NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, November 29, 1:30
Series runs November 15 - December 29 at 1:30
For more than thirty years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been capturing the American zeitgeist like no one else, penetrating deep into the psyche of the country as well as the history of cinema. MoMA is honoring the pair in their Modern Matinees series, screening fifteen of their films at 1:30 through December 29. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is a gripping thriller dominated by the mesmerizing performance of Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer who believes in chance. When Llewelyn Moss (an outstanding Josh Brolin) accidentally stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone terribly wrong, he walks away with a satchel of cash and the dream of making a better life for him and his wife (Kelly MacDonald). He also knows that there will be a lot of people looking for him — and the two million bucks he has absconded with. On his trail are the Mexican dealers who were ripped off, bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and the cool, calm Chigurh, who leaves a bloody path of violence in his wake. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) philosophizes on the sorry state of the modern world as he follows the proceedings with an almost Zen-like precision. Though it struggles to reach its conclusion, No Country for Old Men is an intense noir Western, an epic meditation on chance in which the flip of a coin can be the difference between life and a horrible death. No Country for Old Men is screening at MoMA on November 29; the series features the below films as well as Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy.
THE LADYKILLERS (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2004)
Friday, November 24, 1:30
By far the worst film the Coen brothers have ever made, this remake of the classic 1955 Alexander Mackendrick caper comedy is a travesty from start to finish, an absolute embarrassment to all involved, including Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J. K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, and Diane Delano. Did anyone actually watch this film before they released it? We barely smiled once and never laughed at this ridiculous story of a group of losers using a woman’s root cellar as home base to rob a riverboat casino. Besides not being the slightest bit funny, the movie is also racist, as every black actor in the film is playing a stereotype. We get the Coens, but we don’t get this. Was it meant to be ironic? Cynical? Slapstick? All we know is that it’s just plain awful. The Ladykillers is screening at MoMA November 24.
The Coens take their unique brand of dry, black comedy to a whole new level with A Serious Man. Poor Larry Gopnik (a remarkably even-keeled Michael Stuhlbarg) just keeps getting dumped on: His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to leave him for, of all people, touchy-feely Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), keeps hogging the bathroom so he can drain his cyst; his son, Danny (Aaron Wolf), won’t stop complaining that F-Troop isn’t coming in clearly and is constantly on the run from the school drug dealer (Jon Kaminsky Jr.); his daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), wants to get a nose job; one of his students (David Kang) has bribed him for a passing grade; his possible tenure appears to be in jeopardy; and he gets no help at all from a series of funnier and funnier rabbis. But Larry keeps on keepin’ on in the Jewish suburbs of Minnesota in 1967, trying to make a go of it as his woes pile higher and higher. Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted one of their best tales yet, nailing the look and feel of the era, from Hebrew school to Bar Mitzvah practice, from office jobs to parking lots, from the Columbia Record Club to transistor radios, from television antennas to the naked neighbor next door. The Coens get so many things right, you won’t mind the handful of mistakes in the film, and because it’s the Coens, who’s to say at least some of those errors weren’t intentional? A Serious Man is a seriously great film, made by a pair of seriously great filmmakers. And while you don’t have to be Jewish and from Minnesota to fall in love with it, it sure can’t hurt.
Since their 1984 debut feature, Blood Simple, Coen brothers Joel and Ethan have tackled numerous genres with dazzling originality, resulting in such fresh, unusual, and intelligent fare as Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country for Old Men (2007), and A Serious Man (2009). They’ve had some hiccups along the way, but their only true dud was also their only remake, 2004’s The Ladykillers, an unwatchable version of the 1955 Alec Guinness original. Now they’re revisiting the 1969 classic Western True Grit, which earned John Wayne his only Oscar and has held up poorly over the years. For the 2010 reboot, the Coens turned to Jeff Bridges to step into the Duke’s shoes as U.S. marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, an aging lawman with a thing for the bottle, as well as for killing. He’s hired by determined fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to hunt down her father’s murderer, a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who’s also being tracked by ever-faithful Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) for other crimes against humanity. Instead of merely remaking the previous film, which was directed by Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death, Airport) and also starred musician Glen Campbell as La Boeuf and Kim Darby as Mattie, the Coens went back to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, with the most important difference being the change in point of view; the new True Grit is told from Mattie’s perspective, including voice-over narration from the adult Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel), which breathes new life into the tired old horse. While Wayne played Cogburn with his tongue firmly in cheek, adding bits of silly comic relief, Bridges imbues the marshal with more seriousness and less hulking bravado as he continually — and more and more drunkenly — tells stories from his past. By going back to the book, the Coens also get to add more violence, especially near the end, as well as a coda about Mattie’s future. While the original featured a bombastic, overreaching score by Don Black, longtime Coen brothers composer Carter Burwell ratchets things down significantly, using the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as his central musical theme. As much as the Coens want the new film to be viewed in its own right, there are still too many similarities to avoid comparisons with the original, but their True Grit, which was nominated for ten Oscars and won none, does turn out to be a better executed, less predictable, and more entertaining genre piece. True Grit is screening at MoMA on December 1 and 29.
