Heading to Hot Docs? Here are some festival picks

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Toronto’s annual Hot Docs documentary kicked off last Thursday (April 24), and for a little more than a week features scores of fascinating films, many of which will never arrive on Buffalo screens.

I had the chance to see a handful of this year’s films; I reviewed one of them, “Ukraine is Not a Brothel,” for The Playlist, and my friend and colleague Chris Gallant will be reporting on another, Doug Block’s “112 Weddings.”

In addition to “Ukraine,” I saw, and quite enjoyed, “Doc of the Dead,” “Divide in Conchord,” and “Love Me.” The first, “Doc of the Dead,” directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, is an entertaining look at the popularity of zombie culture, featuring a mix of commentary and clips. The focus on George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” is especially nice, and serves as a reminder of just how groundbreaking that film was. (The stories of audience reactions to the film is particularly wild.)

“Divide in Concord” was an absorbing, well-told film about an 84-year-old’s efforts to ban plastic water bottles in her home town of Concord, Massachusetts. That activist, Jean Hill, is surely one of the most interesting subjects of a Hot Docs film this year. Kris Kaczor directed.

And “Love Me” is a surprising, often funny look at the mail-order bride industry. Jonathon Narducci’s film presents both the men who are looking for love and the Ukranian brides-to-be as fully-rounded characters — there is no mockery here. That makes for a strong film.

All three films have already premiered at Hot Docs, with more screenings to follow before the festival finishes up on May 4.

Here are festival descriptions (with synopsis author credit) for all three; each title is linked to its Hot Docs page:

“Doc of the Dead”

Could there be a real zombie outbreak? If so, Doc of the Dead can help you prepare. First, before you learn how to fend off the enemy, you should study them. Masters of zombie culture, including George A. Romero, Simon Pegg and Greg Nicotero, come together to discuss the evolution of the zombie genre, and why zombie films, video games, books, graphic novels and television shows continue to rise in popularity. Cinematic horror often reflects what people fear in real life, and zombies are multifaceted in their terror. From zombie weddings to zombie gun ranges, Doc of the Dead is a complete guide to all things undead. — Shannon Hanmer

“Divide in Concord”

Jean Hill, a fiery octogenarian, is deeply concerned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the world’s largest landfill. She spends her golden years attending city council meetings and cold-calling residents. Since 2010, she’s spearheaded a grassroots campaign to ban the sale of single-serve plastic bottles in her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. So far, her attempts to pass a municipal bylaw have failed. As she prepares for one last election, Jean faces the strongest opposition yet, from local merchants and the International Bottled Water Association. But her fiercest challenge comes from Adriana Cohen, mother, model and celebrity publicist-turned-pundit, who insists the bill is an attack on freedom. When Adriana thrusts Jean’s crusade into the national spotlight, it’s silver-haired senior versus silver-tongued pro. In the same town that incited the American Revolution and inspired Thoreau’s environmental movement, can one little old lady make history? A tense nail-biter of a vote will decide. — Angie Driscoll

“Love Me”

The Ukrainian mail-order bride business is booming! What makes these singles willing to brave heartache, thousands of miles and potential financial fraud for a chance at love? In Australia, Michael has been hurt before—his first wife left him for another man, and his second wife died of leukemia. Over in a small Wisconsin town, there are only two single women for milk farmer Travis to choose from. Enter bombshells Inna, Vitalina and Svitlana, who come straight to the point: they each want a man with a capital “M” to provide security. But as the film moves from first dates to engagement rings, who’s giving and who’s taking changes in a heartbeat. Love Me serves up cringe-worthy scams and stereotypes, but also captures a more elusive angle—the vulnerability of both men and women who’d rather be out of their comfort zones than out of love. — Myrocia Watamaniuk

Review: Rosie Perez offers moving memoir in ‘Handbook for an Unpredictable Life’

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Rosie Perez has more personality than most Hollywood stars, and that comes through in her new memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.” Here is my review for The Buffalo News.

The late master Stanley Kubrick adored “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather,” “Eraserhead,” and “La Notte.” His tastes were eclectic, however; as his family and friends say, he also loved Steve Martin’s “The Jerk,” Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance,” and — most intriguingly — 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump.”

It is hard to say what appealed to the “2001” director about the Woody Harrelson-Wesley Snipes basketball buddy comedy. I would bet the performances of Rosie Perez as the rat-a-tat-talking “Jeopardy” wannabe named Gloria had something to do with it.

