (7 p.m., Apr. 21). The final screening is downright newsworthy. The five-hour director’s cut of 1991’s Until the End of the World (12:30 p.m., May 1) has been rarely seen, and is considered a drastic improvement over the 158-version released to theaters. In any form, World is one of his most ambitious efforts, but the director’s cut of this a globe-trotting tale set in 1999 is a cinephile must-see.

Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com

Cultivate Cinema Circle: The spring season for the Cultivate Cinema Circle series features some real gems, including Jacques Demy’s perfect 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and Werner Herzog’s latest documentary. On April 16, the series features director Brandon Loper’s “love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee,” A Film About Coffee. The free screening is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. It’s the first film of CCC’s Public Espresso-themed trilogy about coffee and Constructivism. Next up is I Am Belfast, at 9:30 p.m. on April 28 at the North Park Theatre. Tickets for Mark Cousins’ film about Northern Ireland’s capital are $9.50. Note that the film was shot by frequent Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle. That means Belfast is most certainly a visual stunner.

cultivatecinemacircle.com

North Park Theatre: Leave it to the North Park to find new ways to top itself. One of the theater’s delights is its ongoing Family Matinee Series, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki (director of animated classics My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away) have been highlights. One of the Studio Ghibli legend’s strangest and most fascinating efforts, Porco Rosso, screens at 11:30 a.m. on April 2 and 3. Yes, the film is centered on an anthropomorphic pig. But this is Miyazaki, so the results are unimaginably glorious. And at 7 p.m. on April 22 the North Park hosts the world premiere of The American Side, the Buffalo- and Niagara Falls-shot film directed by Jenna Ricker. (She co-wrote Side with Greg Stuhr.) It stars Matthew Broderick, Janeane Garofalo, and Robert Forster.

1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org

The Screening Room: It’s a month of pleasures at Amherst’s Screening Room, and it all starts with The Fly—the original, from 1958—at 7:30 p.m. on April 1, 2, 3, and 5. Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, and 16. Back to the Future recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and screens at 7:30 p.m. on April 13 and 17. Also this month is some horror, featuring the local film Johnny Revolting vs. the Undead, at 5 p.m. on April 3; some zaniness, with Don Knotts and Tim Conway in The Private Eyes on April 23, 26, and 29; and director from Stratford, some Shakespeare, with Hamlet screening on April 28 and 30.

3131 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net

Riviera Theatre: There’s something for everyone—literally—at the Riviera in April. First is the wonderful seventh film in the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens at 8 p.m. on April 1. The beloved (by some) Bette Midler tearjerker Beaches is next, at 7:30 p.m. on April 14. The Riviera’s Family Film Series presents The Land Before Time on April 17 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on April 24. Both films screen at 2 p.m. Lastly, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 28.

67 Webster St., N.Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org

Also screening this month …

  • The Shea’s Free Family Film Series presents 2003’s handsome, unjustly forgotten Peter Pan, starring Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. (2 p.m. at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.; sheas.org)
  • The Roycroft Film Society screens Bong Joon-ho’s dark South Korean drama Mother. (4 p.m. on Apr. 10 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)
  • The Dipson Amherst Theatre presents the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Don Quixote and the Royal Opera House’s production of Puccini’s Tosca on the big screen. (Quixote: 12:55 p.m. on Apr. 10; Tosca: 11 a.m. on Apr. 24; at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com)
  • Toronto’s Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary festival. (Apr. 28-May 8; details TBA;hotdocs.ca)
  • The Rochester International Film Festival features short films from around the world. (Apr. 14-16 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House International Museum of Film and Photography, Rochester;rochesterfilmfest.org)

Review: James Franco’s short stories probe youthful angst in ‘Yosemite’

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I reviewed “Yosemite,” a film based on costar James Franco’s short stories, for the Buffalo News. I gave it 3 stars.

Say what you will about the ludicrously overextended James Franco, but never deny his ambition. What other young male actor would star in a re-creation of the sexually explicit deleted scenes from 1980’s “Cruising,” play himself in the “Veronica Mars” feature, and direct a movie about the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s epicly awful cult hit “The Room”?

Yes, only Franco has the chutzpah, for better or worse, to tackle such a head-spinningly diverse selection of projects. If his starring role in Hulu’s soon-to-debut Stephen King adaptation “11.22.63” is a shout, Gabrielle Demeestere’s intimate drama “Yosemite” must be termed a whisper.

