One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das opened at the IFC Center on Wednesday, May 8th via Zeitgeist Films. Director Jeremy Findel provides you with a reader's digest overview of how Krishna Das, a.k.a. Jeffrey Kagel turned from a rock star to a spiritual man who sings kirtan, a form of Indian yoga chants. Essentially, he started as a regular rock star and then became a Yoga rock star. The closest that Findel gets to any meat within the life and career of Krishna Das is when Krishna Das describes how je battled depression and drug addiction after his mentor and spiritual guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had died. He overcame that addiction through spirituality, and realized the transformative powers of yoga. At a running time of 72 minutes, you barely get the chance to get to know Krishna Das; much of the doc covers the basic info about him, and even interviews with Ram Dass, Daniel Goleman and Rick Rubin don't add much that's revealing enough about him. Nonetheless, One Track Heart serves as a mildly engaging introduction to Krishna Das. A far better doc opening this week is The Girls in the Band, directed by Judy Chaikin, about female jazz musicians. Have you ever heard about Peggy Gilbert, Rae Lee Jones, Melba Liston, Clora Bryant or Viola Smith? If not, it's probably because they're part of the hidden history of jazz musicians who were female. They battled a lot of sexism back in the 1930's and 40's, yet they didn't let that stop them from following their passion for jazz. Through modern-day interviews with the former jazz musicians, Chaikin brings out these women's heartfelt stories with warmth and wit. The Girls in the Band is among those rare, delightful music documentaries, in the vein of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, that provokes you emotionally and intellectually while remaining entertaining throughout. You don't have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy it. The doc opens at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. At the Quad Cinema, you'll find the doc Released about four former convicts, namely, Casimiro Torres, Kenneth Harrigan, Vilma Ortiz Donovan, and Angel Ramos, who all lived in the Castle which houses recently-paroled convicts. They perform a play together called The Castle where they give vivid accounts of how they ended up in prison, their experiences inside the prison, and how the Castle residence helped them to get back on their feet instead of going back to prison like most convicts do. Each story is compelling, heartfelt and well-performed, but the real meat of director Philip F. Messina's doc can be found in the latter part when the former convicts discuss the value of the Castle, and how being greeted with "Welcome home" upon entering the residence changed everything. Released doesn't go into the root of the drug/violence problems in the U.S, but it at least serves as an inspiration for current convicts and as a cautionary tale for everyone else who may get tempted to go down the path of drugs and violence. In Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family to find their perspectives on her mother, Diane, who died of cancer when in 1990 when Sarah was only 11. The more her father and four siblings talk about their memories of Diane, the more complex the film becomes because of contradications and mysteries within the stories that they tell. What's truth? What's fiction? Just when you think that Stories We Tell will only be about the different stories of Diane, it becomes much more than that as Sarah investigates who her biological father truly is. Sarah should be commended for infusing this unpredictable doc with humor, warmth, tenderness, maturity, intelligence and suspense. Not a single moment feels like navel-gazing or pretentious. She brilliantly combines archival footage with footage of reenactments using actors who physically resemble her family thereby further blurring the line between truth and fiction. Stories We Tell is an absolute triumph. It opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas via Roadside Attractions.
The Great Gatsby
In 1922, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves from the Midwest to a house along the Long Island bay where he meets his neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a millionaire who frequently gives lavish parties at his mansion. Gatsby, as it turns out, has been pining for Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) living right across the bay from him. The problem? He and Daisy were madly in love with each other, and she promised to marry him after he came back from serving in World War I, but she broke her promise by marrying the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) instead. Nick agrees to arrange a meeting between her and Gatsby to reunite them once and for all.
Director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann certainly has a lot of guts for blending rap, jazz and hip hop music as an attempt to modernize the story which is based on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Unfortunately, the music doesn't integrate particularly well with what goes on onscreen. It feels jarring, distracting, awkward and grating more often than not. To blend modern rap and hip hop with a story that takes place in the 1920's is like trying to combine ketchup with caviar: no matter how it's presented or what other ingredients are added, those two ingredients simply don't go together. The poor choice of music is the least of The Great Gatsby's problems, though. Any great love story has to pull your heart strings to a certain degree, but Luhrmann fails to generate enough palpable chemistry between Gatsby and Daisy. You won't find yourself caring about whether or not they'll end up together. The subplots, i.e. Nick and Gatsby's friendship and Tom's adulterous affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), could have been fleshed out a little more---the same could be said about the critique of American culture which would have been a great opportunity to add some much-needed substance.
On a purely aesthetic level, The Great Gatsby succeeds when it comes to its costume designs, cinematography, set design, lighting and CGI effects. Just like in Moulin Rouge, there's plenty of visual pizazz that invigorates the film. A few of the scenes feel awe-inspiring because they're so beautiful to look at. Beneath all the style, though, there's too much emotional hollowness. Even the stellar performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton don't help to compensate for the film's coldness and emptiness. With excessive style over substance, The Great Gatsby overstays its welcome at a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. F. Scott Fitzgerald is rolling in his grave.
How Sweet It Is
Chris (Steve Oram) persuades his girlfriend, Tina (Alice Lowe), to tag along with him for a sight-seeing journey through the British Isles in his caravan. Tina is happy to be escaping the clutches of her overbearing mother, Carol (Eileen Davies), who doesn't quite approve of her relationship with Chris. Little does Tina know that their adventure will bring out their dark side as they kill annoying tourists who stand in their way. Chris kills the first tourist, but Tina soon develops the urge to kill as well.
Dark comedies work if they're not only funny, but also witty, quotable, imaginative and grounded in at least a modicum of realism. Sightseers has wit, humor and grounds itself in the realistic dynamics between Chris and Tina, but its wit and humor wane as the plot progresses into laziness. There's an underlying melancholy that makes it hard to classify Sightseers strictly in the dark comedy genre---perhaps dark dramedy would be more accurate. The dark humor becomes repetitive pretty quickly as do the laugh-out-loud moments. Co-screenwriters Alice Lowe and Steve Oram essentially take a wafer-thin plot and drag it out into roughly 90 minutes when it would have worked better as a short film. The comedy could have been more irreverent and inspired, but instead it grows sillier and sillier. Sightseers pales in comparison to other British dark comedies like Four Lions and the classic, brilliant and consistently funny Shaun of the Dead.
Steve Oram and Eileen Davies are both well-cast and play off of each other quite well. Oram's gives a decent deadpan performance that compliments Davies' performance. They're a duo who deserve much better material, though, to be given a chance to truly shine together. Sightseers, unfortunately, becomes too limp and underwhelming for it to be saved by its talented cast—including a scene-stealing dog.