Over the years, Joel and Ethan Coen have created a slew of offbeat protagonists and antiheroes who trudge through surreal life experiences, from the McDunnoughs in Raising Arizona and Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing to the title character in Barton Fink and Anton Chigurth in No Country for Old Men. But they have come up with their most despicable — and most believable — main character in Inside Llewyn Davis. The previously little-known Oscar Isaac gives a career-defining performance as Llewyn Davis, a selfish wastrel who mistreats everyone he meets. A broke singer-songwriter in 1961 Greenwich Village whose former partner (voiced on record by Marcus Mumford) killed himself, Davis loses a mentor’s (Ethan Phillips) cat, curses out his agent (Jerry Grayson), impregnates a married friend (Carey Mulligan), makes fun of the husband’s (Justin Timberlake) new song, avoids visiting his ailing father (Stan Carp), insults a portly jazzman (John Goodman) — essentially, he meets every situation by insulting someone, then turning and walking away, without even the slightest hint of regret. And the beautiful thing is, the Coens aren’t about to offer him redemption. Inspired in part by the life of Dave Von Ronk and with sly references to such other musicians as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Tom Paxton, Dr. John, Doc Pomus, and Jim and Jean along with music impresario Bud Grossman and Gerde’s Folk City, Inside Llewyn Davis is a bitingly funny black comedy about a nasty man living in his own egocentric world, refusing to share any part of himself with anyone else, through his music or face-to-face, even though people keep giving him opportunity after opportunity. And the audience is in on it too, wanting him to succeed despite his myriad offenses. The soundtrack, overseen by T Bone Burnett, who previously worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? brings it all back home, with such highlights as Isaac’s performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Timberlake, Mulligan, and Stark Sands teaming up on “Five Hundred Miles,” and Timberlake, Davis, and Girls hunk Adam Driver all having fun with an updated version of “Please Mr. Kennedy.” Inside Llewyn Davis is being shown at MoMA on December 6.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998)
Thursday, December 21, 1:30
One of the ultimate cult classics and the best bowling movie ever, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski has built up such a following since its 1998 release that fans now gather every year for Lebowski Fest, where they honor all things Dude, and with good reason. The Big Lebowski is an intricately weaved gem that is made up of set pieces that come together in magically insane ways. Jeff Bridges is awesome as the Dude, a laid-back cool cat who gets sucked into a noirish plot of jealousy, murder, money, mistaken identity, and messy carpets. Julianne Moore is excellent as free spirit Maude, Tara Reid struts her stuff as Bunny, and Peter Stormare, Flea, and Torsten Voges are a riot as a trio of nihilists. Also on hand are Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Aimee Mann, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Thewlis, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito, and other crazy characters, but the film really belongs to the Dude and his fellow bowlers Jesus Quintana (John Turturro, who is so dirty he is completely cut out of the television version), Donny (Steve Buscemi), and Walter (John Goodman), who refuses to roll on Shabbos. And through it all, one thing always holds true: The Dude abides. The Big Lebowski is screening at MoMA on December 21.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (Joel Coen, 2001)
Wednesday, December 27, 1:30
The first half of this Coen brothers movie is stupendous. Shot in color by Roger Deakins and processed in magnificent black and white to get a richer palette, the film tells the story of Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton’s best role yet, a barber with almost nothing to say — ever. When he does talk, he talks slow, slower than he walks. Even his voice-over narration is delivered in a slow monotone. For about forty-five minutes, the pace is fabulous, but then it begins wearing down as the plot goes all over the place. It feels like the Coens had a bunch of different film ideas and decided to throw them all into the last hour of this movie, which seems to go on and on and on and on, with at least four places where you’ll think it’s over. The laughs go away, and a creepy, unfriendly moodiness pervades. At least you can still keep track of the awesome wigs that many of the male characters wear, and for the Californians out there it might be fun guessing the shooting locations, because much of the film was not shot on studio sets. Locations include Musso and Frank’s, a Presbyterian church on Wilshire Blvd., an empty Bank of America branch in Los Angeles, an abandoned furniture store in Glendale, Bungalow Heaven and Castle Green in Pasadena, and the streets of Orange in Orange County. The rather remarkable cast also includes Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini. The Man Who Wasn’t There is screening December 27 at MoMA.