Showing from Feb. 5 to 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst), “Yosemite” is based on two short stories written by Franco and features the actor in a small role.

While not as emotionally resonant as 2014’s “Palo Alto,” the teen drama based on a collection of Franco’s short stories, “Yosemite” shares that film’s appreciation of the somber minutiae of adolescent life.

Set in 1985 Palo Alto, Calif., “Yosemite” is centered around a trio of fifth-graders, all in the same class, all deeply rooted in a fractured suburban existence. Hovering over the film is the hunt for a mountain lion that is on the prowl, and giving pause to every child and adult in the area.

We are introduced to Chris (Everett Meckler) on an overnight trip with his recovering alcoholic father (Franco) and younger brother. The relationship between child and adult feels suitably forced; clearly, there is a distance between Chris and his old man.

Joe (Alec Mansky) is a quiet, sullen comic book fan whose parents are no longer together after a family tragedy. He was once close with classmate Ted (Calum John), but now the two are at odds.

All three of the young leads are natural, convincing actors. Perhaps the most involving character of the bunch is Alec Mansky’s Joe, a boy clearly in search of guidance and friendship.

He finds it, to some degree, from Henry (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis and the talented lead of Gus Van Sant’s offbeat 2011 film “Restless”). This loner with a stack of comics encourages Joe to read the superhero tales aloud, and seems curiously concerned with his safety.

But like most relationships in the film, there is an undercurrent of danger. There is a definite lack of follow-through on several fronts, specifically the relationship between Henry and Joe. Is he a predator? Is his interest in Joe unhealthy? Demeestere never answers these questions, and that’s clearly intentional.

In fact, the interactions between the three fifth-graders and the adults are all fraught with tension. Even the seemingly normal relationship of Ted and his insomniac father, an early user of the Internet, is, to say the least, strange. (Pay close attention to the text on the computer screen.)

The minefields of youth are clearly of interest to Franco, and Demeestere does a fine job of showing just how difficult life is for all three kids. Even Ted, the most nondescript of the bunch, suffers the loss of a pet (possibly to the mountain lion).

For all its modest successes, “Yosemite” cannot help but feel sleight. Just 80 minutes long, the film always is intriguing, but does not lead anywhere profound. There is a spiritual undercurrent that is especially pronounced in its closing scenes, but like the Joe-Henry relationship, never quite pays off.

Still, Demeestere’s work here is impressive. This small-scale drama is visually arresting and worthy of contemplation, and shows her to be a filmmaker on the rise.

Just her first feature, “Yosemite” is a strange, involving, very quiet film, and whatever it lacks in theatrics it makes up for with mood. It is another unexpected foray for Franco, and while it may garner less press than something like the high-profile “11.22.63,” it deserves an audience.

Review: Yen, Tyson make ‘Ip Man 3’ fun to watch

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“Ip Man 3” was a modest box office success this winter. I gave it 3 stars when I reviewed it for the Buffalo News.

There’s an easy way to tell whether “Ip Man 3,” the third in a series of films based on the life of iconic martial arts master Ip Man, is right for you – answer the following question:

Are you intrigued by the idea of a three-minute survival-of-the-toughest fight sequence between martial arts mindblower Donnie Yen and former boxer Mike Tyson? If you answered yes, you’ll likely emerge from “Ip Man 3” with a smile on your face.

It is an ideal bit of mindless late-January cinema, albeit one that might require a little pre-film study. The real Ip Man was the master of a style of martial arts known as Wing Chun. One of his disciples? Bruce Lee.

The two films in the series, “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” are streaming on Netflix. Both are directed by Wilson Yip and star the great Donnie Yen; all three are uniquely intense historical action films that play fast and loose with the real facts of Ip’s life.

As “Ip Man 3” begins, the title character is already renowned for his mastery of Wing Chun. The rather odd story that follows first involves his son’s school, and the real estate scheme of a shady developer played by Tyson.

Tyson’s gangster, Frank, oversees brutal matches dominated by Cheung Tin-ch (Zhang Jin), a rickshaw driver struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Frank’s henchmen follow through on his plan to take the school by any means necessary. Ip Man, of course, stands in the way.

After Ip and Cheung team up to protect the school, Frank challenges Ip to the three-minute challenge. It’s a gloriously fun sequence, one highlighted by the divergent styles of Yen and Tyson – I mean, Ip and Frank.

The property storyline is soon dropped, and the film’s second half is instead concerned with Cheung’s jealousy over the fame earned by Ip. He starts a competing school and challenges the mighty Ip Man to a public battle. And quite a battle it is.

