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]

Wednesday Round-Up: TIFF talk heats up with only 8 days to go

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With the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival just eight days away, you can expect TIFF talk here and elsewhere to go into overdrive. Maximum overdrive, even. Almost every day from now until the end of the festival, I’ll be posting something TIFF-related — although not tomorrow; note I said ALMOST.

The majority of my coverage will be for Indiewire’s The Playlist, for The Film Stage, and for the November issue of Buffalo Spree, but I will certainly post here, and I will also be posting lots on FilmSwoon’s Twitter and Facebook pages, so please hit those up while I’m at the festival (September 6-9).

One TIFF entry I am hoping to see — honestly, it’s all up in the air at this point — is “Dallas Buyers Club,” a.k.a., The Film That Matthew McConaughey Lost All That Weight For. It is a fantastic concept for a movie, and represents another unique choice for its star. The Playlist posted some new pictures for the film — its release date was just moved up to early November, a very confident move — and an official synopsis:

“In 1986, the AIDS crisis was still a misunderstood horror, withering then taking its victims, alarming the public and confounding the doctors who sought a cure. In Texas, Ron Woodruff stood beyond the fear of AIDS. He was clueless. So when this boozing, foul-mouthed, womanizing heterosexual contracted HIV, his response was instinctive: Bullshit.

“‘Dallas Buyers Club’ draws on his true story. When Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is told that he has only thirty days to live, he pleads with a doctor (Jennifer Garner) for what was then an experimental drug, AZT. But he refuses to submit to a clinical trial, so he steals the drug — taking his first dose with a beer chaser and a snort of cocaine. When the AZT dosage makes him sick, he seeks out alternative medicine. Never one to heed rules, Woodruff smuggles unapproved treatments over the border from Mexico. Along the way, he strikes up an unlikely alliance with Rayon, a sleek but troubled drag queen, played with stunning conviction by Jared Leto. The pair teams up to sell treatments to the growing numbers of HIV and AIDS patients unwilling to wait for the medical establishment to save them. It’s a classic story of American enterprise.”

The Playlist and The Film Stage are two of my favorite sources for news and info as TIFF draws closer, and I don’t just say that because I’m a contributor for both.

The rest of this week’s round-up:

Photo: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Wednesday Round-Up: It’s Wong Kar-Wednesday!

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On certain days, “Chunking Express” is my favorite movie, and Wong Kar-wai is my favorite director. So the fact that his latest film, “The Grandmaster,” is opening in Buffalo next Friday (August 30) thrills me.

It has been a long-time coming. It feels like his last release, 2008’s “Ashes of Time Redux,” was a decade ago, and his last “real” film, “My Blueberry Nights,” seems like it came out two decades ago.

“The Grandmaster” has been talked about for several years, and its production was downright epic. But now it is here, and that means we are being flooded with interviews, appreciations, reviews, and more.

One example is a very good interview he did with Slant. One question in particular jumped out to me:

Slant: I’ve seen two different cuts of the film, and there was plenty of “exclusive” footage in each. If it weren’t for that lack of patience among audiences, would you like to release a version that comprises most of the footage, one that would be as long as most Leone movies? Or are the running times dictated by other things?

“Yeah, sadly, today, the distribution of films is very competitive, so in China we can afford to release this film at two hours and 10 minutes, but we have an obligation to release this film under two hours in the United States. But I don’t just want to do a shorter version, do some trimming, take out some scenes, because I think the structure of the Chinese version is very delicate, and very precise. So instead I want to do a new version, I want to tell this story in a different way. And in fact, American cinema, besides Chinese cinema, has the longest history with kung-fu films. So I think we can focus and go directly to the story. In the Chinese version, it’s really about time. And here [in the U.S.] it’s really about character. We follow the story of Ip Man and go through this world of martial arts.”

Hmm. I hope we have a chance to see both cuts here in the States, perhaps on DVD; methinks I’ll be buying an import copy. This is tricky, though. WKW seems pretty cool about it all above, but check out this breakdown of the crucial differences between the U.S. and Hong Kong edits on Film.com.