After all, despite moving to the United Kingdom in the early-’60s, Kubrick was a Bronx native, and as his early photography shows, he thrived on the pace and character of New York. He knew a character when he saw one, and Rosie Perez is nothing if not a character.

Her brisk, often moving new memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,” is exactly the kind of book one would expect from the inimitable actress with the unmistakable voice. Perez even subtitled the book “How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (With Great Hair),” and that’s a very Rosie statement.

That subtitle, in a nutshell, is her story, and it is one laced with sadness, but also hope, and humor. “I’m a relatively happy person who also happened to be clinically depressed for years,” she writes, adding, “(sorry, that just cracks me up.)”

Yes, very Rosie.

Born to Puerto Rican-American parents, Perez was being raised by her beloved aunt, Tia, until her mentally unstable mother Lydia reappeared at age 3, took her to St. Joseph’s Catholic House for Children in Peekskill and gave her away. It is a heartbreaking scene:

“Next thing I knew I was being handed over to the old lady with the scarf on her head as Lydia continued out the open door, waving good bye to me … My heart started racing. The door shut behind Lydia, and she was gone. In that moment, I became a ward of the state of New York, and the ‘property’ of the Catholic Church.”

Even though she still saw Lydia and Tia occasionally, Perez’s adolescent life was never the same. “I was in a time warp,” she writes, “with the same routine every day.” The domineering Sister Renata and group homes followed, as well as stints with relatives. She was not permanently reunited with Tia until she was nearly 14.

That stretch of time, from birth to age 14, encompasses about 180 pages of the 300-page book, and believe it or not, more grimness follows. Take this scene with her mother, one that reads like Dickens crossed with Joan Crawford:

“She punched me in the face. For the first time, in a knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed her arm with one hand and pulled back my other hand in a fist ready to punch her back — bad move. She quickly grabbed my fist … wiggled her arm free, and proceeded to punch me repeatedly to the floor. I managed to scramble away and ran to my house as if my life depended on it.”

There are scenes of matter-of-fact violence throughout “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.” Happily, good things were still to come. Soon, Perez was spotted dancing at a club by a “Soul Train” talent scout, and recruited for the show. Of course, then Perez got into a fight with Don Cornelius.

But that was OK, because she was on the verge of a breakthrough, in the form of Spike Lee. She met him under rather inauspicious circumstances (Lee “was having a ‘butt’ contest to see which black chick” had the biggest butt — “no lie,” and a disgusted Perez made “a mockery of the whole thing”), but won him over, and was cast as Mookie’s girlfriend in the director’s 1989 classic, “Do the Right Thing.”

This started a wildly unique run of movies. She appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth” in 1991, “White Men Can’t Jump” in 1992, baboon-heart love story “Untamed Heart” in 1993, and Peter Weir’s “Fearless” in 1993.

It was the latter role, as the survivor of a plane crash that took the life of her infant child, that defined her career. She deservedly earned an Oscar nomination, and even though Perez did not win, her career moved to a new level.

Her best work was behind her after 1994’s “It Could Happen to You,” yet that was likely not her fault. I’m not sure Hollywood has ever known quite what to do with the strong-willed, ever-feisty actress, and that’s a shame.

Perez seemed to disappear from the big screen for several years — that stretch of time is not covered in the book. However, she returned with key roles in 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and in Ridley Scott’s underrated, ultra-grim film “The Counselor.”

Perhaps Perez is simply not the kind of star who is defined by her films. After all, they take up a small part of “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.” What stands out are not her descriptions of auditioning for Peter Weir or Ron Shelton, or her time as a choreographer, or even the time Tom Cruise comforted her diabetic father at the Oscars. (“ ‘That’s Tom Cruise, daddy!’ I whispered back. ‘Oh! He’s Puerto Rican or Cuban?’ ‘No,’ I laugh. ‘It’s C-r-u-i-s-e, not C-r-u-z.’ ”)

No, what lingers in the memory is her spirit, and the place of forgiveness and compassion she arrives at by book’s end. Perez is a survivor, to be sure, and with her talent and drive, she deserves even greater success. I like to think Kubrick spotted that spirit in “White Men Can’t Jump” — and that it made him smile and nod in recognition of a fellow force-of-nature.