Director Yip prefaces the final fight with some tender moments between Ip and his dying wife, Wing Sing (Lynn Hung), and it provides a nice counterpoint to the closing duel. Like the rest of the 105-minute film, the ending is both silly and involving.

The presence of Yen is the chief reason we stay interested. An immensely likable star who will be seen in December’s “Star Wars” spin-off “Rogue One,” Yen is known worldwide for both his extensive background as a legitimate martial artist and his filmography.

His Ip Man is calm, controlled and even sweet. Yen is as believable in quiet scenes with Hung as he is battling Cheung or Tyson.

Yip and cinematographer Kenny Tse surely deserve credit as well. One sequence, a lengthy fight scene going down a stairway that is shot overhead, is particularly impressive.

However, it is hard to know what to make of the appearance of Tyson. The still-fascinating, still-controversial Tyson is a matter-of-fact actor, one whose performance seems wildly out of place here. Yet his involvement makes that three-minute fight far more memorable.

“Ip Man 3” is unlikely to win over anyone who is not already a fan of martial arts cinema, but offers modest pleasures for action junkies. It also reaffirms Yen’s status as a worldwide star. He might be the calmest butt-kicker in cinema, and that’s noteworthy.

Review: Unflinching ‘Aferim!’ is a worthy addition to Romanian New Wave

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“Aferim!” was strange, occasionally disturbing, and surprisingly funny. Here is my 3 1/2 star review for the Buffalo News.

It is the exclamation point in the title of “Aferim!” that seems to illustrate its creators’ intentions. A harsh, unflinching Romanian drama set in the 19th century, the film is – against all odds – very, very funny. (The title means “Bravo,” and, the Wiktionary tells us, it often has an ironic meaning.)

Using the tropes of a Western and utilizing real narrative situations and dialogue from historical documents, “Aferim!” feels like an angry shout against the unbendable laws of the time. While Romania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards did not earn a nomination, it certainly deserved one.

And what a grim, violent, prejudiced time it was. Consider that every Gypsy onscreen is referred to as a “crow,” and many are forced to work as slaves.

In this picturesque Eastern European landscape (shot in deceptively gorgeous black and white), one such Gypsy slave is on the run. He is Carfin (Toma Cuzin), and he fled his estate following an affair with a nobleman’s wife.

Tasked to find him is our “hero,” a constable named Costandin (exceptionally played by Teodor Corban). He is the type of person who thoughtfully tells a priest, “Each nation has its purpose. The Jews, to cheat; the Turks, to do harm; us Romanians to love, honor and suffer like good Christians.”

Costandin is therefore one of the more remarkably unself-aware characters in recent cinema, one fond of aphorisms like, “When a wise man opens his mouth, open your ears.”

Many of these life lessons are imparted to his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who has joined him on the hunt.

He’s a father who yells at his son to try some brandy, shouting “Drink like a man.” And later, shortly before buying the boy some time with a prostitute, asks, “You’re not a Sodomite, are you? Because if you are, I’ll drown you with my own hands.”

That’s Costandin, a buffoonish authority figure who nevertheless accomplishes his mission. The duo finds Carfin shirtless and running, and gather him up, along with a luckless young boy named Tintiric.

The remainder of the film is a “Last Detail”-like march toward Carfin’s grim fate. They sell Tintiric along the way in a heartbreaking scene, and find time for a prostitute while staying at a raucous tavern.

They also ponder what to do about Carfin. Does he deserve to be killed, or at the very least beaten, by the nobleman? However they look at it, as Costandin puts it near film’s end, “That’s our law.”

The finale is the film’s most violent section, and hammers home its themes of the utter foolishness of deeply held prejudices, and the horrors that result from male posturing. Knowing that so much of the dialogue comes from historical documents means the experience is even more insightful.

In doing so, director Radu Jude has made a sharper, more memorable Western than Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight.” Jude’s third feature earned him the Silver Bear for best director at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. It moves him to the upper echelon of Romanian filmmakers, a stellar list that also includes Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) and Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”).

This group is responsible for cinema that is harsh, moving and relentless. “Aferim!” is funnier than most of the other entries that make up the Romanian New Wave, but it is no less powerful.

And in Costandin, we have a character worthy of being called unforgettably daft. “Man is asked to beat his wife, but with kindness,” he says. How utterly, wonderfully absurd.