Let’s take a look at some cool articles etc. on WKW and his films.

 

Photo from Slant article: Wong Kar Wai on the set of “The Grandmaster.” [PHOTO: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY]

Review: Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening Make “Girl Most Likely” Watchable – Barely

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When I first saw “Girl Most Likely” at TIFF 2012 and reviewed it for The Playlist, it was called “Imogene.” I found it a sitcom-y but likable affair. I reviewed it again recently for the Buffalo News under its new name, and pretty much had the same response. Perhaps I went a little soft on it, but that’s how likable Kristen Wiig is. Here is my 2 ½ star review.

Thank goodness for the return of Kristen Wiig in a starring role. The former “Saturday Night Live” star has not been the lead in a feature since “Bridesmaids” ruled the box office in 2011, and that’s far too long a wait.

The film that brings her back to a starring role is “Girl Most Likely,” opening here Friday, and it is no “Bridesmaids.” Silly and generally unbelievable, it is still a well-intentioned, often very funny effort, one anchored by Wiig’s inherent likability.

Wiig plays Imogene Duncan (the film’s original title was the far lovelier “Imogene”), a New Yorker who won a prestigious writing award many years before, and was even included on New York magazine’s “list of playwrights to watch.”

Now, she is living with a jerk boyfriend, has wealthy, snobbish, barely tolerable friends, and ponders what happened to her bygone talent. After a breakup, she makes the logical next step – the fake suicide attempt. (You may recall I classified the film as “generally unbelievable.”)

Following this blunder, Imogene is released to the care of the last person in the world she wants to see: her brassy, casino-addicted mother, Zelda, played deliciously by a very funny Annette Bening. Next stop is her childhood home, in Ocean City, N.J.

Zelda lives with a “CIA agent” who calls himself “George Boosh,” and often leaves suddenly on “secret missions” (sigh), and Imogene’s sweet brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), an introverted man-child afraid to leave Jersey.

Ralph considers himself an inventor, spending his time building a giant, impenetrable exoskeleton. In other words, he is nonsensically quirky, dumb quirky, “movie” quirky.

Living in the family home is a boarder, Lee (Darren Criss of “Glee”), a member of an Atlantic City Backstreet Boys’ tribute band. (Between “Girl” and “This Is the End,” this is the best press the Boys have had in two decades.)

Lee and Imogene grow close amid the Ocean City insanity, and he becomes an ally in her attempt to put her life back together. Along the way, she discovers the father she thought was dead may be alive, and in Manhattan, and realizes that the writing inspiration she needed might just come from her family.

Wiig – who, post-“Bridesmaids,” also appeared in a winning but underseen comedy called “Friends With Kids” – will happily play the dorky klutz, and play it well. As Imogene, she is her usual charming, funny, endearing self, to a degree that it becomes rather depressing to watch how horribly everyone treats her.

Imogene’s insistence on being involved with these shoddy folks makes her seem, well, dopey. But Wiig is so talented, from her expressions to her body language, that simply having the chance to watch her on screen for 90 minutes feels like a treat.

Bening, Criss and even an over-the-top Matt Dillon are just amusing enough to rise above the hysterics, but the actor saddled with the film’s weakest – and most unnecessary – role is Fitzgerald, whose Ralph is neither funny nor cute. (I was eager for him to stay in the exoskeleton.)

The screenplay is also a problem. The film’s initial concept – Imogene as former next-big-thing playwright – is mostly dropped, except for the occasional reference. Plus, Imogene’s search for her father takes up way too much screen time, and adds little.

“Girl Most Likely” is directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband-and-wife directing team whose career took a nosedive after the great Harvey Pekar story, “American Splendor.” This is another odd digression for the duo, but it is difficult to be too upset with a movie featuring a cameo by Whit Stillman.

No, this is nowhere near as successful as “Bridesmaids” (which Wiig co-wrote), but it is sure to please Wiig’s legion of fans. Still, she deserves to play a character as smart as she is.