ANTI-PORNO (ANCHI PORUNO) (アンチポルノ) (Sion Sono, 2016)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Two-film series runs November 20-30
“I’m a virgin. A virgin, but a whore,” successful novelist, painter, and fashion designer Kyoko (Ami Tomite) says at the beginning of Sion Sono’s bizarre, deliciously candy-colored and anarchic Anti-Porno, screening November 24-30 in the Metrograph series “Return of the Roman Porno.” You never know what to expect from Siono, whose previous films include the wild and wacky Love & Peace, the wild and crazy Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and the strangely beautiful and touching Himizu. Anti-Porno is part of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot Project, a celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of the studio’s Japanese softcore films, which began in 1971 with Shōgorō Nishimura’s Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon and continued through 1988 with Daisuke Gotō’s Bed Partner. In true Sono style, he honors the format by confusing fiction with reality, star characters with minor newbies, and the past with the present in ways that are as exhilarating as they are confounding.
The story takes place primarily in a spectacular apartment decked out in bright yellows, blues, and reds, with large-scale paintings and a lushly alluring open bathroom. Kyoko is a self-obsessed terror who abuses her dedicated assistant, Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) — or is it the other way around? “I want to be a whore like you,” Noriko begs. There’s fetishism galore, plenty of nudity, a lizard trapped in a bottle, incest, an audience of girls in Sailor Moon outfits, sycophantic hangers-on, a mysterious sex film, and then a man yells, “Cut!” Soon you’re not sure who’s in charge, who’s the lead, and whether you’re watching a movie, a movie-within-a-movie, or a novel-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. “This isn’t my life!” Kyoko screams. Or is it? Sono, who also wrote the script, uses the porn format to question ideas of sexuality, misogyny, freedom, abuse, feminism, exploitation, dominance, art, power, and pornography itself, resulting in a rousing, er, climax. The gorgeous production design is by Takashi Matsuzuka, with striking cinematography by Maki Ito, raunchy costumes by Kazuhiro Sawataishi, and an inventive, wide-ranging score by Susumu Akizuki. Metrograph is also showing Akihiko Shiota’s Roman Porno Reboot, Wet Woman in the Wind, through November 23.
The opening scene of Shady Srour’s Holy Air, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and then was the closing night selection of the Other Israel Film Festival, is utterly charming, as married couple Adam (Srour), a businessman, and Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), the head of the Sexuality Center, are stuck in ridiculously heavy traffic. Lamia decides to use the extra time to take a pregnancy test, urinating right there in the car. That is shortly followed by one of the film’s most splendid images, of Adam in the bathtub, his heavily bearded face above the back edge, a glass of alcohol at the ready as the camera stays still. Unfortunately, the film is shaky the rest of the way, too repetitive and fussy with subplots that don’t feel natural. Whereas Lamia is pregnant, Adam’s father is a tough old guy, fighting cancer. Adam’s partnership with his friend Mahmoud isn’t going well, so, soon after encountering a priest singing the holy praises of Mount Precipice, Adam decides to bottle the air on the mountain and sell it as a tourist souvenir. The film takes on the Christian faith, capitalism, road rage, local gangsters, and growing old, but it works best when it focuses on Adam and Lamia together; just about everything else is overly sentimental, too goofy, or just plain nonsensical, which is too bad, because Srour (Sense of Need) and Lamia (Cleopatra in The Destiny of Rome) make for a lovable couple, caught up in the travails of modern-day Nazareth.