New to Buffalo Spree: My monthly ‘Coming Attractions’ column

REBELS WITH A CAUSE POSTER COURTESY OF KELLY+YAMAMOTO; CULTIVATE CINEMA CIRCLE POSTER FOR A GOOD AMERICAN DESIGNED BY JARED MOBARAK

REBELS WITH A CAUSE POSTER COURTESY OF KELLY+YAMAMOTO; CULTIVATE CINEMA CIRCLE POSTER FOR A GOOD AMERICAN DESIGNED BY JARED MOBARAK

I recently started writing a column about upcoming screenings for Buffalo Spree, with the March issue serving as the official kick-off for “Coming Attractions.” Each month, the column will appear in print and as an updated version on the Spree website. Here’s the debut.

This month marks the debut of my new column in Spree, a brief roundup of upcoming local film screenings and cinema-related events. Expect to see a diverse selection of classics, recent blockbusters, experimental works, and documentaries gracing screens in Buffalo and (slightly) beyond. 

Stay tuned for more fun in the months to come. Now on to our feature presentation. (And an end to this month’s film puns.) 

Buffalo Film Seminars: It’s hard to argue against the “classic” status of every selection in this spring’s installment of the Buffalo Film Seminars. And March might be the finest month yet for the long-running screening/discussion hosted by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian. The lineup includes Sergio Leone’s epic western Once Upon a Time in the West (March 1), William Friedkin’s tough-as-nails Oscar winner The French Connection (March 8), Martin Scorsese’s Jake LaMotta biography, Raging Bull (March 22), and Akira Kurosawa’s late-life masterpiece Ran (March 29). Don’t pass up the opportunity to see the latter two on the big-screen, especially. (7 p.m. at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html)

Cultivate Cinema Circle: In less than one year, the Cultivate Cinema Circle screening series has shared films from greats like Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, and Agnès Varda. The series has also brought newer films to town for the first time. March features two examples, both free and open to the public. Petra Costa and Lea Glob’s Olmo and the Seagull (March 1), the existential study of an actress in the late stages of pregnancy, is cosponsored by the Women & Gender Studies Program at Canisius. And Friedrich Moser’s A Good American(March 16) is the gripping true story of codebreaker Bill Binney. (Olmo: 8 p.m. on March 1 at the Canisius College Science Hall, 2001 Main St.; American: 8 p.m. on March 16 at Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.;cultivatecinemacircle.com)

Roycroft Film Society: The East Aurora-based Roycroft Film Society follows up two stunners—the heartbreaking Timbuktu and Jim Jarmusch’s vampire daydream Only Lovers Left Alive—with a unique documentary. Rebels With a Cause is a David-and-Goliath tale, the story of a group of citizen activists intent on preserving open spaces near urban areas. Frances McDormand narrates the film, which shows how these dedicated individuals took on big industry and government. (4 p.m. on March 13 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Avenue, East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)

Burchfield Penney Art Center: BPAC has embarked on an ambitious series of films under the “History of Terrorism” banner. This month starts with The Mumbai Massacre (March 3, time TBA), a documentary about the 2008 terror attack that grabbed the world’s attention. Next is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (7 p.m. on March 10), the Jessica Chastain-starring chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Also screening is the documentary BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez (7 p.m. on March 17), part of the Beyond Boundaries: Dare to Be Diverse Film Series. (1300 Elmwood Ave.; burchfieldpenney.org)

TCM Big Screen ClassicsThe Ten Commandments: Celebrate sixty years of Edward G. Robinson’s most absurdly miscast role as Turner Classic Movies presents The Ten Commandments. (2 and 7 p.m. on March 20 and 23 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Avenue, and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Road, Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

North Park Theatre: The North Park’s family matinee series offers some wildly diverse films this month: the still-funny Mike Myers comedy Wayne’s World on March 5 and 6; Monster Hunt, China’s second highest-grossing film of all time, on March 12 and 13; and the local premiere of a new family film called Against the Wild: Survive the Serengeti on March 19 and 20. Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan stars in the latter. The family matinee films all start at 11:30 a.m. And one of the most controversial—since it beat Saving Private Ryan—Best Picture Oscar winners of the late-90s screens at 7 p.m. on March 7: the wildly entertaining Shakespeare in Love is presented by the UB English Department. (1428 Hertel Ave. ; northparktheatre.org)