Now streaming on Netflix: Four of my 2013 favorites

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Very cool news: Four films from my top 10 of 2013 for The Film Stage are now streaming on Netflix. These are greats from filmmakers like Claire Denis and Noah Baumbach — and all four are must-sees. Below are my write-ups from The Film Stage.

Blue is the Warmest Color (#8):

The plot is, in some ways, simple: Teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), a college art student, and the two fall in love. During the course of the three-hour film, we see the highs and lows of their passionate relationship. But the film is much more complex, much more involving, much more vivid than that. It is, I think, one of the finest films ever made about young love. Yes, the film features several graphic, extended sex sequences. But they are only a small part of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s creation. The emotion is what stands out, and that is what makes those scenes memorable, not how graphic they are. “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will,” says Emma late in the film. The viewer feels that tenderness — and shares it. What a great love story this is, and what a glorious portrayal of two unique people.

Bastards (#7):

Claire Denis continues to demonstrate why she is one if the world’s most provocative and important filmmakers with this razor-sharp, chilling bit of film noir. Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Denis’ film is a brutal shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

A Touch of Sin (#6):

Jia Zhangke’s four-story tapestry is a harsh, epic exploration of modern China, and a study of defeated characters that rewards close viewing. In each story, violence comes quickly, sometimes coupled with absurdity: a villager strikes back against the oppressive powers-that-be, a killer takes aim due mainly to boredom, a sauna worker is pushed past her breaking point, and a young person shuffles from job to job with disastrous results. What does it all mean? For Zhangke, that is the ultimate, likely unanswerable question.

Frances Ha (#5):

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a Carax-appropriating scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. A perfect film? It sure feels that way.

Review: “The Stone Roses: Made of Stone”

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Someday, hopefully, I will get to see the Stone Roses in concert. But until then, Shane Meadows’ documentary “Made of Stone” will have to suffice. It’s a solid film — I gave it a B+ in my review for The Film Stage — and simply a must-see for any fan of the band.

Until inimitable singer Ian Brown, guitar god John Squire, affable bassist Mani, and long-MIA drummer Reni congregated in a London hotel in October 2011 before a throng of world press, Manchester’s Stone Roses seemed as unlikely a reunion candidate as the Smiths, the Jam, Talking Heads, and the Beatles. (Yes, I’m aware of the inherent difficulties in the latter reformation.) But as This is England and Dead Man’s Shoes director Shane Meadows shows us in the documentary Made of Stone, this fan-fantasy really did occur. The resurrection was captured by Meadows and his cameras, and for those fans who were unable to make it to the band’s overseas shows, or its headlining Coachella gig, the documentary is the next best thing.

That makes it a vital, important visual document, and a mostly satisfying film — emphasis on “mostly.” Made of Stone is the fans’-only film in excelsis, and that is part of the charm, for the larger-than-life, ever likable Meadows is as big a Roses junkie as there is. As a filmmaker, though, Meadows is in a tricky spot. He has attempted to create a film that both thrills Stone Roses obsessives, yet also provides some context for the novice. As fascinating and enjoyable as the end result is, Made of Stone spends too much time trying to justify its existence, and not enough time actually presenting us the band as it exists today. However, any real Roses fan will likely emerge pleased, so deep has the desperation been since the mid-90s. Meadows has unearthed a stunning treasure trove of footage, much of it dating back to the band’s early, vaguely goth-y youth. As the film progresses, the band’s strange, fractured history is revealed.

In short: The Stone Roses emerged from the late 80s “Madchester” scene with an intoxicating sound that was equal parts Byrds and Acid House, punk and Hendrix. Confident, surly, and wildly talented, the band recorded a self-titled debut album still considered by many to be the best LP of all time, held its own mini-Woodstock at Spike Island, and disappeared — for nearly half-a-decade! — into an abyss of drugs and Zeppelin obsession. The overhyped, destined-to-disappoint Second Coming followed, and soon after, an already splintered group drifted even farther apart. Reni left first, then Squire, and after a surly, disastrous headlining slot at the 1996 Reading Festival, Brown and Mani called it a day.

