April 13, 2010

Brokaw Conquers Tribeca, Part Four



"Queen To Play." If you recognize the title as a chess term, you're already on the doorstep of this enchanting French drama. It's the sweet spot of the festival, a beguiling and thoroughly captivating debut feature by Caroline Bottard, and earns pride-of-place in our final set of Tribeca reviews. The core premise is a maid/housekeeper (Sandrine Bonnaire) at a luxury hotel on Corsica, who discovers a hobby that gradually evolves into a passion and then into a transforming life experience. The maid's teacher is an American widower, a chess expert and scholar who instructs, mentors and cheerleads her, and he's played by a French-speaking Kevin Kline.


Much of "Queen To Play" centers on the extraordinary Miss Bonnaire, who grows her chess expertise while holding onto her roles as a faithful wife and mother of a teenage daughter. The actress is slim and attractive, and possesses much of the quietly eloquent stature and beauty of Michele Morgan, a graceful French star of the 1940s and 50s. While her marriage is strained by her long training sessions with the teacher, it never breaks, which is not to stay the woman isn't attracted to her teacher, a mellow and reflective chap who's facing some serious medical issues. Eventually, she beats him in a game of chess and qualifies for a major competition. The film's centerpiece scene is not these matches, but rather an exchange between Kline and Bonnaire, a chess game they play by speaking their moves back and forth, never touching a chess piece. It's an exquisite matching of skills, and more-- a sublimely sensual testing of wills between a woman and a man who are studying each other as equals. "Queen to Play" is a movie to cherish.


"Blank City." Near the end of Celine Danhier's gritty, street-savvy documentary of New York's 70s/80s No Wave scene, the filmmaker Scott B knits together the connection between the Super 8mm movies of yesteryear and digital movies today. Scott and Beth B, like Nick Zedd, James Nares and other artists living in Manhattan's undeveloped and raucous downtown, discovered that any writer, painter, or musician with an 8mm camera could make a movie then, just as every kid in the world with a camera phone and laptop can make and exhibit a movie now.


"Blank City" is firmly anchored by directors Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe. "Blank Generation," Poe's 1976 documentary of CBGB's first startup year, along with Lydia Lunch's seminal punk band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and James Chance's early noise ensembles, were the foundation pillars of No Wave and what Zedd named the cinema of transgression. "Blank City" is more of a doc about underground film and filmmakers than about the music of an era, and its scholarly detailing is provided by Thurston Moore, Fab 5 Freddy, Ann Magnuson, Bette Gordon, Steve Buscemi and a deep bench of East Village performers and contributors. Clips from "We Eat Scum" and "Manhattan Love Suicide" are the order of the day. The picture is specific, harsh and unforgiving of the societal elements that squashed No Wave, including AIDS, heroin, gentrification, and the Koch/Giuliani administrations. No Wave had a reckless, dangerous spirit. As director John Waters summarized it, if you took a date to "Fingered" with Lydia Lunch and your date sat through it, you knew you'd get laid that night, though you weren't exactly sure how.


"Burning Down The House: The Story of CBGB" Mandy Stein's affectionate tribute to Manhattan's historic punk club and the thousands of young bands who raved up on its tiny stage (backed by the best sound system in any NYC club) , is really about its proprietor, Hilly Kristal. It's a sentimental history of Kristal's unsuccessful struggle against a landlord who wanted Hilly out and raised the rent from $19,000 to $55,000 a month--an impossible figure for a club that never made money on introducing half a dozen unknown bands most nights of the year to tiny audiences of friends and families. It's also about Kristal's losing battle to cancer, and the outpouring of support, tributes and love by the iron men and women of New York punk--like Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, the Talking Heads, Bad Brains, The Dictators, Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome, several Ramones, Lenny Smith and the incandescent Patti Smith.


Once again Jim Jarmusch is the lead narrator, poking through the emptied but not quite dismantled club with fellow historian Luc Sante and doing the informed exposition. . They're joined again by Thurston Moore and Fab 5 Freddy, plus a phalanx of performers from Jayne County to Henry Rollins. Some of the clips of Jayne/Wayne performing with the Electric Chairs, Johnny Thunders with the Heartbreakers, and Cheetah backing up the late Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys have a cut-through power that's jaw-dropping, and you'll wish there was more of this. A lot of the anecdotes are priceless--Suicide's Martin Rev wandering off stage during a performance to take a phone call, leaving Alan Vega working solo, observations by the plumber ripping out the urinals down in CB's hellhole of a bathroom, trenchant comments by Ms. Stein's dad, Seymour Stein, who signed The Ramones to Sire Records, and her mom ,Linda, The Ramones' first manager. It's a thoughtful editing assembly that shows us the raw guts of the club's history while honoring the man who was there every night helping a world of musicians get their first 15 minutes of fame.


"The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" The tap-dancing, pill-popping, coke-snorting clan of drunks, cons, ex-cons and tentative survivors of four generations of 100% redneck hillbillies are here. You want Country Blue Grass Blues--as in the original CBGB definition? This is your doc. The White family are the 21st century successors to Sam Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch," and if bloody Sam was alive today he'd be up dancin', drinkin', dopin', cussin', lustin', throwin' up and probably gettin' jailed with all of 'em. Many of these ornery coots are the kind of role models acted by Sam's stock company--Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, Dub Taylor, to name a few. Sam's long gone so this audacious year-long portrait of a train wreck of a family in Boone County, West Virginia has been produced by MTV Studios and Dickhead Productions, Julien Nitzberg directing.


Among the family members we get to know are a young man barely out of his teens who's sentenced to 50 years in prison for murder, a mountain dancer (Jesco White) who's huffed so much gasoline he can tell the difference between regular and high octane, and the domineering matriarch (Mamie), a pot-smoking, foul-mouthed mountain of a woman who can belt a rock number at a county fair good enough to hold a crowd transfixed. The musician backing the polished and razor-sharp tap sequences is Hank Williams III, and he looks and sounds about as wasted as everyone else. Along the way we watch Mamie's mother at the end of her life and one of her daughters beginning a fresh life out of rehab, gripping her 6-month sobriety coin. Some of the grandkids give the appearance of being on an awfully early slippery slope. Director Nitsberg says he received eight different death threats from various family members during the filming. If you're ready for a remnant of Americana that proudly and gloriously exhibits too much past and too little future, make haste to the White family.


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