CACHÉ (HIDDEN) (Michael Haneke, 2005)
209 West Houston St.
Friday, November 17, 1:00, 3:45, 7:00
Thursday, November 23, 5:20
Series runs November 17-23
In preparation for the December 22 opening of his latest feature, Happy End, Film Forum is taking a look back at the career of Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke with a mix of some of his most well known works alongside some rarely screened gems, beginning with Caché. Haneke was named Best Director at Cannes for this slow-moving yet gripping psychological drama about a seemingly happy French family whose lives are about to be torn apart. Caché stars Daniel Auteil as Georges, the host of a literary public television talk show, and Juliette Binoche as his wife, Anne, a book editor. One day a mysterious videotape is left for them, showing a continuous shot of their house. More tapes follow, wrapped in childish drawings of a boy with blood coming out of his mouth. Fearing for the safety of their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), they go to the police, who say they cannot do anything until an actual crime has been committed. As the tapes reveal more information and invite more danger, Georges’s secrets and lies threaten the future of his marriage. Caché is a tense, involving thriller that is both uncomfortable and captivating to watch. Haneke zooms in closely on the relationship between Georges and Anne, keeping all other characters in the background; in fact, there is no musical score or even any incidental music to enhance the searing emotions coming from Auteil and Binoche. Winner of numerous year-end critics awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Caché is screening November 17 and 23 at Film Forum. Oh, and be sure to pay close attention to the long final shot for just one more crucial twist that many people in the audience will miss.
FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 1997)
Saturday, November 18, 9:20
Wednesday, November 22, 12:30, 2:40, 4:45, 9:40
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a harrowing home invasion movie that is as brutal as it is ultimately frustrating. Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, The Seventh Continent) manipulates the audience nearly as much as he does the characters on-screen, even breaking the fourth wall by having one of the villains address the viewer several times. When Anna (Susanne Lothar), Georg (Ulrich Mühe from The Lives of Others), and their son, Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski), head to their summer vacation home on a lake, they have no idea what lies in store for them. A man (Arno Frisch) claiming to be a friend of their neighbors’ shows up asking for some eggs, but there is a subtle malevolence behind his odd demeanor. He is soon joined by a companion (Frank Giering) who insists on trying out one of Georg’s golf clubs. It’s not long before the two men, who alternately call each other Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, and Beavis and Butt-Head, have severely broken Georg’s leg, sexually harass Anna, and put a bag over Schorschi’s head, all for no apparent reason except that they are bored and want to play some games, the more dangerous the better. It’s a tense, frightening film that never lets up, even when it appears to be over. The soundtrack juices up the horror, with classical music by Mozart and Handel offset by screeching punk by John Zorn and Naked City. Mühe and Lothar later reunited for Nicole Mosleh’s Nemesis, which was completed shortly before Mühe’s sudden death from stomach cancer in 2007. Haneke made an American remake of Funny Games in 2008, with Tim Roth as George, Naomi Watts as Anna, Brady Corbet as Peter, and Michael Pitt as Paul, with an appearance by Frisch as well. The original Funny Games is screening November 18 and 22 at Film Forum as part of the Michael Haneke tribute, which runs November 17 to 23 and also includes Haneke’s Code Unknown, Amour, The Seventh Continent, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Benny’s Video, and Caché.
Legendary French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant puts an exclamation point on his long, distinguished career with Amour, one of the most beautiful love stories ever told. In his first film in nearly a decade, Trintignant, the star of such classics as Z, My Night at Maud’s, A Man and a Woman, and The Conformist, plays Georges, an octogenarian who is immediately concerned when his wife, Anne (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva), suddenly freezes for a few moments, unable to speak, hear, move, or recognize anything. So begins a downward spiral in which Georges takes care of his ailing wife by himself, refusing help from his daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), as he faces the grim situation with grace and dignity. A genuine romance for the ages, Amour is brilliantly written and directed by Michael Haneke, earning the Austrian filmmaker an Oscar for Best Screenplay and his second Palme d’Or, following 2009’s The White Ribbon. Haneke (Benny’s Video, The Piano Teacher) and cinematographer Darius Khondji allow the heartbreaking tale to unfold in long interior shots with very little camera movement, spread across more than two hours. Despite its length, the film is far from torturous; instead, it is filled with quietly beautiful moments. Trintignant, eighty-two when the film was released, is magnificent as Georges, his every physical movement and eye glance rendered with powerful yet gentle emotions, whether he’s preparing food for Anne or trying to catch a bird that has flown into the apartment. It’s an unforgettable performance in an unforgettable film. Amour, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film, winning the latter in addition to the screenplay honor, is being shown at Film Forum November 19, 20, and 23.