This was an expectedly messy breakup — the Roses never did anything half-assed — and in the years that followed, Brown lobbed verbal bombs at Squire, the guitarist seemingly moved from musician to full-time artist, Mani smartly joined with Primal Scream, and Reni laid low. In the intervening years, the band’s original cheering section aged, and new fans discovered the majesty of The Stone Roses every day. By the time word leaked that the group was, indeed, planning a resurrection, a sizable portion of followers had the same response: “Seriously?!” Meadows knows this feeling better than anyone, and smartly opens the film backstage, as the aforementioned Soho Hotel press conference was about to begin. It’s fascinating to watch the four hang out, then take the stage, spouting lines like, “Hatred is wasted energy,” and “Our plan is to take over the world.”

Meadows jumps ahead a few months, and gleefully explains that only 10 weeks remain until the Roses’ triumphant homecoming shows at Heaton Park in Manchester. Clearly, the filmmaker’s assignment — “to make,” he says, “a documentary about your all-time favorite band getting back together after 20 years” — is a joyous one, and Meadows certainly captures this sense of “WTF?!” Sometimes he captures too much of it. After some rehearsal footage (the first song the band plays is not “I Wanna Be Adored” or “She Bangs the Drums” but the swirling shuffle that is “Something’s Burning”) a surprise show is announced for Warrington, a town west of Manchester. Ever the band-of-the-people, the Roses asked fans to bring CDs or shirts to gain admittance. The film spends way, way too much time talking to these fans; while the long sequence hammers home the band’s importance in the eyes of its fans, the faithful go on, and on, and on. One line from Mani, “I’m like a kid on Christmas morning,” is far more moving.

The Warrington concert footage is a Made of Stone highlight, and soon, the Roses’ tour is in full swing, with Meadows on the sidelines in Barcelona, Lyon, and Amsterdam. It is in the latter city that things take a turn for the worse: Following audio problems, Reni walks out. It’s a highly dramatic sequence, and movie-wise, it’s a godsend. “Things are … Tricky,” Meadows says, as newspapers spit out headlines like “Stone Roses split up again!” Happily, the split did not last, and we are finally on to Heaton Park, and a band ready to prove why it all still mattered. By the time Brown, Squire, Mani, and Reni perform a mesmerizing “Fool’s Gold,” it feels as if we are witnessing more than just a reunion, but another chapter in the history of an essential group. This is goosebump-inducing stuff, indeed.

If, that is, you already love the Roses. If not, Meadows never quite gets to the heart of what made the Stone Roses seem like such a breath of fresh air amidst the pomp of U2, et al. The performances are stellar, the old footage is compelling (especially some wonderfully awkward interview clips), but what is both a larger context and, more essentially, the voices of the band today. Squire and Reni almost never speak, while Brown and Mani talk in circles, enjoyably. Over the end credits, the boys sit and laugh together on a flight, and we cannot hear what they’re saying. As my friend, a Roses die-hard, put it, “I want to hear that! Not another fan.” Perhaps Meadows was kept from including some of these off-the-cuff discussions, or perhaps he was simply so mesmerized by the performance and archival material that he made the call to minimize the interviews. That’s understandable, and even without an abundance of such footage, “Made of Stone” entertains, and occasionally captivates. “I missed all the really cool gigs,” Meadows says with a sigh early on. Thanks to his film, those of us who share his predicament can say they were there — almost — for the third coming.

A “Shortbus” party at Hallwalls

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I love to highlight films/events/what-have-you at Hallwalls, and here is a great one: “Reel Party,” billed as “A Queer Film Party for Anyone Who Likes Film and Fun,” at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25.

The series actually kicked off in February, and it’s a unique mix of comedy (the great Kristen Becker kicks things off at 8 p.m.) and cinema. April features John Cameron Mitchell’s wildly funny Shortbus, an appropriate choice for a party atmosphere.

The Hallwalls site has all the details; cost is $8 general, $6 for students and seniors, and $5 for members.

Note also that the Buffalo Film Seminars will screen Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums tonight, April 15. So you could conceivably see Grand Budapest Hotel before or after for a Wes double-feature.

Civil War drama “Copperhead” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray

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Copperhead” is a fine, small-scale historical drama that may lack the scope of director Ron Maxwell’s earlier efforts, “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” but succeeds in telling a relatively unknown bit of Civil War history in entertaining fashion.

The film debuted on Blu-ray and DVD on April 15 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, and this should bring it to audiences that may have missed it on the big screen — or may not have had the chance to see it in their neck of the woods.