I expect that will be very soon, but until then, the mostly likable “Girl Most Likely” will have to suffice.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions; from The Playlist “Imogene” review

Review: “Copperhead” is a Slow-Moving But Worthy Civil War Drama

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I reviewed Ron Maxwell’s “Copperhead” for Indiewire’s The Playlist, and gave the film a B-.

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.

Photo from the Playlist review

Stream This: “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” is a Solid Romantic Comedy

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A quick note this Saturday, on a film you may want to catch on iTunes, etc. It’s an enjoyable, funny little film called “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship,” and it has more laughs than many films I’ve seen this summer. I reviewed it for Indiewire’s The Playlist site — take a look:

Remember these names: Matt Oberg, Stephen Schneider, Anna Chlumksy (if you grew up in the nineties, you already know her), and Cristin Milioti. They are the stars of the horribly titled “Bert and Arnie’s Guide To Friendship,” a new indie that is a bit slight, often funny, mostly likable, and importantly, a romantic comedy that is not obnoxious. Its premise is nothing new, to be sure, but director Jeff Kaplan’s film has more humor and verve than almost every new sitcom that debuted on network television in the past year, and in Oberg, Schneider, Chlumsky, and especially Milioti, it has four fine comic performers who elevate director Jeff Kaplan’s script (co-written with Ian Springer) into a modest success.

Oberg’s B. W. “Bert” Scheering is a full-of-himself college professor and the noted author of a hit novel (title: “The Virgin Monster”) who discovers that his wife is sleeping with Arnie, a womanizing executive with a caddish persona. Bert’s marriage screeches to a halt and thrusts him into the perils of single life, a world Arnie knows well. Playing the author card only gets him so far; even an attempted tryst with Faye (Cristin Milioti – more on her shortly), a deadpan student with a perennially congested-sounding voice who asks Bert to write her a letter of recommendation, proves disastrous, very, very disastrous.)

Meanwhile, Arnie meets his match in the sweet, confident Sabrina, played nicely by Chlumksy, the “My Girl” star who roared into adult roles with Armando Iannucci’s artfully profane political masterpiece, “In the Loop.” (She currently appears on Iannucci’s HBO series, “Veep.”) When Arnie learns Sabrina is a fan of one Bert Scheering, he forces himself back into the author-professor’s life, and the two begin a rocky friendship. As is perhaps evident, there is not a great deal of plot here, really, but thanks to the performances, and some witty dialogue, “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” actually gains strength as it progresses, and culminates in an especially winning final half hour.

While Bert is the film’s ostensible lead – Oberg, whose strait-laced demeanor has led to roles on The Onion’s “News Network” and “Sportsdome” TV series – Arnie is the more difficult role. As played by Schneider he is the pompous womanizer, but an individual also struck by feelings of inadequacy; his bitchy upset at Sabrina for not inviting him to her karaoke party is note-perfect. (“Do you have any Tylenol PM?” he asks an amorous Sabrina with maximum bitchiness.) Both characters are semi-caricatures — Bert the uptight, sexually frustrated author and professor; Arnie the cad who secretly wants a commitment. But the actors make them believable and funny. Even the sorta-kinda friendship that develops between the two over the course of the film makes sense because their elements of each other’s lives that on the surface at least, appear alluring.

Chlumsky’s Sabrina is perhaps a more well-rounded, truly believable character, a smart woman who inadvertently gets caught between B and A, and Cristin Milioti steals every scene she’s in as Faye. The Tony-nominated (for Broadway’s “Once”) actress recently made news as the “mother” in “How I Met Your Mother,” and the wide-eyed “30 Rock” alum takes the film’s most clichéd role and makes her handful of scenes the most memorable in the film. There are a number of other very funny sequences, including Bert’s run-ins with a book critic (played by the smoldering Bree Sharp) and a killer karaoke scene in which Arnie tearfully belts out Marc Cohn’s guilty pleasure soft-rock staple, “Walkin’ in Memphis.” The direction from New York University alumnus Kaplan is mostly unfussy with one big exception, the use of a completely unnecessary interview device that pops up every so often for no apparent purpose. It feels forced, like an unsubtle acknowledgment that there really isn’t much story here.

