Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Unspeakable

Above: Emmanuel Jal returns to Africa and the vestiges of civil war. Below: The rapper, in concert, transforms horror into art.
Tribeca Film Festival 2008, April 23-May 4
War Child

Directed by C. Karim Chrobog
With Emmanuel Jal
93 Minutes

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

These days, we are overloaded on the horrors of the world. If we hear “Sudan” or “Darfur” while thinking “Iraq,” we’re likely to tune it out. And that’s why we need people like Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier who has spoken the unspeakable, turning the depravity he has experienced, and even committed, into art. This film tells the story of Jal’s improbable, tortuous journey from birth in a rural Sudanese village in the early 1980s (he does not know his birth date) to his current life as an international up-and-coming rap singer residing in London. Weaving historical footage into Jal’s narrative—including film of Jal himself as a self-possessed, talkative child in a refugee camp—the director, C. Karim Chrobog, shows us the devastating effect of war on one family (just try not to cry when Jal’s sister, separated from him for many years, finally reveals her own story). The wonder is that Jal, who admits to having been at times suicidal, not only survived but found a way to transform his terrors to the benefit of us all.

The film, beginning with the opening scene of Jal rapping to kids in an African classroom, is gripping, and the music lifts it to another level. Though some of it is hard to take, Chrobog, the son of a diplomat, has created an important and necessary document.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Festival Quickies

Tribeca Film Festival 2008, April 23-May 4

In the anything-goes atmosphere of the club party Squeezebox, glam-punk performer Jayne County expresses herself.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott


Directed By Zach Shaffer and Steve Saporito

92 minutes

Sometimes in NYC you don’t know what’s happening in your own backyard (that is, if you had a backyard). I live within easy walking distance of Don Hill’s—and have even sung there, at the publication party in 2000 for my fellow blogger Robert Rosen’s book Nowhere Man—yet missed the phenomenon known as Squeezebox, a weekly gay night now lovingly immortalized in Zach Shaffer and Steve Saporito’s colorful, kinetic documentary. Running from 1994 to 2001, the glam/sleaze/drag rock ’n’ roll event provided a home for self-described misfits and propelled a few to fame, such as John Cameron Mitchell, who developed his character Hedwig (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) on the Squeezebox stage (the house band’s Stephen Trask was Hedwig’s composer/lyricist). Aside from the amazingly raunchy actions that went down there (beer-bottle fucking on the bar, anyone?), the event shattered a music and lifestyle taboo: gays liking rock ’n’ roll. Instead of lip-synching Judy Garland numbers, drag queens would deliver kick-ass Led Zeppelin tunes and affecting weepers like “Love Hurts.” But more than that, this was a party that wouldn’t quit, despite Rudy Giuliani’s best efforts to crack down on the city’s nightlife (apparently a threat to our quality of life, which begs the question, what quality without nightlife?). Listening to Theo Kogan (the Lunachicks), Miss Guy (the Toilet Boys), Mistress Formika (the sylphlike MC with whom you would not want to mess), Lady Bunny (who, with her signature stratospheric wig, out-Partons Dolly Parton), and even the novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours), you can only wish that you too had been taken to the bosom, prosthetic though it may have been, of the crazy slutty mama called Squeezebox.

****½ (4½ stars)

Rym (Hafsia Herzi) confers with surrogate dad Slimane (Habib Boufares) in The Secret of the Grain.

The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mullet)

Directed By Abdellatif Kechiche

151 minutes

A dour, conscientious Tunisian immigrant named Slimane, only semi-employed in the shipyard of a French port town. His raucous extended family. Their overextended dinner conversations and tearful hysteria. Your own urge to shout, as you might with your own family members, Stop talking with your mouth full! And, Shut up already!

Perhaps any impatience with this boisterous crowd only attests to the realism of scenes that include a quickie on a tour boat (the plot hinges on Slimane’s son’s philandering ways), young parents discussing their problems with diapers and potty training, expressions of wonder at the fish couscous cooked up by Slimane’s ex-wife (though no one says, “What’s your secret?”), a bank officer taking her time at nixing Slimane’s dream of owning a riverboat restaurant, and a gyrating sequence that puts the “belly” in “belly dance.”

With a breakout performance by the beautiful and beautifully down-to-earth
Hafsia Herzi, playing the daughter not of Slimane but of his girlfriend, yet perhaps the one most devoted to him. And with the memorable line: “Out of respect for you and the couscous…” Winner of Césars (French top honors) for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, and best female newcomer (for Herzi).

**** (4 stars)

Insecure in his own Cairo habitat, Youssef (Amr Waked) contemplates that of some tropical fish in The Aquarium.

The Aquarium (Genenet al Asmak)

Directed By Yousry Nasrallah

111 minutes

Voyeurism, secrecy, mortality, fear—there is much that the esteemed Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah wants to explore in this film. And there is so much good in it—mainly, the basic story—that you wish he had excised the bad. The latter includes the actors’ suddenly talking directly to the audience about their characters—I may be a purist, but once someone gets me into their created world, I’d like to stay there for the duration—as well as imposed visual references to political oppression and avian flu. Nasrallah seems to think we occasionally need reminding, as we watch his tale, that the world involves scary things (America being one of them, by the way, a disturbing but not surprising perspective). He should instead trust more in our interest in his two leading characters—Youssef, an anesthesiologist who likes to listen to what his patients say as they’re drifting off, and Laila (Hend Sabri), the host of a radio late-night call-in show in which people talk mostly about sex—and how their lives intersect. That said, interest might deepen if Youssef, who does appear to care for his dying father and his abortion-clinic patients, were less of an emotional mystery. Whereas we discover that the red-lipsticked Laila is one hot tamale under those staid suits she wears, Youssef remains too much like the inhabitants of the public aquarium with which he’s obsessed—a cold fish.

**½ (2½ stars)

A very watchful Isabella Rossellini, playing a spider, prepares for some Green Porno.

Green Porno

Written and Directed By Isabella Rossellini

15 minutes (all)

The other night I caught a couple of Isabella Rossellini’s eight very short shorts, collectively called Green Porno, in which she plays bugs and other “tiny critters” in the process of mating. It’s a hoot to see a world-renowned beauty wearing costumes such as a child might create (although probably better-fitting). As a firefly, her ass lights up, she gleefully tells us while demonstrating, and as a snail she has a giant foot, which she squashes into her shell along with the rest of her, anus on top (yucky things ensue). These witty pieces are showing in pairs before selected films and all together before My Winnipeg; they’ll also be available starting May 5 on Helio mobile devices and on the Sundance Channel website.
Rossellini will discuss the making of the series at the Apple Store in Soho on Tuesday, April 29, at 8:00 p.m.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

He Just Keeps Rollin’ Along

Nearing 90, the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés is still recording and performing.

Tribeca Film Festival 2008, April 23-May 4

Old Man Bebo

111 minutes

Directed by Carlos Carcas

With Bebo Valdés, Chucho Valdés, Leonardo Acosta, Omara Portuondo, and Fernando Trueba

From Spain

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I think I went to see this movie to commune with my dad, who died 11 years ago. My father’s true loves were my mother, flying, and music, but the country of Cuba—not the least because of its own intoxicating rhythms—held a special place in his heart. He would travel there, pre-revolution, to go deep-sea fishing and nightclub hopping, and it’s very likely that one of the performers he caught was Bebo Valdés: the pianist extraordinaire who helped define the Cuban sound in the 40s and 50s, playing in bands—and sometimes acting as arranger and bandleader—in various hotels and, most notably, the legendary Tropicana nightclub.

It’s hard to imagine, what with current US-Cuba relations, that there was once a special Tropicana flight between Miami and Havana, ferrying Americans to the club and then back, with entertainers on board for a constant party. But so we learn from Carlos Carcas’s new documentary on Bebo, as everyone calls him, and his many musical and personal connections. We also find out about “Rocolas,” jukeboxes in Cuban bars that played American songs (looked down on by some local musicians); a mambo-type song form called the batanga that Bebo developed after working in Haiti (sadly, his recordings of it have disappeared); and Nat King Cole’s association with Cuba—Cole was the first black man to sing “love songs” there on TV, apparently a shock at the time, and he not only jammed with Bebo et al. but recorded an album called Cole Español.

Around the time my father stopped going to Cuba, Bebo, out of sync with Castro’s regime, fled the country. Leaving a woman who still cries when speaking of him, along with two ex-partners and several children, he went to Mexico and eventually landed in Sweden, where he found new domestic happiness but lost his previous musical fame. How he emerged from obscurity—winning two Grammys in 2002, at the age of 83—is part of the story Carcas tells, and in the telling we hear from old associates and from family members (his son Chucho is today also a famous pianist), most still in Cuba, as well as from his wife in Sweden, a land whose “pure air” Bebo credits with keeping him young, and one of the people responsible for his comeback, Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba (Calle 54).

These people share their memories of—and praise for—Bebo, called “Big Stallion” because he was “so tremendous,” in the words of a fellow musician. My favorite comment comes from one of his daughters, who in four decades has rarely seen her dad—he never returned to his native country—but understands what has always driven him: “I think my father breathes through his hands.” And I think my father, an amateur but spirited pianist himself, would understand that completely.

*** (3 Stars)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Welcome to the Tribeca Film Festival ’08

Lou Reed sings sad songs. Courtesy of Waterboy Productions

By Robert Rosen

One year ago we launched this blog to cover the Tribeca Film Festival, and now we’re back to do it again. Last year, most of our reviews were long and in-depth, offering detailed analysis of offbeat movies, usually from foreign countries. Some of the films we covered were Lady Chatterley, from France, Playing the Victim, from Russia, Dos Abrazos, from Mexico, The Last Man, from Lebanon, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, from Brazil, The Road to St. Diego, from Argentina, and The Sugar Curtain, from Cuba. Into this exotic mix we also tossed an American drama or two, like The Air I Breathe, and the romantic comedies Suburban Girl and Purple Violets.

I don’t know exactly what we’ll be covering this year, except that Mary Lyn Maiscott (who will also be blogging about the TFF Music Lounge for Vanity Fair) and I plan to go to as many movies as we can and write about as many as we feel like. Also, to cover even more films, for some we’ll use a short—really short—format, and, God help us, rate all of them with 1 to 5 stars (asterisks, actually). Though we swore we’d never do that, there are so many films to choose from, we think that a rating system will help you figure out what to see in a fast and easy way.

How brief are these mini-reviews going to be? Here’s an example, just to get the ball rolling:

Tribeca Film Festival 2008, April 23-May 4

Lou Reed’s Berlin

Directed by Julian Schnabel

81 Minutes

Left me cold…and depressed. I like Lou Reed, but not this much. For hardcore fans only.


So, let us know what you think, ’cause we’re always happy to hear from you. And thanks to everybody from all over the world for reading us this past year.