I reviewed “Copperhead” for Indiewire’s The Playlist, and gave the film a B-. Here is my review in full:

A Civil War movie without a battle scene is like…wait, what? A Civil War movie without a battle scene?! That is “Copperhead,” a sincere, slow-moving, occasionally successful film devoted to one specific homefront story. That, in itself, is noteworthy. After all, as many of the characters in Ron Maxwell’s film point out, in addition to the costs on the battlefield, there were many, many costs at home. Life carried on, uneasily, and as the war raged the number of fathers and sons who would return home upon its conclusion grew smaller and smaller. With such a stunning body count, it is not surprising to hear that there was a vocal minority against the conflict — including some Northerners.

“Copperhead,” based on a novella by Harold Frederic—whose “Damnation of Theron Ware” F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the best American novel” written before 1920—is the third straight Civil War film for Maxwell, director of the much-loved, quite lengthy “Gettysburg” and the much-derided, even lengthier “Gods and Generals.” It is a smaller-scale story, and that feels like a conscious effort on the part of the director. The film is centered on an upstate New York farmer and dissenter, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell—the Rocketeer!), and his family. Like so many young men on the cusp of adulthood, Abner’s son Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown) is ready to enlist, much to his father’s dismay.

Also causing family strife is Jeff’s relationship with Esther (Lucy Boynton), a sweet-natured school teacher who happens to be the daughter of Abner’s greatest enemy (what are the odds?), the crazy-eyed, ultra-shout-y Jee Hagadorn, played by a wonderfully over-the-top Angus Macfadyen. Eventually, Jeff, who is now going by the name Tom (Jeff being too close to Jefferson Davis for comfort), joins the Union army, leaving a devastated Esther to await his return. Meanwhile, the town grows increasingly hostile toward Abner and his family, dubbing them “Copperheads,” a term for Northerners opposed to the war. With Jee leading the charge, the situation becomes increasingly contentious, and Abner must decide how strong his convictions are.

It all culminates in a rather predictable series of events, and ends a bit too neatly for an on-the-homefront drama. We’re not used to semi-happy endings when it comes to the Civil War—victory having come at a such a great cost—and it is almost jarring here. But Maxwell earns that happy ending by virtue of a smart, thoughtful screenplay by Bill Kauffman. The dialogue is simple and believable, and the sheer number of well-rounded characters is noteworthy. It is not strong on action, however, and Maxwell, the filmmaker behind one of the finest Civil War battles sequences ever brought to the screen—the Little Round Top fight in “Gettysburg”—should have found a way to amp it up a tad. Both Kaufman (this was his first screenplay) and Maxwell will both do better work, but the sincerity they brought to this one is admirable.

What “Copperhead” most lacks—and this is likely by design—is any sense of urgency. Maxwell’s languid pacing does bring forth a feeling of living in the 1860s, of news traveling slowly and the style of everyday life being slowwwwwwwer. But it does not always make for a thrilling movie, especially for those unaccustomed to this style of storytelling. The film’s middle stretch, between Jeff’s leaving with the Union army and the sudden visit of Esther to Abner’s farm, is particularly lethargic, with scene after scene of characters missing Jeff, wondering about Jeff, contemplating Jeff. For all of their Jeff ponderings, it seems Jeff (this review has now set a record for use of the name “Jeff”) should have been a bit more exciting … and he is not. In fact, Jeff’s central dilemma seems less involving than almost every other character. That is not the fault of young actor Casey Thomas Brown; it is simply a one-note role.

The other performances are mostly fine, with Lucy Boynton an adequate girl-next-door, and Billy Campbell quiet-voiced but strong-willed. It is nice to see the hard-working actor, most memorably seen on “The Killing,” with a lead. (Interestingly, he replaced Jason Patric during filming due to “creative differences.”) But it is Angus Macfadyen who dominates every scene in which he appears as the slavery-and Confederate-damning Jee Hagadorn. It is a performance of much huffing and puffing, but it is also very believable, even amidst the histrionics. Ironically, however, Macfadyen’s finest moment is a quiet one in which he utters a single devastating sentence to the son that has let him down by steering clear of military service. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda makes a couple of rather clunky appearances; the scenes are fine, but feel a bit engineered. (A newspaper is folded, and reveals…PETER FONDA!)

It is a statement of fact that those who consider themselves Civil War or history buffs will be much more forgiving of “Copperhead” than those who are not, and I see nothing wrong with that. For this audience, Ron Maxwell’s film will prove entertaining and though-provoking, at the very least. For the rest, it is unlikely to provide much dramatic sustenance. But that’s too bad, because even though “Copperhead” is nowhere near a great film, it is often a good one, a drama with real ideas about patriotism and dissent in times of conflict. It is a worthy entry in our growing list of Civil War cinema, and despite its flaws, it does not deserve to be ignored.