“MANOS”: THE HANDS OF FATE (Harold P. Warren, 1966)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, November 18, 2:00
Series runs through February 28
There aren’t a whole lot of movies that get skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST3K) and later have the privilege of being shown at the Museum of Modern Art. But one of them, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate, universally considered to be one of the very worst films ever made, is receiving that honor as part of the MoMA series “You Are Now One of Us: Film at Club 57,” held in conjunction with the gallery exhibition “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983.” And no question about it, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate, which translates as “Hands: The Hands of Fate” and was written, directed, and produced by fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren, who also plays the lead, is thoroughly atrocious; it really has to be seen to be believed. Michael (Warren), his wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree), their young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman), and their doomed dog, Peppy, get lost on vacation in Texas, searching for Valley Lodge but instead winding up at a creaky house with a jittery Renfield/Igor-like caretaker named Torgo (John Reynolds) who worships the Master (set designer Tom Neyman), a caped creep with a bushy mustache and a bevy of wives dressed in white (Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, and Lelaine Hansard) who participate in crazy rituals when not getting into an utterly ridiculous mass catfight. Each scene is more absurd than the one that precedes it, getting worse by the second as the really stupid family gets deeper and deeper into trouble. All technical aspects of the seventy-minute horror show, from the cinematography (Robert Guidry), editing (James Sullivan and Ernie Smith), and writing (Warren) to the sound (Bruce Shearin), score (Robert Smith Jr. and Russ Huddleston), and lighting, are amazingly atrocious.
All of the dialogue, which often gets lost behind the terrible music, was poorly dubbed in postproduction by only a few actors. Shots could not last more than thirty-two seconds because of the type of handheld camera used. Reynolds was high on acid through the entire shoot and committed suicide shortly before the film’s premiere. At various moments you can see the “Action!” clapboard flash by and Warren mouthing the word “Cut!” Warren added completely unrelated scenes of a teenage couple (Bernie Rosenblum and Joyce Molleur) making out in a convertible because he wanted Molleur in the movie even though an injury prevented her from playing one of the Master’s wives. The 2004 documentary Hotel Torgo claims that since the movie was released, “the cast and crew have all passed away or mysteriously disappeared,” except for Rosenblum. (Actually, several are indeed still alive and have been looking into making a prequel or a sequel.) The movie was made for less than twenty grand, with Warren offering cast and crew percentages that totaled way more than one hundred percent of the take. And just wait till you see the Master spread out his arms and reveal his costume, which was designed by Thomas Ivy, whose grand plans for the wives’ attire was thwarted by the actresses, who refused to wear more revealing outfits. One of the film’s only redeeming elements is the philosophy spouted by a local police officer (William Bryan Jennings; no, really) who states, “If you’re running late, you should have started earlier” and “Well, whatever it is you’re not doing, go and don’t do it somewhere else.” “Manos”: The Hands of Fate is so bad that it’s hard to love it the way so many movie fanatics do Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster.
“This may indeed be one of the most inept films ever made,” explains “You Are Now One of Us: Film at Club 57” guest curator John “Lypsinka” Epperson in his program notes. “But it points toward some other disturbing horror films that became classics of the genre: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and all of their many derivations. In “Manos,” a family is tormented by a heathen group of bizarre characters. The exposing of the Manson ‘family’ came three years later. Many of the Club 57 members were impressionable teens when the Manson murders took place. Ten years after, at the basement club in the East Village, mocking a questionably tasteless film about ‘family vs. family’ could have been a way of purging the fears.” You’re more likely to purge your lunch than your fears when watching this disorientingly dreadful flick, in which Torgo fatefully declares, “There is no way out.” The wide-ranging MoMA series continues through February 28 with such other films as Andy Warhol’s Vinyl, Luis Buñuel’s El, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential, and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo.