The Screening Room: The March calendar for Amherst’s Screening Room is so vast that, quite honestly, I could not include it here. So make sure to visit screeningroom.net for the full rundown. Rob Reiner’s much-loved (although not by me) The Princess Bride screens at 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 4, and 5. The wonderfully titled locally-made film Dick Johnson & Tommygun vs. The Cannibal Cop hits the Room at 7:30 p.m. on March 3. And the anime film Kizumonogatari Part I: Tekketsu makes its Buffalo premiere at 9:30 p.m. on March 4. It also screens at 4 p.m. on March 5 and 6 p.m. on March 8 and 10. There is plenty more to come this month, including a documentary about Swept Away director Lina Wertmüller, cult favorite Donnie Darko, the late David Bowie in Labyrinth, and the Noam Chomsky doc Requiem for the American Dream(3131 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net)

Fredonia Opera House: The Opera House’s ongoing cinema series offers three unique films this month. The Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, featuring a superb performance from Saoirse Ronan, screens on March 5 and 8, while Maggie Smith leads the cast of The Lady in the Van on March 12 and 15. Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen’s already underrated 2016 release Hail, Caesar! is showing on March 19 and 22. (7:30 p.m. at 9 Church St., Fredonia; fredopera.org)

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center: A new film from Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) is always news in cinema, and his latest, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, is his most high-profile effort in years. The fascinating story of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s (Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky) experience shooting a film in Mexico is coming to Hallwalls for three screenings: 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 3, and 8. Also this month, filmmakers Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat will appear in person to present their documentary Speculation Nation, about the devastation of the global financial crisis in Spain. It screens at 7 p.m. on March 17. (341 Delaware Ave.; hallwalls.org)

Historic Palace Theatre: This month sees the aforementioned Brooklyn at Lockport’s Palace Theatre on March 1, 2, and 3. Animated sequel Kung Fu Panda 3 takes over from March 4 through 10, and Disney’sZootopia screens from March 18 to 31. (Times vary; see lockportpalacetheatre.org.) Lastly, the very odd but often cute Easter-themed film Hop shows at 10 a.m. on March 26. The day also includes a visit with the Easter Bunny and an Easter egg hunt. (2 East Ave., Lockport; lockportpalacetheatre.org)

Next month features one of the finest and most difficult to find films of the last two decades, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. See you then.

Oscars 2016: How’d I do? So-so …

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This was not one of my better years predicting the Oscars. While I had most of the biggies correct (Director, Adapted and Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress), I was off on two biggies: Picture and Supporting Actor. I have to say, Sly losing is the bummer of the night for me … Mainly because I could not envision a scenario in which George Miller would win Director and “Fury Road” would take Best Picture.

In any event, I’m glad I went to bed after “Mad Max”’s early run. It was fun to turn off the TV and ponder whether Furiosa and company could go all the way …

One interesting note. While I finished 14 of 24 in what I felt would win, I was 12 of 24 in what I actually wanted to win. Honestly, 50 percent of my favorites winning is pretty darn good.

Oscars 2016: What will win, and what SHOULD win

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It’s Oscar time again, so here are my picks for what will win and what should win at the 88th Academy Awards.

Best Picture
“The Big Short”
“Bridge of Spies”
“Brooklyn”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Room”
“Spotlight”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Spotlight”

Best Director
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant”
Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Will Win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant”
Should Win: George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Matt Damon, “The Martian”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”
Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Brie Larson, “Room”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”
Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”
Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”
Will Win: Brie Larson, “Room”
Should Win: Brie Larson, “Room”

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, “The Big Short”
Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Will Win: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Should Win: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Will Win: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Should Win: Rooney Mara, “Carol”*
*(Since Kristen Stewart is not nominated for “Clouds of Sils Maria”)

Best Original Screenplay
“Bridge of Spies”
“Ex Machina”
“Inside Out”
“Spotlight”
“Straight Outta Compton”
Will Win: “Spotlight”
Should Win: “Ex Machina”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“The Big Short”
“Brooklyn”
“Carol”
“The Martian”
“Room”
Will Win: “The Big Short”
Should Win: “Carol”

Best Foreign Film
“Embrace of the Serpent”
“Mustang”
“Son of Saul”
“Theeb”
“A War”
Will Win: “Son of Saul”
Should Win: “Son of Saul”

Best Documentary Feature
“Amy”
“Cartel Land”
“The Look of Silence”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”
Will Win: “Amy”
Should Win: “The Look of Silence”

Best Animated Feature
“Anomalisa”
“Boy and the World”
“Inside Out”
“Shaun the Sheep Movie”
“When Marnie Was There”
Will Win: “Inside Out”
Should Win: “Anomalisa”