 

Review: Hip-Hop Documentary “Sample This” Drops the Needle and Finds a Fascinating Beat

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New York Magazine recently devoted an issue to the music of New York City, and that reminded me of solid documentary I reviewed a few months ago for The Playlist: “Sample This.”

“Sample This” would make a hell of an article. In fact, it did. In 2006, Will Hermes told the story of the story of the oft-forgotten, oft-sampled Incredible Bongo Band in the New York Times. His article, wonderfully titled “All Rise for the National Anthem of Hip-Hop,” began like so: “This is a story about a nearly forgotten album and the birth of hip-hop music. Like many good hip-hop tales, and pop yarns in general, it involves unlikely characters rising from obscurity and is colored with creative passion, violence, drugs, thievery, paydays and paybacks.”

That so-called pop yarn forms the basis for director Dan Forrer’s “Sample This,” a fascinating, fun, messy, and overlong documentary that never quite captures the simple beauty of Hermes’ article, but succeeds in bringing to light details about some of the most influential sounds in music history. Were it not for the Incredible Bongo Band, and, specifically, the song “Apache,” hip-hop as we know it might not exist. Elements of the track have been used in countless songs over the years, and, as “Sample This” details, the role of “Apache” in the early days of rap and hip-hop especially make it one of the most essential recordings of the last five decades.

Forrer’s film, then, means to shine a light on the historically significant but not-necessarily-famous folks who made up the band and helped create it. There is no figure more central to the story than Michael Viner, a former Robert F. Kennedy staffer who, through a series of unlikely events, moved into the music industry. Viner was a marketing genius—one who certainly had no talent for the bongos—whose inimitable post-politics career even led to the role of music supervisor of one of the strangest films ever made, one in which Ray Milland’s head is transplanted onto Rosey Grier’s body. This leads to one of the more memorable lines in recent film: “Although Viner never could have guessed it, ‘The Thing With Two Heads’ started him on the path to creating the Incredible Bongo Band.”

Indeed it did. For the soundtrack, Viner put together a stunning group of performers, many of them well-known studio musicians. Forrer talks to some of the unknowns who toiled behind the scenes while others became famous, and they offer unique insight into how many, many hits were created. (“I played and arranged all the Partridge Family Records”; “We were The Monkees, and Glen Campbell.”) As drummer Bobbye Hall puts it, “I am a studio musician. I make hits…That’s what I do.” The Incredible Bongo Band was comprised of many of these greats, including “greatest percussionist of all time” King Errison, Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Douglas, organist Robbie King, and other biggies.

Together, in a Vancouver studio (chosen for humorous reasons spelled out in the film), they made history. Perhaps that sounds overly dramatic, but it’s true. One could make a handy chart demonstrating the long-term impact following the release of Bongo Rock in 1973: DJ Kool Herc discovered the album while crate-digging (he removed label from vinyl so no competing DJs would know what it was or where it came from), Grandmaster Flash (and others) sample the breakbeat, and on, and on, and on… It is the inimitable Questlove who points to the song’s continued relevance, which he expects to continue:  “In 2020, they’ll figure out a new way [to use the song] — probably, they’ll play Apache backwards.”

If it seems like information overload, well, it is. Forrer is attempting to cover a lot of ground here, and succeeds more than he fails. But there are also some strange decisions, chief among them the choice of narrator. If you are making a documentary about the band that  changed the face of hip-hop, Gene Simmons doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice. But, believe it or not, Simmons does an admirable job. However, the KISS kingpin is just one example of the film’s inherent WTF?-ness. Consider that over the course of the 83-minute film, the following people, films, bands, etc. are involved: The Young and the Restless, Nadia Comăneci, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones (the drummer—note the spelling), Ricky Nelson, “Thunderball,” Frank Sinatra, Terry Melcher, the Manson Family, Billy Graham, Son of Sam, Sidney Sheldon and Neil Diamond. It’s a pop culture bouillabaisse that is often too “Behind the Music”-ish, especially when Simmons reads lines like, “As was so often the case with the incredible Bongo Band, destiny played a major hand.”

Was the story of the Incredible Bongo Band told more succinctly in Will Hermes’ 2006 New York Times piece? I think so. Would “Sample This” have been more effective as a 30-minute short? Without question. But it is hard to walk away too disappointed when the stories are this fascinating—and when the music is this triumphant. [B]

Ranking the Coens: From “Llewyn” to “Cruelty”

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The Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis is high on my list of 2013 favorites, even if it was too late for my Film Stage top 10. Watching it again, I got to thinking about the directors’ stunningly unique filmography. Bearing in mind that this could change on a daily basis, here is my top-to-bottom ranking of their features:

  1. Fargo (1996): Too high? I doubt it. While I have not watched Fargo in some time, I cannot imagine its style and humor have lessened over the past (gulp) two decades.
  2. The Big Lebowski (1998): Like many, I severely underrated Lebowski upon release; I liked it, but did not love it. Years of re-watching has made it one of my favorite films, period.
  3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Yep, Llewyn Davis, to me, is among the brothers’ finest films.
  4. Blood Simple (1984): The first, and nearly the best. I still think of the film’s final scene, and the Temptations’ song that accompanies it, often.
  5. No Country for Old Men (2007): A brutal, efficient comeback after “the dark years.”
  6. Miller’s Crossing (1990): Visually, the Coens’ most beautiful film, and also one of their most ambitious.
  7. Barton Fink (1991): How fitting that Polanski’s jury awarded Fink the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
  8. A Serious Man (2009): I loved this oddity upon release, but have forgotten it, somewhat. I aim to watch it again soon.
  9. Raising Arizona (1987): Some don’t find it funny. But I do.
  10. The Man Who Wasn’t There   (2001): We are starting to enter difficult territory. I think I forgive some of this film’s failings because I love the black-and-white look so much.
  11. Burn After Reading (2008): Good? Certainly. I enjoyed it. Great? Despite what David Thomson says, I don’t think so.
  12. True Grit (2010): The Coens’ film is less a remake of the John Wayne film, more a fresh adaptation of the fine novel. A sturdy, if unmemorable entry.
  13. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) : The Coens directing Paul Newman? Delightful. But a bit exhausting, and never as funny as it thinks it is.
  14. O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (2000): Similarly, never as clever as it thinks it is.
  15. The Ladykillers (2004): Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruetly are, to me, the only real duds on the list. What is interesting is that I recall seeing and enjoying both on the big screen. But we are talking Coens, and in this bunch, they just don’t fare well.
  16. Intolerable Cruelty (2003): Someone had to come in last …

The Sleepy Hahas “Hate My Body,” But I Love Their Video

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By Anthony Chabala

Guest columnist Anthony Chabala is back, this time looking at a killer new video by one of Buffalo’s most buzzed-about bands, the Sleepy Hahas. Take it away, “T.” — C.S.

Before I wax poetic about the Sleepy Hahas’ video for the song “I Hate My Body (And It Hates Me Too),” I have to get something off my chest: I fucking hate everything DIY. I hate the fact that movies and videos and music and books are now so easy to make that every Tom, Dick, and Harry is suddenly a Facebook legend. I can’t stand that technology has become so easy and affordable that a media study undergrad can rent a camera and put out something that could fool some sagging-pant punk teen into believing a real “name” director actually filmed it.

There is something extraordinarily important to be said about the financial sacrifice required to have a professional work on a project that is a representation of you and your brand. If you take yourself and your project seriously, then you put out the best possible product, for anything less is insulting to both the audience and your career. That being said, Buffalo’s best unsigned band, Sleepy Hahas, have pieced together what I consider to quite possibly be the greatest no/low-budget, DIY video I have ever seen.

Sleepy Hahas’ video of their song “I Hate My Body (And It Hates Me Too)” is simply brilliant. It combines kaleidoscope effects, live performance, and unwarranted sexual confidence in ways I found truly groundbreaking. The song is phenomenal, combining a mix of modern psych and garage rock into a seemingly recognizable Nirvana-like format that just hits the spot.

The video was filmed in one day by a friend of the band Shawn Lewis, who goes by the moniker “Lesionread.” Shot at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts, the video took about five days to edit. Is the entire thing a piss take? Maybe. But it is so damn clever and so well done that it could easily inspire old and young bands alike to go out on a limb and try something different with a video. The enthusiasm and energy on display are contagious, and it’s refreshing to see a band come out with something devoid of the Warhol/Velvet Underground-influenced hazy, DIY cliché.