But the interviews are used sparingly and do not prove overly distracting. Considering the inanity of so many “adult” romantic comedies in the past decade – see the Katherine Heigl oeuvre – the fact that “Bert and Arnie” has a few laughs, some nice performances and does not beat the viewer over the head with a slapstick-lead-pipe means it is a film worthy of respect. It is certainly no masterpiece, and not as memorable as some of this year’s larger scale character-driven romantic comedies (I’m looking at you, “Frances Ha”), but “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” offers its share of pleasures. If only there was still time to change that title. [B]

Available June 18 on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Playstation, XBOX, YouTube, Nook, CinemaNow and Vudu; New York City theatrical release from June 21-27.

Rent This: “White Elephant” is a Predictable But Worthy Study of Buenos Aires Slum Life

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Sometimes a film that can only be called so-so at best is still worth watching, and such is the case with Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant,” a well-made film about priests in Buenos Aires that never quite connects. I reviewed this 2012 Toronto International Film Festival entry last September for The Playlist, but I had forgotten about it until noticing it is now available on Netflix, Amazon Instant, etc. Here is my review:

Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant” is a smartly acted, beautifully scored, often bracingly directed film of good intentions and big ambition. Yet it can only be called a modest success, and, in light of how strong some of its individual elements are, even a slight disappointment. Word from Cannes, where the film premiered last May, was that writer/director Trapero’s study of two Catholic priests working in the slums of Buenos Aires never quite connects, and was probably the least successful of the Latin American films on display at the film festival. (It was no “No,” apparently.) That buzz was accurate, but that doesn’t make “White Elephant” without value. It just means Trapero stopped at second following a base hit that should have led to an easy triple.

Trapero’s previous film, 2010’s acclaimed crime drama “Carancho,” starred the actor who is the greatest asset in “White Elephant”: Ricardo Darin. Best known stateside as the sad-eyed star of the Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes” and the twisty con-tale “Nine Queens,” Darin plays Father Julian, a devoted man of the cloth working to fight the drugs and crime that run rampant in the Buenos Aires streets so many call home. He is referred to at one point as “the slum priest”—a better title than “White Elephant,” perhaps?—and it is his job to bring new priest Nicolas (played by Dardenne Brothers’ favorite Jeremie Renier) up to speed. (The “white elephant,” incidentally, is an abandoned, never-completed hospital now filled with squatters.)

Nicolas is at an emotional and spiritual low following a massacre in the village in which he worked. He is haunted by his inaction (“I don’t deserve God’s love,” he tells Darin, weeping); a wounded man seeking a path to redemption. In the slums, and with Julian, he finds a chance. For this is a place that is ignored by the world at large—“This isn’t even on the maps,” Julian tells Nicolas, looking out over the sprawling mess of buildings. Trapero’s long, unbroken shot of Renier’s introduction to the “white elephant” complex is a stunner, an immersive bit of filmmaking that is both stimulating and eye-opening. He makes us feel as if this is the entire universe, and that no other future lies beyond. “If you leave, the slum will go out and find you,” says one youngster, ominously.

Julian and Nicolas are joined in their efforts “to fight violence with love” by a caring social worker, Luciana (played wonderfully by Martina Gusman, who co-starred with Darin in Trapero’s “Carancho”). Throughout, while we’re involved with the characters and their individual journeys, the overall story and motivations are often fuzzy and hard to follow; when a romance develops between Nicolas and Luciana, it seems not just sudden, but utterly unsupported. And its lack of consequence is not just odd—it’s downright unrealistic.

As Nicolas and Luciana fall deeper for each other, drugs and violence take center stage, and Trapero’s script veers into the obvious. The film never seems to reach a strong conclusion, ending with a death that is nowhere near as emotional as it should be. Trapero’s script is simply too vague and predictable, and his direction, while spot-on at several points, lacks the visceral kick to the shins of similarly themed films like “City of God” or “Pixote.” Perhaps wisely, he never attempts the “documentary” feel that those two films achieved. But that invariably makes for a less memorable work.

The acting is top-notch across the board, with Darin and Rennier doing some of their finest work, and Gusman a clear star in the making. The film’s other most notable triumph is its music from composer-pianist Michael Nyman. While Nyman’s work here lacks the inimitable majesty of his soundtrack to Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” the music brings a suitable air of grace to the harsh setting of “Elephant.” Its somber yet soaring sound is a surprising but welcome accompaniment to the action, especially upon Julian’s arrival to a grieving Nicolas. It is undoubtedly one of the most memorable scores I’ve heard in months, yet it is used too infrequently, and, it must be said, often feels too epic for what’s onscreen. The emotion of the moment is occasionally dwarfed by the emotion of the soundtrack.

Upon final analysis, it is difficult to tell whether we are meant to feel emboldened by the small, baby-step achievements we see onscreen, or saddened over the big-picture disappointments. (“It’s easy to be a martyr,” Julian tells Nicolas. “To be a hero, too. The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”) I hate to come down too hard on “White Elephant,” since it gets so much right. While it never fully transcends the feeling of I’ve-seen-this-tale-before, it is certainly a worthy, mostly realistic journey. It marks Trapero yet again as a filmmaker to watch, and Darin, especially, as a performer who gets better each time he’s on screen. It never breaks the shackles of predictability, but even with its missteps, “White Elephant” deserves an international audience. [B-]

Wednesday Round-Up: Zod, Pixar, Critic-Bashing, and Brigitte Nielsen (of course)

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If you’re searching for film-related articles this week there’s a very good chance you’re reading about “Man of Steel,” which opens in theaters this Friday. And that’s where we kick off this week’s round-up:

  • The great Playlist ranks the Superman films from worst to best, and it’s hard to disagree with their list. I’ve pondered watching “Superman Returns” again one of these days, since I recall not hating it, in fact, rather liking. But I feel as if I cannot remember a single scene, and that means … something. (It could just mean I’m losing brain cells as I age.) It will be interesting to see where we’ll all rank “Man of Steel” on this list, and whether or not it will breathe new life into Krypton’s favorite son.
  • Incidentally, I am most intrigued by “Man of Steel”’s villain, Zod, played by the great Michael Shannon. I am dying to see his take on the iconic character; when I interviewed him for The Playlist back in 2011, he discussed his take on the Zod, and his respect for actor Terrence Stamp: “I found his performance so powerful that I would be overwhelmed by it if I tried to incorporate it into what I’m doing. There’s no reason to try and replicate it, because it’s perfect the way it is. I’m just trying to go down a different road with it; the script’s a little bit different than the original script. It’s going to have a different look and feel to it, visually. I’m looking forward to really settling into it, and playing with it.”
  • I could probably make these Wednesday round-ups include only Indiewire articles; every week, I’m impressed by the sheer number of interesting articles posted on the network of sites. Here is one from a favorite of mine, Eric Kohn, on Pixar’s upcoming “Monsters University.” I’ve spent a lot of time on Pixar lately, since my son’s favorite movie (today, at least) is “Toy Story 2.” I have not seen “Brave,” yet, but it certainly does seem as if Pixar is in a bit of a rut.
  • And one more from Indiewire, a pretty fascinating look at “critic bashing.”
  • If you follow movie news sites closely, you know Nikki Finke, and this is the latest news on … Well, I’m not sure what’s going on.
  • Life magazine features vintage photos of American drive-ins.
  • Will a film featuring an, um, wildly diverse cast that includes the late David Carradine, Brigitte Nielsen, Kerry Washington, Jeff Fahey, Steve Guttenberg, and Michael Madsen, and narrated by Peter O’Toole ever get released? And should we care?
  • I’ve been meaning to put together an “Upstream Color” feature for weeks, and I will, soon. Here is one of many insightful looks at the film, from the L.A. Review of Books.
  • Lastly, one of my favorite writers on film, and one who lives and works in Buffalo, Girish Shambu, takes on the concept of “vulgar auteurism.” Great comments here, too.

As always, these links are more can be found on my Twitter page, Twitter.com/FilmSwoon.
Michael Shannon photo from Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel,” found on tgdaily.com.