Best Film Editing
“The Big Short”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
“Spotlight”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Song
“Fifty Shades of Grey”
“Racing Extinction”
“Spectre”
“The Hunting Ground”
“Youth”
Will Win: “The Hunting Ground”
Should Win: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Best Original Score
“Bridge of Spies”
“Carol”
“The Hateful Eight”
“Sicario”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Hateful Eight”
Should Win: “The Hateful Eight”

Best Digital Effects
“Ex Machina”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Best Cinematography
“Carol”
“The Hateful Eight”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
“Sicario”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “The Revenant”

Best Costume Design
“Carol”
“Cinderella”
“The Danish Girl”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Danish Girl”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Production Design
“Bridge of Spies”
“The Danish Girl”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Sound Editing
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Sicario”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Sound Mixing
“Bridge of Spies”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Short Film, Live Action
“Ave Maria”
“Day One”
“Everything Will Be Okay”
“Shok”
“Stutterer”
Will Win: “Stutterer”
Should Win: ?

Best Short Film, Animated
“Bear Story”
“Prologue”
“Sanjay’s Super Team”
“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos”
“World of Tomorrow”
Will Win: “Bear Story”
Should Win: “World of Tomorrow”

Best Documentary Short Subject
“Body Team 12”
“Chau, Beyond the Lines”
“Claude Lanzmann”
“A Girl in the River”
“Last Day of Freedom”
Will Win: “Claude Lanzmann”
Should Win: ?

Review: A boy’s will to survive is the heart of ‘Theeb’

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I don’t think “Theeb” stands a chance of winning this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but it’s a deserving nominee. Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News.

“Theeb” is a somber, suspenseful survival film from director Naji Abu Nowar, one that stands out for a key reason: The drama set in the Hejaz Province of Arabia in 1916 is centered on a young boy, one who speaks little but sees much.

That boy is Theeb, nicely underplayed by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. The young Bedouin lives with his brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), and as we see in the film’s first few minutes, theirs is a very warm, loving relationship. The orphans clearly maintain a close bond.

Their lives take an unexpected turn when a young British soldier (Jack Fox) appears out of the darkness. He and his escort are seeking a guide, and Hussein volunteers. Theeb cannot help but follow, and the journey soon takes a grim turn.

This is all a tad confusing, and director Abu Nowar offers little in the way of explanation. However, the disorientation adds to the film, and cements our bond with Theeb. We don’t learn a great deal about the boy, but that is likely due to the fact that he is still in the process of discovering who he is.

What’s most striking about him is his will for survival, and in that sense “Theeb” brings to mind a number of very good films centered on young protagonists caught up in extraordinary circumstances, including Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” It does not quite reach the highs of those two classics, but it shares the same spirit.

Jordan provides the visually stunning backdrop, one that occasionally calls to mind the Western genre. Interestingly, the bare bones of the tale could fit any number of genres: A young boy and his brother attempt to lead a stranger to safety, before violence descends upon them.

By taking that shell and setting it in early 1900s Arabia, British-born director Abu Nowar keeps things feeling fresh and unexpected. We watch in wonder at what visual surprises Theeb will find during his journey, even if the thematic surprises are few and far between.

That would be the main criticism of “Theeb,” that at a certain point the story seems to come to a halt. It is never less than compelling, but the last 30 minutes, especially, lack the drama of the first hour.

Part of the issue – without giving too much away – is that the initial group of characters leaves the picture rather quickly. The remainder of the film misses the warmth of Hussein and the mystery of the British soldier.

However, these plot decisions do amp up the emotional impact. Abu Nowar stages one of the saddest scenes of sibling heartbreak in film, and also creates a masterful, horrifying sequence in a deep, dark well that ranks as the film’s most memorable moment.

The filmmaker also wrote the screenplay, and while the movie’s dialogue is sparse, several lines resonate – among them, “Brotherhood is more important than your railway” and “God sent me so that the beasts don’t eat you.”

The latter line is delivered by an injured mercenary (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who becomes Theeb’s unwanted companion for the film’s final stretch. The two have a tense relationship and this leads to a finale in which the boy must make a decision no child should have to ponder.

“Theeb” is a film of sudden emotional shifts, and some strong violence, but it’s one some adolescents may find riveting. This tale of a boy facing life-altering events is the kind of unique story that could form the basis of a great novel. And by bringing it to the big screen, Abu Nowar has opened our eyes to a time and place rarely experienced in cinemas.