In the Sleepy Hahas you have four Buffalonians who take their craft seriously and have the gear and the chops to prove it. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Pat Butler’s ability to craft a tune reveals a deep understanding of rock history, and the band made the wise choice spend its money on the greatest gear possible and hiring Paul Hamann (of Black Keys fame) to mix and master its soon-to-be released debut album, Dull Days. That is the type of dedication I can get behind.

I seldom like anything at all, but I absolutely love this video, this song, and this band. Latching your wagon to the Sleepy Hahas’ star now is the equivalent of buying Apple stock while the company was being run out of Steve Jobs’ garage.

Review: 2012 Oscar winner “A Separation” was a glorious surprise

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Earlier this week, I mentioned director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” a film inexplicably un-nominated in last year’s Best Foreign Language Film category. While that is a travesty, Farhadi did win once before, in 2012, with “A Separation.” Here is my four-star Buffalo News review of that great film.

The universally and justifiably praised Iranian film “A Separation” begins with a lengthy one-take shot of a man and woman facing the camera. They are Nader and Simin, and they are husband and wife.

Facing a judge, Simin explains why she would like to be granted a divorce. Her husband is a good man, she says, but they have finally been granted visas to leave the country, and Nader refuses to leave Iran.

Nader’s reason is simple. His aging father suffers from Alzheimer’s. He needs him. But then, of course, there is the couple’s daughter, Termeh. What’s best for her? Two parents, in Iran? Or one parent elsewhere?

This is moral dilemma No. 1 in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” and it’s an indicator of what’s to come. And — it isn’t. For even though the couple’s marriage crisis constitutes the back story of the film, it becomes just one element of a dense, mysterious fabric.

How rare in this world of Twitter, spoiler-mad trailers and preview screening reviews to see a film that genuinely surprises. This, especially, makes “A Separation” a wonder, a knowing, moving, infinitely entertaining drama that might be the most morally complex film ever made.

Peyman Moaadi plays Nader, and as the film opens, he is trying to find someone to care for his father during the day. Meanwhile, Simin (Leila Hatami), prepares to leave the apartment for her mother’s, and daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) watches with increasing sadness.

The stressed but level-headed Nader finds a caregiver, Razieh, who is always accompanied by her wide-eyed daughter. But the job is a difficult one. Nader’s father is not well, and Razieh faces questions involving her faith (is it a sin for her to clean the elderly man?) and strength (she is several months pregnant).

As Razieh struggles — we later meet her hot-tempered, unemployed husband Houjat, played by Shahab Hosseini — Nader and Termeh attempt to grow accustomed to their new life. Director Farhadi’s observations are keen, such as Nader’s unawareness of what setting Simin used on the washing machine.

And then something happens involving Nader and Razieh, and like the rest of the film, defining exactly what that “something” is — is not easy. Let’s call it an accident, one that seismically alters the rest of the film.

It causes “A Separation” to become a very, very different type of film than what we expected. Suddenly, the possible divorce of Nader and Simin is much less important, and the law becomes involved.

The dialogue is natural and believable, with simple utterances — “What’s wrong is wrong no matter who says what”; “The law doesn’t care about this”; “I have doubts”; “Did you lie?” — taking on profound meaning.

Also natural is Farhadi’s style of filmmaking. It is not flashy, or hurried, and it adds another layer of meaning to the moral mess we’re confronted with. There are no real villains, or heroes, for that matter. Even Razieh’s husband Houjat, while awfully unhinged, is not purely a bad man.

It will surprise some that politics and religion are not central to this story. They are always hovering, of course, and late in the film we are reminded just how strong a role Islam plays in the characters’ lives. But what makes “A Separation” a real high point in the fascinating, bold world of modern Iranian cinema is its sheer universality. You’ll identify, and have an opinion, too.

Farhadi faced numerous struggles in getting the film made, and initially, the project was banned. But the result is a masterpiece, one deservedly honored as Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars earlier this week, as well as at several international film festivals (it screened in Toronto last fall). If there was any justification, Farhadi and his two leads would have been in the Academy Awards’ race, as well.

“A Separation” gets to the heart of both marriage and parenthood, and it does so in entertaining and involving fashion. That it also provides an unprejudiced window into a country and a culture very different from our own is doubly impressive.

What a wonderful film this is, and what a bold, fresh cinematic experience.