You don’t have to wait for their next season at the Joyce to catch the Trocks, aka Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, here in New York City. On November 15, Canadian director Bobbi Jo Hart’s ninety-minute documentary, Rebels on Pointe, opens at the Quad, an intimate look at the “the World’s Foremost All-Male Comic Ballet Company.” Founded in 1974, the Trocks specialize in parodying classical ballet and gender identity. “In the early years, the company was blackballed because of the gay element,” notes one troupe member, while another says, “I can be myself. I can wear tutus; why not? Little things change the world.” Named Best Documentary at several film festivals, Rebels on Pointe follows the troupe as it travels around the world, presenting its unique flair and talent, going behind the scenes and showing them perform onstage. “When that curtain goes up, it’s just electric,” another dancer declares. Hart (Rise, I Am Not a Rock Star) and members of the troupe will be at the Quad for a Q&A following the 7:00 screening on November 15.
SKY AND GROUND (Talya Tibbon & Joshua Bennett, 2017)
Sunday, November 12, SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves., $19, 6:45
Thursday, November 16, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 10:15 am
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
The DOC NYC festival, consisting of more than 150 nonfiction feature films and shorts, has room for stories small and large, allowing viewers to understand the world from the macro to the micro; Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground, having its world premiere November 12 and 16, zeroes in on the micro. In his sweeping new documentary, Human Flow, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his crew went to twenty-three countries and dozens of refugee camps to personalize the growing international migrant crisis. Among the places he visited was the Idomeni tent city in Greece at the now-closed Macedonian border. The makeshift camp is the starting point for Tibbon and Bennett’s startling and intimate Sky and Ground. Tibbon embeds herself with the Nabi clan, led by Abdullah Sheik Nabi, known as Guevara for his childhood admiration for Argentine rebel Che Guevara. Guevara and his family have escaped the dangerous situation in Aleppo, Syria, and are trying to get to Berlin, where Guevara’s brother, Abdo, lives. But getting there is a harrowing journey, fraught with police and military, rewards for citizens who turn them in, cheating smugglers, and more impediments to their attempts to find a new home. “If we stay here in this misery, my family will go crazy,” Guevara says of the camp, and they are soon back on the road, not knowing what fate awaits them. Using the GPS on his cell phone and staying in touch with Abdo, Guevara has taken charge because no one else could, accepting responsibility for his mother, Jalila; his sister, Shireen, and her husband, Souleiman; and his nieces and nephews. The film plays out like a gripping thriller as the family sneaks through vast landscapes, wooded areas, isolated camps, and train stations, knowing they could get caught and sent back to war-torn Syria at any moment. “Everywhere I go, I lose my home,” Shireen says, while Jalila adds, “I am very, very regretful. I’d rather have bombs dropping every day than go through this torment.” But Guevara never gives up, no matter how treacherous things become. “After trying to get in touch with ten smugglers, all of them proved to be liars and frauds,” he explains. “We have no choice but to attempt to smuggle ourselves again.”
The arresting film is beautifully photographed by Emmy winner Axel Baumann, the lush vistas and sunsets in stark contrast to the Nabis’ heart-wrenching dilemma. In addition, Guevara documents everything he can using his cell phone and a handheld camera given to him by the crew. Tibbon and Bennett, who are also two of the producers — Guevara is credited as one of the coproducers — puts the viewer right in the midst of the action, helping us understand the Nabis’ strife and fear. They could be a middle-class family from anywhere; they are not poor and uneducated but an intelligent and clever group with money and connections and yet still are thwarted at nearly every turn, though they manage to maintain their faith and even their sense of humor throughout. There is a fascinating, unspoken aspect to Sky and Ground that went on behind the scenes; the filmmakers might have embedded themselves with the Nabis, but they had access to a car and slept in hotels as they followed the family across several countries. “As a filmmaker, ‘embedding’ with your subjects poses moral and editorial dilemmas on a daily basis,” Tibbon notes in her director’s statement. “When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of the evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them. . . . But from the outset we knew we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we also knew that we didn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey.” Sky and Ground is a terrifying film to watch not only because it is hard to know what we as free individuals can do about the crisis but also because in today’s situation across the globe, it makes you realize that this could happen to just about anyone. Part of the Humanity on the Move trilogy from Show of Force, Sky and Ground is screening on November 12 at 6:45 at the SVA Theatre and November 16 at 10:15 am at IFC Center, followed by Q&As with Tibbon, Bennett, and producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre.